Libya’s Exiled Satirist, Hasan “Alsatoor” Dhaimish

15 August, 2021
Hasan “Alsatoor” Dhaimish at his drawing desk in Burnley, circa 1980 (courtesy Sherif Dhaimish).
Hasan “Alsatoor” Dhaimish at his draw­ing desk in Burn­ley, cir­ca 1980 (cour­tesy Sherif Dhaimish).

The authors are co-cura­tors of the exhi­bi­tion Resis­tance, Rebel­lion & Rev­o­lu­tion, which runs from 19 to 29 August, 2021 at the Hox­ton 253, an art project space, 253 Hox­ton Street, Whit­more Estate, Lon­don N1 5LG. Click here for exhi­bi­tion hours.

Sherif and Hanna Dhaimish

Exhibition poster for the show at Hoxton 253.
Exhi­bi­tion poster for the show at Hox­ton 253.

Our father Hasan Mah­moud Dhaimish was born in the al-Shabi dis­trict of Beng­hazi, Libya, in 1955. He spent the first 20 years of his life in the east of Libya, and then gave into his desire to trav­el and explore the world. He arrived in Eng­land in 1975 and in the late ‘70s, he arrived in Burn­ley, Lancashire.

It wasn’t long until Hasan cre­at­ed Alsatoor — the pseu­do­nym under which he began pub­lish­ing anti-Gaddafi satire. This per­sona fol­lowed him through the decades. Along the way, he became a hus­band, a father and a teacher.

Four years pri­or to his birth, Libya had become an autonomous king­dom fol­low­ing hun­dreds of years of colonization.

Libya’s east where Hasan grew up, often referred to as Cyre­naica after the ancient Greek city of Cyrene, has often been on the receiv­ing end of injus­tice and the birth­place of rebel­lious move­ments, includ­ing The Lion of the Desert him­self, Omar Mukhtar, a Libyan icon of resis­tance and nation­al hero to many, who fought against the Ital­ians until his cap­ture and exe­cu­tion in 1931.

When Hasan was born, King Idris was on the throne. He had shift­ed Libya’s cen­tral pow­er from today’s cap­i­tal Tripoli, to the east­ern city of Tobruk, which sits on the Mediter­ranean coast, 100 miles from the Egypt­ian bor­der. Hasan’s father, Sheikh Mah­moud Dhaimish was appoint­ed as the reli­gious advis­er and imam of the King, so he moved the fam­i­ly to Tobruk for two years.

“I was polit­i­cal­ly aware at an ear­ly age, thanks to my father. He played a fun­da­men­tal role in form­ing my ideas. I inher­it­ed the spir­it of rebel­lion and not to be afraid to speak the truth and stand with the weak from him.”

As a young child, Hasan would watch his father draw pigeons on the roof tiles of their home where the fam­i­ly kept the birds. He would draw a sin­gle pigeon on each tile, while explain­ing his technique.

Sheikh Mah­moud also intro­duced Hasan to the famous Libyan artist, Mohammed al-Zawawi. They would study his style and dis­cuss his satire, often burst­ing into fits of laugh­ter. Notic­ing an eager­ness to learn about art, his father was keen to share any­thing relat­ed to paint­ing and pol­i­tics, lay­ing the foun­da­tions for Hasan’s life ahead. He soon start­ed draw­ing caricatures.

I remem­ber my sis­ter, who was also my best mate, get­ting engaged. I was angry about it, so I start­ed draw­ing car­toons of her on the walls of our home. I nev­er got in trou­ble, though. I think my dad saw I had tal­ent. After that, I start­ed draw­ing pic­tures of Gaddafi in my room. Soon after­wards, my broth­er-in-law found them and took them to local secu­ri­ty forces. ‘Are you out of your god­damn mind?’ I asked him. I was furi­ous, but he said they had a good laugh at them, too, so there was noth­ing to wor­ry about.”

Art meant some­thing to Hasan from a young age. It was a way to chan­nel both his rebel­lious nature and curiosity.

“At that time, I didn’t real­ize that art choos­es you, not the oth­er way round.”

