Portrait of a rebellious Saudi cartoonist

A student of law, Malik Nejer followed his passion for drawing cartoons, but it was the one on Jeddah floods that brought him the limelight.

Cartoons by Malik Nejer. A student of law, Nejer began drawing cartoons and posting them on YouTube.
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RIYADH // Malik Nejer was studying law, but what he really wanted to do was draw. So he dropped out of university and went to work for an advertising agency.

But what he really wanted to do more than make adverts was make a difference. So he began drawing cartoons with a bite and posting them on YouTube. There was Ballot Box, about two guys who thought the box was for charitable donations. Another called Blah Blah Blah showed coloured balloons labelled "decisions" drifting off into nowhere from a building named "Majlis al Shoura". A third entitled An Arabian Ministry was a never-ending succession of rooms leading into rooms.

But it was Nejer's cartoon after Jeddah's devastating floods last November, which left 123 people dead, that brought him prime-time attention. Cleverly opening with an ancient Islamic story and then pivoting to a contemporary office scene, Nejer's cartoon reflected what many Saudis were saying: That corruption was the root of the disaster. "I uploaded that video at 4am in the morning ... and went to sleep," Nejer, 25, recalled in an interview. "Next day when I woke up, it was all over the place. It just went viral in a couple of hours."

The attention came from a couple of unexpected places. "I got calls from people who work in the king's office and they said 'Good, you're actually talking about the facts,'" Nejer said. In addition, executives from the Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting called with an offer to work as an animator on its Comedo show - an opportunity he grabbed since "I've always loved cartoons and thought it would be great if I could make it my way of earning a living."

Nejer is a gregarious person who still laughs at his old cartoons. His story of breaking away from his bedouin roots to make it in the big city says something about young Saudis today. More and more they appear willing to take risks, both financial and social, to chase their dreams. And more and more those dreams involve creative endeavours long frowned upon by the influential, ascetic religious establishment here.

Cartoons, films, paintings and novels are all part of this burst of artistic creativity blossoming among young Saudis, a creativity that they say does not conflict with their religious commitments. God is "the creator of the universe. How can he be insulted when I draw something on a piece of paper or shoot something on a video camera?" asked Nejer. "People who call these activities sins," he added, "are telling us to be less than a primitive society. Once you drive art out of society what's left? Because art is an important part of culture."

Nejer's own story began in Dawadmi, a small town hundreds of kilometres north of Riyadh. Both his parents are illiterate, and his older brothers remember living in a tent when they were very young. By the time Nejer was born, they had a house, and he loved to draw on its walls. When he was six, he became enamoured with the popular American animated show The Simpsons, which he watched on videotape.

Nejer, who has never been outside the Arab world, credits the show for his good English. After high school, he moved to Riyadh to attend King Saud University. But he hated studying law and left after two years - a move that sparked a rift with his father, who thought he was throwing away an opportunity to make a good living. "To someone like my dad, life is not about choices," said Nejer. "Growing up in the desert you don't have much choice, you just gotta take whatever you have." Nejer, who only had 50 riyals (Dh49) in his pocket when he quit university, talked his way into a graphic designing job at the Riyadh offices of the advertising agency Young & Rubicam. Later, he moved to Leo Burnett and finally Zain Telecommunications. All the while, he drew cartoons as a hobby.

"I was publishing like any amateur would publish his homemade videos," he said. He produced a little buzz, but nothing like the one that followed his cartoon commentary on the cause of the Jeddah floods. The cartoon opens with a donkey tripping on a pile of stones in Iraq, a reference to an ancient, widely-known story about Omar ibn al Khattab, the second Muslim caliph. Omar was so conscientious about doing his official duties, the story goes, that he worried aloud that God might one day reprimand him for not doing his utmost to make sure a donkey did not trip in Iraq.

The cartoon then cuts to a contemporary news anchor announcing that "we have discovered the reason for the floods in Jeddah." The next scene is a modern office whose occupant is ardently kissing his leather chair and telling his secretary on the phone not to bother him because he's busy. The contrast between old and new is obvious. "I was saying there are no Omar al Khattabs any more and donkeys will surely trip in Iraq," said Nejer, who also does the voices on his cartoons.

After Nejer took the contract with MBC, he had some initial jitters. "In the beginning I was scared, you know, the job security issue and things like that. And then I said to myself, 'Okay if I create a name for myself, I would be a brand and people all the time would request my work." He is six months into his new job as an independent contractor, and so far, so good. Nejer calls himself a "rebellious" person and there's a psychic cost to that in such a conformist society as Saudi Arabia's, he said.

"Sometimes it's scary when you're alone and you feel like you're rebellious against a culture and an entire society," he said. "It's not a good feeling ? Sometimes I ask myself ... what if I'm wrong? What if my culture is right?" But Nejer's new-found success has had an added benefit: he and his father, who owns a stone crushing company, are no longer estranged. "He is proud of me," said Nejer. "Now he treats me with more respect, he listens to me, he takes my opinion about different things, even about his business."

"I guess I should thank The Simpsons," he added, "because they brought me up in a different way." cmurphy@thenational.ae