Friday, February 27, 2009

Somali cartoonist draws death threats

This week, Canadians celebrate the freedom to read.
Every day, a Somali man living in Edmonton celebrates the freedom to draw.
Freedom to Read Week is an annual event in Canada raising awareness about freedom of expression, which we are guaranteed in this country. But Amin Amir doesn't need a designated week to remind him.The visual artist, who has lived in Canada for nearly a decade, is famous in Somali circles around the globe for his political cartoons about Somalia. Satirical, poignant and often controversial, Amir's cartoons -- which he posts at -- address issues facing his home country: political corruption, war, poverty, famine, murdered journalists and oppressed women. His website gets up to 10,000 hits a day,In one cartoon, Amir depicts how an Islamic militia group undermines society despite its claims that it's helping the country. Al-Shabaab is portrayed as a bulldozer digging deep into the side of a cliff. Above the bulldozer, on a precariously thin strip of earth, Somalia's most vulnerable people -- women, children, the elderly -- struggle to survive. Most of the cartoons are in his native language, Somali.Edmonton's Somali community, which numbers around 8,000, admires the artist for speaking out about the issues back home. "He's a local hero. Everyone talks about him," Accord says. Amir deals regularly with extremists who want him dead because of his cartoons. He gets anonymous threats as often as twice a week.
"They send me e-mails, 'We kill you, we know where you live,' " the artist says with the help of his daughter, Jija, who translates from Somali to English. "I'm not scared. If the (Somali) government does something bad, I want to tell people. "I don't stop my cartoons. I'm still doing my job." When he publishes a controversial cartoon, "the poor people like me" and "the bad people are not happy," he says. But "when the poor people are happy, I'm happy too, I'm satisfied." Amir's wife, Zenaib Ibrahim, is proud, too. "My husband, he talks about the people who don't have a voice, who are poor." Amir and his family left Somalia in 1992. The family moved to Canada in 2000 after a stint in Djibouti, settling in Montreal. They moved to Edmonton two years ago.
Thanks to the freedom of expression in Canada, Amir earns a living as an artist through his commercial website, along with contracts at various publications. He is also a painter and sells his works. In 2007, Amir was one of 18 Edmonton artists to win an Explorations Grant, a program established during the city's Cultural Capital Program. Amir's grant of $7,500 allowed him to create 30 oil paintings depicting the role of Somali women in family and society. He is motivated to speak out on behalf of Somalia's most vulnerable citizens because they can't speak out themselves. "When bad things happen, the first people affected are women and children," he explains through Jija. The cartoons hit home with Mayran Kalah, an Edmontonian who left Somalia in 1995. "When I see his (Amir's) pictures, I know exactly what he's talking about," she says. "As a woman, it touches me." She says Amir's hard-hitting cartoons make Somalians laugh, but also remind those who have left their home country: "Don't forget." When asked if he'll ever return to Somalia, he laughs and says "maybe later." Judging by his grin, and the sarcasm in his cartoons, it would seem that's a very big maybe. "Freedom is good," he says. Pr...By: Elizabeth Withey, Photograph by: Rick MacWilliam,Source: The Edmonton Journal