“On the 12th of February, 2015, after four days in an intensive care unit, Syed Murtaza Shah succumbed to the injuries he had sustained in a boisterous exchange with fellow students and their cohorts. He was 16 years old. He was also a student of mine.”
These three sentences constitute the opening of “Badmash Elite,” an article by international journalist Farhad Mirza about the death of one of his students while he was a teacher at a Pakistani high school. In it, Mirza examines the culture of violence within Pakistan and the rigidity of the Pakistani school system, but he does it through the lens of his own guilt following Murtaza’s death. “I cannot help but regret the fact that us teachers have demonstrated a chronic inability to introduce our students to the most important debates of our times,” he writes.
Mirza’s essay was powerful, but to him it didn’t quite communicate the deeply personal element he wanted to convey. That’s where Anser Shaukat, a Pakistani-born illustrator, came in. Working in tandem with Creative Frontiers Comics director Gauher Aftab, the pair chopped up Mirza’s 5,000-word essay and offset it with Shaukat’s illustrations, creating a new storytelling format designed to reach those who needed it most: Pakistani youth.
Aftab and Mirza then recruited another artist, Yahya Ehsan, to illustrate two more powerful articles that had previously run in The Friday Times (a Pakistani newspaper) and on Al Jazeera America; the former was “More Than Just a Footnote” by Raza Rumi, and the latter was “Malala, the Muslim Feminist” by Rafia Zakaria. All three illustrated features were published on the anniversary of the Peshawar massacre, which occurred on December 16, 2014, when armed Taliban fighters stormed a public school in Pakistan and slaughtered 144 people, mostly children between 12 and 16.
“We wanted to present different cases of violence and tie them together with a narrative of how physical bullying, gender marginalization, or other types of bigotry eventually lead people toward extremes to solve their problems,” Ehsan said. In other words, they wanted to give the people of Pakistan a tool to examine how extremist violence takes root in their country. All three writers and two illustrators talked recently with Vulture to discuss their inspiration, why they think an anti-violence project like this is so important, and how it was received in a country where voicing anti-extremist views can lead to death threats.
Farhad Mirza, author: Pakistan has a rich tradition of satirical cartoons, and I wanted to build on that while also creating a new style of representation. I didn’t want it to be melodramatic, but I wanted a certain abstract element there. I was also worried about misrepresenting the complexity of the issue, so I asked Anser to work with metaphors a lot more than I was doing in my writing. I felt like if his drawings were based on metaphors they would open up the article where I’d closed it off. For instance, rulers are instruments that are usually used to further a child’s learning, but here they’re being used as weapons and tools of judgment — something inherent in the class structure in Pakistan.
Often kids would get into fights because one believed their father earned more than the other kid’s, or because someone wasn’t wearing the right shoes. As a teacher I would try to get my students to think critically about the society in which they were being brought up, because that’s every child’s right. But it caused problems. One day I was approached by the older brother of a student who very gently suggested I stick to the curriculum. It was the most respectful threat to my life I’d ever received. Those sorts of experiences culminated in a reflection on the educational system in Pakistan and the way violence plays into that system.
Anser Shaukat, illustrator: When I first read Farhad’s article I thought about how to build a visual metaphor out of what he was saying. Some images came to me right away, like the first panel in which the surgeons are looking down, which turns into the victim looking up. That created a compositional relationship, almost like a mirror. Other images, like the one of two heads screaming at each other, which is based off the optical illusion of the two faces and the candlestick, came toward the end. I started off working in graphite, but halfway through I realized the graphite line wasn’t communicating the angst and violence of the article, so I switched to ballpoint pen. There’s a certain static vibration in the line quality — an oscillation that I felt was reflective of the article.
This is a medium young people are going to understand. They read comic books from abroad, but a lot of times those aren’t relevant to what’s happening in our country. There are a lot of things they face while growing up — a lot of places they’re being exposed to violence. We don’t want to completely shield kids from these topics because what’s happening in society is going to start to affect them. This is a way to talk to them and get them to engage with the issues.
Raza Rumi, author: This article was published last year on the first anniversary of the death of my colleague, who was my driver in Pakistan. There was an assassination attempt on me, but unfortunately he died because he was driving at the time. The idea was to show how the violence in Pakistan affects the underprivileged and the poor the most, so the passages chosen for the project were meant to amplify that message. I liked how the mood Yahya created through graphics corresponded to the dark tone of my piece. To me, this is a powerful vehicle for conveying ideas which otherwise would get lost in longer essays and impersonal journalistic reporting.
Yahya Ehsan, illustrator: Raza’s article gave rise to emotions of helplessness and isolation — the feeling you get in your stomach when terrible things are going to happen and there’s nothing you can do. His words show how class-based dehumanization can lead people toward violence as an outlet to the frustration and denial they face at every step of their lives.
With both authors I was given free rein to interpret the emotions I wanted people to connect with while reading the articles. The subject matter was dark, so I wanted to balance it with a Pop Art style and harmonious colors to let the reader emotionally connect with the message. We used simple shapes and compositional choices to convey emotion within the narrative and Islamic-art-inspired motifs to create associations between people and ideas usually judged to be in conflict. Pakistan has a very low literacy rate but a climbing mobile-user population, so using visuals to convey a message is very important when trying to reach people who are vulnerable to the brainwashing of a village preacher or radical youth group.
Rafia Zakaria, author: I have been writing about the relationship between women and Islam for a long time. One of the challenges for Muslim women is that so much of their lives — their aims, ambitions, and political views — is reflected by others. It is very difficult to excavate space to speak for ourselves and also to show that we have varying viewpoints. In Pakistan there’s a common belief that Malala leaving the country is tantamount to abandoning it, but I think ideas in this piece highlight how Malala has maintained her identity even while achieving international fame. I love that we were able to translate these ideas into a visual format. The visual depiction adds depth and dimension to the story beyond the written word. It’s particularly authentic here because Pashtun culture, to which Malala belongs, is a very visual culture, so this project pays homage to that as well.
Yahya Ehsan, illustrator: Rafia’s piece is a refreshing take on Malala from within the framework of Muslim feminism. Malala has become a divisive personality in Pakistan because of the amount of coverage she’s received in the foreign press, but this article let us realign her identity as someone struggling against oppression of women from within Islam rather than from a secular standpoint. We often forget that if a culture is accepting of aggressive attitudes, it’s only a matter of time before violence is used for personal gain. Afterward, whether someone justifies their crimes with religion or racism or personal victimization, people only see the end result and forget to think about where that aggression toward other human beings really came from.
This project was important to me because I have three young daughters, and since the Peshawar massacre I can feel the tension whenever they’re not around me. This is the same as Paris, the same as San Bernardino, and it’s going to happen again. As an artist all I can do is use my skills to try and make a contribution because I want to make a safer world for my kids to grow up in.