Distractions like a full-on rebellion and raging jihad somehow did not prevent Syria from holding an international cartoon festival this month. And from prizes going to artists from Azerbaijan, better known for supplying recruits for Syria’s Islamic insurgency than for providing the war-torn country with pictorial talent.
In Syria’s Ninth International Cartoon Contest, Azerbaijani artist Bayram Hajizade shared a gold medal with Iranian Mehdi Azizi and Colombian Elena Ospina in a category billed Theatre, in the all-the-world’s-a-stage sense. Another Azerbaijani contender, Seyran Caferli, walked off with the bronze in the same category.
The contest’s website does not shed great light on its origins; at least, not for the non-Arabic-speaker. According to Azerbaijan's government-friendly website Azernews, it attracted entrants ranging from France and Morocco to Peru and Thailand.
But the background on Azerbaijan’s two medalists is clear.
Hajizade serves as president of the Azerbaijan Cartoonists’ Union, edits the magazine “Caricature and We,” and lectures in Azerbaijan’s State Academy of Fine Arts, according to Azernews. Azerbaijani-cartoonist circles appear fairly tight: Caferli also is a former Cartoonists’ Union president and “Caricature and We” editor.
For Baku, news of the win no doubt was a welcome departure from reports about various Azerbaijanis taking part or being killed in the civil war against the Syrian government.
Much of the attention focuses on the tumble-down industrial town of Sumgayit, which has experienced crackdowns on and fighting between radical Islamists.
Baku claims it is trying to stem the outflow, but how it is doing so remains unclear. Azerbaijanis do not require passports to enter one key gateway to Syria — Turkey.
Azerbaijani media have made various, unsubstantiated claims about the number of Azerbaijanis fighting or killed in Syria, and the enticements allegedly extended to them — everything from schools for their children to, supposedly, passports allegedly handed out by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadist group. These reports could not be independently verified.