According to Kahil 1980-2000, a selection of editorial cartoons Paperback – 2014
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Mahmoud Kahil was a lebanese political cartoonist. His work, with remarkable simplicity, familiarises the world with the Arab reality and highlights issues that are vital for everyone. Written in both English and Arabic, this book features a selection of editorial cartoons by the world renowned Arab cartoonist Mahmoud Kahil. It is divided into 6 chapters: - Lebanon - the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict - Deprivation - International Affairs - the Arab World - Freedom of Expression and the Press.
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Lebanon’s best-known editorial cartoonist Mahmoud Kahil (1936-2003) also worked in exile. He left Beirut for good in 1978 and drew highly satirical cartoons for leading pan-Arab newspapers and magazines in London, Asharq Al-Awsat, Arab News and Al-Majalla as well as The Wall Street Journal, The Independent, Le Monde and Le Courrier International. His wittily barbed drawings found him a loyal readership across the Arab world and the West.
A compendium of the cartoonist’s best work, According to Kahil, edited by Zaki Mahfoud and Dessy Pontikos, reproduces cartoons from 1980 to 2000. Those were decades of war and change in the Middle East that included – for those with short-term memories – the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 that ended fourteen years later with Taif Agreement; Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila Palestinian camps; the First Intifada in 1987; the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War; Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the sanctions against Iraq, followed by the first Gulf War or Operation Desert Shield in 1991; the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords; Operation Grapes of Wrath in April 1996; the defeat of Shimon Peres by Netanyahu by May of that year and the solidification of the deadlock between the Netanyahu and Arafat; the resumption of Israel’s intensive settlement building and the rise of Hamas throughout the 1990s; and the deadlock between the Palestinians and the Israelis that has lasted until now.
In Kahil’s universe of crazy gun-toting militias and hijab-wearing suicide bombers, Israeli intransigence (in the gloriously gluttonous figure of Ariel Sharon) and the mirage of endless peace plans and broken promises we can see where the past has brought us to. Kahil always represented the conservative man on the street in a tarbush, while the public opinion of the wider Arab world had a figure of its own – a globe with a face and a thick moustache. In the space of a single cartoon Kahil captured the failure of Arab leaders, religious and secular, the disarray of the states they propped up and the bafflement of people living there. These editorial cartoons or “visual journalism” as described by Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson, come from a dark place but the worst joke of all is that Kahil’s cartoons about political ineptitude, greed, colonialism and war are still applicable today.
Noted Iranian journalist and editor Amir Taheri writes in According to Kahil that the cartoonist “liked to work on his own, and never attended editorial meetings. His editors quickly understood that they couldn’t tell him what to do and what not to do. To keep abreast of what was going on [he] did a great deal of reading and often held discussions with journalists who covered the events. In his work he always left a little bit of the curtain unopened and introduced a small crow (ghurab in Arabic) on the margins, perhaps a tongue-in-cheek reminder that ‘the worst is yet to come.’”
Whenever Kahil drew himself into his cartoons he doesn’t exactly resemble a dishevelled artist. However his work obviously took its toll on his character whose eyes were rolling inside his glasses and had a giant paintbrush tucked under his arm.
Arab New’s editor-in-chief Khaled Al-Maeena describes Kahil as “at heart a humanist. He cared for the poor, the oppressed and the dispossessed. It did not matter what the ethnic or religious beliefs these people held.” His cartoons were populist in their appeal and provided a platform for heartfelt sentiments and frustrations of the Arab street.
To give a platform to those kinds of voices and ideas was a radical departure particularly during the period when Kahil was prolific, from the 1980s to 2000, when ‘official’ culture in countries like Syria, Libya and Egypt was the preserve of the state or long-running dictatorship. In such tightly controlled settings cartoonists were the joker in the pack. Arab cartooning was also, at least in the West, treated as a lower art form compared to calligraphy or tapestry. In 2000 when I first started researching the history and development Arab cartoons and comic strips only one book in English had been published – Allen Douglas and Fedwa Malti-Douglas’s Arab Comic Strips: Politics of an Emerging Mass Culture. I still have a copy of it on my bookcase.
Quick cut to post Arab Spring/Awakening, the situation for cartoonists has and has not changed. Perhaps the only real success of those mass uprising is that the street and its multitude of narratives are in evidence today. Because of 2011, young people have recharged the power of the sharp image and visual culture has emerged as a quick-fire way (especially with the Internet) of expressing critical views about a region as politics, peace plans, religions and governments fail.
But declaring yourself is still fraught with danger. Just the generation of edgy cartoonists before them, cartoonists today are targeted by insecure governments that have no sense of humour, as seen in the recent arrest of Egyptian cartoonist 26-year-old Islam Gawish by the Sisi-government.
With this collection of historically pertinent, often hilarious and beautifully reproduced cartoons and sketches alongside short essays and articles about the cartoonist, According to Kahil sheds much needed light on a life and an art form that had been taking the pulse of the Arab street long before it was considered revolutionary to do so.