A symbol of the Palestinian cause: Artists pay tribute to Naji Al-Ali

LONDON: The incisive pen strokes of cartoonist Naji Al-Ali were feted at a British Library event on Friday which paid tribute to the artist’s enduring legacy in Palestine and beyond. Al-Ali continues to serve as an inspiration for young artists and activists hoping to represent the struggle of the Palestinian people, the event heard. By the time Al-Ali was assassinated in London 30 years ago, his iconic adolescent character Handala had become a well-known symbol for the Palestinian people’s suffering and the world’s silence surrounding it. “He represents Palestine, very simple,” political artist Hafez Omar said of the Handala character. Al-Ali’s young, barefoot boy who observes caricatured tableaux of Palestinian life, appeared in many of the artist’s 40,000 cartoons. Omar, who spoke at Thursday’s event alongside The Guardian’s cartoonist Steve Bell, said that generations of artists born after Al-Ali’s death use Handala as an emblem for the Palestinian cause. “When you want to talk about Palestine, when you want to talk about what everyone in Palestine believes in as a political project, Handala sums it up very simply: To return, self-determination, and for the liberation of Palestinians,” he said. Today, the character is as likely to appear in digital form on Facebook walls as be graffitied on the barriers dividing the West Bank and Gaza from Israel. Handala, an avatar for Al-Ali himself, has become a potent symbol in part because he is not tied to any political party or ideology, representing instead the people directly affected by occupation. Naji Al-Ali, who was forced to flee his village in the “Nakba,” or catastrophe of 1948, did not spare Arab leaders from his ballpoint indictments, often caricaturing their seeming indifference to the lived reality of the Palestinian people. A prescient critique, Omar says, repeated by Palestinians today who feel politicians don’t always have their interests at heart. “Whenever you go to the camps and you see Handala, you know what these people are looking for. It’s not the politicians, it’s not the parties — they have their own agendas and tricks,” he said, remarking on how often the character appears spray-painted on the walls of Palestinian refugee settlements. Today, as the two main Palestinian factions struggle to reconcile and Israeli settlement-building expands, Omar said Naji Al-Ali serves as a sort of moral compass for activists, a reminder to stay grounded and focused on the Palestinian people. “That’s what we learned from him, as political artists and political cartoonists, that it’s our duty whenever things are going backward to step forward and to try to lead and to try to light the way for our people.” Karma Nabulsi, a professor of international relations at Oxford University, also spoke at the tribute, extolling Al-Ali as a “a quintessential hero of freedom of expression, free speech, always in the cause of the marginalized and the downtrodden.” A “revolutionary in the fullest sense of the world,” Al-Ali and the character Handala “embodied the ideals of challenging the status quo,” Nabulsi told the audience. Al-Ali’s images depicting the dispossession of Palestinians have transcended both time and geography, added Steve Bell, whose own pro-Palestine cartoons have landed him in hot water on occasion. “When the state of Israel was set up there was a crime committed and it’s never been acknowledged,” he told Arab News. “Al-Ali’s stuff challenges us with that view. What’s the world going to do? “His work speaks across borders, it’s wonderful visually, wonderfully simple but also incredibly powerful. We all aspire to be like that, I think,” Bell added. Ultimately, Al-Ali paid with his life when an unknown assailant shot him in Knightsbridge, London, as he was walking to his office at the newspaper Al-Qabas in 1987. Police have recently reopened the case, hoping that new witnesses will emerge. Omar reflected on the “sacrifice” made by Al-Ali. “When you’re an artist under pressure, under threat, either from the Israelis, the occupation, or from the Palestinian government, you think of Naji. Naji gave his life for the cause, as an artist.”
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