Interview with Sudanese Cartoonist Khalid Al Baih
Khalid Al Baih is best known for his political satire cartoons (dubbed Khartoons), which are one of the freshest and most talented artistic commentaries on Sudanese and Middle Eastern politics; mostly circulated on the internet and social media platforms. Khalid shot to prominence in 2011 at the height of the revolutions in the Arab world often referred to as the “Arab Spring”. His political cartoons resonated with protesters in Tahrir square, predicted the evolution of the protest movement in the region and thoroughly followed the events in the region, including in his native Sudan. To reach a global audience Khalid mainly used social media platforms such as facebook, twitter, tumblr, flicker and instagram.
In this interview Khalid Al Baih talks to us about his journey and the power of social media in enabling artists with a social justice message.
Sawtna: How did your passion for cartoons start? And how did it evolve to political cartoons?
Khalid: I was into art. I liked drawing ever since I was a kid. I remember tracing newspapers. And I was always into comics, and was reading comic books in Sudan when I first started to read in Arabic and English. There were all these comic books translated in Lebanon. I loved that, and I always wanted to be an an artist.
When we had to leave Sudan and come to Doha, my father used to buy two Egyptian cartoon-based magazines. One of them was called, Sabah El Kheir and the other one is called Rose al Youssef; they are both very well known Egyptian magazines. I loved cartoons. My dad will spend hours reading the magazine, and I couldn’t wait for him to finish it so I can take it and copy all the cartoons.
Off course like all the Sudanese “refugees” or diaspora, we all come from political backgrounds, with educated parents. My father was a diplomat, and when the revolution happened [in 1985], he had to leave like a lot of people, including my uncle who was a president at some point. So we come from a very political family. Growing up I heard a lot about communists and Islamists; and al ingaz and Al Bashir.
I loved cartoons, and how they put everything in a nutshell, with different styles and they look amazing. Even if you are not into politics, it’s the first thing that you turn to see. If you read a daily newspaper you see the cartoon, and it’s probably relative to what society is going through at that time. I love the idea of it, because most of my friends and the people I knew from my generation never really liked politics. Not that they didn’t like it, but they were told by their parents to keep away from it. Because, you know, “it’s very dangerous to be involved in politics, and it will stand in the way of your future, to be an engineer or a doctor.” As you have to be of course!
So [cartoons] was always the way to introduce the people around me to politics, in a very fun and short way.
People don’t read anymore, they went from reading books in my father’s’ generation to reading magazines, and now to just reading posts on facebook, and one-liners on twitter. Now it’s even worse, they just want to see images on instagram.
The first political cartoon I did was during the student union elections in my university. I was at the meeting and every speaker was saying what the one before him said, it was the same thing…they’ were all lying basically. So I used it for a cartoon and everyone loved it. And it went on from there.
I wanted to become a professional cartoonist/artist, but of course being from the region you had to be an engineer or a doctor. So I studied interior design engineering, because it had the word engineering in it.
I came here [to Qatar], and started applying to newspapers. I had a had a job, but really wanted my cartoons to be published. In the cartoonist’s world, for your cartoons to be published, you have to be published. Which doesn’t even make sense. I started applying everywhere, but nobody wanted my cartoons; because, first of all, I didn’t have the name to put out such political stuff.
Secondly, my cartoons looked different. And all the editors I was talking to were really old, and had no connection to the youth. They had no idea what a computer was; and were always sitting on huge desks with not one computer in sight, and big piles of paper.
That was around the time the Arab Spring started, and I was very upset. Bouazizi burned himself and I started a Facebook page. It was the same reaction we had all over the Arab world, and we had no choice but to be online, because it was the only place to speak freely and be understood by people your age from different regions. I started a Facebook page, [to put my work on it], and with the help of my colleagues word started getting around. When the Arab Spring happened, I started doing work about Tunisia, Egypt and then Libya–and it just spread.
A lot of activists and civil rights movements used my work. And because it is free online, under a creative commons license, it really got a lot views and got used in a lot spaces.
Sawtna: Tell us about the moment you realized your cartoons have a regional or global audience beyond your native Sudan?
