Neila Columbo recently listened to and met with _Z_, the Tunisian political cartoonist who blogs at http://www.debatunisie.com/:
By Neila Columbo
Various scenarios fluttered in my thoughts when I learned the Tunisian political cartoonist _Z_, who rose to prominence during the 2010-2011 Tunisian Revolution, would be speaking in Boston in the fall.
With great curiosity, I asked: Who is _Z_? Particular in the digital age, where seemingly every facet of a person’s biographical history is available, he was an unfathomable enigma, a great mystery, known publicly by a single alphabetical letter.
I began to research; I discovered his blog. Written in French, with various Arabic phrases throughout, I intently studied his collection of iconography, with reoccurring themes of flamingos, society, and an ominous figure in differing poses, yet invariably with his hand placed upon his heart. His anonymity both intrigued and disheartened me — the circumstances of his country’s political climate and thus the context in which he must work, yet his sheer courage to continue on, despite all. It was seemingly inconceivable, at least in theory, that one should not possess the inherent freedom to draw as one would wish — whether it is illustrating flamingos, a springtime flower, or, in certain cases, a country’s dictator.
It was then November. He would speak at Harvard University on the 14th of the month. The day arrived, and as I prepared to attend, I pondered, of all matters concerning an anonymous political cartoonist risking his life for the values of human rights and free speech, what he would be wearing.
As the talk began, he introduced himself as a professional architect based in Paris, France, as well as an anonymous Tunisian political cartoonist by “night.” How these two distinct worlds meet would be discussed in his presentation. His talk would be primarily in French, translated by his host, a Harvard graduate student, noting humbly that he wished he could more fully express his thoughts and ideas in English. He was by all accounts fluently expressive in both, yet his story transcends most profoundly through his incisive, titillating, and moving illustrations.
No film or photography would be permitted, it was noted, as _Z_ continues to receive threats daily.
Seated at the front, he perused the room with his eyes. It was at this point that a new realization began to form. Dressed in beige twill pants and a gentleman’s collared shirt, he looked to be the requisite young professional city dweller, with no intimation of a political satirist who held an important role in denouncing, and consequently, ousting, a long-standing authoritarian regime. He was any one of us in the room.
The Tunisian Revolution formally began in late 2010 following the self-immolation of a young man, twenty-six years of age, Mohamed Bouazizi, in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid in December that year. Yet, the collective storm of discontent, fear, and oppression, as _Z_ recounted, had been gathering for decades.
Growing up in Tunis, while his friends would be playing football, _Z_ would be in his room, drawing pictures. He loved to draw, he recounted; it helped to understand the world around him.
Growing up in Tunis, while his friends would be playing football, _Z_ would be in his room, drawing pictures. As a young child, he loved to draw, he recounted; it helped to understand the world around him. His parents understood his artistic talent, yet understandably felt concern that there would be no future for him as an illustrator in Tunisia. While there is a strong tradition of editorial cartoons in Tunisia, since the time Zine el Abidine Ben Ali assumed power in a coup d’état in 1987, freedom of speech had been largely suppressed. Consequently, his parents encouraged him to study another subject he would love equally as much. He chose architecture, as architects, he thought, also draw.
Upon completing a degree in architecture in Paris, he secured a position as an architect with an urban planning and architecture firm in the city. During this time, he began to contemplate broad connections between his work in urban planning, globalization, and the environment, and how illustration could visualize its complex intersection. In 2007, he began to write a blog with various musings on these subjects.
Three years later, in 2010, he was reading about a development project in the planning stages, coordinated by the administration of then-President Ben Ali and a Dubai real estate firm. It was an expansive urban project that would use public land to build a private leisure resort, and Ben Ali’s administration spun the project to the Tunisian press as one that would benefit the public through added jobs and economic growth. Yet, as _Z_ reviewed the technical drawings of the site, given his knowledge as an architect, he realized the effects the project would have on the urban context and surrounding environment, which would require use of a natural waterway that had been a traditional haven for pink flamingos and other birds that migrated to this location every year. _Z_ distilled the government propaganda and perceived the true purpose of the development project, which was to benefit the upper class, not the majority of Tunisians very much in need of work, as Ben Ali had stated.
He felt compelled to make the drawings accessible so Tunisians could understand the actual plans for the site. This was a pivotal point for_Z_, as his understanding of of the architectural drawings inspired “an “intellectual journey,” he said, as he began to fulfill a paradoxical role of both architect as well as critic of modern urban development and its impact on the natural environment.
_Z_’s criticism of the architectural drawings inspired an “intellectual journey,” he said, as he began to fulfill a paradoxical role of both architect and blogger criticizing modern urban development, and, consequently its impact on the natural environment.
His irreverent cartoons began to capture the attention of Tunisians, opening readers’s minds to the extravagant projects being discussed. People began to protest against the project, a reflection of the simmering cauldron rippling through Tunisian society from the oppressive effects of Ben Ali’s regime. The pink flamingos in his drawings came to symbolize this struggle and the revolution to come.
It was during this time, early on in his blog, that _Z_drew one of his first cartoons of Ben Ali. In a different time and place, as he drew a simple black-lined illustration of Ben Ali during his talk in Cambridge, Mass. in November, he quietly told us, “I could spend three years in jail for drawing this in Tunisia.”
Contre Le Pouvoir
One of the first cartoonists in Tunisia to draw Ben Ali, _Z’s_ blog was soon censored. Tunisian youth bypassed the block, and his work began to gain greater prominence among the media and public for its honest depictions of Ben Ali’s dictatorship and suffocating effects on Tunisian society.
From this point onward, Ben Ali would become the center of _Z_’s political satire, which, at the time, was considered by some as more blasphemous than drawing the Prophet. This decision paralleled an important moment among Tunisian youth, a phrase known in French as “contre le pouvoir” —the understanding that revolutionary change was indeed possible through political struggle.
As the government began to censor more media outlets, bloggers such as _Z_ faced greater peril. In November 2009, a Tunisian woman known as Fatima reposted _Z_’s cartoons on a similar blog and was arrested and jailed for five days under the assumption she was _Z_. He would publish a pointed cartoon during this time, with the statement “I am not Fatima, we are all Fatima” to prove unequivocally Fatima was not him and ensure her release. In March 2012, fellow Tunisian blogger Jabeur Mejri would be sentenced to a seven-and-a-half-year jail term for posting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook.
While _Z_ understood the risk he faced in continuing to publish cartoons on his blog, he felt compelled by “basic, simple, human values —the universal ideas of social justice…of political liberty…of freedom of expression.” It is a moral reflection, he stated, not necessarily a nationalist one.
Yet he recognized he could not achieve these ideals alone. Before the revolution began in 2010, he sought help in France for his case, although he received no response. He joined the initiative “Cartooning for Peace,” founded by French cartoonist Plantu, and in January 2011 he decided to reveal his identity to his family, still based in Tunis, following Ben Ali’s fall from power. The sacrifice to his personal relationships throughout the past three years, he shared, has been difficult and isolating.
The Boat Is Sinking
_Z_ now describes Tunisia as straddling two incompatible states of existence, existentially forced between “Zaba and Zaballah” — in other words, an authoritarian police state vs. Islamism. The secular elites criticize Zaballah, yet they do not support the cause of the majority in Tunisia to improve social and economic conditions.
And for most Tunisians, this Hobson’s choice seems inevitably unforgiving.
While the energy of the revolution has formally shifted to the complicated, messy process of establishing a fragile democracy, bringing forth free elections in late 2011 leading to a coalition of the Islamist Ennahda Movement and the left-leaning Ettakatol party, the embers of revolutionary chaos still exist. In certain ways, _Z_ feels Tunisians are back to the beginning: quasi-military discipline, fear among Tunisians to speak out against the government, internal social struggle. It is as if a film is replaying itself in a theatre, again and again.
During his talk, _Z_ explained that in Arabic, the words for ‘bull’ and ‘revolution,’ are very close—thawrah ثورة, is revolution, just one letter different from thowr ثور , bull. The bull he draws, like the revolution, is dead.
Can a new bull enter the arena? Like us all, he, too, is waiting.
Neila Columbo is a freelance journalist, and writes about sustainable development, climate change, international affairs, and food-related subjects; she tweets at @NeilaColumbo.