In the two years since his book, “White and Black: Political Cartoons from Palestine,” was published by Just World Books, cartoonist Mohammad Sabaaneh has been gaining an international following. We caught up with the 39-year-old last November on his tour of the States. Questions by Weiss, editing by Annie Robbins.
PW: How do you explain the west’s interest in your work?
Mohammad Sabaaneh: There are two reasons. People are concerned about my art because they are concerned about Palestine from a human perspective, and concerned about international policy towards the Palestinians and Palestine. And also there’s the artistic side, because recently I launched a new style and I think we got a lot of appreciation from other cartoonists from around the world. Like Kal Kallaugher, the cartoonist for the Economist, he wrote something about my book. Matt Wuerker, he’s a political cartoonist who works for Politico here in the States. Also Martin Rowson from the UK, working with the Guardian. Also Joe Sacco wrote something about my book.
Are you talking about the new style in your book last year?
Yes, but also I exhibited some of my original artwork, linocuts, in the Palestine Foundation, the Jerusalem Fund, in Washington. It was great because this was the first exhibition for me, as a Palestinian cartoonist, and a Palestinian artist, where I would also be selling my artwork.
This is the first exhibition for me with my linoleum cuts, that’s why I am very happy. Because I started to recognize this art on my visit here in 2015 when I met Seth Tobocman. He gave me the World War 3 Illustrated book, a book of all their issues from 1979 until now. And I saw some linocuts and asked Seth how they made this and when I traveled back to Palestine I found alternative materials to produce these linoleums. And I started doing that.
What material do you use in Palestine?
We call it linoleum, but we use it to cover the floor, but it’s very hard to carve it. It looks like plastic. And we glue it to wood and then carve it and make it like the linoleum cut.
Your recent work that I’ve recently seen, is that all linoleum cut?
Not all of them. Some of this artwork from my book is brushpen and ink. I had to bring some of the brushpens and pencils from the United States and Europe, because we don’t have it in the Arab world. This brush pen is Japanese-made.
How many times have you been in New York?
Around 6 times.
What do you like about it here?
We have to talk about the American people. They are different from your politicians here. For me I used to think that the people here they look like their government, but actually they are different. When you deal with American people you can feel that they are very kind and very honest, more than what we used to think. About New York, it’s is a city full with arts, street arts, you find a lot of museums here, and also full of energy. You could hang out. I have a lot of friends, and because of them, it’s like I have family here in New York.
Would you ever think of moving here?
As a Palestinian who can travel outside and see the world and come back to Palestine, and help these people to convey their message to the people around the world, and be part of this popular resistance in Palestine, by art, by culture, and all these tools– I have to stay there. Maybe the day will come when I cannot stay there for political reasons, but how much I can stay there in Palestine I will stay there, I will not leave.
When you meet American artists — they don’t have that same responsibility, their lives are freer.
I think also they have their own issues. Seth Tobocman established the WorldWar3 as a magazine, to fight for the poor people, and the homeless people here in New York. As American artists — also they fight for the Palestinians, they do a lot of artwork for us. I should appreciate that. Life here is easier than Palestine, it’s not as dangerous as Palestine, but they have their own issues. I have to respect that. Also I have to do art work as a Palestinian about their issues.
Maybe one day will come that I could not come to the United States for political reason. Maybe your government will ban me, as they did for some from Muslim countries.… But whenever I can come to the United States and talk about these issues, and my friends, the artists in the United States, helping on Palestinian issues, I have to make this intersectionality, I have to join between our issues as a Palestinian under occupation and the BlackLivesMatter in the United States, the great Women’s March in the United States, the Native issues here in the United States. All these issues could help to reveal our issues, as a Palestinian, for this audience in the United States of America. That’s part of our mission as a Palestinian artist.
