Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Kahil: Cartoonist for the Complicated Orient | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Are you puzzled by what is going on in the “complicated Orient” these days?

There’s the continuing tragedy in Syria, the bloody struggle in Iraq, a multi-layered civil war in Yemen, and a power vacuum in Lebanon, not to mention daily terrorist attacks in half a dozen countries and the never-ending flow of refugees in all directions.

The question is: how do we cope with so much suffering or, at least, make some sense of it?
One way is to reach for time-worn explanations, if not outright apologies. Well, what does one expect from a deadly cocktail of tyranny, poverty, fanaticism, colonial nightmares and intellectual cowardice?

[inset_left]According to Kahil:
1980 to 2000 Political Cartoon Selection

Nazda Limited, 278 pages
Beirut, 2014[/inset_left]

But, how would Mahmoud Kahil have drawn this unfurling tableau of desolation in the Middle East? Kahil, who died in 2003, is now universally regarded as one of the Middle East’s top caricaturists of the twentieth century. A decade after his death a collection of his work has just been published in his native Lebanon with the intriguing title According to Kahil (Arabic: Hakaza rasam Kahil). The book also includes a brief introduction and captions in English.

The fruit of collective efforts by Kahil’s family and close friends, the book is a veritable gem both for the quality of its production, a credit to Lebanon’s printing industry, and, more importantly, for the wide range of cartoons selected mostly by Kahil’s daughter, the documentary film-maker Dana.

As far as Asharq Al-Awsat is concerned, Kahil had, and will always continue to hold, a special place at the newspaper. For more than two decades, he was the pan-Arab daily’s principal political cartoonist. At the same time, he was a regular contributor to Arab News, Asharq Al-Awsat’s English-language sister daily and the weekly Al-Majalla published by the same company.


Leafing through According to Kahil, you come across numerous cartoons published by Asharq Al-Awsat and Al-Majalla, which provide a unique chronicle of world events, with the focus always on the Middle East as seen by a man of great perception and compassion.

Looking at the cartoons today, one has the eerie feeling that Kahil drew them this week, even today, not five, ten or twenty years ago. Are you looking for ISIS’s throat-cutters (zabbahoun in Arabic)? Well, they are already present, under other names, in Kahil’s cartoons of the last century. Are you angered by the cynicism of world leaders such as Barack Obama? You will find their predecessors in Kahil’s cartoons in the form of Jimmy Carter and George Bush Sr.

You wonder why Arabs behave the way they do? Again, Kahil offers an answer that you might not like, but can’t dismiss. To that end he created a generic “Arab,” rejecting the “towel-heads” favored by Western cartoonists. Kahil’s generic Arab is round, apparently well-fed and sports a sumptuous moustache. However, that is only a mask; on more careful scrutiny he is shown to be confused, and above all, deeply suffering. He is a victim of rulers who impose regimentation, if not worse, intellectuals who lie, journalists who doctor the news in exchange for “brown envelopes” of cash, and clerics who claim that religion is only what they say it is. In some cartoons we see the generic Arab having his head filled with propaganda and lies through a pump that represents state-controlled media.

Kahil draws the Arab League, a grouping of Arabic-speaking nations created under British influence in the late 1940s, as a modern version of the Tower of Babel with inhabitants divided by the language they are supposed to share. Worse still, the building’s signs are in English.

Though primarily commenting on the so-called Arab world, Kahil was far from parochial. His cartoons provided acerbic comments on many key events of the second half of the twentieth century: the Cold War, the seizure of power by mullahs in Tehran, Glasnost, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet empire, the Iran-Iraq war, the two Gulf wars, the end of Yugoslavia, the rise of neo-capitalist China, the decades-long war in Afghanistan, frequent famines and bloody conflicts in Africa, the civil wars in Algeria, Sudan, and Yemen, and the revolt in Chechnya.

Kahil’s work includes a gallery of portraits of men and women who had their moment of fame in the increasingly fast-paced carousel of modern politics. All American presidents from Carter onwards were featured in Kahil’s work, along with the Soviet Union’s club of geriatrics and the new China’s enigmatic dramatis personae. In a special gallery of rogues one finds Kahil’s portrayal of “baddies” such as Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadžić, the Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein, and the Ethiopian tyrant Mengistu Haile-Mariam. Kahil was also the first cartoonist to draw Osama bin Laden, the man who won eternal infamy as Al-Qaeda’s mastermind.

Some characters Kahil obviously liked, among them Bill Clinton. Even before Clinton was first nominated as a candidate for presidency, Kahil asked me to present the future president with a cartoon he had drawn of him. The cartoon showed the young Governor of Arkansas emerging from a bottle like a genie, getting larger and larger. “That should do it,” Clinton commented when he received the cartoon. “It means we are going to win!”

Kahil also had a soft spot for Boris Yeltsin who was always presented with a bottle, presumably too drunk to do any real harm. In contrast, Kahil had an intense dislike of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, often portrayed as a vulture, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shown as an egomaniac who liked to multiply his own image.

Some commentators have described Kahil as “cynical.” I don’t agree. A cynic surrenders to his perception of the inevitable. Kahil, however, never surrendered. He was a fighter, always armed with dozens of pens of different shapes and sizes with a full store of black and color inks. (His cartoons for Al-Majalla were in color.) More importantly, he was a man of great sensitivity and almost totally devoid of bitterness, a far cry from cynicism.

Though he prided himself on his “Libanite” roots, Kahil was also a Londoner, having spent a good chunk of his working life in the British capital. One of his favorite characters was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, often portrayed with a mixture of admiration and unease. Even then, Kahil is best described as a citizen of the world, with his work published in more than one hundred newspapers and magazines across the globe, including The Times, the Wall Street Journal and Le Monde.

Kahil liked to work on his own, and never attended editorial meetings. His editors quickly understood that they couldn’t tell him what to do and what not to do. To keep abreast of what was going on Kahil did a great deal of reading and often held discussions with journalists who covered the events. In his work he always left a little bit of the curtain unopened and introduced a small raven (ghurab in Arabic) on the margins, perhaps a tongue-in-cheek reminder that “the worst was yet to come.”