The Beginnings of Editorial Cartoons in Syria

In a study on the history of illustrative imagery in Islamic art, the Syrian art historian Afif Bahnasi examines some of the earliest miniatures found in Arabic Islamic manuscripts, citing them as a reference point for this art form. In his essay, he defines illustrative imagery in manuscripts as: "artistic images with a specific symbolic function that support the manuscript text, serving as clarification and embellishment."(1)

These types of editorial images provide a unique and personal perspective for the artist, and enable the viewer to consider a given subject from a specific intellectual standpoint. The primary function of illustrative drawings, then, lies in opening visual windows to clarify, confirm, enrich and intensify textual content. These drawings may sometimes also simply serve decorative purposes inasmuch as their functional purpose intersects with visual composition, encapsulating the essence of the narrative content into what can be comprehended almost instantaneously. (2)

According to the writer Akram Qansou, the need for editorial drawings in the Arab world began in the early centuries of the Islamic era, coinciding with the flourishing of the writing and translation industries, which in turn saw an increased reliance on these sorts of editorial illustrations. Qansou clarifies that these drawings were mostly purely illustrative images for some manuscripts and were closer to folk art than anything else (3), coming "to adorn and clarify the contents of those manuscripts."(4)

The early part of the 20th century in Syria saw the emergence of the industry of "printed drawings", for example with the introduction of printing presses (initially imported by the Armenians to Aleppo). Publishing houses played a significant role in distributing these illustrations, at the time mostly limited to religious and popular themes – such as stories from the Gospels and the Torah – while their visual styles were close to those used in religious icons. Illustrations also appeared in popular books such as One Thousand and One Nights, and Qansou explains that some of these drawings were also desirable as individual pieces, sold separately in the Hamidiya Market and in front of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Unfortunately, most of those which survive are undated or lack any clear artist signature. (5)

The beginnings of contemporary Syrian illustrations as editorial (or political) drawings as we would know them today can be traced back to the early stages of Arab journalism at the end of Ottoman rule in the 19th century.(6) According to Qansou, in the Arab world the Syrian press was only preceded by the Egyptian journalism industry, which had seen the first newspaper, Al-Waqa'i' al-Masriya established by Muhammad Ali Pasha in 1828. In Syria, the first newspaper was issued in 1865 under the name Syria. (7) However, this was not without a concurrent increase in governmental censorship and suppression of freedom of expression, intensifying during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) due to autocratic policies, mismanagement and inefficient officials. (8)

According to a document produced in 1877 by what was called the ‘Council of the Delegates’, The First Parliamentary Experiment: Freedom of Press and the Publishing Industry addressed the topic of "satirical newspapers." This document reflected the perpetual influence of the authorities on press freedoms as well as the political and societal views of art that journalists were allowed to be express, particularly in the case of satirical political drawings. The Ottoman-Lebanese legal scholar and writer Nicolas Naqqash (1825-1894) expressed support for the continuation of these newspapers, seeing them as having both positive and negative aspects, and providing entertainment as well as moral lessons. Aleppo's deputy, Manoug Kragian, defended art in general, stating: "If satirical newspapers are considered harmful, then let us also ban the [satirical] Karagoz shadow puppetry too. (10) They claim that the owners of humorous newspapers seek to make money from this ‘inappropriate’ art. If that justifies banning the art, then there are other arts that are lower and uglier. They also talk about the harm of drawings, so if we close the satirical newspapers, must we also restrain the hands of the artists?” (9)

It is worth mentioning here that when looking at Syrian archives from the Ottoman period, the oldest evidence of an illustrated Syrian publication available to us is a humorous newspaper titled Maskhara, published in both the Ottoman Turkish and Arabic languages in the city of Aleppo. On the front page of Issue 15 (1910), a humorous drawing is featured in the middle of the newspaper's title, presenting what appear to be the puppet characters Karagoz and Iwaz. The transition from the world of shadow theatre to caricatures in one of the earliest editorial cartoons was logical, for these two characters had long been associated with embodying the experiences and challenges of Syrian daily. Through them, artists were able to illustrate their concerns: as the fictional life paths of Karagoz and Iwaz intertwined with real life social and economic issues, these two characters were increasingly used in satirical cartoons. By blending humour with sharp analysis and observation, they were able to act as commentary on current social and political challenges. As the images themselves were humorous, they packaged criticism in a way acceptable to the ruling authority. Indeed, it was he exceptional margin of freedom associated with these two characters in shadow theatre that allowed for the same boldness in their new presentation in illustrated form: just as their vulgar, ‘popular’ language had been accepted in the first, it was also accepted in political drawings in the latter.