Most of the Palestinian artists, we’re concerned in our community, in Arab society as an audience for us. We want to convey our message, but they already know about Palestine, and they already did not do anything for Palestine. That’s why we want to give this audience here in the United States, European countries, in Asia, wherever I can reach, it will be helpful for my people, who depend on the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement, which is now being attacked by all these governments, in Europe, in the United States. I’m part of this movement. I believe in that as a peaceful way to resist against the occupation. And as a tool to give this audience around the world, a tool to have solidarity with the Palestinians. In a productive way, not just to have demonstrations in the streets.
Have you dealt with Arab-Americans much and what’s been your experience?
Yes. Sometimes they want to be active in the Palestinian issue here in the United States, they need Palestinian tools, and my book is a tool to resist, to raise this awareness for this audience. I think this is very important because they could find some photographs from the internet or an American artist like Joe Sacco who made art about Palestine, but to find a Palestine artist who came from Palestine to publish his book here in the United States in the most difficult market in the world, and got all this recognition from all these American artists, international artists, I think it is something very important. I did not come just with my political issue. I came also with serious art.
Has this been a process of recognition for you?
My first visit to the United States was in 2010. Actually it’s a little shame sometimes to say, but it was an international program by the State Department and I was a member of this program and they invited me to come to the United States, and I came. I visited a lot of institutions, universities, museums here, and that’s why I decided as a Palestinian artist I should put my fingerprints in the United States.
I started as a cartoonist in 2002. It was very hard to improve your art in a country that you just have one or two books about the cartoon. One book they printed about one cartoonist, his name is Naji al-Ali.
He was very famous.
A very famous cartoonist, but this is the only resource that you as a cartoonist have to improve your artwork. There is no tools, there is no museums, no books even. When we started this International Cartoonists from the internet it was 2003, 2004. And in 2004 I had already started as a daily cartoonist for Al-Haya Al-Jadeda. But when I came here to the United States, first I started from D.C., from the Congress Library, and I saw the big archives of American cartoons there, and they had the big archives of international cartoonists. And then I moved to New York, with all the bookstores and museums, and I met all of these cartoonists, very famous cartoonists, then traveled to Portland, Oregon, to participate in the annual Association of American Editorial Cartoonists conference. I met a lot of political cartoonists from the United States, and see how they improve their art, how they do their art. I decided I should be part of this community, I should target this country by my art.
Did they welcome you? Or was it only political artists who did?
At that time in 2010, I didn’t think that my art was a good art. I think it was very simple. You know, just to start, without resources, not knowing anything, I tried just to improve my style. But actually in 2013, I met Ann Telnaes, the Washington Post cartoonist, in France, and spent three days with her at an international conference. What shocked me at that time, we were in the hotel and she told us, “Excuse me, I want to go to do my animation.” Because she’s doing animation, not just still cartoons. And then she went just for 20 minutes. She came back — “Done!” “How you did it?!”
Why was that shocking to you?
Because we used to think, as an animator, you have to have your computer, your stuff and your scanner, all these tools and equipment. You have to be very professional, to know a lot about these programs. And it was easy! She used to work with Disney, that’s why she’s doing her animation frame by frame, by watercolor and all this traditional way. She showed me her pitchbook… I moved from Cannes where the conference was to Paris and there I decided to go to an art supply store. I bought brush pens and some tools, actually I did not recognize (laughs) how I can use these tools even. And I go back to Palestine and start to think how can I improve this kind of art? I don’t have problem with my content, it is about Palestine. But what is the key? And that’s how I started doing sketches, improving the figures, the environment, the color, and all of these things. And then I found my way.
Remind me when you went to prison? There was quite a breakthrough after that in terms of the figures.
In 2013 I went to the prison. When I was released, my colleagues around the world invited me to participate in a conference. I did my exhibition about Palestinian prisoners which I did it inside the prison, and then I was invited to go to Paris, then after just one month I went to Spain. And there in Spain I saw the Guernica. That’s when I decided to make this combination between the paints, the art — the abstract art, the cubism, and the cartoon, in 2014.
