One fun thing about being an editorial cartoonist is that I sometimes get invited to strange places as a cartoon celebrity. I just finished a week in Algiers at their second annual comics festival. Algeria is a huge country, a former socialist member of the Soviet block and a former French colony in North Africa.
The people here like to be thought of as more European than Arab, and they seem relieved that their country has recently emerged from many years of internal violence. There was an ugly civil war here in the 1990′s that has wound down to the point where Algiers is pretty safe, but there are military guards with machine guns everywhere, and we can’t drive very far without going through armed checkpoints. That is probably why it is safe.
Here’s one photo that I saved before my camera disappeared, of a typical apartment building covered with satellite dishes. A satellite dish is a necessity here as the three channels of state run broadcast television seems to be despised by everyone. Even the tiniest hovel has a satellite dish.
There was another American cartoonist here, Jan Eliot, who draws the syndicated strip, “Stone Soup.” We had an interesting day at the “Casbah,” the old Ottoman Empire part of Algiers that is a giant bazaar. The streets in the Casbah are too narrow for cars. The bustling Casbah is filled with tiny shops and tables with every kind of stuff – except tourist junk, because there are so few tourists here. Algeria isn’t an easy place for a tourist to visit, so we don’t see Algiers t-shirts or snow globes; I saw no Starbucks and no McDonalds.
The language here is a strange mix of French and Arabic, where the locals take French verbs and conjugate them like they are Arabic verbs, making an incomprehensible mish-mash. The economy is a mish-mash too; Algeria seems to be a work in progress for a government that still has its head stuck in a Socialist past. Under a new law, consumer credit is banned in Algeria. Any business in Algeria must be 51% owned by Algerians, driving foreign investment away. Getting anything done here is a quest. People don’t show up on time and don’t seem to have much concern about productivity. There is a lot of confusion. The economy is sustained by oil revenue.
Since emerging from the violence there seems to be a yearning for a cultural renaissance here, and the cartoon arts benefit from that. Algerians like a strange mix of Arabic manga and euro-style storytelling comics, but the star cartoonists are political cartoonists. The most famous cartoonist here is Ali Dilem, the cartoonist for the French language newspaper “Liberte.”
Algerian cartoonists struggle under pressure from the government. I’m told that Ali Dilem, who now lives outside of Algeria, faces 25 lawsuits from government officials he has insulted in his cartoons. The threat of civil suits may keep some cartoonists from criticizing the government, but the cartoonists I met seemed eager to continue pushing the limits. They were all very interested in what the limits were for American political cartoonists, expecting that we had similar problems with the government.
There was an exhibition of the work of a famed Algerian cartoonist named “Slim,” who has drawn socially conscious newspaper comic strips for decades here, and saw some of his cartoonist colleagues killed in the violence of the 1990′s. Slim likes making fun of Algerian women who wear veils; he draws the veils much like the beak of a bird, and has the women walk around looking like ducks.
Most women here dress like Europeans. Â I’m told that the teenage girls, when they want to rebel and annoy their parents, will often take to wearing the veil ““ which is quite disturbing to parents who rebelled against their own parents to reject the veil.
Le Hic is another star political cartoonist I met here; he draws in a more traditional political cartoon panel style for the big French language daily L’Expression, and we hope to add him to our site soon.
I had a great time here with a cartoonist named “Baki” who draws for the huge Arabic language daily, “The Sunrise,” which has a circulation of 850,000. Baki and I went to a school for troubled children and drew a mural on a big wall on the street, which the children quickly jumped in to paint. It was pretty crazy, and I had a lot of great photos of the event ““ before I lost my camera. Very frustrating. I was planning on posting a lot of photos in the blog. Baki and I drew a cartoon together for his newspaper and I toured their offices. I was impressed. It looks like newspapers are still thriving here.
The Festival invited cartoonists from all over the world to attend; names I’d never heard of from strange places, and from all over Africa. In many countries, editorial cartoonists are still the most important cartoonists, and there were quite a few editorial cartoonists here ““ a candy store for me. I may have a few exotic cartoonists to add to the site soon. I met up with my cartoonist buddy, Tayo, from West Africa, who will also probably be blogging about the Festival. That’s me with Tayo at the right, before I lost my camera. The festival was really very nice.
My first event at the comics festival was a panel discussion about “Comics and Cinema.” I don’t really know why they wanted me to talk about that, since I don’t work in the entertainment industry, but from their perspective, I live in Hollywood and I used to work for the Muppets, so what the heck. I’ll talk about anything. It turned out to be pretty funny. I showed up when the seminar was scheduled to start, and there was no one there ““ I thought I was in the wrong place. No. Everyone shows up late here; they started filtering in a half hour later. Another cartoonist pontificated the whole time in French and I ended up not saying much at all.
I gave another seminar all by myself, about my own cartoons and political cartoons in America. This one went pretty well, but was also a funny Algerian experience. My translator apparently didn’t please the crowd, who understood my English well enough to know that they didn’t like the translation, calling out their objections. I said that the audience for our web site, like most Americans, is not very interested in cartoons about events around the world, and is more interested in celebrities. I pointed out that Janet Jackson’s boob was the most popular thing ever on my web site site. The translator couldn’t bring himself to say, “boob,” leading a young cartoonist in the audience to draw the cartoon below.
Here’s another take on my translator, given to me by a cartoonist in the audience.
A question I got a lot was, “Have you drawn any cartoons about Algeria?” I haven’t. It is hard to think of when Algeria was in the headlines in America. The only time I ever read about Algeria is when Algerian President Bouteflika is quietly hanging with his more vocal buddies Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, affirming their coalition against evil America.
President Bouteflika won re-election recently with an unbelievable 90% of the vote. One Algerian told me that even the Prophet Muhammad himself couldn’t really get 90% of the vote.
Maybe I’ll draw a cartoon about Algeria. We’ll see.
The festival was really very nice and I should thank the organizers for inviting me. It was great fun.
Next I’ll be doing a couple of workshops in Cairo, then I’m off to Jerusalem and a session with Palestinian cartoonists in the West Bank city of Ramallah.