Naji al-Ali

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My signature, Hanthala: The Symbol of the Child by Naji al-Ali

I had friends with whom I shared my work, protests, and prison days until one day they became “tanabel” running businesses and buying stocks. I was worried about myself from turning to a “tanabal” too and being consumed. In the Gulf I gave birth to this child and offered him to the people. He is committed to the people that will cherish him. I drew him as an ugly child, with hedgehock-like hair because the hedgehock uses its hair as a weapon.

Hanthala is not a fat spoilt comfortable child, he is bare footed like the other bare feet from the refugee camps. He is an icon that protects me from wrong and disarray and despite his looks he has a pure heart with a conscience that smells like musk and unbar and for his sake I am ready to kill anyone who intends to harm him. His hands are clasped behind his back as a sign of rejection during a phase that this region is undergoing with “solutions” offered by the US and “the system”. I made the shape of his hands after the October war when I smelt the scent of developments in Kissinger’s briefcase.

Hanthala was born at the age of ten and will always remain ten. At that age I left my country and only when Hanthala returns to Palestine will he grow up and exceed the age of ten. The rules of nature do not apply on him. He is an exception and things will only be natural in his case when he returns to Palestine. The child is a symbolic representation of myself and the group who lives and endures the situation we are all in. I offered him to the readers and called him Hanthala as a symbol of bitterness. In the beginning I offered him as a Palestinian child and with the development of his awareness he had a patriotic and a human outlook.

What are the political duties of a caricature drawing? Incitement, preaching the birth of a new Arab human being. Incitement is a historically well-known operation and is it not right to say what is right in front of a Sultan? Caricatures set life bare in front of it, spreads life on strings in the open air, public street, capturing life wherever found and taking it to the surface for the world to see where there is no opportunity to hide the gaps and flaws of life. In my opinion, caricatures preach hope, revolution and the birth of a new person.

The picture is the element of the suppressed because they pay a high price for their lives carrying on their shoulder the burden of mistakes committed by authorities. Everything they have was difficult to get and everything that is tough and cruel is surrounding them. They struggle for their lifes and die young in graves without coffins, they are always on the defensive in order to continue living. I am with them in the dungeons observing and feeling the pulse of their hearts, the flow of blood in their veins and I look helpless with no power to stop their bleeding or to carry some of their burdens. My weapon, the expression of caricatures, is the most noble profession.

I derive my facts from the poor people. Their children died as martyrs and they still sacrifice for Palestine. I started drawing on the walls of the refugee camps and the clubs when political awareness started finding its way among the people of the refugee camps. Demonstrations took place which helped us by coinciding the protests with the Algerian revolution in the 50s and with the July revolution in Egypt.

I defined my duty by grasping the same people in the refugee camp, in the south and the Nile. That’s how I express myself and I am one of the tools of this great nation. My drawings are not for exhibition they are an expressive language. I gamble with my spirit to utilise them for the sake of my country and my cause. I learnt to draw in prison when other prisoners learnt handcrafting, poetry et cetera, and there I drew on the walls of the prisons.

The martyr Ghassan Kanafani who visited us in the club and saw my drawings, took some of them and published them in the magazine “Freedom”. This is when I felt the importance of caricature drawing. After prison I went to the Gulf. I worked as a farmer, mechanic, electrician, but drawing was my obsession. I approached the magazine “al Tali’a” in Kuwait and worked as a cleaner and editor (with all respect to the editors). We would print the words and sweep at the same time and I managed to obtain some space in the magazine.

A caricature that expresses the price of tomatoes is a political message in my opinion. I draw for Palestine. When I left Palestine and lived in the refugee camp Ein Al-Hilwe, me and my companions obsession was returning to Palestine. We were children and that did not prohibit us from thinking about our cause and think of the ways of which we would be able to return one day. Any artist will die, whenever he is placed out of his home. The artist that does not resume his work with the people will not reach his goal. I am a man who carries his tent on his back and my people are the poor.

In Kuwait I was pregnant with Hanthala and I gave birth to him. I was afraid that the waves would take him away from me, far away from Palestine. Hanthala is loyal to Palestine and will not allow me to be different. He keeps me from cowardice and taking steps back. When will the people be able to see his face ? When Arab dignity will be unthreatened, and regained its freedom and humanity. However, the greatest struggle is continuity in spite of all contradictions. He is witness to a generation that did not die and he will not leave life ever. He is eternal.

Hanthala, who I created, will not end after my end. I hope that this is not an exaggeration when I say that I will continue to live with Hanthala, even after I die.

From: “Naji al-Ali al-hadiye lam tasal ba’d” (1997, Dar al-Karmel Lilnasher wal tawzieh, Amman).