Tell me the impact Guernica had on you.
I used to look to the Guernica by internet, by posters, when I was a fine arts student, and I had a lot of courses around the history of art, the Guernica, Picasso. But when I saw that Guernica– I don’t know, maybe it was the size, you could recognize all the details more than when you see it by photo. That’s how this piece of art took me to the other art of Picasso, and from there actually I found the path, how I can make this intersection, between the art, the paint, Picasso style, cubism, and the cartoon. That’s how I found my style.
Is there any way for Palestinians to say, I am not going to be political, I am just going to try to get ahead?
Yes, there’s a lot of Palestinian artists, painters and writers who do not do anything about Palestine as an issue. You can do something about women’s empowerment, or the environment, about anything. I think it is a choice to talk about Palestine even in Palestine. And I have a lot of artwork that’s not about Palestine. I did two big murals, and one of them is about human history and another one is about women’s issues around the world, not just in Palestine. The woman, the histories, the religions, during the French revolution, industrial revolution… They are really huge. I did it by paper, 4 meters by 80 centimeters….
This one is about the history of Palestine. You see the war in Palestine, Syrian refugees, then Palestinians resist – the 1st Intifada, peace negotiations, and you can find here the United States of America, yes. And the Arab world. The Palestinian Authority. The Second Intifada, Hamas, the War in Gaza, Confiscation of Palestinian land.
You’re telling me there’s some people in Palestine who can live a life free of politics? Say in Ramallah.
But doesn’t the occupation affect their lives inevitably?
Palestinians, they are a human being. That’s all: they are human beings. Not all of them want to be fighter, not all of them want to face this pain, go to jail or face this hard experience. They want to live their own life. But they face the same conditions. If they want to travel from one city to another, they have the checkpoints. If they want to travel outside, they have to get permission from the Israelis– it is the same! But they have this ability to choose, they don’t need to be involved in politics.
Have you met Zionists over here?
I’m lucky, none came to my events.
Have you had some encounters?
Virtually, yes. There are some cartoonists in the United States they are for Israel. Because I published my book here they started to attack my art. They started to attack me as a terrorist because I was in an Israeli prison. Also they blamed some of the American cartoonists because they wrote about my book or invited me.
Are you going to be doing cartoons about America?
Absolutely. Recently I published a big cartoon about Trump. My friend from WorldWar3, Seth Tobocman asked me to do a cartoon, a small mural but a big cartoon about Trump and the Middle East. This one was published in WorldWar3, the last issue. That’s how I decided, I want to put my fingerprints in the United States.
Is your art changing on this trip?
Actually each trip when I come to the United States, I get something new. A project about Native Americans and Palestinians. [Shows a drawing that has a Native American iconic shape]. You cannot publish it, but this is Native American art. And you can find the word Palestine. P-A-L-E-S-T-I-N-E. That’s going to be maybe another art project. To join between this art and Palestine.
When did you change your faces?
I started in 2014. I am always trying to find something new. I am trying to do cartoons about international issues, not Palestine. I want to find ways to do a mural in linoleum or woodcut. But it could not be in Palestine because we don’t have the equipment to print it… the print machine is very big. Seth said you could find the machine in any American university. But they don’t have it in Palestine. It’s very big, and you need to print it very fast, because the ink will dry. The art is pressed by a wheel.
Do people ask you, What is the peaceful resolution of the conflict?
Actually, always they ask me this question, and my answer is, I’m not the politician, I’m not the leader, I’m not the Palestinian president who should find the solution– to ask about this. I’m not the Israelis’ leader. From my perspective, there is no solution. Because if you look to the international law, we are talking about the two-state solution. But where is the Palestinian state? The West Bank is full with these settlements, surrounded by these settlements. The wall took 9.4 percent from the Palestinian land supposed to be the Palestinian state. And these settlers led to all this fragmentation for our life in the West Bank and Gaza.
Where is the Palestinian state? Can you evacuate all these settlements and settlers from the West Bank? I don’t think so.
