The Birth of ‘Oum Cartoon’ and the New Golden Age of Egyptian Caricature

Jonathan Guyer (@mideastXmidwest) has recently launched Oum Cartoon / أم كرتون — — a blog about Arabic cartoons. ArabLit asked him a few questions about the site:

"Morsi's Achievements." From Oum Cartoon.
“Morsi’s Achievements.” From Oum Cartoon. By Amro Selim.

ArabLit: How do you choose which cartoons to post? What makes a great cartoon? 

Jonathan Guyer: With so many cartoons published daily in the Egyptian press, I’ve been playing it by ear. The goal of Oum Cartoon is to offer a lens into the comic landscape, from the opposition to semi-official newspapers to the Brotherhood and everything in between. I’ve begun by posting illustrations that capture political developments that are often absent in the Western media. For example, cartoonists are drawing gags about electricity cuts and gas shortages with frequency. These shed more light on the situation here than news reports.

A great cartoon is one that engages the reader, forcing one to rethink a political reality and laugh at one’s own bias. But a cartoon is only as effective as its lines and its composition. It must contain movement, so that the reader feels as if he or she is standing alongside the characters.

Whenever I interview a cartoonist, I ask him or her, “What is a cartoon?” Does it need a joke? Is sarcasm a prerequisite? What is the reader’s role in all of this? In due time, I’ll post these reflections from Egypt’s leading cartoonists on the blog.

AL: Who are your favorite working cartoonists? And all-time?

JG: There are so many outstanding illustrators working in Egypt right now. Al-Masry Al-Youm‘s Doaa El-Adl draws fiercely against the establishment and has a beautiful style of inking; I have great respect for her project. Al-Shorouk‘s Amro Selim deserves credit for his prolific output, up to seven cartoons a day, all of which are a stitch. Ahmed Nady pens powerful and disturbing grotesques. And that’s just to name a few.

One of the most exciting publications in Egypt right now, as you’ve written much about, is the comic magazine Tok Tok. The gang behind it — Makhlouf, Andeel, Shenawy, among others — are part of a new Golden Age of Egyptian caricature. Thanks to them and other pioneers, it seems that everywhere I look in Cairo — in public squares, galleries, and of course in graffiti — there are cartoons.

All time favorite? I’m a nut for R. Crumb, despite his occasional misogyny. His portraits of old bluesmen (and women) are simply outstanding. Crumb’s intricate cross-hatching gets me every time. Meanwhile, there are tons of brilliant U.S. cartoonists, like Susie Cagle, Matt Wuerker, Matt Bors and Ann Telnaes, who are revolutionizing how cartoons interact with the internet. I discussed their work in this Cairo Review essay from last fall.

AL: Are you interested in them more from a political standpoint or an artistic/aesthetic one? Or are they separable? 

JG: I’m a glutton for cartoons and a political addict so I find it challenging to disconnect the aesthetic from the political angle. For instance, the zinger in this cartoon by Abdallah wouldn’t work without the martians and their googly eyes. Amro Selim’s loose handwriting is part and parcel of this illustration‘s laugh line. Content and form are intimately linked but I need to study more Kant and Adorno to understand why.

Can pen strokes and the captions be deconstructed? There is a tradition in Egypt of writers and artists working together on cartoons, most famously the duo of illustrator Mustafa Hussein and humorist Ahmad Ragab, who have been publishing in Al-Akhbar since the 70’s. Today, Al-Tahrir newspaper uses a similar arrangement — pairing artists and writers. But many cartoonists I have spoken to think that these two roles mustn’t be separated.

AL: Can you tell us about the cache of old comics you found?

Old comics.
Old comics.

JG: An antiques dealer in the Boursa, in downtown Cairo, sold me a collection of sixty out-of-print books of Egyptian and Arab cartoons. Among the jackpot: monographs of Egyptian greats (Salah Jahin, Hegazi, and Mohi El-Din El-Labad); cartoon books on celebrities such as Saddam Hussein and Princess Di; a pamphlet put out by the Caricature Club in partnership with the Ministry of Population and Family Welfare — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The only lemon is, “A Hundred and One Uses of a Dead Cat.”

I’ve also dug up 40+ graphic novels, illustrated humor books, and vintage comics from booksellers in Cairo and Alexandria. I even have a comic of Kafka’s The Trial translated into Arabic as well as three comics about the 18 days in Tahrir Square. I’m excited to share all of these gems with Oum Cartoon readers.

AL: You also do your own cartooning…where can we see those? Does being a cartoonist change how you see others’ cartoons?

JG: In college, I started drawing for the Brown Daily Herald and have since spilled ink on, FireDogLake, the Arabist, CairObserver, and others. Some of my favorite cartoons can be found here. Sketches and doodles going back to 2008 are archived on my other blog, Mideast by Midwest.

As a cartoonist, I’m fascinated by the process of creating as much as the final product. Where does the idea come from? How do editors respond? Where does the cartoonist buy his pens? What’s his or her sketchbook look like?

And back to aesthetics, I like a free hand and a bit of sloppiness and as such I am drawn to artists who use Photoshop very minimally. When I visited Amro Selim’s office, his cartoon from that day’s Al-Shorouk was drawn on a leaf of scratch paper, the back of an internal memo I think.

36a84df1b35e68f6119079ca07626e76Jonathan Guyer is associate editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and a Fulbright fellow researching political cartoons in Egypt. He previously served as a program associate for the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force in Washington, DC, and as assistant editor ofForeign Policy’s Middle East Channel. He has contributed to the National, Guardian, and Daily Beast. On Twitter: @mideastXmidwest.