Arab Cartoon Festival looks for the ties that bind


The founder of the festival that introduces Europeans to Arabic artists and filmmakers says that he wants to fill in cultural gaps

Cartoonists under fire

Ask not whether diverse communities can find common ground but in what ways they can. That is the mission statement of Omnes and one of the messages of the Arab Cartoon Festival.

Omnes, based in Turnhout, is a non-profit that facilitates dialogue between the EU and the so-called Mena countries – those in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Launched just last year, Omnes’ core activities are the Arab Cartoon Festival and the Oase Film Festival, which are happening simultaneously for one big cross-cultural event spanning Turnhout, Antwerp and Brussels.

Political cartoons, Omnes points out in a statement, “have an unusual kind of power”. They are simultaneously serious and amusing, exaggerated and thoughtful. Some of them tell a very long story in just one panel – and they always invite commentary.

On the Omnes website, one can read about horrors perpetrated against cartoonists in the Mena countries – a Syrian who had his hands broken for criticising president Bashar al-Assad. A Palestinian cartoonist whose life was threatened for questioning local policies. 

“Cartoonists in the Arab world don’t have it easy,” says Omnes founder Ali Nazir Ali. “There is very little freedom to voice your opinion in the traditional and digital media, so most of them have no place to publish.”

Universal language

Nazir Ali founded the festival both to give these cartoonists a space to share their work and to introduce the west to their take on current affairs. “I want to show people how they see the world,” he says. “How they see the American election or attacks by IS. Stories that you otherwise will not hear, delivered in the universal language of cartooning.”

There is indeed something universal about the stories these cartoons tell. Jordan cartoonist Amjad Rasmi’s Statue of Liberty has packed her bag, for instance, while his countryman Omar Abdallat’s Lady Justice is bruised and battered.

Our mission is to bind cultures to each other

- Ali Nazir Ali

Abdalla Al Omari’s painting of a line of what appear to be refugees, however, points out that these people fleeing poverty or conflict come in all colours and nationalities, as opposed to what the west would have you believe. Look closely, and you’ll see some familiar faces. Regardless of political power, we’re all just steps away from flight, he suggests.

Though Al Omari works in paint, his pieces have a cartoony quality about them. His The Vulnerability Series, to which this painting belongs, imagine some of the world’s most powerful leaders as homeless or otherwise vulnerable. You’ll also find some installation work as part of the cartoon festival, though the overtly political tone remains throughout.

The theme of this year’s festival and the accompanying film programme is Cracks in Society, cracks that Nazir Ali says can be filled through initiatives like this one that bring disparate groups of people together. “Our programme defends the ideas and the uncertainties of these ‘voiceless’ artists and transmits those voices to a European public,” he says. “Turnhout is celebrating these Mena cultures within the scope of Omnes’ mission: to bind cultures to each other.”

6-21 October, De Warande & UGC, Turnhout; HetPaleis, Antwerp; Bozar, Brussels

Image: Amar Abdallat’s take on the Trump attitude