A beloved artist in and beyond the Arab world, Palestinian political cartoonist and caricaturist Naji al-Ali's influence continues after 30 years after his death by assassination. Boualem Ramadani in the New Arab Diffah Supplement recently discovered a French book dedicated to al-Ali’s work, the first of its kind in France. Though published only in French, the book — "Le Livre de Handala" by Sivan Halevy and Muhammad al-Asaad, published by Scribest — includes important input from Naji al-Ali's eldest son, Khaled. He endeavored to preserve his father's legacy through the project. The book was first published in 2011 and received a new edition in 2015 with an updated preface from French political cartoonist Siné.
Naji al-Ali's work touched the hearts of Palestinian refugees, oppressed groups, and artists and intellectuals worldwide. His art is deeply ingrained in the Palestinian struggle, unflinchingly shining a light on the human struggle against injustice, military occupation and colonization, and exodus and exile. Al-Ali's iconic character Handala, a 10-year-old boy, continues to live on even after the artist's death. With a name derived from the Arabic word Handhal, a plant of a bitter taste that represents his bitterness towards life as a Palestinian refugee, Handala stands barefoot with his arms crossed against his back, donning messy hair and unkempt clothing.
Al-Ali introduced him as such: "I am Handala from the Ain al-Hilweh camp. I give my word of honor that I'll remain loyal to the cause." Every layer of his appearance emerged from al-Ali's memories as a child forced to flee his home. "I drew him as a child who is not beautiful; his hair is like the hair of a hedgehog who uses his thorns as a weapon. Handala is not a fat, happy, relaxed, or pampered child. He is barefooted like the refugee camp children, and he is an icon that protects me from making mistakes. Even though he is rough, he smells of amber. His hands are clasped behind his back as a sign of rejection at a time when solutions are presented to us the American way."
Naji al-Ali was 10 years old, like Handala, when he fled Palestine. Born in 1937 in Al-Shajara, located between Tiberias and Nazareth in Galilee, he emigrated with his family in 1948 to the refugee camp Ain al-Hilweh in southern Lebanon, near Sidon. "We were hungry, dazed, and barefoot. Life in the camp was unbearable, full of daily humiliation, ruled by poverty and despair," he said, as cited by Abdelaziz Elkhalfaoui in the online Inside Arabia.
Art became his primary outlet for expressing himself in the camp, whether his political views or his anxiety and grief. Al-Ali also "felt a need" to express himself by taking part in protests, national events, and "to subject myself like others to mistreatment and prison," he said, according to the website Handala.org. He always kept his pen with him when he was taken to prison, filling prison walls with his cartoons.
In Ain al-Hilweh, he met writer and PFLP spokesman Ghassan Kanafani, who was visiting the camp to attend a seminar in a small club "built out of sheets of zinc." Kanafani saw his drawings on the wall and took a few of his cartoons to publish in the Arab nationalist magazine Al-Hurriya in 1961. According to Joan Mandell in MERIP, he wanted to be a painter but never studied academically, instead deciding to become a caricaturist. "Paintings are only for special occasions, but political cartoons can raise people's spirits on a daily basis. I saw that it was my duty to agitate people, using simple language," he told her. According to Khaled on BBC’s Witness History with Alex Last, “He did not feel it was his duty as a cartoonist to make you laugh. He wanted to make you think.”
As a young man, al-Ali worked as a mechanic in the Gulf before he returned to Lebanon for art school, according to Alex Last in Witness History. In 1963, al-Ali received an opportunity to work on the Kuwaiti weekly magazine Al-Tali'a al-Kuwaitiya as an editor, cartoonist, designer, and producer. Here, he created Handala, who became his driving force. "That child was like a splash of fresh water on my forehead, bringing me to attention and keeping me from error and loss. He was the arrow of the compass, pointing steadily towards Palestine," he said in an essay entitled "I am from Ain al-Hilweh." Handala symbolized al-Ali's conviction to stare injustice in the face. "They tell little children to turn their backs, but I don't turn. The boy is the age I was when I left Palestine, and he will not grow up until I return," he told Mandell.
Al-Ali worked for the Kuwaiti daily al-Siyassa in 1968 and the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir in 1974. In 1982, he was briefly detained in Beirut during the Israeli Invasion of Lebanon, during the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He moved back to Kuwait in 1983 to escape the "Phalangist threat in Lebanon," but pressures from Saudi Arabia, the PLO, and the Kuwaiti government forced him and his family into exile in London in 1985, according to Mandell. "They knew there'd be a big fuss if I was killed inside — easier to pin the blame on someone. If I'm killed outside — in London — you couldn't easily know who did it," he told her.
Al-Ali did not shy away from clear political positions, whether in his comics or as a person. He sharply criticized Arab and Iranian regimes and the PLO leadership. However, he was conscious about the publications in which he published. "I won't give my work to the papers of the organized left. If I worked for a specific line, the group would think I was theirs, and the masses would believe I was associated with that group; but when I publish in a daily, it gives me independence," as cited by Mandell. His son Khaled explained in an interview with the Guardian, "For him, the Zionists were the enemy, but his problem with the PLO was that its policies wouldn't have taken him back to Galilee."
On July 22, 1987, al-Ali was shot in the back of the neck on his way to the offices of the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas in London. He remained in a coma until his death on August 29, 1987. The assassins have yet to be found, though British authorities reopened the case in 2017, the 30th anniversary of his death. He published three books in his lifetime, in 1976, 1983, and 1985.
Halevy and Asaad's "Le Livre de Handala" explores the artist's works through Handala, a voice calling for Palestinian unity and decrying injustice that refuses to turn away or be stifled. The book presents a selection of 167 drawings out of the approximately 12,000 cartoons he penned throughout his career.
Sivan Halevy, one of the book's co-authors, discovered al-Ali's works during one of his first trips to the Middle East, he said in an interview with the French newspaper La Dépêche. He began working on the book in 2003 with the help of Khaled al-Ali, who lived in Bahrain. He had hoped to publish the book in 2007, but it wasn't until 2010 that he found a publisher. In the 2011 edition, Halevy wrote the introduction, supplemented with a preface by the French cartoonist Plantu and afterword by French journalist and former editor of Le Monde Alain Gresh. Palestinian journalist and writer Mohamed al-Asaad wrote the texts. The 2015 edition includes a new preface by French political cartoonist Siné, who re-contextualizes Handala's symbolism and Naji al-Ali's assassination in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shooting.
Today, Handala continues to be a symbol for Palestinians and an icon for resistance and hope for oppressed groups across the world. He is an "eternal witness to the tragedy of a people who withstood the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon," in the words of Boualem Ramadani in Diffah. Though Naji al-Ali's life was taken from us, his enemies' attempt to silence his voice has failed — for Handala lives on, bearing witness to the tragedy of the Palestinian people that Naji al-Ali embodied throughout his life.
Copyright © 2022 by Al Jadid
Copyright © 2022 by Al Jadid