A guest post by Seth Tobocman
Prison can crush the soul. There are people who survive a short sentence only to come out emotionally crippled for the rest of their lives. But there are others who transcend their circumstances, for whom confinement can be a period of spiritual growth. Some artists find great inspiration there.
I first became aware of Mohammad Saba’aneh when he was in an Israeli prison, convicted of drawing illustrations for a book, written and published by his brother, who happened to be a member of Hamas, a banned organization. Our magazine, World War 3 Illustrated, joined an international campaign to free Saba’aneh. I had no idea what a gem of an artist was buried behind those prison walls.
Being a political prisoner doesn’t make Mohammad a badass. It just makes him a Palestinian. It is estimated that 70% of Palestinian families have one member who has been incarcerated. Israeli law allows the state to hold Palestinians for an extended period of time without pressing charges. So Palestinian youth are locked up on the slightest pretext, jailed, tortured and interrogated. All in the hopes of finding information about the Palestinian resistance, and terrorist plots, real or perceived. The Israeli system was the model for the repressive measures enacted in the United States after 9-11.
So doing time doesn’t make Mohammad Saba’aneh special. What he did with that time, that’s special.
“I convinced myself to believe that I am a journalist who came to prison to work” says Mohammad. “My first task was to steal pen and paper from my interrogator. I was liberated on the blank page. It became my world. My pages became a way to journey out into the universe. I kept the pages hidden from the guards as I was dragged from cell to cell. And I felt a sense of liberation each time my pages survived.”
In the drawings which he started in prison and completed shortly after his release, Mohammad shows us the Palestinian political prisoners, the conditions they live in, the absurd legal system they endure, and their deep longing to be reunited with their families.
But prison did not just offer Mohammad new subject material, it presented him with challenges and opportunities that greatly improved the formal qualities of his art.
Like many artists of his generation, Mohammad started out making art in photoshop. In prison he had no access to computers and had to work with pencil and paper. He says that this improved his drawing skills a lot.
Mohammad says that the first artwork he was aware of were the drawings of Palestinian political cartoonist Naji Al-Ali. His mother showed him those pictures to teach him Palestinian history. Naji Al-Ali’s sparse, fine lined drawings were ideal for a third world press where ink itself might be in short supply. Naji could sum up complex conflicts in one small image, with just a couple of symbols or figures, expressing politics with passion and poetry. Naji was assassinated in the 1980s and is viewed by many as a martyr. So it’s not surprising that Mohammad began his career as a newspaper illustrator following in the footsteps of Naji Al-Ali.
In prison, working, not for a publisher’s deadline, but to fill his own time, Mohammad’s work broke out of the limitations of the editorial cartoon. His drawings became more complex and more subtle. When he came out of jail, he began to draw these long, mural-like scrolls, combining hundreds of figures and events arranged across a tortured Palestinian landscape, often presenting a timeline of history, the story of his nation, or of the world.
Mohammad was aware that artists from all over the world had petitioned for his release. A lesser man would let this go to his head. But in Saba’aneh’s case, it humbled him. He felt that he was now obligated to become a better artist. He studied the work of Picasso, Jacob Lawerence, Diego Rivera and many others, and began to expand his visual vocabulary. He also became aware of today’s graphic novels and took a great interest in the form.
He traveled. On his visits to New York, Mohammad and I often hit the museums. He seemed hungry to absorb everything he saw. He wanted to be influenced by the whole international history of art, and to take it in as fast as possible. As though world culture was a meal he had to swallow in one gulp before someone could take it away from him. This made me realize how privileged I was to live in a city full of art galleries instead of a city full of soldiers and check points.
Mohammad would guest lecture my classes at SVA, blowing my students’ minds with descriptions of the difficult conditions under which he produced his work. But Mohammad often seemed to be more of a student than my students. He was eager, attentive, curious, and open-minded, like a really good student. Although he is a grown man with a wife and two children, there is something youthful about him.
Mohammad eventually did go back to school, receiving a grant to take graduate courses in England. There he produced his first graphic novel, Power Born Of Dreams (Street Noise Books, 2021).
Saba’aneh had seen the early 20th century wordless books printed from wood blocks by masters like Franz Masereel and Lynd Ward, and he was aware of how contemporary graphic novelists. like Art Spiegelman, Eric Drooker, Peter Kuper and myself, use scratchboard to get a woodcut look. He decided to produce his whole story in linoleum cut prints. But he could not always afford sheets of linoleum so sometimes he would carve into a tabletop or door to produce his prints.
The result is visually stunning. The dramatic dark areas remind me of the chiaroscuro of Eric Drooker’s Flood, the compositions remind me of Peter Kuper’s Franz Kafka adaptations. He seems to have looked at the whole field of graphic novels and incorporated the best of what we have produced, and we should all be honored by our participation in his project.
The plot line combines documentary and autobiography with fantasy and metaphor. A jailed Palestinian artist decides to survive his imprisonment by drawing. He makes a deal with a talking bird. The bird will fly out into the world and bring back stories from the rest of Palestine which the artist will illustrate. This, many stories within one story, structure, pays homage to great works of world literature, like One Thousand and One Nights and Boccaccio’s Decameron.
The stories the bird brings are pretty grim: children who can’t sleep because they hear warplanes over head, mothers who lose their sons, prisoners who long for their freedom, and the whole tragic history of Palestinian oppression. Where then is hope in this sad situation?
Hope can be found in the fact that an artist has represented this harsh reality with such a loving hand, creating beautiful compositions and careful renderings. Combining journalistic integrity with imagination and mythology. Endeavoring to uplift his people through craftsmanship. And hasn’t this been the function of art throughout history, to sublimate human suffering?
Listen up world! Today is a big day! Palestinian political prisoner and Arab editorial cartoonist, Mohammad Saba’aneh has become a graphic novelist, and we are all better off for it!
Seth Tobocman is an artist, educator and activist living in New York City. He is a founding member of the editorial collective of World War 3 Illustrated, the longest-running anthology of political comics available in English. His published works include the graphic memoir War in the Neighborhood, Disaster and Resistance, You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive, as well as, most recently, LEN, a Lawyer in History, and The Face of Struggle.