One of Syria’s most famous artists, Farzat earned recognition in the Arab world and beyond for stinging cartoons of Arab leaders such as Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and, finally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Farzat’s biting satire of Arab autocrats and the Syrian regime made him persona non grata in several countries and he was finally forced to flee Damascus earlier this year after he was brutally attacked.
The uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled Syria in autocratic fashion for four decades, began as a peaceful protest but now has degenerated into civil war. More than 32,000 Syrians have been killed.
Farzat is now back at work again in Cairo creating images of defiance he says have helped mobilise Syrians to revolt against Assad.
In partnership with his colleague former Syrian news anchor Ibrahim Jubain, Farzat is applying for a license to publish the satirical magazine al-Domari, which means the Lamp Lighter.
The magazine, which was founded in Syria in 2000 during a brief period of media freedom, was forced to shut down by Assad's government in 2003.
Just over 12 months ago, Farzat was kidnapped, beaten and burned in an attack he blamed on Syrian security police trying to silence him and stop him drawing the caricatures that protesters have waved aloft as they took to the streets.
From the very start, says Farzat, his work earned him the Assad government’s ire.
“After four or five issues of el-Domari were published, I no longer knew who I was fighting. Was it corruption, the regime, or was it the mafias? Everything seemed to come together in a single entity. I was operating alone and the political parties, the regime, security forces and mafias were all against me. This bitter conflict continued until I was deliberately shut down by the government in 2003,” he said.
Farzat later started a web magazine, and began to directly take on senior Assad regime figures including the president.
In one of his first cartoons portraying Assad, the President was shown reluctantly ripping a page off a calendar on Thursday, knowing that Friday would bring another wave of popular protests. In another, Assad tries to hitch a lift with Qaddafi.
Sitting on his desk in a building overlooking Tahrir square, the heart of the uprising in Egypt, Farzat sketches on white paper. A tiny bird emerges, chipping and breaking off the head of an axe that sticks out of a Syrian military fatigues, a symbol of Assad’s power.
“I then took a stronger approach [in his illustrations] to the extent that I began receiving threatening letters when I took on the President, Prime Minister and other regime figures in my work, when I stopped using symbols to address them. But it was a necessary step to be taken in order to break the barrier of chronic fear that ruled over the people for fifty years. When I did this, the people found their voices and they no longer spoke in whispers, and this played a role when they began taking to the streets in protest carrying my drawings as an expression that this barrier of fear had in fact been broken,” says Farzat.
The attack on Farzat was aimed at the artist's most valuable tools - his hands. Farzat’s hands were smashed and he suffered facial burns, temporary loss of his eyesight and multiple broken bones.
“I was partially blinded for fifteen days and I thought that I had lost my sight. I also had a minor concussion and broken fingers. They had twisted my fingers back until they reached my forearm. Three of my fingers as well as my palm broke. They also beat my hands with a stick until they broke. I heard them say - 'Break his fingers so you never encroach on your masters again. The President is worth more than your life,” he said.
Farzat, 60, initially escaped to Kuwait to recuperate. Now in Egypt, which overthrew its own president in an 18 day uprising in 2011, Farzat says he is determined to continue his work and support those still seeking to topple Assad 19 months after they began.
As he speaks to a reporter, Farzat draws a tank unable to roll over a flower, blocking it from moving forward.
Farzat says that despite the current bloodshed, he is optimistic about the uprising’s chances for success.
“The Syrian revolution is a humanitarian one, not a political revolution. If it were a political revolution it would have ended after the first month. It is a revolution against fifty years of injustice. It is a tsunami, and how can anyone stop a tsunami? There are laws of nature. If you go against nature you will confront a tsunami that will redress the natural process, and which will restore balance,” he said.
Ali Farzat’s long odyssey from opposition to exile may have left him with scars, but as he prepares to resume working in a new city, it has apparently not dimmed his determination to speak out against the government he says tried so hard to silence him.