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SKETCHING MY PATH TO PROFESSIONALISM: THE JOURNEY OF A SYRIAN CARTOONIST






By: Amani Al-ali, cartoonist.








Today, I proudly call myself a cartoonist, deeply devoted to my craft. Born in Saudi Arabia, I returned to Syria with my family in 2000. Despite my fervent desire to learn and excel in drawing, my aspirations were met with resistance from my family. The resounding echo of their rejection remains vivid, particularly my father's incredulous words: My daughter, an artist? Ridiculous!


I live in Idlib now, where I have been enduring bombardments as well as witnessing waves of displacement for the past few years. 


You might be curious about my daily routine. Before I got married, I spent most of my time drawing. Prior to that, I used to spend my time searching for my true self, knowing deep down that I was on the right path, and it was only through learning and practising the art of caricature that I truly discovered myself. Days and even weeks passed without me stepping foot outside. My room is my haven, meticulously arranged to reflect my preferences. I find comfort in the company of my mother, happiness in the presence of my sister, and face no familial pressures. I feel no inclination to leave; drawing is all I need, and it's what brings me joy.


A turning point in my life arrived when I transformed from Amani the art teacher to Amani the cartoonist. I possessed unwavering confidence in my craft, cherishing every drawing and sharing them with those around me. During that period, I also owned and managed a kindergarten, a venture initiated by my parents upon their return from Saudi Arabia, intended to divert my focus from drawing. 


Despite facing criticism for my artwork, I remained proud of what I did. I dreamed of being recognised worldwide and pictured myself holding exhibitions across Europe and beyond, but with no experience, I had no idea how to move forward. Then, one day, a friend involved in the media and cultural spheres visited me, advising that while success was within reach, I'd have to compromise. He implied that as a woman, I needed to be more open to certain relationships to pave my way forward. I told him: I won't compromise, and I will succeed. You'll see! Firmly, I refused his proposition, rejecting the idea of exploiting connections to promote my work. Persistently, I questioned: When will the exploitation of women cease? 


In early 2016, before delving into caricature, I needed to learn drawing. I asked a muralist visiting the kindergarten to teach me, but he declined due to the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra in the area. He explained that, under their regulations, men seen with women outside their family risked arrest. He recounted how his home was raided by al-Nusra because he was present while a group of women visited his wife. This harsh reality made it even harder for me to achieve my dreams.


I proposed to him the idea of teaching me at the kindergarten after school hours, agreeing to pay him 1000 Syrian pounds per lesson. This was a considerable sum at the time, and so he accepted, and we started the following day. We carried out our lessons in secret. When my father asked about the reason for my tardiness returning from kindergarten, I candidly informed him of my drawing lessons. My honesty, which he deemed audacious, provoked him, and more so when I responded that I could have easily lied and told him I was studying English. During this time, tensions were frequent between my father and I, and three months passed in silence between us. Nevertheless, I remained persistent, concentrating solely on my studies with my teacher, quickly absorbing his teachings. My progress did not escape notice; my teacher consistently praised my development.


My first opportunity to publish my artwork came through a local newspaper called Souriatna [Our Syria]. The editor-in-chief laid down a strict rule: avoid politics and stick to social themes, because he was concerned about my safety as a young woman, yet he trusted my ability to address social issues. Because of his guidelines I submitted illustrations on the social topics he requested for the newspaper, while, driven by my stubborn nature, I indulged in capturing other topics.


I faced cyberbullying on Facebook due to my verbose and "random drawing" style, but I paid it no mind. I actively reached out to other artists, such as Emad Hajjo and Ali Farzat. 


Once, a male Syrian artist said to me "Where do you think you're going... this field is for men!" However, I remained undeterred and continued drawing. 


By 2020, I had made significant progress in my craft and ideas, gaining recognition, particularly among those in the independent Syrian media sector. They began discussing my work and even approached me for interviews, but I declined. I had a sense that I didn't want to dissipate my efforts in a fleeting flurry of articles.


I faced bullying from many, yet at the same time, I remained committed to the art of drawing. Refusing to settle for mediocrity among fellow artists, I refused to confine myself to traditional drawings. Through research, I discovered the realm of digital drawing, which seemed to be the trend. And so, I sold the jewellery my mother had given me and used the money to buy a computer. The joy of obtaining it was indescribable. However, the electricity provision in Idlib was unreliable and came at steep prices for limited usage subscriptions. Just a week after acquiring the computer, it succumbed to a power surge, rendering the screen irreparably damaged. Yet, undeterred, I persevered. I purchased another device, this time at a more affordable cost, which became instrumental in both my work and learning endeavours.


After a while, a cartoonist friend from Germany informed me that a French journalist from Le Monde wanted to discuss the situation in Idlib, which was under heavy bombardment at the time, and sought testimony from its residents. I agreed to talk to the journalist. She asked about my profession, I proudly stated that I was a cartoonist. She was surprised to find a cartoonist amidst a war zone. This interview led to the publication of the first article about me in Le Monde, and then another followed in a French magazine.


Following that, I fell ill for an extended period. I was hospitalised, and due to a medical error, I experienced complications that poisoned my body, leading to a six-month stay in the hospital. The illness took its toll on me as I lost my job and source of income. Yet, after six months, I began to recover and regain my strength.


In 2023, a film entitled Amany, Behind the Lines, was produced about my experience with drawing, which won an award at the Cannes Film Festival.


Following my marriage and amidst life's ebbs and flows, the significant change was the shift of stance from my family, particularly my father. He shifted from disapproving of my work to becoming a supporter of both me and my art. It was a significant shift that I managed to bring about. Making this change in the family's attitude is no small feat.


Later on, I was invited to travel to France, but I turned down the opportunity. My strength and influence lie here in Idlib. Over there, I would merely be a refugee artist, and I prefer to remain impactful in my own community. Here, we face harassment due to the conservative nature of society. Both my husband and I have received threats, prompting us to refrain from posting about our daily activities on social media and to limit our public appearances together.

In Idlib, I hosted just one exhibition through an organisation, but I've had several exhibitions across Europe: Italy, Germany, and Britain, with a forthcoming one planned in Canada. Despite being based in Idlib, I've successfully engaged in significant events globally.


When I reflect on the events of the past years and contemplate the form of justice I desire, finding a satisfactory answer becomes exceedingly challenging. We need individuals who work tirelessly to remind us of the injustices that have befallen us as Syrians. Justice is necessary, but it won't come easily. Our role in this period is to educate the new generation about what happened so that we don't forget. We have lived through a catastrophe, and sometimes, we begin to forget certain details. Therefore, it's essential for us to document and gather evidence to achieve justice, which seems unattainable given the current circumstances.


In my view, the first step towards justice in Syria is documenting and recounting the stories to the new generation. Our memory must remain active regarding what we have endured. I believe one of the most crucial forms of justice in Syria is for me to remain in Idlib, affirming that I am right and that not all of us are leaving.


I'm not suggesting that seeking refuge abroad is wrong, but what is right is to return to our homeland, Syria. I know it is idealistic. I am still at home and have not been forced to leave. I do not see the point in leaving the country as long as I could handle the pressures. I speak out and do my best to convey my voice from where I am about what I am going through, rather than reminiscing about past glories from afar.



By: Amani Al-ali, cartoonist.


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