Son of Libyan cartoonist 'AlSatoor' on life with his revolutionary father

Thousands of the satirist's sketches of Libya over the decades are now housed online and will be shown in exhibits across the UK

When Sherif Dhaimish was a young boy growing up in Burnley, north-west England, he had little clue that his father was an internationally celebrated Libyan political satirist who was also wanted by the Qaddafi regime.

“I was aware that my dad was a cartoonist and that he was Libyan but I didn’t know what that really meant,” Sherif tells The National of Hasan “AlSatoor” Dhaimish, the prolific cartoonist who died in the UK in 2016.

Controversial, funny, brutally honest and often offensive, AlSatoor began publishing his cartoons in 1980 and gave a unique view of Libyan politics over the decades.

Realising he wasn’t the only one who hadn’t known the full extent and significance of AlSatoor, Sherif decided to build an online archive to immortalise his father’s work.

“The more I pulled at the thread the more I knew how important and powerful his story was and how important it was to keep his legacy going,” says Sherif, over the phone from his home in London where he now lives.

Featuring over 6,000 original images by the late satirist, the website alsatoor.com is part of a larger project called Resistance, Rebellion, Revolution - A Libyan Artist in Exile. The Arts Council England-supported project will also feature an exhibition in London later this summer, a show in Leeds and a biography of Hasan’s life, written by his son. The satirical works are featured alongside a colourful collection of artworks produced by Hasan that reflect his life as an exiled man.

“His story is one that deserves to be celebrated and told, not just for Libyans but for anybody who can relate to the struggle against a higher power and anyone who appreciates art,” says Sherif.

Hasan, aged 33, with his son Sherif, 9 months old, in southwest London. Courtesy Sherif Dhaimish
Hasan, aged 33, with his son Sherif, 9 months old, in southwest London. Courtesy Sherif Dhaimish

Born in 1955 in Benghazi, east of the newly-unified and autonomous Libyan Kingdom, Hasan’s exposure to power and politics came at a young age. His father, Sheikh Mahmoud Dhaimish, was the religious adviser to the king and from whom the cartoonist said he inherited his “spirit of rebellion” and commitment to “stand with the weak.” Wanting to encourage his son’s artistic talents, Sheikh Mahmoud introduced him to Mohammed Al-Zawawi, Libya’s first recognised political cartoonist, who mentored Hasan and encouraged him to draw caricatures.

On the one hand people saw this ruthless satirist who drew on humanistic issues, relentless and prolific, and then on the flip side you had an artist struggling with things in his own life and who didn’t fit in. Hasan Dhaimish

Raised under the umbrella of Libya’s monarchy, Hasan did not react to the military coup of 1969 particularly warmly. Sherif says his father had been wary of Muammar Qaddafi and had told him that the revolution turned his life upside down.

By the time Hasan left Libya in 1975, Qaddafi's repressive and violent authoritarianism had solidified and encouraged the young man to pursue his lifelong dream to travel.

As a 19-year-old music lover and party-goer arriving in England in the mid-1970s, Hasan, according to his son Sherif, was drawn to reggae festivals, discos and the psychedelic scene, and resisted calls to return home to Libya. Soon after meeting and marrying Karen Waddington in 1979, her hometown of Brierfield, near Burnley in north-west England, became his new home.

Though he was no fan of the Libyan regime, Hasan hadn’t been proactively involved in political movements, but a chance sighting on a trip to London in 1980 changed that.

The birth of Alsatoor - Hasan Dhaimish in 1980 at the drawing board in Burnley in Lancashire, where he lived. Courtesy Sherif Dhaimish
The birth of Alsatoor - Hasan Dhaimish in 1980 at the drawing board in Burnley in Lancashire, where he lived. Courtesy Sherif Dhaimish

Tucked behind some magazines in an Arabic newsstand was an orange magazine called Al-Jihad, one of the most significant Libyan opposition publications in the country at the time. Inspired by the revolutionary rhetoric, Hasan got in touch with Al-Jihad and began producing cartoons for them, launching his career as well as his political activism.

The 1980s were a notoriously dangerous time for Libyans, wherever they were. Between 1980 and 1987, assassination squads were sent around the world, targeting Libyan dissidents who Qaddafi described as "stray dogs".

Hasan ‘Alsatoor’ Dhaimish first published his works in the UK-based Libyan opposition magazine, Al Jihad. This cartoon from April 1981 refers to the public execution of student protestors ordered by Muammar Qaddafi  in Libya. Courtesy Sherif Dhaimish
Hasan ‘Alsatoor’ Dhaimish first published his works in the UK-based Libyan opposition magazine, Al Jihad. This cartoon from April 1981 refers to the public execution of student protestors ordered by Muammar Qaddafi  in Libya. Courtesy Sherif Dhaimish

As the only Libyan for miles around in Burnley, Hasan was less exposed than those in London, but the dangers to him and his family were just as real. The use of Hasan’s pseudonym, AlSatoor - meaning "the cleaver" – gave him some protection and added to the enigma surrounding the cartoonist as his popularity grew over the years.

During a hiatus in the early 1990s Hasan returned to education, learning the computer, taking up a BA in Illustration and becoming a teacher himself. It was also a time for him to explore his other artistic endeavours, notably jazz-inspired canvases because of the connection he felt with the "suffering and persecution" of black people in America and in his home country.

Though much lesser known, Sherif says his father’s artistic works are just as important to understanding the man as his cartoons.

“On the one hand people saw this ruthless satirist who drew on humanistic issues, relentless and prolific, and then on the flip side you had an artist struggling with things in his own life and who didn’t fit in,” he says.

The rise of the internet brought about pivotal changes in Hasan’s work and energy. Hasan was able to use his knowledge of graphics and technology to reach a wider audience. Using an array of satellites put up on the roof of their house, Sherif says his father’s access to Libyan news channels revolutionised AlSatoor’s work, as he could now rip and manipulate sound and video straight from the TV, including Qaddafi’s notoriously long rambling speeches.

His work began to reach people across the globe when publishing with various Libyan news websites, his own blog and across social media.

While the new tools at his disposal changed his style over the decades, his staunch opposition to Qaddafi and his regime remained steadfast. Despite the unfettered complaints and threats from Libyan authorities and their sympathisers, Hasan's work continued unabated.

When the Libyan uprising began in February 2011, Hasan’s pen was ready. At the end of his day as a teacher, Hasan would go home and sketch until the early hours. In that year alone, Sherif says he counted over 1,100 cartoons his father produced for his blog. Hasan was soon asked to join the newly-established pro-revolutionary TV channel Libya Al-Ahrar, in Doha.

Though Qaddafi had always been his primary target, after the regime fell Hasan continued to point his pen at Libya’s debilitated political landscape. From those in parliament, Western diplomats and politicians, to religious figures and journalists, almost no-one could escape his sketches. As socio-political issues flared up across the country, AlSatoor watched on and - no longer needing the guise of a pseudonym - unleashed his humorous critiques liberally.

Calling it his father’s "golden era for satire", Sherif says his father’s work is a testament to his tireless commitment to freedom of speech. Nevertheless, he recognises the emotional, physical and personal toll it took on the man who, for the sake of personal liberty and political conviction, lived and died in exile, never again seeing his parents or feeling Libya’s sands beneath his feet.

Updated: May 13, 2021 01:51 PM

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