That’s why when anyone asks me this question, I tell them, there’s no state solution. You cannot say a two-state solution. When they mention two-state solution they mention the state of Israel and state of settlers. That’s the two state solution! But not a Palestinian state.
Is it a surprise to some American to hear that?
Yes, during my presentation, I have to show them the maps of the West Bank. Just to recognize the situation now in the West Bank, and how much really we are suffering from moving from one Palestinian city to another Palestinian city. All of this international audience, people around the world, they think when we are talking about the Israeli wall, it’s a wall that is the border between two states. All these people, they think when you talking about settlements, that it looks like containers.
They cannot imagine that it’s become big cities with universities and facilities and marketing and big malls. That’s why I should show them pictures and the maps and all these facts and then show them my artwork, to understand that what I did by my cartoons. It’s not exaggeration. I did not exaggerate the real life of the Palestinians. Maybe I could not do the real image for our life in Palestine!
Do they ask you about coexistence? Can you get along with Israelis, or do you know any Israelis?
Yes, they always ask me this question. And some of them who came to some events ask me, Why I did not do an exhibition or joint exhibition with Israeli cartoonists as a message for peace. My answer is, As long as we are under this occupation, and this atrocity, and brutality, I will not do any exhibition with Israeli cartoonist. I will not do any joint event or joint project with any Israeli artist or citizen. Because he is a soldier. Whatever his work– artist, doctor, engineer, journalist—he served in the IDF, or will serve in the IDF, or serves in the IDF. That means he’s a soldier. You cannot separate the Israeli people and say this is army or military forces, and this is citizen or civilian, because all of them served in the IDF.
When did you reach that understanding?
I’m always calling for boycott Israel. When anyone asks me this question, I answer them, “I am a supporter for boycott movement, I consider myself part of this movement, and I will not do any exhibition, any joint project, with an Israeli.” And actually I met some Israeli cartoonists somewhere in France, at one of these international festivals. And one of my friends, this French cartoonist asked me, “Why do you refuse to do this exhibition with this Israeli cartoonist?” I answered him: “Give me just one French cartoonist, or artist, who did joint exhibition or project with any Nazi artist during the Second World War, and then I will do my exhibition with any Israeli cartoonist or any Israeli artist.” I will not!
They start to tell you the art is the way for the peace and for reconciliation and for the normalization, and all this propaganda. Right! It is! But when you get all of your rights, then you can act as an artist, as a peace holder, or anything like that. When you get all of your rights! As a Palestinian living under occupation, your art is not this peace message, your art is a way to resist.
Do you look forward to this day that you would be able to participate as an equal with an Israeli artist?
I don’t have the dream to do an exhibition with Israeli cartoonists. I don’t have this dream. I have a dream to live in peace. I have a dream to stop doing my artwork just about occupation. This is my dream.
What hope do you have about someday having that peace?
Actually I don’t think our generation will reach the peace. I don’t have like– this hope that maybe in 10 years or 20 years we reach this peace. No, I think our journey will take more time. But I have the hope we can create the new generation that can reach the peace, and can reach his independence, and reach his freedom. That’s why we are cartoonists and that’s why we are doing this art, to keep our issues and promote our issues for the next generation, and for people around the world.
How important to your dream of having political freedom in Palestine are the people in this room [Grand Central Terminal basement], and the people in this country?
They should be part of this process.
But is it essential that Americans change in order for there to be peace in Palestine?
Not just the Americans change, we need the international change. We have a lot of activity around the world, not just the United States. I told you that I’m traveling from the United States to France, to Paris, to have an exhibition there. Our mission is not just talking about the American audience. It’s also the European audience and whoever I can reach with my art I can reach. But it is important for the American people, for all the people around the world to understand what we ask for: we ask for our freedom, we are asking for our justice and rights, and they should understand that.
So you see change in the American mind toward Palestine or growing awareness of Palestine in America?
