In 2009, Nigerian author and storyteller Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned about the danger of a single story. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete,” she argues. A panoply of perspectives is crucial to overcoming stereotypes. On October 31st, Black Hat Books, a radical bookstore located on MLK Boulevard, hosted a delegation of Arab language political cartoonists. Organized by the World Affairs Council of Oregon in collaboration with the Oregon Cartoon Institute, the event aimed to foster cultural diplomacy and conversation across cultural difference.
The Arab language political cartoonists were touring the country as part of the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Project (IVLP), whose mission is to connect professionals from other countries with their American counterparts and to “provide firsthand knowledge about U.S. society, culture, and politics, while cultivating lasting relationships.”
It’s not surprising that Portland made the cartoonist’s list of American cities to visit. Portland has its own storied comic’s scene, as the birthplace of legendary Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons and Futurama. At the event were Portland’s lauded illustrator and journalist Joe Sacco, author of award-winning Footnotes on Gaza and Palestine, and Irvington-based cartoonist and lecturer David Chelsea, whose work has appeared in hundreds of publications from Portland Monthly to The New York Times. Fred Nemo, who owns Black Hat Books, was the former business manager of the Scribe, a 1970s counterculture newspaper.
The Arab language cartoonists spoke about their experience of censorship and even violent silencing in their home countries. Mr. Hamdi Mazoudi said through a translator, “The main problem we are facing in terms of expressing ourselves is the social system and the government policing its citizens.” Any critiques of religion, the army, the government, or the judiciary could result in loss of employment. In Iraq, according to Mr. Ahmed Kahleel Hadi Al Obaidi, “after the American occupation, a red line was drawn all over. Now, we have many religious parties and many, many Saddam Husseins. If you step on any of those red lines, you might lose your life.” The pervasive danger of expressing dissent has caused the majority of cartoonists to leave Iraq in order to work freely.
One of the Algerian cartoonists, who chose not to have his name disclosed, told the room that he was stopped and beaten by police seven months ago for his work. The newspaper he worked at has been shut down by the government, along with 60 other Algerian newspapers in 2017 alone. The only largely uncensored place that many cartoonists can publish their work is social media platforms. “The only underground newspaper is Facebook,” the cartoonist said.
Joe Sacco responded to a question about his motivation to write Palestine: to educate himself and others on the myriad Palestinian perspectives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We had never heard Palestinian voices,” he said. Much like the visiting cartoonists’ work, Palestine exists as a direct challenge to the single story told by mainstream media.
The October 31st event at Black Hat Books created connections between Arab and English language cartoonists and allowed everyone present to distance ourselves from the single story. The tension between the Middle East and the United States is ever increasing and in order to combat stereotypes, it is crucial that we all seek out stories that enable us to inhabit nuance and inhibit hate.
Visiting Cartoonists Profiles
The cartoonists in the delegation represented a huge variety of styles and messages, but they all share a passion for imaginative expressions of marginalized ideas, fighting for liberation with their pencils and paintbrushes. Many of these artists put their livelihoods and lives on the line when they publish their work. A few brief profiles and work samples are included below.
Nadia Dhab Bouraoui; Tunisia
Tunisian cartoonist Nadia Dhab Bouraoui focuses on women’s rights, elections, and economic issues in her work, published under the pseudonym “Dlog.” She is also co-founder of ATIDE – the Tunisian Association for the Integrity and Democracy of Elections – which promotes integrity and transparency in the electoral process.
Belkacem Lamine Mohamed Dahmane; Algeria
As a cartoonist and activist, Mr. Belkacem Lamine Dahmane focuses on youth engagement in politics through art. In addition to his illustrated work, which includes a cartoon book of Algerian history aimed to young audiences, he is the founder of a youth activist league for environmental preservation.
Ahmed Khaleel Hadi al Obaidi; Iraq
In his work, Ahmed Al Obaidi explores how cartoons can inspire healthy debate during times of conflict. Currently a cartoonist for Al-Sabah, Iraq’s state-run newspaper, Mr. Al Obaidi has also authored several children’s books.
Safaa Abuaathra; Palestinian Territories
Ms. Safaa Abuaathra focuses her work on women’s rights and fashion. She has participated in political cartooning exhibitions from Palestinian Territories to Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, and Iraq. For her 2017 master’s thesis in psychology, Ms. Abuaathra studied the social impacts of cartoonists in the Gaza Strip.
By Anna Daggett and Alex Freedman