Tales of the Bird on the Table by Ahmed Ezz El-Arab
Hekayat Taeir AlTabashir (Tales of the Bird on the Board), AlMahrosa, 251 pp
It has been over 40 years since the late President Anwar Sadat was assassinated on October 6, 1981, 11 years after he came to power after the death of his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser on September 28, 1970. Sadat’s tenure, however, was so dramatic that it still inspires much debate today – some about his foreign policy decisions, including peace with Israel, and many about his domestic policies.
In a 2021 publication by AlMahrosa, prominent illustrator and cartoonist Ahmed Ezzalaarab devotes most of his 251-page book to discussing Sadat’s attitude towards political pluralism and press freedom in the post-1973 war years. The late Egyptian president had promised democracy and prosperity , but not moving much on either front, according to the author.
At the heart of Ezzalaarab’s memoirs is a series of chapters, each telling a separate story about the start and eventual closure of the Al-Ahaly (“People of the Country”) newspaper. The newspaper, owned by the left-wing Tagamoa party, started out as a Left Platform when Sadat reinstated political pluralism, but was later suspended for allegedly endangering state security and national interests.
The stories shared in Ezzalaarab’s semi-memories paint a picture of a newspaper that spoke for socialist views still being held by a group of politicians who did not support Sadat’s open-door policy on the home front or his hasty rapprochement with the US supported. Al-Ahaly’s cartoons were at the center of hate speech against Sadat’s regime at the time, according to Ezzalaarab’s story. Particularly galling for Sadat himself was a cartoon character named Zebda Hanem (“Lady Butter”) – widely perceived by the public and the regime as an implicit satire of the then highly controversial First Lady Jehan Sadat. She has been widely accused by left-wing circles of playing a crucial role in promoting Sadat’s policy of rapprochement with the West and peace with Israel.
Ezzalaarab describes his interrogation of the character of Zebda Hanem and recalls being asked if the character was supposed to represent a particular public figure. He also recalls that the anger he felt at Al-Ahaly for his cartoons was far from unusual in the modern and contemporary history of Egyptian politics. Sadat, according to Ezzalaarab, was just like Nasser and even like King Fouad, the Khedive Ismail and the British occupation. They were all irritated by the press criticism, especially the cartoons introduced in Egypt in the mid-19th century. This caused headaches not only for those in power, but also for the cartoonists, who often ended up in prison. The accounts shared throughout the book’s many chapters of the common and deep aversion to criticism among all these rulers are simply incredible.
Ezzalaarab didn’t end up in jail for his role as Zebda Hanem. The prison experience he shares rather abruptly, however, was under Nasser not long after the 1967 military defeat, when he, then a university student, pursued political activism in the belief that the humiliation of the shocking defeat would prompt Nasser to end his police-state decisions and embrace political openness.
In 1978, however, Al-Ahaly hit the wall with Sadat’s growing unease about Khaled Moheiddine, one of Sadat’s comrades in the Free Officers. Moheiddine was a committed and inspirational figure on the left, as committed to socialism as he was to the call for democracy, and is one of the public figures who receives considerable attention from Ezzalaarab.
Also privy to Ezzalaarab’s careful recollection is Loutfy El-Khouly, a prominent left-wing intellectual who attracted much public attention in a televised debate against a representative of Sadat’s al-Watani (“The National Party”). Moustafa Bakri, the journalist who can still stir up controversy, is another figure illustrated in many shades of gray.
The book offers very concise yet insightful and interesting narratives about the development of cartoons in the Egyptian press and the stories of the many prominent cartoonists who left an unforgettable mark on the history of Egyptian journalism. It also describes the collaboration between writers and cartoonists that began in the 1940s with Mohamed El-Tabaai and the Armenian cartoonist Saroukhan, and the inspiring role of Rose ElYoussef – both editor and magazine – in creating space for cartoons on their sides.
The shortest, but certainly still compelling, narrative in this book is Ezzalaarab’s own story, which begins with a young schoolboy who was expelled from physical education class and instead was left with a blackboard in an empty classroom. Using a piece of chalk, the sad, abandoned boy begins to connect the letters and symbols on the blackboard, turning them into a large bird that draws the attention and admiration of the art teacher. This was the starting point that set Ezzalaarab on the path to becoming one of the country’s most important illustrators, despite some occasional strays from the path.
In the book, which can easily be described as a semi-memoir, Ezzalaarab is much more anecdotal than opinionated. He’s not in the business of making judgments. He just shares life as it has been for him. He also shares a selection of brilliant cartoons of himself and others. Above all, he shares his own feelings – the frustration of unfulfilled and shattered dreams, the satisfaction that he made the decisions he believed in, and the gratitude that he was in the company of some good men.