He wan­dered the streets and souqs like al-Jari­da and al-Zalam, where he would smell the scents ema­nat­ing from the stores and admire the col­or­ful fab­rics being sold around himall of which would play a role in his art lat­er in life.

“I  used to spend time play­ing on the beach of al-Shabi. I would watch the ships while they dis­ap­peared beyond the hori­zon. I always won­dered, where did they go? I was eager to know what exist­ed beyond the sea. I used  to imag­ine for­eign cities and their peo­ple. The idea of trav­el­ling was stuck in my mind since child­hood. I imag­ined myself build­ing a boat and sail­ing away. Liv­ing on the edge was a part of me because of the sea.”

Like all young Libyan men in the ear­ly 1970s, he had to do nation­al mil­i­tary ser­vice. He com­plet­ed his stint under an invis­i­ble cloak, receiv­ing lit­tle atten­tion from gen­er­als and cor­po­rals. “Dhaimish, eh? Where’ve you been hid­ing?” one com­ment­ed whilst he was being dis­charged. That same cloak would come in handy over the next few decades. Hasan was about to leave Libya behind for­ev­er, and turn his paint­brush into the ulti­mate weapon of social and polit­i­cal dissidence.

From Beng­hazi to Burnley

In 1975 at the age of 19, Hasan arrived in Lon­don with no inten­tion of stay­ing. Like many who left Libya in the ‘70s, he believed Gaddafi would soon be deposed and that he would return to the warmth of North Africa. Step­ping into cold Eng­land wasn’t exact­ly what Hasan had envi­sioned — but the coun­try soon became his playground.

He’d run wild at reg­gae fes­ti­vals, dis­cos and psy­che­del­ic par­ties, enjoy­ing life with­out so much as a pit­tance in his pock­et, while dodg­ing all calls to return to Libya like bul­lets. His depor­ta­tion was inevitable, but in the mean­time, he drift­ed to Brad­ford, York­shire, and then made an impromp­tu jour­ney to Burn­ley, Lancashire.

“I was in a cafe with some Libyan friends, and was intro­duced to a guy called Sa’ad. I asked him where he lived, and he replied, ‘Burn­ley.’ I’d nev­er heard of the place, but after he assured me there was a col­lege I could enroll in, I put my record play­er and ruck­sack in his Mor­ris Minor and took off. Next thing I knew I had been in Burn­ley for 35 years.”

He’d gone from Beng­hazi to Burn­ley via York­shire. It was a case of life being stranger than fiction.

Hasan and his wife Karen, 1979.
Hasan and his wife Karen, 1979.

It was here where he met Karen, whom he mar­ried in 1979. Karen was born and raised in Brier­field, a small town next to Burn­ley. At the time she worked as a graph­ic artist.

“He was going to be deport­ed on the Mon­day because they wouldn’t grant him polit­i­cal asy­lum — the gov­ern­ment sent a let­ter stat­ing the time he had to be at Man­ches­ter Air­port,” Karen explained. “So we got mar­ried on the Sat­ur­day just before. God knows what would’ve hap­pened to him if he had been forced to return.”

Hasan was liv­ing like most 20-some­things do — young, wild and free. But he lacked sta­bil­i­ty until he met Karen. He once said:

“She’s been my rock since day one. I wouldn’t have made any­thing of myself if it weren’t for her. She stuck by me through all the turbulence.”

And tur­bu­lence there was. Hasan was mon­i­tored close­ly by author­i­ties due to the cir­cum­stances, but he now had a part­ner in crime. Karen helped Hasan pick up Eng­lish, some­thing he did quick­ly. He would buy the Guardian dai­ly and read it cov­er to cov­er, quizzing his wife on words he did not know, then prac­ticed work­ing them into sentences.

They were a cou­ple of young cre­atives whose love and friend­ship for each oth­er formed a bond that would last a lifetime.

The Birth of Alsatoor

On a trip to Lon­don in 1980 with Karen, Hasan spot­ted an Ara­bic news­stand out­side Earl’s Court tube station.

