Egyptian cartoonists satirise 'Back to School' month

Heba El-Sherif, Monday 29 Sep 2014

Egyptian cartoonists use September as a chance to denote deficiencies of the country's educational system

Walid Taher
Cartoon by Walid Taher, originally published in Al-Shorouk newspaper on 24 September, 2014. (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

Excitement about children getting older, passing from one school year to another, is running high at homes. New uniform is ironed, school bags are either purchased or passed down, waiting to be filled with books... innumerous heavy books.

With all eyes directed towards schools, this is the time when cartoonists grab their pencils to mark the occasion.

It is clear that the 'Back To School' slogan takes over the reins.

Media tradition called 'school'

Egyptian press has historically dedicated space, whether on air, print or online, to mark the beginning and end of academic activities.  

As such September is looking into the joyful beginning of the school year. With the arrival of mid-term break, the editors fact-check the length of the vacation, which may sometimes over-lap with national holidays or withstand extensions due to political unrest. Come summer, reports on the level of difficulty of the marathon of Thanaweya Amma exams, the standard secondary examination, dominate many headlines, quoting examiners and examinees alike.  

A recent newsroom conversation at Ahram Online alluded to this peculiar tradition, prompting the following run down of the most significant cartoons that appeared in Egyptian publications over the past month, marking 'Back To School'.

Walid Taher
Cartoon by Walid Taher, originally published in Al-Shorouk newspaper on 21 September, 2014. (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

Six artists, three themes

Noted cartoonists and children’s storywriter Walid Taher, whose illustrations appear regularly in Al Shorouk newspaper, sketched five cartoons in commentary on the beginning of the 2014-15 academic year.

The first of the series depicts a large, burned out bulb resembling the ministry of education. A man looks up at the giant bulb through round spectacles, possibly bewildered at the seemingly able body drowned in darkness, a source of light that has long failed to radiate.

Building on the same sentiment, almost a week later Taher released three cartoons muddied with dismay at state of education in Egypt.

A young boy declaring to his parents that they too should go back to school; the same boy standing at the gate of his school, his backpack lying on the ground next to him, a speech bubble zooming into his unconscious to uncover an innocent plea: “Please stop making me angry, throwing me out, disallowing me and hitting me… Teach me!”

The third cartoon shows the regrettable outcome of education as seen by Taher: happy boy plus education equals washed out, sad boy.

What stands out in Taher’s portrayal of Egypt's schooling system is the awareness of children about the unfit state their schools have come to.  

In its turn, a cartoon sketched by Abdalla and published in Al Masry Al Youm’s Arabic edition on 21 September, carries the same theme. We see a family of four children, replacing the heads of the oldest three with those of donkeys. The youngest of the clan is looking up at her mother tearfully: “I am bored of staying at home… when can I got to school and get an education like my siblings?”

In Egyptian culture, donkeys are used to signify idiocy, and 'Repetition teaches (even) a donkey' is a famous idiom. Thus, it is unsurprising that the artist used this farm animal in reference to the regressive nature of our schooling system.   

Two other cartoonists, Makhlouf and Mohamed Anwar, view the promised development of curricula as a shaky endeavour.

While Makhlouf’s illustration mocks those in charge of upgrading the curricula, relying on donkeys, again, Anwar views the changes as superficial, adding only a red ribbon to a decaying book posing as the improved version of its former self. 

Last month, Minister of Education Mahmoud Abou Nasr laid out a long-term plan to improve education in Egypt. According to a report published by Al Ahram daily, Abou Nasr said around 30 percent of the school curriculum has already been changed, and that the remaining 70 percent will also be improved.

Islam Ragab
Cartoon by Islam Ragab, originally published in on 22 September, 2014. (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

Meanwhile, in Islam Ragab’s ‘The Start of the School Year’, a Homer-like father is heavied down in a chair as his son recites a long list of items the teacher asked him to purchase, threatening to humiliate both student and parent in case her instructions are not followed.

Among the issues Egyptian schools are lamented for is requesting students to purchase expensive supplementary materials, pressuring already struggling parents and oftentimes money-shaming students who cannot comply.    

At the beginning of each school year, students are asked to purchase separate notebooks for each subject, a decades old classroom tradition. Notebooks are then plastic covered using a different color for each subject. The result: dangerously heavy schoolbags as mimiced in a cartoon by Farag Hassan, published in Al-Ahram daily on 11 September.    

Politics at play

Pure politics also made its way to cartoons marking the beginning of the current academic year.

Amr Selim draws a disgruntled family of three. The parents are dressed in long garments in an apparent indication of their political lenience. The complimentary text confirms that they are supporters of former president Mohamed Morsi.

The text reads: “If they tell you to stand and salute the flag, give them this medical excuse which says you should not be standing.”

It is unclear from the facial expression of the young boy whether he is sympathizing with his father’s advice, hence also seemingly angry, or if he is in fact mad at him, and the frown is reactionary rather than in agreement. In a way, Selim could be playing on the opposing perceptions displayed by varying age groups after events that unfolded post 30 June, 2013. 

On Sunday, 21 September 2014, the first day of classes after the summer vacation, a bomb exploded near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in downtown Cairo. The bomb, which was hidden in a tree, happened to be next to Abu Farag Primary School. Soon after the explosion, state TV reported that numerous parents had come to collect their children from nearby schools.

Artists Taher, Andeel and Makhlouf mimicked different reactions to the bombing, although all snark in nature. 

Walid Taher
Cartoon by Walid Taher, originally published in Al-Shorouk newspaper on 23 September, 2014. (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

Taher played on the last letter in the Arabic word for education, ballooning it into a black bomb that could be seen plainly as the planted bomb by the ministry or the yet-to-explode education system in Egypt. 

Andeel, whose cartoons appear regularly in the online news website Mada Masr, depicts a police officer and a bearded bystander (or bomber?) quarrelling next to a bomb, a young boy yelling: “Go play somewhere else, idiots!”. Andeel pokes fun at government officials who have been repeatedly attacked for loosely equipped and unsafe bomb inspections.  

Makhlouf draws a frightened boy staring at his silly, overjoyed parents as they ask: “So darling, how many bombs blasted next to your school today?” as if they were celebrating the rare occasion of testing his knowledge about something they both know the answer to.

Makhlouf's final cartoon, and the catalogue of illustrations published by various artists, are testament to the fluidity of Egyptian humour even during difficult times.

The cartoonists might not be able to change the system or correct the curricula, their power however resides in their pens which raise awareness and question the Egyptian education pointing to its deficiencies and countless troublesome elements that need revision. Publishing in main papers across the country, the messages put the bitter-sweet smile on faces of the millions who are hopeful that the change will come.

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