“Political cartoons are vivid primary sources that offer intriguing and entertaining insights into the public mood, the underlying cultural assumptions of an age, and attitudes toward key events or trends of the times,” writes Jonathan Burack.
Naji Al-Ali is a Palestinian cartoonist who was assassinated for the honesty and dedication to truth he showed in his work. His commitment to the Palestinian struggle and the suffering of the Palestinian refugees made him a pioneering Arab cartoonist.
Born in Palestine in 1938 and assassinated in London on August 29, 1987, Naji Salim Al-Ali was known for his political criticism of both Arab regimes and Israel.
To this day, he is regarded as one of the most influential Arab artists of the 20th century.
Naji Al-Ali was born and raised in the village of Al-Shajara in Palestine until he and approximately 750,000 Palestinians were forcefully displaced (or forced into exile) by Israeli troops during the Nakba in April 1948. Al-Ali moved to Lebanon, then Kuwait, and finally to England where he worked in “Al-Qabas,” an English-based Kuwaiti newspaper.
During his life, Al-Ali drew more than 40,000 cartoons, most of which illustrate symbols of the occupation and resistance. His most famous illustrated character is Handala, a bare-foot little boy who turned his back to the world and became an icon of Palestinian resistance. He published three books on his cartoons in 1976, 1983 and 1985 and was working on another book at the time of his death.
On July 22, 1987, Al-Ali was shot on his way to his office at the Al-Qabas newspaper and passed away five weeks later.
More than twenty-five years after his death, Naji Al-Ali’s cartoons continue to resonate with people in the Middle East, telling stories about the region that remain as true today as they were when he was alive.
The character of Handala is 10 years-old – the same age Al-Ali was when he was expelled from his village in 1948.
When asked about Handala, Al-Ali said:
The child Handala is my signature, everyone asks me about him wherever I go. I gave birth to this child in the Gulf and I presented him to the people. His name is Handala and he has promised the people that he will remain true to himself. 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.
Handala was born ten years old, and he will always be ten years old. At that age I left my homeland, and when he returns, Handala will still be ten, and then he will start growing up. The laws of nature do not apply to him. He is unique. Things will become normal again when the homeland returns. I presented him to the poor and named him Handala as a symbol of bitterness. At first he was a Palestinian child, but his consciousness developed to have a national and then a global and human horizon. He is a simple yet tough child, and this is why people adopted him and felt that he represents their consciousness.
Since 2009, Handala has been used as the web mascot for the Iranian Green Movement.
This cartoon reflects how most of the Arab regimes deal with democracy and freedom of expression. Handala is telling the man (most likely a journalist) about his satisfaction with the article he is writing on democracy. Handala asks the man whether he’s writing for tomorrow? The man replies: “I’m writing my will.” Al-Ali is implying that democracy and freedom of expression do not really exist in the Arab world.
Many Arab governments continue to suppress the right of free speech through censorship, restrictive media laws, and the harassment of journalists and activists who voice their opinions against human rights violations or other major concerns.
In various Arab countries, freedom of expression is governed by regulations that include laws against criminal insult. Lebanon, for example, has strict laws designed to punish those who insult the president.
In July 2010, a Lebanese man was arrested for allegedly insulting the president Michel Sleiman on Facebook. It was the first time in Lebanon that an individual was charged for comments they made on the Internet, a development that prompted strong criticism from human rights groups.
In Egypt, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who had already infuriated the regime of Hosni Mubarak by documenting widespread election fraud, publicly questioned Mubarak’s monarchical plan to hand power over to his son. He was charged with “defaming Egypt” in 2008.
In this cartoon, Al-Ali turns to another sensitive topic: torture. The image features a man in jail talking about his cellmate, saying: “Brother Peter is a Coptic Christian. They accused him of being a member of a secret organization. After they tortured him, he confessed of being a member of the Muslims brotherhood!!”
The Coptic reference is intended to alert the reader that the cartoon is about the situation in Egypt.
As stated in the 2004 Human Right Watch Report: “Torture in Egypt is a widespread and persistent phenomenon. Security forces and the police routinely torture or ill-treat detainees, particularly during interrogation. In most cases, officials torture detainees to obtain information and coerce confessions, occasionally leading to death in custody.”
In this cartoon, Al-Ali comments on sectarianism. The image shows a man asking another man: “Are you Muslim or Christian? Sunni or Shiite? Druze or Alawite? Coptic or Maronite? Orthodox or….” The second man suddenly interrupts him by replying: “I’m an Arab … asshole!”
While sectarianism has long been a problem in most Arab countries, it has become progressively worse since the Arab Spring.
In Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq renewed killing between Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, and Alawites has produced the highest death toll in the past five years.
The Maspero demonstrations in Egypt on October 9-10, 2011 is one sad example of this violence: a peaceful demonstration led by Egyptian Copts started as a reaction to the demolition of a church in Upper Egypt claimed that is allegedly without an appropriate license.
The peaceful protesters, who intended to stage a sit-in in front of the Maspero television building in Cairo, were attacked by security forces and the army, resulting in 28 deaths and 212 injuries, most of which were Copts.
In Syria, sectarian divides have been exasperated since the start of the conflict. In one example, as many as 60 Shia Muslim residents of the Hatlah village in the eastern Deir Ezzor province were massacred by foreign-sponsored, Sunni militants on June 11, 2013.
Al-Ali was known for criticizing the Arab regimes. According to him, none of the region’s governments had a real interest or involvement in liberating Palestine.
This cartoon is divided into two scenes. The first scene presents a man saying: “On my honor, I will shave my moustache if any of these regimes is able to liberate one inch of Jerusalem.” In the second scene, the same man is shown with a very long moustache and a beard indicating that no land has been liberated.
In 1979, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty, which was followed by another peace treaty between Jordan and Israel in October 1994. In 1994, three North African Arab states – Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia – elected to follow a path of peace, reconciliation, and diplomatic ties with Israel. In May 1996, Israel opened trade representative offices in Oman and Qatar to develop economic, scientific, and commercial relations with an emphasis on water resource utilization, tourism, agriculture, chemicals, and advanced technologies.
Many Arabs consider these treaties and diplomatic relations as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. In this cartoon, Al-Ali expresses his disappointment with the Arab regimes, which possibly led to his assassination by a double agent working for both the Israeli Mossad and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
One would assume that most Arab countries would form an alliance against Israel but the reality on the ground appears to tell a different story. In this last cartoon, Al-Ali goes one step further to claim that the Arab regimes not only failed to support the Palestinian cause, but also might consider fighting another Arab country if a war with Israel erupts.
This cartoon features a man saying: “If Israel attacks Syria we must attack.” Another man replies: “What do you mean we must attack; attack who?!?!”
The New York Times once wrote: “If you want to know what the Arabs think of the U.S., look at Naji Al-Ali’s cartoons.” Time Magazine said of Al-Ali: “This man draws with human bones.”
There is no doubt that with his death, the Arab world lost one of if not its best cartoonists. Naji Al-Ali was a man who lived according to his ideals and never forgot his people. It is ironic and shameful to find that a quarter century after his death, his drawings still tell the story of our bitter reality.
*Gisele El Khoury holds an M.A. in Law from the Lebanese University and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Educational Technology. She is the Director of the Language Resource Center and the Arabic instructor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY.