I am from Ain Al-Helwa

Radwa Ashour, Tuesday 16 May 2023

Nagi El-Ali was one of the most prominent cartoonists in the Arab world. Sarcastic, poignant and perhaps too bold, El-Ali's cartoons were drawn from his experience as a Palestinian refugee since childhood and clearly reflected his political stance, which was often critical of the Arab regimes.

Nagi El Ali
Nagi El Ali


From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*

Issue: 22 January 1998


The following extracts are drawn from an interview with Radwa Ashour, novelist and professor of English literature at Ain Shams University, during the summer of 1984 in Budapest. It was published in the periodical Al- Muwagaha in 1985, only two years before El-Ali was assassinated in London in 1987 at the age of 50


“Where do I begin? Perhaps from the day we left Palestine on our way to the Ain Al-Helwa camp in southern Lebanon. And from those looks in the eyes of our mothers and fathers that did not speak of facts, but expressed a sorrow which was the language in which we learned about the world, a language of anger that finds its outlet sometimes in speech, sometimes in deeds. Most of the boys and girls of the fifties generation, to which I belonged, suffered a profound dejection.


“We would cast our eyes beyond our small prison in Ain Al-Helwa, searching for some force of good that might come to our rescue. When the July 1952 revolution broke out, we poured out into the streets of the camp shouting, "Long live the revolution!" and writing slogans on the walls. We were unable to do more than that, although we had dedicated ourselves and our lives to the revolution.


“As I recall these scenes of my youth, I think how much we miss that spirit now, at a time when the Arab World has, for all practical purposes, become an American ocean, and the Palestinian revolution itself has been struck down. One should try not to seek consolation, but to come to terms with one's experience. Yet I feel that no one is doing this. We are being bombarded from all directions. This is not a random strike, but a thoroughly planned and targeted assault.


“I was born in 1937 in the village of Al-Shajara, located between Tiberias and Nazereth in Galilee. In 1948, I emigrated to one of the refugee camps in southern Lebanon -- Ain Al Helwa, located near Saida [Sidon]. Like others in the camp, I felt a need to express myself, to take part in protest demonstrations, to participate in national events, to subject myself like others to mistreatment and prison.


“At that point in my life, I developed a strong desire to draw. I began to try to express my political attitudes, my anxiety and my grief through paintings on the walls. I always made sure I had my pen with me when I was taken to prison.


“Incidentally, the first person to give me encouragement was the late Ghassan Kanafani who had visited the camp in order to attend a seminar we held in a small club that we had built out of sheets of zinc. When Ghassan saw the cartoons I had drawn on the wall, he introduced himself to me and took two or three of them to publish in the Arab nationalist magazine, Al-Huriyya, where he was working at the time.


“Although I had obtained a diploma in mechanics and electrical engineering, I worked as a seasonal farm labourer, picking oranges and lemons. There were no other available jobs. Palestinians were not permitted to have municipal jobs. I tried to continue my studies in drawing and enrolled in the Academy of Arts for a year. But during that time, I was arrested and imprisoned six or seven items. I worked as a drawing instructor for a short period of time in Al-Jaafriya College in Sur [Tyre]. Then I was given the opportunity to travel to Kuwait to work on Al-Tali'a al-Kuwaitiya, published by the Kuwaiti Progressive Party.


“That was when the character Hanzala was born. I introduced Hanzala to the readers at some length: "I am Hanzala from the Ain Al-Helwa camp. I give my word of honour that I'll remain loyal to the cause..."


“That was the promise I had made myself. The young, barefoot Hanzala was a symbol of my childhood. He was the age I was when I had left Palestine and, in a sense, I am still that age today. Even though this all happened 35 years ago, the details of that phase in my life are still fully present to my mind. I feel that I can recall and sense every bush, every stone, every house and every tree I passed when I was a child in Palestine.


“The character of Hanzala was a sort of icon that protected my soul from falling whenever I felt sluggish or I was ignoring my duty. 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. Not just Palestine in geographical terms, but Palestine in its humanitarian sense -- the symbol of a just cause, whether it is located in Egypt, Vietnam or South Africa.


“I am from Ain Al-Helwa, a camp like any other camp. The people of the camps were the people of the land in Palestine. They were not merchants or landowners. They were farmers. When they lost their land, they lost their lives. The bourgeoisie never had to live in the camps, whose inhabitants were exposed to hunger, to every degradation and to every form of oppression. Entire families died in our camps. Those are the Palestinians who remain in my mind, even when my work takes me away from the camp.


“I was working in Kuwait when Assafir began publication in Beirut. [Editor-in-chief] Talal Salman called me up and asked me to come back to Lebanon to work for the newspaper. I thought I would find some salvation in the move. However, when I returned I was pained by what I saw. I felt that Al-Helwa had been more revolutionary before the revolution, that it had a clearer political vision, that it knew its enemies from its friends. It had a specific goal: Palestine, the full return of the land of Palestine.


“When I returned, the camp was an armed jungle, but it lacked political clarity. It had been divided into tribes. Various Arab regimes had invaded it and Arab oil dollars had corrupted many of its young. The camp was a womb that generated true freedom fighters, but the outsiders were trying to stop that process. Many people are to blame for this. Although one can draw a line between negligence and treachery, no one is exempt from guilt. The Arab regimes committed crimes against us and against the Palestinian revolution itself. These circumstances explain much of what happened during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.


“When the 1982 invasion began I was in Saida [Sidon]. The Palestinians in the camps felt that they had no one to lead them. Israel pounced upon us with all its military might in an attempt to make us forget that there was something called Palestine. The Israelis knew that the overall situation was in their favor. They had nothing to fear from the Arab World, the international powers or the Palestinian revolution. The Arab regimes had effectively neutralised themselves after Camp David.


