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Naji al-Ali

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Naji al-Ali
ناجي العلي
Bornc. 1938
Al-Shajara, Mandatory Palestine
Died29 August 1987(1987-08-29) (aged 48–49)
London, United Kingdom

Naji Salim Hussain Al-Ali (Arabic: ناجي سليم العلي Nājī Salīm al-‘Alī; born c. 1938 – 29 August 1987) was a Palestinian cartoonist, noted for the political criticism of the Arab regimes and Israel in his works.[1] Al-Ali is best known as the creator of the character Handala,[2] a personification of the Palestinian people that has become prominent symbol of Palestinian nationalism and resistance.[3][4]

One of the best-known cartoonists in the Arab world, and celebrated as the greatest Palestinian cartoon artist,[5][6] Al-Ali drew over 40,000 cartoons, often reflecting Palestinian and Arab public opinion and offering sharply critical commentaries on Palestinian and Arab politics and political leaders.[2] On 22 July 1987, while outside the London offices of al-Qabas, a Kuwaiti newspaper for which he drew political caricatures,[2][7] Al-Ali was shot in the neck and mortally wounded.[8] He died five weeks later in Charing Cross Hospital.

Early life

Al-Ali was born in 1938 or thereabouts in the northern Palestinian village of Al-Shajara, located between Tiberias and Nazareth (now subsumed by Ilaniya).[9] He lived as an exile in the south of Lebanon with his family after the 1948 Palestinian expulsion and flight, the Nakba, and lived in Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon,[10] where he attended the Union of Christian Churches school. After graduation, he worked in the orchards of Sidon, then moved to Tripoli where he attended the White Friars' vocational school for two years.[citation needed]

Al-Ali then moved to Beirut, where he lived in a tent in Shatila refugee camp and worked in various industrial jobs. In 1957, after qualifying as a car mechanic, he traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he worked for two years.[citation needed]

Career as a cartoonist and journalist

In 1959 Al-Ali returned to Lebanon, and that year he joined the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM), but was expelled four times within one year for lack of party discipline. Between 1960 and 1961, along with comrades from the ANM, he published a handwritten political journal Al-Sarkha ('the scream').

In 1960, he entered the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts, but was unable to continue his studies there as he was imprisoned for political reasons soon afterwards. After his release he moved to Tyre, where he worked as a drawing instructor in the Ja'fariya College.

The writer and political activist Ghassan Kanafani saw some of Al-Ali's cartoons on a visit to Ain al-Hilweh and printed the artist's first published drawings along with an accompanying article in issue 88 of Al-Hurriya, dated 25 September 1961.

In 1963 Al-Ali moved to Kuwait, hoping to save money to study art in Cairo or Rome. There he worked as an editor, cartoonist, designer and newspaper producer on the Arab nationalist Al Tali'a magazine. From 1968 on he worked for Al-Siyasa. In the course of these years he returned to Lebanon several times. In 1974 he started working for the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir, which permitted him to return to Lebanon for a longer period.[11] During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he was briefly detained by the occupying forces along with other residents of Ain al-Hilweh. In 1983 he once more moved to Kuwait to work for Al Qabas and in 1985 moved to London where he worked for its international edition until his death.

In 1984 he was described by The Guardian as "the nearest thing there is to an Arab public opinion".[12]

Work, positions and awards

In his career as a political cartoonist, Al-Ali produced over 40,000 drawings.[citation needed] They generally deal with the situation of the Palestinian people, depicting suffering and resistance and harshly criticizing the Israeli state and Israeli occupation, Palestinian leadership, and the Arab regimes. Al-Ali was a fierce opponent of any settlement that would not vindicate the Palestinian people's right to all of historic Palestine, and many of his cartoons express this position. Unlike many political cartoonists, specific politicians do not appear in person in his work: as he stated, "... I have a class outlook, that is why my cartoons take this form. What is important is drawing situations and realities, not drawing presidents and leaders."[citation needed]

Al-Ali published three books of his cartoons, in 1976, 1983 and 1985, and was preparing another at the time of his death.[citation needed]

In 1979, Al-Ali was elected president of the League of Arab Cartoonists. In 1979 and 1980, he received the first prize in the Arab cartoonists exhibitions held in Damascus. The International Federation of Newspaper Publishers awarded him the "Golden Pen of Freedom" posthumously in 1988.[13]