Yes. We have a new generation of Palestinian-American people, a new generation, now they can act as American people and talk about Palestine by understandable speech. American audience can understand them, they are born here in United States, they’re raised here in the United States, they have their accent and their mentality and they can deliver their message for American people best than a Palestinian immigrant who came from Palestine or from the Middle East.
Also, now we have, instead of the mainstream media—or fake media as Trump mentioned!– we have our social media we can use Facebook and Twitter, and that’s something very, very important.
You met Eli Valley this time, was he supportive?
OK. So he comes out of very Jewish tradition, I guess Seth Tobocman comes out of that tradition. Myself I think it’s important to get some of these liberal Zionists to understand what they’re supporting.
This is very important. I want to clarify. I like Eli Valley artwork, I like Seth Tobocman’s work. I asked Seth Tobocman to write the forward for my book not because they are Jews, not because I will be accused as anti semite and I need some Jewish friend to be like cover for me. Because me– I will be accused of anti-semite anyway! I don’t care. Because whatever you did or whatever you do, when they want to criticize you as anti-semitic they will criticize you. Whatever you do! If you criticize Israel you will be accused of anti-semitism. Even if you are an Israeli cartoonist. Avi Katz is an Israeli cartoonist and he did a cartoon about Trump, sorry– about Netanyahu, and he was accused as anti-semite, and he was fired from his newspaper in Israel because he criticize Netanyahu. [The cartoon portrayed Netanyahu and fellow Likud lawmakers as pigs, ala Orwell’s Animal Farm, July 2018]
I like Eli– what he’s doing, what Seth’s doing, what Ethan Heitner also is doing, is very important. For their community, for their people, for their relevance. ‘We as a Jew– we should not just keep supporting Israel.” They do something very good, for us as a Palestinian. Actually, when I started, when I became friends of Ethan, and Seth, I did not recognize that they are Jewish, because I cannot recognize from their names. I did not care. I liked their art and that’s it.
Have people asked you about the Khashoggi case? Tell me your response.
Actually I did a lot of cartoons about this case. But there is something very important I should mention. That’s– all this world who react because of Khashoggi, did not react because of 7 million Yemeni children who’ve been suffering and under this siege in Yemen, because of this fucking war in Yemen, from Saudi Arabia and from this regime. This is the more important thing. This is what we should talk about. We should talk about our kids in al-Yaman, not just about Khashoggi. Our kids, it’s not just freedom of speech, or censorship or one person was killed in their consulate. As an artist, as media –it’s 7 million kids, children, in Yemen. They are dying now because they don’t have food to eat because of Saudi Arabia. This is the most important thing.
How long have you had this understanding?
Actually from the first day, since the war against Yemen started. From first day I started to criticize Saudi Arabia, and I used to criticize Saudi regime not just because they killed Khashoggi. This is one case. I don’t need to work like Al Jazeera, because they are Qatari and they don’t want blackmail. Because that happens with Khashoggi and they were exposing Saudi Arabia by this case. But why did they not talk about Yemen?
How many people and artists in Palestine would say what you said?
All of them. Palestinians, we have full solidarity with al-Yaman people. Quite apart from our formal position, because you know we get quite a lot of aid from Saudi Arabia.
You know America supports Saudi Arabia in the war on Yemen?
Yeah! Its army. They trade, they can sell all their weapons to Saudi Arabia to kill more people.
How do you explain that, the media doesn’t talk about it.
No one talks about al-Yaman. All these interests, benefits, between these states.
You mentioned the power of social media. How much mainstream coverage have you gotten of your art in the United States?
I think just Russia Today. They did an interview with me, in December when I came. I was invited by the UN to participate, and I had an interview with Russia Today and also Al Jazeera English came to my book launch in D.C. last year. This time no one came, but I did have one interview, I forget the name of the journalist.
You’re not bitter or disappointed about that?
