Remembering Naji Al-Ali: The timeless conscience of Palestine

Menna Taher, Monday 16 May 2011

As the 63rd year of the Palestinian Nakba is marked this week, one Palestinian artist, a symbol of Al Nakba, comes to mind: Naji Al-Ali, the creator of ten-year-old Handala


One of the most important Palestinian cartoonists, Naji Al-Ali was evicted from Palestine with his family in 1948 at the age of ten, forcing him into exile for the rest of his life.  

He was born in 1937 in Al-Shajara village between Nazareth and Tiberias in Galilee, and after the creation of Israel and the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians, Al-Ali and his family moved to the Ain-al-Helwe refugee camp in Sidon in Southern Lebanon.

Al-Ali’s first drawings were on the prison walls in Lebanon, where he was jailed by the Deuxième Bureau (the Lebanese intelligence service) for his political activities in the refugee camp.  These were later discovered by the Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani, who owned Al-Hurreya magazine in Lebanon and he encouraged Al-Ali to continue and published some of his works.

Though Al-Ali started his political rebellion by joining a political party and voicing his opinions through demonstrations, he found his true calling in drawing cartoons.

According to an article on Al-Ali’s website, he said: “As soon as I was aware of what was going on, all the havoc in our region, I felt I had to do something, to contribute somehow. First I tried politics by joining a party, and I marched in demonstrations, but that was not really me. The sharp cries I felt within me needed a different medium to express what I was going through.”

Heavily censored, Al-Ali was imprisoned several times and expelled from Kuwait, where he had settled after being forced to leave Lebanon during the Israeli invasion there in 1982, in which he was an eye witness to the horrific massacres in Sabra and Shatila. He also received many death threats throughout his life, until he was eventually killed by a gunman in London in 1987.

The breakthrough in his career was the creation of the ten-year-old, spikey-haired, barefooted Handala, who always had his back to the viewer and never grew old.

Al-Ali explained the reasons behind Handala not growing up: “Handala was born ten years old and he will remain that way, for I was expelled from Palestine as a ten-year-old, and  when I can return to Palestine he will start growing. The laws of nature do not apply to him because he’s an exception, just as the loss of a homeland is.”

As for Handala always having his hands clasped together behind his back he said: “I put his hands behind his back after the 1973 war, because the whole region was undergoing a normalisation process with Israel.”

His works are distinguished by their sharp criticism, and the simple yet powerful manner in which he expresses profound sentiments, from rage to hope to nostalgia, with Handala a silent spectator of the horrendous massacres and the pathetic conflicts between the Arab leaders.

Al-Ali‘s art is always being shown in Palestine and Handala remains an iconic symbol of Palestinian identity and defiance and an image of the Palestinian struggle. One of the most recent presentation is an exhibition in the occupied lands of Ramallah, where ten Palestinian visual artists drew his cartoons on the walls of the gallery.

The artists spent four nights in creating the exhibition and representing the works of Al-Ali that are relevant to events happening today. One of the murals is of a Palestinian woman, with the key of freedom dangling from her neck, and next to it is written, “We have missed you, Egypt.”

Egypt also didn’t forget about Al-Ali and a film was made about him in 1992 by Egyptian director Atef Al Tayeb, when he was played by Nour Al Sherif.

The Iraqi-born London-based director, Kasim Abid has also made a documentary about him entitled Naji Al-Ali: Artist With Vision.

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