Saturday, April 29, 2006

Cartoon Wars, the Jesters Battlefield.

Let’s clear a few facts. Muslims are not terrorists. Muhammad can be illustrated. The Danish cartoonists were used by Jyllands-Posten to sell newspapers, western newspaper cartoonists are not free to draw what they want and there is no such thing as free press. How do I know, I worked for ten years for an Australian newspaper as an editorial artist and I went into a Muslim country in the middle of the cartoon crisis.

In September 2005 the Danish Newspaper, Jyllands-Posten printed twelve cartoons of the Islamic Prophet, Muhammad that suggested a link between terrorism and Islam. The editor, Carsten Just, supported his arts editor, Fleming Rose, in printing the cartoons to illustrate a story on the freedom of the press. He was aware that many of the cartoons were inflammatory and later expressed surprise at the results of his decision. The Danish government refused to meet with the Muslim clerics who wanted to voice their anger.
In retaliation for this insult, violent protests were ignited all over the Islamic world.
Over forty five people died over three months of Muslim fury in dozens of countries. I traveled to Iran in the middle of this as a lone female western cartoonist.

I was invited to exhibit my artwork in Tehran two years ago. By February the final arrangements had been finalized and I had my ticket bought and my Iranian visa confirmed for my trip in March.. I was in my usual comfy spot on the couch watching with one eye and ear to the news. The usual riots, protests, deaths, cartoons. Hang on, one of these words does not belong here. With mounting dread I watched as the issue escalated until, bingo, it reached Tehran, my exhibition venue.

Instead of listening to the doomsayers that predicted my quick demise as soon as I reached Tehran, this new turn of events encouraged me all the more. I wanted to find out what was really happening on the other side of the newspaper headlines.

I arrived in Tehran March 5 in my all black hijab trying to look inconspicuous. I usually make my way independently through some pretty off-road countries without a great deal of drama but this was a little different. I had never had my life threatened for my occupation before.

Tehran is a huge sprawling city of twelve million inhabitants. The roads are filled with cars ripping around in a mad game of dodgems. This city has all the big city problems of drugs, crime, prostitution and the like. The punishments are severe yet seem to pose no real deterrent, human nature being what it is.
Tehran wears a mantle of smog and looks like the next earthquake will knock it flat, which eventually it will, if Bush doesn’t get to it first.

Cities are often the loneliest places, but for all its faults, Tehran isn’t one of them. I seemed to become everyone’s interest and project. My cynical self wondered was this an insidious way of tracking me to make sure I wasn’t spying until I gave up on that line of thought. I was just relieved that someone bothered to care where I stayed, if I had eaten, what would I like to do, and to talk to me about their families, their lives and opinions on world politics.

As I might struggle to be heard though a wall of suits at an Australian function, here I was spoken to with openness and genuine interest.

I was met by the Gilan Cartoonists Association. They are a vibrant and talented group of young cartoonists dedicated to their art. Their exhibition, to which my work was included, was held in the very modern Saales Gallery in Tehran. As I sat surrounded by film students, internationally famous artists, actors, students and musicians, sipping my cappuccino and listening to Archie Roach on the music system, I had to remind myself I was in Iran not Melbourne.

The cartoonists I met in Iran are a close bunch. They know what they do is dangerous. Here was a country where cartoons were seen for what they are, visual opinions and therefore dangerous and to be controlled. As Art Buchwald said”Dictators of the right and the left fear the political cartoonist more then the do the atomic bomb. No totalitarian government can afford to be ridiculed”.

The cartoonists spoke to me about a group they were most wary of who they described to me as “gorillas” Eshan the cartoonist group president explained “You don’t look a gorilla in the eye or he will attack you, these people are hardliners and are connected to the mafia in Tehran. They were organized to create the protests at the embassies”
The group he was talking about are the Basiji made up of militant students. They make it their business to patrol the country as moral police, mostly making it tricky to arrange a good rave party, I was told. How dangerous they are depends on who they are reporting to at any one time.

Very few of these cartoonists have been allowed to illustrate for government run publications and even fewer make a living as artists. They work very much under the political radar and are always aware that they can be arrested at any time for their work. I was impressed with their courageousness and support for each other.

Sixty percent of Iran’s population is under twenty-five. Most have access to internet, many travel overseas, have a good education but face little chance of employment. It is only a matter of time until these people become the decision makers in their country and then change is inevitable. Perhaps the aged extremist Iranian government knows this and wants to insure their unwieldy power base by isolating its people from outside influences? Maybe that is what all governments do when they want to shore up support? Does that sound familiar?

Many times on my trip around Iran my eyes filled with tears. Partly out of relief that I didn’t meet with the end my Australian cohorts kindly predicted but also with the overwhelming friendliness of the Iranian people.

All over Iran people from all walks of life were eager to speak to me. According to the many people it would appear that there is little support for their president Mahmoud Armadinejad. Many people don’t agree that Pakistan and Israel are permitted nuclear arms but they are not comfortable with President Armadinejads handling of the issue. They are concerned about the future of Iran should the nuclear issue escalate into sanctions or even possible invasion by the US. They are confident that Iran is a huge and powerful country and the US could not win should they try to engage Iran in conflict, however, they are far more interested in improving the living conditions and economy in Iran than dealing with yet another war. Perhaps I should have hung out with the local hardliners but then you already have their opinions.

Many of the people I spoke to were highly educated and well traveled. A very long way from the screaming hoards pictured on the television at home. They are aware of John Howard’s strict immigration laws and his backing of the US government but Australia is seen by Iranians as a minor player in world politics. Many of the young people I spoke to knew a great deal about Australian culture as Australia is high on the list of countries for Iranian university students to continue their studies. We discussed movies we had seen and I was surprised at the number of American movies they listed. “We hate the Americans, but we love their movies!” was the great quote. How on earth did these people know so much about Australia? How could they possibly know about Guy Pierce, Skippy and the antics of Russell Crowe? What does Australia think about Iran I was asked. We think you are all a bunch of crazy terrorists. They laughed and asked, why? The TV tells us so, I said.
Even the front pages of the Iranian newspapers had photos of George Clooney receiving his Oscar.

Our general media has skirted around the real issue with stories that complain that Muslims don’t have a sense of humor, the lack of artistic merit of the cartoons, the rights of free press and the opinions of a few Australian based newspaper cartoonists. Ask an Aussie what they think of the cartoon protests and they will invariably say that the Muslims should just lighten up, it was just a bunch of cartoons.
This is, in fact, a fascinating example of the power of the visual image used as powerful propaganda. These cartoons have literally illustrated the massive divide of understanding between the Christian world and the Muslim world.
This issue needs to be taken seriously not sidelined as some foolish aberration.

The headlines today have forty thousand Iranian suicide bombers signing up for a massive raid on Western countries. One commentator has figured out why Australia would be on their shitlist as though we feel we might miss out or something. Armadinejad is flexing his bomb button pressing finger and promising his mates he will blast Israel off the map. Bush is being helped back into his cowboy boots by Rumsfield while Condi snuggles up to Blair and Howard, whispering sweet propaganda into their willing ears. This sounds just like a comic book story with caricature characters to me. If only it were.

My impressions of Iran are not that of the comic book baddie hell bent on nuclear war offering a hidey hole and pocket money for terrorists. It might well be, how would I know? I am just a cartoonist.
I went to Iran, liked it, bought a carpet.

I would like to organize an exhibition of the excellent cartoon and caricature from Iran and other Middle Eastern countries to be shown here in Australia. I believe we can use this genre of visual comment to open discussion between our countries and help to remove some of the mis-information between our countries and cultures. I think this has never been as important as it is now.


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