Witness to Brutality: Film Documents Life and Death of Naji al-Ali

Kim Jensen

Naji Al-Ali: An Artist with a Vision
Written and directed by Kasim Abid
Camera Image, 1999
Dissident political cartoonist Naji al-Ali was born in 1938 in Al-Shajarah, Palestine, a small village not far from Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee. Ten years later Al-Shajarah fell to the Haganah. The inhabitants were expelled, forced to leave their dead behind, unburied, and the village, like hundreds of other Palestinian villages, would soon be obliterated.
At the age of ten, Naji al-Ali found himself a hungry and barefoot refugee in the Ein al-Hilweh camp in Lebanon. He was never to forget his experience as an impoverished and displaced child.The political artwork, which made him famous and for which he died, ever bore witness to the suffering of the poor and the powerless in the Arab world — particularly the Palestinian refugees.
In his hour-long film, “Naji Al Ali: An Artist With Vision,” Kasim Abid, an Iraqi filmmaker, documents the life of this man who would become one of the most talented and principled artists of his time. Recently screened at the Arab Film Festival in the San Francisco Bay Area, this documentary does an outstanding job of introducing not only the personality of al-Ali, but also the most important events shaping his work. It also includes an excellent cross-section of the thousands of political drawings al-Ali published in his lifetime.
The film takes us on a chronological tour of the artist’s life, from his childhood in the camps, through his days as a student. It follows him as he emerges as an activist, journalist and artist, through the various wars that shaped his work and his fate, and finally into his exile in London, where he was brutally gunned down by an unknown assailant. It becomes clear that by the end of his life, al-Ali — as a popular voice of conscience — had developed a whole cadre of powerful enemies, and not just in the state of Israel.
Though the film was made with the filmmaker’s own money and with the help of friends, it offers a rich representation of a man who, according to the filmmaker, was “a pioneer in the field of freedom of expression.” The story is told using a variety of traditional documentary techniques, including a main narrator, a second narrator reading al-Ali’s statements about himself, photographs of al-Ali, as well as a wide range of interviews with friends, colleagues and experts. Unfortunately, there are no interviews with prominent Palestinian figures.  But this omission is mitigated by the detailed conversation with Widad al-Ali, Naji’s widow. Her facility for anecdotal storytelling transforms what would have been an ordinary documentary into a warm and intimate meeting place.
Over the course of the hour, in selected excerpts, Widad talks about childhood in the camps (she was also a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon), about how her own mother would sew underwear from UNRWA flour ration bags, and about her and Naji’s unusual courtship. While a typical suitor might have boasted of a good job and a nice house, Naji was instead warning Widad about the difficult life ahead of her, and that he might be arrested or killed at any time. To her credit, Naji’s political commitment was not a deterrent to their marriage.
Throughout the course of the interview, Widad al-Ali makes it known that her husband was never ashamed of his humble origins as a refugee, and that he steadfastly refused to compromise his convictions — even at cost of death. “My death,” he often said, “would be to draw something I don’t believe in. Or to  draw what they [the establishment] want me to draw. Or to start to see the world the same way they see it.”
In the middle of the film, Widad al-Ali discusses an important period following the 1982 war, and the subsequent PLO infighting in North Lebanon. At this time, Naji’s political cartoons were becoming increasingly bitter in their denunciations of the PLO leadership, and retaliatory death threats were a regular event. She was constantly worried about the possibility of a car bomb. “Every day,” she says, “I used to wake up and go start the car for him. If something were to happen to me, it wouldn’t make a big difference. But as for Naji, he was irreplaceable.”
One of the irreplaceable inventions of Naji al-Ali was his almost legendary character Handhalah, whose name comes from the bitter plant handhal.  Handhalah, who entered the minds and hearts of people throughout the Arab world, is a ragged and barefoot little boy who serves in al-Ali’s work as a silent witness. Handhalah witnesses the brutality of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians; the corruption of Arab regimes as they sell out to Western powers; the barbarism of the wealthy elite who turn a blind eye to injustice. This embittered and truthful boy symbolizes the conscience of an oppressed people who yearn for justice and peace. “This character,” al-Ali says in an interview, “came out of my life in the camp. A typical child of those days — barefoot, destitute, and deprived. I created this character so I would never forget where I came from.”
On July 22, 1987, Naji al-Ali was violently prevented from ever creating another character, another drawing, or another sketch. Shot down as he left his London apartment, al-Ali had predicted his own death in several prescient cartoons. The film builds toward this event with a series of interviews, statements and cartoons all of which begin to implicate the PLO in the crime. As the film unfolds, the narrative finger points directly to Arafat as the culprit.
This is the point at which we have to draw back and speculate. Due to the previously mentioned lack of knowledgeable Palestinian input, and due to the lack of any concrete evidence, it seems unfair to reach premature conclusions based on hearsay and innuendo. There have never been any arrests, nor any witnesses, evidence, trial or conviction in Naji al-Ali’s murder. Perhaps it is the absence of a solid investigation on the part of Scotland Yard that should be called into question. Suffice it to say, there were many leaders in the Middle East, Israel, and even the United States who had been lampooned and lambasted by al-Ali’s searing and brilliant cartoons; any and all of them had a strong motive to silence him.
But contrary to the assassins’ hopes — the art of resistance has a long shelf-life, even after the artist is gone. Voices like Naji al-Ali’s are not easily silenced. And this valuable film, while it cannot possibly solve an unsolved crime, does go a long way toward preserving the memory of Naji al-Ali, allowing future generations to draw inspiration from this remarkable individual.
This review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 32, Summer 2000.
Copyright © 2000 AL JADID MAGAZINE