Palestinian cartoonist chronicles incarceration in “White and Black”

Mohammad Sabaaneh, a Palestinian cartoonist, speaks in Olympia about his five month incarceration in an Israeli prison, chronicled in a new book “White and Black.” (Photo by John Stang.)

To Mohammad Sabaaneh, being a political prisoner wasn’t heroic or glamorous.

It was being being human, yearning for family, scared, hungry, isolated.

For five months in 2013 in a detention center in Israel, he approached his sentence as a journalistic assignment, stealing paper to sketch ideas about being imprisoned that later became political cartoons. Those cartoons — mostly printed in the Palestinian West Bank newspaper al-Hayat al-Jadida or The Electronic Intifada Web site — are now in a book “White And Black.

Sabaaneh, 38, of the West Bank city of Ramallah is now touring the United States to promote the book, including a stop last week at Olympia’s Orca Books.

Born in Kuwait and attending high school in Jordan, Sabaaneh endeded up as an artist in the politically volatile Israeli-occupated West Bank — a zone roughly the size of King County with more than 3 million residents. This patchwork of Israeli  and Palestinian towns and settlements is walled off, and is a maze of barb wire barriers and checkpoints.

“To visit your friends, you have to get permit. … 1.8 million Palestinians are in a prison,” Sabaaneh said.

He moved to the West Bank just before the Second Intifada — a complicated, messy Palestinian revolt against the Israelis — occurred from 2000 to 2005.

One memory of the Second Intifada that haunts Sabaaneh is a friend asking him “to draw a portrait of me when an Israeli solider kills me….  I heard two weeks later that he was killed by an Israeli soldier,” Sabaaneh said.

Sabaaneh’s career as a political cartoonist grew afterwards.

In 2013, he was arrested at a West Bank checkpoint, supposedly for carrying a message for Hamas. However, Sabaaneh said his arrest was Israeli retaliation for his political cartoons. So he spent five months in prison, much of it in solitary confinement.

The Israelis interrogated him frequently. To keep his sanity, Sabaaneh decided to record his experiences an artist/’journalist, sketching on stolen pieces of paper.

In the preface to “White and Black,” Sabaaneh wrote: “In Cell 28, in the interrogation center at Jalama, my ‘home’ while I was in solitary confinement, I came to realize that we Palestinians have a duty to show ourselves in a realistic light — not quite as ordinary people (because people who are able to live in the conditions of the life they face are anything but ordinary) but not quite as legendary heroes either.”

After he was released, Sabaaneh’s rough sketches evolved into political cartoons. A later trip to Spain exposed him to Picasso’s anti-war mural of the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War, which greatly influenced Sabaaneh’s style.

Sabaaneh’s style also calls to mind a grim black-and-white-and-gray mix of Picasso and Gahan Wilson.

His cartoons are crowded to reflect the cramped conditions of the West Bank. Frequently, many stories or symbolic characters are scattered within a Sabaaneh political cartoon. Walls, barbed wire and checkpoints are commonly found in his drawings. The people are gloomy.

“To be a Palestinian is to feel a kinship with people around the world who suffer,” he said.

Sometimes, the real point of the cartoon is at the edge of the drawing and not in the center.

The families of political prisoners suffer as week and are usually forgotten, Sabaaneh said.

“No one cares about the families. It is important to talk about them,” he said. Some drawings reflect this, including one of both a prisoner and a guard daydreaming about their families; the guard being able to go home after his shift ends.

in 2015 , Sabaaneh got in trouble with the Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank, for a political cartoon in al-Hayat al-Jadida of a man with a red heart-shaped satchel who is standing on a  globe while sprinkling rain drops or seeds on the Earth. The words “Prophet Muhammad” in English and Arabic are next to the man’s head.

Most Muslims considered images of the Muhammad as a forbidden form of idolatry. The Palestinian Authority’s leadership accused Sabaaneh of being sacrilegious. However, Sabaaneh said the man in the drawing represents the peaceful messages of Muhammad.

He said the controversy was a way for enemies within the Palestinian world to attack him because he will criticize Palestinian leaders as well as Israelis.

“Some politicians want to use the cartoons to attack me,” he said. “I don’t belong to any political party. That is so I can criticize all.”

Mohammad Sabaaneh, a Palestinian cartoonist, speaks at Orca Books in Olympia. (Photo by John Stang.)
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