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Creative dissent in Syria

(Index on Censorship/IFEX) - 19 June 2012 - The Syrian regime has gone to great lengths to silence the satirical commentary of Ali Ferzat. But the celebrated cartoonist and Index award winner has no intention of letting the censors keep him down.

by Malu Halasa

Three months before the start of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, Ali Ferzat broke with his own satirical convention: he stopped using symbolism in his cartoons to criticise the regime and began to target identifiable individuals, including the president himself. He describes the shift as pushing through "the barrier of fear". The first cartoon in Ferzat's new series showed President Bashar al Assad agitated at seeing the traditional day of mass demonstrations against the regime, Friday, marked on a wall calendar. Another had him hitching a lift from Gaddafi making his own getaway in a car. The third featured the "chair of power", one of Ali Ferzat's iconic symbols, with the springs popping out of the cushion and Bashar hanging onto its arm.

Drawing the president, Ferzat admits, was a personal and political breakthrough - if not foolhardy. "It is quite suicidal to draw someone who is considered a godlike figure for the regime and the Ba'ath party, but still I did it and people respected that courage and started carrying banners with caricatures in the protest to show how they feel about things."

Ferzat must have anticipated that his actions might lead to violent repercussions. Last August, pro-regime forces viciously assaulted him and broke both his hands. During the attack, one of the assailants yelled at him, "Bashar's shoe is better than you." Article 376 of the Syrian penal code makes it an offence to insult or defame the president, and carries a six-month to three-year prison sentence.

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