Stories of the bird on the board by Ahmed Ezz El-Arab
Hekayat Taeir AlTabashir (Stories of the bird on the board), AlMahrosa, 251pp
It has been more than 40 years since the late President Anwar Sadat was assassinated on October 6, 1981, 11 years after he came to power following the death of his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser on September 28, 1970. However, Sadat’s tenure has been so dramatic that today it still inspires much debate – some about its foreign policy choices, including peace with Israel, and many about its domestic policy.
In a 2021 publication of AlMahrosa, prominent illustrator and cartoonist Ahmed Ezzalaarab, devotes the better part of his 251-page book to discussing Sadat’s view of political pluralism and press freedom in the years of after the war of 1973. The late Egyptian president had promised democracy and prosperity, but did not move much on both fronts according to the author.
The centerpiece of Ezzalaarab’s memoir is a series of chapters, each providing a story in itself, about the launch and subsequent closure of Al-Ahaly (“The People of the Country”) newspaper. The paper, which was owned by the left-wing Tagamoa party, began as the Left Platform when Sadat acted to reintroduce political pluralism, but was later suspended for allegedly compromising state security and national interests.
The stories shared in Ezzalaarab’s semi-memoir paint a picture of a newspaper that held socialist views still firmly held by a group of politicians who did not subscribe to Sadat’s open-door policy on the home front or his hasty rapprochement with the United States. Al-Ahaly’s cartoons at the time were central to the agitation against Sadat’s regime, according to Ezzalaarab’s account. A cartoon character named Zebda Hanem (“Lady Butter”) was particularly annoying to Sadat herself – who was widely seen by the public and the regime as an implied satire of the controversial First Lady Jehan Sadat. She was widely blamed in left-wing circles for playing a decisive role in driving Sadat’s policies of rapprochement with the West and peace with Israel.
Describing his interrogation on the character of Zebda Hanem, Ezzalaarab recalls that he was asked if this character was supposed to represent a particular public figure. He also recalls that the troubles he had with his cartoons in Al-Ahaly were far from unusual in the modern and contemporary history of Egyptian politics. Sadat, in the eyes of Ezzalaarab, was like Nasser and even like King Fuad, Khedive Ismail and the British Occupation. They were all angered by criticism from the press, especially the cartoons that had been introduced to Egypt in the mid-19th century. This caused headaches, not only for the leaders, but also for the cartoonists who often ended up in prison. The stories, shared in the book’s many chapters, of the shared and deep-seated aversion to criticism among all of these leaders is nothing short of incredible.
Ezzalaarab did not end up in prison for his character of Zebda Hanem. However, the prison experience he shares, quite abruptly, was under Nasser, shortly after the 1967 military defeat, when he, then a university student, pursued political activism assuming that the humiliation of shocking defeat would spur Nasser to end his police-state choices and embrace political openness.
However, in 1978 Al-Ahaly hit the wall with Sadat’s growing unease with Khaled Moheiddine, one of Sadat’s fellow Free Officers. Moheiddine was a dedicated and inspirational left-wing figure who was as committed to socialism as he was to the call of democracy, and is one of the public figures who receives considerable attention from Ezzalaarab.
Loutfy El-Khouly, a prominent leftist intellectual who came to much public attention in a televised debate against a representative of Sadat’s Al-Watani (“the National Party”), is also aware of the memories of ‘Ezzalaarab. Moustafa Bakri, the journalist still capable of arousing controversy, is another figure who shines in many shades of gray.
The book offers very concise yet insightful and interesting accounts of the evolution of cartoons in the Egyptian press and the stories of the many prominent cartoonists who left an unforgettable mark on the history of Egyptian journalism. It also details the collaborative work between writers and cartoonists, which began with Mohamed El-Tabaai and the Armenian cartoonist Saroukhan in the 1940s and the inspiring role of Rose ElYoussef – both the publisher and the magazine – in giving cartoon space on its pages.
The shortest but certainly still compelling account in this book is Ezzalaarab’s own story which begins with a young schoolboy who was kicked out of a sports class and left instead with a blackboard in an empty classroom . With a piece of chalk, the sad, left-behind boy begins to connect the letters and symbols on the board and transforms them into a large bird that attracts attention and arouses the admiration of the art teacher. This was the starting point that set Ezzalaarab on the path to becoming one of the leading illustrators in the country, despite a few accidental deviations from the route.
In the book, which easily qualifies as a semi-memoir, Ezzalaarab is much more anecdotal than opinionated. He is not in charge of passing judgment. He just shares life as it was for him. He also shares a selection of brilliant cartoons from himself and others. Above all, he shares his own feelings – of frustration over unfulfilled and shattered dreams, of contentment that he made the choices he believed in, and of gratitude for having been in the company of a few good men.