A Fractured Life, Made Whole on the Page

Cartoonist Hani Abbas’s life traces a map of the spiral of war and displacement that has defined so much of the Arab east: born to a Palestinian family pushed into Syria by the creation of the state of Israel, and later successively fleeing to Lebanon and Europe, where he has settled in Switzerland. His best work, he says in this International Boulevard interview, was done in Syria in the early days of the revolt against Bashar al-Assad.

You are Palestinian, born in a refugee camp in Syria; you then became a refugee from there in Lebanon, and are now a refugee in Switzerland…

A life of huge ruptures. And when you think that there are millions of us going through this: we are born without a country and then we live all our lives without a country. It is painful for sure. I have never experienced the feeling of being home in any country.

What was family life like during your childhood? And describe your family life now; where are they all?

Given the circumstances of life in a refugee camp, my childhood was pretty ordinary. My father was a school principal and my mother was a school teacher. But yes, I suppose that the most important influence on me as a child was the experience of growing up in a refugee camp; as a child [there]you learn a lot and you get to experiment a lot too. I had so many friends and so many stories happened to us. My grandparents used to live with us. When there are three generations living under the same roof, the kids learn more about life. After the destruction and the killing brought on us by Assad, my whole family had to flee from Syria.

Were you always a press cartoonist, even before the war started in Syria? If you worked at all in the Syrian press, what was that like?

I started drawing cartoons for newspapers in 1998. Before the revolution began I used to work for two governmental newspapers, and one private daily. For me, what was more important than the experience of working in the Syrian press was when I made the decision to leave the government-run press and join the revolution of the Syrian people.

Did the war change your style (of drawing)?

If we agree on what the word “war” means; in this case it is a war against the people. It certainly changed me. I felt like I had been turned into another person. Now what I was drawing had a real meaning. I am at the heart of the events, and I am transmitting a message with my drawings, that of telling the truth, and I have to take direct responsibility for the consequences my drawings bear. I almost lost my life. During the revolution, I felt that I was drawing for the right cause. It is a terrifying feeling to be making cartoons while you are living on the edge of the precipice of death.

Do you have any beautiful memories of Yarmouk or was it always bleak?

I lived 35 years in the refugee camp of Yarmouk. What is left from those years are not just memories; it is a story of life, a memory full and complete. I do have many beautiful memories of my growing up in Yarmouk but in the late period the pain overwhelmed everything else. And so the memory has turned into pain; we lost so many of our relatives, so many of our friends, so many of our streets and our neighborhoods and our personal relationships. We have lost the simple living and the companionship that gave meaning to our lives.

There are two main sensations I get looking at your drawings: it is either strikingly gory – almost difficult to look at, or on the contrary it has a very striking “childlike sensitivity”…

I always try to bring in my drawings as much of me and my feelings as I can. Whatever the concept of the cartoon is. Because what I want is to carry an emotion first not just an idea, I want the viewer to feel it. And that is what explains what you call a “childlike” sensitivity….

We picked a collection of your drawings here, is there one in particular that you’d like to comment on?

Probably the drawing of the mother who is distributing her children throughout the whole world has the biggest impact on me when I look at it. That is our life now. My siblings and I live so apart from each other–this is my new reality and it something that really hurts me.

You are an exceptionally talented and prolific artist, does art help when you live through a nightmare like the war your country is going through?

In the end, art is a great tool to unburden us of our deeper feelings, in that sense creating it gives you a feeling of relief. It can also cause many troubles and dangers. And it sometimes also gives you the sense of having achieved something that is morally good and satisfying. I personally prefer the drawings I did while I was under the shelling in Syria. They have a greater value to me. The words in the drawings of that period have a special meaning, each one of them has a special story associated with it, and when you look carefully you can see that the lines were drawn by a slightly trembling hand.

 

IB Editors Translated from Arabic by International Boulevard