Interview: Palestine’s storyteller

Naji al-Ali became the voice of dispossessed Palestinians before he was assassinated.

Naji al-Ali anniversary and book of cartoons in English


Naji al-Ali’s cartoons have come to symbolise the plight of Palestinian refugees


On August 29, 1987, Naji al-Ali, one of the Arab World’s most renowned political cartoonists, was shot dead in London by unknown assailants. The murder case has never been solved.

Al-Ali, who was born in Palestine in 1938 and became a refugee when Israel was created 10 years later, is perhaps best remembered for his iconic cartoon character of Handala, a ten year-old shoe-less urchin who bears witness to the grim realities of a region torn by war, corruption, inequality and cynicism.

A Child in Palestine, a new book of his cartoons translated in English, was recently published to commemorate the life and works of the artist who came to symbolise public Arab opinion.

Al Jazeera’s Awad Joumaa interviewed his son, Khalid al-Ali, on the artist’s legacy. The following are excerpts from the interview. 
Al Jazeera: The Guardian newspaper once described Naji al-Ali as “the nearest thing there is to an Arab public opinion”. Does that adequately describe your father?
Al-Ali: Some people went as far as to consider my father as his own party because of the clear messages in his work. His cartoons were a daily commentary on the realities the Palestinians faced.

In Pictures
Naji al-Ali’s cartoons

He was an oppositional figure – a man who tried to speak truth to power … always questioning and demanding accountability.

At the same time I want to say that there were many people who were like my father. Many stood up against wrongs they witnessed, fought and were either silenced or ultimately killed. 

And to this day we still see people who are resisting and keeping the Palestinian cause alive. 
Which is stronger, then, the pen or the sword?
Many people – even those who didn’t like my father’s politics – came after his assassination to salute him and his work because he stood up for his principles. He never sold out. He never compromised. So in a way – posthumously – they kind of praised him.

The good thing is that young generations today are interested in his work 22 years after his assassination.

His drawings are being sought 30 or 40 years after they were drawn, so those who assassinated him failed to silence his voice.

He was killed at the age of 50 and had more to offer, but he still left so much that can be looked at, cherished, studied and enjoyed. I always miss and think about what would have been his comments about the world today.


Naji al-Ali’s drawings resonate today throughout Palestinian society

Where were you when he was assassinated?

I was playing a game of squash with a friend of mine. I called home to ask them to come and pick me up. As you probably remember there were no mobiles then. So I used a public phone. My cousin, I think, answered the phone. He said ‘don’t come home. Meet me at the hospital’.

I think it was Fulham Hospital near south Kensington tube station and I was a short walking distance away. I rushed to the hospital. And there I saw a lot of family friends and colleagues. And they told me what happened.
What do you think Handala represents today to many who barely knew your father’s work?
Handala’s significance never changed, especially in light of how his creator was assassinated and how his life ended.

I think that gave a lot of truth and legacy to Handala. It gave Handala, if not a new meaning then, a reminder of the poor Palestinian children still lingering in refugee camps. The children who are homeless and are looking to return to their homes in Palestine.
The 1980s were watershed years for the Palestinian people. The PLO was expelled from Lebanon and sought refuge in Tunis. The Sabra and Shatila massacre saw thousands of Palestinians killed in Beirut. How did Naji al-Ali view this period?
The PLO’s expulsion from Lebanon in 1982 was a turning point in my father’s life because he never saw it as a victory as some had proclaimed.

He saw it as yet another step away from winning back Palestine. He wanted an investigation to be launched not only to examine what happened in 1982 but the whole discourse of the Palestinian revolution. He called for a review and demanded that everyone responsible should be held accountable. But of course that did not happen.

Our struggle had been moving from Yemen to Sudan to Lebanon to Tunis and throughout these junctures the victory sign was always raised. He could not make any sense of that.

On what basis did our leaders declare victory when in reality we were going from one defeat to the next, from one concession to the other? He was quite upset by that and he could see from early on even before 1982 that there was a move to what later became knows as the peace settlement.

But this he believed would come at the expense of Palestinian rights.

He denounced all this in his cartoons. As far as he was concerned this was not a peace settlement but a sell-out. The right to go back to Palestine meant going back to the Galilee, Haifa, Acre, Jaffa [what is now Israel] and not only the West Bank and Gaza.

That was Palestine for him. His cartoons predicted what we are witnessing today. So he denounced and exposed these policies and as a result factions like Fatah and others do not like his cartoons.  

A depiction of the artist as drawn by Al Jazeera’s cartoonist Shujaat

Naji al-Ali died before the Oslo peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians was signed, before the split between Hamas and Fatah and the crippling situation the Palestinians face today. What do you think he would draw today?
Many of his drawings depict the current situation. There is one cartoon that depicts an ordinary Arab citizen asking an Arab leader “they [Israelis] have taken the land; now they are also taking the water. What do we do?”

The Arab leader in return says “shhhh … don’t say anything. Do you want them to label us as terrorists?!”

So there are many cartoons which has this kind resonance today.

We recently published a book in English which contains a compilation of his work from 1985 to 1987.

That is in the two years he spent in London after his expulsion from Kuwait.

At that time Hamas was not prominent on the Palestinian political stage. He drew a cartoon that depicted an ordinary Palestinian standing next to the prominent Palestinian leaders in the 1980s.

The Palestinian says “all these leaders do not represent me till they unite”.

Those words proved to be prophetic. Unless the leaders of the Palestinian people are united they don’t in anyway represent the Palestinians. 

I mean that was his position then. I don’t think his position would be any different today. 

Source: Al Jazeera