A Cartoonist’s War-zone Visit

By: Dave Astor

When cartoonist/columnist Ted Rall traveled to Afghanistan last fall, he was essentially there as a member of the American media. But he was appalled by the way many of these media performed.

Rall, interviewed as his To Afghanistan and Back “graphic travelogue” book began arriving in bookstores last week, was troubled to see that some reporters stayed in warlords’ lodgings. “How can you possibly be objective when you do that?” he asked. “They could have stayed in a lice- and flea-infested guesthouse without running water like I did.”

Other things bothering Rall were more the fault of reporters’ superiors back in the United States. For instance, he saw just-written stories that mentioned civilians being killed by U.S. bombs. When the stories got published, references to civilian casualties were often edited out.

And Rall said American media companies, to save money, drop correspondents into hot spots rather than station them in a country long enough to learn about it.

“They’re talented, but they don’t know the area,” he said. “So the news gets reported without context.”

Memorable But Scary Stay

Rall — who has traveled to Central Asia several times — said he likes the people and stark beauty of the region. He is also fascinated by the way East meets West there, and is challenged by how difficult it can be to deal with Third World conditions. But his three weeks in Afghanistan last November and December were often traumatic. Rall had never been in a war zone before, and there was the constant threat of being hit by U.S. bombs or shot by local men.

“It was one of the most interesting experiences of my life — and one of the most horrible,” he recalled.

One night, Rall was awoken by a loud and insistent pounding on the door. He ignored it. The next day, he learned that a Swedish cameraman who did open his door was shot to death.

This is one of the incidents Rall relates in a 50-page “graphic novel” (it’s factual) within his new NBM-published hardcover. The book’s other 62 pages include editorial cartoons, columns, photos, and stories from and about his trip.

Rall — who filed reports from Afghanistan for The Village Voice in New York and KFI Radio in Los Angeles — draws his cartoons for Universal Press Syndicate. His weekly opinion column goes to Web sites via Universal and to print newspapers via self-syndication.

Next month, Rall’s ninth book will be released. Attitude: The New Subversive Political Cartoonists is an NBM paperback spotlighting 21 creators, many of whom do work described by Rall as too offbeat for some dailies but not offbeat enough for some alternative weeklies.

Rall, 38, made headlines this year with his controversial cartoon tweaking some Sept. 11 widows for being too media- and money-hungry. But his client list of 100 or so papers didn’t drop.

“They know I push the envelope,” said the New York-based creator. “They know they’re not going to get weeping Statue of Liberty cartoons from me.”



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