Scores of U.S. editorial cartoonists have examined the Abu Ghraib prison controversy, but none of them has matched the biting, almost risque commentary of Khalil Bendib.
In a panel titled "Chain of Command at Abu Ghraib or ... Where Does the S&M Buck Stop?" Bendib portrays Dick Cheney as a slave master who holds President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld in neck chains. Rumsfeld, in turn, keeps in bondage a female U.S. soldier who has a leash around a naked Iraqi prisoner. (Condoleezza Rice is seen as a dominatrix, while a hand from Halliburton has a grip on Cheney, whose name is spelled "Chainy." God and Jerry Falwell, meanwhile, have neck chains around Bush.)
Bendib knows his humor is not for everyone. He thinks of himself as a social activist with a pen, and is the only prominent Arab and Muslim editorial cartoonist in the United States. Born in Paris and raised in Algeria and Morocco, Bendib, 46, has lived in California since 1977. He now lives in Berkeley
"Eventually, I hope to see legions of Arab American smart alecks like myself," says Bendib, whose work is distributed to 1,700 small- and medium- size papers around the United States.
At a time when the Arab and Muslim world is so much in the news, Bendib is awash in ideas. Within weeks of the Abu Ghraib controversy, Bendib drew the "Chain of Command" cartoon and four others that slammed Washington's policies in Iraq. Like other liberal thinkers after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bendib has found himself getting angrier every day about the state of the world ("Abu Ghraib is one of the things, among many others, that are bothering me right now,'' he says), and his anger is registering with more people.
Through Minuteman Media, the same company that distributes the columns of anti-Bush commentator Jim Hightower, Bendib's cartoons are used by such diverse papers as the Advance News, a weekly in New Jersey with a circulation of 20,000, and the Dodge City Daily Globe, a small daily in Dodge City, Kan. (They can also be seen at www.bendib.com.)
These days, Bendib is increasingly invited to give talks. Last month, he addressed the national convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, giving a slide-show presentation titled "Drawing While Arab." A clip of Bendib's address was shown on "NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw."
"He brings diversity (to the profession)," says Joel Pett, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist of the Lexington Herald-Leader, who invited Bendib to speak to the association's convention in Lexington, Ky. "I thought that the perspective of an Arab American on politics in the U.S. in the last two years was worth listening to."
Others aren't so sure. In October, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, criticized Bendib's rendering of Janice Rogers Brown, the conservative black California Supreme Court justice whom President Bush had nominated to a federal appeals court. In the single-panel drawing, which Hatch enlarged and displayed for TV cameras during Brown's confirmation hearing, she has a wild Afro and a face that looks remarkably like Clarence Thomas, the conservative black U.S. Supreme Court justice whom Bush's father appointed.
Bendib did the drawing for the Black Commentator, an activist organization whose audience is primarily African Americans seeking social and economic justice. Black Commentator vigorously defended the cartoon, while Hatch told the confirmation hearing, "I hope that everyone here considers this cartoon offensive and despicable." The publicity had the unintended effect of drawing more people to Bendib's work.
"At that point," Bendib jokes now, "I thought I should send a copy of all my cartoons to Orrin Hatch."
Bendib's job description is a contradiction in terms for someone who dislikes stereotypes: sketch drawings that reduce complicated issues into (what he hopes are) humorous panels. Bendib is fortunate to be in a field that guarantees him leeway. Unlike reporters and photographers, cartoonists can use satire, parody and humor to caricature people. Like stand-up comedians, editorial cartoonists are allowed to prod public figures in ways that might seem merciless.
As satire, their drawings become safe havens for views that otherwise might not be expressed. The Supreme Court ensured this in 1988 when it ruled that a savage Hustler magazine parody of Jerry Falwell was protected free speech.
Editorial cartoonists admit there's a fine line between legitimate criticism and sketches that demean or even smear.
"The laws about slander and libel are interpreted differently with regard to satire than straight-out news coverage," says Pett. "The laws allow satire to be taken to extremes that would not be tolerated in a news article, and that goes not just for cartoons but for 'Saturday Night Live' skits and anything else."
"There's something about cartoon drawings that people react to in an emotional way," Pett adds. "Letters from Christian conservatives and NRA members angry (at me) and demanding my resignation or an apology are a regular feature of (my paper's) letters. Christian conservatives seem to take particular offense at my putting a halo above their head and then attaching it with a coat hanger that disappears down the back of their neck. I've done that for 20 years, where the hanger is a thinly veiled reference to illegal abortion."
As a freelance journalist, Bendib can concentrate on any hot-button subject that interests him so he regularly does cartoons for CorpWatch, an Oakland organization that monitors corporations. In April, Bendib drew one that ripped Bechtel's practices.
For his cartoons for the Muslim Observer (a weekly publication in Michigan) and for his panels distributed by Minuteman Media, Bendib often ridicules Israel's policies in the West Bank and Gaza, and Ariel Sharon (whom Bendib depicts as obese with a Jewish star somewhere on his body).
Bendib also condemns many characteristics and practices of Arab and Muslim governments. Iran's clerical leaders were a particular source of Bendib's jabs after Iranian activist Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October. In a recent cartoon headlined "Daddy-Mocracy in the Arab World," Bendib poked fun of Syria, Morocco and Jordan -- all countries headed by rulers who inherited power from their fathers.
"I'm an equal opportunity critic," says Bendib, who was asked at the editorial cartoonists' meeting whether he supported the Palestinian group Hamas. "I reassure everyone that I don't have any sympathy for violent tactics and groups. My cartoons certainly irk Muslims and Arabs, too."
When he's not drawing cartoons, Bendib works as a sculptor, painter and ceramicist. Last year, Bendib completed a bronze statue for a public site in Geneva, N.Y., that memorialized the 1948 killings of Palestinians at the village of Deir Yassin. Bendib's Berkeley home, where he has lived with his wife, Song-Chin Bendib, for six years, is full of bronze figures he created that depict North African men and women.
Bendib knows journalism frequently demands simple prisms through which to see things, so he plays the game.
"I'm a Berkeley, KPFA, Third World kind of guy," he says. Just as he does with the depictions in his cartoons, he's reduced himself to a few, broad brushstrokes. But those phrases do get at the truth -- not the whole truth but a truth nevertheless. For Khalil Bendib, that will have to do for now.
As he says, "You always have to figure out a shortcut, an exaggeration, that conveys the idea very succinctly. Life is not so black and white, though I am in the black-and-white business."
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