Twenty years since the fatal shooting of cartoonist Naji al-Ali

To be a cartoonist has never been easy. Fewer and fewer people in the world have a real sense of humor or understand satire and sarcasm. Naji al-Ali has been a cartoonist who expressed his criticism about Palestine, the oppression of Palestinians and Palestinian political life, in a powerful way.

His pen was sharp and his cartoons powerful, so powerful that somebody, if not a real consortium, decided to kill him in London twenty years ago. Indeed, on July 22, 1987, he was shot in the face, at point blank range, as he left the London offices of the Al Qabbas newspaper. He died after laying in a coma for 5 weeks.

Yet Naji knew what he was doing and the risks he was facing; indeed in an interview he said, “I was prepared to die defending just one drawing, because every drawing is like a drop of water which makes its way through the minds of people.”

His most famous character, Handala (meaning bitterness) is a ten year old boy who asked us to look at Arab politics and the oppression of Palestinian people beyond simple stereotypes and in a very sophisticated way. Naji al-Ali presented Handala with these beautiful words:


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.

It is not difficult to see in Handala, Naji al-Ali himself. It is not difficult to understand why some Arab countries and some Palestinian movements feared al-Ali’s sharp criticism. Yet Handala is still a powerful expression of the Palestinian suffering as it was when he was born from Naji’s pen twenty years ago. In his powerful simplicity, Handala seemed to tell us a truth which is now becoming more visible than ever: the political and economic interest which many have in increasing the sufferance of ordinary Palestinians; the dark shadow of political monsters, coming from every side and political spectrum, who are ready to sell their own people and their future.

I wonder what Handala would have shown us behind his shoulder and hedgehog hair now that the power-hungry Hamas and Fatah have compromised even the last tiny hope of a democratic, free, peaceful and uncorrupt Palestinian State.


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