A symbol of the Palestinian cause: Artists pay tribute to Naji Al-Ali

Naji Al-Ali with his youngest son Osama in London in 1986.
Updated 28 October 2017
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A symbol of the Palestinian cause: Artists pay tribute to Naji Al-Ali

LONDON: The incisive pen strokes of cartoonist Naji Al-Ali were feted at a British Library event on Friday which paid tribute to the artist’s enduring legacy in Palestine and beyond.
Al-Ali continues to serve as an inspiration for young artists and activists hoping to represent the struggle of the Palestinian people, the event heard.
By the time Al-Ali was assassinated in London 30 years ago, his iconic adolescent character Handala had become a well-known symbol for the Palestinian people’s suffering and the world’s silence surrounding it.
“He represents Palestine, very simple,” political artist Hafez Omar said of the Handala character. Al-Ali’s young, barefoot boy who observes caricatured tableaux of Palestinian life, appeared in many of the artist’s 40,000 cartoons.
Omar, who spoke at Thursday’s event alongside The Guardian’s cartoonist Steve Bell, said that generations of artists born after Al-Ali’s death use Handala as an emblem for the Palestinian cause.
“When you want to talk about Palestine, when you want to talk about what everyone in Palestine believes in as a political project, Handala sums it up very simply: To return, self-determination, and for the liberation of Palestinians,” he said.
Today, the character is as likely to appear in digital form on Facebook walls as be graffitied on the barriers dividing the West Bank and Gaza from Israel. Handala, an avatar for Al-Ali himself, has become a potent symbol in part because he is not tied to any political party or ideology, representing instead the people directly affected by occupation.
Naji Al-Ali, who was forced to flee his village in the “Nakba,” or catastrophe of 1948, did not spare Arab leaders from his ballpoint indictments, often caricaturing their seeming indifference to the lived reality of the Palestinian people. A prescient critique, Omar says, repeated by Palestinians today who feel politicians don’t always have their interests at heart.
“Whenever you go to the camps and you see Handala, you know what these people are looking for. It’s not the politicians, it’s not the parties — they have their own agendas and tricks,” he said, remarking on how often the character appears spray-painted on the walls of Palestinian refugee settlements.
Today, as the two main Palestinian factions struggle to reconcile and Israeli settlement-building expands, Omar said Naji Al-Ali serves as a sort of moral compass for activists, a reminder to stay grounded and focused on the Palestinian people.
“That’s what we learned from him, as political artists and political cartoonists, that it’s our duty whenever things are going backward to step forward and to try to lead and to try to light the way for our people.”
Karma Nabulsi, a professor of international relations at Oxford University, also spoke at the tribute, extolling Al-Ali as a “a quintessential hero of freedom of expression, free speech, always in the cause of the marginalized and the downtrodden.”
A “revolutionary in the fullest sense of the world,” Al-Ali and the character Handala “embodied the ideals of challenging the status quo,” Nabulsi told the audience.
Al-Ali’s images depicting the dispossession of Palestinians have transcended both time and geography, added Steve Bell, whose own pro-Palestine cartoons have landed him in hot water on occasion. “When the state of Israel was set up there was a crime committed and it’s never been acknowledged,” he told Arab News.
“Al-Ali’s stuff challenges us with that view. What’s the world going to do?
“His work speaks across borders, it’s wonderful visually, wonderfully simple but also incredibly powerful. We all aspire to be like that, I think,” Bell added.
Ultimately, Al-Ali paid with his life when an unknown assailant shot him in Knightsbridge, London, as he was walking to his office at the newspaper Al-Qabas in 1987. Police have recently reopened the case, hoping that new witnesses will emerge.
Omar reflected on the “sacrifice” made by Al-Ali.
“When you’re an artist under pressure, under threat, either from the Israelis, the occupation, or from the Palestinian government, you think of Naji. Naji gave his life for the cause, as an artist.”


Iran’s Hassan Rouhani may skip UN meet over US visa delay

Updated 36 min 48 sec ago

Iran’s Hassan Rouhani may skip UN meet over US visa delay

TEHRAN: Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and his delegation could be forced into skipping next week’s UN General Assembly because the United States has yet to issue them visas, state media said Wednesday.
Rouhani and his delegation had been scheduled to travel to New York for the annual UN gathering on Monday, but that was now looking unlikely given the lack of visas, state news agency IRNA said.
“If the visas aren’t issued in a few hours, this trip will probably be canceled,” IRNA reported.
The delegation includes Iran’s top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif, who the United States imposed sanctions against on July 31.
The foreign minister had been due to travel to New York on Friday morning, according to IRNA.
The absence of Rouhani would ruin France’s bid to arrange a meeting between him and US President Donald Trump as part of European efforts to de-escalate tensions between the arch-foes.
“Iran’s absence will show that in contrast with its commitments to the United Nations and international organizations within the framework of agreements, diplomacy has no value for the United States,” IRNA said.
“Although the Islamic Republic of Iran has not left the scene and it continues its active diplomacy, the US government must answer for its behavior,” it added.
The UN General Assembly debate is due to begin on Tuesday.
As the host government, the United States generally is obliged to issue visas to diplomats who serve at UN headquarters.
But Iran and the United States have been at loggerheads since May last year when Trump abandoned a 2015 nuclear deal and began reimposing sanctions in its campaign of “maximum pressure.”
Iran responded by scaling back its commitments under the landmark accord, which gave it the promise of sanctions relief in return for limiting the scope of its nuclear program.