Shannawi Mohammed, Hisham Rahama, Andeel, Makhlouf and Tawfiq, five young Egyptians graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Cairo but, as often happens, they work in areas that have nothing to do with their studies. Mohammed, for example, works as a free lance for graphics companies throughout the Middle East from Syria to Saudi Arabia, from Jordan to Egypt, from Abu Dhabi to Dubai. None of these artists has never really left his passion for drawing, especially for caricatures and comics. Some of them were friends before starting this adventure, others got known on internet more or less 3-4 years ago, through their works on internet or published by specialized magazines. There is mutual respect and enthusiasm, strengthen by the revolutionary climate of openness and discussion started by the winning and mostly peaceful uprising of last January and February 2011.
About one year ago, the five decided to join their forces to draw their own magazine and try to get published in Cairo. They had no idea about how long it would have taken to release their first number. They spent twelve months almost exclusively to the preparations: magazine format, kind of humour, how many stories to put into, how many pages and, most important, the title: Tuk Tuk. In real life “tuk tuk” is the name of the most known rickshaw taxi used in the slums of Cairo. Normally it has only two seats behind the driver, but many often you may also see whole families with their children piled on top of each other fitted into it. You will like tuk tuk rickshaw from the first moment you spot it, garlanded with typical adhesive flags and slogans of the Cairo’s suburban, which are often borrowed by Egyptian successful films. Tuk tuk is the stereotype of poor people in Egypt, but also genuine and caring, the word itself creates a clear imaginary of part of the Egyptian population, their livelihood and their folklore and not only the mere transport car. The five caricaturists could not find a more appropriate name for their magazine. At the opening made at the Townhouse Gallery in the middle of the city, there was a large following of young people, especially attracted by the news bounced on Facebook.
When I enter Mohamed’s apartment, he is very nice and friendly, he mostly works at home. There are two desks, both with messy colour pencils, ink, paper, scattered sketches, press and photos clippings, the inevitable ashtray full of butts, a cliché, the typical mess where only the artist can find himself. On the top of the first desk, there is the computer where Mohamed uploads the drawings which he makes on the other one.
The ochre coloured walls are filled with poster in a pop art style or magnification of his storyboards. He introduces me to Andeel, the smallest of the group, he’s 24 years, his tiny size and his sparse beard make him seems even younger. The average of the other group’s members is around 27-28 years.
Tuk Tuk has decided to remain independent; it does not want a publishing house that might dictate conditions and determine the magazine outlines, or even censoring what is less convenient. “It’s absurd – says Andeel – to censor the caricatures because they are just not aligned with the government’s positions, what kind of satire would be? A good caricaturist would always find a way to avoid any censor”
Thus, the group has invested time and money to complete their own mission. Many foreign cultural institutes in Cairo did not seem interested in their project, but after the huge success of Tuk Tuk, before the fall of Mubarak, they have changed their minds and intending to sponsor the group, as well as several publishing houses. However, Tuk Tuk is still rigorously jealous of its independence.
But the biggest difficulty, they had to face, is the distribution in Egypt. Shorouk publisher, very well known throughout Egypt and Middle East, could help them having a big network of libraries spread throughout the country; but they refused.
Each artist works alone. There are deadlines for delivery the own work and they meet, time to time, to discuss and to criticize the sketches and the stories of each one. They decide together, democratically. They analyze the storyboards and exposing their own opinions, or their doubts. Mohamed tells me that personally does a skimming job: he can have eight to ten ideas, but at the end he only focuses on two or three. Completed them, he submits his drawing to the rest of artists, and together they discuss what to change, if necessary, or listen to the other’s point of view. When the pieces are ready, they send everything to be printed.
The language they use is the one from the youth; their idiomatic features extrapolate the social psychology of Egypt and its stereotypes. Contemporary Cairo common places come out of their pencils. Thereby, we can meet three youngsters workshop who freeze themselves when a beautiful veiled woman with tight clothes pass by; or a beggar talking to himself into a dusty road walking beside a businessman in suits, with a smart phones and a laptop, telling him to be quiet in such a way to allow him to respond to his important customers; or in a parody of the political scene represented as a game soccer, when the politician is a football champion who shoots the dubious money bag outside the country in some foreign bank account.
