Chouf! Qra! (Look! Read!): Cartoons and comics in the Arab world

On September 21, 2012, attended the opening of the exhibition Chouf! Qra! in the new Pop-up Press Museum at the cultural heart of Amsterdam.

A thousand-and-one prejudices exist about the Arab world. The Press Museum would like to remove one: the misconception that images are banned in Muslim countries. This ban only pertains to places of worship; outside the mosque, people just draw, photograph, film, publish and read. But the museum also wants to devote attention to the rich drawing culture of North Africa and the Middle East. The exhibition offers a special selection of drawings from the Arab world that are mostly politically charged, and a view of the role they play in the uprisings and the Arab Spring.


The exhibition introduces a number of political cartoonists who experienced the fact that press freedom is not always appreciated by the government first hand. One of these cartoonists is Kifah Al Reefi (Basra, Iraq, 1962). He was the first artist in the Arab world to draw cartoons about ministers and members of parliament. He fled the Iraqi secret police and now lives in Amsterdam. He draws cartoons, caricatures and illustrations for various magazines. His cartoons are very stylized and mostly without text. It is up to the reader to trace the symbolism of the drawings, loaded with irony and humour. In his work, Kifah often speaks up on behalf of the world’s wretched and downtrodden.

Kifah Al Reefi

The same goes for Sudanese artist Omer Ahmed, who ended up as a political refugee in the Netherlands because of his political cartoons. Ali Ferzat (Syria), who received multiple honours, suffered censorship and was forced to close his satirical magazine al-Domari (The Lamplighter). During the Syrian uprising, Ferzat kept publishing anti-government cartoons even when he was seriously abused by Assad’s secret police. A solidarity page called We Are All Ali Ferzat has been started on Facebook. The Moroccan cartoonist Khalid Gueddar was fined and arrested after his many satirical works about the royal house of Morocco. Khalid still believes in the power of cartoonists. He feels a cartoonist should know no boundaries and a drawing should not offend anyone.

Ali Ferzat

Ali Ferzat

Women as well

Strikingly, many women are active in the world of cartoons and comics, too, expressing their discontent with pencil and paintbrush. One of these comics writers is Gihèn [Zheehen] Ben Mahmoud (1981, Tunisia) who makes her emancipated figurines struggle for dignity and freedom and heckles a prevailing macho culture.

Also present at the exhibition are reproductions of the work of the Lebanese Zeina Abirached (1981) about the times before and during the Lebanese civil war. With her typical, somewhat abstract black and white style she visualises her memories lest she never forgets. Her compatriot Lena Merhej (34) depicts daily life in Lebanon in graphic novels.

Zeina Abirached

21-year old Sara Quad (Bahrain) regularly publishes her drawings on Facebook, Twitter and her own blog. Her work on local affairs therefore sets an example of resistance for many young people in the Arab world. Sara addresses sensitive issues and expresses her frustration in a not-so-mild manner.

A cartoon about the recent events related to an anti-Islam movie. Sara Quad


A cartoon about the situation in Myanmar. Sara Quad

The 99

The exhibition also showed a large part of the Kuwaiti comics series ‘The 99’, an Islamic superhero series. The 99 are 99 regular teenagers and adults from all over the world who come into possession of one of the 99 Noor jewels, from which they derive extraordinary powers. The series is implicitly based on Islamic culture, religion and values, as the ‘99’ refers to the 99 qualities or epithets of God in the Quran, who all are applicable to one or the other of the protagonists. But the series attracts a lot of criticism coming from Muslims too, for personifying the 99 qualities of Allah. The author of the concept, Naif al-Mutawa, defends himself by stating that these qualifications are used without the definite article ‘al-‘, which is Allah’s prerogative. This omission serves to remind that ‘the 99’ are just ordinary mortals, and depicts them as human role models, with all their qualities and faults. The series is very popular in both the Gulf States and the United States. In 2010, US president Barack Obama praised ‘The 99’ as “an example of tolerance and lenience“.

The 99

The 99

Chouf! Qra!

In addition, the exhibition offers the public to acquaint itself with the Egyptian satirical magazine Tok Tok, edited by Mohammed Shennawy, and many other remarkable comics and graphic novels from a large number of Arab countries.

This exhibition ran from September 22 through December 2012 in the Pop-up Press Museum, Gabriël Metsustraat 2-6 / Museumplein in Amsterdam. Chouf! Qra! was developed by Joost Pollmann, picture journalist for the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant in cooperation with the Stichting Beeldverhaal Nederland (Dutch Comics Foundation), the Wereldomroep (Radio Netherlands Worldwide) and the Press Museum. An accompanying exhibiton catalogue has been published, authored by Joost Pollmann.

More info: (official site, Dutch only); (English info)

Pictures: Persmuseum

Translated by Mark Eijkman


This post is also available in: Dutch