The publication of the Aleppine newspaper Maskhara in 1910 coincided with the publication of another newspaper in Istanbul titled Qara Köz (pronounced like the character Karagoz) which also utilised the depiction of Karagoz and Iwaz in its masthead and featured a specific placement for interchangeable editorial illustrations, signed with a name that, while not fully legible, possibly reads "Sharbaji." It is difficult to ascertain which of the two newspapers came first, but comparing the illustrations used in the masthead of both reveals that the Istanbul newspaper surpassed Aleppo in the professionalism of its images. This may reflect a greater advancement in the field of illustrated journalism in Istanbul during that period compared to Aleppo – possibly due to limited resources and a lack of widespread art education in Syria at that time.

Newspapers during this period used a combination of techniques for printing editorial cartoons. These included ‘halftone’, which involved converting images into various-sized dots for reproduction in printing, as well as the rotary press/offset technique for printing on paper. These methods worked together to enable newspapers to integrate both photographic images and hand-drawn illustrations. Furthermore, the limitations of printing technology during this time influenced illustration greatly, as artists were forced to innovate practical ways to execute drawings that could flexibly align with printing techniques. This led to the widespread use of clear parallel or intersecting lines in pen or ink, as well as stippling, to create light and shadow effects.

During the latter half of the 20th century, there was a significant decline in the production of folk images in Syria, along with illustrations in publications. This was primarily due to the introduction and widespread adoption of photography, as well as the growing interest in Western artistic trends and supported canvas painting. In one of his articles, the critic and artist Mahmoud Shahin addressed the reasons for the success or failure of works of this kind in Syrian publications. He emphasised that illustrations are "a visual text, accompanying and harmonising with the written text, or so it should be," and added: "For this reason, those engaged in this type of art must possess a set of characteristics and qualifications. Foremost among these is their ability to appreciate the journalistic material to be supported, clarified or beautified and presented attractively to the reader through suitable drawings and images – and to interact with it. Secondly, they must possess drawing skills and expertise."(11)

In reality, the Syrian context lacks critical writings and research that address the art of editorial cartoons, especially from a local perspective. There is also a documentary gap regarding the names of Syrian illustrators, especially the early pioneers. While some specialised Syrian art magazines have presented some of these artists and their works, they have not clearly indicated the specificity of their work and classification. For example, in Al-Hayat Al-Tashkiliya magazine (12) the editors did not undertake the difficult task of distinguishing between illustrations/editorial cartoons and fine art pieces, leaving the boundaries ambiguous. (13) However, simply mentioning these works implicitly reflected a general trend that views illustrations as a genre of visual art without a specific hierarchy.(14)

Indeed, classifying illustrations has puzzled many art researchers worldwide, akin to questioning the essence of art itself. Thus, with the difficulty of definition and the interplay of arts, but also with the expanding role of journalism in the Arab world and its connection to art, the Syrian artistic movement appeared intertwined with journalistic work. Pioneering illustrators in journalism had not considered art a sacred shrine limited to professional artistic work, and therefore did not see editorial illustration as any less important an artform than painting. This is especially true as it serves as an effective visual communication tool for clarifying concepts and presenting important social and political issues in individuals' lives: it bears the responsibility of contributing to shaping public opinion.

