Mohammad Sabaaneh′s "White and Black: Political Cartoons from Palestine"

Punching through the glass

Packed with more than a hundred single-page political cartoons, this compilation of Mohammad Sabaaneh′s work, which draws on different periods of the artist′s life, offers a complex and often surrealist take on the daily struggles facing those in the West Bank and Gaza. By Marcia Lynx Qualey

Cartoonist and editor Seth Tobocman writes, in his introduction to the collection, that the work of a cartoonist is to "explain complex political problems in such a way that the simplest person can understand them."

Sabaaneh, who draws for a Palestinian daily, does sometimes condense complex issues into brief, bite-sized messages. In one straightforward image, a prisoner sits behind a glass barrier while his wife and young child sit on the other. In a sort of wish-fulfilment, the prisoner′s hand punches through the glass to touch his unhappy child′s forehead. The message is clear: administrative detention harms families.

Sabaaneh was himself was held in an Israeli prison in 2013 and he writes – in his prefatory remarks – about how that experience changed his compositions. "I had drawn thousands of prisoner-heroes in the past, but in prison I felt completely impotent. Unable to portray myself as a hero, I surrendered to my weaknesses, for we all love, miss, fear and feel pain, and I had to confront the inescapable question: was everything I drew a lie?"

Yet these concerns didn′t stop Sabaaneh from composing fresh works. He "smuggled rough sketches out with every prisoner who was released. When I was released, I collected my sketches and completed the cartoons."

The diaspora and back

Cover of Mohammad Sabaaneh′s "White and Black: Political Cartoons from Palestine" (published by Just World Books)
Sabaaneh′s own crisis of confidence came in 2013, when he was detained for five months: "I had drawn thousands of prisoner-heroes in the past, but in prison I felt completely impotent. Unable to portray myself as a hero, I surrendered to my weaknesses, for we all love, miss, fear and feel pain, and I had to confront the inescapable question: was everything I drew a lie?"

Sabaaneh was not raised in Palestine. He grew up in Kuwait and his family moved back to Palestine just before the second intifada began in September 2000. Thirteen years later, Sabaaneh was found himself in an Israeli jail. The charge was "contact with a hostile organisation". This "contact" was ostensibly the publication of several of Sabaaneh′s cartoons in a book written by his brother, who is a member of Hamas.

The five-month imprisonment, which included two weeks in solitary confinement, has been by far the most severe attempt to suppress Sabaaneh′s work. But Sabaaneh has other worries. He was once suspended from his newspaper job for ten days after he drew a cartoon some readers interpreted as irreligious.

Among the cartoons collected in White and Black, the most enjoyable are not the simple newspaper cartoons, but the dense, multi-layered portraits that are crowded with detail. In his introduction, Tobocman writes that there is something Guernicaesque about Sabaaneh′s work. Indeed, many of the most successful pieces depict people in dense spaces, hemmed in by walls, razor wire and distorted weaponry. Many of the figures – both Israelis and Palestinians – have empty, pupil-less eyes and skull-like, rocky faces.

Recurring characters: the separation barrier

The easily identifiable grey slabs of Israel′s "Separation Barrier" are one of the collection′s most powerful recurring images. The state began assembling the wall in 2002, just two years after Sabaaneh′s family moved back to Palestine. Sometimes, the wall separates Israeli neighbourhoods from Palestinian ones, but it also encircles Palestinian towns and separates Palestinians from Palestinians.

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