“An orange mag­a­zine called Al-Jihad caught my eye from afar, so I went over, picked it up, and real­ized it was for the Libyan oppo­si­tion. It was about four pages with no con­tact infor­ma­tion. I want­ed to get involved with my car­toons. Luck­i­ly, the bright blue mag­a­zine next to it called Al-Sharq Al-Jadid had exact­ly the same arti­cles inside, along with con­tact infor­ma­tion. I bought both, took them back to Burn­ley with me and wrote to them. The only con­tact num­ber I had belonged to my in-laws, Jack and Enid.”

A cou­ple of weeks lat­er, Enid arrived at the couple’s flat. “A French­man called for you and left his num­ber.” Of course, the man wasn’t French at all — he was Libyan, and it was Dr Mah­moud al-Maghra­bi, the first prime min­is­ter of Libya after Gaddafi’s 1969 coup.

Hasan joined the oppo­si­tion with­out any hes­i­ta­tion and began send­ing them car­i­ca­tures of Gaddafi and his asso­ciates, which were received with adu­la­tion from read­ers and fel­low members.

“Dr. Mah­moud al-Maghra­bi was like a teacher to me. He taught me patience … Anoth­er inspir­ing per­son was Fadel al-Masou­di [Libyan jour­nal­ist and dis­si­dent], who taught me a lot about jour­nal­ism and satire … there are more, but these two fig­ures left a mark on me.”

Between 1980 and 1985, he pro­duced car­toons for Al-Jihad and Al-Sharq Al-Jadid and also began attend­ing ral­lies includ­ing the infa­mous event where PC Yvonne Fletch­er was shot dead out­side the Libyan embassy on St James’s Square, Lon­don, in April 1984.

As the only Libyan for miles around in Burn­ley, Alsatoor was able to oper­ate covert­ly and blend into his new home­town as best a for­eign­er could. He was well aware of the dan­gers his work posed for him and his fam­i­ly back in Libya, but also for his fam­i­ly in the UK.

Between 1980 and 1987, Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al report­ed 25 assas­si­na­tions of “stray dogs” by the dictator′s inter­na­tion­al death squads. “It is the Libyan people′s respon­si­bil­i­ty to liq­ui­date the scum who are dis­tort­ing Libya′s image abroad,” Gaddafi warned dis­si­dents. As his work began to grow in pop­u­lar­i­ty, Alsatoor remained an anony­mous enig­ma with­in and out­side Libyan bor­ders; a mys­te­ri­ous per­sona that was the prod­uct of a slick pseu­do­nym and a keen aware­ness of the risks.

 


Exile in the ‘80s

Six months after the shoot­ing at the embassy in 1984, Hasan became a father to his first daugh­ter, Zahra. He was work­ing at Carlo’s Ital­ian restau­rant in Colne at the time. Hasan had embraced fam­i­ly life in north­west Eng­land, as the dis­tance between him­self and Libya con­tin­ued to grow.

He didn’t join any oth­er anti-regime move­ments, as he was con­vinced that they were unable to change or effect seri­ous change in Libya. Instead, he had estab­lished Alsatoor as an inde­pen­dent voice. As the Libyan oppo­si­tion entered a phase of stag­na­tion, Alsatoor began pub­lish­ing his own work crit­i­ciz­ing Gaddafi and oppo­si­tion parties.

“I knew then that car­toons were a pow­er­ful tool and had a stronger impact than I had ever imagined.”

Burn­ley and Pen­dle, Lan­cashire, once stood at the heart of the cot­ton pro­duc­tion and engi­neer­ing indus­tries. In the 1980s, parts of north­ern Eng­land had become an indus­tri­al grave­yard under Thatch­er. Pak­istani immi­grants who came to reboot the tex­tile indus­try dur­ing the 1970s and ‘80s were liv­ing in the area, but there was a gen­er­al lack of inte­gra­tion, an issue that still exists today. Mix all of this togeth­er, and you have one of Britain’s most deprived areas, albeit sur­round­ed by beau­ti­ful countryside.

