Amplifying the Ludicrous
A short interview with political cartoonist Shahid Mahmood
I went to high school in Karachi with one of Pakistan’s most well-known cartoonists, Canadian-Pakistani architect Shahid Mahmood. While he first made a name for himself drawing political cartoons for the Pakistani publications Dawn and Newsline Magazine, I’d been familiar with his work for far longer than that: In school he was always drawing some kind of weird cartoon mocking our teachers and other authority figures.
- Pakistan is a country of contradictions – full of promise for growth, modernity and progress, yet shrouded by political, social and cultural issues that undermine its quest for identity and integrity. My bi-monthly column “Pakistan Unveiled” presents stories that showcase the Pakistani struggle for freedom of expression, an end to censorship, and a more open and balanced society.
- Bina Shah is a Karachi-based journalist and fiction writer and has taught writing at the university level. She is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories. She is a columnist for two major English-language newspapers in Pakistan, The Dawn and The Express Tribune, and she has contributed to international newspapers including The Independent, The Guardian, and The International Herald Tribune. She is an alumnus of the International Writers Workshop (IWP 2011).
After graduation, Shahid returned to Canada to study architecture, but he continued to draw biting cartoons that caught the imaginations of many newspaper publishers and editors. Today he draws cartoons for a number of international publications including The Huffington Post, The Guardian, and The New York Times Syndicate.
He now lives in Toronto with his Chilean wife, Erica, and their two children and writes op-eds for Pakistani newspapers like The Express Tribune, applying his right-brained artist’s mind to some of the conundrums of Pakistani politics and society.
Shahid has been familiar with censorship for a long time: His political cartoons continually enraged Benazir Bhutto during her tenures as Pakistan’s Prime Minister. According to his Huffington Post bio, “His cartoon exhibition, Enduring Operation Freedom, critical of President Bush’s War on Terror, was censored and shut down in 2002; he has received death threats from Islamic fundamentalists for his depiction of the Taliban as Koran-reading apes.”
Then Shahid gained notoriety for a different reason: In 2004, he was flagged by Air Canada for appearing on a “no-fly” list and stopped from boarding a plane for reasons that have never been elucidated. After a long legal battle, he finally managed to settle with Air Canada.
Was he flagged because his name was similar to a terrorist’s on the no-fly list? Or was it because of his cartoons which challenged and questioned the official stories on so many fronts: What were we told about the War on Terror (Bush and Bin Laden had been in cahoots long before 9/11), the real source of funding for Al-Qaeda (Saudi Arabia), the true nature of Canadian, American and Pakistani leaders (emperors with no clothes)?
Either way, what happened to Shahid was a complete infringement of his civil liberties and a sobering lesson in how censorship is only one of the tools the authorities use to damage the lives and careers of artists.
Although it’s been a painful episode for him, Shahid talked to me about the seven year nightmare he faced: “As a political cartoonist trying to remove himself from the US no-fly List, it has proven very difficult for me to affect systemic change. Over the years, I was told by lawyers that my phone was likely tapped and my garbage was being sifted through; my political leanings were questioned by the Ministry of Transportation. I was sent on multiple goose chases to different government ministries, each claiming ignorance and blaming other ministries for Canada’s post-9/11 quagmire. A seven-year process, which culminated at a hearing with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, has yielded no clear remedy.”
I asked Shahid what he felt he had learned about censorship and freedom of expression throughout his travails, and here is what he had to say:
“Freedom of expression is paramount. Unfortunately, in our world, no matter where you live, censorship stalks and at times assaults these freedoms. In developing countries, any attempts to raise an awareness of wrongdoing usually results in imprisonment or death. In the West, unless an individual has clear access to money and power, the system itself stonewalls any recourse. The Canadian government’s no-fly List is a serious infringement on the rights of Canadian travelers. What is the most important thing I’ve learned? You have to be persistent. The truth that lies within an article or a cartoon will eventually prevail.”
But why does Shahid continue to push the envelope when holding back would certainly make for an easier life, not just for him but also for his family?
He responds, “I am driven on a very personal level to provide editorial commentaries on various political and social issues. I have never accepted any form of illustration-commissions, as it does not provide me the level of personal fulfillment I get from doing political cartoons.”
And on the most effective tool in his repertoire as an artist?
“Satire has been used to highlight shortcomings using mockery to shame individuals into improving. I love satire because it consists of amplifying the ludicrous until it is revealed how absurd it all is. Reality and fiction are so helplessly interlaced in our day-and-age that it becomes impossible to untangle the two. Jonathan Swift, in his satirical essay “A Modest Proposal” recommended that the Irish could fix many of their problems by eating their children. This would prevent destitute children from being a burden to their country and would turn them into a beneficial public commodity. I love amplifying the ludicrous—it is the only way to make people think differently.”