Rima Marrouch: Syrian artist draws the faults of a divided country
A universal critic usually makes few friends, but artist Juan Zero is popular precisely because he is critical of all sides. Juan, who uses a pseudonym, represents a new generation of political cartoonists in Syria who draw on a tradition of artistic satire that existed before the Baath Party came to power in the 1960’s .
Many young Syrians appreciate Juan’s caricatures not only because they are up to date with political, social, and cultural realities on the ground, but also because he equally critiques the Syrian regime and the opposition, the status quo and the revolution.
“He criticizes mistakes whether they are by the regime or protesters,” says Alaa, a Syrian activist. “He tries to repair, what we call, ‘the track of the revolution.’ He is criticizing the revolution and breaking the air of infallibility of some of the opposition individuals and the Free Syrian Army.”
One of the characters found in Juan’s work is the military recruit who is caught between two sides: officers loyal to the government and rebels fighting against it. The world through the eyes of an impoverished army soldier is not a perspective often found in Syria. And although the soldier holds a gun and Juan holds a pen, he finds common ground because even his own position of non-violence is conflicted.
“During the war it is difficult to differentiate between the good people and the evil ones,” he says. “I’m simply with the voice of reason.”
“In the beginning I would be very harsh on pro-government supporters or people with the government, but my views have changed. I started believing that there should be communication between us, that we should send a message. At the end [government supporters] have Syrian citizenship too and they will remain.”
I came across his work a few months ago and immediately became a fan. Recently, I finally met the man behind the work. With a shaved head, wearing a red t-shirt and the black backpack he carries everywhere with him, Juan comes across as humble; unlike many other artists I’ve met. In his previous life Juan was a graphic designer. But with the start of the uprising he began drawing caricatures.
“[My first caricature] showed the Syrian president as if he was committing suicide,” he recalls. “In the background there was a hand, dressed in military clothes, pushing him for a military solution. I believed and still believe that cracking down militarily on your own people is suicide.”
The next drawing had a different target: a man crossing one leg into Syria and taking a photo of himself, mocking what many call “political tourism” to Syria, where activists and politicians visit for a short time just to say they have been inside the country. Juan himself left Syria on December 14, 2011 after plain-clothes intelligence started asking about him in his favorite coffee house in the Rawda neighborhood of Damascus, where many artists writers and intellectuals gather. Now he also finds common ground with the Syrians from all backgrounds who have fled the country and long to return to their homeland.
“Everyone is ready to go back,” he says.
But of course everyone can’t go back. In a recent post in Arabcartoon, Juan spread news of the arrest of his colleague Akram Raslan by military intelligence at the Al-Fidaa newspaper in Damascus where he works. He published caricatures of the Syrian president on social media and Al Jazeera’s website.
Being a caricaturist is still a dangerous job inside Syria.
Caption: “Syrian border”
Caption: ” Sir, Turkey is shelling us what we shall we do? Hello, hello …” (no answer)
Caption: The recruit is telling the officer: “Sir, I told you not to go to Aleppo” in reference to the battle in Aleppo.
Caption: It reads: Free Syrian army and it mocks that Syrians don’t want thugs and thieves as rebels
Edits: Andrew Bossone
Rima Marrouch is a Syrian-Polish freelance reporter. She was brought up in Homs in the 90s, when Homs was a happier place. She has reported from Libya and Syria for the LA Times. She also worked for the “Committee to Protect Journalists/Middle East and North Africa Program”. Today, she is based in Lebanon, in Beirut.
© Photo Rima Marrouch: Everyday Rebellion, a cross-media project on nonviolent struggle all over the world; Supported by ARTE
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