Handala, the Palestinian defiance symbol

Handala, also known as Handhala (Arabic: حنظلة), is the most famous of Al-Ali's characters.[3] He is depicted as a ten-year-old boy, and appeared for the first time in Al-Siyasa in Kuwait in 1969.[3] The figure turned his back to the viewer from the year 1973, and clasped his hands behind his back.[14] The artist explained that the ten-year-old represented his age when forced to leave Palestine and would not grow up until he could return to his homeland;[15] his turned back and clasped hands symbolised the character's rejection of "outside solutions".[14] Handala wears ragged clothes and is barefoot, symbolising his allegiance to the poor. In later cartoons, he is actively participating in the action depicted, not merely observing it.[14] The artist vows that his figure, Handala, will "reveal his face to the readers again only when Palestinian refugees return to their homeland".[16]

Handala became the signature of Al-Ali's cartoons and remains an iconic symbol of Palestinian identity and defiance. Handala has also been used as the web mascot of the Iranian Green Movement.[17] The artist remarked that "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."[15]

Other characters and motifs

Other characters in Al-Ali's cartoons include a thin, miserable-looking man representing the Palestinian as the defiant victim of Israeli oppression and other hostile forces, and a fat man representing the Arab regimes and Palestinian political leaders who led an easy life and engaged in political compromises which the artist fervently opposed.[citation needed] The motifs of the crucifixion (representing Palestinian suffering) and stone-throwing (representing the resistance of ordinary Palestinians) are also common in his work.[citation needed]


It is still not known who opened fire on Al-Ali outside the London office of Kuwaiti newspaper Al Qabas in Ives Street on 22 July 1987. He was subsequently taken to hospital and remained in a coma until his death on 29 August 1987.[18] Although his will requested that he be buried in Ain al-Hilweh beside his father, this proved impossible to arrange[why?] and he was buried in Brookwood Islamic Cemetery outside London. British police arrested Ismail Sowan, a 28-year-old Jerusalem-born Palestinian researcher at Hull University, and found a cache of weapons in his apartment that they said were intended for terrorist attacks around Europe; he was only charged with possession of weapons and explosives. Initially, police said Sowan was a member of the PLO, though that organisation denied any involvement.[19][20]

Sowan later confessed that he worked for both the PLO and the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.[21] A second suspect arrested by Scotland Yard also said he was a double agent.[22] It was later revealed that Mossad had two double agents working in London-based PLO hit teams and had advance knowledge of the killing.[22] By refusing to pass on the relevant information to their British counterparts, Mossad earned the displeasure of Britain, which retaliated by expelling three Israeli diplomats, one of whom was the embassy attache identified as the handler for the two agents.[22] A furious Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister, closed Mossad’s London base in Palace Green, Kensington.[23][24] The gun used in the murder, a 7.62 Tokarev pistol, was found on the Hallfield Estate in Paddington by police, on 22 April 1989.[18]

Force 17, acting under orders from Yasser Arafat, has also been claimed to be responsible for his assassination.[6] Days before his murder Naji told Palestinian writer Dr. Basem Sarhan, "I entrust you, whoever my killer may be, my killer is Yasser Arafat." During an event at Abdullah Al-Salem High School in Kuwait, Yasser Arafat was also quoted saying,"The one whose name is Naji al-Ali, if he continues to paint, I will put his fingers in acid."[25]

In August 2017, detectives relaunched an investigation into his murder case, 30 years after his death.[18]

Commemorative statue

Naji statue when it was first erected (right), exploded and damaged, and then re-erected

A statue of Al-Ali by the sculptor Charbel Faris was erected[when?] at the northern entrance of Ain al-Hilweh camp,[citation needed] where Naji was raised for most of his youth.

Work on the fiberglass and colored polyester statue (with a steel inner support) took around five months. When finished, it was 275 centimetres (9.02 ft) tall, with an average width of 85 centimetres (33 in), and average thickness of 45 centimetres (18 in). The statue holds a rock in its right hand and a booklet of drawings in the left hand.[citation needed]

Shortly after being completed, the statue was damaged in an explosion caused by unknown assailants; like Al-Ali the statue was shot in the left eye.[26]

The statue was repaired and re-erected.[citation needed]

Naji al Ali Graffiti


A movie was made about the life of Al-Ali in Egypt, with the Egyptian actor Nour El-Sherif playing the lead role.[27]

