The Arab Spring was a violent, frightening, yet uplifting period of revolution in The Arab world that lasted for more than a year. Filled with numerous civil wars and protests, civilians participated in extreme demonstrations of their frustration, such as Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in attempts to show the governmental intrusion and affliction he faced. This action carried across multiple Arab nations over a short period of time, with multiple Arab civilians following suit with similar actions. However, this period of revolution is so notably remarkably for another reason – the amazing and innovative way in which social media was used as a news network, connectivity platform, and artistic platform for expression to effect change across Arab states and globally. Artist Khalid Albaih does exactly this, using his political engagement and creative ability to produce works of art that create global waves.
“Revolutions take time, especially with a population that’s already broken,” said Albaih, referring to the various Arab nations in 2010 who prompted revolution. Dependent on the youth, revolutions are born from educated intellectuals fighting within the system and rebelling against an existing power structure. In extremely politically established states such as Tunisia, revolutions are such a rarity due to the fear and danger of governmental response. “If you start a political group under a dictator, you’re either with them or completely crazy.” In this case, many Arabs were “completely crazy,” revolting against long-established power. The work by Albaih is so innovative because of the non-violent, individualistic yet far-reaching power of his pieces. The messages transmitted through his work were not only felt in the first-degree by Arab protesters, but also by global entities like the US and Europe, free from the chokehold of dictatorship. “Social media is the newest dangerous weapon,” says Albaih, as with such a majority of global youth being so present on social media, the weapon of revolution is not limited to those in the country in which change occurs.
One piece of Albaih’s talk that stuck out to me, in particular, was his discussion as an artist with work “going viral.” As a photographer myself, having covered journalistic topics whether it be news or music, I have seen a few pieces of my work “go viral” and then quickly die down days or weeks later. Albaih shared how this can be dangerous to artists specifically, as it quickly gives the artist a lot of power and over a short period of time, however equally quickly dissipates. Albaih’s goal as an artist to make long-lasting work, with global reach and impact is one that resonates with me personally, as social media does truly offer a platform with unlimited scope and possibility.
Art is a universal language, but it is spoken more often in some places than others. Khalid Albaih uses art as a means of exciting the masses to revolution. Even under an oppressive government, art can be spread through social media, graffiti, and other platforms to escape the grasp of the political sector. Despite the internet’s pervasiveness, despite the near certainty that information will reach the government, Albaih was able to successfully spread revolutionary information through his political cartoons. The necessity to evade government interference in his art is an indication of Albaih’s culture, and ultimately shows the glaring discrepancies between his situation and conditions in the United States.
Albaih acted as a participant in the Arab Spring, a movement protesting dictatorial governments in the Middle East. He had to find a way to publicize his art without being persecuted. For people who have lived in the United States their entire life, the possibility of government suppression of free expression is a foreign concept. Art is a universal language, but Albaih was forced to find a way to make it heard. This is a cultural difference because even the most radical news articles are not suppressed in the United States, so it is difficult to conceive of a culture in which they would be.
This explains why Albaih had to use art as a sort of code to avoid censorship. As Albaih mentioned, this is not necessary in the United States because information is not highly censored. Albaih had to develop his art so it was understandable to the public but also could avoid being viewed as a direct threat by the government. While this is an unfortunate situation, it is likely that it spurred his artistic creativity. The conditions he was in required novel thinking. The revolution in which he was participating allowed him to create revolutionary art. This is an example of strife and conflict actually facilitating progress in a certain field.
Like art, social media also transcends borders. Albaih mentioned that social media is not considered a threat by Arab governments and thus it is overlooked. It can therefore be used to spread important revolutionary concepts and incite the public to action. This is surprising, considering our cultural perception of social media in the United States. Here, it is usually a form of entertainment, filled with mindless images and humorous texts. Though it is common for politics to infiltrate social media in the United States, it is still rare for worthwhile messages to be spread on these platforms. In places where it is a necessity to spread information in the most inconspicuous way, however, the social internet is used to its full potential.
The origins of “Khartoon!” and the difficult conditions in which it exists indicate cultural differences between Arab nations and the United States. When viewed from the perspective of a resident of the United States, Albaih’s cartoons are clearly critiques of his political environment, but also seem relatively innocent. Political cartoons in the United States circulate without significant backlash. However, once one is educated about the suppressive conditions faced by Arab nations, it is understandable that Albaih’s undertaking is a dangerous one.