Political cartoonists in the Arab world enjoy popularity usually reserved for movie stars and other A-list celebrities. Something about our culture of allegories and proverbs lends itself to caricatures and symbols without reserve. Every Arab nation has an artist, alive or departed, whose drawings embody the daily hardships of the people here.
For Palestinians, the choice is beyond obvious. Naji al-Ali is the animator of our era. A critic of Israeli and Arab regimes alike, al-Ali is best known for his character Handala, sketched as a barefooted child with his back turned towards the observer. Handala, Arabic for bitterness, can today be found on bumper stickers, necklaces and t-shirts. The spectre of his form haunts Arab psyches with its simple defiance; hands crossed, clothes tattered, and skin scuffed. Handala represents al-Ali’s “lost childhood”, as well as the silent majority. He was said by al-Ali to be forever awaiting the day he could return to his homeland.
Al-Ali got his start as a cartoonist scribbling on the walls of the Shatila refugee camp where he lived after his family was exiled from their village of al-Shajara in northern Palestine. From those humble beginnings, al-Ali went on to make enemies with anyone he viewed as corrupt. The sharp-witted cartoonist depicted fat oil sheikhs making deals with western war criminals and soldiers strangling civilians. No one was safe from the criticism of his potent ink. The assassinated Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani encouraged al-Ali, and published some of his early work.
Like so many artists and activists who defy powerful men, al-Ali’s life was cut short. He was shot in the temple one London morning by a double agent working for Mossad and the PLO. His wish to be buried next to his father went unfulfilled.
"When I was younger I thought I would actually be able to help achieve all our aspirations for independence, unity, justice. Many died for those aspirations and things are only getting worse. That, certainly, can make one; despair. But more than ever, I feel a sense of duty to go on doing what I have to and can do," said al-Ali. 25 years to the day of his brutal assassination, his drawings live on with the same salience as the day they were created.