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December 8, 2019

‘Laugh at what’s hurting you’: Lebanon cartoonists stir debate


December 8, 2019

BEIRUT: On the edges of a protest in Lebanon’s capital, 24-year-old cartoonist Mohamad Nohad Alameddine bites through sticky tape and plasters one of his political sketches to a side wall.

"I haven’t been able to work with newspapers, so instead I come down and stick them up in the street," says the unemployed artist, who graduated this year with a master’s degree in press cartoons.

Until this autumn, Alameddine had been poking fun at his country’s political and economic ills in sketches he posted online.

But from October 17, anti-government protests swept across the country, giving him a broader audience as protesters denounced the very same issues he had been drawing all along.

In public spaces, he and friends stuck up gags about failing electricity and trash management plans, as well as sketches mocking a political class perceived as corrupt.

In one cartoon, a skinny man stripped down to his underpants stands in front of a leader carried in on a gilded throne.

"We want your underwear to pay back the debt," says the moustachioed politician, clutching a lit cigar.

Now in the grips of a dollar liquidity crunch, Lebanon is staggering under a public debt of $86 billion.

Wherever there was a protest, "I’d go down and stick up a related cartoon," says Alameddine, who signs his drawings as Nougature.

"A lot of people encouraged me." In late October, the government stepped down, but a deeply divided political class has yet to form a new one.

Last month, Alameddine drew his same long-nosed politician clutching the leg of his throne.

"Don’t worry my love, I’d never leave you," says the character he has called President Nazeeh, dressed in a rabbit-themed pyjama onesie.

Alameddine says the fictional leader is his way of criticising the traditional ruling class without naming names.

"President Nazeeh headed a militia in the civil war and then became a political figure" after the 1975-1990 conflict, he says.

"We see how he deals with people, what he does under the table, what he says in public, how he manages corruption rings -- but in a funny way," he says.

"In the end you want to laugh at what’s hurting you."

On the other side of Beirut, 31-year-old Bernard Hage pens away at his digital drawing board, trying out his latest idea for a cartoon.

He says he gladly swapped a career in advertising for the arts several years ago, including drawing a stream of jokes under the name The Art of Boo.

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