Tarek Shahin is a brilliant cartoonist with a lot to say.
I made a strong connection with Shahin when I read the first strip in Rise: The Story of the Egyptian Revolution As Written Shortly Before It Began.
On page one, under the title of “Epilogue,” and dated 4 February 2011, a female reporter with what can only be called an “appropriately serious” facial expression, styling a million-dollar hairdo, showing a slight hint of cleavage, standing in front of the mob scene in Tahrir Square holding a microphone, informs her viewers, “I’m standing in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo where millions of Egyptians are demanding an end to authoritarian rule. After fighting the protesters with tear gas, live ammo and weaponized camels, the ruling regime is now offering concessions but to no avail.”
Cutting to a politician, who looks a little like Wimpy from the old Popeye cartoons without the hamburgers and hat, we see him with arms raised pleading with the crowd, “We promise change. But we need time for a smooth transition!”
Pulling back to catch the reaction of the crowd, Shahin shows the politician as he continues to plead, asking rhetorically, “What part of stability are you against?!”
Hidden in the crowd is the face of someone, with fist raised, shouting, “The ‘stab’ part!”
The Epilogue is just the introduction to Rise. It marks the end of the Mubarak regime. What follows in the book are two and a half years of comic strips originally published in The Daily News Egypt under the title of “Al Khan.”
A cast of characters deliver high impact satiric blows to the media mouthpieces from whom the news of such dramatic change of state is heard around the world. Al Khan is the fictitious news publisher in Cairo for whom the main characters work.
There is Omar, the grandson of the publisher, coming back to Egypt after a raucous lifestyle in Europe where he had lived with full abandonment of the cultural mores of his upbringing. Frustrated with Egypt’s cultural restrictions, Omar is less concerned about freedom than he is about enjoying his lifestyle. With a heavy Narcissistic tendency, Omar is naive about the purpose of the revolution, failing to see what all the big fuss is about. But, he plays along, trying his best to get a grip on what is taking place out on the streets.
The zealous editor, the beautiful Nada, knows what all the fuss is about. In fact, she knows more than anyone else. Just ask her. Fully engaged in the pursuit of justice, Nada marks her enemies with broad strokes of red. Her flowing black hair always in place, she never looks up from her work to notice that the revolution is lagging so far behind her. The perfect antagonist to Omar, she is the boss even though Omar is the grandson of the publisher. This duet is brilliantly captured by Shahin.
There is one person in the cast of “Al Khan” to whom Nada listens for advice, “The Big Falafel.” Nada’s Obi-Wan Kenobi sits hour after hour on the streets of Cairo in Ghandi-like attire, but with a lot more meat on his bones.
There is Yunan Salib, the Coptic photoblogger and friend of Omar, forty years old and still living with his mother. He struggles to find love, though love is irrelevant. He straddles tradition and progressive ideals, rarely escaping the expectations of his parents. This is why he takes pictures, I suppose. He can see what’s important, but he cannot seem to put words to his frustration.
Dr. Anwar, a conservative Muslim, lends the traditionalist’s voice to the mix. Not particularly introspective, to Anwar tradition is, well, just tradition. His conversations with the spiritual leaders give readers a glimpse of the struggle between pragmatism and traditional values. Shahin uses these dialogues as commentary on traditional Muslim values, juicy stuff for the contemplative mind.
There are others, many of whom have convenient bit parts in the drama that Al Khan both reports and creates in Egyptian society.
Rise is political satire at its best. The caricatures match the characters beautifully. Nothing is left untouched. From religion to love, gang rape to premarital sex, Ramadan to prodigalism, Tarek Shahin covers the gamut.
Near the surface at all times is what amounts to a fair warning to heads of state in countries like Syria where regime change is inevitable. Volatile topics are portrayed satirically with much at stake for the creative voices like Shahin. With no holds barred, while recognizing the power of graphic creations accompanied by selective words, state’s do change, and people do win their freedom.
At about 30 years of age, what does Tarek Shahin have in mind for his next project? No doubt, it will be rich, funny, and truthful, so pay attention.