by Martin Rowson
There's a wonderful old Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch from Not Only...But Also where they're in the National Gallery and Dud comes back from looking at Leonardo's cartoon, complaining that he didn't get it. "Ah yes, Dud," Pete explains. "That's because the sense of humour changes over the centuries. I bet the Medici were pissing themselves over that one, but all these years later we just can't see the joke any more."It Became Neccessary
to Destroy the Planet
in Order to Save It
Plan 9 publishing
Time isn't the only obstacle in humour. Last year I met the Iranian ambassador (at lunch at the Spectator, as it happens, but I won't delay us by describing the expression on that diplomat's face when he heard the shower of expletives that poured from Boris Johnson's gob when his pager went off, summoning him to the Commons, during the cheese course).
Anyway, I asked the ambassador how satire and cartooning were faring in the Islamic Republic. While conceding that the Ayatollahs were strictly out of bounds, he said cartooning and satire were thriving, and promised to send me some books of Iranian cartoons. This he duly did, and it must be said they weren't a barrel of laughs. In fact, as you'd expect, they were exactly like the kind of cartoons that used to appear in Krokodil, the official Soviet 'humourous' periodical, with lots of gruesome images of evil old Uncle Sam stamping his Imperialist jackboot all over the planet, rather mawkish stuff about World Peace and, very occasionally, some mild social satire of the 'Why is that official's wife in front of me in the queue for the pomegranate stall' variety. None of this was surprising, as it is a universal truth that, first, all satire is oppositional and, second, all humour is knocking copy.
Two years ago I attended a cartoon festival in Ayr, a couple of weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Rather bravely, they had a special exhibition of cartoons responding to that event. Many of these, inevitably, were very basic human responses to the atrocity (cartoonists are people too, you know), but along side all the 'Why oh Why?' cartoons were some very powerful and necessarily controversial drawings attacking America from cartoonists from around the world. The one absence, as I observed to the organisers, was any work by Taliban cartoonists. Not that I supposed that there were any: if you live and work in a perfect society, as ordained by God, there's nothing left to satirise, and anyway strict Islamic proscriptions against depicting the human form might tend to make your job rather hard to do.
Not that this means that there are no Islamic cartoonists: far from it. Indeed, cartoonists are being locked up in Islamic countries with depressing regularity, and the leading Palestinian cartoonist was actually assassinated (probably by Islamists) in London only two years ago. Which gets us back to my point about satire being oppositional, and which brings us to It Became Necessary To Destroy The Planet In Order To Save It by Khalil Bendib, an Algerian born ArabAmerican. The second part of his hyphenated identity gives the game away, and explains why this collection of political cartoons is so good: he's got a whole pile of pricks to kick against, from the War on Terror to the American Israel lobby to the instinctive corruption of Bush's Republicans to the Palestinian struggle.
Two points are worth making about Bendib's work. The first is that his drawing style is so American. This is slightly arcane, but in the US all political cartoonists tend to draw like each other, mostly because they have no real national press, unlike in Britain where national newspaper cartoonists rapidly develop their own distinctive style in order to avoid accusations of plagiarism. The result is that Bendib is immediately definable and recognisable as an American cartoonist rather than anything else: inside the tent but, in his case, pissing inside as well. And that brings me to the second point. As a sceptical Old European, I agree with almost everything he says, and find none of it objectionable. In the US, however, post9/11, postThe Patriotism Act and all the rest, this stuff is genuinely incendiary. I know cartoonists who have been sacked, had their doors beaten down by the FBI in the middle of the night and even fled into exile. All power to his pen, then, and buy this book if you have the chance, if only for the cartoon on page 147, of the Christian Right and Fundamentalist Islam brought together in what he captions 'Unnatural Love?' over their opposition to homosexual rights. Now there's an axis of evil if you like, and let's just pray that they continue to hate each other more than they obviously hate the rest of us.
*Khalil Bendib's It became necessary to destroy the planet in order to save it is currently only available from www.plan9.org.