Sudanese political cartoonist seeks lasting change with iconic images
A week after the Sudanese military ousted Omar al-Bashir as president and seized control of the country, protesters continue to demand representation and civilian rule.
Thousands of kilometers away, Khalid Albaih monitors the events that are unfolding in Khartoum, the capital, with rapt attention. He scrolls through his social media feeds for updates, and consults a network of contacts about the latest developments.
Since December, the protests in Sudan have swelled into an uprising that toppled Bashir, who had held power for nearly three decades.
The military is now in charge, but protesters want a civilian government, leading to a series of high-profile resignations and ongoing tension.
Within the chaos, Albaih looks for decisive moments. Then, he draws them, capturing complex events with simple designs that highlight key actors and their motives.
A Sudanese political cartoonist, Albaih has for years lived in Doha, Qatar, where he witnessed the Arab Spring, a series of political revolts, unfold. He sees parallels between Sudan’s uprising and the changes that gripped countries such as Egypt and Libya.
“For me, this is a deja vu,” Albaih told VOA.
Albaih sees himself as a kind of interlocutor.
“I’m trying to, as much as possible, push for what’s happening in Sudan — translate as much as possible — to make sure that the people around the world understand the facts from our point of view,” Albaih said.
Born in Bucharest, Albaih never worked for a newspaper. But his cartoons and commentaries have drawn a large following online. As the Arab Spring unfolded, he created a cartoon a day for eight years.
Now he’s aiming to tell the world what’s happening in his home country, in the hope that knowledge translates into action.
But convulsions in Sudan have felt more personal. “It hurts,” Albaih said. “It’s very hard to get your heart broken twice,” referring to the rise of military rule in the wake of Bashir’s ouster.
In one recent cartoon, Albaih depicts former Defense Minister Awad Ibn Auf, who has since stepped down, addressing the nation from an oversized chair. A host of other top officials, including Bashir, peek from behind, signifying a revolving door of military and government insiders.
“It’s the happiness being kidnapped,” Albaih said.
‘We need entertainment, not news’
Albaih sees his cartoons as a way to grab attention in a media-saturated world that craves jarring images.
“I think the Western media have the fetish of images, of visuals,” he said.
Albaih plays to that desire, doing what he can to get play in international outlets in the hope they, in turn, raise awareness of people’s struggles.
“It’s fortunate, but it’s very unfortunate, that we live in the day and age of this viral culture,” he said.
In such a world, it’s often the most shocking imagery that prompts action. “It’s really sad that, as humans, we need entertainment, not news,” he added.
Albaih cited the example of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned off the coast of Turkey when the boat he was in capsized. Images of Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach shocked the world and brought a new level of international scrutiny to a years-long crisis that had, by then, displaced 4 million people.
Audiences seem to fixate on archetypes, according to Albaih — not just victims, but also saviors.
“The Western media have always looked for heroes in this part of the world. So they always make one person into this god or goddess, as if this is the hope for this ruined region. You know, we have one person, who’s going to save it.”
But Albaih hopes people see past a single image to the deeper meanings it represents.
Photographs of individual suffering, strife or triumph can personify an issue and captivate an audience, but they can’t tell the full story — stories like Kurdi’s 5-year-old brother, who drowned on the same boat en route to Greece. Or the millions of other Syrians whose lives have been upended since the country’s civil war broke out in 2011.
In another cartoon, Albaih depicts a woman holding back an oversized version of Salah Abdallah Gosh, Sudan’s former head of intelligence, with just her finger, while Gosh attempts to crush her with his foot.
The protester, Alaa Salah, 22, led chants in Khartoum earlier this month.
Albaih based his work on Lana Haroun’s photograph of Salah standing on the roof of a car, high above a group of protesters, an image that’s become an embodiment of the role women are playing in Sudan’s peaceful uprising.
Gosh led the regime’s crackdown on protesters. Days after Albaih published his cartoon, the intelligence official resigned.
But Albaih can’t say whether his work has the impact he hopes for. Too often, temporary concern hasn’t translated into long-term results, he said.
“I’ve seen so many powerful images — but nothing, no action,” Albaih said.
He’s also hesitant to compare his efforts to people on the ground who have put their well-being at stake for a greater cause.
“It’s very hard when people are, you know, sacrificing their lives to say that my cartoons had an impact.”
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