As such, a significant number of Syrian and Arab artists engaged in early journalistic drawings, including, but not limited to, notable figures such as Tawfiq Tarek, Abdelwahab Abu Al-Saud, Abdelatif Al-Dashwali, Sameer Kahala, Abdelatif Mardini, Mazhar Shamah, Khalil Al-Ashqar. As one of the most prominent examples, we will delve further into the experience of the artist Abdelwahab Abu Al-Saud.

Abdul Wahab Abu Al Saud and Critical Satirical Editorial Cartoons

Most editorial illustrations in the Arab world were categorised under what the British termed in the mid-19th century as a ‘cartoon’ or ‘editorial cartoon’. The term itself was not widely used in the Arab world; instead, ‘comic drawings’ was more common, wherein the cartoons had a humorous character in their depiction of personalities. Often, headlines were hand-drawn with decorative lettering styles, adding a personal artistic touch to the design of each newspaper.

The newspaper Jarab Al-Kurdi (‘the pouch’ or ‘sock’ of a Kurd) founded in Haifa in 1908, was considered one of the area’s the most prominent critical and satirical newspapers. The title, within its temporal context, echoed the playfulness of colloquial humour, reflecting a sort of admiration for one of the Kurdish traditions: the title symbolised diversity and efficiency in readiness for various situations, as the expression was inspired by the idea that a Jarab Al-Kurdi could contain everything, for Kurds used to carry a bag made of goat leather during their travels, putting everything they needed in it.

One of the prominent cartoonists of that newspaper – and of the wider Syrian art scene – was Abdul Wahab Abu Al-Saud. Of Palestinian origin, at 17, after moving between several Arab cities (15), Abu Al-Saud moved with his family to Damascus, the city of the great poet Abi Khalil Al-Qabbani (16). Before World War I – and while the Ottoman government was busy preparing for conflict – Abu Al-Saud took the time to build a social network in Damascus. When he was summoned for compulsory participation in the war, in spite of the imposed death penalty, he fled. After that, he began teaching at the famous madrasa, the Al-Zahiriyah School in Aleppo, as a pretext to evading participation in the war.

Among the subjects he taught, Abu Al-Saud covered the principles of acting and drawing. He became a revolutionary artist, initially against the Turks and then against French colonialism, which forced him further into constant hiding, keeping him on the move. Thus, his drawings became another form of his revolutionary struggle and a reflection of his national political opinions. His strong relationships with the theatrical community, including playwrights and authors, such as the writer Ma'rouf Arnaout (the owner and founder of the newspaper Fata Al-Arab), opened doors for him to work with newspapers and magazines.

In one of his cartoons in Jarab Al-Kurdi in an August 1922 edition, Abu Al-Saud documented a prominent historical event from the summer of that year in Beirut. On the left of the drawing, a group of people is depicted in an outdoor scene. They are beside a tram carriage and its driver, and comprise men wearing tarbooshes or European clothing; of the women, some are wearing short robes, and others have head coverings. They appear angry, and the caption within the picture frame reads: "The origins of the Beirut tram boycott by tomatoes". We then understand what the people are aiming at the tram, and fully comprehend its stained facade, and the driver's clothing. This drawing points to a revolutionary movement that originated from Christian areas in Beirut, joined by Muslim areas to boycott the French-Belgian tram company. Belgian documents (17) recorded a civil movement transcending sectarian differences, indicating the challenges of the difficult mandate period in Beirut in 1922.

In the same issue of Jarab Al-Kurdi, one month after the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, we find other drawings by Abu Al-Saud that conveyed the general mood and popular sentiment of the people far better than the accompanying editorial texts. His political cartoons allowed for an excessive use of satire and an intensification of emotions that text simply did not permit. One of the drawings was accompanied by a critical text about the ‘Bulletin of the Palestinian National Israeli Authority to the Arab People’, which stated: "Britain saw the scattered Jewish activity in the world and made the Holy Land a national homeland for them, as if the country were empty of inhabitants or as if it were a piece of desert given to the Jews to inhabit without dispute. Could the world see more absurdity than this..."(18)

