Book review: The timeless work of Naji al-Ali

Cartoonist Naji al-Ali was a towering figure in the Palestinian cultural and political scene. His daily political drawings were a knife-twisting, gut-wrenching journey into how Palestinians perceived their predicament. Each drawing taps into hidden reservoirs of forbidden ideas and feelings — all somehow related to the unfulfilled expectations of the Palestinian national movement and the larger struggle for Arab self-determination. Hope, injustice, anger, pain and the struggle for dignity bled from al-Ali’s nib in a manner so raw that they captured the imagination of millions. During his life and after his death at the hands of an unknown assassin in 1987, al-Ali was widely admired and respected as a visionary artist and political commentator. Indeed, with few if any amendments, hundreds of his decades-old drawings could be republished today to reflect the miserable state of the contemporary Palestinian and Arab reality.

How does one book explain the weight of such an enormous yet largely silenced cultural and political heritage? It can’t, and the new volume A Child in Palestine: The Cartoons of Naji al-Ali, published by Verso, doesn’t. What it does do however is guide the reader through the background and logic behind many of these ideas. In so doing, the enormous gap between Western perceptions of the Arab world, and how the majority of downtrodden Arabs view themselves and Western policies in the region, is laid bare. In the process, al-Ali is also able to humanize his Arab subjects. He portrays refugees, peasants and members of the Arab working classes, as conscious, politicized and resisting agents, struggling against enormous odds, and engaging in the defense of their dignity and rights.

A Child in Palestine is clearly oriented to a Western audience. Its division into five thematic chapters (Palestine; Human Rights; US Dominance, Oil and Arab Collusion; the Peace Process; and Resistance) is designed to orient readers to general concepts in al-Ali’s drawings. Joe Sacco’s brief but compassionate introduction, combined with the short introductory essays at the beginning of each chapter, offers context to readers. One or two explanatory lines at the bottom of each drawing attempt to accomplish the task of translating any Arabic text as well to describe the illustrated universe of concepts depicted. Reductive by nature, the explanations generally accomplish their task, although they sometimes feel insufficient when contrasted with al-Ali’s caustic wit.

Al-Ali was an unapologetic radical concerned with the liberation of his people, both on a national and individual level. He once explained that the political duties of caricature drawing were “Incitement, preaching the birth of a new Arab human being.” Moreover, he saw no need to mince words or drawings, preferring to go straight to biting critiques of his adversaries: US imperialism, Zionism and the State of Israel, the Arab ruling classes and the bourgeois Palestinian national leadership. As al-Ali saw it, the situation was too far gone, too hypocritical, and too Orwellian to waste time beating around any bushes.

Al-Ali’s family fled their village of Shajara in Palestine’s Galilee region during the 1948 Nakba, the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland and the creation of the State of Israel, yet to return. The trauma of the Nakba was compounded by Israel’s repeated military assaults against neighboring Arab states and the Palestinian national movement, and was reinforced by inter-Arab rivalries and divisions and complicity in Zionist aspirations. In response, some picked up their rocks or guns — al-Ali picked up his pen.

Expectedly, al-Ali made many enemies along the way. His ideas, simply put, were illegal, the grounds for certain arrest and torture at the hands of Israel or the Arab dictatorships. Banned throughout most of the Arab world and in Israel, it is amazing to see what a following he was able to galvanize under these conditions, and what he is still able to stir today.

One does not envy the editorial task of sifting through thousands of al-Ali drawings and selecting the appropriate ones for an imagined Western audience. Certainly there are plenty of themes that he addressed that find little or no representation in this book, and all to the reader’s loss. The two most prominent are sectarianism and women’s rights — both highly relevant to the contemporary Arab reality and their depictions in Western media. Al-Ali addressed both squarely, lambasting sectarianism, and supporting women’s rights. But he understood that both could not be sufficiently addressed in isolation from the struggle to free Palestinians and Arabs from imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism and occupation. Most observers focus on al-Ali’s signature character Handalah, the ten-year-old refugee child observing the absurdity around him. However, the hero of many of his drawings is actually the figure of Fatima — the mother figure in his reoccurring depictions of the plight of a typical Palestinian refugee family. Although Fatima is selectively depicted in the book, the theme of women’s rights is under-represented considering Fatima’s centrality in al-Ali’s overall body of work.

In spite of these flaws, A Child in Palestine is successful in providing a general readership with the chance to see the Arab world and Palestine from within, looking out. This is no small feat considering US and European policies in the region and the demonization of Arabs and Palestinians in the mainstream Western media. In this regard, Naji al-Ali’s defiance and determination to struggle still calls out from the pages, offering people hope and solidarity whatever their background.

Toufic Haddad is a Palestinian-American journalist based in Jerusalem. He is also the co-author of Between the Lines: Israel, the Palestinians and the US “War on Terror” with Israeli author Tikva Honig Parnass, published by Haymarket Books, 2007. He can be reached at tawfiq_haddad AT yahoo DOT com.

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