Khalid Albaih’s cartoons present witty commentary about events that happen across the globe, but specifically focus on the daily happenings in the Arab world that often take a backseat in the mainstream media. With a simple illustration style, the cartoons are able to communicate complex events, making Khalid’s artworks a great example of the adage – The pen is mightier than the sword. In a world where guns are blazing and prejudice flaring, Khalid chooses to repeatedly express his raw emotions using his cartoons, asking important questions in the process.
Khalid Albaih’s work gets reposted and shared on the internet everyday while also being plastered on the walls in cities across the world. People flood to his online pages with requests based on political situations in their own countries and across the world. And often, Khalid obliges by drawing a ‘Khartoon’, which is what he calls his cartoons. We spoke to Khalid over a long Skype call to learn about his work, peek into his life, and discuss politics.
Could you tell us about your childhood?
I was born in Romania. My father was a diplomat. Like many Sudanese, I come from a very political family. Sudan is and has always been very politically active. One of my uncles was an interim president. Another uncle was executed after attempting a Communist coup. So I grew up constantly listening to these conversations about politics and watching it. We left Sudan when I was 10 or 11 years old for economic and political reasons when the 1989 coup happened, like thousands of other people. For me, losing my home and my friends had so much to do with politics so that stayed with me.
How were your schooling years?
I’m a Muslim, and when I was in Sudan, I went to a Catholic segregated school. When I came to Qatar, I went to an Arabic, Islamic segregated school.
Looking back, what do you think you learnt from your experiences in school?
Being in Sudan, everyone in our school shared a similar societal status. Some were Christian, some Muslim, but everyone was Sudanese. But when we moved to Qatar, I had around ten different nationalities in my class. It was very international in that way. When I think about it now, it did play a huge role in the person I am today. I focus on politics and satire so it was eye opening to see that people from other nationalities had similar experiences too. We all basically had the same story. They had to leave their countries for political and economic reasons too.
You said your family has always been in politics. What influenced you creatively when you were growing up?
I was always drawing. I always loved comics. I read a lot of comics that were translated but they had nothing to do with our culture. Everyone was white and the heroes didn’t look like us at all. There were also Arabic comics that were either really childish or politically driven propaganda. When I turned 12, my father began giving me magazines that were filled with political cartoons. I loved that medium because it connected the two things I was interested in -art and politics. It was very engaging. People who bought the newspaper never read the headlines. We knew what was in the headlines. So everyone flipped to the last page for the cartoon, which was still censored, but at least it had some truth in it. And you could always read it as satire.
You work at the museum during the day and make Khartoons at night, among other projects. Did you ever professionally make a decision to pursue arts?
In the 90s, everyone was studying IT. You didn’t really have a choice, because like in the Indian culture, you had to be either an engineer or a doctor. It was really hard to get out of that and say ‘I want to be an artist’. So I went to the engineering school and studied design. The certificate I got says I am an engineer because that’s what my father wanted.
While doing that I began finding an interest in graphic design, but there was no real outlet. I would show my work to my friends, laugh, and that’s it. We were always told that art wasn’t important. So I think working at the museum after that happened entirely by coincidence. I began working freelance as a designer on logos and other little projects. I never actually considered working as a cartoonist till maybe I was 28, but even then I wanted to keep my day job and just publish my work. That, of course, came from years of being told that you can’t make a living as an artist. You can’t be an artist. A lot of people’s talent gets killed that way.
People who bought the newspaper never read the headlines. We knew what was in the headlines. So everyone flipped to the last page for the cartoon, which was still censored, but at least it had some truth in it. And you could always read it as satire.
Why did you choose the internet as your platform as opposed to publishing in newspaper, which a lot of cartoonists choose as the next step?
I really didn’t have a choice. I was kicked out of an editor’s office because of the number of times I used to go there. I tried publishing everywhere, but it wasn’t going anywhere. So I began posting my work on the internet, and initially it was just my friends who reacted to it. Around the same time, pre-Arab Spring, I met a lot of activists, artists and people doing similar things online. I still haven’t personally met a lot of them but we’re great friends and we work together because essentially we’re all working towards the same thing, getting our freedom back.
There is a lot of rage, and there’s no way to express it but the internet. We are the generation of the internet. No, the Arab Spring didn’t happen because of Facebook, but Facebook helped you know. That’s when I made my Khartoon page on Facebook. It began with 200 people, all my friends, to now 81,000 people. It’s been an incredible journey.
Your work went viral across and outside the internet during the Arab Spring. Tell us about your artwork during that period.
It was a time for unity. We thought of ourselves as one entity. We were all so broken, and we still are. That was a time for us to work together. People in Egypt were tweeting about Yemen, people in Yemen were talking about Sudan and so on. Everyone was talking about freedom and change. A lot of people I admire – my friends and colleagues – went to jail and were threatened. If you think about it, it is the same monster that keeps coming back in all our countries. We’re still working towards that change.
‘The rest will follow’ was one of the most widely shared images during the Arab Spring. Take us through the process of creating that image.
I think it was the first or second day of protests in Tunis and everyone was so excited. People saw this as something that hadn’t happened before. Most of my generation had only seen one President, so we didn’t know anything else. A change like this was huge. I was in my office at the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha and I was reading the news, trying to figure out what’s going on. So I took a picture of my hand giving the finger. Later, this finger became the flag of Tunis and the other fingers were Libya, Egypt, Sudan and Algeria. All of them had protests. Wikipedia ended up using the image on their page on the first day. It began to give me a lot of trust in my work.
Could you pick up any other two projects and talk about their making?