In Abu Al-Saud’s accompanying cartoon, we see depicted within a rectangular space characters distributed from left to right. Standing on the left is "the Kurd" (19) as a constant witness to the events, and to his left is "the Palestinian" in traditional Palestinian attire (20), both pointing to the right of the frame, where a group of three creatures with dogs’ bodies and human heads are wearing tarbooshes, depicted alongside the name ‘Kalferski’ written. The dog-like human figures denote individuals raised in the Palestinian village of Naalin, and according to the text, they represent a group of people descended from the Jadaam Arab tribe, Bani Hamran. As for ‘Kalferski’, he is Chaim Margaliot Kalferski, who later became the head of the Brit Shalom programme, established in 1925. Brit Shalom presented itself as more of a cultural movement than a political one, calling for the strengthening of ethnic relations of Semitic origin between Arabs and Jews. Arabs rejected participation in the programme, considering it covert Zionist propaganda. Nevertheless, there were some exceptions, and these were criticised by Abu Al-Saud in his cartoons, portrayed as dogs of the authority collaborating with the occupation, land sellers and Arab intermediaries. His targets included Hasan Shakry, the Turkish-born mayor of Haifa, who supported the Balfour Declaration and encouraged Jewish migration to Palestine and collaborated with Lord Rothschild's representatives, and who was a frequent guest at "Kalferski's table."

Abu Al-Saud contributed to other satirical publications as well. In 1924, the newspaper Het Bilkherj appeared, founded by Hashim Khankan as a continuation of a previous newspaper bearing the same name (21). Other Syrian artists, such as Tawfiq Tarek, Ali Al-Arnaout and Khaled Al-Asali also contributed to it. Like its predecessor, it only released a few issues, each consisting of four medium-sized pages, entirely edited in colloquial Syrian dialect, but it ceased publication with the outbreak of the Great Syrian Revolution in 1925. The newspaper described itself as a "political, humorous illustrated newspaper," and it seems that it encouraged unsolicited submissions of topics and images, apologising for not returning materials to their owners. Its editorial cartoons used familiar visual and verbal vocabulary, aiming to encourage its readers to think about current political issues. In its first issue, released a year before the Great Syrian Revolution under the title ‘The Severe Crisis These Days’, Abu Al-Saud once again presented a drawing documenting a detailed event from Syria's history. The drawing depicts three individuals representing various segments of Syrian society (an educated young man, a junior officer and a senior merchant).

Each is speaking to a character called ‘Abu Satam’, who appears wearing traditional Damascene attire and carrying a stick. The trio express their views of the political and economic situation, the educated young man says: "Long live the homeland"; next to him, the junior officer says: "The Syrian Lira is continuously declining"; and the senior merchant says: "We're ruined by the current situation." While socially disparate, they are united in their views of the status quo and fears of colonial attempts to erase Arab culture and replace it with French: the complaint of the patriotic educated youth, wearing formal attire and a tarboosh, echoes the complaint of the senior merchant and the complaint of the clerk in worn-out clothes (22). Finally, Abu Satam appears to the left, expressing f indifference, saying "Het Bilkherj” (which roughly translates to “ignore [this]” or “leave it be” Belkharej."

It is important to read this drawing within its historical context: it represents genuine historical testimony, documenting Syrian society before the revolution, recording the circumstances and sentiments of the period in a way that enables us to link the perspectives of the characters in the drawing with the transformations that later led to the outbreak of the Great Syrian Revolution (1925) against French colonialism. The researcher Fahim Naama Idriss Al-Yaseeri in ‘The Impact of Economic Factors on the Syrian Revolution’ demonstrated how French economic policies relied on impoverishment and plunder, raising tariffs on customs barriers and monopolising customs revenues aimed to enhance the Mandate’s departments and armies (23). In this context, Abu Al-Saud's critique was not limited to political issues but also concentrated on societal concerns. In the same issue of Het Bilkherj a drawing appeared titled ‘False Emotions’ depicts a young woman sitting on a couch. A young man kneels before her. "Would you accept owning this throbbing heart?" he asks. The woman responds: "No, I'd rather rent it when you're bankrupt." The drawing hints at some of the social and economic shifts that affected gender dynamics in that era. The characters appear in contemporary clothing, hairstyles, and other elements of contemporary, elegant life.

