You’ll see him everywhere in Palestine. He’s printed on flags, handbags and tourists’ T-shirts. He’s drawn on city walls in Jerusalem and painted in murals in Jericho. But you’ll never see his face. He’s turned away, showing us his back. He’s a simple cartoon character, barefoot and dressed in rags.
He’s also a political icon.
This young, disheveled orphan is named Handala. He might look simple, but don’t be fooled; he’s a complex, powerful character.
Handala fist appeared in fiercely political, one-panel comic strips in 1969. Though many artists and activists have drawn him since, Handala really belongs first to one artist, Naj Al-Ali.
Naj Al-Ali went from living in a poor refugee camp to being one of the most widely-recognized artists in the Arab world. His cartoons were politically scathing and would ultimately lead to his tragic murder. At the age of 50, Al-Ali was shot in the head and killed in London. Who was this man? And what is so powerful about Handala?
"The child Handala is my signature," Al-Ali said in a 1984 interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. Prophetically, he added: "Handala, who I created, will not end after my end."
Naj Al-Ali was born in 1934, in a rural Palestinian village west of Tiberias called al-Shajara. In Arabic al-shajara means "the tree" and the town was full of chinaberry, fig and palm trees. Naj Al-Ali spent the first 12 years of his life there, living with his family. Like most villagers, they were farmers.
But in 1947, their world changed.
Following the U.N. partition plan, hundreds of Palestinian towns were aggressively targeted by armed forces from the newly declared state of Israel. Al-Shajara was one of these towns.
The villagers were forced to leave. Like many Palestinians, Naj Al-Ali and his family immigrated to Southern Lebanon and lived in a refugee camp there, called Ain al-Helwa.
It was a crowded, poor place. Thousands of people had been uprooted and were forced to start their lives over. The young Al-Ali was an unusually creative child. Drawing became his outlet, his way of dealing with the trauma. He painted on stones and he scratched figures into the walls of the camp.
I first saw Handala spray-painted on a wall in Jerusalem near to the Dome of the Rock. It was a crude figure; painted in blue paint that was peeling off the wall. I didn’t know who he was. The next day, I saw a sticker of Handala on the back of a bus in Ramallah.
I saw him again in the Aqbat Jaber refugee camp. He was in a mural on a stone wall. The paint was faded, but his figure was still clear. Once I started noticing Handala, he was everywhere. I didn’t know about Naj Al-Ali or his story, but I couldn’t get the image of this little orphan out of my head.
I noticed that wherever I saw this orphan, his gesture was always the same.
His hands were clasped behind his back. It looked like he was meditating or contemplating, like he was wise beyond his years, like he’d seen it all.
The young Al-Ali supported himself whatever way he could. Mostly, he worked in orchards, picking lemons and oranges. Opportunities were scarce, but he seized them and left the camp. He had a number of odd jobs and in 1957, the 21-year-old Palestinian exile left for Saudi Arabia to fix cars.
But he didn’t give up his passion: to draw and study art formally. "I worked as a farmer, mechanic, electrician," Al-Ali wrote, "but drawing was my obsession." Al-Ali saved up, and in 1960 enrolled in an art school back in Lebanon.
Al-Ali may have been just a young man, but he had already seen a lot of the world. He had been forced to grow up fast. He had seen abject poverty, corruption and inequality; he needed to tell his story, to vent his frustration. At art school, he joined youth groups, attended protests and emerged as an outspoken activist in and out of jail.
"I was arrested and imprisoned six or seven items," Al-Ali said. He had to give up formal studies, but he kept drawing. "I always made sure I had my pen with me when I was taken to prison."
In 1963, Al-Ali moved to Kuwait. Like many young people in the Arab world, he was drawn to the opportunities promised by the booming Gulf oil economy.
In Kuwait, Al-Ali started working for magazines and newspapers. He created a new character—a small, unassuming orphan.
Handala doesn’t have a full head of hair, just short stubs growing out of his scalp. He’s slightly hunched over, almost as if he’s struggling to keep his over-sized head upright. He’s barefoot, his clothes are torn and patched, but there’s a kind of poise and dignity to him.
For Al-Ali, Handala was therapeutic, a reminder of where he came from. Handala literally means "bitterness," and also sounds like the name of a Middle Eastern plant, handal, a kind of strong, medicinal, bitter melon. For Al-Ali, there was a kind of sobering bitterness to Handala.
"He protected my soul from falling whenever I felt sluggish or I was ignoring my duty," Al-Ali once said in an interview. He felt obligated to tell the story of the Palestinian refugee, to tell his own story. "That child was like a splash of fresh water on my forehead, bringing me to attention."
If Al-Ali ever felt disconnected from Palestine, from his homeland, Handala would remind him of where he came from. Handala was a young boy, somewhere around ten years old—the same age that Al-Ali was when he left his home village. Drawing Handala reconnected Al-Ali with his roots.
"The details of that phase in my life are still fully present in my mind," Al-Ali said. "I can sense every bush, every stone, every house and every tree I passed when I was a child in Palestine." It was from this place of memory, mourning and inspiration that Al-Ali created Handala.
Handala’s cartoons won’t make you laugh. They’re often bleak, disturbing, or shocking. In his art, Naj Al-Ali didn’t shy away from the brutality of the life he knew. There are dismembered children, starving political prisoners and war-town landscapes. But the imagery is also rich and creative.
Handala is often paired with a beautiful, forlorn looking woman. She’s older than he is, cast in nurturing, maternal gestures: holding her arms out in an embrace, preparing food, or helping an injured man.
When we see her, we’re reminded of the life that had been taken from Handala, the family that he lost. But the woman is more than a mother—she is a motherland. In some panels, this connection is made explicit; in place of her feet are roots, connecting her to the earth.
In one image, tears roll down her cheek and as they fall from her face they turn to bombs. In another, the braids from her hair turn to barbed wire. The desire for a homeland and repressive violence are bound to each other, intertwined.
Nothing was off-limits for Al-Ali. His art criticized everyone equally. Israel and American forces are typically the aggressors, holding rifles, dropping bombs, and hiding behind barrels of oil. Corruption on all levels, from anywhere, was criticized. "Many people are to blame," Al-Ali once said, and "no one is exempt from guilt."
He lampooned everybody—Israel, America, France, Iran, Palestine—but Arab leaders were attacked too.
Al-Ali often drew a fat Arab man who usually has a big grin spread across his face. He looks like a slug with a double chin that spills over his shirt collar. This is one of the corrupt leaders of the Arab world. Standing next to Handala, Al-Ali’s message is clear: while the exile suffers, the rich get richer.
In one panel, the corrupt Arab leader wears a top hat and tie, patterned like a Palestinian headdress, the kaffiyeh. Another Palestinian passes him, carrying a gun, wearing a kaffiyeh wrapped around his face. They exchange glances. While the armed Palestinian wears the scarf traditionally, the rich man is dressed like a Westerner. His allegiance to Palestine is superficial. He tips his top hat and carries a briefcase in his other hand. He has business on the mind, not independence or freedom.
Readers loved Naj Al-Ali’s cartoons because they were merciless and truthful. He won accolades. In 1979, he became president of the League of Arab Cartoonists. He won first price in a Damascus exhibition of Arab cartoons twice, once in 1977 and again in 1980. He published three collections of his cartoons. Handala was quickly becoming an icon across the Arab world. In 1985, Al-Ali left Kuwait for London, where he continued to work for a Kuwaiti newspaper called al-Qabas.
Political tensions mounted and Al-Ali made enemies. It’s said that he received over 100 death threats during his career and in 1987, things came to a head. Tragedy struck.
On July 22nd, outside his office in Chelsea—the bustling center of London—Al-Ali was shot. The assailant dropped his gun and ran. Al-Ali was rushed to the hospital where he was put on life support. He was alive, in a coma for one month, but died on August 29th.
Some suspected the Palestine Liberation Organization were behind the shooting (Yasser Arafat made frequent appearances in Handala’s comics); others suspected the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. His killer was never found.
Walking along the Israeli wall that runs through the West Bank, I loose track of how many times I see Handala. He’s painted dozens of times on the concrete slabs.
Here, and everywhere else we see Handala, he does something important: he’s a witness, preserving the story of the refugee, refusing to disappear.
Because we never see Handala’s face, we can imagine any face there. He’s all orphans, all exiles. I first thought Handala was facing away, but I was wrong. He’s not turned away at all.
We’re standing in the same direction, facing the same thing.