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JustHere | November 15, 2017

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Khalid Al-Baih: To Think, Not To Laugh

Khalid Al-Baih: To Think, Not To Laugh

If Khalid Al-Baih had managed to convince a newspaper editor, we might not have in our midst the cartoonist we do now.

The political cartoonist who is currently working as a multimedia specialist, Public Arts at the Qatar Museums Authority, is best known for “Khartoon!”– an online social and political commentary on Sudan, the region and the world, that gained popularity during the Arab Spring.

Khalid always wanted to pursue cartooning as a profession, but was turned down by newspaper editors. “Most of these editors belong to the earlier generation who are used to the old form of cartoons. My cartoons were different. Editors would often find them too harsh to be published.”

One door shut, he decided to knock on the other, and took to social media. “I thought to myself, if 5000 people read the newspaper, I can have the whole world read my cartoons online.”

Khalid was intrigued by how journalists used Twitter to communicate stories, especially during the time of the Arab Spring. He soon started posting his cartoons on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, which quickly created a stir among his followers.


One of his first cartoons that he drew the day after the revolution in Tunisia began was of an octopus carrying a Tunisian flag. “I wanted to say that the revolution is going to reach out to other countries. Though a lot of people didn’t get it, I am very proud of it because what I interpreted came true. The revolution spread to other Arab countries.”

With his cartoons gaining popularity among web users, Khalid decided to brand his work. “I was looking for a name, and a friend of mine suggested Khartoon! which is a combination of Khalid, Khartoum and cartoon.” Clever!

With Khartoon!, the goal was to create a dialogue among people about current issues. “Just the fact that my work has more than 38,000 followers on Facebook means that people feel the same way that I do. These followers are not just from Sudan; many are from Algeria even though I don’t do cartoons on Algeria.

“Each cartoon gets a lot of comments and shares. This is important, getting people to start a dialogue with each other.”

Passion for politics

My cartoons are minimalistic. You either get it or you don’t.

Khalid comes from a political family, his father was a diplomat in Romania—where Khalid was born. He spent his childhood in Sudan and came to Doha at the age of 10. His father would regularly read two Egyptian political magazines – Sabah Al Khair and Rose al-Yūsuf  – that would feature a lot of cartoons on Egyptian politics and the Arab world. “I was amazed by how a panel of cartoons could save you from reading three pages. It conveyed the same information.”


Some of the cartoonists whose work he closely follows include Qatar-based Mohammed Abdul Latif, a cartoonist at Al Raya and Jordanian cartoonist Omar Al Abdallat. But his inspiration was Palestinian political cartoonist Naji Al Ali who was assassinated. “He used to work with an Iraqi poet called Ahmed Mattar. Their cartoons were amazing; simple but deep. Their cartoons were not funny, they only reflected the reality and this is how I want my cartoons to be. You are not going to laugh when you see my cartoons, they will make you think.

“My cartoons are minimalistic. You either get it or you don’t. The Internet is loaded with a variety of entertaining stuff; you need to compete in creating something that holds the reader’s attention. It takes only 45 seconds for a human to lose attention.”

Today Khalid is his own editor, which he says can be a difficult task. There’s nobody to tell you if your work is right or wrong. But the number of likes/shares/comments give you an idea if it has made an impact or not, he says.

Keeping him grounded is his worst critic – his wife. “I show her something that I think is genius and amazing, and she just disapproves it. She’s a banker, what does she know,” he laughs. “But it’s good to receive an honest opinion from somebody who is not in the same field. If cartoonists get my cartoon, doesn’t mean I am a genius. But if non-cartoonists understand my cartoon, that means my work is good.”

Freedom of expression


Isn’t it easier to start a political commentary sitting in Qatar, than back home, in Sudan?

“To an extent, yes,” says Khalid.

“The media scene in Sudan is in a terrible situation. On Facebook you don’t know who is an informant or government officer. But in Sudan you find a lot of these people recruited as the ‘electronic army’ who respond to your posts, and talk in favour of the government.”

But it’s all about freedom of speech. “The first thing that blew up in the Arab world during the Arab Spring was graffiti. People had so much they wanted to say but couldn’t. They finally exploded in the form of beautiful graffiti art because they were kept closed for so long being told what to do and what not to.”

He is quite clear that as a cartoonist, he is not trying to solve a problem, only trying to show it.  “Never take sides unless it’s completely wrong. You just need to create a dialogue.”

“Censorship is not just in the Middle East, its universal. Its just how the media portrays censorship differently in the West and the Middle East.”

Yet, one can’t ignore the issue of censorship. However, he says, censorship is not just limited to the Middle East as most people think.

“Just last week I found the raw video of the soldier being killed in UK, and posted it on Facebook, and there was a lot of commotion among followers.  The footage explains why the two men killed the soldier. Few days later, Facebook decided to delete all the raw videos related to the incident, and keep only the versions that news agency distributed.


“Censorship is not just in the Middle East, its universal. Its just how the media portrays censorship differently in the West and the Middle East.”

Art inspires society

According to Khalid, art and artists have always played a prominent role in shaping a country’s history, and its future as well. “You can measure the progress of a country by the progression of its art scene. It shows how open the society is to new ideas and how educated it is. But if a country doesn’t know its own history, how do you expect it to know its future.”

We, as society, need to take artists seriously, he says. “Our society is always thinking about math or science. But art studies and history should be part of the curriculum. Art should be used a medium to express yourself, and this is what will happen here in Qatar. Inshallah.”

You can follow Khalid Al Baih on: Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

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