Abdul Wahab Abu Al Saud used to sign his drawings with the phrase "Drawn by Abdul Wahab" and would write the names of the characters directly under their feet. He created the roles of both the Kurdish character in Jarab Al-Kurd and the character of Abu Satam in Het Bilkherj, attempting to craft characters that indirectly reflected the continuity of the characters of Karagoz and Iwaz, playing the role of the observer and witness. The characters in each editorial cartoon were consistent, dressed in traditional clothing that did not change, reflecting an insistence on their continuity for a moral and artistic purpose that solidified the image of the characters in editorial cartoons, making them familiar to the audience.

In Abu Al Saud’s biography, The Life of the Artist Abdul Wahab Abu Al Saud, by the Damascene historian and storyteller Adel Abu Shanab, the idea of ‘theatre as the father of all arts’ is discussed as applying also to the field of editorial drawing through Al Saud’s work. The frames of his drawings appeared as if they were a stage and the characters were actors, with most of the structure being scenic, where the perspective was almost frontal (the horizon line), and the characters distributed seemingly in three dimensions, imbuing the composition with a palpable depth. This positioned him as a director who paid critical attention to historical details. His revolutionary enthusiasm and nationalistic spirit are especially evident in works accomplished during the period before the Great Syrian Revolution. Abu Al-Saud's drawings carried a clear voice and expressed his opinions and criticisms on political and social issues, leading his life as a national activist who paid the price for the clarity of his positions and activities. The same courage was reflected in his approach to dealing with political events with a sharp critical voice. Although he imparted a contemporary and distinctive character to editorial cartoons, his work did not focus on developing the aesthetic aspect in the context of his editorial drawings. His drawings were natural and concise, attempting to remain faithful to the textual content. They are historical documents that embody the interaction of artistic practice with its environment and time. Abu Al-Saud's courageous drawings contributed to enriching public discourse and shedding light on urgent and taboo issues in his society and era, despite the challenges and censorship he faced throughout his life.


[1]Bahnasi, Afif, Illustrative Photography between Islamic ‘Morqanat’ and Miniatures,  Damascus: Alhayat Altashkyliah, Issue No.: 76-77, 2007, p. 4

[2]Male, Alan, Illustration: A Theoretical and Contextual Perspective, UK : Ava 2007, p. 68.

[3]Qanso, Akram, ‘Arab Folk Art’, Book of Knowledge World, Kuwait : National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters, 1990, p. 19.


[5]For example, a postcard from the publications of Jawharji Youssef Obeid featuring drawings by Abu Subhi Al-Tinawi.

[6]In 1865, Ottoman authorities issued the first law regarding printed periodicals, which stated that the basic conditions for issuing a periodical were that its owner, who had to be an Ottoman citizen, obtain a license from the Ministry of Education. This person had to have a good reputation and be able to bear legal responsibility for the content of the periodical they published.

[7]Masas, Riad, ‘On the 157th Anniversary of Syrian Journalism’, Syrian Today. [في-الذكرى-157لميلاد-الصحافة-السورية].

[8]Cioeta, D.J, ‘Ottoman Censorship in Lebanon and Syria  1876–1908’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1979, pp 167–186.

[9]Al-Atassi, Fares, ‘The Council of Delegates 1977: The First Syrian Parliamentary Experience (4): Freedom of the Press and Publication - Drawing Red Lines’. [مجلس-المبعوثان-1877-التجربة-البرلمانية-ا-4/]

[10]Karagoz was the most famous satirical character of the popular shadow theater found in most regions of the Ottoman Empire. Al-Atassi, Fares,من-الأرشيف-العثماني-1910-جريدة-مسخرة-في-ح/

[11]Shahin, Mahmoud, Illustrations: Neglected Visual Texts, 2010.


[13]There are articles about Abdul Qader Arnaut and his artistic school, sometimes in the form of interviews with children’s book illustrators such as Lujaina Al-Asil. Also, studies about political posters, translations about the relationship between images and narrative text, and others about the relationship between text, drawing, and social reality, as well as forms and trends of drawing in children's books.

