Mohammad Sabaaneh was released from an Israeli prison four years ago. He had been incarcerated for five months, spending almost two weeks in solitary confinement. Israeli forces held Mohammad in administrative detention, meaning they needed no charge and did not send him to trial. During one of his interrogation sessions, he managed to steal some paper and a pencil to begin sketching his ideas for images documenting his time in prison, smuggling them out with every prisoner who was released. When Mohammad himself was eventually released, he collected his sketches and completed the cartoons that make up his new book “Palestine in Black and White”.
The first image he completed was of Gaza. Drawn in 2014, when Gaza was suffering under Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” that led to the death of 2,251 Palestinians, including 547 children, it shows dozens of grotesque characters pointing rifles, tanks and missiles at a small child sitting atop a tiny piece of land, meant to represent the civilian population of Gaza targeted by Israeli bombardment. The USA looks on from a distance, his stars-and-stripes hat easily distinguishable from the soldiers’ helmets. On the right, Gulf leaders and the world look the other way, ignoring the plight of Gaza’s almost two million besieged inhabitants.
This brutal and explicit style is replicated throughout “Palestine in Black and White”, but Mohammad treats each of his images with the care and attention to detail of a fine artist. He explains that while first exploring the idea for a book: “I noticed that most cartoonists in the Arab world care more about the content of the cartoon than the artwork.” Mohammad believes this is because most are influenced by Naji Al-Ali – the famous Palestinian cartoonist and creator of Handala who was assassinated in London in 1987 – who “cared mostly about the political position and what’s going on around him.” Mohammad argues however that “if you just want to care about content you can write about the topic, but if you are a cartoonist you have to care about art.”
“That’s why I started to improve my style and to try find something new, to start improving my characters, scenes and tools,” he adds.
Mohammad went back to basics, shunning the iPad and computer-drawn cartoons preferred by so many of his peers and opting instead for water colours, ink and pencil. The influence of fine art is clear to see in many of Mohammad’s pieces, with elements of surrealism clearly visible to even the untrained eye: Dali-esque clocks hang over checkpoint barriers meant to depict the daily reality of West Bank Palestinians, people’s suffering is crammed into the frame in a way that evokes Picasso’s Guernica. Mohammad acknowledges these artistic influences, saying that “in 2014 I spent three days in Spain looking for the Guernica. I just needed to see it. Friends and colleagues who saw my work always told me ‘it looks like Guernica’ – while initially this was an accident, after my trip I decided to consciously invoke this style in some of my pieces.”
There is no doubt that Mohammad’s images are dense. Readers of the book will find themselves drawn time and again to each of its pages, noticing new details and hidden symbolism upon each viewing. Mohammad has stayed true to many of those symbols familiar to Palestinian art history, for example the cactus as a symbol of sumud or steadfastness, the key as a symbol of the “right of return” or the tree as a symbol of rootedness in the land. Yet Mohammad has put his own twist on even these long-entrenched codes. He explains “when we talk about the olive tree this isn’t just an economic issue but a cultural one. Israel takes Palestinians’ trees and replants on their settlements [in the occupied West Bank], so when you talk about olive trees it is something related to our history.”
Mohammad has taken the image of the tree one step further, utilising not just the olive tree synonymous with the West Bank and Jerusalem but also the orange tree. He says:
I was speaking with a friend and he told me that when we as artists use the olive tree as a Palestinian symbol, we drop our right to coastal cities like Haifa and Jaffa. There we have always grown orange trees, and so these are featured in my work as well.
Asked why he decided to publish his series of cartoons in black and white, Mohammad explains that “I love black and white! I didn’t necessarily choose black and white when I started, as I don’t always draw only in monochrome, but when I was thinking about a title for the book it made sense to me.” He continues: “When I started a Master’s programme at university as a ‘conflict resolution’ student, what shocked me was that everyone around the world called the situation in Israel-Palestine ‘conflict’.”
What’s happening here isn’t conflict – for conflict you could find compromise between the two sides – what is happening here is occupation, it’s black and white. It’s also settler colonisation, and that’s more difficult to understand because occupation is temporary, but they [the Israelis] want to stay here and expel the indigenous people and steal your identity, your tree.
Mohammad’s political stance can be seen running throughout his work, from the way many of his characters are drawn without mouths to represent the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike or without eyes to represent the influence of the occupation on Palestinians. He explains “eyes are the key to understanding any human being – we can understand whether someone is kind, happy, sad, all of these things. But under the occupation humans have become very ugly, and the oppressor influences the oppressed.”
He adds: “when I left prison and looked in the mirror I could hardly recognise myself – I looked tired, scared and ugly after spending so long in solitary confinement. It’s very hard to spend so much time inside a prison, and I don’t try to portray that in a heroic way.”
One such image that demonstrates Mohammad’s influences is the piece entitled “How will history judge the torment of Palestine”. A full page spread, the image shows famous historical characters like Edward Said, Malcolm X, Karl Marx, Mandela and Che Guevara looking on at the carnage of Israel-Palestine below. Israeli bulldozers are stopped in their tracks by a resolute Benazir Bhutto, as Fidel Castro tries to crush the vehicle from above. Martin Luther King stretches over Israel’s Separation Wall to tell a frightened Palestinian child “you have a dream”. While Ghandi stands proudly flying the Palestinian flag.
In evoking characters from the 1960s and 1970s – the heyday of Palestinian resistance under the PLO – Mohammad believes “you can capture the interest of all the people around the world and explain that what is happening in Palestine is a revolutionary thing, like what the likes of Malcolm X and Che Guevara did.” Mohammed says that “that’s what we should be doing – putting Palestine in these international contexts whether it’s Black Lives Matter in the United States or the history of the Native Americans – because it makes it easier for people around the world to understand what is happening in Palestine.”
It is images like these that attest to the underlying aim of Mohammad’s work – to spread awareness of the plight facing Palestinians. Mohammad explains that “our mission should be to focus on spreading awareness among international audiences, rather than in the Arab world. The people of the Arab world know what’s going on in Palestine, so there’s nothing more to be done there.” Yet he stresses that in the international arena “our mission now is to raise awareness, not just in the UK or USA but in China, Australia – wherever I can reach people I will try to do it.”
To this end, Mohammad is already thinking about his next project. During our interview he showed me some of his latest images, including a table-length drawing of the history of women’s issues, from the moment Eve took the fateful apple from the biblical tree to the modern-day challenges facing women in a social media age. He explains, “in the past I didn’t do enough about women’s issues, so I’m redressing this now,” demonstrating a refreshingly self-aware approach to his evolving role as an artist.
Mohammad also showed me another image dubbed “Humans in black and white”, which explores some of the biggest challenges of our age including climate change and divisions between the world’s people. He believes that “while these works are very different from my book, it’s very important for me as a Palestinian cartoonist not just to talk about Palestine. Every issue leads into the other as part of a universal ideology.”