When Bernard Hage, the political cartoonist who goes by the pseudonym The Art of Boo, finished putting together his book in the summer of 2019, he had no idea that its publication would be delayed four times: first by revolution, followed by economic collapse, then a global pandemic and finally the vast explosion last August that left swathes of Beirut in ruins.
The book he published late last month, Anatomy of a Hummus Plate, is a very different book than the one he had finalised before the October 2019 uprising began. A collection of more than 250 of his cartoons, it has transformed from a wry reflection on life's trials and absurdities to a tragicomic documentation of Lebanon's slow collapse.
“I figured this book now serves as a perfect introduction to what has been happening in Lebanon,” he reflects. “I was really anxious to publish the book as soon as possible because I’m not really confident about the future. I don’t know what’s going to happen and I really wanted to publish it before the next tragedy hits.”
Hage, who studied advertising before becoming an artist, became a cartoonist almost by chance. His earliest cartoon, included in the book, captures a therapist talking to a patient. “I’m going to show you a series of images. Tell me what first comes to mind,” he says, holding up a sign that says, “You are a failure.”
In 2018, after several cartoons published on his social media pages had gone viral, Hage was approached by Lebanon's French-language national newspaper, L'Orient-Le Jour for a role as a political cartoonist.
“After that I started following up more with politics,” he says. “Now, the first thing I do when I wake up is I check all the news platforms I’m following to know what’s going on because I need to know what I need to make a joke about.”
Many of his cartoons dwell on traffic, power cuts and other day-to-day infrastructural problems that plague the Lebanese. "I'm just fortunate enough to transform this frustration into humour," he says.".
Over the last three years his work has become increasingly political. Initially, he says, he was nervous about pillorying Lebanon’s long-serving ruling class. “I was very anxious about it because I didn’t really know what I was walking into… I didn’t know what are the rules of the game and what am I allowed to criticise and what am I not allowed to criticise,” he recalls.
Aware of Lebanon’s increasingly punitive measures against government critics, he has found a unique way to crack jokes without opening himself up to accusations of defamation. His distinctive drawing style allows him to satirise Lebanon’s politicians simply by drawing figures wearing black suits and ties, without any need to name or identify them in a caption.
"I know very well where I'm living ... I know very well what the repercussions would be when it comes to insulting or bashing or naming things in person, so I do the extra work," he says.
"I manage to work with what I have. I'm not allowed to portray these people. Okay. So I'm going to find a different solution."
In one cartoon, he openly mocks Lebanon’s crackdown on freedom of speech, depicting an officiant performing a wedding ceremony with the words, “For better or worse, in sickness and in health, till one of you mentions the president in a Tweet.”
Even in the bleakest times, Hage finds ways to dig humour out of tragedy, a practice he calls catharsis humour. “It’s like someone laughing at a funeral,” he says. “I think simply by living in Lebanon I’ve been trained to release stress in the form of laughter because it’s the only thing we have. It’s the last wall standing between us and total chaos or total darkness.”
But in the aftermath of the explosion in Beirut’s port last August, which left more than 200 people dead, over 7,000 injured and an estimated 300,000 displaced from their homes, his overriding emotion was fury. The first cartoon he published, days after the blast, had two panels. The first showed a selection of oddly shaped objects labelled like flat pack furniture. In the second they had been assembled to form a guillotine.
Another blast-related cartoon shows one of Hage’s distinctive suit-wearing politicians helping to sweep up glass in the streets, handing out aid packages and ushering a family into a new home. In the final panel, he awakes in bed and tells his wife, “I just had the weirdest dream.” The cartoon highlighted the fact that volunteers led the clean-up and relief efforts with no support from politicians or government institutions.
Having unexpectedly become one of the country’s most prominent sources of political commentary, Hage sometimes feels anxious about how best to live up to the responsibilities of his role. But he says fans often tell him that his work offers them hope.
“Using humour really helps break the drama, especially when it comes to political cartoons,” he says. “It helps deconstruct this godly image... It brings them to a human scale again and when they are human they are replaceable. You have this feeling of superiority when you’re laughing about someone. It gives you some sort of mini victory over that and this is, I think, the role of humour in politics. When you’re really laughing, you cannot be afraid.”
Anatomy of a Hummus Plate is published by Les Editions de L'Orient-Le Jour and available to purchase online.