He spoke to Syria Deeply managing editor Karen Leigh at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Oslo, Norway, where he was honored with the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent.
Karen Leigh: How has your work changed, your message changed, in the last two years?
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Ali Ferzat: Before my incident, I was brave. But now I’m braver. Now I’m bolder than I used to be.
I have one style. It doesn’t change. The general line is that I stand against dictatorships, against autocracies. That’s why my drawings always caused a reaction among many regimes across the world and not only my country. There was a drawing I made a while ago. It was a comic. It showed a man in a war situation, it’s a postwar period. He’s a poor citizen, alone, after the war, and he wants to eat, so he’s holding a plate. He’s taking the plate to a general [to be filled]. And instead of giving him food, the general is taking a spoon and pouring medals onto the plate.
This drawing had me banned from four countries, and everyone in the regimes of those four countries believed that I was targeting them. In Syria, the minister of defense had me tried in front of a military court.
At the time of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, I had an exhibition in Paris. During that exhibition, this picture was shown. And Saddam Hussein’s regime felt targeted because of this drawing, and they therefore tried to harass me.
Moammar Gadhafi, when he thought one of my drawings would be in a newspaper, would ban the newspaper from entering Libya. Sultan Qaboos of Oman wears a lot of medals on his dressing gown, so people thought that I was targeting him with this comic, and I was banned from entering Oman. So now you know about my drawing style.
KL: Which of your drawings is your favorite? Which has had the most resonance?
<img class=”alignright size-full wp-image-6708″ title=”images” src=”https://beta.syriadeeply.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/images.jpeg” alt=”” width=”275″ height=”184″ />AF: Two drawings. One is the general with the plate. The one that has had the most resonance is the one with Gadhafi running away in a jeep with Bashar al-Assad hitchhiking. That was one week before the attack against me.
KL: How has your profile grown in the last two years?
AF: My profile has grown enormously. The stupidity of the Syrian regime and the Iraqi regime just paved the way for fame for me. And they shortened [the time it would have taken for me to achieve a similar level of fame] by 50 years!
KL: I think Syrians are so grateful to have something that’s humorous about the situation but at the same time, saying exactly what they want to say.
AF: Exactly. Today, the remarkable thing about the Syrian resistance is the “sarcastic resistance.” The good thing is that sometimes in the streets where the fighting is taking place, you find people making jokes, their own practical jokes. You would have people walking around with eggplants. Eggplants look dark, like a bomb. So they would pretend it was a bomb and they would throw eggplants at one another, that would be a game on the streets. And you’d have others who take okra – you know, the vegetable – and okra looks almost like a bullet, so they wear necklaces of okra to pretend it’s ammunition. And they take the tubes of the heating system and carry them like it’s either a Kalashnikov or an RPG.
Now you have pictures of Assad plastered on every wall. And they’re comics – they’re not serious pictures anymore. I think I paved the way for that because I whetted their appetite for a comic resistance. This form of comic, sarcastic resistance, made the regime feel uncomfortable. The beautiful thing is that people are sarcastic towards their pain because they hope.
KL: How long before they broke your hands did you start to draw again?
AF: About seven months. I’m back to normal now, I can draw.
The most difficult part [of my work] is the idea, not the drawing. The drawing can be completed in two hours. Sometimes it’s the maturity of the idea, and the idea could take a day, more than a day. Sometimes I get two or three ideas in a day. Remember that I express my ideas with no words, just in a drawing. And it’s pretty hard.
There was a funny incident when one day they introduced me to the cartoonist [of a major international newspaper]. The man was talking about me, and he saw that I always do my drawings with no subtitles, no captions. The man said, “You know that guy, he’s not normal.” I took it badly, because “not normal” for me means I had a mental illness. And I didn’t have one.
The translator had to explain that he was impressed I could convey ideas with no words, because in his paper, [only] every 10 days do they have an image with no caption underneath. Whereas all my drawings are with no caption whatsoever. So he meant “not normal” as in “stroke of genius,” but I took it as in “struggling from a mental disease.”