I am from Ain Al-Helwa by Naji al-Ali

Naji al-Ali was one of the most prominent cartoonists in the Arab world. Sarcastic, poignant and perhaps too bold, al-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.

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 al-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 Hanthala was born. I introduced Hanthala to the readers at some length: “I am Hanthala 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 Hanthala 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 Hanthala 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 Al-Safir 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 Widad, 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.

Al-Ahram Weekly.

With his blood Naji al-Ali drew for Palestine

On Wednesday July 22nd, 1987 Naji al-Ali was shot in the head by a lone gunman as he left the Al-Qabas offices in Ives Street, Chelsea. After five weeks in a coma on a life support machine in a St Stephen’s and Charing Cross hospitals in London, he died at 5am on Saturday 30th August at the age of 49. Apparently he had been warned by a telephone call from a friend, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Tunisia, that his life was in danger. The call, about two weeks before his death, came after the publication of a cartoon attacking a female friend of a political leader. “The cartoon was famous in the Arab community”.

Naji al-Ali was born in Al-Shajara village between Nazra and Tiberias in Galile. He left Palestine with his family in 1948 to live in-exile in the south of Lebanon on the Ein-Al-Helwe Palestinian camp. In the late 1950’s the late Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani discovered Naji’s talent in drawing while on a visit to this camp. “I started to use drawing as a form of political expression while in Lebanese jails. I was detained by the Deuxime Bureau (the Lebanese intelligence service) as a result of the measures the Bureau were undertaking to contain political activities in th e Palestinian camps during the sixties. I drew on the prison walls and subsequently Ghassan Kanafani, a journalist and publisher of al-Huria magazine (assassinated in Beirut in 1971) saw some of those drawings and encouraged me to continue, and eventually published some of my cartoons.” At the time of his death in 1987 he was living with his wife and five children in south London.

In the early 1960’s he joined an Art Institute in Lebanon but discontinued his studies to work in Kuwait on Al-Tali’a Kuwaiti Magazine. “Later I fled to Kuwait. The margin of freedom and democracy that exists in Kuwait enabled me to grow. There my cartoons concentrated on the dangers surrounding us as people.” In the early 1970’s he returned to Beirut from Kuwait and was on the Editorial Board of the prominent Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir: “Working for al-Safir newspaper in Beirut in 1971 was the best part of my life, and the most productive. There, surrounded by the violence of many an army, and finally by the Israeli invasion, I stood facing it all with my pen every day. I never felt fear, failure or despair, and I didn’t surrender. I faced armies with cartoons and drawings of flowers, hope and bullets. Yes, hope is essential, always. My work in Beirut made me once again closer to the refugees in the camps, the poor, and the harassed.”

During this period he also contributed drawings to Al-Khalij newspaper. The Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982. Fearing Phalangist threats on his life Naji al-Ali returned to Kuwait in 1983 and worked in Al-Qabas (meaning ‘The Light’ in English) newspaper – the largest independent daily newspaper in the Middle East. In 1984 he began to publish his work in Al-Khalij. In October 1985 he was expelled from Kuwait by pressure from Saudi Arabia but continued to work for the same the Kuwaiti newspaper, Al-Qabas, in London and continued to contribute his work to Al-Khalij. His work was published daily in Cairo, Beirut, Kuwait, Tunis, Abu Dhabi, London and Paris in publications ranging from far Right to far Left. He is thought to have been the highest paid cartoonist in the Arab world.

Naji al-Ali had no political affiliations and the absence of slogans and dogma in his work brought both success and criticism. He was opposed to the absence of democracy and, not belonging to any political group, tried to be a true representative of Arab public opinion. “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, to join a party, 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. It was some time in the fifties that I started drawing on the walls of our camp. During that period, the refugees had begun to develop some political awareness as a reaction to what had been taking place in the region: a revolution in Egypt, a war of independence in Algeria, things were brewing all around the Arab world. My job I felt was to speak up for those people, my people who are in the camps, in Egypt, in Algeria, the simple Arabs all over the region who have very few outlets to express their points of view. I felt my job was to incite them. For the function of a political cartoonist, as I see it, is to provide a new vision. He is a missionary, in a sense, because it is just a little bit harder to censor a cartoon than an article.” Few regimes or political groups in the region escaped his satirical drawings. He condemned the absence of human rights in the region, the Gulf War, Palestinian excesses and religious fanaticism. He was said to have antagonised virtually everyone in the Middle East; Arab, Jew, conservative and radical alike. He believed his period of work in Beirut was the best part of his career and that his periods of exile in Kuwait and the UK restricted his creativeness in ways he could not understand and counter. He missed the inspiration of the reality of the refugee camps in southern Lebanon.

