Syrian satirical cartoonist Ali Farzat knew the extent of trouble he was going to get into when he decided to create caricatures of President Bashar al-Assad and his “inner circle.”
The 60-year-old had usually steered clear of depicting individuals in his cartoons, but just a few months before the Syrian uprising, Farzat realized Assad had pushed the limits in suppressing freedom of expression.
“My drawings are known to deal more with practices than individuals, but over time I started to portray individuals and make it personal, which is something generally not accepted. However, the positive response I got from the streets got me excited so I made that shift from using symbols to depicting actual figures, and little by little I began to see my cartoons being carried by protesters on the streets. For them, it was empowering and the cartoons became iconic,” he said.
After the uprising against Assad began, so did the threatening phone calls and messages. Little did Farzat know that in the wee hours of August 25 last year, he would be viciously attacked by thugs as he left his studio in the Syrian capital of Damascus.
“They were beating me on the head and I could hear them saying ‘break his hands so they never dare challenge his masters again,’ referring to President Assad. They said ‘Bashar’s shoes are better than your head.’ They kept hitting me on my head and also on my hands. They broke this hand here and this one they broke in this part -- this hand is now limited in its movement. I can only grasp this far. My body was full of bruises and I had a concussion,” Farzat said.
The incident sparked outraged in Syria as it depicted the measures Assad and his loyalists were taking in crushing dissidents. Farzat remembered a time how he and Assad were once on the same page when the then future president had shown interest in the talents of Farzat and his peers.
A satire magazine launched by Farzat in the early 2000 would be a short-lived endeavor, signaling impending the country’s descent into censorship.
Farzat says it is not a matter of time, but overcoming fear that will stimulate change.
“People are not going to go back to the way they used to live. There is no way you can go back to the way things were before this revolution started. I have a friend who takes part in the protests and I asked him: ‘Aren’t you scared someone will shoot you?’ He told me, ‘After 40 years, I have heard my own voice, if I get killed, I won’t care anymore because I have for the first time in my life heard my own voice -- I used to have a silent voice.’ There is no going back since people are moving forward,” he said.
Although Farzat is currently living a self-imposed exile in Kuwait, he is determined to return to his homeland one day.
The cartoonist has resumed work and is currently exhibiting in London until March 29.