We the People

Memphis, TN


BBC World Service: When I caught up with Khalid Albaih via internet connection, he was staying in a tree-house outside of Memphis, Tennessee — I’m not kidding, you’ll hear the birds chirping. The day before he’d visited the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis – where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Al Baih is a political satirist, who uses cartoons to fight for civil rights and human rights across the Arab and Muslim world; he thought this road trip might lift his spirits.

Khalid Albaih: I think what attracted me most about the trip was the development that happened in the United States through the Civil Rights Movement. You know, from not having a chair on the bus to having a black president — and that for me was really amazing in such a short time, even though with all the troubles that are still going on.

BBC: Politics has determined Albaih’s life; he’s Sudanese but lives in exile in Qatar. His father was a diplomat who was fired by Sudan’s government in 1989, his mother was political too, she campaigned against female genital mutilation. Albaih’s choice for political activism are his cartoons, which rarely have captions. In many ways, he’s trying to convey what he can’t or isn’t allowed to say with words.

Albaih: Politics was a big part of why I don’t have home, and still is a big part of why I don’t have a home. And I’m trying to understand it really, more than anything else — and with these cartoons I’m trying to do the best that I can to create change so my kids can have a home; because I’ve always not been home.

BBC: Albaih’s civil rights road trip took him to famous black entertainment districts like, Harlem. He also visited Freedom Writer stops and the place where 1966 Stokely Carmichael broke ranks with civil disobedience and made a speech about black power. But the site that meant the most to Albaih was the Malcom X and Betty Shabazz Center in New York, which used to house the Audubon Ballroom where Malcom X was assassinated in 1965. Albaih says when he was growing up black, African and Muslim — it was reading Malcom X’s biography, and seeing Spike Lee’s film, that changed his life.

Albaih: [birds chirping] We don’t really have heroes in the Arab world and the Muslim region – we don’t have that character that young people can look up to. Our heroes have only been religious heroes, which are like holy figures who never made any mistakes.

BBC: Malcom X provided an alternative role model — a real person who was flawed and dared to change his mind.

Albaih: He’s an amazing character that went through so many changes, which is very human to me.

BBC: Albaih timed his trip to coincide with the American elections. And between the lofty lessons he learned at each stop on the civil rights tour, he made sure to speak with regular Americans.

Albaih: The one thing I noticed about America is that everybody is trying to be as politically correct as they can, and I think Donald Trump came and he’s the person that’s not politically correct, he’s a person that’s saying all the things that a lot of people want to be saying, but they’re not.

BBC: Albaih was stunned and slightly depressed when he spoke to the neighbors of the place in Mississippi where Stokely Carmichael made his famous speech, only to learn that they didn’t know anything about it.

Albaih: They had no idea what’s going on, and they didn’t care really. [birds chirping]. So for me, it’s that — that the younger generation is taking all these rights for granted, and I think that’s what set America back. I mean, if you don’t know your own rights, and you don’t how you got there, it’s gonna take time for you to understand what’s happening right now.

[birds chirping]

BBC: And right now, Albaih wanted to be able to cheerleader one of the civil rights’ greatest achievements; Barack Obama, as he finishes his waning months in office – but he can’t. Albaih was excited when he was elected in 2008, he loved the Cairo speech about the Muslim world, and can’t help but like Obama’s wit, his oratory and personality. But as a citizen of the Arab and Muslim World, there’s one giant thing that gets in the way: drones.

Albaih: [birds chirping] The amount of people that were killed with the drone program that Obama gave power to is unbelievable, and the records really don’t show anything. We have no idea how many people died, and for what?

BBC: During his trip, Albaih drew a cartoon of Obama — he showed him doing his famous mic drop at the end of his last White House Correspondents Dinner, but instead of a mic, he’s dropping drones.

Watch The Guardian video as part of CULTURUNNERS Crossing The Line series... We The People

ARTIST: Khaled Albaih


DATE: 20 May 2016

ORIGINAL INTERVIEW: A Sudanese cartoonist inspired by Malcom X