Stories of the bird on the chalkboard by Ahmed Ezz El-Arab
Hekayat Taeir AlTabashir (Stories of the Bird on the Chalkboard), AlMahrosa, 251pp
It has been over 40 years since late President Anwar Sadat was assassinated on 6 October 1981, 11 years after he ascended to power in the wake of the passing of his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser on 28 September 1970. However, Sadat’s time in office was so dramatic that today it still inspires a lot of debate – some on his foreign policy choices, including peace with Israel and many on his domestic politics.
In a 2021 publication from AlMahrosa, prominent illustrator and cartoonist Ahmed Ezzalaarab, dedicates the best part of his 251-page book to discussing Sadat’s take on political pluralism and freedom of the press in the post-1973 war years. The late Egyptian president had promised democracy and prosperity, but did not move much on either front according to the author.
The centerpiece for Ezzalaarab’s recollection is a series of chapters, with each providing a story in-and-of-itself, on the launch and later closing of the Al-Ahaly (“People of the Country”) newspaper. The paper, which belonged to the leftist Tagamoa Party, started as the Left Platform when Sadat acted to re-introduce political pluralism, but was later suspended for allegedly compromising state security and national interests.
The stories shared in Ezzalaarab’s semi-memoir paint a picture of a newspaper that spoke for socialist views that were still firmly held by a group of politicians that did not subscribe to Sadat’s open door policies on the home front or his rushed rapprochement with the US. The cartoons of Al-Ahaly at the time were the focus of the agitation against Sadat’s regime, according to the narrative of Ezzalaarab. Particularly annoying to Sadat himself was a cartoon character named Zebda Hanem (“Lady Butter”) – who was widely perceived by the public and the regime as an implicit satire of the then highly controversial First Lady Jehan Sadat. She was widely blamed in leftist quarters for playing a decisive role in prompting Sadat’s policies of rapprochement with the West and peace with Israel.
Describing his interrogation over the character of Zebda Hanem, Ezzalaarab recalls that he was asked if this character was supposed to represent any particular public figure. He also recalls that the trouble he had over his cartoons at Al-Ahaly was far from being unusual in the modern and contemporary history of Egyptian politics. Sadat, in the view of Ezzalaarab, was just like Nasser and even like King Fouad, the Khedive Ismail and the British Occupation. They were all irritated by press criticism, especially by the cartoons that had been introducted to Egypt in the mid-19th century. These caused headaches, not just for the rulers, but for the cartoonists who often ended up in jail. The accounts, shared in the many chapters of the book, on the shared and profound dislike of criticism among all these rulers are simply incredible.
Ezzalaarab did not end up in jail for his character of Zebda Hanem. However, the jail experience that he does share, quite abruptly, was under Nasser, not long after the military defeat of 1967, when he, then a university student, pursued political activism on the assumption that the humiliation of the shocking defeat would prompt Nasser to end his police-state choices and embrace political openness.
However, in 1978, Al-Ahaly hit the wall with Sadat’s increasing unease over Khaled Moheiddine, one of Sadat’s Free Officers comrades. Moheiddine was a dedicated and inspiring lefitst figure who was as committed to socialism as he was to the call of democracy, and is one of the public figures that gets considerable attention from Ezzalaarab.
Also privy to Ezzalaarab’s careful recollection is Loutfy El-Khouly, a prominent leftist intellectual who caught a lot of public attention in a televised debate against a representative of Sadat’s Al-Watani (“The National Party”). Moustafa Bakri, the journalist who is still capable of stirring controversy, is another figure that gets illustrated in many shades of gray.
The book offers very concise but insightful and interesting narratives on the evolution of cartoons in the Egyptian press and the stories of the many prominent cartoonists that left an unforgettable imprint on the history of Egyptian journalism. It also details the collaborative work between writers and cartoonists, which started with Mohamed El-Tabaai and Armenian cartoonist Saroukhan in the 1940s and the inspiring role of Rose ElYoussef – both the editor and the magazine – in giving space to cartoons on its pages.
The shortest but certainly still compelling narrative in this book is Ezzalaarab’s own story that starts with a young school boy who was excluded from a sports class and instead left with a chalkboard in an empty classroom. With a piece of chalk, the sad, left-out boy starts to connect the letters and symbols on the chalkboard and turn them into a big bird that catches the attention and prompts the admiration of the art teacher. This was the starting point that put Ezzalaarab on the path to becoming one of the country’s key illustrators, despite some incidental deviations from the road.
In the book, which is easily labelled a semi-memoir, Ezzalaarab is a lot more anecdotal than opinionated. He is not in the business of passing judgment. He is just sharing life as it has been for him. He also shares a selection of brilliant cartoons from himself and others. Above all, he is sharing his own sentiments – of frustration over unfulfilled and shattered dreams, of contentment for having made the choices he believed in and of gratitude for having been in the company of a few good men.