Drawing Gaza's battle lines
Artsworld meets Palestine's leading female political cartoonist.
Last Modified: 06 Jun 2009 12:06 GMT

Joha's cartoon on the first day of Ramadan [Omayya Joha]
As violence continues between Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas, Artsworld meets a Gazan cartoonist trying to make a difference through her drawings.

One of the most recognisable symbols of Palestinian society is Handala, a ragged ten-year-old Palestinian refugee who is always viewed from behind and always observing the world.
Handala is a cartoon and his creator, Naji al Ali, was assassinated in London in 1987.

Known for his political criticism of both Israel and Arab regimes al Ali’s body was riddled with bullets and his killer has yet to be found.

Yet his legacy continues to inspire a new generation of Palestinian illustrators, not least Omayya Joha, arguably the most well-known female cartoonist in the Arab world.

"Even though he has been dead for many years now, may his [Al Ali] soul rest in peace, his pen is alive and his work addresses many of our contemporary issues," she says.

Joha's work is a fusion of art politics and journalism and her cartoons reflect the harsh realities of refugee life and the Palestinian struggle. They are realities she knows all too well.

"I was born in the city of Gaza in 1972, but I am part of a family of refugees from al Muharaka, one of Palestinian villages that was attacked by the invading Zionists in 1948," she says.

"Our family was dispersed," she says. "My father was far away, and my mother was overburdened with responsibilities."

"I captured this unpleasant life with my quill even before I went to school."

Sole woman

Omayya has one daughter, Noor, from her first husband, a Hamas fighter who was killed during an incursion by the Israeli army and she says despite their serious message many children appreciate art and understand her cartoons.

"During my secondary schooling. I began reading newspapers, and of course the cartoons on the back page of Al Quds, which was the newspaper I read everyday," she says.

"I would see the drawings of the artist, Naji al Ali and Mahmoud Khail, and be fascinated by them although I was very young."

Editorial cartoonists are revered as journalists and artists, throughout the Arab world.

Joha is the sole woman in club of at least 12 cartoonists whose works are published newspapers read across the West Bank and Gaza.

"A cartoon is about a single event or moment. Many people will be drawing this moment, but in completely different ways," she says.

Joha is the only female newspaper cartoonist in Gaza [Omayya Joha]
"The successful cartoonist is a person who is sensitive to people and realities around them. Their work ultimately becomes a reflection of life.

"This is the beauty of the cartoon, it is a kind of competition between artists over who has the most brilliant ideas and execution and who is able to sway the public and win them over."

Palestine's leading cartoonist and elder statesman is Baha Boukhari whose character Abu al Abed appears in the daily Al Ayyam published in Ramallah. He says cartoons should speak for the masses of ordinary citizens.

Violent repurcussions
"Cartoons should be speaking about the people," he says. "Not from a political point, not this is Hamas or Fatah, no, the ordinary people."

However little in life is free from the realm of politics in Gaza and the West Bank and on at least one occasion one of Joha's cartoons is believed to have prompted a violent backlash.
After an Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2004, she depicted Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon boasting, oblivious to the dead and decapitated Israeli soldiers standing behind him.

The cartoon was printed in the Islamist newspaper Al Risala, whose offices were subsequently targeted the very next day by the Israelis.

Joha's work has had political repurcussions
Although their offices were badly damaged the paper did resume printing and Joha continues to be their featured cartoonist and continues to draw hard-hitting and provocative sketches.

For the first day of this year’s holy month of Ramadan she commented on the violent rift between Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah split by drawing a Palestinian mother, on her balcony praying to heaven that her children, the Palestinians, might eat their Ramadan meal at the same table together again.

"Unfortunately, we are living in a time when our people are divided and splintered," Joha says.

"It is a good time for a cartoonist to become both a commentator and observer and to use ones influence."

Joha is now happily remarried but the situation in Gaza continues to worsen. The fighting between hamas and Fatah means she is never short of subject matter.

"The Palestinian division created a schism in every Palestinian home and God willing, we will overcome those divisions," she says.

"My hope is that I can leave my imprint in the drawing of cartoons in the Arab world."

Al Jazeera
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