Article 306: Handala and the Cartoons of Naji al-Ali, By: Dr. Fayeq Oweis ? Part II

 Posted By Hasan A. Yahya, Ph.Ds- Dryahyatv from USA.

The traditional sayings “A picture is worth a thousand words” and “A pen is mightier than a sword” need to be re-interpreted when dealing with the cartoons of Naji al-Ali. When words are forbidden and censored, then the picture, composed of simple black and white lines, is worth much more.  In terms of the pen and the sword, the saying should be “A pen is mightier than a bullet.”  In this case, a bullet assassinated one of the most gifted and dedicated artists who only fought with his pen.

The cartoons of Naji al-Ali were not intended for entertainment or as comic strips in a newspaper to make the reader laugh.  They were political cartoons that were a mixture of fine arts, editorials, and political messages. Often, an artist’s role in society is to deliver a concept or a message, and to influence the viewer.  Naji al-Ali was no exception.  His cartoons conveyed messages that compelled the viewer take a stand with the forces for good and in support of the oppressed.  Naji al-Ali’s cartoons were very simple, clear, and to the point.  They were the voice of ordinary people. He avoided complicated messages regardless of the complexity of the subject or the idea of his cartoon. Naji al-Ali presented the issue of Palestine with a clear message condemning the occupation, corruption, human rights abuses, and the lack of freedom of expression and democracy in the Arab World.

Naji al-Ali’s cartoons were like a play taking place on a stage available only on the back page of a newspaper. This back page became the first page for millions of ordinary people who looked to his cartoons as expressions of their own voice. Al-Ali created a cast of characters who would reappear in different settings.  He rarely drew or satirized actual characters as do most cartoonists, but instead used his own characters: Handala (the little spectator boy), al-Zalama (the good man), Fatima (the good woman), and the Evil Man.   Throughout his artistic career of over 30 years, these characters remained constant in their values.  The good man remained the good man regardless of his role or identity.  Fatima, the good woman, also retained her role, whether she was a wife, a mother, or a freedom fighter. Handala was a special character with a pointed symbolism that had a major role in the al-Ali’s cartoons.

Naji al-Ali was first and foremost a political cartoonist and his central issue of concern was Palestine.  Around this focal point, he introduced other issues such as resistance, democracy, human rights, fighting corruption, and Arab unity.  His cartoons were full of hopes, dreams, and a vision for a better life for the Palestinians in particular and for the Arab people in general.  His cartoons were made for the ordinary Arab person, whether highly educated or illiterate. They were the voices of the poor, the oppressed, the dispossessed, the refugee, and the occupied, and of those people who, in his words “did not have a voice.” 

At a young age, Naji al-Ali found himself in a refugee camp after being forced to leave his Palestinian homeland.  The loss of Palestine for him and for millions of Palestinians was the main topic and the focal point of his cartoons. He repeatedly confirmed his commitment to the liberation of Palestine, to the return to the homeland, and to resistance in order to achieve the goals of freedom and democracy.  He did not perceive the issue of Palestine to be of concern to the Palestinians alone, but felt it was of importance to the whole Arab world.  He saw in the unity of the Arab people, in democracy, and in the affirmation of human rights vehicles for the liberation of Palestine.   When he demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, he demanded the release of political prisoners from Arab jails.  He returned to the theme of the suppression of democracy constantly in his cartoons, represented in the form of an official newspaper headline, or by a reader whose tongue has been cut and bandaged or a writer composing his will because he dared to write about democracy.   

 Characters in Naji al-Ali’s Cartoons: The major characters in Naji al-Ali’s cartoons are Fatima, al-Zalama, the Evil Man, and Handala. 

Fatima: The Good Woman:The role of women in al-Ali’s cartoons is represented by his character, Fatima, drawn with simple and sharp lines and with beautiful features.  Fatima plays a primary role in the majority of the cartoons, and is always the good woman, whether she is the wife, the mother or the freedom fighter.  She is seen side-by-side with the good man, preparing his rifle, protecting him, or keeping him on the right track, or even taking a stand to correct his views and actions.  Fatima is also the one who disciplines those who betray the revolution and the resistance. She is used as a symbol for the homeland, for the people, and for the refugee camp.  Fatima is a sad woman who has lost a husband, a son, or a brother as martyrs.  Fatima represents not only the Palestinian woman; she also stands for Palestine as a whole: the land and the people. She is also the symbol of Ein al-Hilwah and other refugee camps. She is the resistance, the revolution and the intifada.  She is also sometimes Lebanese and Lebanon itself. In the depiction of Fatima as Beirut during the Israeli invasion of 1982, she opens her arms to greet a solider with her breasts that become daggers killing that solider.  Fatima also represents Egypt, opposing the Camp David accords and the raising of Israeli flags in the heart of the Arab land.  She is the symbol of love, peace, struggle, sacrifice, and suffering.  She wears a beautiful embroidered dress and has the key of her house in Palestine still hanging around her neck.  She is the intifada in the form of a pregnant woman in the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.  Fatima is a tree with deep roots and is willing to have more children who can throw rocks at both the occupation and the evil forces.  As her husband declares in an interview with the foreign press:  “Fatima is better than a thousand men of those who just talk.” In al-Ali’s cartoons, Fatima’s role is not limited to being the mother or a symbol of fertility—it goes well beyond that. She participates in the dialogue and is part of the decision-making and the determination.

References and Resources:

Al-Asadi, Abdu and Tadmuri, Kholud. A Study in the Creativity of Naji al-Ali [in Arabic]. Dar il-Kunuuz al-Adabiyya, Beirut, Lebanon: 1994

Al-Ali, Naji. The Cartoons of Naji al-Ali [in Arabic] Forwarded by Mahmoud Darwish. Beirut, Lebanon: 1976.

Ibrahim, Daoud. Encyclopedia of Naji al-Ali Cartoons, Vol. 1: The Man and the Revolutionary [in Arabic]. Palestinian Publishing Institute, Ramallah, Palestine: 2003

Ibrahim, Daoud. Naji al-Ali, the Life and Death of a Palestinian Artist [in Arabic]. Yarmouk Publishing Institute, Ramallah, Palestine: 1988.

Idris Samah (Ed.). Sihr ilKkaraama [The Magic of Dignity – in Arabic], Al-Adab Magazine. Vol. 50 # 9-10. Beirut, Lebanon: 2002

Kallam, Mahmoud Abdallah. Naji al-Ali, The Whole of Palestine: That is why they killed me [in Arabic] Bisan Publishing, Beirut, Lebanon: 2001

Web sites:

Professor, Dr. Hasan A. Yahya is an Arab American writer, scholar, and professor of Sociology lives in the United States of America,  originally from Palestine. He graduated from Michigan State University with  2 Ph.d degrees. He published 65 books plus , and 250 plus articles on sociology, religion, psychology, politics, poetry, and short stories. Philosophically, his writings concern logic, justice and human rights worldwide. Dr. Yahya is the author of Crescentologism: The Moon Theory,  and  Islam Finds its Way, on Amazon. He’s an expert on Race Relations, Arab and Islamic cultures, he is also, interested in religion, world affairs and  global strategic planning for justice and human rights.

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