x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The poisoned pen

Naji al Ali was murdered more than 20 years ago, but his acid cartoons have lost none of their bite.

Naji al Ali, London, mid Eighties.
Naji al Ali, London, mid Eighties.

In the Arab world today you'd be hard-pressed to find a cartoonist with the stature, bravery, and skill of the late Naji al Ali. He is to the Arab political cartoon what Naguib Mahfouz is to Arab literature, and his work is as popular - and as relevant - as ever, 20 years after he was shot on a London street. For the past six weeks, the Political Cartoon Gallery on London's Store Street has played host to a comprehensive exhibition of his original illustrations, and the power and relevance of his work in the present day could not be made more clear.

Tied to the 60th anniversary of the Nakba - the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes and villages during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war - the retrospective of Ali's work was a major event for London's Palestinian and Arab communities and the local Arab press. The School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London held a debate on Ali's cartoons, and the presence of his son Khaled at the exhibition's opening packed the space with emotional visitors.

It is almost impossible to find a critic of Ali, who may be the ultimate example of an artist who died for his art. Ali Mansour, a Lebanese journalist who participated in the communist resistance against Israel in South Lebanon as a teenager after the 1967 war, echoed those who have described Ali's work as the essence of Arab public opinion. "His cartoons touched all of us for their honesty, bite and truth, reflecting the way we as the average Arabs see the situation in the Middle East. Each sketch is so rich and powerful in depicting the drama and desperation of Palestinians and oppressed Arabs' lives, giving us hope, hitting all the targets responsible for damaging the struggle for Palestinian national rights."

The steadfastness of the Palestinian people in the face of adversity was Ali's great theme, though he never failed to criticise Israel or the Arab leaders he regarded as all too willing to sell off Palestinian national rights for their own personal gain. Like the best satire Ali's cartoons comforted the afflicted, and afflicted the comfortable. It was the latter mission - his uncompromising criticism of Palestinian and Arab leaders - that led to his assassination outside the Chelsea offices of the Kuwaiti broadsheet al Qabas on July 22 1987.

Ali's greatest creation - and the vehicle for his most potent barbs - was the character of Hanthala, a barefoot ten-year-old refugee dressed in rags who has become an icon in the collective Arab consciousness. Hanthala, meaning "medicinal bitter desert fruit" in Arabic, was so close to Ali that the borders between artist and character often blurred. The result was what commentators during his life called as the "conscience" of Palestine.

"The young, barefoot Hanthala was a symbol of my childhood. He was the age I was when I had left Palestine and, in a sense, I am still that age today," Ali said in an interview with the Arabic periodical al Muwagaha in 1985. "He was the arrow of the compass, pointing steadily towards Palestine. Not just Palestine in geographical terms, but Palestine in its humanitarian sense - the symbol of a just cause, whether it is located in Egypt, Vietnam or South Africa."

It is little wonder the character became such a powerful symbol. In the cartoons on display at the exhibition Hanthala always appears with his back to the reader, hands clasped behind him, looking towards Palestine. We are following his gaze, watching him watch the tragedy unfolding before his eyes and the viewer's own. In one drawing from 1984, Hanthala is turned toward a wall being built by an Israeli soldier while a television set in its centre shows a Palestinian leader, his hand holding up the V sign to declare victory. It is a powerful indictment of Israel's aggressive annexation of land and the impotence of the Palestinian leadership that could well have been published yesterday.

In one cartoon we see Hanthala expressing solidarity with political prisoners who are breaking free of their captors; in another he fights greedy Arabs who are indifferent to the starving and suffering masses. Ali drew Hanthala participating in the symbolic stoning of Satan that is part of the pilgrimage ritual at Mecca - but he is flinging his rocks at a barrel of oil instead, an object that came to symbolise for the cartoonist the close relationship between Arab leaders and America.

Born in 1936 in the village of Al Shajara (the tree), Ali embodied the deep bond between Palestinian peasants and their land; this emotional attachment (and his talent for drawing) enabled him to depict the deepest and most intimate experiences of the average Palestinian. After his family was expelled from the Galilee in 1948, he ended up in the miserable Ain El Hilweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon, where he began to draw cartoons and joined the Arab Nationalist Movement, which advocated pan-Arab unity as the first step to the liberation of Palestine. His first cartoons were published in al Hurriya, the ANM journal, at the invitation of the legendary Palestinian activist and writer Ghassan Kanafani. But Ali's iconoclasm made him an ill fit with organised politics, and after the failure of Egypt and Syria's United Arab Republic in 1961, his disillusionment and radicalism deepened.

By 1963 Ali had moved to Kuwait to work for another magazine, al Talea, where his cartoons featuring Hanthala first appeared. His criticism of Palestinian and Arab leaders became more harsh at this time: he accused them of standing by while his compatriots were imprisoned and failing to improve the deplorable conditions in Palestinian refugee camps in Arab countries. Following the crushing defeat of the 1967 war, and Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Ali's cartoons became even more aggressive in their attacks on Israel, the United States, Palestinian leaders, and Arab elites he accused of abandoning the Palestinian cause for the sake of better relations with the West.

The cartoons of this era are dotted with the recurring figure of the Arab or Palestinian defeatist, a deformed legless mass meant to symbolize corruption and capitulation. Though he was a committed secular nationalist in his lifetime, if Ali were alive today it seems his sympathies would be with Hamas rather than Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement.

In the 1970s Ali returned to Lebanon to work for As Safir, and he lived through the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. He and his family were even taken prisoner for a few days in Sidon. "People in the streets and shelters prayed to God to curse the regimes and their leaders," he later wrote. "They exonerated no one. They felt as though no one but God would help them endure their fate."

In 1983 he returned to Kuwait until pressure from other Arab states forced him to relocate to London; from there he worked for al Qabas, and his cartoons were published across the Arab world. It was here - after publishing a series of cartoons attacking Yasser Arafat and the PLO - that he was fatally shot. A Palestinian student was arrested in connection with his murder but never charged, and today his killers remain unknown.

Ali had even, it seemed, predicted his own death in a cartoon of April 29 1987. It depicts Hanthala, murdered, lying like a legendary tragic hero, face down in the dirt with an arrow in his heel.

Yet Hanthala did not die - he is the ubiquitous icon of the Palestinian cause, and his image has been reproduced on every item you could imagine. Posters and graffiti featuring Hanthala dot the walls of Palestinian refugee camps as well as the most prominent wall of all: Israel's controversial separation barrier, the perfect canvas for the little exiled boy facing toward the occupied land of his forefathers.

"Hanthala will not end after my end," Ali once wrote, and indeed his message lives on. But as Israelis prepare to celebrate 60 years of statehood and Palestinians 60 years of exile and tragedy, Ali's dream - for his people to return home - is no closer to reality.

Ramsay Short is a writer based in London.