No, no no! I know that the mainstream media will not support Palestinian artists who come to the United States to expose Israel! I think they will look for something else! [laughing]
When did you start traveling so much?
Actually I have to refuse a lot of invitations because I am working also at university. I had a lot of invitations this year to go to South Africa, France, Belgium, and I canceled a free trip to this country because I cannot travel a lot. In April I will go to Ireland. Three months ago I was in the UK because I published the UK version of my book. I tried to go to Istanbul, the most important invitation, because of my book I wanted to exhibit something, but now I should refuse some of these invitations.
Back to Khashoggi. That’s an atrocity, you’re not diminishing the actual atrocity?
No I did a lot of cartoons about Khashoggi. I published them in the Middle East Monitor.
Did you bring up Yemen in those cartoons?
Yes, the last cartoon also I talked about al-Yaman. Because for me — I’m sorry for this word but all this fucking world, to care about just this one journalist, and at the same time these people are suffering for more than 5 years and no one cares about their interests. Not just Saudi Arabia, you need to expose– also all this world that just care about one person because there’s no interest like when they kill one journalist– in Yemen. All the media just talk about one person.
Have you seen Islamophobia in the United States? Anti-Palestinian racism.
Actually I did not meet anyone like that. During all of my visits to the United States, I did not. Going into a lot of cities in the United States, I did not. Maybe I am lucky, but I did not.
Have you met Americans who have visited Palestine and been traumatized by that experience?
We spend all our life in Palestine and we saw a lot and we lost our Palestinian friends– and we are normal. (laughs) Maybe we are not, but I consider myself as a normal person!
I know Americans who were traumatized by their exposure to the violence from Israel in Palestine. You say normal, but– Aren’t you traumatized too? You’ve been in prison in months. Why are you laughing?
Because, the truth, I’ll tell you a small story about that. In 2010 when I came to the United States, I went to Portland and I found an institution there where they are working with the homeless kids by art. They’ve been traumatized, they’ve been suffering or starving from being poor, and that’s why they want to help them by art. That’s why when I traveled back to Palestine, I did the same idea with the kids who were traumatized in some Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank. And that’s why when I was in the prison, in solitary confinement, in a small cell, I decided, I’m not here like a Palestinian prisoner, I‘m not a prisoner even though I’m inside this cell. I’m here as a journalist, I am here as a cartoonist and I will start doing my cartoon inside this cell, to go through this hard condition.
Anyone, as an American person who has been to Palestine– first I should thank him as a Palestinian, because he came to Palestine to support Palestine, because he believes in our issues, and he believes in our rights. That’s why I should support him, and I should thank him and all of the Palestinians should thank him. But he could be another evidence also: How much our life in Palestine sucks!
How much it’s hard, it’s difficult. If he just spent 2 years in Palestine and came back to the United States with all of this trauma, or all of these issues, you can imagine how much we are suffering there. You can imagine how much our kids need this support. That’s why I think, unfortunately, it would be a good evidence to convince all these Americans that the Palestinians, they live under this brutality for more than two years.
What do you miss about Palestine? Soon you’ll be back. What will your heart do when you get off the plane? Because here you are in western democracies, rich countries with lots of freedom.
It’s not my homeland here. I think the homeland looks like your mother. Maybe your mother is not beautiful, you know, maybe she cannot cook well, maybe she is very ugly. But you will like her, you will love her as the most important woman in your life, you will love her as your mother. You used to eat from her, you used to live with her, you used to talk with her. This is our homeland. That’s why I think yeah, when I come to the United States, I spend all of my time very happy. I like to come to the United States, I like to see these big cities and natural landscapes, rivers. We cannot go there, to see the sea in Palestine, to go to Jaffa or Haifa, we cannot see it; but [we can] in the United States, or in France or in the UK.
All of these countries, they are not our homeland. That’s why when I have this opportunity to stay in the United States and other countries, I will refuse. Because if I have this chance to go outside and go back to Palestine, I prefer to stay there.
Yes. In Palestine.