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Published On: Thu, Feb 12th, 2015

Multi-talented Tamer Youssef explores the world through his art

Egyptian illustrator and cartoonist Tamer Youssef uses his artistic talents not only to entertain but also to inform and inspire debate. His day begins at dawn, at one of Egypt’s largest newspapers, Al-Ahram; each morning he looks at the latest news, both national and international, to find a topical issue or event for his cartoons which cover political and social issues as well as sports events.

Tamer recalls that on one occasion around the time of the First Iraq war back in 1991, the Americans were looking for a new president for Iraq and simultaneously there was a local piece of news regarding sports to be covered:

– I blended these two themes; sports and politics into one cartoon. It wasn’t easy, but it worked well and was real fun.

Tamer Youssef is a cartoonist, illustrator, filmmaker, producer, director, TV- and radio journalist and TV- and screenwriter. He has earned two doctoral degrees and lectures at universities throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Europe and America. In the little spare time he has, he enjoys many kinds of sports, especially boxing, water polo, soccer and body building.

He was born in Egypt, but he views himself as a Francophone and has spent many years in Paris. Other than Arabic and French, he speaks English, Spanish and some Italian. He has been commissioned all over the world as a cartoonist and freelancer in a variety of fields.

Between 2005- 2010 he was living in the United States, but he and his family returned to Egypt just before the outbreak of the Arab Spring.

When did you discover that you have this artistic talent?

– I started drawing and painting at school and there was a well-known international artist who was our instructor. He is a sculptor whose work can be found everywhere in the world. Some are in the White House in the US while others are in the Israeli Knesset. His name is Saad Mitry.

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Tamer Youssef


He was your teacher and inspired you to discover your talents?

– Exactly! I was a student at the French school in Egypt.

Tamer’s career began when he joined the team at Le Progrés Egyptien, a French-language Egyptian daily in 1989, after winning one of their competitions of creating a character for the newspaper. He has been working for various newspapers across the region ever since.

– To me, as a cartoonist, I have to start my day very early in the morning. I am usually up and working by 4 AM. I start by reading all about the latest news and issues as that is what forms the basis of the cartoons I draw for that specific day. If the previous day has been busy with several major events or issues, it can be very difficult for me as I find that I have to try to include four, five or even six issues in a single cartoon. Sometimes I draw caricatures of political and social issues simultaneously.

Tamer acquired his first PhD in Mass Communication in Paris and defended his second PhD thesis about layout at the University of California, Berkeley, where he works at the Art Academy. He recalls that one day something unexpected happened in the street right outside the Art School:

– I met Robin Williams. He was funny and simple. I said “Hi” and shook his hand, and I don’t know what happened to him, Tamer says and lowers his head in a sad gesture. He let me take a picture of him and me.

Celebrities

For a brief moment, the conversation shifts to celebrities and I mention that the very first time I visited Cairo the streets were being carefully cleaned in Giza and all the way up to the pyramids for an upcoming visit by former US President Bill Clinton.

This leads Tamer’s thoughts to another famous face; the artist Sting, whom he was privileged to encounter as well. Tamer was also the only journalist in Egypt to interview the actor Jackie Chan.

Tamer reveals that his own surname, which is not Youssef but Solinan, is well-known in the entire region. His grandfather, similar to Tamer, was a pioneer within his field as the first Egyptian to import printing machines to the Middle East and North Africa. He established the famous print house Rose El Youssef.

The arrival of the printing press contributed to the Renaissance of the region in the 19th century to which Tamer’s grandfather was a great contributor.

Do you, as a cartoonist, have a union?

– The system in Egypt is different from that in Europe and the US. In the US, I’m a member of the Cartoonist and Writer’s Syndicate (CWS) which was founded by Jerry Robinson, the illustrator of the Batman comics.

Tell me about the documentaries you have produced!

– Most of them I made through Al Jazeera and Qatar. I’ve worked as a scriptwriter, filmmaker, director and even art director as well as executive creative director for Egyptian series at one of the most important production houses in Egypt; Mohomod Elis.

Tamer_i_kafe_s

When you make documentaries do you go by a script or do you go with the flow?

– Do you remember when we were talking over the phone a couple of weeks ago? I was directing a TV-show back then. I did all the preparations; interviews and reports. When people ask me what are we going to talk about, I usually tell them to wait for the camera to start rolling. I prefer not to reveal that in advance.

By using this approach, Tamer has noticed that interviews – whether they are for documentaries of live TV shows – become more truthful. He also points out the importance of being well-prepared and organized at all times.

If you could travel in time who would you like to meet and why?

– Gandhi, President Nasser and the Prophet Muhammad. They were leaders and knew the secret of how to deal with people.

What would you talk to them about?

– Politics. Secret talents.

Regarding what secret talents Tamer possesses, he argues that it is not really a secret but rather a hobby that he enjoys. He loves the Egyptian desert and travels around the country to discover it and himself.

– That is what I do for meditation, for pleasure and to show it to my friends that visit from Europé.

What are your views on the attack against the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris last month?

– We were talking about freedom of expression. In France it is different; they have a freedom of expression with everything, but I believe they made a big mistake. They used freedom of expression against freedom of religion. If you are a Christian, I can’t make fun of Jesus, for example. That is not acceptable!

With regards to freedom of expression and freedom of religion Tamer says that he has noticed an existing double standard, especially in the US but also in Europe. During his time in Paris, he encountered the journalists from the Charlie Hebdo team and he admits that he has been upset about their methods for a long time.

– You can draw anything you want against Prophet Muhammad, depict the Pope in a sexual position, for instance, but don’t ever think of drawing anything about the Holocaust or the Jews.

Where do you feel at home?

– Home is not a destination. It’s with the people. I enjoy being in Romania. I’ve been there many times. I enjoy being in Syria. The Syrians are a warm people. And I enjoy Thailand, too.

What are you plans for 2015?

– I have so many projects at the moment. One of them is to focus on academic lecturing. I’m going to Morocco to speak at one of the universities there as well as at the University of California, Berkeley and in France in October. I’m trying to prepare some good lectures. This year is going to be an academic year.

 

 

 

 

 

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