[14]The researcher Otto Ege considers illustrations, due to their connection to narrative content, to be at a lower level than fine art and categorises them under applied arts, Ege, Otto F., Illustration as a Fine Art, 2015, pp. 3-11.

[15]Abdul Wahab Abu Al-Saud was born in Nablus, Palestine in 1897 to a prestigious family. His father, an officer in the Ottoman army, was forced to migrate to Sidon. Abu Al-Saud grew up and studied in Beirut, where he first became interested in drawing and theatre. Later, he left for Cairo to study Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Azhar, but secretly planned to pursue his passion for art in the Arab theatre. He abandoned his religious studies and fully immersed himself in art. After about a year, he returned to Sidon, acquiescing to his father's objections. Once settled in Damascus, Abu Al-Saud was commissioned by the Ministry of Education and authors to create illustrations for educational publications and historical books. These illustrations were imaginative portraits of historical figures such as Tariq ibn Ziyad, Saladin, Harun al-Rashid and others. However, the Ministry of Education later changed its regulations, only collaborating with individuals holding higher degrees. Since Abu Al-Saud did not possess a university degree and was self-taught, he was affected by this change. In 1934, he travelled to Paris at his own expense to study drawing and oil painting, spending a year researching and visiting museums, theatres, and touring Europe. Upon his return, Abu Al-Saud focused his activities on school theatre, presenting plays to the Damascus audience composed of political and cultural elites. In his youth, his production was primarily in editorial cartoons, showcasing himself as a self-taught artist. Despite his young age during this period, his work reflected his adoption of a national values system, in addition to a clear influence of political culture. Abu Al Saud, in this early stage of his life and artistic career, demonstrated his ability to follow and understand political, economic, and social problems and disturbances on the national scene. See: Abu Shanab, Adel, The Life of the Artist Abdul Wahab Abu Al-Saud, Ministry of Culture and National Guidance, Damascus, 1963.

[16]Abu Shanab, Adel, The Life of the Artist Abdul Wahab Abu Al Saud, Damascus:  Ministry of Culture and National Guidance, 1963, pp. 18-22.

[17]Saadah, Wissam, ‘A Century of 'Greater Lebanon': The Workshop of History Against Official Myths, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 2019. [مئوية-لبنان-كبير-ورشة-التاريخ-في-موا/]

[18]Jarab Al-Kurdi, August 1929.

[19]He wore a bishm (a long garment), a birkiz (a kind of jacket), with a belt made of shoutak fabric, long socks up to the knees and a turban wrapped around a taqiyah (skullcap).

[20]Qumbaz (a long coat), bishm (a long garment) and a turban.

[21]Het Bilkherj was founded by Fakhri Al-Baroudi, who later became a popular national leader. Here, one can consider a facet of Al-Baroudi's personality as an editor and artistic director of a humorous publication, as a serious researcher seeking sources of inspiration for his new project, and as a developer of textual and visual content outside the box, finding creative solutions that allowed its writers and artists to engage in sharp satire of the authorities and religious figures. Al-Baroudi stated: " Het Bilkherj from Damascus, which I published in April 1909, and I edited it in colloquial dialect, caused a stir in various circles. Since I was ignorant of the principles of humorous newspapers, I summoned from Cairo what I had brought from the humorous newspapers issued there." See: Farshukh, Muhammad Amin, The Literature of Humor in Lebanon, Beirut 1989, p. 81.

[22]Al-Hawadith, Issues 2344–2356, Al-Hawadith Foundation for Press and Publishing, 2001, p. 50.

[23]Zghayr, Fahd Muslim, The General Situation in Lebanon and Its Impact on Syria 1918-1943, Baghdad : Journal of the College of Arts, 2013, pp. 231-232. "The French economic policy in Syria, and its attempts to link the Syrian economy with the French economy and to destroy all sectors of agriculture, industry, and trade, all these policies created the suitable ground for the Syrian revolution."