The first number was released on January 9th, 2011 and has been sold out in a few days. The same happened on April 10th at the opening at the French Cultural Centre for the second number, and once again on July 16th. Tuk Tuk is filling a missing space into the Egyptian comics and humorous scene, otherwise it cannot be explained the boom in sales and the large participation of young people who followed the event and are looking forward to the next releases. Shennawy himself is pointing out that the readers’ target is teenagers and adults.
The warm welcome and the curiosity that has captured their project, has also attracted media’s attention. They were interviewed by Egyptian TV, Al Arabeyya, OTV, Al Hurra TV and Nile, but unfortunately (or fortunately, depends of point of view), the revolution has taken over and placed in the background the Tuk Tuk’s first release. Andeel, Mohammed, Hisham, Tawfiq and Makhlouf were not discouraged at all. The latest events are fertile ground to mock the old regime and turn the revolution into a caricature. Politicians are warned. Immediately after the Mubarak’s resignation, the famous French magazine Charlie Hebdo published several Shennawy’s caricatures on its weekly number: former rais Mubarak standing in an upright and proud look in front of a young in Tahrir Square, who is writing on his chest “Go away”; the imam holding on his hand the Koran and a priest holding the Cross embracing each other; an outcast camped out in Tahrir Square sleeping under a tank which is patrolling the square. In last two numbers they drew Mubarak lying on a stretcher complaining where is the justice; a guy taking pictures of his veiled girlfriend in pose beside a military tank; autobiographic story during the days of the uprising, a running away from police, from tear gas, from the police vans …
The fives were all caught by surprise by the event of January 25th. They knew that something would have token place, but they did not expect such a high participation. On 26th Shennawy was returning from Alexandria, where he presented the magazine. That morning was investigated by the police from his suspicious boxes which he was loading into his car just in front of his house in Cairo’s downtown. The police intimated a control. The police ended up reading the copy of Tuk Tuk, laughing about the sketches meanwhile the protest was going on Qasr el Nil’s bridge, just few blocks away. This gives an idea of how the protest was felt by who was theoretically meant to protect the regime.
When the uprising started to be stronger and stronger, the society became aware of its strength, and then also the five caricaturists have joined the people of Tahrir since the beginning. They stayed in square protesting against the government, drawing caricatures to mock Mubarak and to push him to step aside. Andeel was about to leave for Germany during those days of guerrilla. He was in conflict with himself from leaving his friends and the other Egyptians when they were risking their lives to have a better Egypt. At the end he stayed. On the evening of Mubarak’s resignation he cried for all the tension he had accumulated day after day. Many people have had the same opportunity of Andeel, and many like him stayed. Now there is uncertainty in Cairo. People after Mubarak ousted, wanted everything to be resolved in a few weeks, but now there is awareness that it couldn’t be like this. Months have pasted, the situation is still unclear; expectation, fear and economical concern are constantly permeating the society. The five caricaturists will fight with their drawing once again, or if necessary, they will march on the streets again if necessary.
“What consequences can have the revolution on your work?”, Andeele is answering me.
“It will not change much, we will always be at the first line, we are optimistic and we have confidence in the future. There is excitement in the air, and we are proud of what we managed to do with other millions Egyptians: oust the dictator and start a process for developing Egypt into a democratic system”. They are sure that there is no come back.
“There will be less censorship than it used to be before?” I ask provocatively. Andeel shows a malicious smile of who knows many things; secrets and prohibitions are daily food for caricaturists: there will always be something to uncover, a tribunal process going on, a ex-president impeachment for killing demonstrators, a military regime which is still have to step down … definitely Tuk Tuk will tell its word about the forthcoming events, ready to spread its humoristic sparks across the country.