A cartoon image is short and direct and does not move when you look at it. Condensing history, culture and social relationships within a single frame, a cartoon can recontextualize events and evoke reference points in ways that a photograph or even a film cannot. Like graffiti, jokes and other genres of popular culture, cartoons challenge the ways we accept official images as real and true.

Cartoons also chronicle the state of an independent press by highlighting the central relationship of image production to censorship. In the Arab world, where the glut of mass media coverage is a new phenomenon, cartoons have played a central role in examining such issues as the power of the media, political rhetoric and persuasion, censorship and resistance. The representation of the media in cartoons in Algerian and Moroccan newspapers during the Gulf war has much to say about the lack of any genuinely independent news-gathering operations (whether Arab or Western) at the scene of Gulf war battles.

Truth is a Scourge

The Algerian press only recently experienced an explosion in freedom and diversity. From independence in 1962 until the 1988 “October revolution,” the press was controlled and censored by the one-party government of the National Liberation Front (FLN). Following the introduction of a new constitution in 1988 that legalized political parties, abolished government control of the press, and guaranteed journalists’ salaries for a transition period of three years, the number of newspapers and journals increased from less than a dozen to several hundred. Two weekly cartoon newspapers, the French-language El-Manchar (The Saw) and the Arabic Es-Sahafa (a pun on the word ‘journalism” that also means “truth is a scourge”) began publication around the time of the Gulf crisis. The Algerian government could still impede free expression, either through government monopolies of distribution or by inducing shortages of paper, ink and film. Beginning in August and September 1992, it has imposed fines, confiscated issues and begun libel proceedings against several newspapers, including the French-language Le Matin and La Nation, Es-Sahafa, and an Islamist newspaper.

The short-lived freedom of the press in Algeria coincided with the widespread installation of small, cheap satellite dishes that could pull in French and American television programming illegally, since Algerians did not pay for access. By 1989-1990, Algeria possessed not only a free press but a television audience well versed in the images and sounds of several cultures. Algeria is directly in the path of satellite transmission, so reception, even on small dishes, is clear.

In Morocco, further to the west and not in the path of a satellite, only the rich can afford the larger dishes that are needed to receive French broadcasts. The regime of King Hassan II continues to censor national television and print media. Foreign radio — BBC, Voice of America and Radio Monte Carlo Arabic-language broadcasts — are still extremely important news sources for most Moroccans.

The history of contemporary cartoons in Morocco is very much tied to the life and career of the preeminent Moroccan cartoonist, Mohamed Filali. Since 1973 he has founded seven different political cartoon weeklies. The first magazines were in Moroccan Arabic dialect, later ones in French. More recently, he has been the editor and principal contributor of two weeklies, al-‘Aqrab (The Scorpion) and al-Usbu‘ a al-Dahik (The Laughing Week), which feature texts in literary Arabic but speech balloons in Moroccan dialect. Authorities frequently close down his newspapers, and sometimes arrest and detain him. When I interviewed him in January 1992 in Casablanca, he pointed out that twice in his career Moroccan press censorship was eased, both times when King Hassan II was involved in an unpopular war: in 1975 during the “Green March” against the POLISARIO to claim the southern region of the Western Sahara for Morocco, and again during the Gulf war. Only during these periods, he said, had he been able to explore the limits of cartoon satire. Both times, censorship was quickly reinstituted. In Morocco, in contrast to Algeria since 1988, it is against the law and punishable by prison to caricature a head of state, or even a government minister.

“Des Informes”

A United States Information Agency (USIA) content analysis study of Arab media coverage during the Gulf war supports the contention that the Moroccan press was relatively free from censorship during the crisis. [1] David Pollock, director of Middle East research for the USIA, found, not surprisingly, that in countries which joined the coalition against Iraq the media were almost totally one-sided in support of the US-led coalition. Morocco was an anomalous case. The government was officially on “our” side, as Pollock put it, but the media reflected pro-Iraqi public opinion. USIA statistics show that out of 60 editorials in major Moroccan papers during the first four weeks of the war, 55 supported Iraq and were hostile to the coalition. This includes the so-called “palace press” as well as the opposition press.

A March 14, 1991 cartoon in the French-language weekly Simsar explores the dual-language, multinational television coverage of the Gulf War broadcast to Algeria’s bilingual viewers. A young Algerian viewer “channel-hops” between French television programming that glorifies coalition troop victories and Arab television broadcasts claiming total defeat for the West. In the last frame, opposing versions of the war’s outcome allow him to conclude that at least he is among the informed (des informes), a pun that contains its opposite: those who are ill-informed or desinformes. [2]

Television images appear to have the ability to show distant events in great detail. As viewers, we could all watch Baghdad under bombardment. Like a video game, the war script became familiar and repetitive: A target is fixed in the crosshairs, a missile hones in, the television screen is momentarily awash in white light, and an isolated object we never see is proclaimed destroyed.

