Motivated by war: Syrian woman defies norms, becomes a political cartoonist

The war in Syria affected me two ways. I became afraid of the sounds around me. The roar of the bombings dragged me into the reality of the revolution… At the same time, the war inspired my material and my desire to continue drawing.

  • 3 weeks ago
  • July 4, 2024
8 min read
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Amany Al Ali was born in Saudi Arabia in 1984 and is an artist and cartoonist based in Idlib, northwestern Syria, near the Turkish border. In 2016, she began drawing cartoons for a local newspaper and has since collaborated with several websites, including ‘The New Arab’ and ‘Al-Nims.’ Her work addresses social and political issues, the cruelty of war, and violence against women, providing sharp and direct criticism of abuses by extremist groups, the regime, and foreign forces in Syria. Due to her activism, she has received numerous threats, including death threats, from various extremist factions and the regime, leading her to limit her activities and movements within the city.
background information
Civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, amid a wave of protests and uprisings across much of the Middle East known as the ‘Arab Spring,’ which had wide-ranging effects in the region. Since then, Syria has remained mired in violence. In 2015, two years after the start of the conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced military operations in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and against ISIS. The future looks bleak for most Syrians, with 90% of the population living in poverty. Syria also has the largest number of internally displaced people in the world, numbering 6.8 million, with an equal number fleeing to neighboring countries. Nearly half of the displaced are women and girls, facing growing consequences of homelessness, discrimination, financial destitution, and increased risks of exploitation and abuse. Read more.

IDLIB, Syria — When the Syrian revolution erupted and the sound of bombings and armed clashes shook my city, I took up arms in my own way: I began drawing. I picked up my pencil and wielded it. At first, I sought out cartoonists and caricaturists to teach me the basics. Finding no one, especially not women, I encountered a domain dominated by men. I worried, “How am I going to do this?”

As the need to draw emanated out from my body, I made a deal with an art teacher to instruct me in secret, but I struggled to maintain the deception. My parents believed I spent my time away volunteering with children at a nearby school. Eventually I told them the truth. My father stopped speaking to me for months and my parents feared society’s view of us. An independent young woman learning to draw on her own in Syria: that was unthinkable.

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War in Syria blots out love: political cartoonist faces death threats and disownment

My first drawings allowed me to make a name for myself. Tinged in black and red, the colors represented blood and obscurity. I soon took a job with a local newspaper, and they required me to present social commentary through cartoon. The first assignment from my editor included depicting a fish experiencing the discomforts of war.

Fueled by my passion, beginning in 2016, I became a caricature artist, capturing the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad and jihadist groups in my region. Soon after, I began posting drawings on Facebook. With each image I uploaded, my pulse quickened, and fear consumed me. Each click of my computer felt like I leapt into a void. An unstoppable rush of adrenaline coursed through my body, and I realized, I needed to face this. “Who cares,” I thought, “I must continue my path.”

Criticism and death threats quickly flooded the comments, and my own brother disowned me. The war in Syria affected me two ways. I became afraid of the sounds around me. The roar of the bombings dragged me into the reality of the revolution. I became hyper alert to the sound of engines approaching, shots, and explosions. At the same time, the war inspired my material and my desire to continue drawing.

I watched as some regions of Syria fell under the control of the regime while others became liberated. Neighborhood homes transformed into refugee camps as poverty soared. Education vanished and death hovered everywhere. The music stopped playing as the fighting blotted out love.

Rape, honor killings, and abuse go unchecked in Syria

Humorous and satirical drawings became my tool in Syria’s struggle. These drawings are controversial to say the least, and as bitter as our murderers. They remind us that the people of Syria stand in the center of the conflict raging in our country. The war provides the backdrop for everything I express.

As lines of ink mix with lines of lead and blood, each stroke serves as a naive but powerful metaphor. Through art I fight the Islamic power and patriarchy. I tell the story of my people’s suffering. The colors on the page smile in the face of death. They expose the femicides and the deportees; the desire of the Syrian people to flee and the role of the international community.

In Syria, a 19-year-old woman died at her husband’s hand after enduring five years of constant physical abuse. She fled to her relatives several times. Yet, each time, they returned her to him. On the day of her murder, she made a video call to her family, begging for rescue. Her mother saw marks on her body from beatings and burns from cigarettes. A few hours later, her husband shot her dead, and authorities did nothing to investigate.

Her story inspired me to draw, as I imagined the fragility of her broken body. I envisioned the torment she endured and pictured myself defending her from that monster, using my own body as a shield. In another case, citizens marched after relatives murdered two girls in an “honor killing.” One of the victims endured a year of being chained and raped by her cousin. Ultimately, her father strangled her to death. I draw to document this suffering. My art speaks with a voice which demands justice.

As Syrian refugees flee the country, political cartoonist faces death threats and finds love

Since the beginning of this war, thousands of Syrian citizens fled the apocalyptic conflict, leaving everything behind. In this historic crisis, they carry only the clothes on their backs and hastily packed bags. For those who stay, the streets become a battlefield. Women and children crowd around the baker with vouchers in exchange for bread. Heavy gunfire turns businesses and homes into rubble.

People live and die under the incessant bombardment of schools, homes, and hospitals. Terrified mothers carry their children to basements, while sick babies are pulled from incubators to safety. In one school, as a class practiced a dance, a mortar struck in the courtyard. Capturing moments like these, I drew a woman mourning her daughter, killed at school. Her grief could not be seen on her covered face, but her hands rested over the little body as if to say goodbye. I added watercolors, my tears merging with the art itself.

Through my pen, I observe, feel, and express myself. Drawing the violations against women and migrants, and capturing civil violations and crises, I reach into my subject’s pain. My drawings, as a result, have traveled the world. In Holland, England, France, and Italy, they went on display. Meanwhile, I face challenges. When I defended a Christian teacher whom local thugs murdered, they threatened to kill me. Forced to delete some of my content, it felt like being tied up and having my mouth covered. I felt trapped and close to giving up.

Living this life, I reached an age when I gave up on marriage or finding the right partner. One day, a cinematographer knocked on my door. His production team wanted to make a film about me. We talked, shared our hearts, and he convinced me that he loved my work. We fell in love almost immediately. As soon as we finished filming, he asked me to marry him. My heart pounded in that magical and beautiful moment. Today, after three years of marriage, he still looks at me with pride, gives me space, and trusts me completely.

A big ambitious dream: Opening a cartooning school for girls and women

Today, I have a big, ambitious dream to open a cartooning school and teach girls and women how to draw. Already, I pass on my art by teaching women who visit me. Some are widows or have lost their children, and they come hoping to resurrect the faces of their deceased loved ones. Despite the bombing and the reluctant attitudes of those close to me, I continue to do what I love.

My story deserves a space in the world. Armed with my pen, I fight a brave battle against Islamist extremism, authority, and traditional patriarchy. These drawings become messages: an expression of strength. With a passion for learning, my current work is not limited to caricature art. It expands to teaching, allowing women and girls to express their feelings and voice their thoughts.

With a pencil, brush, or ink, they trace a path toward freedom. I do not want to be the only one. I would rather be the first of many. Every single day, I long to live in peace, hoping for an end to the war. I consider my city young, tired, and sick. It faces many challenges and needs someone to lift it up and take it by the hand to a safe place. I believe women will be part of that process.

My drawings are a means of resistance. On this rollercoaster of war, where we constantly feel challenged but empowered, one must prove again and again, you are here. As Hamlet famously wrote, “To be or not to be, that is the question;” to live or to die.

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