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A Cartoon Mystery

At the editorial cartoonists convention last week I had an opportunity to have a long conversation with Flemming Rose, the editor for the Jyllands-Posten newspaper who commissioned the Danish Muhammad cartoons that sparked a clash of civilizations last year.

One of the Muhammad cartoons was a puzzle to me. There were countless editorials and explanations of the cartoons, but no one could explain one cartoon, which was variously described as “some kind of doodle on a napkin” or “a poem with an inexplicable drawing.” Since the artist had to go into hiding and had a bounty put on his head for this “drawing of Muhammad” that shook the world, I wanted to know more. Were these little Pac-Man characters eating Islam and Judaism? Perhaps Judaism and Islam share a football helmet. Are those motion lines from the little symbols flying up through the air? Where is Muhammad? What the hell?

The cartoon includes a little poem which roughly translates as: “Prophet, you crazy bloke! Keeping women under yoke!”

Rose told me that a retired cartoonist, Erik Abild Sorensen, who is in his eighties, drew this “Muhammad cartoon.” The cartoonist phoned Rose to ask if he was too late to send something in, and Rose told him “go ahead.” The drawing was the last of the twelve to arrive and came in as a sketch on an envelope.

I asked, “Was there anything in the envelope?”

Rose said, “No.”

I asked, “Do you understand this drawing? Can you explain it?”

Rose said, “Well, there’s a little poem there that addresses the general topic.”

I asked, “OK, but the cartoon, what is it?”

Rose said, “I don’t know”

I asked, “Could it be that the elderly artist actually drew Muhammad, and forgot to put his cartoon in the envelope, and just did a little, thoughtless doodle on the envelope, maybe, while he was talking on the phone?”

Rose said, “Yes, that is possible,” and laughed.

For this “drawing of Muhammad,” the cartoonist went under police protection as the world erupted in chaos. I had to laugh too.

I posted the cartoon on my blog and some readers wrote in with the same take on the cartoon; this explanation comes from “Lady Mim” in Switzerland:

“…Now if I may solve this puzzle for you: the Muhammad cartoon you note on your blog that you can’t understand. I had to laugh too, a bit sourly. These are NOT men with a helmet. These are women. The helmet is the head. The lines are the veil. The Jewish star is the eye. The crescent moon is the open mouth. The cartoon depicts angry women who shout at the Prophet … saying that he is responsible for them being kept under a yoke …”

As I take another look I think I might see a little pupil in the Star of David eyeball in the upper left. Maybe not.

Daryl Cagle is a political cartoonist and blogger for MSNBC.com. Daryl is a past president of the National Cartoonists Society and his cartoons are syndicated to more than 800 newspapers, including the paper you are reading. He runs the most popular cartoon site on the Web at Cagle.msnbc.com. His books “The BIG Book of Bush Cartoons” and “The Best Political Cartoons of the Year, 2005, 2006 and 2007 Editions,” are available in bookstores now.

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