Tomorrow I embark on a three-week trip to the Middle East (and North Africa), another "mission" on behalf of the State Department’s Speaker/Specialist Program. This time I’ll be visiting four countries: Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, and a country to be named later. As with my trip to Burma, it seems that — because of A.D. — I am being invited to showcase the cultural freedoms of American society, especially in comparison to the more authoritarian-style policies of the countries Ill be visiting.
I’m starting to realize that part of this "job" of being an international cartoonist is to wear many different hats. Sometimes I’m expected to do a presentation on my work, process, and background. Other times I’m counted on to dialogue with cartoonists from the local country. Still other times I should be prepared to lead comics-making workshops, with students ranging from children all to way to professionals with decades more experience than me. And sometimes I’m just supposed to act as a sort of visiting American dignitary, there to learn and observe. What I am discovering is that although "alternative comics" like what I do are still considered quite unusual in many parts of the world, political cartoonists are often held in high esteem. So even though I don’t do syndicated single-panel editorial cartoons, my work on A.D. allows me to be an honorary member of the club.
My first stop will be a three-night stay in Cairo, Egypt. While there, I’ll be giving a couple of presentations on nonfiction comics to local cartoonists and journalists. Back in the day, shortly before we met, Sari backpacked through Egypt, and she had some really amazing experiences in Cairo. Thanks to her, I’ve always dreamed of visiting the place, and I really look forward to meeting some of the country’s cartoonists, as well as doing some sight-seeing and of course checking out the pyramids of Giza.
My next destination is Algiers, Algeria, where I’ll be taking part in the week-long 3rd Annual International Comics Festival. (At least one other American, comics writer Brandon Jerwa, will join me for the Algeria portion of the trip as well.) Last year, two American cartoonists, Daryl Cagle and Jan Eliot, visited as part of the same program, and from their blogs they seemed to have really valued their experiences. In addition to leading panel discussions and seminars at the festival, they painted a mural at a center for children who have been victims of abuse in an inner-city neighborhood in Algiers; published a cartoon together with an Algerian artist in the nation’s most widely-read newspaper; met with the editors of several local papers; visited a women’s center; and led a drawing workshop at a local orphanage. They also held several press events with the Algerian media, including a TV appearance on a popular morning talk show. So I guess I can expect much of the same treatment. And since this really is an international festival, I expect to meet other cartoonists from all over the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Should be incredible.
My third stop will be Manama, Bahrain. (Raise your hand if you knew the capital of Bahrain was Manama!) During my four days in Manama, I will give three two-hour workshops, the first to professional newspaper cartoonists, the second to amateur cartoonists and youth, and the third to university students. I’ll also be giving two presentations, one at the Bahrain Arts Society and the second to the students at the fine arts center at the University of Bahrain. I really know next to nothing about the small island kingdom of Bahrain — and never in a million years imagined I’d get a chance to visit there — so I’m really curious about this part of my trip. (Weirdly enough, the New York Institute of Technology has a campus in Bahrain. What’s that all about?…)
My fourth and final stop, to be revealed later, will also feature presentations and workshops. And then, on October 28, if all goes according to schedule, I will land back at JFK, home after my three-week tour of the Middle East.
Obviously, I’m really excited about the trip and all the things I’ll see and people I’ll meet. I’ve never been to any of these countries, and can’t wait to experience their surprises. But I can’t help feeling guilty for leaving Sari & Phoebe for this long of a stretch. My expectation this time, though, is that in contrast to Burma, where making contact was so difficult, I’ll at least be able to Skype with them while I’m gone.
Stay tuned for further updates.