Khaild: There were a couple of moments. The first one is when I was contacted by a journalist in Brazil asking me if they could use my work because they saw it online. To me that was amazing. The biggest moment was when one of my friends stenciled my cartoon in Lebanon. Then a day after someone stenciled my cartoon in Tahrir Square, during the Egyptian revolution, three days before Mubarak stepped down. I remember doing the cartoon on Friday morning and by Friday night it had a lot of views and was shared widely – it went viral. When I got an image of my cartoon used in Tahrir Square, I felt like I was part of the revolution.
During that time, there was a lot of unity among the youth and everybody was cheering; the change has finally arrived. There were no borders, as we were all brothers and all supporting each other. I thought it was amazing that I was part of that time and part of that narrative.
It was a cartoon called “Musir” and it had Mubarak’s face with the word “musir” written next to it. “Musir” in Arabic is written with the same letters that are used for “Masr,” which is the Arabic name for Egypt, but with different vowel marks and it translates to “determined” or “insisting”. This was three days before Mubarak stepped down, so it implied that he was insisting to stay.
Sawtna: Your cartoons and your message would not have reached a global audience if not for your strategic use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs). Can you tell us how you specifically used social media to expand your reach as an artist and cartoonist?
The reason I specifically liked Twitter among all the social media tools was the one-to-one dialogue. It didn’t matter who the person was, you could communicate with them personally.
Khalid: When I first started posting my cartoons I posted them on Hi5 … it was the introduction to social networking for us. After that Faceboook started getting popular, and I was already on facebook. Before my official page I started posting on my personal page, and people were liking them.. At the beginning of the Arab Spring I was interested in Twitter because I read a lot of news and “twitter feeds” were mentioned a lot since Tunisians were using Twitter a lot. Like most people I had an account but I wasn’t using it. Then I starting using my Twitter account and little by little I started to like it.
The reason I specifically liked Twitter among all the social media tools was the one-to-one dialogue. It didn’t matter who the person was, you could communicate with them personally – you could speak to the journalists, you could speak to the newspapers, you could speak to the magazines, you could speak to whoever is running that account. In general that is what marketing 2.0 is all about, the emotional one-to-one connection. That is where I get a lot of advice on my cartoons. People write comments and I always read the comments and reply back. You see the dialogue among people as well. Some people with, some people against, as well as those who say it will never work out. I am always excited to see the comments.
I then started to use Tumblr. I tried to follow the trends and go to where the people are, because this is what you have to do now [in order to make it]. However it is extremely hard to be exclusively online, because you are at the mercy of the scroll of the thumb, because people usually view these things on their phones. There is a lot of junk on the internet, but there also a lot of amazing things, so I try to make my cartoons as visually pleasing as possible. I know that I have five seconds to grab that person’s attention and tell them about the message that I want to give. I try to make the cartoons simple, and I try to get the [complete] message through in five seconds.
Sawtna: It seems that you’re saying that there is not one social media tool that works best, and that a combination is the best way to reach a diverse group or audience.
Khalid: Exactly. Look at the Chinese now. They are using WeChat instead of Whatsapp, now they are switching to Kik. It’s all about these new things that are happening, and it’s all about what’s in fashion now – what are most people using? What are the young people using? What are the professional people using?
Sawtna: What advice would you give someone to convince them to try Twitter, for example.
Khalid: It took people about five years to get used to Facebook and understand what it is. As I said it’s all about what’s in fashion right now. For the average person there is no fun in using Twitter. For journalists and activists I would suggest to them opening a Twitter account, because that is where all the other activists and journalists are. This is where you become a citizen journalist, and this is where your views are seen. You’re trying to reflect what is going on in your country and this is the best way to do it right now. If you are an artist or an activist and you want to get your work out there, this is the best route.
Sawtna: What about Tumblr? A lot of people blog but less people are familiar with Tumblr because it is something, as you said, fashionable with the artistic community.
Khalid: I personally love Tumblr. If I am not in the mood for politics Tumblr is more fun for me because it is very creative. There are a lot of artists on Tumblr and there is an award now for artists on it.
It’s a blogging platform, mostly used by visual artists. It is hands down the easiest way to make a blog. You just register and you can have a blog in your name, and you can reblog from anywhere. You get to follow a lot of people and they follow you back, and there are a lot of creative people on it.