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Central Asia: Interview With Political Cartoonist Ted Rall

Turkmenistan's Saparmurat Niyazov (file photo) Ted Rall, a widely syndicated American cartoonist, is among the small number of people who draw political cartoons about Central Asia. His cartoons are regularly published in, an NGO-run information provider on Central Asia and the Caucasus. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Rall discusses his interest in the region and his latest cartoon -- about Turkmenistan's plans to shut down regional hospitals. RFE/RL correspondents Khiromon Bakoeva and Golnaz Esfandiari report.

Prague, 14 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Ted Rall has traveled extensively throughout Central Asia over the past several years. But he insists his interest in the region goes back to his childhood.

Rall told RFE/RL that when he was 12 years old, he saw an article in "National Geographic" magazine about what was then called the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. It was a world apart from suburban Ohio, where Rall grew up.

"It just seemed like the most interesting place and so different from where I grew up: big, empty spaces; so open, wild, and clean. So I was always interested in it. I wrote about Central Asia before I ever drew cartoons about it," Rall said.

Rall said that after gaining notoriety in the United States for his articles, asked him to draw cartoons about politics in Central Asia. He said he was thrilled at the prospect. Political cartooning remains uncommon in Central Asia, and Rall said he has the field all to himself.

"There is really no tradition of editorial cartooning in Central Asia," he said. "I have met political cartoonists from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, but for the most part they are not really permitted to work by their governments. So these people, they do work for themselves, but they don't get to be published."
Rall said Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan provide a treasure trove of news that is of interest to an American audience: Turkmenistan because of its eccentric president, and Uzbekistan because of its role on the war on terror.

Rall published "To Afghanistan and Back" in 2002 -- a graphic travelogue about his experiences during the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan. Coming within months of the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime, it was among the first books to be published about that war in Afghanistan.

The 41-year-old Rall, who also works as an illustrator and is an outspoken columnist, said political cartooning is the hardest job he's ever had. He said synthesizing a complex political issue in four panels presents major challenges.

Rall said cartoons can draw unique attention to a story that might otherwise be ignored. "In some extreme cases, they [cartoons] can even break news," he said. "I think that more often, at their best, what they do is they call attention to stories that might otherwise be ignored. Many people, if they see a cartoon on a page in the newspaper, will read the cartoon and perhaps nothing else."

In his cartoons, Rall covers issues ranging from the political opposition in the five Central Asian republics to attacks on the press. He also covers developments in nearby countries, including Afghanistan and Azerbaijan.

Rall said Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan provide a treasure trove of news that is of interest to an American audience: Turkmenistan because of its eccentric president, and Uzbekistan because of its role on the war on terror. His latest cartoon concerns a proposal by Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov to close down all hospitals outside the Turkmen capital Ashgabat (see it and Rall's other cartoons here)

"In the first panel, I showed president Niyazov announcing his new policy," Rall explained. "And he says, 'From now on, if you get sick and live outside of Ashgabat, come to Ashgabat.' And there is an arrow pointing to his eyes that says he just got his eyes operated on in Germany."

Rall said he is highlighting the fact that while Niyazov can get medical care anywhere in the world, he is telling Turkmen citizens to travel to Ashgabat for medical care. The move has been widely criticized as restricting citizens' right to health care.

In the second panel, there is a map of Turkmenistan that shows the size of the country and how traveling can be difficult.

"In the third panel, there is a sick man being checked by a doctor. And the doctor says, 'Nice knowing you pal.' In other words, 'You're going to die.' In the fourth panel, there's President Niyazov again saying that if anybody needs any advice about medical care, they can find it all in his book, 'The Rukhnama,' which is his little red book that all Turkmen [citizens] are required to read in school," Rall said.

Despite such critical cartoons, Rall said so far he hasn't received any responses from Central Asian authorities. "Well I guess I'll find out when I start applying for visas whether anyone has noticed," he said. "I certainly heard that other journalists had problems as a result of doing this kind of work."

Rall's advice to young people who would like to become cartoonist? Be questioning, look for the truth, and don't be afraid.

"Some of the best cartoons I've ever done have been cartoons where I was nervous about sending them out because I thought they were so powerful," Rall said. "And I thought people would become really angry. And in fact, maybe some people did. But if a cartoon has that kind of power, the odds are it's a good cartoon."

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