In contrast to television’s rapid movement, a cartoon can comment on a recurring but ephemeral image by freezing it and placing it in contexts that the television media avoid. For example, Nadjib Berber’s cartoon in Revolution Africaine plays with President Bush’s statement that this is a war only against Saddam Hussein. A cartoon frame shows Gen. Schwarzkopf and Bush leaning against a television monitor, its screen lit up with the aerial bombardment of Baghdad. Bush briefs the American people: “Our objective was never to remove Iraq from the map.” Schwarzkopf chimes in: “Affirmative, just its population.” The politician tells a lie, the general’s apparent agreement actually contradicts his leader and the graphic image on the television monitor reinforces the general’s statement. The actual role of television was to shape one-dimensional representations of the “enemy.” The cartoon in the February 9, 1991 El-Manchar from Algeria depicts a television set that appears to be speaking into a radio microphone in the manner of a human sports announcer: “And now the massacre game, your favorite broadcast, to decimate is to win or how civilized nations have fallen so low.”

For Moroccan cartoonists even foreign radio broadcasts are more newsworthy than Moroccan TV, which censors not just by silence and absence but also through frivolity. A 1991 cartoon by Mohamed Filali in al-Usbu‘ al-Dahik shows a serious-minded radio blaring war bulletins in literary Arabic while next to it a television screen conceived as a dancing girl shakes her midriff to the music of Egyptian love songs: “O sweetheart I love you.”

Images of belly dancers and prostitutes proliferated in Moroccan cartoons during the Gulf war showing caricatures of coalition forces (minus Moroccans) in various scenes of debauchery. In the foreground of a cartoon by the pseudonymous Derquaoui from al-‘Aqrab (March 3, 1991), four vultures — Mubarak, Bush, Major and Mitterrand — tear at the flesh of a prone Saddam Hussein while Arabs turn their backs on the scene and jiggle away, following the lead of a belly dancer. To heighten the mix of the profane and the sacred, the dancing girl performs the gymnastic feat of balancing the holy black stone, or Kaaba, of Mecca on her head. Another Moroccan cartoon by Filali, in al-‘Aqrab (February 4, 1991), draws upon the same themes: Bush is in drag as a prostitute, with money that has been tucked under his costume in sexually strategic places by a composite alcohol-imbibing Saudi-Israeli customer. A variation on this theme replaces Bush with his Arab allies, Husni Mubarak of Egypt and Hafiz al-Asad of Syria as belly dancers garbed in American flags whose mouths are silenced by their cover of American dollars, dancing in front of Saddam Hussein (al-‘Aqrab, February 11, 1992). Gulf Arabs in general, as well as their leaders, were often shown as female prostitutes. In al-‘Aqrab of February 4, 1991, a wild party is taking place in an Arab city among Israelis, Arabs and Americans. We see Shamir and a high-heeled, lipsticked Gulf Arab exchanging kisses in the midst of abundant money and liquor. The image of the prostitute-belly dancer is carried to a higher level of invective in this cartoon when she is revealed under his/her robes to be a male homosexual transvestite Arab.

Moroccan cartoonists generically stereotyped the coalition leadership and its Arab component in particular as women or as the lowest category of woman, the belly dancer, or as the most despised category of femininity, the male homosexual transvestite. Persons known to be male are shown in women’s clothing. Consequently, the only “real men” in the equation of war caricatures were American women serving in the armed forces in the Gulf. A Muhammad Filali cartoon in al-‘Aqrab (March 4, 1991) shows a voluptuous American female soldier with a purseful of money. At her feet, a Saudi male is on his knees purposefully stuttering: “We thank you, you have sexually excited us, sorry, I mean you have liberated us.” The American woman soldier in uniform remains an object of sexual revulsion and attraction as she comes to embody the perverse ferocity of US military capabilities. An Algerian cartoon illustrating an editorial in El-Watan (February 10, 1991), by cartoonist MAZ, pictures a Saudi shrieking in retreat at the sight of a uniformed American woman soldier driving a jeep. He shouts: “A naked woman! Even more she is driving a car, a sacrilege!” The article in the Algerian paper points out the contradictions of women defending a country with no women’s rights, but adds an interesting anecdote about an American woman soldier who allegedly pulled a gun on a Saudi official who objected to her uncovered hair. American women presumably could only defend American rights, and even then their fight preserves only such minimal freedoms as the right to soldier unveiled.

Cartoons explicitly reduce the political expression of a country, say Iraq or the US, to a single individual — Saddam Hussein or Bush. At the same time, the graphic image allows for a speculative and interrogative dimension. In contrast, television discourages reflection upon complex issues of context, history, culture and international relations. Images are discrete and self-contained and exclude any discussion. Television, then, represents more of a caricature than any cartoon. As the al-‘Aqrab cartoon of January 21, 1991, predicts, a television viewer who relies on this media for information ends up in the insane asylum as an idiot who fuses with his technology and becomes one with his idiot box.


[1] See David Pollock, “Reporting the Middle East: An Overview,” conference paper presented at Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley, May 3-4, 1991, pp. 8-11.
[2] See Susan Slyomovics, “Algeria Caricatures the Gulf War,” Public Culture 4/2 (1992), pp. 93-100.

How to cite this article:

Susan Slyomovics "Cartoon Commentary," Middle East Report 180 (January/February 1993).

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