Perhaps one of the most recognizable political cartoons, Handala has gone down as an essential artifact of Palestinian culture. His tattered clothes and bare feet identified Handala with virtually every Palestinian in and outside of Palestine, both as an idea of steadfastness and innocence and as a reality of impoverishment and oppression.
Naji al-Ali (1936-87) was born in the northern Palestinian village of al-Shajara during the British occupation. The following decade, after the Nakba and the establishment of the State of Israel, al-Ali became a refugee in southern Lebanon, where the family lived in 'Ain al-HIlweh refugee camp near Sidon. After his graduation from Union of Christian Churches school, he relocated to Sidon where he worked in an orchard, before moving to Tripoli briefly and finally to Beirut, where he resided in Shatila refugee camp, working a number of industrial jobs. After gaining experience as a car mechanic he moved to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1957, before returning to Beirut two years later.
Al-Ali’s political career officially began on his return, in 1959, when he joined the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM). Founded in the late 1940’s, the ANM was a revolutionary pan-Arabist movement which staunchly opposed western imperialism and Zionism. Al-Ali’s membership did not last long, however, and he was expelled multiple times in just his first year of membership for lack of party discipline. In the year that followed, he and comrades from the ANM published a political journal, al-Sarkha (the scream).
His political involvement cuts his career at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts short; but in 1961, a friendship with political activist and writer Ghassan Kanafani was struck on one of his visits to 'Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, and published numerous cartoons by al-Ali in al-Hurriya (freedom).
In 1963, al-Ali moved to Kuwait in hopes of saving enough money to move to Cairo or Rome and worked for the political magazine al-Tali’a (Vanguard), which was a leading voice in Arab nationalism. Over the next decade, al-Ali alternated between Kuwait and Lebanon, holding various positions in a number of newspapers, journals, and magazines in the process.
The “Birth” of Handala
It was in the journal al-Siyasa (politics) that Handala was first born, in 1969, just two years after the Six Day War which ended with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. With thorny hair resembling that of a hedgehog, bare feet, and tattered clothes, al-Ali purposefully presented Handala to the poor of Palestine, and even his name symbolizes the bitterness of the Palestinian people. He was created as a reflection of al-Ali when he was forced to leave Palestine as a child, and al-Ali says Handala will not grow beyond ten years old until he returns to his homeland. After 1973, Handala was depicted with his back turned and his hands clasped, symbolizing rejection of outside intervention in the Palestinian struggle, and is frequently shown with a key, which symbolizes the hopes of a return for millions of Palestinian refugees.
Over the years, Handala was depicted as both universal witness to the horrors and the pain of Palestinian exile, and later as a participant in the actions in the cartoon, signifying the development of Palestinian affairs and, in tandem the development of the character of Handala.
Palestinian children standing with graffiti of Handala
Al-Ali pulled no punches throughout the years, and by the end of his life, he had published over 40,000 cartoons, criticizing political developments in the region and many political actors, ranging from Israeli officials, UN officials, leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and leaders of the Arab world. In London, in 1987, an unknown gunman shot al-Ali, sending him to the hospital where al-Ali died five weeks later.
Indeed, al-Ali intended Handala to be a promise to the Palestinian nation: to forever remain true to its cause and to stand with it. This promise has resonated across several generations of Palestinians and the message of Handala rings as true today as it did decades ago. The cover of Baddawi, a graphic novel by Leila Abdelrazaq depicting the childhood of her father in refugee camps in Lebanon, depicts a boy with his back turned and his hands clasped, just like Handala.
Baddawi, by Leila Abdelrazaq
As Leila attempts to discover the childhood left behind by her father in Lebanon, she finds none other than Handala as her “invisible tour guide,” and he takes her by the hand as they both face the chaos and beauty of Palestine.
Over the years, Handala has evolved, both within al-Ali’s cartoons and across the human horizon. Originally strictly Palestinian, today Handala has become an international symbol for steadfastness and hope, and his image is used throughout the world for various causes dedicated to the same values he represents. For example, in 2009 an image circulated during the Iranian Green Movement protests showing Handala holding up a peace-sign and donning a green scarf, with the text reading “Palestine is right here.”
Green movement protest, 2009, Iran
In another example, an image circulated on social media in 2013 depicting Handala holding up four fingers, which is a gesture of solidarity with the victims of the Rabi’a Square massacre in Cairo, Egypt, 2013.
Naji al-Ali has truly bequeathed a treasure to the world, not just Palestine. Loyalty to the suffering, an unwillingness to compromise basic humanity, and creativity are characteristics that resonate across borders. The true beauty of Handala is his timelessness: decades have passed, but the image of Handala remains as powerful as it ever was.