Naji al-Ali’s philosophy can perhaps be best encapsulated in his explanation about Hanzala, the little boy who appears as a spectator in each of his cartoons: “This child, as you can see is neither beautiful, spoilt, nor even well-fed. He is barefoot like many children in refugee camps. He is actually ugly and no woman would wish to have a child like him. However, those who came to know ‘Hanzala’, as I discovered later adopted him and later adopted him because he is affectionate, honest, outspoken, and a bum. He is an icon that stands to watch me from slipping. And his hands behind his back are a symbol of rejection of all the present negative tides in our region.” Hanzala is now the official logo of the Commission for Freedom and Justice Through Humour, a recently created arm of WATCH and an affiliate of UNESCO. Censorship Strict censorship and high illiteracy rates exist in many middle eastern countries. Between 1958 and 1963 Naji al-Ali was frequently detained by police and continually censored. He is said to have received over one hundred death threats during his life. Because of his work he was said to be one of the most wanted men in the Middle East and this forced him to leave Lebanon and work in Kuwait and London. He emphatically refused to speak about his oppressors and those who might censor his work; he drew them instead.

Naji al-Ali developed a stark and symbolic style during his thirty year campaign on behalf of Palestinians. Unaligned with any political party he strove to speak to and for ordinary Arab people. Naji al-Ali’s life was seamlessly interwoven with the trials of exiled Palestinians. Due to invasion, censorship and threats he lived in exile most of his life, much of the time between Beirut and Kuwait. The last two years of his life he spent in London. In 1992 an International Cartoon Exhibition was held in the Kufa Gallery in London in commemoration of Naji al-Ali and his work.

Remembering the “conscience” of Palestine by Alessandra Antonelli

Death arrived in the back for Naji al-Ali. Probably the most famous caricaturist in the Arab world, he was shot on July 22, 1987 in London and died one moth later, on August 29 after being in a coma.

Shot from behind, exactly like Handala, his most famed character, who was portayed in one of his last cartoons, struck by an arrow. Handala was so close to Naji al-Ali that the borders between the artist and the character often blurred, merging and creating what was defined as the “conscience” of Palestine.

Naji al-Ali was not merely a famous artist. He represented what Naghib Maufuz represents in literature, or Mahmoud Darwish in poetry. Ali’s pencil could sum up in a few lines, the most acute sarcasm of Arabs and Palestinians for their way of dealing ” or not dealing ” with the political situation around them. But he was also able to narrate, in a single sketch, the intense desperation, resignation, as well as the hopes and dreams of the Palestinians living in refugee camps who were pushed into a corner of the world by the indifference of the international community and the Arab world.

In few simple lines he could depict the drama of a whole population and launch messages sometimes so sharp and rich in symbols that the eyes and the mind are forced to stare at the lines for a while and patiently follow them to reach the vignette’s hidden meaning.

Naji al-Ali was born in 1938 in Shajara, a village in the Galilee. He was 12 -years-old when he was forced to flee his home and settle in ‘Ain al-Helwa Refugee Camp in Lebanon, a recurrent symbol of suffering in his cartoons.

Ali’s dream was to study art in Italy, but financial problems forced him to enroll in a university in Kuwait. The pages of a Kuwaiti magazine al-Talee’ah, published his first caricatures. After he began publishing his work in al-Siyase newspaper, his fame spread to Lebanon and Egypt. And with the fame grew the number of caricatures produced, since the satire and the sharpness of some of them would not be allowed publication.Working on the Lebanese al-Safir and the Kuwaiti al-Qabas, his fame spread all over the Arab world. After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and his expulsion from Kuwait in 1985, Ali moved to London. As his caricatures took on a more dramatic tone and he became less careful of the danger of conveying certain messages, he also started to sense the end of his life as he used to say ,” I know I will die soon ” either by assassination or by suicide.” Indeed he was killed, but the mystery of his murderer is still lingering.

Despite his death, the legend arose around him, strengthening his figure even more, and consecrating Handala and his vast work ” most of which is still amazingly befitting.

Palestine Report, vol. 5, No. 12, 4 September 1998



2 thoughts on “Naji al-Ali

  1. Wonderful blog. I love Naji Al-Ali and his work. My back is turned with Handala. Long live Palestine.

  2. Thanks Jennine,
    Naji al-Ali got killed because of his commitment to expose the occupation and to speak up for the refugees who lost their homeland and their right of return, without forgetting to point at the corrupt Palestinian leadership and other Arab puppet regimes, that is why he is the Palestinian conscience. So I see it as a simple duty to spread his message and art, and I am glad you agree.
    Ghassan Kanafani is another example.

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