When the cartoon is as cutting as the occupation

Exhibition of Naji al-Ali's work reveals that, 20 years on, it's still eerily contemporary
By Olivia Snaije
Special to The Daily Star
Friday, March 14, 2008
LONDON: It has been just over 20 years since master political cartoonist Naji al-Ali was assassinated in London. To commemorate this sad anniversary, an exhibition of original artwork, "Shooting the Witness: The cartoons of Naji al-Ali" opened here last week. The venue, fittingly, is London's respected and alternately serious and rollicking, Political Cartoon Gallery.
There are many elements that make Ali's work compelling but what is initially striking is how contemporary his drawings remain, after 30 years. The Palestinian situation is possibly worse than ever, the US and Israel continue to be military partners, oil is at the top of everyone's agenda and some fear Lebanon's present political paralysis will lapse back into chaos.
Ali, who left his Palestinian village in Galilee during the Nabka, came of age in the refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh, then on the outskirts of Sidon, in South Lebanon. As political awareness made its way into the camps in the 1950s, Ali began to draw on the walls of the camp and in Lebanese prisons, where he was confined for his political activities.
In 1961, Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani gave Ali his first break by publishing his cartoons in "Al-Huria," the official magazine of the Arab Nationalist Movement. Two years later, he moved to Kuwait where he found work with the magazine Al-Talea (Avant-Garde).
It was in the wealthy Gulf state that Ali created his alter ego and his guardian angel, the iconic 10-year-old character Hanthala, who shares the cult-like status of his creator. The reason he introduced Hanthala (literally "Bitter Desert Fruit") to his readers, Ali explained, was that "the young, barefoot Hanthala was a symbol of my childhood. He was the age I was when I left Palestine and, in a sense, I am still that age today....
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When the cartoon is as cutting as the occupation.

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