Hasan was nev­er vic­tim to race attacks, but he often spoke of the sys­temic racism that exist­ed at the time. Intim­i­dat­ing immi­gra­tion offi­cers would often pay him ran­dom vis­its, even after he was mar­ried. Before that, he was treat­ed with hos­til­i­ty by author­i­ties despite the obvi­ous dan­ger of return­ing to Libya. But, it nev­er phased him, and life continued.


Edu­ca­tion, Edu­ca­tion & Artis­tic Exploration

In 1991, Hasan passed his dri­ving test, which opened a world of pos­si­bil­i­ties and gave him the con­fi­dence to return to stud­ies. He enrolled on a com­put­er course at Nel­son and Colne College.

“I was in a class­room in front of an Ami­ga com­put­er. Every­one was typ­ing while I just stared at the screen not under­stand­ing what I was required to do. I found a pro­gram with a brush and colours, so I start­ed to draw.”

This is how Hasan kept him­self occu­pied for the first few class­es. Will Bar­ton, who worked at the col­lege, told him he should enroll as an art stu­dent. Hasan was con­fused, he thought he’d be kicked out of class for not fol­low­ing the task. But instead, Will offered Hasan a let­ter of accep­tance to the col­lege, and as a result he received a grant from Lan­cashire Coun­ty Coun­cil to help him through his studies.

“I was scared at first — I didn’t know what would be required of me. I could draw sim­ple car­i­ca­tures, but study­ing fine art is some­thing else.”

But he pushed on and became more moti­vat­ed than ever. He fin­ished his A‑Levels and then went on to Brad­ford Uni­ver­si­ty to study for a BA in illustration.

After the birth of his and Karen’s third child, Han­na in 1993 — sis­ter to Zahra and Sherif (born in 1988), he was close to grad­u­a­tion after cram­ming six years’ worth of stud­ies into just four. His time at col­lege and uni­ver­si­ty was spent around oth­er cre­atives, which influ­enced his own artis­tic style. And then in 1996, he began his teach­ing career at Nel­son and Colne College.

In the evening, he’d paint to the sounds of Miles Davis, Thelo­nious Monk, and Dex­ter Gor­don, or Blind Wille John­son and Skip James, bring­ing jazz and the blues to life through his artwork.

“I moved away from satire and switched to paint­ing, using music of Black Amer­i­cans and their social his­to­ry as inspi­ra­tion. I loved jazz because of its melody and the con­di­tions from which it appeared. I iden­ti­fied with the his­to­ry of Black peo­ple in Amer­i­ca, based on my own suf­fer­ing and persecution.”

In 2002, he joined the social site Deviant Art under the user­name ‘Alsa­t­ure’. His work was far removed from the satire he was pro­duc­ing else­where. It was a space to exper­i­ment and cre­ate art for a dif­fer­ent audi­ence. It was a breath­ing space away from the polit­i­cal sphere full of funk and color.

In the ear­ly 2000s Hasan found the afore­men­tioned The Sto­ry of the Blues by Paul Oliv­er in a skip near his Brier­field home. This book changed his life. Oliver’s pic­to­r­i­al his­to­ry of the 20th century’s most influ­en­tial musi­cal form intro­duced him to artists such as Blind Willie John­son, Blind Willie Pep, Skip James and many more who pio­neered the Mis­sis­sip­pi Delta sound. Hasan had gone back in time; his hap­haz­ard genre-hop­ping matched his unortho­dox approach to almost everything.

Eng­land had become his home away from home. But there was always the feel­ing of being in tran­sit, belong­ing to nei­ther here nor there. Music helped bridge the gap between head and heart.

Dig­i­tal Age

At the turn of the mil­len­ni­um came the rise of the inter­net — a piv­otal change that would make Alsatoor’s work glob­al­ly acces­si­ble. He was doing some illus­tra­tions for a soft­ware and web devel­op­ment com­pa­ny based in Pen­dle called Sub­net, and that’s where he got his first email address. At the time, around 2000, he didn’t have access to the inter­net at home.

“Some­one called me from Sub­net, and told me I’d received my first email after they had cre­at­ed a web­site for my paint­ings. It was from Dr Ibrahim Igh­nei­wa, who asked me for per­mis­sion to add my site to libyawatanona.com, which I accepted.”

Hasan then got the inter­net at home and soon real­ized the real poten­tial of Alsatoor. He spent hours alone lis­ten­ing to jazz and clas­si­cal music. They were his com­pan­ions on the long British win­ter nights spent in front on the screen.

Hasan’s study­ing didn’t stop. He would read up on artists, tak­ing a par­tic­u­lar inter­est in Hen­ri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picas­so, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kei­th Har­ing, all of whom influ­enced his own work.

After the teach­ing day was fin­ished, Hasan became Alsatoor. He would glue him­self to his desk, observ­ing Ara­bic news sta­tions that were picked up from an array of sketchy satel­lite dish­es on the side of the house.

Ille­gal access to Libyan news chan­nels rev­o­lu­tion­ized Alsatoor’s work, as he could now rip sound and video straight from the TV and manip­u­late them. He would watch the Libyan nation­al Al-Jamahiriya chan­nel with access to Gaddafi’s ram­bled speeches.

“It was an effec­tive method in my fight against him. I would get com­plaints from Libyan author­i­ties on my YouTube chan­nel lat­er on, but it didn’t stop me. I was con­stant­ly being tar­get­ed, as I nev­er set myself lim­its. Peo­ple would com­plain that Alsatoor had exceed­ed the lim­its of moral­i­ty, and they demand­ed I delet­ed my insult­ing car­toons of Gaddafi and his fam­i­ly, but they were to no avail.”

Dur­ing the 2000s, Hasan’s fam­i­ly mem­bers were harassed online via Face­book and email hack­ings, and threats were sent direct­ly to his chil­dren. But none of this dis­suad­ed nor fright­ened Alsatoor; if any­thing it spurred him on.

In 2003, Libya Al Mostak­bal was launched — a pro-democ­ra­cy Libya news site run by Hasan Al-Amin. This pro­vid­ed anoth­er plat­form for Alsatoor, with Libyans all over the world becom­ing fol­low­ers of his work.

In the years build­ing up to the Libyan rev­o­lu­tion, Hasan pub­lished his work online through his own blog: alsature.wordpress.com. Just like when he start­ed pub­lish­ing works inde­pen­dent­ly in print in the 1980s, it was here that he had full edi­to­r­i­al con­trol. This, how­ev­er, was on a glob­al scale. His work was often so offen­sive and relent­less that oth­er out­lets like Libya Al Mostak­bal refused to place them on the site.

It was a tough time for Hasan. He bat­tled with depres­sion and the loss of his father in 2009 drew him into a dark place. He had been away from Libya, his home, his fam­i­ly, for 34 years and there was no sign of change any­time soon due to the path he had set out on, and the real dan­gers that exist­ed for dis­si­dents step­ping foot in Gaddafi’s Libya.

But despite every­thing, Hasan was pro­lif­ic with his paint­brush, both as Alsatoor and on the canvas.


Revolution 

In Jan­u­ary 2011, the Arab Spring began to sweep across North Africa and the Mid­dle East. Peo­ple were demand­ing change in coun­tries that had auto­crat­ic rulers for decades. Libya broke out into civ­il war in Feb­ru­ary, alter­ing the country’s future forever.

Alsatoor was work­ing at his home in Brier­field from the moment he returned from teach­ing at his new work­place, Craven Col­lege, Skip­ton, until he went to bed in the ear­ly hours. He would sketch whilst on the phone, watch­ing TV and research­ing online. His blog was over­loaded with posts, pho­tos and infor­ma­tion peo­ple were shar­ing with him. He was doing his best to oper­ate as a pro-rev­o­lu­tion news out­let, and it worked, as short­ly after­wards the new­ly-estab­lished Libya Al-Ahrar TV asked him to join them in Doha, Qatar, and work for them.

Alsatoor, hes­i­tant to leave his job and wife behind, knew this was his call­ing — his chance to join like-mind­ed Libyans and have his work broad­cast. Like many oth­ers involved in the chan­nel, he worked around the clock to deliv­er news to the mass­es around the world who were fol­low­ing Libya’s fight for freedom.

