Beginnings, the Life & Times of “Slim” aka Menouar Merabtene

15 August, 2021

For International Press Freedom Day, Slim asked, “Does liberty have a sharp accent?” “Yes, as in throat slit.” “As in eliminated.” “As in imprisoned.” “As in mutilated.” “As in kidnapped.” “As in disgusted.”

For Inter­na­tion­al Press Free­dom Day, Slim asked, “Does lib­er­ty have a sharp accent?” “Yes, as in throat slit.” “As in elim­i­nat­ed.” “As in impris­oned.” “As in muti­lat­ed.” “As in kid­napped.” “As in disgusted.”

Slim (pen name of Menouar Merabtene)

Trans­lat­ed from the French by Susan Slyomovics

I was born in Sidi Ali Beny­oub in 1945. Alge­ria had by then been under French colo­nial rule for 115 years, since 1830.

I have been draw­ing for a long time. I dis­cov­ered that this was my real pas­sion because let’s say, I had no oth­er means to pass the time oth­er than imag­i­na­tion and the pen­cil to con­cretize the imag­i­na­tion. I real­ized that I could make objects that I could not see. I could sketch land­scapes that I did not see in front of me; for exam­ple, I could draw the Eif­fel Tow­er and I was hap­py to see the Eif­fel Tow­er on paper. So it start­ed like that.

Photograph of Slim next to his signature characters: Zina, Bouzid and their cat, Gatt M’dgouti  (Algerian Arabic for “disgusted cat”) who live in the mythical village of Oued Besbes. Zid ya Bouzid (1969)
Pho­to­graph of Slim next to his sig­na­ture char­ac­ters: Zina, Bouzid and their cat, Gatt M’dgouti (Alger­ian Ara­bic for “dis­gust­ed cat”) who live in the myth­i­cal vil­lage of Oued Bes­bes. Zid ya Bouzid (1969)

Draw­ing is very use­ful for peo­ple like me who grew up in a sit­u­a­tion of social mis­ery where there was not much avail­able, apart from the dream in front of the win­dows of Euro­pean set­tler stores of colo­nial French Alge­ria, which sold minia­ture cars or toys, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the Christ­mas hol­i­days. It was extra­or­di­nary to come home to draw­ing. The dif­fi­cul­ty was that it was nec­es­sary to have pen­cils, which were not very expen­sive. I also need­ed some paper. It was easy to obtain a kind of dull paper which was used to wrap sug­ar in the stores, a poor qual­i­ty gray wrap that must have been made from waste. So I drew on it in black, which looked good on gray.

When I was five, we moved from our vil­lage to the near­by city of Sidi-Bel-Abbès, a colo­nial French city cre­at­ed as the head­quar­ters of the French For­eign Legion. We lived in the dis­trict called El Gra­ba, a “ghet­to” for the “natives” (indigènes) or what the French called vil­lage nègre (“Negro­town”). I was one of four or five Alger­ian Mus­lims out of a class of forty boys admit­ted to the high school, the colo­nial col­lege Lycée Laper­rine (renamed at inde­pen­dence after Abdelka­d­er Azza). I drew in my note­books, espe­cial­ly towards the end of the school year when we could keep a lot of them at home. They had many blank sheets that I filled in with my pen­cil lit­tle by lit­tle. I start­ed to sketch so well that a lot of class­mates real­ized not only was I draw­ing but also writ­ing texts to sup­port the images. I made speech bal­loons to talk about the char­ac­ters around me, espe­cial­ly in high school. I start­ed to real­ize that I could draw my teach­ers and class­mates also with speech bal­loons to make them speak. I exploit­ed this pos­si­bil­i­ty to make fun of some teach­ers a bit and share my mock­ery with the whole class since my draw­ings went all around the class with­out being seen, passed hand to hand under the desks. The teach­ers saw noth­ing but the whole class laughed in silence or smiled.