There’s an artwork I’ve done called Jew Muslim. It basically features a Muslim and Jew and they’re about to hug or kiss and it’s a play on the popular Banksy stencil with two cops almost kissing. This was during a very tense time. There were talks of excavating a Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem to build a museum of tolerance. I was thinking how could you start a tolerance museum over a problem? It’s about the gesture itself. So I asked online if people knew artists inside Jerusalem willing to collaborate in making stickers and posters. And this is how I do most of my cartoons, I crowdsource. So I found and worked with an artist and we put up stickers all over.
I’m also working on a book right now. I curated it after the Goethe- Institut Sudan had an open call for submissions. I went to Sudan to work with 20 Sudanese artists: writers, poets, illustrators, painters etc. Each of these artists is going to write a segment of the book rewriting parts of the history of Sudan. Whether it is an event or a moment that happened in Sudan, everyone will tell their stories. Even in the Arab world, a lot of people don’t know anything about Sudan except about the war and the political situation. But there are beautiful things in Sudan too. We have the most number of pyramids in the world, but no one knows that.
There is a lot of rage, and there’s no way to express it but the internet. We are the generation of the internet. No, the Arab Spring didn’t happen because of Facebook, but Facebook helped you know.
When did you begin using your cartoon as a commentary on politics, with satire? Were you always drawn to the combination of the two?
I started using satire when I was in the university. It was semi-political because it was during the student union. I was making fun of the participants running for it. What is funny though is that I ended up running for the Sudanese student union. But when I came back from the university, I didn’t do anything as I was working. It’s really hard to find your purpose when you’re told you have to be like everybody else. People would say: ‘Don’t do something different.’ ‘Don’t do something thought provoking.’ ‘Why do you want to get into trouble?’
But now it’s different, the internet gave us an outlet. This is what happens. When you curate an outlet, people will start using it. Now we should try and find a way to take this outlet from the digital to the real world.
‘I hope humanity finds a cure for visas’ feels like the perfect description for so many of our problems, now more than ever. Tell us about the artwork and its relevance in the current political situation.
This is something I’m personally affected by. I don’t have the freedom to travel anywhere. Even if I do get a visa it becomes late and hence really hard to travel. When the image of Alan Kurdi made its way to the Internet, everyone began speaking about it – the cruelty, and how did we get to this stage. Of course Kurdi’s family applied for a visa but it wasn’t given. So they got on a boat to get to the shore. That’s something I could see myself doing. My children were the same age as Alan Kurdi. Everyone was focusing on the issue of the refugee crisis but this is not new. This has been going on for a while now. It has always been hard, it just got harder now. We’ve always had these imaginary borders. It’s a human invention and it takes the humanity out of us. The idea that we don’t care about what happens there because we’re safe here, that’s not how it works. If your neighbor’s house is on fire it is going to affect you. If not the fire directly, the smoke for sure. We should really work together to keep the fire out.
Exactly a year after that, the footage of Omran Daqneesh began going viral as a depiction of the suffering. People thought these are separate incidences because the internet makes you feel like that. A lot of people don’t seem to understand that this has been going on everyday. Maybe as we speak today, there are people drowning while trying to get to Europe. The internet was a leap of information but it is becoming just about takeaway news. Read a headline and move on with your life. So a year later I found myself doing a cartoon called ‘Choices for Syrian Children’.
I never actually considered working as a cartoonist till maybe I was 28, but even then I wanted to keep my day job and just publish my work. That, of course, came from years of being told that you can’t make a living as an artist. You can’t be an artist. A lot of people’s talent gets killed that way.
Do you feel a huge responsibility to respond to every single thing that is happening around the world? Do you get messages about why you aren’t responding to a particular event?
Yes, of course. I do feel responsible to respond to everything. And it’s not about having an editor or having to publish tomorrow. I’m independent and I don’t do this commercially. But I still feel responsible to comment. For example, I had three different messages from people during the occurrences of the pellet bullets being fired in Kashmir. Because of how concentrated the news is on certain issues, and blind to others, people were taking matters into their own hands by speaking about it. So I spoke to a lot of people about Kashmir and what was happening there before I made a cartoon about it. After a point it becomes exhausting. It hurts. Because how many cartoons do I do about refugees dying. They are still dying.
Tell us about some of the artists who inspire you.
The biggest influence in my life is Palestinian artist Naji Ali. He was assassinated in London. Nobody knows who assassinated him and I think that is a powerful statement. As a cartoonist I don’t believe in one political view. If I see you doing something I don’t agree with, I will speak about it. I also love the work of Emad Hajjaj, Nader Jini, Badiucao and Carlos Latuff.
What are you currently working on?
My latest work is a film about refugees. I was the 2016 Oak Human Rights Fellow so I screened it during my fellowship. It’s called Bahar, which means sea in Arabic. I basically worked with found footage of the refugees at sea to make this 8-minute long film of clippings filmed by refugees themselves or people that rescued them.
I’m also currently working on a project called Doha Fashion Fridays, which I actually have to leave for now. It’s a fashion blog that documents the fashion of migrant workers in Doha. There are about 1.4 million people out of Qatar’s population who are blue-collar workers, mostly from South East Asia and Africa. All of them have one day off that is Friday. They dress up and head outside. To me, the whole project is about seeing the unseen. It’s exactly like the refugees. They all just become numbers and statistics. My work is about humanizing these numbers. I’m able to learn their stories by asking them questions, understanding something as personal as their clothing, their fashion. As you can see, I’m working on a million things at one point. I basically haven’t slept in 10 years and I feel tired and drained. I continue to work at the museum during the day. It’s a lot but you have to keep going.
As you can see, I’m working on a million things at one point. I basically haven’t slept in 10 years and I feel tired and drained. I continue to work at the museum during the day. It’s a lot but you have to keep going.
You can read the rest of the issue two here.