AMMAN, Jordan — “To jump into the sea. A normal sane person does not make a decision like this until he has suffered pressure and pain so extreme that he cannot handle it anymore,” said Naser Al Jaafari, smoking on the terrace of Fann Wa Chai, a cafe and art gallery in Jabal Al Weibdeh.
Jaafari and his colleagues, Omar Al Abdallat and Amjad Rasmi, are holding a joint art gallery that illustrates the ongoing suffering of Syrian refugees, and the perilous journey to Europe many are choosing to take. The three cartoonists have named their exhibition “Western countries are my home,”,a jab at an old slogan “Arab countries are my home.”
“We wanted to show how absurd the slogan we were taught as children now is,” Jaafari said.
The caricatures lining the wall of the popular Amman cafe depict images from recent tragic events refugees have suffered en route to Europe, like the drowning of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, and the discovery of 71 dead refugees in a truck in Austria. Other drawings criticize Arab states’ reaction to the conflict and subsequent refugee crisis.
“The idea, simply, is that once an issue is European, it then becomes important,” Jaafari said. “If the world had been serious about solving the Syrian conflict it would not be trying to solve a refugee crisis today.”
The idea for the exhibition was sparked by Linda AlKhoury, the owner of Fann Wa Chai, who asked the local artists if they wanted to do something together after following the constant news on the refugee crisis.
“I want people to put themselves in the shoes of these refugees, to feel and live their suffering through these images,” Rasmi said.
Jaafari, of Palestinian origin, knows the feeling of loss refugees experience far too well. Growing up listening to his family’s stories of leaving everything behind in Palestine with the hopes they’d be back soon, he said the experience is now mirrored by his Syrian friends.
“One of my Syrian colleagues fled to Turkey, and he would tell me, his things are not with him because he thought he’d be back in a couple of weeks. And I’d tell him, I know this expression and I hate it, because my whole life I’ve heard it from my grandmother and my mother,” Jaafari said.
The artists recently lost a colleague in Syria, Akram Raslan, who was detained in October 2012 by military intelligence for drawing a cartoon that was critical of President Bashar Assad. Abdallat said he was contacted by another well-known Syrian cartoonist, Juanzero, to work together on a project for their late colleague Raslan.
“We just found out that he was killed. He was tortured to death by the regime,” Jaafari said. Reports say Raslan died of his injuries less than a year after he was arrested, but his death was not confirmed until last week.
Jaafari said that although there is unacceptable violence from all actors on the ground in Syria today, he still believes that the root of the problem is the Syrian regime.
“They hold the responsibility for letting the situation in Syria reach what it has, through an administration that has continued governing for 40 years, not a day or two, and this is a natural and expected outcome,” he said. “The Arab Spring has revealed the size of the volcano dormant beneath the ashes in Syria.”“Syrian refugees, no matter how far they go, Syria will remain a part of them.”
Art by Omar Al Abdallat
Hanging by the cafe door is a caricature of a Syrian passport, redrawn with Aylan Kurdi on the cover. Abdallat points at it, saying it was the hardest piece for him to draw.
“The foundation of any nation is a child. If a child does not have the environment to experience his childhood – to have the right to live – I think this is a failure of the whole region,” Abdallat said.