My most impor­tant pas­sion after draw­ing was dis­cov­er­ing the radio. At one time, we had a small radio that could pick up dis­tant sta­tions. I remem­ber one that broad­cast in French and Ara­bic from Tang­i­er, Moroc­co. Evenings we lis­tened with my moth­er to the news and I thought it was won­der­ful to hear peo­ple who spoke from afar, yet prac­ti­cal­ly with us in the room. It was won­der­ful because it con­nect­ed some­what the phe­nom­e­non of draw­ing, text and sound all at the same time.

Slim, Walou à l’horizon (“nothing on the horizon”) (2003)
Slim, Walou à l’horizon (“noth­ing on the hori­zon”) (2003)

Next came my pas­sion for movies when I start­ed going to the Cin­e­ma Alham­bra in El Gra­ba owned by an Alger­ian man called Fasla who screened Egypt­ian films and news­reels with Gamal Abdel Nass­er (and once a week there was spe­cial women’s view­ing). Or I would go to the Cin­e­ma Olympia in town with a neigh­bor who let me in as long as I sat in the aisles or my uncles took me. I dis­cov­ered a pow­er­ful extra­or­di­nary medi­um which had every­thing: images, move­ment while meet­ing up with peo­ple at the same time who gath­ered in the same place to look at the same white rec­tan­gle with images that moved and spoke with the sounds of music. It was a total­i­ty, I loved it. I real­ly liked west­erns when­ev­er I had the rare oppor­tu­ni­ty to watch one. It was also fan­tas­tic that some­times the high school placed a kind of pro­jec­tor in a room and we were shown films. So my pas­sion is cin­e­ma, draw­ing, speech bal­loon texts, the imagination.

I told myself that in movies some­one imag­ined the sto­ry. So I too will try to imag­ine a sto­ry and recount it. I began tak­ing stock at one point of the future just at the time of Algeria’s inde­pen­dence from France in 1962. I was already 16½, 17 then and I told myself I absolute­ly must do this. Even if I don’t know if it’s pos­si­ble, I had to find a school either to make films or learn graph­ic design, but an art school. Coin­ci­den­tal­ly this hap­pened in 1963: my father had been released from Orléans­ville Prison (1957–1962) after spend­ing sev­en years incar­cer­at­ed by the French dur­ing the Alger­ian War of Inde­pen­dence for polit­i­cal rea­sons as a mem­ber of the Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Front (FLN). He read the news­pa­per and showed me that a school, Insti­tut de Ciné­ma et Télévi­sion, had been cre­at­ed to train film­mak­ers that was staffed by Pol­ish educators.

I was amazed, I want­ed to go to Algiers.

Final­ly they bought me a train tick­et. I took the entrance exam which spe­cial­ized in my inter­ests and I was accept­ed. I dis­cov­ered a thou­sand things at once includ­ing that I was not the only dream­er. There were plen­ty of dream­ers who came from all over Alge­ria, even France, and we shared this same pas­sion. Each one chose what to study. I chose to be a cam­era oper­a­tor, a cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er of images, while oth­er friends chose scriptwrit­ing, stag­ing, light­ing, edit­ing, etc., so it worked out. We start­ed mak­ing short films with silent cam­eras, no sound. We were telling sto­ries as if in Char­lie Chaplin’s time with only images and movement.

Moustache et les Belgacem, Slim’s first graphic novel (1968), a satirical version of the “Battle of Algiers”
Mous­tache et les Bel­gacem, Slim’s first graph­ic nov­el (1968), a satir­i­cal ver­sion of the “Bat­tle of Algiers”

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the cin­e­ma school sud­den­ly closed, to this day I still do not know the rea­son. Imme­di­ate­ly after­wards, most of my col­leagues, some 60 of us, were sent abroad with schol­ar­ships espe­cial­ly to the then-East­ern bloc social­ist coun­tries. I was sent to Poland for a prac­ti­cal intern­ship at the tele­vi­sion in War­saw and worked with film direc­tor, Andrzej Kamin­s­ki. For ani­ma­tion, he sent me to the town of Biel­sko-Blawa, where I found myself in a large car­toon stu­dio. They took us to vis­it to Auschwitz, which was near­by. There I met fan­tas­tic artists, for exam­ple, my teacher, Władysław Nehre­bec­ki (1923–1978), a bril­liant film­mak­er of ani­mat­ed car­toons. He taught me how to ani­mate and draw and under his super­vi­sion. I made progress and com­plet­ed a few good projects. But I want­ed to go back home to Alge­ria at all costs to accom­plish some­thing. In Poland, they offered me work in an ani­ma­tion and draw­ing stu­dio with a good salary. But the pull of my coun­try was too strong. Poland was gor­geous, love­ly land­scapes, won­der­ful and beau­ti­ful men and women, but their win­ters were cold and hard.

