At the Okba Ibn Naffaâ high school, located in Kairouan, a city in central Tunisia, few students have ever been interested in cartooning and even fewer have sketched this kind of humorous drawing, heavy with meaning and loaded with messages. Introducing young people to this form of freedom of expression and making press cartoons an innovative educational tool, to instil the values of peace and citizenship in them, is the mission that the Cartooning for Peace association has dedicated itself to through the “Cartooning for Peace and Democracy” project funded by the European Union.
With a shy look but a sparkle in his eye, Nadhem Dhifaoui is a technical sixth form student. He will take his baccalaureate at the end of the school year. But right now, he's looking forward to joining his friends to participate in a very special session of the citizenship and human rights educational club at Okba Ibn Naffaâ high school. Today, club members are receiving a guest they have been awaiting for a long time, Needall, as part of an introduction to cartooning workshop organized by Cartooning for Peace in collaboration with the Arab Institute of Human Rights (IADH).
This is an opportunity for these students to become even more familiar with this committed art and to talk to the artist about civic values and freedom of the press and expression. Talking freely, expressing your ideas without taboo or even criticizing without being afraid of the repercussions, are all things Nadhem knows a lot about. For a long time, the young man was painfully shy and avoided giving his opinion or even mixing with others. And it was because he seemed too insecure and very withdrawn that Ferjania Ben Ghezaiel, his civic education teacher, advised him to take part in the club’s activities, three years ago. “I didn’t have any friends, as I was too shy,” he explains, amused. “Two weeks after joining the club, I started mixing well within the group and chasing the dark ideas out of my head,” he adds.
“Young people need to express themselves, to have dialogue and to question themselves in a group,” explains Ferjania Ben Ghezaiel who evokes, with a sorry air, all the dangers to which young people are exposed in the region and the high rate of suicides and radicalization cases among students in Kairouan.
Cartoonist, a profession of passion and courage
By choosing a technical study option, Nadhem had to change school, but every week, he still goes back to his old high school to participate in club activities. Today, he is looking forward to meeting Needall. He does not know much about him except that he is a professional illustrator and that his job as a cartoonist is fascinating. With a brisk step, he joins the other students in the room. A few minutes later, Needall arrives. The young man receives a warm welcome. The session can begin.
The man first talks about the world of cartoons. He outlines his own journey and lists the difficulties he has met over the course of his various professional experiences. In a world where criticism and satire can get people’s hackles up, it is clear that the profession of cartoonist is not easy. Needall discusses censorship, social and religious prejudice, intolerance and even torture, violence and imprisonment suffered by some of his colleagues around the world. By pointing the finger at a company or its leaders, by exercising freedom of the press and expression through their drawings, cartoonists are exposed to serious dangers and some even lose their lives.
“My life changed in 2011 when our right to express ourselves freely was taken away. For my part, I translated this freedom of expression into drawing and thanks to social networks, I managed to spread my art beyond the Tunisian borders,” he says. And gets excited: “Much more than a simple profession, for me, cartooning is an art and a passion.”Drawing in the name of freedomInside the room, the thirty students pay close attention to Needall.
In the name of freedom
Almost everywhere, posters are displayed with press cartoons by committed illustrators, reflecting the expectations of young Tunisians and the challenges they face on a daily basis. In addition to discussions with the students, the project “Cartooning for Peace and Democracy” includes a travelling exhibition which gives concrete examples of press cartoons which, through humour, denounce injustice, inequality of opportunity, intolerance, social and religious dictates or even evoke unemployment, extremism, migration, environmental pollution but also deal with lighter subjects like love or friendship. The cartoons have been drawn by illustrators from Tunisia, but also Algeria, Morocco, Iran, France, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, Canada and Mexico. Sometimes sarcastic or incisive but always funny, the press cartoons offered are also avenues of reflection for those who have the opportunity to look at them.
Pencil, gouache or acrylic
A member of the IADH and coordinator of the workshop, Aziz Belatek explains that this travelling exhibition has been all around the world before coming to Tunisia. He adds: “The idea of the workshops is very beneficial because the themes mentioned do not appear in the school curriculum. A better understanding of these topics would help students to become better citizens and cultivate peace in a world of rights and equality.”
Among the cartoonists who are committed to this project, like Needall, we find big names like Chedly Belkhama, Dlog, Tawfik Omrane or Nadia Khiari and her famous character, the cat Willis from Tunis. They all responded positively to the invitation from Cartooning for Peace and the IADH and went to meet students in citizenship clubs across the country. And the artists guarantee that every meeting is unique, because each one brings its share of wonder among young people but also of surprise questions that young people are free to ask their guests.
Critical sense and youth engagement
Indeed, the students of the Okba Ibn Nafaâ high school citizenship club quickly understand that these cartoons were not simple drawings and take great pleasure in questioning Needall, but also in answering the questions he asks them in turn. Instead of using words to express their ideas and their questions, the young man suggests that they produce drawings in which they could give free rein to their imagination but also to their critical sense to evoke a situation or recount facts that challenge them. “Explaining to young people that there is not just one freedom, vision, orientation or even reading and convincing them that everyone is free to defend their ideas without having to defend themselves, is a real challenge to face each time.” Fortunately for him, young people are not the most difficult public to convince of the right to be different and the importance of freedom of expression but also of creation.
Cartooning for Peace
Speaking by phone, Sylvain Platevoet, head of the “Cartooning for Peace and Democracy” project for Cartooning for Peace, explains that the association has been organizing activities in prisons in France for years and that thanks to the financial support of the European Union, they have been able to expand their activities in Tunisia and other countries. “We mainly work in educational establishments and prisons. The goal is to awaken a critical mind in these places,” he says. He adds: “For prisons, it is about allowing detainees not to isolate themselves from the outside world on the one hand and contributing to the fight against radicalization. In Tunisia, we have organized many workshops in prisons and detention centres in collaboration with the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT).” In high schools and colleges, it is rather a question of preventing these dangers and disseminating healthy values of tolerance, freedom and civic engagement.
Funded by the European Union, the “Cartooning for Peace and Democracy” project started in 2016 and ended in December 2019. Through media and citizenship education for young people in many countries, including Tunisia, Morocco and Palestine, the project aims to promote a culture of peace and democracy through press cartoons. The cartoon workshop at the Okba Ibn Nafaâ high school was one of the last in Tunisia as part of the first phase of the project. Committed and plural, such initiatives are more than necessary as the dangers which threaten young people but also the freedom of the press, expression and creativity are numerous and only awareness and civic enlightenment can save them!
* This story was written in December 2019, before the onset of the coronavirus health crisis.