Ali Ferzat: The pen fighting Assad's sword

Ali Ferzat's satirical cartoons about Syrian politics led to a beating by militia loyal to the regime, but he has not been silenced. Laurens Cerulus meets him

Ali Ferzat is Syria's most renowned cartoonist. His work has become an iconic feature of the Syrian revolutionary movement; his cynical caricatures of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Arab dictators have mocked repression and corruption all over the Middle East, and Arab Spring street protesters have held up his work in their fight for freedom.

The cartoonist was forced to leave Syria after he was assaulted by masked gunmen on his way home from his former studio in Damascus in August last year.

Dragged from his car, driven to the city's outskirts and beaten up, government militia broke his fingers while shouting their purpose – that Mr Ferzat would not be able to harm Assad's reputation any more.

However, now based at a new studio in Kuwait, Mr Ferzat has not been silenced. "I saw this [attack] coming," Mr Ferzat says, leaning across the table of a hotel lobby in Brussels. "The cartoons I drew on the corruption and repression of the Syrian regime were the most courageous I have ever made. When I draw, it is like a voice is shouting inside of me. At the start of the protests I felt like I was possessed, like I wasn't in control of my own body anymore. The voice inside was stronger than ever before."

The cartoonist, now 61, has published over 15,000 drawings in Arab and international press over the decades. On his recent visit to Brussels, Mr Ferzat was awarded the Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought by the European Parliament, which honoured him as one of the leading figures in the Arab spring.

"The revolution [is] a recognition of humanity, a fight for freedom and democracy," he stressed to the audience. "We don't have a party programme to distribute."

While his cartoons have mocked Assad more and more directly since the protests began in March 2011, Mr Ferzat feels he has always been at the forefront of the struggle for freedom of expression.

"I started drawing at the age of five," he says. "I wasn't aware that I could actually draw but I felt I had a strong feeling for sarcasm. I had a sarcastic vision on things."

As part of the Syrian intellectual elite, Mr Ferzat had been a prominent advocate for freedom of speech during the rule of Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad.

But when Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father as president in 2000, Mr Ferzat said there was a brief moment of hope, dubbed the Damascus Spring, which accompanied Assad's early years in power.

In 2001 – and with Assad's encouragement – Mr Ferzat co-founded al-Doumari ("The Lamplighter"), the first independent publication since the last had closed in 1963. "It was a time of optimism," he remembers.

In the past, Mr Ferzat has even described "a friendship" blossoming between himself and Assad during this time, with the president even attending Mr Ferzat's exhibits. But as al-Doumari printed its stinging critique of government corruption and issued calls for sweeping reforms, the relationship, and Assad's enthusiasm for the magazine, soured.

"All of the sudden the government rejected our critical tone and closed it down," he says. The paper was taken off the newsstands in 2003. "The group of reformists that founded al-Doumari have fled the country or are in jail."

In 2007, Mr Ferzat foresaw that a "monumental crisis" awaited Syria if the Ba'ath party continued in its mission "to deprive other national parties of true and effective participation".

That crisis arrived last year when street protests made way for the ongoing military conflict between rebel groups and the Syrian army that has claimed more than 30,000 lives since the uprising began 19 months ago.

However, Mr Ferzat's faith in the revolution has not wavered. He believes the regime itself is weak, propped up by external powers.

"Let me ask you a question," he says, leaning closer across the table. "Who is behind the Syrian regime, you think? The regime doesn't exist anymore – it is a myth. Today, the revolution is against outside powers: China, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah. If Assad was on his own, we would have toppled the regime in two months."

If one positive has come out of this bloody conflict, it is that the struggle against repression has reached a point of no return, he says.

"The revolution was won 18 months ago, when the wall of fear was broken down," he says. "We will never return to the state of fear and terrorism that existed up until then."

"For years, the regime has hampered opposition parties... Today, everybody is revolting. Everybody is a victim of the repression. What we see happening today is the prize we have to pay for freedom."

Suggested Topics
News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits