Khalid Ablaih talks about life as a political cartoonist

“Every time I post something, I don’t know what’s going to happen.” Those were the words of political cartoonist Khalid Albaih, Colby’s 2016 Oak fellow. The position was originally established in 1998, when, the Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights created an annual fellowship. According to the institute’s mission statement, the fellowship “provides the opportunity for a front-line human rights activist operating in difficult or dangerous circumstances to come to Colby College every fall for respite and reflection.” Albaih was selected this fall for his online involvement in recent movements of the Arab world, and the danger he faced in doing so. He is the first artist to be selected for the fellowship, and his unique story explains why.

Albaih was surrounded by politics from a very early age. He is Sudanese but was born in Romania because his father was a diplomat. One of his uncles, Abdel Rahman Suwar al-Dahab, served as interim president of Sudan from 1985-1986. Another uncle, Babiker al-Nur, was a communist executed for attempting a coup; he was sentenced to death within minutes of being tried by a court martial. Given these circumstances, Albaih was forced to view the world through a political lens. “I guess that you could say that we come from a political family but everyone in Sudan—in fact in the region—is very political and was at a certain time period. So everybody talks about politics all the time,” he said.

Following a military overthrow in 1989, Albaih’s father was laid off. His family moved to Qatar for what Albaih described as “self-imposed exile.” Qatar was a destination for people in similar situations to that of Albaih and his family. He went from a country immersed in political discussion to one which contained very little. “I went to class with about 22 other nationalities from the Arab world, and most of the people were there because their parents didn’t have a living in their own country and mainly because of their politics. So everyone was there because they wanted to avoid politics, and that was the number one rule in the country: if you want to stay here, you need to stop talking about politics. It’s a monarchy. That’s what it is and nobody’s going to say anything,” Albaih said.

For Albaih, this lack of political discussion made his discovery of political cartoons all the more exciting. When he was young, Albaih read issues of Sabah Al Khair and Rose al-Yusuf, two Egyptian cartoon-based magazines. It was there he was introduced to an acceptable forum to discuss politics. “The media is so government controlled that nobody even reads the news anymore,” he said. “Everyone just looks at the first page of the newspaper and it says, ‘the great leader did this and that’ and that’s it. There’s no real news. But everyone turns to the last page and looks at the cartoons because they talk about the social issues. I liked it because it was very close to people; it’s very close to society.”

Albaih enjoyed the simplicity and social connectivity of political cartoons. Those aspects, along with his love of art and comics, motivated Albaih to take up political cartooning. He began making cartoons about Sudan around 2008. He posted them online where they quickly spread through social media. Being a young, modern cartoonist targeting a young, online audience, Albaih was able to gain many supporters. Then in 2010, a revolutionary wave known as the Arab Spring hit the Arab world. Leaders like Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Gaddafi were removed from office and new leadership took over. That was when Albaih’s work really gained traction. Part of what made the Arab Spring so successful was the impact of social media. As a result, Albaih’s cartoons saw an increase in sharing and some protesters even began using them as images of their revolutions. “It was incredible to know that I could be part of these movements from my living room. People were dying in the street and carrying signs that have my cartoons on them. Others graffitied the cartoons [on buildings]. I just felt like I was part of a movement. A lot of the times I couldn’t be there physically but I was there because my cartoons were there,” Albaih said.

Though he could not physically participate in most of the Arab Spring movements, Albaih did fly back to his home country of Sudan in 2012 to be more active in the revolution there. Albaih’s motivation to be active in these movements speaks to how strong his feeling of obligation to the cause is—especially given the potential danger he faces every time he posts a cartoon. “It’s very unsettling. Especially because I have a family. I have two kids, a wife, a mother, a father. The thing about working in politics anywhere in the world and trying to upset the status quo nowadays is that they won’t try to hurt you directly. They’ll try to hurt you any way possible. I can’t live in Qatar without a Visa, so I can get deported from Qatar in a second. If I live in Sudan, I’m done. I’m probably going to be jailed, or worse. Sometimes I wonder, ‘why am I even doing this?’” he said.

Although Albaih risks his life for the Arab cause, he does not bear the burden alone. Albaih continued to stress the physical danger other activists put themselves in for speaking out against powerful regimes. “It’s really dangerous, not just for cartoonists, but for anyone who’s trying to say something different,” he said. “The fact that you are part of this movement is never taken lightly. Every time I post something, I don’t know what’s going to happen. That goes for everyone.”

  Albaih applied for the Oak Fellowship as a way to focus on his work and take a break from the toils of cartooning in Qatar. He currently teaches a seminar to Colby students and is working on an exhibition that will be curated by his students. He is also working with the communications department on a website that focuses on revolutions for humanitarian studies. Finally, Albaih continues to work on his own cartoons which can be found on his Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages, @khalidalbaih. Albaih said his reception at Colby has been warm and helpful, and he was astounded by the commitment of students here to be involved with social issues worldwide. “On the first day of class, I told my students that I’m so impressed with them because they care in a situation where they easily couldn’t. But they do care and that’s incredible,” he said.

When coming to Colby, Albaih did not know what to expect. What he found was a community dedicated to being active in worldwide issues, and a group of students hoping to learn how they can be involved through art. He now hopes that people around the world can begin to accept cartoons and art as engaging forms of activism; but above all, Albaih hopes that people can begin to use art as a way of thinking individually, and a means of breaking free from the media. “It’s really about breaking out of how controlled we are. Our mindsets are so controlled to believe what we are told. I don’t know if I’m part of [that control] or not, but I’m trying to fight it,” he said. As to what students should do in order to stay active in Arab affairs, Albaih concluded, “Do what you can. Whether that’s paying a dollar or two dollars [to a charity] or jumping on a plane and going somewhere. Just do what you can. That’s all there is to it.”drew1web drew3web drew2web

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