Cartoons that remain an immortal symbol of defiance: Commemorating Naji al-Ali, Palestine’s pictorial conscience
For Naji al-Ali, born in Palestine in 1936 and whose name “Naji” means “the one who survived,” it was one of those instances where superstitions became a reality.
At the age of 11, he found himself among the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were forced out of their homes in the wake of Israel’s 1948 inception.
"Political cartoons are a visual but satirical alternative to formal journalism. They distil news and opinions into a caricature, presenting commentary and analysis of a gloomy political reality"
But even the best of survivors eventually fall, cheated by the same destiny that had set their trajectory, bringing about their demise with the slightest of reasons and in the least expected of places.
Naji al-Ali’s life came to an abrupt conclusion outside the unsettled geography of Palestine, and in the safety of London, no less, where he was shot in the head.
He departed our world in late August 1987 after five weeks in a coma. However, his defiant spirit lives on today, embodied in his cartoons – and through that, he continues to be a voice for the voiceless as he was during his corporeal existence.
Political cartoons are a visual but satirical alternative to formal journalism. They distil news and opinions into a caricature, presenting commentary and analysis of a gloomy political reality.
They help strip political actors down to their basic components, as fallible and relatable humans; thus making them open to criticism.
Naji al-Ali’s work had the components typically employed in traditional political cartoons but was not part of what scholars Hess and Kaplan (1968) called a “tickle-them-to-death” school of cartoonists.
His style and themes can best be likened to black comedy, but with less emphasis on the comedic side and more investment in cynicism, satire, and sometimes, bitter philosophical rants.
The scope of his caricature vitriols was as broad as the parties involved in the Palestine cause. He spared no one and no subject: Israel’s colonialism; the US foreign policy; dictatorial Arab regimes and petrodollar realpolitik; Iran’s Khomeini; and he certainly did not shy away from unleashing a barrage of bitter criticism against the PLO, Yasser Arafat, and Arafat’s entourage.
Al-Ali believed that his cartoons were instrumental in reconstructing the Palestinian identity outside the destitution of refugeehood and the downtrodden state of dispossession. He was never ashamed of being a refugee and saw refugeehood as an opportunity rather than an obstacle or a reason for self-pity.
The goal of his cartoons was to lift that Palestinian from the dooms of victimhood and direct the energy inwards to rebuild him and her from within. The large number of caricatures he produced criticising the internal Palestinian affairs and leadership, as well as the Arab hypocrisy, stood witness to this fact.
In that, he was on the same wavelength as Palestine’s iconic writer Ghassan Kanafani, the one who discovered al-Ali’s cartoons and published them in al-Hurriya magazine. The difference between Kanafani and al-Ali was only in the medium of resistance; the first fought with words, while the second with drawings.
"The scope of his [Naji's] caricature vitriols was as broad as the parties involved in the Palestine cause. He spared no one and no subject: Israel’s colonialism; the US foreign policy; dictatorial Arab regimes and petrodollar realpolitik; Iran’s Khomeini; and he certainly did not shy away from unleashing a barrage of bitter criticism against the PLO, Yasser Arafat, and Arafat’s entourage"
But drawings, and pictures in general, are much quicker to fathom than text; therefore, much faster to influence (and to offend), and linger much longer in memory.
This practically meant that his work was a lot more accessible to the average man on the street and more effective in provoking serious thoughts about the state of affairs that many had grown to see as part of ordinary life.
The comprehensiveness of vitriol and al-Ali’s unwillingness to back down was a sure way to grow a network of enemies around him, putting his life in constant danger.
His wife, Widad al-Ali, told a reporter from Al-Jadid, that her husband stubbornly refused to compromise his convictions – even if the cost were his death. “My death,” he repeatedly said, “would be to draw something I don’t believe in. Or to draw what they [the establishment] want me to draw. Or to start to see the world the same way they see it.”
In the period following the PLO withdrawal from Lebanon in 1982 and the subsequent PLO infighting in Lebanon’s north, al-Ali’s resentment for the PLO leadership became particularly pronounced in his cartoons, increasing the fears for his safety. So much so that his wife, worried about the possibility of a car bomb, would wake up every morning to start his car.
“If something were to happen to me, it wouldn’t make a big difference. But as for Naji, he was irreplaceable,” Widad told the reporter.
Al-Ali was Spartan in his political convictions and accepted the danger of being “the pictorial conscience” of his people. He once said: “If you write or draw for Palestine, consider yourself dead,” and as such he reflected this posture in his work.
"The goal of his cartoons was to lift that Palestinian from the dooms of victimhood and direct the energy inwards to rebuild him and her from within. The large number of caricatures he produced criticising the internal Palestinian affairs and leadership, as well as the Arab hypocrisy, stood witness to this fact"
In one of his cartoons, he drew a grave with the phrase on its headstone that read: “I think, therefore I am.”
The message was that thoughts are free agents not bound by one’s physical existence. He Palestinised the first principle of René Descartes’ philosophy to mean that not only is existence meaningless without challenging the existing paradigms, but it would also be deceiving had the endeavour come cheap.
Other cartoons were eerie premonitions of the method through which he would die. In one of them, al-Ali drew a dead body covered with a Palestinian headgear, with the phrase: “No to the silencer.” It was/is a reference to political assassinations, to which he was a target, and by which he would meet his end, ironically with a silencer firearm no less.
In a way, he embodied Palestinian poet Moeen Bseiso’s words: “If you say it, you die. If you do not say, you die. Say it and die!” Or perhaps, more accurately, he was “the one who said no in the age of yes,” as poet Izeddin al-Manasrah puts it.
To this day, no one knows with certainty who killed Naji al-Ali. The list of the accused is long, and the reasons behind his assassination are as many as the political actors he criticised. It begins with the Israeli Mossad and does not end with the PLO and authoritarian Arab regimes.
The general agreement, however, is that the assassination eliminated only al-Ali’s corporeal self. His caricatures, much like the words of Ghassan Kanafani, have proved to be immortal and timeless, no less timely today as they were when he was alive.
His spirit is carried along and reincarnated in the character of Handala, continuing to bear witness to the seemingly endless Palestinian story. And just like that, Handala remains consistent, he never grew up, was born as a 10-year-old and continues to be so.
He tirelessly has his arms behind his back, signalling tenaciousness and unwillingness to be strong-armed into accepting any solutions the Israeli way, the American way, or even the Arab way.
Only the Palestinian way; the only way out.
Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa