1983: *President calls for carrying on and stability*, A woman with a sign on her head reading “23 July revolution”, – 31 years of carrying on… the upcoming years for stability if Allah wishes! –
I received a huge shock when I saw this cartoon embracing Hosni Mubarak in the online archive of the government-owned Egyptian journalistic ogre Al-Ahram in 2007. Salah Jahin, the renaissance man of the 1960s, poet, scriptwriter, actor, cartoonist, thinker, fighter for freedoms and defender of women’s rights, avant-garde knight of modernity, liberty and the power of revolution and people. The man who I wanted to be a cartoonist like.
I was very young when I was introduced to Jahin. His light social cartoons featured in the children’s magazine Alladin (an annex publication branching from Al-Ahram) were extremely witty and clever. His magical ability to reflect on the details of Egyptian culture — the way people look, dress and speak — made his cartoons a charm to look at.
Because of these little gems printed in orange circular frames deep inside Alladin, I asked my Nasserist father what this phenomenon was and he explained to me: “It’s called cartoons.” My father also explained that cartoons are very important because they are drawings with opinions, sharp and fearless and naughty. Making fun of what shouldn’t be made fun of and speaking up about the elephant in the room. My Nasserist father also gave extra importance to the work of Jahin, one of the biggest crazy lovers of Nasser and the 1952 revolution, which enabled my father and his poor brothers and sisters to go to university.
A few years after this conversation with my Nasserist father I learned that at the same time he and my aunts were allowed to go to university many people were not allowed to leave home because they were under house arrest, or in prison, or had to flee the country because they had different opinions from Nasser and Salah Jahin. But I still thought Nasser’s charisma and the nobility of his cause could have blinded Jahin to the tyranny practiced by his regime.
Even opponents of Nasser and his politics couldn’t resist his personal charm.
The late cartoonist, author and pioneer graphic designer Mohie al-Din al-Labbad (1940-2010) told me that he disagreed with Nasser’s policies most of the time, had huge concerns about the lack of freedom, and was really upset one day when the police forced him and his friend to wait on the sidewalk because the president’s convoy was on its way back from the airport escorting a guest. He was just standing there under the sun hating that man, grumping about fake populism and mob mentality, until Nasser’s car drove by and the president tilted his head and looked him in the eye and waved at him.
“I found myself unintentionally jumping like crazy and screaming at him like a child: Nasser! Nasser!” said Labbad.
I understand how a teenager like Jahin starting his life, career and philosophy in life at the age of 17 in 1947, only broaching into his early 20s as the 1952 revolution triumphed, could be very influenced by the ideas of the young army officer from Upper Egypt who yelled on the radio: “Raise your head brother, the age of enslavement is over.” When values like democracy, freedom of choice and expression, and human rights are put in a competition with nationalism, love of mother Egypt, pride and redemption, it’s very difficult to have a productive argument.
But the bigger chain reaction of shocks that this cartoon initiated came when I dug through the archive of Jahin’s cartoons after I saw it — the archive on Al-Ahram’s website has now shrunk down to not more than a dozen or so — to see what kind of cartoons he was making after Nasser. Jahin, the man whose songs almost wrote the story of that revolution, theorized Nasser’s version of socialism, and marshaled young conscripts into Nasser’s funny wars by crafting all sorts of metaphors for the Arab-Israeli struggle, was suddenly defending Sadat’s extremely submissive peace treaty that had all of Egypt angry, even those who had always been very close to the regime.
A treaty that changed the face of Egypt’s political influence in the area and completely suffocated any ambitions for leadership or ideological joining of forces in the Arab world. Not only did Jahin defend it, he even meanly attacked its detractors, whether they were people of opinion, countries, or even the Palestinian leadership, getting himself involved in a Sadat-long process culturally shifting of public attitude away from the Palestinian cause, in other words washing Egypt’s hands of it once and for all.
As you go through the archive, you see how Jahin’s closeness to regime slowly transformed from pure innocent childish love and belief in the sensational populist discourse into greyish depressing constant excuses for really problematic decisions. He drew in support of completely un-democratic leaders, he drew in support of these leaders against whomever was criticizing them; he ended up being a buffer between the people and their rulers’ legitimacy. The man who got himself involved in the really dirty details of leadership became tortured between the naive idealist artist inside him, that aspired for a magical future for a miserable people, and what was pragmatically available or could be done.
After going through an acute state of depression after the 1967 defeat, Jahin eventually ended his life in 1986 with a soul troubled by guilt, failure, defeated dreams and great confusions. Yet the man had a life a lot of people would envy, was appointed in many respected posts such as the editorship of the then famous, highly influential lifestyle magazine Sabah Al-Kheir, wrote hundreds of songs and scripts, made lots of money and had the best connections with the most important people in the country.
A little child in the northern Delta, reading a magazine and being spoken to by a Nasserist father in 1995, knew nothing about Jahin other than his amazing love of the country and its poor people and his magnificent talent and genius. The TV showed me nothing of his mistakes, the same way it covered up for everybody in power, or those with power on the day in question.