“In the past, the Palestinian revolution prophesied an all-out war of liberation. In 1982, however, all our military leaders had anticipated the invasion. Although I am not a military man and I have never used a gun in my life, I believe that it would have been possible to inflict far greater losses on the invading Israeli forces. That is why one begins to sense that the Arab regimes and other parties were part of a conspiracy to cleanse the south of Lebanon, to destroy Palestinian military power and to impose "peaceful" solutions. That was the "carrot" to make us run after the American solution.


“I believe that we could have inflicted some severe damage on Israeli, but our camps had no leaders. How could the people of the camps have countered the Israeli military machine and the daily bombardment from land, air and sea? In addition, the situation in the camps was decrepit, with houses built of zinc and mud. The Israeli forces flattened them like a football field. Still, even as the Israeli forces continued their invasion as far as Beirut and the edge of Dawfar, the resistance inside the camps did not let up, as both Israeli military personnel and I personally can testify. My family and I along with all the other people of Saida were taken prisoner, and spent four or five days on the coast.


“After the occupation, my first concern was to inspect the camp to learn of the state of the resistance and its leaders. I took my son with me. He was 15-years-old at the time. We travelled by day. The corpses of the victims still lay in the streets. The burnt-out hulks of Israeli tanks still stood at the entrances to the camps. The Israelis had not removed them yet. From my inquiries into the circumstances of the resistance, I learned that it consisted of a group of no more than 40 or 50 youths. The Israeli had burned the camp while the women and children were still inside their shelters. Israeli missiles had penetrated deep inside the camp, claiming the lives of hundreds of children in the camp in Saida. The young men in the resistance group had spontaneously taken an oath to one another that they would die before they ever surrendered. And, in fact, the Israelis never captured a single one of them. In daylight, the Israeli forces would attack. At night, the resistors would strike.


”This is what happened in Ain Al-Helwa, as I saw for myself. But I also know that there were other forms of resistance in the camps of Sur, Al-Burj Al-Shamal, Al-Bass and Al-Rashidi. People in the streets and shelters prayed to God to curse the regimes and their leaders. They exonerated no one. They felt as though no one but God would help them endure their fate.


“The people of the south of Lebanon, including our destitute Palestinian masses, they are the people who fought and bore arms. In dedication to that great people which gave us more than any other party and suffered the destruction of their homes, I must record here that the resistance fighters of the Lebanese national movement have embodied the spirit of resistance in virtually legendary proportions. In my opinion, the Arab media has not done them justice by stressing their true spirit of resistance.


“As families were dispersed amidst the debris in Ain Al-Helwa, the Israelis rounded up all the young men (I myself, for example, was put through a screening process four or five times). They arrested most of them and transferred them to the Ansar prison camp. This is when the women began to play an active role. I think it is impossible for any artist to convey these circumstances. Immediately, while the corpses still littered the streets, the women returned to their homes and set to work alongside their children to rebuild their homes with any wood or stone they could find in order to provide shelter for their children.


“They worked like ants in order to rebuild their hovels which had been demolished. One reason the Israelis and the Lebanese authorities struck so hard at the camps is because they are the true breeding ground of the revolution. While the men were detained in prison camps or hiding out from Israeli patrols, the women and the children rebuilt Ain Al-Helwa.


“I saw for myself how afraid the Israeli soldiers were of the children. A child of ten or eleven had sufficient training to carry and use an RBG rifle. The situation was simple enough. The Israeli tanks were in front of them and the weapon was in their hands. The Israelis were afraid to go into the camps, and if they did, they would only do so in daylight.


“When I left Lebanon over a year ago, Ain Al-Helwa had been restored. The walls which had been demolished have been rebuilt and once again carried the slogans, "Long live the Palestinian revolution," and "Glory to martyrs". This feat was not accomplished under the directions of any specific person. It happened spontaneously, in a sort of collective harmony. It must have been the people's pride and sense of dignity that compelled them to persist. Otherwise, under such circumstances, despair would have driven many to prefer death. The Israelis brought us to this psychological state in which we have overcome our dread. The line dividing life and death has been effaced.


“Our younger daughter, Judy, was struck during a random bombardment of the camp of the Saad Haddad group. That was in 1981, a year before the Israeli invasion. I was awakened from my sleep by the sound of her screams. I carried her screaming to the hospital where she was operated on. She is still being treated for her wounds.


“This tragedy pales before the catastrophes that struck others. There were families that lost five or six of their children; homes that became desolate of life. I was always troubled by my inability to protect people. How were my drawings going to defend them? I used to wish that I could save the life of only one child. The Israeli invasion was so brutal that many took leave of their senses. One day, on my way home, I saw a man walking around naked. People were looking at him aghast. I called out to Wida, my wife, and asked her to fetch me a shirt and a pair of trousers.


“The man was larger than I, so I fetched one of my larger shirts and a pair of trousers from one of the neighbours and we put them on him. I asked him some questions, but he remained silent. After making some inquiries, I learned that he was from Saida. After several days of relentless bombardment, he had been forced to leave his home in order to find some bread -- any kind of food -- for his children. He hoped that he could find a store open, because many of the streets in old Saida were covered over and one could walk there in relative safety. The man's efforts had proved futile.


“There were no stores open. When he returned home, he found that his house had been destroyed, killing his wife and seven or eight children. When the Israelis were taking us to the coast, we passed in front of that house. I noticed a small sign written in charcoal: "Take care! Here lies the family of ..." The man had written the sign himself, because the corpses were still buried beneath the debris.



This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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