Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Cartoons that scare Syria's leader

By John D. Sutter, CNN
updated 7:29 AM EDT, Tue May 21, 2013
Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat, shown earlier this month at the Oslo Freedom Forum, says pens have the power to topple dictators. The self-taught artist has mocked authority since he was a young boy. Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat, shown earlier this month at the Oslo Freedom Forum, says pens have the power to topple dictators. The self-taught artist has mocked authority since he was a young boy.
HIDE CAPTION
Cartoonist stands up to Syrian regime
Cartoonist stands up to Syrian regime
Cartoonist stands up to Syrian regime
Cartoonist stands up to Syrian regime
Cartoonist stands up to Syrian regime
Cartoonist stands up to Syrian regime
Cartoonist stands up to Syrian regime
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Syrian political cartoonist details 2011 attack in which his hands were broken
  • John Sutter: Ali Ferzat's story offers hope for the Syrian revolution
  • He says meeting Ferzat is the 'human-rights-nerd version of a basketball fan meeting LeBron'
  • Sutter: 'Ferzat's hands are some of the most feared objects in Syria'

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist at CNN Opinion, covering human rights. E-mail him at CTL@CNN.com or follow him on Twitter (@jdsutter), Facebook or Google+.

Oslo, Norway (CNN) -- The masked henchmen grabbed three fingers on each of the Syrian political cartoonist's hands and pulled them back all the way -- so far that they cracked.

"Break his arms so that he doesn't ever draw again," one said.

Ali Ferzat -- the cartoonist who described the 2011 attack to me in a recent interview -- soon found himself bleeding and left for dead near the Damascus airport. His assailants, who he believes were acting on behalf of the Syrian regime, dragged him alongside a moving car. His head and shoulder bounced on the pavement and then the men shoved him out of the vehicle, dumping him on the side of the road.

Ferzat wondered if he would live, let alone draw again.

It would be months before he would learn the second answer.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

Before I'd heard these and the other horrifying details of this attack against one of the Arab world's most notable artists, I asked Ferzat -- an Arab-Santa-looking character with a smile that could cheer up Tilda Swinton -- if he was sure his hands were broken to stop him from drawing cartoons critical of Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad.

His answer made me laugh.

"Obviously," he said. "What do I look like to you, a chef?"

Syrian forces pound rebel stronghold
Al-Assad: I'll consider talks, but ...
Saving Syria's heart

I met Ferzat in at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a gathering of dissidents and human rights activists, where he received the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. Being in his presence was the human-rights nerd version of a basketball fan meeting LeBron. But what impressed me most about Ferzat is that he's maintained his wit and cheer despite the darkness that has fallen on him and on his country, which is in the grips of an intractable two-year war that's killed an estimated 80,000 people.

He is almost naively optimistic about Syria's future. And it's infectious. The rest of Syria's opposition should take note. As his story shows, the true strength of a revolution is in its ideas -- in nonviolent actions such as drawing truth to power.

Dictators do have reason to be scared of cartoons.

That's why Ferzat's hands became some of the most feared objects in Syria.

"They came after me," he said. "Obviously (cartooning) has power."

The self-taught artist, who's in his early 60s, has been using them to mock authority since he was a young boy -- first imitating cartoons he admired and then creating satire of his own. He went pro in the 1970s, gaining notoriety for publishing cartoons domestically and internationally. Back then, before the current war, Ferzat never dared to depict specific people in his cartoons. He drew autocrats and dictators, but they never looked like real, identifiable people. He did it to avoid censorship or retaliation.

But that was before the war -- before reports emerged, in May 2011, that a 13-year-old had been tortured and killed in Daraa, Syria. Stories like those of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb's death, which reportedly involved his genitals being mutilated, pushed Ferzat across a threshold. He started to draw exact likeness of al-Assad in his satire. Enough was enough.

His pen would hold no punches.

Ferzat drew al-Assad standing on the side of the road with his thumb in the air, ready to hitchhike out of Syria. A crazed Moammar Gadhafi, who was still alive at the time but later would be killed in Libya's uprising, was driving a getaway car.

The message was clear: Syria's leader had to go.

That was the image, he told me, that led to his attack on August 25, 2011. Ferzat's animated demeanor -- his eyebrows bounce when he talks and his hands, now unbandaged, gesture wildly -- flattened as he told me the story.

That day, a white car with darkly tinted windows followed him out of the studio before dawn. He's been working there by candlelight to avoid detection. Frightened by the car, he drove to the center of Damascus, to a square he knew to be home to government buildings and the president's palace. The car followed and crashed into him at the square, he said, forcing him stop. Three men emerged and yanked off the doors of Ferzat's car. They pulled him from it, beat him with crowd-control batons and then yanked plastic handcuffs around his wrists.

"They handcuffed me so tightly I felt that one of my wrists was going to break," he said.

SANA, the Syrian state news agency, reported Ferzat "was attacked by veiled people" and that "authorities concerned are conducting an investigation." My e-mail requesting further information, however, was not responded to. And the U.S. State Department condemned the attack, saying in a statement that the al-Assad regime was sending "a clear message that (Ferzat) should stop drawing."

They beat him so badly that his vision failed for days in one eye, Farzat told me, and he could barely see out of the other. Confused, Ferzat asked what was happening to him.

"Don't you ever dare to cross your bosses and to cross your leaders, because Bashar al-Assad's shoe is on your face and on your head." (For evidence of the severity of that insult, recall the Bush and Ahmadinejad shoe-throwing incidents).

They drove 30 minutes to a road near the Damascus airport. That's where they threw him from the car.

"My white shirt was completely, totally, red from the blood," he said.

He thought he surely would bleed to death there. Cars wouldn't stop, perhaps afraid to pick up a person targeted by the regime or by police. But then the first of three miracles happened: A truck's tire burst, forcing it to stop exactly in front of Ferzat.

"This is like something out of a freakin' movie," Amir Ahmad Nasr, a blogger-author friend who was translating the conversation from Arabic, said to me.

Ferzat threw himself into the bed of the pickup and begged the three men who drove it to take him back to the city. They agreed to drop him at the gates of Damascus, but wouldn't take him further -- definitely not to a hospital -- for fear of being targeted themselves. Still bleeding and barely able to see because of the beatings to his head, Ferzat wandered up to a house and asked its guard for help.

Then the second miracle: The guard agreed to give him a ride to a nearby clinic, where (here's the third) doctors recognized the cartoonist and were sympathetic to his cause.

They treated him at his house to avoid detection. But there was always the worry: his hands. Would he draw again?

"My hands became stuck like this," he told me, tensing up his digits into a wooden, claw-like shape. "The doctors told me I needed to get treatment overseas."

Fate, again, would intervene. Using a newspaper contact in Kuwait, Ferzat arranged to leave Syria and seek treatment in a hospital there. After six months of surgery and physical therapy, he was able to put pen to paper.

The first cartoon he created after the attack was not diluted by fear. He drew al-Assad and Russia's Vladimir Putin walking side by side, their legs intertwined to make the shape of a Nazi swastika.

Ferzat is still living in exile. But the revolution needs him. It needs his art. He's seen images of protesters and rebels carrying printouts of his drawings. So he contributes art from outside the country.

The outcome of the war in Syria is anything but sure. But talk to Ferzat and his optimism will rub off on you. He's convinced he will live and draw in Syria again -- that people in his country, a cradle of civilization that invented one of the world's first alphabets, are no longer afraid and eventually will triumph over the regime that would crush their spirits and their art.

After hearing his story, I'm hard-pressed not to believe him.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT