The Excellent Journey of Algerian Cartoonist Nadjib Berber

15 August, 2021
With other Algerians, in 2013 Nadjib Berber proposed the creation of a new union for cartoonists. “Algeria pioneered the comic strip in North Africa.”
With oth­er Alge­ri­ans, in 2013 Nad­jib Berber pro­posed the cre­ation of a new union for car­toon­ists. “Alge­ria pio­neered the com­ic strip in North Africa.”

Nadjib Berber

Trans­lat­ed from the French by Susan Slyomovics

My name is Nad­jib Berber and my car­toon­ist name is Nad. I was born in Tlem­cen, Alge­ria and grew up in Argen­teuil, a sub­urb of Paris. My fam­i­ly returned to Alge­ria a few years after inde­pen­dence. In 1992, I left for the US where, after a stint in the Boston area, I wound up in Los Angeles.

A comic in  Kaous Kouzah: “A moment: let me try,” by Nad (pseudonym for Nadjib Berber).
A com­ic in Kaous Kouzah: “A moment: let me try,” by Nad (pseu­do­nym for Nad­jib Berber).

When I lived in Alge­ria, I was based in Oran, Algeria’s sec­ond city, where I drew comics and lat­er polit­i­cal car­i­ca­tures for sev­er­al Alger­ian news­pa­pers. I also col­lab­o­rat­ed with Kaous Kouzah (Rain­bow), a Tunisian mag­a­zine that pub­lished car­toons from 1984–89 for which I drew children’s folk­tales and one-page gags. By the way, our com­ic book read­ers fol­low graph­ic frames from right to left just like the Ara­bic script. Espe­cial­ly in the late 1980s and ear­ly 1990s, these were piv­otal years for free­dom of the press in the post-colo­nial his­to­ry of my coun­try. Dur­ing this peri­od, along­side the new mul­ti-par­ty pol­i­cy, news­pa­pers and jour­nals flour­ished, cre­at­ing a sig­nif­i­cant group of polit­i­cal car­toon­ists, most like myself com­ing from the world of comics and graph­ic nov­els. For Rev­o­lu­tion Africaine (estab­lished Feb­ru­ary 1963), I pro­duced some cov­ers and a week­ly full-page of polit­i­cal car­toons enti­tled “Psy­chosis” (Psy­chose). My 1991 cov­er for Rev­o­lu­tion Africaine com­pared Algeria’s mul­ti-par­ty elec­tions to Native Amer­i­can attacks on the US cav­al­ry holed up in their forts, the lat­ter embod­ied by then Pres­i­dent Chadli Bend­je­did. Psy­chose was my polit­i­cal car­toon strip in answer to the ques­tion whether Algeria’s numer­ous polit­i­cal par­ties could form a coali­tion gov­ern­ment. I also col­lab­o­rat­ed with the satir­i­cal Ara­bic-lan­guage jour­nal Es-Sahafa, which means “jour­nal­ism” but is also a pun as the two words Essah-afa also mean “truth is a scourge.” In the slideshow below you’ll find an exam­ple of my car­i­ca­ture of Saïd­Sa­di, an Alger­ian politi­cian who appears next to the news­pa­per mast­head. For twen­ty years, Alge­ria was the pre­em­i­nent coun­try of comics in the Maghreb and Mid­dle East. At the same time, I col­lab­o­rat­ed with Kaous Kouzah, which was dis­sem­i­nat­ed through­out the Ara­bic-speak­ing world. Since mov­ing to the Unit­ed States, I pub­lished some Eng­lish-lan­guage polit­i­cal car­toons, some­times with­out words. After Sep­tem­ber 11th, 2001, I found myself return­ing to an ear­li­er project that I had been work­ing on in Oran in the ear­ly 1990s, enti­tled The Old Man of the Moun­tain. As I told a news­pa­per at the time, “The events of Sep­tem­ber 11 and their impact on Amer­i­can pub­lic opin­ion have pushed me to resume my project ofanal­bum on the sect of Nizari Assas­sins, found­ed by the Shi­ite­Has­sanS­abah to fight those he called usurpers, the­Sun­ni Seljuk­swhodom­i­nat­ed the Mus­lim world at the time.” TheNizari, an off­shootof an Ismaili Shia sect,acted asthe sworn ene­mies of the Ottoman Sun­ni empire. I not­ed the sim­i­lar­i­ties of this sect with the orga­ni­za­tion Al Qae­da, the plot­ters of the attacks against the Twin Tow­ers of New York, par­tic­u­lar­ly in terms of the strat­e­gy of ter­ror adopt­ed and vio­lent actions tak­en. With a hand­ful of devot­ed men, Has­san Sabah seized a cas­tle in the moun­tains of Elbrouz, Iran. With­in this impreg­nable fortress of Ala­mut, he trained an order of war­riors — fidayîn, those who sac­ri­fice them­selves. His faith­ful fol­low­ers become a shad­owy army, deci­sive, invin­ci­ble, pre­pared to sac­ri­fice their lives to kill the des­ig­nat­ed ene­my, often a dig­ni­tary of the empire. This sect made all the princes of the Mid­dle East trem­ble in fear through­out the peri­od of the Cru­sades for over 170 years. I am cur­rent­ly work­ing on the tale of the “old man of the moun­tain” first in French as Hashasheen (cov­er and inte­ri­or art below) and then in Eng­lish trans­la­tion for pub­li­ca­tion in the Unit­ed States. As I told an Alger­ian news­pa­per, “The Amer­i­can com­ic book mar­ket is dom­i­nat­ed by ‘fanzines’ devot­ed to super­heroes. It’s a mass-mar­ket pro­duc­tion. There are few qual­i­ty albums, tech­ni­cal­ly and in terms of illus­tra­tion, as there are in Europe. An album like mine may pos­si­bly inter­est ‘under­ground’ dis­trib­u­tors, but the expe­ri­ence deserves to be tried.” In the last few years, I have col­lab­o­rat­ed with Aomar Boum, an his­tor­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gist of Mid­dle East­ern and North African minori­ties, on a graph­ic nov­el titled Unde­sir­ables that traces the sto­ry Hans, a Ger­man Jew­ish jour­nal­ist who fled Berlin in 1933. This graph­ic his­tor­i­cal nov­el high­lights the impact of WWII out­side of main­land Europe through the sto­ries of refugees in North African Vichy camps. Hans is a com­pos­ite char­ac­ter and rep­re­sents the tale of sev­er­al his­tor­i­cal fig­ures includ­ing the expe­ri­ence of Sophie, Sig­mund Freud’s grand­daugh­ter, in Casablan­ca. In this work,Hans the main char­ac­ter exem­pli­fies the sto­ry of thou­sands of Euro­pean refugees, who fled Nazi Ger­many and were sent by Vichy author­i­ties to North African labor camps to work for the trans-Saha­ran rail­road net­works con­nect­ing the Sahara to the Mediter­ranean Sea. While the clas­sic Amer­i­can film Casablan­ca ref­er­ences some of these refugees and labor camp internees, our graph­ic nov­el attempts to shed more light on this forced migra­to­ry jour­ney and the pre­car­i­ous­ness of the war. Many the­o­ries and his­to­ries have engaged with con­cen­tra­tion camps in the Euro­pean con­text. Hans’s tra­vails inject new per­spec­tives about the range of deten­tion and incar­cer­a­tion through­out North Africa by rely­ing on archival data to high­light inter­ac­tions between Euro­pean Jews and native Jews, Span­ish Repub­li­cans and Vichy author­i­ties, the indige­nous Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion and Jews (both Euro­pean refugees and native North African Jews), guards and internees, and more. Unde­sir­ables is an attempt to expand the role of comics in depict­ing the trau­ma of WWII beyond main­land Europe. It will be an addi­tion to oth­er comics such as Karen Gray Ruelle’s The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Sto­ry of How Mus­lims Res­cued Jews Dur­ing the Holo­caust and Didi­er Daen­inckx and Asaf Hanuka’s Car­ton Jaune. Mean­while, even though I’ve carved out a new life for myself in the Unit­ed States, I have always remained con­nect­ed with my com­pa­tri­ots, includ­ing those based in France such as Slim, Farid Boud­jel­lal, Lar­bi Mechk­our, Lou­nis and many others.

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

AlgeriaAlgerian cartoonistsgraphic novelsOran

Nadjib Berber is a French-American-Algerian cartoonist who has participated in and organized many comix events in the US and Algeria. He worked for years as a political cartoonist for the Algerian press (African Revolution, EL Djoumhouria) and for the Tunisian children’s review Kaous Kouzah (Rainbow). In 1992, he moved to New England where he designed university posters, flyers and other publications intended for students. He also publishes humorous postcards, political cartoons, and design ads for academic and non-academic publications. He lives in Los Angeles.