Khalid Albaih is a 31 year old Sudanese cartoonist who has lived in Qatar since 1991. He was born in Romania where his father worked as an ambassador. Here, he tells us what inspired him to depict political scenarios, shares his thoughts on press freedom and explains why he’s unlikely to ever target Qatar in his artwork.
When and where did you become inspired to pursue the art of cartooning?
I was always drawing and using drawing to make fun of teachers at school. Then I went to design school in the UAE. It was hard for me, as it is for any other Middle Easterner or Arab. Your parents always want you to be an engineer or a doctor.
Being from a very political family meant politics was always a big part of my life. It’s the reason I’m here in Qatar. The political situation in Sudan was why we had to leave Romania. That’s why we came here – they sacked my father.
Politics affected me in so many ways, like feeling like I don’t belong anywhere. I started doing political commentary on the situation in the Middle East and Sudan. I always wanted to publish, but I always got refused.
I tried to get published in Sudan, around the Gulf, here (Qatar). Sometimes they (editors) say ‘it’s too risky’, a lot of times they don’t reply. One said I should ‘do something else’.
Then I had my Arab spring before the Arab spring. I decided to go for all the people who escape online. I thought ‘I don’t need somebody to tell me what to do’.
This was part of a problem growing up. It was someone behind a big desk, so disconnected from reality, ruling the country or running the organisation.
I made my website and studied social media, and started using sites like Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.
The way the editors refused your pieces demonstrates there are still certain limits to expression in this region. Do you think cartoons and art help the idea of press freedom?
Of course they improve things. Look at what’s happening now with the Arab Spring. One of the first things to happen was that artists took to the streets and made the walls their canvases. People are not scared anymore.
Things have to be visually appealing, and cartoons are very important. They tell you what’s going on in the whole newspaper in just one panel. Especially now, with Twitter and Facebook, everyone wants news in less than 140 characters.
Sure, things have gone online and are more accessible, but does that really improve press freedom? What publications, for example, have become more free?
Look at Egypt. There’s a political magazine based on cartoons called Sabah el-Khair. During (former leader Hosni) Mubarak’s, time it was like an advert for Mubarak. They had to do that for them to be able to criticise other stuff inside the magazine. Now they make fun of everyone. This magazine was also part of my inspiration to be a cartoonist. My father used to buy it every Wednesday from a local shop in Bin Mahmoud (in Doha). I thought it was amazing. I loved the art and different styles, and I just like how brave and smart they are.
Have you ever made Qatar the subject of your work?
Yes, I made some cartoons about Al Jazeera being a strong brand. It’s gone from being perceived as a ‘terrorist channel’ to a world leader in media. This will make every Middle Easterner, Muslim and Arab person proud. We’ve never had a voice before, and I’m very proud to be a part of this.
But have you ever criticised the country in your cartoons?
I don’t think there is anything that could be critical of Qatar. This is why we’re here. To tell you the truth, I love it here. Young people are in power…The state does everything it can do for citizens. When I grew up, I had free education, free healthcare. Pens and pencils were given to me at school. I don’t know about now, but it was amazing. They give you everything you need. You live here and it’s safe, you never have to even lock your doors.
What if one day, Qatar did something you felt so passionately about that you didn’t agree with. Would you cover it?
Everybody’s happy here. If there’s worry or dislike, people have a voice and they can change it. Look what happened at The Pearl-Qatar and the sale of alcohol. They closed down because people didn’t like it.
I’m very proud of Qatar and I’m proud to be from here. The decisions taken right now by Qatar, with countries like Libya, for example, are an example of why I’m proud of the country. For me, I think they’re doing the right thing. They’re not trying to help a certain party, they’re supporting people. I cheer for them and I want every Arab country to be like this.
Does that mean you also think that Qatar enjoys a high level of press freedom?
I think there’s a lot of freedom. At the same time, it’s like a transition period from the old mindset to the new. They’re trying to change a lot of that. A lot of people are stuck in the old ways, but it’s going to change soon. Press freedom will definitely have a future here.
Look how big that aim is. How small is Doha? It’s very small place and look at all the criticism it’s getting.
What would help catalyse more press freedom? Do you think more Qataris need to work in fields like media to weaken the mistrust that exists out there towards the industry?
A lot of Qataris are now doing that. There are many in Al Jazeera working on social media, for example. The mistrust will be overcome in time.
What about press freedom in the region. Has it improved, overall?
It’s not 100 percent better, but it’s definitely a good change.
You’ve got almost 1,000 friends on Facebook and close to 2,000 followers on Twitter. You regularly post your latest cartoons to both sites. What kind of reactions do you receive?
Sometimes I get a message on Facebook or Twitter telling me ‘It’s not right’, and that I’m ‘cheering for the wrong side’. With the Syrian revolution, a lot of people contacted me telling me it’s a ‘conspiracy. I’m not with any government, I just believe in positive change.
I get messages of support as well, definitely. A lot of young people contact me, Sudanese people, saying my work is exactly what they think. I’ve been approached by art dealers too. But things change when it goes into money – the message risks being lost.
You are probably getting to the point now where you inspire others. Which artists inspire you?
Naji al Ali. He was a Palestinian who was assassinated in 1987. He used to work with the poet Ahmad Matar. Most of my works are inspired by his (Matar’s) words.
He’s so straightforward and straight to the point. I try to get my style from there.
Everything else in the world of Middle East politics is so much talk. We grew up with politicians who would talk for hours, which meant we couldn’t watch Saturday morning cartoons. It made me hate them! You could shorten their speeches to two words. Nothing ever happens.
I decided to merge all of those ideas. Most of my cartoons are ‘no comment’, I try my best not to write anything. They have to be visually appealing – even if you’re not into politics, the cartoon should at least leave you interested to know more.
Khalid Albaih is a cartoonist who regularly contributes to the Doha Centre for Media Freedom. He is also the host of our World Press Freedom Day event on May 1 at Qatar National Convention Centre. He usually works as the head of multimedia in the public arts department at Qatar Museums Authority.