Portrait of an artist as a young Palestinian

MENASSAT has been featuring the work of the Palestinian cartoonist Nidal El-Khairy for a few months now. Bitter, humorous, dark, and unflinching El-Khairy talked to MENASSAT about his work.
Nidal El-Khairy comments on the BBC's refusal to broadcast a Gaza aid request © Nidal El-Khairy

BEIRUT, February 13, 2009 (MENASSAT) - Palestinian cartoonist and illustrator Nidal El-Khairy has talent - that's not a question.

But that's not what separates his work from that of other cartoonists and illustrators working in the Arab world. It's his ability to deal with complicated issues in a way that's accessible. 

As the Israeli assault on Gaza worsened in December, MENASSAT featured one of El-Khairy's cartoons called "Gaza," (right) and it became MENASSAT's iconic depiction of the conflict because it spoke to a population helpless to stop the violence.

El-Khairy's drawings appear figurative, but the message is always transparent.

The 31-year old illustrator and cartoonist told MENASSAT that he has been drawing since he was a kid, and undoubtedly his family's trips to Ramallah as a young boy gave him early insight into what is the most intractable conflict in the Arab world - Israel-Palestine.

After completing a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts from the University of Massachusetts (USA), El-Khairy moved to Montreal, Canada where he spent four and a half years developing his craft and his political awareness.

In 2006, he moved back to Amman, where his family first settled after being displaced from Ramleh in historic Palestine during the 1948 Nakba - the 'catastrophe' which marked the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians during the formation of the Israeli state.

MENASSAT talked to El-Khairy to find out more about what makes this bold illustrator tick.


MENASSAT: Can you give us a bit of history as to how you began illustrating?

NIDAL EL-KHAIRY: "Just like any other kid I started doodling. I found out it was a source of entertainment during a boring class. I would draw football players, wars, battlefields, cars, a man crossing the road...stuff like that."

"But my subjects changed after the first Intifada and I began drawing kids throwing rocks."

"Sometimes I would draw things I hoped to see at the time - Palestinian F-16's winning a battle with a volcano in the back round (might as well) with Israeli F-16's crashing down and their Merkava tanks burning while raising a white flag."

"I wasn't aware of AIPAC at the time." (America’s pro-Israel lobby)

"Fat Rat"...
a commentary on the corruption in the Palestinian Authority. The figure on the right looking dangerously like Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
© Nidal El-Khairy

MENASSAT:  How has your work developed since then? You have lived in and visited a number of different cities, including Montreal, Amman, Ramallah. How has this affected your work?

NIDAL EL-KHAIRY: "Some images get stuck in your head. When I used to go to Ramallah in the late 80's the occupation became live."

"What people saw on TV back in Amman, I was witnessing first hand while walking in the market in Ramallah."

"All of a sudden kids would throw rocks and Israeli soldiers would shoot back."

"Once while I was getting a haircut with my grandfather (may he rest in peace) my eyes started to burn and tear. I looked at my grandfather and he started laughing at me. 'How do you like that tear gas?' he said."

"I'm sure this affected my work."

"When I first went to Lowell Massachusetts I learned about Picasso and African art in art history class and I liked how things were angular and messed up."

For some obsessive-compulsive reason I started drawing faces for one my final projects, non-stop, and it worked out well. It turned out okay and people called it a style... so I stuck to it.

MENASSAT: You have contributed to and been involved in a number of movements including Israeli Apartheid Week, Artists Against the Israeli Occupation, and Solidarity Across Borders. What kind of role did you play in these movements? What kind of role did they play in developing your work?

NIDAL EL-KHAIRY: "When I moved to Montreal I decided to get involved with the Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees, which is one of many refugee-rights groups working under an umbrella called Solidarity Across Borders."

"I think working with these different groups made me understand what class struggle really means."

"While rich immigrants moved to Canada easily, refugees and migrant workers were filling the cheap labor gap needed in Canada. They had university degrees and yet they were working in kitchens cleaning the dishes."

"And with all the bureaucracy they face from Immigration Canada they filled this gap for a very long time."

"Thinking about all the hard working people I have met through this movement had an impact on me."

"I felt that this is exactly where I wanted to see my work."

MENASSAT:  You recently did a sketch of Shawn Brant (right), a native political activist in Canada currently facing several charges for protesting a land development that is affecting the Mohawk community. Can you talk about the link between struggles? 

NIDAL EL-KHAIRY: "When I was in Montreal, I had the opportunity to meet natives from Kahnawake."

"When I heard the father speak to his son in his native language,  I knew that there was something Palestinians share with native people in Turtle Island (North America)."

"What’s weird to me is that Palestinians living in North America talk about what the Israelis have done to them and how Palestine was colonized, how olive trees are uprooted by the Israelis and water is stolen right from under our feet."

"Yet they've never met a native or identified with the native struggle in North America."

"They even take part in colonizing native land and stealing their resources. "

"I hope to draw more about this where I can connect the struggles and show how capitalism, colonialism and imperialism have the same goals."

"The Bee Hive Collective has done brilliant work on this."

MENASSAT: It seems your work evolved from sketches and portraits documenting certain events to being more critical with the use of dark humor? Tell us about this evolution?

NIDAL EL-KHAIRY: "I feel that most activists in the Arab world use theoretical speeches to try and provide people with a better understanding of the struggle."

"I think a dark cynical joke can be more effective conveying the same message. Ziad Rahbani and Naji al Ali were brilliant at it."

"I want people to laugh and remember the struggle rather than sleep and drool while listening to a lecture about it."

MENASSAT: Tell us about what you are working on now and what you plan to do in the near future?

NIDAL EL-KHAIRY:  "Currently I’m working on my animation skills... hopefully I can become better, and more bitter about things, as time goes on."


► For more of his work, check out Nidal El-Khairy's website.