In Memoriam: Naji al-Ali, a Great Palestinian and Arab Cartoonist

Naji al-Ali was born in 1938 in the village of al-Shajara in Galilee, in Palestine. When Israel occupied Palestine and declared itself an independent state in 1948, he fled with his family to the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon in south Lebanon, the nearest country to the border of North Palestine
Photo credits: Verso Books

Naji al-Ali was born in 1938 in the village of al-Shajara in Galilee, in Palestine. When Israel occupied Palestine and declared itself an independent state in 1948, he fled with his family to the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon in south Lebanon, the nearest country to the border of North Palestine.

Describing his early life in the refugee camp, Naji wrote:

“I was a child of ten when we came to Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp. We were hungry, dazed and barefoot. Life in the camp was unbearable, full of daily humiliation, ruled by poverty and despair.”

“I was a child of ten when we came to Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp. We were hungry, dazed and barefoot. Life in the camp was unbearable, full of daily humiliation, ruled by poverty and despair.”

He attended the Union of Christian Churches School in Sidon and later the school of les Frères Blanc in Tripoli, Libya, where he spent two years. Naji then moved back to Lebanon to the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut and tried his hand at various industrial jobs. When he qualified as a car mechanic in 1957 at the age of 19, he moved to Saudi Arabia where he worked for the next two years.

In 1959, Naji returned to Lebanon and a year later entered the Beirut Academy of Fine Arts to study painting. He was continuously harassed by the Lebanese secret police and arrested several times during his first year. Shortly thereafter, he was forced to leave the academy.

He was arrested in 1961 in Lebanon and spent 25 days in prison as a political prisoner. During his detention, he drew on anything he could get his hands on — paper, the cell walls, and cloth. Abu Khalil al-Natour, Naji’s friend and cellmate in the prison, describing Naji’s obsession with drawing, said: “He used to draw on anything — even my trousers! He used to ask me to sit down, and he would draw on them.”

After his release, Naji worked as a drawing instructor in Ja’fariya College in Tyr, south Lebanon.

In 1963, Naji moved to Kuwait where he worked as an editor, cartoonist, designer, and producer for the pan-Arab weekly magazine al-Tali’a. “At first, I was hesitant,” he wrote. “I produced a few cartoons and waited to see how people would react. Their response was wonderful. I began to draw like a person possessed. I only wished I could have been one of those Indian gods with twenty arms and a pen in each hand.”

Naji worked for the Kuwaiti daily al-Siyassa in 1968 and the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir in 1974. He was briefly detained during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. In 1983, he returned to Kuwait to work for al-Qabas and then moved to London where he worked for the English edition until his death in 1987.

The 1967 Israeli attack on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, which came to be known as the Six Days’ War, had a profound effect on Naji’s work. The Arab forces collapsed, and Israel occupied Sinai, the Golan Heights, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Over 300,000 Palestinians were expelled and became refugees. The defeat had the impact of an earthquake on the Arab world and especially on Arab national consciousness.  These circumstances gave rise to a new cartoon character in Naji’s work named Handala.

“This character came out of my life in the camp, a typical child of those days; barefoot, destitute and deprived. I created this character so that I would never forget where I came from,” wrote Naji al-Ali.

Handala was derived from the Arabic word Handhal, a plant of a bitter taste, to represent a Palestinian child embittered by the cruel and humiliating life of a refugee. The name also reflects the bitter feelings that overwhelmed the majority of Arabs and Palestinians, including Naji al-Ali, following the shocking defeat of the June War.

Naji’s character Handala is portrayed as a ten-year old Palestinian child who does not grow up. While Naji agreed that not growing up was “against the laws of nature,” he said that a child without a homeland was also against the laws of nature.  He explained that the ten-year-old boy is Naji’s age when he was forced to leave Palestine, and that he will not grow up until he is able to return to his homeland.

Naji al-Ali adopted left-wing views and immersed himself in the political issues of Palestine and the Middle East. He used his pen to fight for the liberation of his homeland, Palestine. Thanks to his unrivaled sarcasm and bold criticism, he quickly established his reputation in the Arab world. He directed much of his caustic criticism at the Israeli occupation, the U.S.’s policy in the Middle East, and the Arab regimes and leaders whom Naji accused of betraying and plotting against Palestine.

Barefoot, poorly dressed, his character Handala represented a deprived child from lower social classes. For Naji al-Ali, it was the poor who suffered most from the Israeli occupation and depopulation.  “I am accused of being biased, and I don’t deny it. I am not neutral, I am on the side of the poor,” he wrote.

“I am accused of being biased, and I don’t deny it. I am not neutral, I am on the side of the poor.”

On January 22, 1987, Naji al-Ali was on his way to the al-Qabas newspaper headquarters in London when he was shot in the right temple just outside their office. He was taken to the hospital and remained in a coma until he died later that year on August 29.

Naji’s assassination remains one of the unsolved deaths of the twentieth century. Though no doubt it was politically motivated, no one has yet been identified as responsible for the assassination.  Suspicion hovers over Israel’s Mossad and the PLO’s leadership.

30 years later, London police reopened their investigation into the case in 2017, and released descriptions for two suspects, but no one has been charged.

To this day, Naji’s works – over 40,000 cartoons — still attract readers from all over the world. Handala has become an icon for Palestinian people.

“He has this incredible crossover appeal because he was really an independent thinker and a staunch critic of all authority,” said Jonathan Guyer, an expert on Arab comics at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. “Whoever you are, there is something in Naji al-Ali’s work for you.”