Nothing Off Limits as Cartoonists Critique Chemical Warfare

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Marco Werman: The civil war in Syria is deadly serious. So is the possibility of an American military intervention there, which we've been discussing all this hour. But the seriousness of it all isn't stopping some in the Middle East from finding some humor in the current crisis, especially cartoonists. We asked Jonathan Guyer to tell us about the humor he's seeing around the region. He's associate editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, but he also writes about Middle East comics and caricature on his blog, Oum Cartoon.

Jonathan Guyer: I'd say nothing is really off limits. Assad and Obama are routinely mocked. Assad has been depicted as a vulture, a butcher, a murderer, a chemist cooking up chemical weapons, and Middle East cartoonists have been mocking Obama because of his eagerness to intervene. Egyptians see Obama as a cowboy, very similar to George Bush. Turkish cartoonists are drawing Obama giving a piggy back to the foreign minister. But really the edgiest cartoon I've seen is from a Jordanian cartoonist, Osama Hajjaj. He drew a guide to survive chemical warfare attack. It was a joking public service announcement from the Department of Public Safety for Chemical and Biological Weapons. Basically, in the final frame, the artist shows a man's face mangled by chemical warfare.

Werman: Wow, seriously dark stuff. How do readers and people who are online react to that? Is it just beyond the pale for them and maybe it's just a therapy for the artists and political humorists?

Guyer: Well, certainly in all of the countries that are intimately tied to the Syrian conflict, where refugees have been storming into Turkey and Jordan, people have to deal with this with humor, or else there's no other way about it.

Werman: So does that disparaging attitude toward Obama, does that translate as a desire not to see any US missile strikes in Syria?

Guyer: Well, the way Egyptian cartoonists have put it, that this is just another Middle East adventure for Obama to muck up. And we've seen placards and protests in Egypt and across the region of Obama and John Kerry with big religious beards as if they're somehow aligned with Al Qaeda or supporting them in the attack on Syria.

Werman: Go back to what kinds of jokes Syrians are telling among themselves, say about Assad.

Guyer: Well, the most vocal Syrian cartoonists are in exile, and they spar with Assad on Facebook and Twitter. Ali Ferzat is the most notorious, a 62-year-old illustrator. He was beaten up in 2011 by Assad's regime thugs and now he's drawing in exile. It just shows you the power of cartoons that Assad would be angry at him for drawing. So this week Ferzat has drawn a man with a gas mask reading a newspaper with Assad on the cover. He's had Assad playing with a chemistry kit that's from Russia and Iran. He has the world community basically trying to stuff this big beast of Assad back into a cage, or Assad hiding behind a photo of Iran. Very disparaging stuff and definitely not appearing in the Syrian press.

Werman: Jonathan, have you seen or heard any of the US comedians attempts to joke about Syria right now?

Guyer: Well, to my mind the funniest stuff has been coming from The Onion, perhaps because it's so straightforward in terms of op-eds coming from Assad's pen, jokingly. One of the funniest guys online is a Lebanese architect who's based in the UK, Karl ReMarks is his name. He made a So-So Guide to the Easygoing Rebels, but the best line from the whole thing was, "It's not even clear why moderates would join a revolution, but let's not pull on that string." One thing I'd like to note is that cartoons don't always have to be funny. There's a history of cartoonists in the Middle East bearing witness to tragedy, a young girl being killed by sarin gas, or Assad as a butcher. But these kind of minimal representations really resonate across the region.

Werman: As the war in Syria has dragged on for these past two and a half years, do you think the level of humor has just kind of steadily decreased?

Guyer: I think humor is always a weapon to work through and cope with the bigger problems, and they always draw us back to, whether it's chemical weapons or the refugee crisis or Assad's brutality, and given that the civil war is ongoing, cartoonists and humorists and satirists are going to continue making fun of all of the actors. Not just Assad, but the Turkish prime minister, the Jordanian king, the American president, everyone who's complicit or involved in the process

Werman: Jonathan Guyer, associate editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, and a former Fulbright fellow who researches political cartoons in Egypt. He blogs about Arab and Muslim world comics and caricature at Oum Cartoon. Jonathan, always great to speak with you. Thanks a lot.

Guyer: Thanks very much, Marco.

Werman: Jonathan's highlighted a few cartoons from around the Middle East which we turned into a slide show. You can check it out at TheWorld.org.