Spending your birthday locked in an underground studio recording an interview can be far more enjoyable than you might think. Especially if said interview is with Khalid Albaih, one of the most prolific cartoonists of the Arab Spring uprisings.
Albaih’s Khartoons have been wielded by protestors on Tahrir square. They were held high in Tunisia and Lebanon, in Yemen and in Syria. Today, in the streets and on the Web, his works still illustrate the debates and turmoil that shape the Arab world. With a mind buzzing with projects and ideas, he no longer just wants to depict revolts: he dreams of sketching the outlines of an elusive Sudanese identity.
When I interviewed Albaih by telephone on September 23rd, his work was being exhibited at the Edge of Arabia gallery in London.
Albaih is Sudanese, but has lived most of his life abroad. Born in 1980 in Romania, where his father was a diplomat, he spent only six years in Khartoum between 1984 and 1990. “After the  coup [when Omar Al-Bashir seized power], there was no room for artists, thinkers or any form of opposition,” recalls Albaih. So the family fled to Qatar, where Albaih still lives and works as head of multimedia for the Qatar Museums Authority.
“I began to be interested in political cartoons at about twelve or thirteen,” he recalls. “My father used to bring home Sabah al-Kheir, an Egyptian newspaper which I borrowed only to read the cartoons. They were hilarious, yet summed up so many political and social issues that I felt they spared me the trouble of reading dull articles.”
Albaih never imagined making a living off his art. “It’s not the type of thing our generation was encouraged to study, unlike medicine or engineering. Politics were taboo. People just wanted to live decently, secure a job and stay away from controversy. So becoming an artist or a political commentator – let alone both – was hardly an option.”
Still, Albaih sketched through his teens as a hobby, and claims he only started taking drawing seriously around 2009. “Nobody wanted to publish me. Neither in Sudan, nor Egypt, nor Qatar … I even tried Bahrain, man!” Among these rejections, one was a turning point, “an episode that got stuck in [my] head”.
“I brought my work to an Egyptian editor and asked if it could be considered for publication – I didn’t care if I was paid or not, or if they put it in the corner of some page nobody read. I just wanted it published. The editor was incredibly rude; a large, middle-aged man sitting in an old wooden office, with not a computer in sight. To me, he represented precisely what was wrong with Arab societies. This is what the youth would soon be fighting against: an outdated mentality which rejected any kind of novelty or change.”
Back in Doha, Albaih decided to go online, to be his own editor. Coincidentally, the Arab Spring broke out and the role of social media became increasingly clear. He started reading about Facebook and Twitter, and how these were the platforms young people were using to express themselves. The first cartoon he published online eventually went viral. It was the day Mohammed Bouazizi killed himself in Tunisia, the first burgeon of the Arab Spring. “I was so angry, like everyone else. I took a picture of my hand with my mobile phone, and started drawing.”
His first cartoon, which remains one of the most famous, was brandished on Egypt’s Tahrir square, and soon enough in Beirut. Albaih was contacted by opposition groups in Yemen and various other countries, and a Sudanese women’s rights organisation used his cartoons as well.
“That is the beauty of social media: protesters in Sanaa would tweet about being harassed by the police, and they’d be retweeted by people in Cairo and Damascus. A cartoon from a Sudanese guy in Doha could end up in marches thousands of miles away. We were all connected. We were like best friends. It was a time of unity.”
« The end of artistic selfishness. »
Though he now takes commissions, Albaih insists that his works remain under creative commons. “Everybody can build upon others’ work. It is the end of artistic selfishness.”
He takes his inspiration mostly from the renowned Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, who was assassinated in London in 1987. “His work was so powerful. It’s what I aim for with my khartoons: something as funny and striking as it is meaningful.”
Meaning, for Albaih, is best conveyed by drawings than by words. Though some of his cartoons are in English, in order to reach an international audience, most do not have a speech bubble. “I want my cartoons to be understood by everyone, whatever language they speak. I’m very conscious of the gap between the East and the West – they each have very wrong conceptions of one another. In North America or Europe for example, they see ‘angry Arabs’ doing revolutions and blowing themselves up, but they don’t know where that anger comes from.”
Waiting to go “home”.
Albaih says he enjoys working in Doha, but yearns for the time when he can live in Khartoum. His father already went back and teaches at Ahfad University for Women. As a cartoonist, however, “you never know what can happen. I’d be censored, threatened and perhaps worse.”
During the recent bloody protests, distance was all the more difficult to bear. “I just got a call from my best friend who is in the Burri area of Khartoum. He made me listen to the chants. I wish I were there. But especially since my latest cartoons which severely criticized the government’s use of force, if I went to Sudan I might never come back.”
“Some of us diaspora kids lost part of our identity. Having grown up abroad, many don’t see what there is to be proud of in Sudan. We’ve neglected that part of ourselves.” One day, he believes, when there is freedom of speech and art, the Sudanese diaspora will return to “build a proper nation”. Until then, he settles for short visits to his family. “And I learn. I learn everything I can about my country.”
Others, however, came back. Khartoum is home to many young people who, having completed their education in North America, Egypt or the Gulf, are now involved in projects like the Sudan Film Factory, Spoken Words (open mic nights), Nafeer, and many local and international NGOs. Some are involved in activist groups like Girifna or Change Now that promote political reform. To Albaih, “they are the real heroes.”
In the meantime, Albaih is taking advantage of his artistic freedom and the “borderlessness” of social media to reach international acclaim. “It wasn’t easy. I got a lot of doors shut in my face. But I persisted: I emailed many people, made use of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr… There are so many talented artists, including in Sudan, but they don’t exist online or, by extension, to the outside world.” Now, he has just exhibited at the East of Arabia Gallery in London and was interviewed by BBC radio and television. He previously exhibited in France, Egypt, Austria, the Netherlands and Italy, has an online gallery on Cartoon Movement, a quality platform for political cartoonists around the world. At a recent exhibit in Qatar, he recently sold 270 prints and donated the funds to a Sudanese charity.
Looking for Azza
On top of this, Albaih has many projects. One of them is an illustrated history of Sudan, from prehistory to the separation of the South, aimed at “those who can’t read, or who don’t bother to read anymore”. Though the international media tends to paint a negative picture of Sudan, focusing on the violence and suffering, he maintains that the Sudanese themselves should be better ambassadors for their country. “The problem is, they don’t know what there is to be an ambassador for: the young have only known repression and poverty. The tales of our parents, about when the milkman used to come to the door every morning and the streets were clean and everyone wore white tobes – we’ve never seen it. We can’t imagine it. And it’s not taught at school.” Sudan’s vibrant cultures and rich, ancient history is even more unknown. “Most people in Sudan are in such a bad financial situation that their main preoccupation is to make sure they can live decently and raise their kids. They don’t have time to read about the Meroitic era or the kingdom of Darfur. Those who fled come back on short vacations, say ‘hi’ to their grandmother before returning to their iPhones. They don’t know anything about Sudan.” With this illustrated book, Albaih hopes to restore young people’s pride in their country. With the help of historians, he aims to develop a simple storyline, and is trying to secure a grant.
Another work-in-progress is a photographic project about a woman named Azza, born in 1989 when Bashir came to power. Azza is a female name which also used to designate Sudan. The idea would be to revive this metaphor for an artistic purpose. “I want to know who this Azza is, how she was shaped by the Bashir dictatorship. What is her life like? What is her history?” To this day, Azza remains to be found…