I found myself in Alge­ria with my train­ing as a car­toon ani­ma­tor in April 1967 and final­ly I real­ized that here was noth­ing. Even in Europe, there was no car­toon stu­dio except in Bel­gium. If there were none in France, then Alge­ria was worse, noth­ing at all. I said to myself that the only solu­tion was comics. I found some friends from the time when we were in film school who were also com­ic book lovers. I remem­ber Maz from El Watan jour­nal, Aram the direc­tor of the cen­ter for ani­ma­tion, the car­toon­ist Sid Ali Melouah (1949–2007). We met and said to our­selves, why don’t we launch an Alger­ian com­ic book news­pa­per? We can make Alger­ian “Tarzans” and Alger­ian cowboys.

Slim had an inimitable style, always leavened with humor.
Slim had an inim­itable style, always leav­ened with humor.

As we start­ed to draw and make sto­ries, we met won­der­ful peo­ple like Hen­rique Abranch­es (1932–2004), a Por­tuguese polit­i­cal refugee who came to Alge­ria to work, an anthro­pol­o­gist and rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant who want­ed to lib­er­ate Ango­la. At the same time, he was a great car­toon­ist and he joined our group orga­niz­ing nude male draw­ing work­shops. He cre­at­ed a large woman called Richa (Ara­bic for “feath­er”). Lat­er he went to Ango­la, acquired Angolan cit­i­zen­ship and became a cul­tur­al ambas­sador. We stayed in touch. In 1969, we start­ed a small com­ic book news­pa­per. Already in 1964, I had cre­at­ed an Alger­ian woman car­toon char­ac­ter named Zina after I dis­cov­ered the ele­gant women of Algiers dif­fer­ent from the women of Sidi-Bel-Abbes, who wore the haik, a white flow­ing gar­ment and veil that cov­ered the face except for one eye. The Alger­ian nation­al pub­lish­ing house was a state monop­oly and we could not pub­lish what­ev­er we want­ed, for exam­ple, not Zina.

We also met some­one won­der­ful who told us, give me your draw­ings, we will edit them, and he had them print­ed as a month­ly mag­a­zine called M’quidech that ran from 1968/9 to 1974. It was a name with­out any mean­ing like Tintin. Print­ed in Spain, it had a huge suc­cess in Alge­ria that last­ed a few years.

Then every­thing fell apart. We could not con­tin­ue due to prob­lems of man­age­ment and under­de­vel­op­ment. The adven­ture end­ed there­by allow­ing for­eign com­ic books to be import­ed and sell well. In Alge­ria, there were prac­ti­cal­ly no Alger­ian com­ic books, only import­ed ones for a while. Then the jour­nal El Moud­ja­hed (which had been found­ed in 1954 as the clan­des­tine infor­ma­tion newslet­ter of the FLN dur­ing the Alger­ian War) gave me their last page for car­toons. In 1969, my first page for them appeared at the same time as the Pan-African Fes­ti­val of Algiers.

So I began … [to be continued]

Trans­la­tor Susan Sly­omovics is Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Anthro­pol­o­gy at UCLA and writes about visu­al anthro­pol­o­gy in the Mid­dle East and North Africa.

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Slim (Menouar Merabtene) is Algeria's leading cartoonist, best known for his comic strip Zid Ya Bouzid.  He was born in Sidi Ali Benyoub, Algeria in 1945 and received his training in Poland and France. He has been a cartoonist for over 40 years for publications such as El Moudjahid, The Republic, African Revolution, Algerie News, El Manchar, and L'Humanite. He has also published more than ten graphic novels and produced several short animation films. He is currently a designer for Djazair News and DZ News (Algiers).