By Tala Abdulhadi,August2013
Osama Hajjaj, local cartoonist, creator of the locally famous character “Atweh” and co-founder of Hajjaj Brothers spoke to OC about cartoons, politics and what it means to be an artist in our community.
How old were you when you first started drawing?
I’ve been drawing since I was little but I didn’t start taking it seriously until I was about 20. As a kid I used to doodle on my school books and on my desk. We had to return our books at the end of the year so they used to make me pay for them since they were covered in my doodles.
Who are your major influences?
To a great degree, my brother Emad has been a major influence. Robert Carl and a French cartoonist named Plantu. I also love Salvador Dali’s work.
How did you first decided to become a cartoonist?
I used to dabble in oil painting as a hobby, but I worked in several different places before finally deciding. I worked at different offices, I also tried working in an airport where I used to repair airplanes. I just quit one day without telling anyone and I was out of work for about three years. It was my father who first suggested that I should start drawing, he used to work at a newspaper called “Al Mar’a” and since I had no job at the time he suggested that I should draw caricatures for the newspaper and I agreed. It didn’t pay much, but it was what first got me into politics and cartooning.
How did you manage to achieve the recognition you now have?
After leaving “Al Mar’a” and working for a weekly newspaper named “Al-Belad” afterwards, I decided to leave the cartoon world for a while. That’s when I started working in graphic design; I was taught how to do it and so things evolved from drawing by hand to drawing on computers. Around 2001 the Internet really took off here, so I decided to start sending my work by email to close friends, just for fun you know? I then found out my cartoons where being forwarded and were sort of gathering fans. I loved the fact that I had no one to censor me, no editor, no restrictions; I could do what I want. As things progressed and everyone started having Facebook accounts, I used this to my advantage and started posting my work there. It was being spread more easily and so technology really helped me. I believe that e-journalism is much better than print media, in terms of gaining support and in terms of freedom as well.
Since we’re on the topic of freedom, what do you think of freedom of the press in Jordan?
I think that these days it’s much easier to say what you need to say than when I first started off. Back then you could get in trouble for pretty much anything; even criticizing a member of parliament could mean consequences. Things are a little more lenient now, of course there are still many lines we cannot cross, and several restrictions and taboos as well. Still I believe it’s gotten better.
Have you ever received any negative criticism for your work?
Of course I have, I was the first cartoonist to be arrested locally back in 1994, I was arrested over a cartoon criticizing the Muslim brotherhood. The criticisms have never stopped however, whenever I portray my political opinion I get criticisms, negative comments, insults, even threats. In many occasions people just don’t get the joke, in several others they disagree with me for taking a certain side in a political matter. Those with extremist mindsets in general will always find something “offensive” about my work that they can criticize.
How did you come up with Atweh?
I wanted a character I could identify with, someone I could imagine being in his place. In general, he represents the local youth; and so I use him to highlight the everyday struggles and mindset of that age group, but I also like to draw him in situations that I found myself experiencing because I think he represents a part of me as well. For example, in the cartoon about being trapped on an airplane between two horrible people when the rest of the plane was filled with supermodels, of course it was an exaggeration but we all tend to find ourselves in the worst possible seat for some reason. Atweh’s side-kick however, was based on my friend Omar.
Why did you pick Atweh to represent the youth?
To begin with, we already have a character representing the older generations; that being my brother Emad’s character: Abu Mahjoob. Secondly, I believe that the younger generations really are neglected locally when it comes to media; the general focus always leans towards those who are older. I wanted someone who portrays problems that I’ve experienced not some anonymous figure who speaks for us. I needed someone to represent the average life of a Jordanian youth and their lifestyle, from university life to what a young male would do for fun here.
What’s your creative process?
I always get my ideas right before going to sleep, as soon as my head touches the pillow, that’s why I keep a pen and paper next to my bed. After I get the idea I make a quick sketch. The next day, I use Painter, Digitizer and Photoshop to turn it into a reality.
If you could change one thing about Jordan what would that be?
Well, I would like to change the extent to which we can be open about things, general liberties. I would also love for the government to go easy on us, people are having a really hard time regarding expenses; everything is so expensive. I would like people to stray from extremism, the world is changing and I believe that it’s time for us to get rid of restrictions; we need to accept each other’s differences.
Do you think that cartoons have the power to change people?
I believe so. I always hope that people notice the mistakes they make once they’re reflected back at them. I’ve been told by some that they changed some of their flaws after they saw them in my cartoons. So yes, it’s a subtle way of informing people of their negative habits but at the same time it’s not a boring instruction manual so it gives the audience space to think and hopefully change.
What are your opinions on pursuing an art career in Jordan?
Since I was a child there was no emphasis whatsoever on art education. I remember our art teacher used to tell us to just draw anything we want and that was a “class” to him. People still believe that you have no future in art and that if you choose to follow this path then that’s because you can’t find anything better to do, I think that recent generations are improving a bit when it comes to art and that some more importance is being paid. Still, a very big percentage of the population unfortunately believes that art is useless. Nevertheless we have an improving art scene, and it’s getting bigger. So don’t despair, there is hope.
What advice would you like to give to aspiring cartoonists?
I always say this to those looking to get published: you don’t need to work for a newspaper or any sort of print media nowadays to get your work out there, use technology to your advantage. You could use social media and the internet to publish yourselves without the consent or approval of others or any figures of authority. You can be completely independent.