Conflict & Justice

Cartoonist Emad Hajjaj Calls Arab Spring 'Blessing and Curse'

With all the turmoil in the Arab world, these are the best of times and the worst of times for Jordanian editorial cartoonist Emad Hajjaj.

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Hajjaj described his state of being as something like euphoric when two immovable dictators in Tunisia and then Egypt were ousted from power by their own people about a year ago. He had been doing editorial cartoons about Arab politics for 20 years, and all of a sudden, the impossible was actually happening.

"One of my cartoons was basically, young people's hands holding the Facebook 'F' just like a gun and the Twitter 'T' just like a gun," Hajjaj explained during an interview at his home office in Amman.

"So, it's rebels-in-arms," he said. "They are not holding guns actually, they are holding new tools that they can make a change that we waited decades for that to happen."

But as things developed in Libya and especially in Syria, Hajjaj said the feeling of euphoria wore off. The task of commenting on daily events in the Arab became a lot more complicated.

It required a new approach.

"We have a saying in Arabic," Hajjaj said. "The funny things that make you cry, or 'black comedy' maybe."

Hajjaj said people manage to find humor in all the upheaval, even with the situation in Syria. The people of Homs, for example, are famous for their sense of humor. In Arabic, Homsi people are said to have 'light blood.' So, as the people of that city were subjected to a brutal assault by the forces of Bashar Al-Assad in recent weeks, Hajjaj called attention to the irony with a depiction of the Syrian dictator.

"I made Bashar Al-Assad dressing just like Dracula and having that big glass of blood, and he says, 'Yes, Homsi people do have light blood.' Drinking their blood. This was the cartoon."

It is not easy for an Arabic cartoonist to navigate the treacherous realities of Arab culture and politics, said Daoud Kuttab, a journalist and media commentator, also based in Amman. He said Emad Hajjaj is in a league by himself. And he is successful because Hajjaj is both clever and courageous.

Kuttab explained for example, Hajjaj has managed to challenge the taboo against drawing Arab leaders in political cartoons.

"It stems from two things," Kuttab said. "Islamic culture and society has forbidden images. So, in Islam an image is not supposed to be drawn and re-drawn, on the one hand."

"There is [also] a false understanding," Kuttab said. "If you [draw] somebody as a cartoon character, it [is seen as] making fun of him, … as an insult, a personal insult. The division between the personal and public is not very well understood."

Emad Hajjaj said building understanding is one of his primary goals. He wants to use his work to reach out across the Arab world and beyond. Hajjaj said he is proud to have gained some attention in the West. But breaking taboos also means making people angry.

A case in point was the series of bombings in 2005 in downtown Amman that were attributed to al-Qaeda.

"I did many, many cartoons condemning these attacks and criticizing al-Qaeda."

In response, Hajjaj said he received death threats.

Still, Hajjaj said it is important for him to break the stereotype that Arabic commentators only criticize Israel and the United States. Though these are two of his favorite targets.

Hajjaj has been accused of anti-Semitism. He denies the charge, saying that his cartoons from the Israeli offensive in Gaza three years ago did indeed depict Israeli leaders as war criminals.

"It is not anti-Semitism," Hajjaj argued. "It is criticism of war criminals. Somebody had to say something. When you look at the western media, they are very delicate in criticizing Israel. Somebody had to be blunt."

Hajjaj said he wants to keep up a dialogue though. He said he has taken part in discussions with Israeli and Western cartoonists about how to avoid tired negative stereotypes on all sides, and to learn from each other.

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