The famous cartoon of Handala by Naji al Ali

Handala is a cartoon, a cartoon of a little boy with a few short hairs, depicted on his back with his hands clasped behind his back. He is the symbol of the Palestinian refugees that are waiting justice and return.

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Handala from the bitter fruits of the handhal plant

The name of this little boy, this very simple cartoon that is basically just a few lines drawn on paper, is Handala for a reason. The name comes from a plant that grows in the area, especially in the dry areas and it called Handhal in Arabic. The Latin name for it is Citrullus Colocynthis (for the botanists among us) This plant produces a fruit that tastes very bitter. And this bitterness symbolizes the pain and the sorrow of the Palestinian refugees who were displaced in 1948 and lost their properties, their lands, their homes and their future. This plant has very deep roots and even when you cut it very deep it usually grows back. Also very symbolic for the Palestinians who keep struggling and who are waiting and hoping for a return. They are rooted in the land, just like the handhal plant is rooted deeply in the land.

The cartoon of this little boy Handala was drawn first in 1969 by the political cartoonist Naji al Ali.

Handala turns his back to the viewer

The first time this little character appeared was in a Kuwaiti newspaper called Al Seyassah and the first years Naji al Ali used to draw him with his face towards the viewers. But in 1973 when Naji al Ali was so disappointed with the normalization of the Americans and the Arab world with Israel, he turned his back towards the viewers. Naji al Ali said that by turning his back towards the audience he showed (and I quote) his “rejection at a time when solutions are presented to us the American way” and as “a symbol of rejection of all the present negative tides in our region.

I have also heard Palestinian refugees explain that we are looking with Handala over his shoulders towards Palestine.

Handala, a simple ten years old boy

Naji al Ali himself said that Handala is a ten years old boy and he will remain ten years old until he will be able to return to Palestine.

Naji al Ali was forced to leave his hometown As Shajara in the north of Palestine in 1948 when he was a ten years old boy himself.

The cartoonist made Handala look like a very simple boy, with very simple clothes and depicted barefoot as he wanted to symbolize his allegiance to the poor.

This is what Naji al Ali said about Handala :

The character of Handala 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. I am from Ain Al-Helwa, a camp like any other camp. The people of the camps were the people of the land in Palestine. They were not merchants or landowners. They were farmers. When they lost their land, they lost their lives. The bourgeoisie never had to live in the camps, whose inhabitants were exposed to hunger, to every degradation and to every form of oppression. Entire families died in our camps. Those are the Palestinians who remain in my mind, even when my work takes me away from the camp.”

Naji al Ali

In 1959 Naji al Ali, the cartoonist, joined the Arab Nationalist Movement which was established in 1952 by George Habbash, that was focused on Arab unity and social progress. It was a more secular and socialist movement.

Naji al Ali made political cartoons that tackled a number of political topics and also criticized Arab leaders. The first times that his cartoons were published was by Ghassan Kanafani, in Al Hurriya newspaper. Ghassan Kanafani was a Palestinian author and one of the leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the PFLP. He was assassinated in 1972 by the Mossad.

The cartoons of Naji al Ali were simple and easy to understand. They were in black and white.

The topics would range from social injustice, absence of democracy and freedom of expression, to human rights issues and political issues.

Fatima, the good man and the evil man

Besides Handala there are three other characters that appear a lot in his cartoons. There is Fatima who represents the mother and the land. She is a woman who stands side by side with the men in the struggle for freedom and democracy. She often wears around her neck the key of the house that they had to leave in 1948, a very important symbol for the Palestinian refugees.

Another important character is ‘the good man’ who is drawn with sharp lines and clear features, an Arab man, a Palestinian man, poor, thin, a refugee but also a freedom fighter.

And there is the evil man. The evil man is represented as a fat guy, without features and we don’t see his legs, symbolizing that he has no popular support. He represents the men who betray and plot against the resistance and who are generally evil. He is the character that represents the oppression.

This could be in general the establishment, the Arab regimes, the United States and Israel.

Symbolism in the cartoons of Naji al Ali

There is a lot of symbolism in the cartoons. You will recognize the use of the kuffiya, the black and white shawl that became known especially after Yasser Arafat wore it always in public. He also the folkloric dresses, the thob, and the embroidery, the tatreez. Other symbols are the Palestinian flag and the map of Palestine. But also the cross and the image of Jesus or people carrying a cross or even crucifixion, symbolizing the suffering of the Palestinian people.

On many of his cartoons there is also text, in Arabic, that clarifies or gives a message to the reader.

Naji al Ali made over 40.000 drawings and he published three books with collection of his cartoons.

Assassination of Naji al Ali

Naji Al Ali was assassinated on the 22nd of July 1987 in London. He was working there for a Kuwaiti newspaper for which he drew political caricatures. He was shot and he died five weeks later. It is still not clear who killed him and why, although there are many theories about that. For sure he had enemies because he was critical and influential.

Naji Al Ali said about Handala:

This character was born to survive. I will continue with him, even after I die.

And that’s true. Until today we see Handala depicted on murals and graffiti all over Palestine. We see Handala at demonstrations around the globe. We see him on key chains, jewelry, tattooed on people’s arms.