Remembering Naji al-Ali

Yesterday, Al Masry Al Youm celebrated Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali on the 23rd anniversary of his London murder (August 29, 1987).

Al-Ali, a prolific cartoonist, was—and is—widely loved in the Arabic-cartoon-reading world. However, with “cartoonists” (er, graphic novelists) hitting an even higher note of prestige and popularity in recent years, it’s a shame to have a pen like al-Ali’s missing.

According to Al Masry Al Youm, al-Ali viewed the role of a political cartoonist as not unlike that of other artists: “The function of a political cartoonist, as I see it, is to provide a new vision.”

Al-Ali’s best-known character, حنظلة, was a 10-year-old boy who always kept his back to the viewer and his hands tightly clasped. In a 1984 interview with Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour, al-Ali talked about what حنظلة meant to him:

That was when the character Hanzala was born. I introduced Hanzala [also transliterated as Handala, Hanthala, or Handhala] to the readers at some length: “I am Hanzala from the Ain Al-Helwa camp. I give my word of honour that I’ll remain loyal to the cause…” That was the promise I had made myself. The young, barefoot Hanzala 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. Even though this all happened 35 years ago, the details of that phase in my life are still fully presentto my mind. I feel that I can recall and sense every bush, every stone, every house and every tree I passed when I was a child in Palestine. The character of Hanzala was a sort of icon that protected my soul from falling whenever I felt sluggish or I was ignoring my duty. That child was like a splash of fresh water on my forehead, bringing me to attention and keeping me from error and loss. 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.

Although al-Ali collected his works into three books (and was preparing a fourth at the time of his death), only one book-length version of his work is, to my knowledge, available in English: A Child of Palestine. The collection, with an introduction by Joe Sacco, was released last summer by Verso.

Perhaps more will follow.