Friday, October 23, 2020

Palestine through the cartoons of Mohammad Sabaaneh

By Annelies Verbeek - April 30, 2018
Section: [Main News] [Culture] [Features]
Tags: [artist] [culture] [prisoners]

“The Israelis portray themselves as victims and the Palestinians portray themselves as heroes,” says Mohammad Sabaaneh.

The Palestinian political cartoonist draws for the Palestinian daily Al Hayat Al Jadida and the English language newspaper Middle East Monitor. He aims to use his cartoons as a means to show the human implications of the occupation of Palestine.
Sabaaneh slams a tendency in Arab societies to talk about Palestinians as heroic resistance fighters. “Heroes don’t need help, they can solve things on their own. If you say Palestinians are heroes, you are absolving yourself of your responsibility to stand by them.”
He describes the Palestinian cause as one that is easily appropriated by political actors from all sides. Both Al Qaida and Saddam Hussein, ISIS and Bashar Al Assad have made declarations of support to the Palestinian cause. “They used it for political gain. But Palestine is not in Syria or Iraq. It is here. We are the ones that are fighting here. When you claim to support our cause and encourage us to go to the checkpoint and kill a soldier, but don’t make any sacrifices yourself, you are cheating.”
“Maybe art can build bridges and help make peace, but first we need justice,” he told Palestine Monitor. “I am not equal with an Israeli cartoonist. He comes to our Palestinian cities as a soldier, but I can’t go to Israel. They don’t give me permission.”
In 2010, Sabaaneh was invited by the US State Department to visit the United States to take part in a project. The American consulate in Jerusalem called him to obtain the visa from them. “I told them, the most amazing part about this invitation is not going to the United States, but being able to go to Jerusalem!”
But even with the invitation of the American consulate, the Israelis refused him the entry permit. Like most West Bank Palestinians, he had to travel to Amman to obtain the visa.
In 2013, he was crossing into Palestine from Jordan when he was arrested by the Israelis. They kept him in interrogation for two months. Three weeks of that period were spent in solitary confinement.
Sabaaneh describes the torture of solitary confinement: “you are all alone in a room of two square meters. There are no windows, and the light stays on 24/7. You lose all sense of time. The door is heavy, you don’t hear any sounds from outside. Like being in a coffin.”
He explained that this is a form of psychological torture meant to make prisoners lose their minds thinking about what will happen to them in interrogation.
Sabaaneh coped with solitary confinement by creating ideas for art. “I tried to think of myself as a journalist. I recorded everything. So I could tell the outside world when I get out.” During interrogation sessions, he was able to steal a small piece of paper on which he wrote all of his ideas.
Many of these cartoons were later published in his book 'White and Black: political cartoons from Palestine.’ The cartoons in this book are black and white. They are often dark and seemingly chaotic, filled to the brim with details. Each details conveys a message.
“This is also how I survived my time in prison. By recording everything that goes on.” He discovered the Israeli prison to be a microcosmos for Palestinian society.
Each prison section has a representative that coordinates between the prison administration and the prisoners. He is a prisoner that communicates with the prison administration on behalf of the other prisoners. For this, he receives certain advantages, like keeping his phone. “But he is still entirely at the mercy of the jailer,” Sabaaneh says.
In Sabaaneh’s comparison, the prisoners’ representative is the Palestinian Authority. “They represent the Palestinians of the West Bank, but are still dependent on the Israelis for everything,” Sabaaneh explained.
The day before his release, he told his fellow inmate: “I am now moving from a small prison to a big prison.”
According to Sabaaneh, Palestine itself is like a large prison; people are surrounded by walls, confined in small spaces. They are organised in political parties, but everybody is still at the mercy of the occupier. “The only difference is that in prison, you can’t see your friends and family. But the upside of prison is that there are no checkpoints!”
The Israelis charged Sabaaneh with “having relations with an enemy of the state of Israel.” Sabaaneh joked; “even my mother is an enemy of the state of Israel. You can arrest people for having good relations with my mother.”
He knows he was arrested because of his cartoons, but also said that his case is not a exceptional one, as most Palestinians have been in prison.
When asked if he is resisting through his cartoons, Sabaaneh said does not want to talk about himself as somebody that engages in great acts of resistance. He said that for Palestinians, their mere presence in Palestine is an act of defiance.
“The Israelis want to clear this land of Palestinians, so living here, studying, working, doing whatever you can to improve society, that is resistance. Drawing my cartoons is resistance, but so is everything else Palestinians are doing here.”
Furthermore, he emphasised the importance of Palestinian art and music. “We don’t have to sing songs about Palestine. Even if we sing a love song, we defy the way Israel tries want to portray us; as terrorists. Through love songs, we show that we are human.”
His cartoons have mainly focused on Palestine, but have also dealt with other subjects, such as poverty, the refugee crisis, and global systems of racism. “I can see Palestine in all these struggles. We are fighting the same fight.”

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