Bashir Bakhtiari, working under the pen name of Baache Azr,a is a pioneer Afghan journalist filmmaker who is better known among Hazara artists for the cartoons and other graphic work he creates.
His work as a journalist was done mostly in the past, although he still cooperates with some western free media. His filmmaking activities are not being covered by the media as well as they should, but his notable cartoons and cartoons are being published on many different sites seen by Afghans around the world.
Bakhtiari draws cartoons that make a statement as precise as hitting a dart right on the bulls eye, because he has a strong affinity and common bond with his audience.
His drawings are simple, but at the same time full of meaning. They are barely explained by words, but are worth a thousand words. People laugh and cry at the same time when they go the depth of his works. One is amazed how tenderly he depicts what you haven’t been able to see yourself.
Bashir Bakhtiari is unique due to his social background plus his glittering career and experience. He has been an artist, a journalist of the people who came from the people.
Like many other Afghan artists and journalists, Bakhtiari had to flee his country due to threats to harm him, and the insecurity that breeds. He now lives in New Zealand, but still can tell the story of Afghanistan’s problems, as if he still lived there.
This exclusive interview, by correspondent Amin Wahidi was made online in Dari for the Dari version of Kabul Press. Translation by Amin Wahidi.
Amin Wahidi: Mr. Bakhtiari, first of all thank you very much for sharing with us your valuable time. My first question is: As a caricaturist and graphic designer, what responsibilities do you feel to a country like Afghanistan?
Bashir Bakhtiari: You are welcome. In a country with a sick social infrastructure where ethnic fascism has a very strong role, where the motto of students could be condemning the universities, in a country where a gorilla becomes the minister of information and culture, in a country where suicide bombings become a part of the religious culture, in a country, where senior politicians including the president provide nothing but lies and discrimination, there are two ways for an artist to choose, whether to ignore the corruption and prejudice quietly, or spend your whole life in prison.
Amin Wahidi: How do you compare the language of written text with a drawn cartoon?
Bashir Bakhtiari: I think cartoons are the clear imaginary words of a long boring text that are written in a specific language. Sometimes a cartoon or caricature can have meanings equal to thousands of words while being sketched only with a few simple lines. The language of caricature is not confined to specific languages or cultures and it is generous enough to transcend language differences. It is the common language of all nations and all cultures and stronger than the written text of any pen.
Amin Wahidi: Tell me about your filmmaking and other graphic design work.
Bashir Bakhtiari: My graphic works have been as full of shortcomings as my cartoons, unfortunately. However, I have been working on graphic works, modern design, animation cartoons, and digital films. I have designed hundreds of logos, posters, billboards, book covers. I still work with some western journals.
And about film: I did not make many features or short films, but rather a lot of documentaries. During the Russian occupation and then during the civil war, I made more than 200 documentary films, and I have the honor of being the first and the last journalist filmmaker, who made documentary films of Mujahedeen operations in Kabul during the Russian occupation.
Later, I worked with Tolo TV for about ten months on entertainment programs and partly in the news department. But since I didn’t like the work environment at Tolo TV, I resigned. Over the last two years, I have worked on TV commercials and advertising videos that are the mostly aired on TV channels in Kabul. I have been out of country for two years, but they still air my work.
Amin Wahidi: It would be nice to hear about the role of cartoon in the society and in the Afghan press.
Bashir Bakhtiari: Unfortunately, as with many other things in our country, cartoons have not found the place in the society they deserve. While technology is very advanced today, we have many caricaturists who still follow traditions that are fifty years old. Conservativism is an obstacle. I speak of the artists who think working with computers is against Islamic rules. There are still people who avoid adding pictures to their journals. It may be different now, but up to last year the Anes Daily paper had no images. Seeing all this I think the modern caricaturists have the right to feel oppressed in this country.
Amin Wahidi: What inspires you most when drawing cartoons?
Bashir Bakhtiari: Well, mostly I don’t pay attention to the issues that are already spoken about, within the society. I mean, I want to present through my cartoons what has not been said yet or what has not been discussed within the society yet. I want to get the attention of people on those issues not seen easily today but will become big obstacles tomorrow. My motto has always been “if you have ability, demonstrate it today otherwise, tomorrow it will be very late.”
For instance, if I draw cartoons on Karzai’s hand in drug business or Assadullah Khaled’s real face as a spy for Pakistan, or Shaikh Asif Mohseni’s role as a religious dealer and IRI Agent in Afghanistan, or the Pashtoonization process by Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, for me it means that I got to know about these things later than everyone else, because the people are already aware of all these things.
