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Picturing Palestine: Assassinated Cartoonist Naji al-Ali Remains as Relevant as Ever

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on February 16, 2018
This article was updated on March 7, 2018

It has been almost thirty-one years since master political cartoonist Naji al-Ali was assassinated in London. In 2017 counter-terrorism detectives from the London police reopened the investigation into his murder, which was never resolved. During his career he drew an estimated 12,000 cartoons for a variety of newspapers, championing the rights of the underprivileged, drawing attention to human suffering and the politicians and policy-makers that were responsible. His messages were loud and clear, and no one was spared. As reports from the Middle East continue to dominate today’s news, one keen observer is conspicuously missing – Ali's character Hanthala, the Palestinian child with an unquestionable moral compass, his back always turned to the viewer. There are many elements that make Ali’s work compelling, but what is particularly striking, looking at the drawings today, is how contemporary they remain. Witness his numerous cartoons from the 1980s about the United States’ interest in Arab oil states, or his portrayal of misappropriation of Palestinian land and illegal Israeli settlements. Today, Ali’s mythical brainchild might shrug and say plus ça change...

Naji al-Ali was born in the village of al-Shajara, in today’s Galilee, in 1936. He fled to Lebanon 70 years ago during the Nakba (catastrophe) in 1948 and came of age in the refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh.

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“Where do I begin?” Ali asked Egyptian writer Radwa Ashour in an interview she conducted with him during the summer of 1984. “Perhaps from the day we left Palestine on our way to southern Lebanon. And from the 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...”

As political awareness made its way into the Palestinian camps in Lebanon in the 1950s, Ali began to draw on the walls of Ain al-Hilweh, and, soon after, on the walls of the Lebanese prisons where he was incarcerated for his political activities. In 1961, the celebrated Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani (who was assassinated in 1972) gave Ali his first break by publishing his cartoons in Al-Huria, the official magazine of the Arab Nationalist Movement. Two years later, Ali moved to Kuwait where he found work with the magazine Al-Talea (Avant-Garde). It was in the wealthy Gulf state that Ali created his alter ego and his guardian angel, the iconic ten-year old Hanthala, whose cult-like figure today is reproduced regularly as graffiti, on T-shirts and hanging on necklaces. The reason Ali introduced the boy (his name meaning ‘bitter desert fruit’) to readers, he explained to Ashour, was that “the young, barefoot Hanthala was a symbol of my childhood. He was the age I was when I left Palestine and, in a sense, I am still that age today. Even though this all happened thirty-five 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 toward 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.”

"He was the arrow of the compass, pointing steadily toward 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.”

Ali always sought to remain true to the people he had grown up with, who didn’t have the luxury of leaving the camps. In the 1970s he returned to Lebanon to work for the recently launched As-Safir newspaper, his drawings reflecting a growing disgust with what he felt was the corruption of Arab regimes, a wealthy elite that ignored injustice and the destitute, and the continuing brutality of the Israelis toward the Palestinians.

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When Israel invaded and occupied Lebanon in 1982, Ali took his eldest son, Khalid, who was fifteen at the time, back to the camp to inspect the devastating damage of a battle in which hundreds of civilians had lost their lives.

‘My father used to say that his pen should be like the knife of the surgeon, cutting through hypocrisy and rhetoric,’ said Khalid al-Ali, who now lives in Bahrain. He works actively to keep his father’s work and memory alive by organising exhibitions and, most importantly for him, a series of books of Ali’s political cartoons, reissued in chronological order.

“Some people went as far as to say that his work was basic political slogans; others just focused on the [political] message and not the artistic side of the cartoons themselves.”

But in his original drawings it is easy to see that Ali’s gestures were fluid yet precise, and some are decidedly painterly, evoking expressionism and the social realism of the Depression-era United States. In most of the cartoons, the ragged Hanthala has his back to the observer, a silent witness to the horror and absurdity of the region’s politics. His hands, clasped behind him, have been read to signify the dejection, or binding, of the Palestinians or the polite voyeurism of non-Palestinians. 

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In one particularly powerful drawing, though, Hanthala’s furrowed, anguished face is visible, turned towards a couple of Palestinian peasants ploughing their occupied land with an AK-47, while sowing it with heart-shaped seeds.

Hanthala occasionally participates in the action as in one image, published in the Kuwaiti paper, Al-Qabas in 1984, in which Hanthala joins a woman and a girl in throwing stones at both Israeli soldiers and Arab politicians – Ali foreseeing the Intifada many years before it happened. Ali’s drawings became increasingly critical of Arab leaders over time, his son observed, and he portrayed them as ugly, misshapen, and bottom-heavy figures.

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Three months earlier, in what could be an eerie prediction of his own murder, Ali had published a drawing of Hanthala’s death – lying face down with an arrow in his heel.

In a 1999 documentary by Iraqi filmmaker Kasim Abid, Ali’s wife Widad describes the death threats he received regularly in Lebanon, and how she would wake up each morning to start his car for him because she felt that, “if something were to happen to me, it wouldn’t make a big difference. But as for Naji, he was irreplaceable.”

Ali obviously felt a tremendous responsibility towards the Palestinian people, and told Ashour in the 1984 interview: “I was always troubled by my inability to protect people. How were my drawings going to defend them?”

In the end the death threats were real, but Ali’s work endures and is, unfortunately, just as timely. As Ali himself put it, “Hanthala, [whom] 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.”

Interest in Ali’s work continues in the years after his death. A book in Arabic has been published with drawings from 1985–87, and Khalid is preparing another with cartoons from 1983–85. In 2009 Verso published a collection of cartoons called A Child in Palestine  (which has since been translated into Japanese, Greek, Korean and Portuguese) that included an introduction by acclaimed graphic novelist and journalist Joe Sacco. In it, Sacco writes that when he first travelled to the occupied West Bank he was slightly reluctant to tell his hosts that he would be depicting their stories in cartoons, “Would they think I intended to trivialise their oppression? I needn’t have worried. Upon blurting out my approach, a smile of understanding usually creased their faces. 'Of course! We had our own cartoonist! Naji al-Ali!'”

Numerous exhibitions of Ali's cartoons are still held world-wide, a tribute to him was held at the British Library last year, books in French and Italian have been published, and a book in Spanish is in the works.

Khalid al-Ali hopes that books on his father’s cartoons will continue to be published. “He died because of his work, so for us it’s important that his work be out there.”

Images thanks to Khalid al-Ali, Verso, and Scribest.


Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.


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