See also


  1. ^ "About Naji al-Ali". handala.org. Archived from the original on 28 March 2022.
  2. ^ a b c Farsoun 2004, p. 111
  3. ^ a b c Faber, Michel (10 July 2009). "Pens and swords". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 June 2024.
  4. ^ Alazzeh, Ala (2012). "Abu Ahmad and His Handalas". In LeVine, Mark; Shafir, Gershon (eds.). Struggle and Survival in Palestine/Israel. University of California Press. pp. 427–444. ISBN 978-0-520-26252-2. JSTOR 10.1525/j.ctt1ppwdk.34. …one of the most popular symbols of Palestinian nationalism.
  5. ^ "To escape repression, critics are leaving the Gulf". The Economist. 22 July 2017. Retrieved 12 June 2024.
  6. ^ a b "Can a murder that happened three decades ago now be solved?". The Economist. 2 September 2017. Retrieved 12 June 2024.
  7. ^ Harlow 1994, p. 167
  8. ^ Black, Ian (10 March 2008). "Drawing Defiance". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 June 2024.
  9. ^ Homsi, Ola (25 July 2017). "Naji al-Ali: Remembering the Palestinian cartoonist 30 years later". Step Feed. Retrieved 12 June 2024.
  10. ^ Harlow 1994, p. 168
  11. ^ Fischbach, Michael R. (2005). "Al-Ali, Naji". In Mattar, Philip (ed.). Encyclopedia of the Palestinians. New York: Facts on File, Inc. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-8160-6986-6.
  12. ^ Khalafallah, Haifaa (21 September 1984). "Third World Review: This pen is mightier... Profile of Naji al-Ali, Arab cartoonist". The Guardian.
  13. ^ "Murdered Arab cartoonist honoured". The Guardian. 8 February 1988.
  14. ^ a b c Ashley, John; Jayousi, Nedal (2013), "The Connection between Palestinian Culture and the Conflict", Discourse, Culture, and Education in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (PDF), Netanya: S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue, Netanya Academic College, p. 54, retrieved 15 November 2023
  15. ^ a b al-Ali, Naji (1 January 2009). A Child in Palestine: The Cartoons of Naji al-Ali. Verso Books. ISBN 978-1-84467-365-0.
  16. ^ Priyadarshini, Arya; Sigroha, Suman (3 July 2020). "Recovering the Palestinian History of Dispossession through Graphics in Leila Abdelrazaq's Baddawi". Eikón / Imago. 9: 395–418. doi:10.5209/eiko.73329. ISSN 2254-8718.
  17. ^ Sadeghi, Shirin (18 September 2009). "QODS DAY: Protesters Transform Jerusalem Day Into Iran Day". HuffPost. Retrieved 12 June 2024.
  18. ^ a b c Grierson, Jamie (29 August 2017). "Police reinvestigate 1987 London murder of Palestinian cartoonist". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 June 2024.
  19. ^ Pallister, David (18 August 1987). "Arab on arms find charge". The Guardian.
  20. ^ "Palestinian Journalist Dies of Wounds in London". The New York Times. 30 August 1987.
  21. ^ Clines, Francis (18 June 1988). "Britain Orders Israeli Diplomat to Leave". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 June 2024.
  22. ^ a b c Lashmar, Paul; Elam, Shraga (19 June 1999). "MI5 was feuding with Mossad while known terrorists struck in London". The Independent. Archived from the original on 18 June 2022. Retrieved 12 June 2024.
  23. ^ Gardham, Duncan (17 February 2010). "Dubai Hamas assassination: the sticky relationship". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 12 June 2024.
  24. ^ The Daily Telegraph, London, 5 April 1998
  25. ^ نورالدين, رياضي (29 June 2021). هل قتل ياسر عرفات ناجي العلي؟وهل تستر محمود درويش على الجريمة؟. Riadi Noureddine. Retrieved 12 June 2024.
  26. ^ Sundaresan, Somasekhar (15 January 2015). "Sticks and stones may break my bones". Bangalore Mirror. Retrieved 12 June 2024.
  27. ^ El-Taieb, Atef, director. Nagi El-Ali (1991).


  • Kreitmeyr, Nadine (2012). Der Nahostkonflikt durch die Augen Hanzalas. Stereotypische Vorstellungen im Schaffen des Karikaturisten Naji al-'Ali (in German). Berlin: Klaus Schwarz. ISBN 978-3-87997-402-3.
  • Farsoun, Samih K. (2004). Culture and Customs of the Palestinians. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-32051-9.
  • Harlow, Barbara (1994). "Writers and Assassinations". In Lemelle, Sidney J.; Kelley, Robin D. G. (eds.). Imagining Home: Class, Culture and Nationalism in the African Diaspora. Verso. pp. 167–184. ISBN 0-86091-585-9.
  • Mahmud Abd Allah Kallam (2001). Naji al-Ali, kamil al-turab al-falastini [Naji al-Ali, All Palestine's Soil]. Beirut: Bisan lil-nashr w'al-tawzi' w'al-a'lam.