Salim Zerrouki calls 100% Bled, the title of his new graphic novel, “insipid.” Most people, though, would find it fairly provocative — a fair representation of the book’s content, which mocks Arabs in the Maghreb for blaming others for their problems. But Zerrouki, 40, had suggested an even more daring title at first: How to Improve the World by Getting Rid of the Arabs. His French publishers said that was too risky. The tussle ended in a compromise, one that captures Zerrouki’s mission: to constantly provoke the society he’s part of — risks be damned.
Born in Algeria and now based in Tunis, Zerrouki has had a Zelig-esque career, moving from the corporate world as artistic director of an advertising firm to working as an anonymous caricaturist to the public life of a novelist with an audience straddling both sides of the Mediterranean. There’s a restlessness driving the leaps in his résumé, just as there is a distinct streak of violence running through his growing body of caricature, making it controversial — and hard to ignore.
In 2011, Zerrouki began sketching out stories for his anonymous blog, Yahia Boulahia. It told of Boulahia, a short, bearded and depressed Salafist man who sought a “new fatwa to cleanse society of all impure creatures, women and animals” on a daily basis. The blog, a sardonic admonition against the excesses of religion, spread like wildfire on Tunisia’s social platforms in the days after the country’s Arab Spring revolution had ousted then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 22 years in power.
When my favorite subjects are religion and morals … my drawings can only be polemical.
With 100% Bled, published in the Maghreb as How to Get Rid of Us for a Better World (the subtitle of the French edition), Zerrouki has once again charged into tricky territory. In an era when caricatures have sparked deadly reactions from extremist groups — recall the January 2015 mass shooting at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper in Paris — Zerrourki’s work leaves him open to virulent criticism. But he insists he doesn’t have a choice.
“I am provocative by nature,” he says. “When my favorite subjects are religion and morals … my drawings can only be polemical.”
In the 60-page 100% Bled, Zerrouki throws caustic punches at Arabs with a story that tracks ordinary life events. “Already we are lazy,” the narrator says, “but during Ramadan we surpass each other.” At another point, a character instructs: “If you want to kill an Arab, make it work.”
But the author’s goal isn’t simply to poke the bear; his intention, he says, is to force Arabs in the Maghreb to look in the mirror, rather than across the Atlantic Ocean or Mediterranean Sea, to identify the source of their challenges. “We Arabs are eternally thinking that we are victims of a plot engineered by the West to annihilate us,” he says. “And it is because of this conspiracy [theory] that we are trying to justify our failures and our underdevelopment.”
Humor this dark isn’t to everyone’s taste, but self-deprecatory graphic novels written by someone from the region are clever tools for initiating conversations around social taboos and deep-seated stereotypes, says Salim Koudil, editor in chief of the Algerian newspaper Liberté Algérie. They’re also an effective way to reach a younger audience, he says. “If the graphic novels trigger … debates, then it is mission accomplished,” says Koudil.
While Zerrouki’s acid humor can burn, it also has ardent fans, among them his wife, Olfa. “It was what attracted me to him first,” she says. At home, Zerrouki is always joking around, Olfa says: “I suffer every day, seriously.”
But where some recognize the satire, others see flagrant offense, and the consequences can be terrifying. Zerrouki’s 2012 cartoon, Bearded Superman, was part of an exhibition in Tunis about Islamism that so angered Salafists they burned down two police stations and ransacked the exhibition. The artist knows that he’s treading a fine line — he chose to publish Yahia Boulahia anonymously for years, even after the blog became wildly popular. “I know that [my work] will not please some and that I am accused of treachery,” he says.
When he first talked to Olfa about 100% Bled, she says she was concerned about the possible reaction. But Zerrouki managed to reassure her, and since the book’s March release, there hasn’t been any backlash. “I’m a little disappointed,” Zerrouki says.
Prod him on whether he’s worried, and Zerrouki responds with short, quick-witted answers: “Do you want me to be threatened? You watch too much American TV!” It’s the same when I ask whether he had a mentor during his early years as a caricaturist. “Like Master Yoda?” he quips. “No,” he adds, before acknowledging that there were “plenty of people who inspired me.”
That wit was never completely at home in an advertising agency. That phase of his life, Zerrouki says, was about earning a “pot of money,” and he was constantly sketching in his spare time. By 2006, having grown bored with Algeria, he requested a transfer to the firm’s new Tunis office. Soon after moving, he left the job and committed to a life as a graphic novelist. “The people of the Maghreb must realize that if things go wrong, it is their fault first,” he says, deadpan.
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