Born during the Algerian war of independence and raised as a refugee in Morocco, Khalil Bendib says he was born to be a political cartoonist. From early drawings of the banned Algerian flag as a three year-old to his current impassioned and intellectually-informed cartoons, his personal experience of conflict has compelled him to be a voice against injustice everywhere. Yet this has not stopped him from seeing the funny side of life; he is constantly poking fun at the world’s hypocritical leaders and he even launched a spoof campaign to become the ‘Prez in the Fez’. Now living in Berkeley, California, Bendib talks to Arwa Aburawa about Obama, the recent war on Gaza, democracy in the Middle East and why some have labelled his cartoons as anti-Semitic.
What impact does your Arab background have on your work?
It has everything to do with it. I was born during the golden age of Arab nationalism when Algeria was fighting for its independence, which cost the country a million lives. No Algerian family escaped that war unscathed. It was a genocide. So my first drawings, even as a three-year-old, already were political in nature. I remember obsessively drawing valorous Algerian soldiers saluting the banned flag of Algeria. In 1973, during the so-called Yom Kippur War, I was only 16 but I remember wanting to go volunteer to fight against Israel! That is how much the plight of Arabs and liberation has been central to my consciousness, and still is.
How do people react to your work?
Readers either love me or hate me, think I’m the coolest thing since sliced bread or despise everything about me. I have been censored, received repeated death threats from Israelis and assorted Zionists, but I have also received the most amazing feedback; the sweetest kudos and the warmest support from scores of sympathetic people, whether they be Palestinians, Muslims, African Americans or progressives of all stripes and walks of life, from the world over.
What is your response to allegations that your cartoons are anti-Semitic?
That old allegation has been by now so completely discredited, so completely emptied of any meaning for being too often used against everyone who dares to criticize Israel – including righteous Jews – that it has actually become a badge of honour. If you are fighting for justice in Palestine and they DO NOT call you an anti-Semite, then something is wrong. Let alone the fact that, as an Arab, I am more Semitic than most of my accusers…
What hopes do you have for Barack Obama’s Presidency?
I had very mixed feelings about Obama; on the one hand, it makes me happy for all oppressed people of colour to have one of their own in the White House, which is symbolically quite beautiful and even hopeful. Perhaps a coloured person being in the White House might even have an encouraging effect on Arabs and Muslims. At the same time, I’m completely and utterly disgusted with Obama’s early capitulation to the status quo. I do not hold much hope that he will change once in office as he has already proven how beholden to all the wrong interest he truly is, not just the Zionists. The only way something positive will come out of his tenure in the Oval Office is if all the people who fought so hard to have him elected put tremendous and continual pressure on him to keep him to his elevated rhetoric and promises.
What motivations were behind your spoof campaign to become the 44th president of the USA?
The same motivations that drive the cartoons: to use humour as a tool to open minds that would otherwise stay shut. Also, having this tongue-in-cheek campaign might help bring out the real thing some day, just as Denzel Washington and other popular black artists and actors have made the notion of a black president imaginable and possible.
Your cartoons have been quite outspoken about the Palestine-Israel conflict, what is your opinion about the recent situation in Gaza?
Sadly and undeniably, what we are witnessing in Gaza is a form of genocide. Just because the Jews of Europe suffered from a horrible genocide themselves 65 years ago does not mean that some of them are therefore incapable of committing genocide themselves today. It is a sad fact that very often a victim can later turn into a victimizer. It is pretty sick to the point that increasingly more Jews are recoiling from this horror and disassociating themselves from it.
You have previously criticized the Middle East’s version of ‘Daddy-Mocracy’. Do you think that there is a future for real democracy in the Arab world?
Yes, I am hopeful but it will take time and effort and we first need to become stronger and more independent as a people. Once countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have finally cut loose from their alliances with Imperialism and Zionism, the following generations inshallah will have a chance to correct their political systems in an authentic way that is not blindly aping the West, and become more modern and democratic.
How do you feel about 2009 and the future? Optimistic or are you too realistic?
I am quite optimistic for the long run, but I think things will get worse before they get better. Ironically, the silver lining is that the powerful are overreaching, making stupid mistakes and bringing on their own demise. Israel, by overtly trying to destroy the heroic Palestinians is actually making Arab resistance much stronger, determined and more resilient. Another source of hope is the much dreaded economic meltdown, which to me, is proof that greed in the long run destroys the greedy. Too much imbalance in the end brings back a saner, more balanced world, and I feel that we are on the cusp of a lot of positive change.
If you had to be remembered for one thing what would it be?
Er…That I was instrumental in bringing back Fez fashion?
I do not know. That I spoke truth to power, stuck to my guns and refused to cave in…