In Octo­ber 2011, Gaddafi was cap­tured and killed in Sirte and the whole world watched. The man he had observed from a dis­tance, the dic­ta­tor who had been the sub­ject of his work, the source of his woes, the rea­son he left his fam­i­ly behind in Libya, and the rea­son he left his fam­i­ly behind in the UK, too, was now dead.

The work didn’t stop there for Alsatoor; if any­thing, the new state of chaos in Libya was far more demand­ing due to the polit­i­cal com­plex­i­ties. He began churn­ing out car­toons, crit­i­ciz­ing polit­i­cal play­ers from all angles. The form of his work had changed, but his mes­sage had not — no one escaped Alsatoor.

Even though Hasan had pledged to stop draw­ing Gaddafi once his regime fell, his dai­ly pub­li­ca­tions con­tin­ued to crit­i­cize Libya’s debil­i­tat­ed polit­i­cal land­scape, and those who chose to enter it. From those in par­lia­ment, West­ern diplo­mats and politi­cians, to reli­gious fig­ures and jour­nal­ists. As sociopo­lit­i­cal issues flared up across the coun­try, Alsatoor watched on like a hawk.

Sub­se­quent years saw a string of events rip Beng­hazi apart — the attack on the US con­sulate, and a long string of assas­si­na­tions of civ­il rights activists and army offi­cers. Alsatoor would always hon­or the fall­en through his art pub­lished online, express­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty with peo­ple whose lives were lost in the fight for freedom.

Doha sucked the cre­ative spark from Hasan; he tried paint­ing in his hotel room where he lived, but he claimed that Qatar pro­vid­ed him with lit­tle inspi­ra­tion. He want­ed to return to the UK, but he gave into the demand for Alsatoor, and in real­i­ty the mon­ey was too good to turn down.

Dur­ing his final years, his artis­tic flair was sub­sumed by Libya’s poi­so­nous polit­i­cal land­scape. But this could also be con­sid­ered Alsatoor’s gold­en era — Libyans could freely dis­cuss pol­i­tics and air views across social media, mak­ing his work live, inter­ac­tive, rel­e­vant. He cor­re­spond­ed with peo­ple online, and sur­round­ed him­self with those he respect­ed and trusted.

One of those was Omar El Ked­di, a Libyan writer who many ini­tial­ly believed to be Alsatoor.

“He was a won­der­ful, tal­ent­ed man. I start­ed giv­ing him ideas for his car­toons, and he often put my name under Alsatoor. Many peo­ple start­ed think­ing was him! I remem­ber when I pub­lished my own name after the rev­o­lu­tion, and Alsatoor’s response was, ‘OK great, they’ll kill you, not me.’ I miss him so much.”

In 2014, Hasan left Doha after three years and returned to the UK. Libya Al Ahrar TV had become a mouth­piece for Qatar and Alsatoor didn’t suit the out­let. He con­tin­ued pro­duc­ing work, but was in lim­bo as to whether he should return to teach­ing or focus on Alsatoor. The lat­ter seemed like the most sen­si­ble option as the momen­tum was already there.

A year lat­er he went to Amman, Jor­dan, to work for the new­ly-found­ed news sta­tion, 218TV. He didn’t want to leave his fam­i­ly behind for a sec­ond time and return to the Mid­dle East, although Amman seemed like a place that offered more to Hasan than Doha ever could. Sad­ly, he fell ill while work­ing there and had to return to the UK in the fol­low­ing days.

Back in 2012, asked about his return to Libya, Hasan had told the Huff­in­g­ton Post, “I wont go back at the moment. I want per­fec­tion. I want democ­ra­cy.” He fought for a free Libya until he passed on the 12th of August, 2016 aged 60. Alsatoor nev­er got the oppor­tu­ni­ty to return to Libya after leav­ing over 40 years earlier.


Sherif Dhaimish is a pub­lish­er and cura­tor, and Han­na is a cura­tor and agent in the fash­ion indus­try. They were born and raised in Pen­dle, East Lan­cashire, and are now based in London.

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