Amin Wahidi: You maintain specific characteristics for the characters you draw, would you explain why?
Bashir Bakhtiari: Yeah, actually the specific characters of a caricaturist are the signatures that introduce him. Caricaturists, who have created specific characters in their works do not need to sign their works with their pen names anymore.
As you see in the cartoons I drew, mostly I use tools as personages in them, but in the cartoons, I selected the characters for the personages from the people I have lived with a long time. Some viewers have criticized me saying that my characters reflect only one specific ethnicity, but that is not correct.
That truth is that, when I drew a character with an eye out of its socket, a peaked nose and a big, untidy turban on the head, it usually a Taliban soldier. A Taliban as a suicide attacker, as a looter and a killer can not be drawn nicer than this; it is reality. This symbol of fierceness is always drawn with a husky body but bent and obedient, attending to orders, bare feet, a religious scroll in green “as a defender” on the shoulder, a dirty waist jacket, long, bushy beard, and glaring eyes! That is what a Taliban is like, no more than this.
People were assaulted by them in the past, and they were looted by them. This is the truth, and the world needs to know this side of the coin, not the false history of the Taliban as religious students and protectors of the faithful. Let the people know that the truth is not what is being written about many of the heroes of Afghanistan. Let the people also know what the British, the Russians, the Pakistani’s and then the Americans did to people under the shadow of these characters. The people should know about more of the Mullah Trojans who are the real threats to the future of Afghanistan.
Amin Wahidi: Have you ever been faced with a violent reaction from viewers of your work?
Bakhtiari: Only once, when I drew a cartoon of Shaikh Ibrahimi, a special representative of Ayatullah Khamenayee in Afghanistan, the Iranian Intelligence interrogated me.
Amin Wahidi: Some people think that cartoons are drawn to make others laugh, what are your opinions on other aspects of cartoons?
Bakhtiari: I should say a cartoon is more serious than only making fun of someone and making people laugh. Cartoons are drawn to tell a harsh truth, rather than just poke a little fun at someone.
A cartoon is not what most of our people think. I think a good cartoon never makes people laugh but it has an awareness and message for them.
Amin Wahidi: What role does a cartoon play in public enlightenment?
Bashir Bakhtiari: First it is important to know in which society we live and how it values cartoons. You know that the art of cartooning can have a big role in advanced countries. It could bring the prime minister to court in a country like Germany or in Cuba it could lead the revolution, or it could predict the terror of Reagan. It could increase the national revenue in Mexico, or it could cause a heart attack for Japanese prime minister. But in countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, where religion is a tool of pressure, drawing cartoons is the primary way to face imprisonment, beatings by the police, and finally execution. But in general the cartoon is a strong and flexible medium that can play a leading role in the society.
It can motivate or destroy the mentality of the society depending on how it is used.
Amin Wahidi: Of other cartoonists, whose cartoons do you like personally?
Bashir Bakhtiari: Unfortunately among our Afghans, I don’t really see any cartoonists who have been following it seriously, almost every one is moving around the zero point and no further than that.
What most of our cartoons present to society, are similar to the already chewed morsels that are given back to the society. I mean the caricaturists repeat what they hear from the people and rarely do new things with their own creativity.
There are many reasons, unfortunately, first there are no new things to say, there is lack of concentration on the issues and then lack of support of the artist community. Only in the far off the region there are many great masters in this field whose works are really appreciable and each has many things to say; Aiden Aghdashlo, Zolat Kofesky, Kozobokeen, Arth, Bartak and others. But in the near region, Chinese, Iranian, Turkish and Bahrainian Caricaturists are very famous world wide.
Amin Wahidi: Do you laugh when you draw your cartoons or not?
Bashir Bakhtiari: I don’t think I have ever worked on a funny cartoon, because my cartoons do not make people laugh. The main core of my works are always, mixed with questions and pain and pain never makes people laugh.
Cartoons are the form of saying what I want to say to my viewers.
Amin Wahidi: What do you enjoy more; when your cartoon makes viewers laugh or when it makes them angry?
Bashir Bakhtiari: My main goal in drawing cartoons is to deliver to others the realities and the harsh truths I feel. I enjoy it most when I feel that I have delivered my message through the cartoon I drew. My only satisfactory is my ability to deliver to the people what I have in my heart to say in the form of cartoon.
Amin Wahidi: Mr. Bakhtiari, thank you very much indeed.
Bashir Bakhtiari: You are very welcome.