A few days ago, there was a rumor about the news of the death of Akhbar Al-Youm’s cartoonist Mostafa Hussein. A 79-year-old artist, he has served in the ranks of that other journalistic ogre, the government’s second-largest, since 1974. As soon as he died, social media started reacting. The old cartoonist, famous for his huge investments in tourism, recently gained remarkable fame among young people outside his natural popularity within the typical old-school state publication readership. It’s not because his style suddenly became very fresh or modern, nor because his ideas showed a wise understanding of the cultural changes of our post-technological-revolution world.
2009: *Barking noise in the background*, Man on the balcony: “The noise – it’s people who just tasted a bit of democracy so they went rabid.”
Hussein is a man who clearly doesn’t like freedom of speech that much. The reason his cartoons started getting shared on the Internet recently was because people have been mocking his outrageous support for the regime and his quickly changing faces in recent years.
Hussein almost completely monopolized the cartooning scene throughout the dry years of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, until a pump of freedom of expression broke through Hosni Mubarak’s aging regime to make way for new voices and younger opinions and feelings.
His cartoons, which had their lines and ideas dictated by “satirical writer” (I have no idea where he got that title) Ahmad Ragab, deployed cartoon power to serve a very warped message: freedom of speech is making fun of the prime minister, full stop. Hussein, who has shone as a painter, book cover designer and portraitist, rarely has the wit for interesting ideas. This is why his collaboration with Ragab was crucial. Hussein is mostly interested in drawing naked women. His work has contributed a lot to a culture in which women’s bodies are objects to consume, because the sexual relationship between a young woman with an exaggeratedly commercial body type and an old sexually incapable man has always been an inspiration for him.
Recently — I don’t know if it’s because he is getting old, or because he and Ahmad Ragab haven’t spoken to each other for a really long time — Hussein started relying heavily on himself to communicate his beliefs with the world through his cartoons.
2014: *Fantasia*, Man on the roof: “Don’t be weirded out… it’s not an American movie, it’s Sisi saving Egypt before it falls down.”
The unexplained or ideologized love of state figures and their right to rule the country the way they want has taken a slightly extravagant course lately. A lot of people have been drawing Egypt as a woman, and suggesting a slightly dodgy relationship between her and the president, regardless of the sick sexism and narrow-mindedness required for that, but still, nobody has drawn Egypt with her hand so controversially placed.
‘Why do sons of bitches never die?’
The first time I read this line was a few months before the January 25 revolution. It was written on a wall in downtown Cairo, then somebody took a picture of it and it went viral on the Internet of course. I can’t remember whether it was right after Mubarak came back from the Heidelberg hospital in Germany following another failed attempt to die or not, but it was strongly associated with his never-occurring death.
There is always a lot of respect for death in this very religious country (fact check required). A famous Hadith (prophetic saying) orders people to mention the good deeds of the deceased. Rivalries and enmity are supposed to cease with death as people disappear from life and lose the ability to defend themselves, thus you must protect their reputations and elevate yourself above the earthly urge to maul dead bodies.
But if Mubarak or a few other bad guys died, maybe things could get a bit better — that was the ceiling of our political ambition at that point! A few months later the revolution happened and a lot of people died, mostly from the wrong side. Young innocent women and men lost their lives for nothing more than protesting and trying to claim their rights. The old rusty hearts of evil politicians kept on beating. The question then gained a deeper existential purpose, challenging logic, justice and even the point or lesson behind the struggle. If evil always wins, and nature always punishes good people with death, why don’t we all turn evil?
It’s not very objective of course to call things good and evil, like in Disney movies, but we’re talking pure instinctive survival, the kind of survival people like Mostafa Hussein, Salah Jahin and Hosni Mubarak have, which has always been full of the leisures of life which they earned through their choices and which didn’t include getting shot in the eye when they were 21.
I’m sure that Hussein — whose death was a rumor, and who is lying in bed now in a very expensive hospital in America — probably had difficult choices in his life, and did what he thought was right, that gave him fame, money and the freedom to express his opinions — that were, unfortunately, most of the time about women married to older men — the freedom of expression that lots of Egyptians were deprived of. As soon as he died, a lot of opinions, probably out of chivalrousness, were posted about how one’s political disagreements with him and his terribly biased positions cannot stop one from acknowledging his great contribution to enriching cartooning and painting in Egypt throughout his long years of production. Messages grateful for his huge influence on lots of (really bad) young cartoonists were delivered to his tricky, playing-dead soul.
I have no problem at all with people’s various ways of interpreting honor. But in my opinion, mentioning the good deeds of a deceased Mostafa Hussein, or Abdallah Kamal — the late Ros al-Yousef chief editor who used his very professional journalistic skills to scandalize and demonize any figures opposing Mubarak’s regime even after the revolution (how brave!) — or even Salah Jahin is just a waste of completely unnecessary objectivity and a contribution to the creation of the boring, useless manufactured images of fatherly figures that this country is already full of.