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Mohammad Saba’aneh had no choice but to become a political artist

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The Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Saba’aneh kicked off his book tour in New York last night in an appearance at which he said he had no choice but to become a political artist.

Below is video of his appearance, titled “Life & Prison in Palestine: A Cartoonist’s Eye.” It begins with an excellent speech by Seth Tobocman (introduced by Ben Katchor).

Saba’aneh says that Palestinian speakers usually begin in the Muslim tradition by praising Allah. But:

I should start in the name of 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, they are on hunger strike in Israeli prisons… Karim Younis is the oldest Palestinian prisoner in Israeli jail, and Shadi Farah, the youngest prisoner…. His age is 13 years old now.. And that’s why I should start with them.

Saba’aneh told his story last night. As a boy in Kuwait, he drew pictures of his homeland, Palestine. He later moved to Palestine to go to school, and when Ariel Sharon visited the Haram-al-Sharif in September 2000, the school shut down and Saba’aneh saw violence for the first time.

When we arrived to the checkpoint, the Israeli bullet separated us all the students. My friend Zachariah started joking with me that I was born in Kuwait and I was not used to face Israeli soldiers and see this clashes.

His friend Zachariah was killed that day.

Saba’aneh began a daily cartoon as a form of resistance. He would draw portraits of Palestinian martyrs to be held by their families at funerals. It disturbed him when a boy asked him to draw his picture and two weeks later he learned that he had been killed.

Cover art: White and Black political cartoons from Palestine by Mohammad Saba’aneh

He started using his cartoons as a form of journalism, to describe what was happening in Palestine. In 2013, he was arrested by Israeli soldiers. And thus he realized that he had become the subject of his own cartoons; he was a prisoner of Israel. His five months of imprisonment included two weeks of isolation, in a dungeon-like cell. He resolved then to do cartoons about Palestinian prisoners, and made notes on a shred of paper he had managed to steal from his interrogator.

“To be an artist under occupation is not something easy,” he said.

For seven years Saba’aneh worked without making money for his cartoons.

He explained the artistic conceit of drawings like the one below: When he saw pictures of people in Gaza, frightened by attacks, he could see the effects of oppression on their faces; to capture that, he drew them “without eyes without mouths, maybe with ugly faces because of the effects of the oppressor on them.”

Saba’aneh cartoon: frames

He began to travel internationally, and he caught the attention of KAL of the Economist and Abdeen Jabara, who encouraged him to do a book.

When Saba’aneh came back from Jordan two months ago, Israeli soldiers searched all his suitcases and found his sketchbook and saw a drawing of an Israeli soldier.

They asked me, Why are you drawing Israeli soldiers?

I told him, What do you see around? What are around me is Israeli soldiers.

Mohammad Sabaaneh

Here’s Saba’aneh’s book, White and Black, just published by Just World Books (yes, a Mondo advertiser).

Here is the schedule of Saba’aneh’s book tour in the U.S.: You can catch him Friday night in Brooklyn, Saturday night in Clifton, New Jersey, and Monday in Long Island.

And next week, on May 3, Saba’aneh will be speaking at PEN America’s World Voices Festival. Notice that this year the Israeli government will not be among the sponsors of the PEN World Voices Festival. This is surely due to the pressure by Adalah-NY– which in correspondence with PEN president Suzanne Nossel stressed Israel’s “documented records of repressing freedom of expression and violating human rights.”

At 43:00 in the video above, Saba’aneh explains his boycott of Israeli artists. He will meet with them here but not over there:

“I have no connection with Israeli. For me it’s part of my boycott of Israel. I can’t make connection with Israeli cartoonists while he is in Israel…. I tried to translate all their cartoons; there is no one criticized his government because his government killed Palestinians. Why I should make a connection to him?”

Thanks to Annie Robbins.

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2 Responses

  1. annie
    annie on April 27, 2017, 4:09 pm

    i’m very excited to meet him when he comes to the bay area.. his book is incredible btw.

  2. chocopie
    chocopie on April 28, 2017, 1:49 pm

    I agree, Annie. What a talent.

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