For the past few years, Khalid Albaih has felt like a superhero. “I have a double personality. My two lives never had a common ground, and still don’t.”
Such is the life of a political cartoonist, especially one from a family which brought up artists and politicians in equal measure – and were forced to leave their native Sudan for the calmer reaches of Qatar. “My work is very political, and in this part of the world you don’t want to take sides. Not a lot of people knew about what I do [on the side] until the articles appeared in the New York Times, Al-Jazeera.”
A play on words of the Sudanese capital, Khartoon! is a series of comics, the tone of which can best be described as “black comedy”, about some of most serious news today. From ISIS to the Scottish Referendum, his one panel drawings are his attempts sum up the general discourse.
“My job is to overhear what people say. I’m inspired by talking to people, by being around them – without being biased. I like asking questions.”
Having grown up reading Batman and Superman, he has been honing his craft for a while, distributing his work under a creative commons license – although it wasn’t until the Arab Spring that Khartoon! really started to pick up the pace.
His comics boil down important conversations into easily understandable chunks. “It’s not an abstract painting that’s exclusive; anybody: from a child, educated, non-educated, no matter the language can understand it.”
The cartoonish tone has landed him with accusations of cheapening the issue at hand, of making the abhorrent seem farcical, but, he responds,
“Nothing is funny about what is happening. A lot of it is shock, I want make people think. I’m try to show it in a different way, to reflect the situation. [But] a lot of people get really disturbed.”
Although it may seem in bad taste, the cartoon elements in Khalid’s work only serve broaden the appeal of it, they always come carrying deeper messages with them.
He wants dialogue. With Khartoon verging on 60,000 Facebook likes at the time of writing, he can be assured just how many people are engaging with his images, how many are looking – and more importantly, talking. “I always link to an article with each cartoon. If you don’t know, you should inform yourself. I want people to tell me what they think.”
Engagement is a problem, when it comes to Arabs and politics. “People have a lack of interest. I mean, if you [lived somewhere which had] the same president for thirty years, why would you try to change anything?” He goes on; total disenfranchisement leads to a lack of hope.
“There’s a lot of ‘You Can’t’, going around the entire region. I bet no Arab man has ever told his son ‘You can be president one day’.”
These constraints didn’t become apparent to him until he met political cartoonists for the first time in 2012 at a convention in France. There he realized how different the approaches of his European counterparts were. “Their freedom of speech is unimaginable. They don’t know how lucky they are to live without the restrictions on their drawings.”
Discussing the difference in their approaches, he brings up the infamous Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, “Yes, the protests and riots were awful. It was a lack of sophistication, the rioters aren’t informed, aren’t educated, so they got angry.”
“But look at it this way: We are [nations] without heroes. The only honest person [Arabs] know is not a politician, it’s the prophet. The West took the oil, the land, the people. The only thing they didn’t take was the Prophet, he’s their only hero. And then [with these cartoons], they tried taking that as well.”
Combating the white privilege that frames much of the West’s dialogue with the Middle East is a two-way process for Khalid; Khartoon! is as much an opportunity to discuss news as it is to promote a positive impression of the Middle East. For that reason, comics are usually written in English, and have relatable pop-culture elements.
“English is a universal language. If I want to start a dialogue, I have to write in English. I want to show people that we all grew up the same. I want to reach the people at Fox News. It may take some time [laughs].”
For Khartoon!, nothing is local anymore; the results of elections in the USA and the UK have an impact on the lives of people living in Sudan and the Middle East as a whole, and people need to understand that.
“People live in their own bubble; everything outside of it is ‘unacceptable’, ‘undemocratic’, ‘backwards’. How does that help the situation? You should try to inform, to spread a message. Let’s not be in a bubble.”
For more information on Khartoon! Visit his official Facebook page
-Interview by Chris Yeoh