Naji Al-Ali: Cartoonist who became voice of Arab opinion

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Naji Al-Ali

The sketch above is often considered to be the most vivid symbol of the Palestinian identity. It was created by one the great cartoonists of the 20th century Naji Salim Hussein Al-Ali. The name of the character is Handala. Drawn in 1969, it appeared for the first time in Al-Siyasa published from Kuwait. The artist explained that it was the depiction of the backside of a 10-year old boy, who was forced to leave Palestine and would not grow-up until he was allowed to return to his homeland. In Naji al-Ali’s words, “He was the arrow of the compass, pointing steadily towards 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.”

Who was Naji Al-Ali?

Al-Ali is certainly the most famed cartoonist of the Arab World. During his career as an artist he drew over 40 thousand cartoons. Most of which reflected Palestinian and Arab public opinion. He was awarded the “Golden Pen of Freedom” prize, posthumously, in 1988 by The International Federation of Newspaper Publishers. Al-Ali has published three books of cartoon collections between 1976 and 1985.

Naji al-Ali was born in 1938 in the northern Palestinian village of Al-Shajara. The artist was forced to leave his home-country in the tragic 1948 Palestinian exodus, known in the nation’s history as the Nakba. His family moved to south Lebanon and lived for years in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp. At this point the reader of this piece may easily identify the inspiration behind Handala, al-Ali’s most famous cartoon creation.

How he became a cartoonist?

Naji al-Ali had very little opportunity to study art academically. His chequered life turned him into a orchard-worker near Sidon, a city in Lebanon, after securing his graduation from the Union of Christian Churches School. A few years later he went to Beirut and made his living by working in various industrial projects, while living in the Shatila refugee camp. Next, he became a car mechanic and moved to Saudi Arabia, in 1957, where he lived for two years.

In 1959 al-Ali returned to Lebanon and became involved with the Arab nationalist movement. In 1960 he did enrol himself in the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts, but could not complete his training because of being imprisoned as an Arab nationalist. On his release he moved to the Lebanese city of Tyre, and became a drawing teacher at Ja’fariya College. This marked the beginning of his career as a cartoonist.

The first bunch of his cartoons were published in a journal named Al-Hurriya in 1961. In 1963 he moved to Kuwait and became the editor, cartoonist, designer and producer of a newspaper, with strong Arab nationalist connections, named Al-Tali’a. Thus began his full-fledged career as a cartoonist and a journalist.

Naji al-Ali’s demise

Having worked in several publications over the next two decades, al-Ali started working with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas. He went to London in 1985, as an employee of the publication’s international edition. Suddenly on July 22, 1987 he was shot in the head by one Ismail Sowan. The great cartoonist passed away on August 29. Investigation is still being conducted to ascertain the motive for killing the artist. In an article in 1984, The Guardian had described Naji al-Ali as “the nearest thing there is to an Arab public opinion”. He may be dead, but Naji al-Ali’s immortal cartoons live on as a testament to the proverb ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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