Naji al-Ali graffiti, Ramallah-Wikimedia Commons
The unique Palestinian cartoonist Naji Salim al-Ali, was admired by the millions of Arab people who truly believe in his art as their sincere tongue. Egypt Today sheds light on the life and achievements of the unique cartoonist
When the pains exceed your probability, your ability to express your feelings is weakened. Al-Ali appeared during a time when the Arab countries’ wounds were bleeding severely, people’s pains reined their tongues, to find in Al-Ali cartoons the tongue that reflected their pain the most at the time of wars.
One of the famous freedom of speech advocates, Al-Ali paid the most expensive bill of playing this vital role, which was unfortunately his life. On Wednesday, July 22, 1987 at 5pm, Al-Ali was on his way to his work in the office of the English-based Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas in London, suddenly a gunman dressed in a denim jacket shot Al-Ali in the head.
The inspiring cartoonist spent five weeks in a severe coma on a life support machine, to die on August 30, 1987 at the age of 49. But before this tragic end, there were a lot of success stories to be told about the late 49-year old including his contention and flashes of patriotic light.
The Start and childhood
Al-Ali who was described as the greatest Palestinian Cartoonist was born in 1938 in the village of Ash Shajara in Palestine. Ash Shajara village was destroyed in 1948 in what is called ‘’Nakba’’ (catastrophe). As a result Al-Ali who was at that time a 10 year old child moved with his family to Ein Al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon.
When he grew up he worked in several industrial jobs like working as a car mechanic. Later he joined the Arab Nationalist Movement where he was fired 4 times because of lack of discipline.
In 1960 he joined the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts, but he did not complete his studies because he was imprisoned for political reasons shortly after joining the academy.
The first published cartoon by Al-Ali was in 1961, was his drawing was accompanied by an article to the renowned Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani. Al-Ali worked in several newspapers like Al-Safir in Lebanon, Al-Tali’a and Al-Siyasa in Kuwait
He joined Al-Qabas Kuwaiti newspaper in Kuwait and finally in 1985 he started working in its international edition which was headquartered in London until his death. He was then married and had five children.
Al-Ali created throughout his career over 40000 drawings. Through his cartoons he succeeded to portray the critical circumstances, the sufferings, pains and the resistance of the Palestinian people. Al-Ali criticised, in his drawing and his own sarcastic technique, the Israeli state, Palestinian leaders and Arab regimes.
Al-Ali’s political stance was clear in all his drawing, he refused completely any agreement that did not include the Palestinian right to all of historic Palestine. His cartoons were the outcome of his experience as Palestinian refugee since he was a child. Al-Ali till now is considered one of the most influential Arab artists in the 20th century.
Handala is the most famous character drawn by Al-Ali. He is a 10-years old refugee boy who was present in all Al-Ali’s cartoons. He was a symbol of Palestinian resistance and struggle for their right. Handala appeared for the first time in 1979 in Al-Siyasa Kuwaiti newspaper. Handala was 10 years old boy, the same age Al-Ali was when he was expelled from his village and became refugee.
Al-Ali described Handala saying:
‘’ 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 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 perspective. He is a simple yet tough child, and this is why people adopted him and felt that he represents their consciousness.’’
Naji al-Ali movie
The famous veteran late Egyptian actor Nour El sherif played the role of Al-Ali in a film named ‘’ Naji Al-Ali’’in 1992.After the assassination of Al-Ali and his entry into the intensive care room, the film reverts back to the most important stages Al-Ali underwent during his life.
It started with his family's migration to Lebanon and his work in Kuwait, then his return to Lebanon again during the Lebanese civil war. The film tackled as well the most prominent political stances Al-Ali recorded in his cartoons.
‘’ Naji al-Ali’’ movie stirred a lot of controversy. It was highly criticised by the Egyptian press and accused El Sherif of obtaining funds from the Palestine authority. The film severily attacked the Arab regimes and accused them of being a major cause behind the killing of Naji al-Ali.
In that crisis, the decision to ban the screening of Sherif’s movies in the Gulf theaters was taken. Many artists avoided contact with Sheriff and many of them even attacked him. The Egyptian political authority was very angry with Sherif as well.
Who killed Al-Ali
Ten months after the death of Al-Ali Scotland Yard arrested a Palestinian student named Ismail Suwan who turned out to be a Mossad agent. He revealed that Mossad had been briefed well before of the plot to assassinate Al-Ali .Mosad refused to provide their British counterpart with the needed information pertaining this issue.
The British authority in response expressed its displeasure with Mossad stance and expelled two Israeli diplomats from London. At the end, and after a lot of investigations the killer’s identity has never been known.
Al-Ali in the eyes of the International media
"The nearest thing there is to an Arab public opinion" The Guardian.
‘’This man draws with human bones’’ The Time Magazine.
‘’ Naji Al-Ali draws using phosphoric Acid’’ The Asahi Newspaper in Japan.