The Sudanese cartoonist reaching out to the world

Wednesday April 3 2019

Khalid Albaih

A video screengrab of Sudanese political cartoonist Khalid Albaih in Copenhagen, Denmark. PHOTO | AFP 

AFP
By AFP
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From his self-imposed exile in Denmark, political cartoonist Khalid Albaih sees himself as an "ambassador" for his native Sudan, with biting sketches that aim to unify rather than alienate. His criticism of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, in power for three decades, has made it impossible for him to live in his homeland.

Albaih's social and political commentaries -- often simple drawings in block colours and with clean lines -- convey scathing criticisms of authoritarianism. But they also express solidarity and hope for a better future.

"I see my role as that of an ambassador, because I try to tell the world what's happening in Sudan," says Albaih, who cuts a gentle yet looming figure at 1.96 metres (six foot four inches). "Because of my social media following I can reach more people and I can translate what's happening," he tells AFP.

He is perhaps most well-known internationally for his cartoon of Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who started a 2016 kneeling protest against racial inequality and social injustice during the US national anthem played prior to games. The cartoon features Kaepernick on one knee, his afro drawn in the shape of a large clenched fist. American filmmaker Spike Lee wore a tee-shirt featuring the drawing, helping it to go viral.

Neatly trimmed beard

With small, round glasses and a neatly trimmed beard, the 38-year-old Albaih speaks softly in an interview with AFP in the Copenhagen city library where he often works. He left Sudan at the beginning of his teens and has not lived there since. After spending more than 25 years living in Doha and briefly in the United States, he arrived in the Danish capital with his wife and children in October 2017.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Sudan 174th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index.
Sudan's powerful National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) regularly confiscates entire print runs of newspapers that carry articles it deems inappropriate, especially those critical of authorities. Albaih ended up in Copenhagen thanks to the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), which offers shelter to artists and writers persecuted, or at risk of persecution, in their home countries.

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He posts his cartoons on social media, with nearly 25,000 followers on Twitter, slightly fewer on Instagram and almost 85,000 on his Facebook page "Khartoon" -- a play on the words cartoon and the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

"I do these artworks because I want to start a conversation," he says.

His aim, he adds, is to "reach the other side".

"We are trying to reach the governments, we are trying to reach the EU, we are trying to reach the American people to tell them what's happening."

To attract as many viewers as possible from all walks of life, he alternates his topics, sometimes covering top world news before moving on to something more regional.

Each cartoon is accompanied by a short caption in English.

"I could do something about America and I get everybody's attention... and then, I do something that they've never heard about, like the protests in Sudan," he says.

The deadly protests began in the African country in December, in response to a government decision to cut a vital bread subsidy.

They quickly escalated into nationwide demonstrations calling on Bashir to resign in the biggest challenge to his rule.

In February, the veteran leader imposed a state of emergency to quell the demonstrations, which have since been largely confined to the capital.

Since the protests erupted, RSF says it has registered 90 arbitrary arrests of journalists and about 100 confiscations of newspaper issues.

Political family
Albaih was born into a political family -- his father was a diplomat and his uncle briefly led a military transitional government in the mid 1980s.

Living in Denmark has given him food for thought about his host country, but his pen has spared it so far, despite a highly restrictive, and often controversial, immigration policy.

He wants his work, he says, to help unify by provoking a dialogue.

And he is critical of a decision in 2005 by Danish daily Jyllands-Posten to publish a series of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, saying it was a meaningless provocation.

Citing freedom of expression, the newspaper published 12 cartoons, including portrayals of the prophet wearing a bomb inside a turban and as a knife-wielding nomad flanked by shrouded women. The depiction of prophets is strictly forbidden in Islam and the cartoons sparked deadly protests in the Muslim world.
Angry demonstrators burned Danish flags and torched diplomatic offices, while boycotts of Danish products led to a plunge in exports.

"Are they trying basically to lose one billion Muslims, telling them 'yes, we understand that this is something you don't approve of, but we are doing it anyway because we can'?," he says. "For a cartoonist outside of the West, we draw cartoons for different reasons.

"Yes we provoke, yes we try to start a conversation, but we do it to build bridges," he says.

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