Wednesday, 29 August 2007
Hanzala: The Conscience of Palestine
I have been busy at work recently and have not been motivated when I come home to update my blog even though there were a few issues I wanted to write about. I am going to do a little “cheating” and backdate some entries in the next few days. Today’s post is about Naji al-Ali, the Palestinian artist who died on August 29th, 1987 after being shot in London a few weeks before on July 22nd.
Ali was born in Palestine in 1937 but the creation of Israel and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their ancestral homelands meant that in 1948, he was forced to leave for Ain Al-Helwa, a refugee camp in Lebanon.
It was this experience of forced exile as a young boy and growing up in a refugee camp that one witnesses in his creation of the cartoon character Hanzala. Hanzala, which means bitterness, was born homeless, in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon, and quickly became a symbol of the loss, the despair, the courage and the hope of Palestinian refugees everywhere. In all of the hundreds of images in which he is featured, Hanzala’s face is either obscured or turned away from viewers and his hands clasped behind his back. Hanzala it is said, will never show his face until he returns home to Palestine.
In an article on Hanzala, Ali wrote:
"I had friends with whom I shared my work, protests, and prison days until one day they became "tanabel" running businesses and buying stocks. I was worried about myself from turning to a "tanabal" too and being consumed. In the Gulf I gave birth to this child and offered him to the people. He is committed to the people that will cherish him. I drew him as an ugly child, with hedgehock-like hair because the hedgehock uses its hair as a weapon.
Hanzala is not a fat spoilt comfortable child, he is bare footed like the other bare feet from the refugee camps. He is an icon that protects me from wrong and disarray and despite his looks he has a pure heart with a conscience that smells like musk and unbar and for his sake I am ready to kill anyone who intends to harm him. His hands are clasped behind his back as a sign of rejection during a phase that this region is undergoing with "solutions" offered by the US and "the system". I made the shape of his hands after the October war when I smelt the scent of developments in Kissinger's briefcase.
Hanzala was born at the age of ten and will always remain ten. At that age I left my country and only when Hanzala returns to Palestine will he grow up and exceed the age of ten. The rules of nature do not apply on him. He is an exception and things will only be natural in his case when he returns to Palestine. The child is a symbolic representation of myself and the group who lives and endures the situation we are all in. I offered him to the readers and called him Hanzala as a symbol of bitterness. In the beginning I offered him as a Palestinian child and with the development of his awareness he had a patriotic and a human outlook."
In another explanation, he stated:
"This child, as you can see is neither beautiful, spoilt, nor even well-fed. He is barefoot like manychildren in refugee camps. He is actually ugly and no woman would wish to have a child like him. However, those who came to know 'Hanzala', as I discovered and later adopted him because he is affectionate, honest, outspoken, and a bum. He is an icon that stands to watch me from slipping. And his hands behind his back are a symbol of rejection of all the present negative tides in our region."
Though he was never aligned to any political party or movement, his art was inherently political and critical of not only the brutal Israeli occupation and its American patrons but also the Arab governments who had let their Palestinian brothers down. His angry, sarcastic cartoons which sometimes bordered on despair won him many enemies but Ali believed his work was part of the fight against injustice and oppression:
"I started to use drawing as a form of political expression while in Lebanese jails. I was detained by the Deuxi'me Bureau (the Lebanese intelligence service) as a result of the measures the Bureau were undertaking to contain political activities in the Palestinian camps during the sixties. I drew on the prison walls and subsequently Ghassan Kanafani, a journalist and publisher of al-Huria magazine – he was assassinated in Beirut in 1971 - saw some of those drawings and encouraged me to continue, and eventually published some of my cartoons."
"Working for al-Safir newspaper in Beirut in 1971 was the best part of my life, and the most productive. There, surrounded by the violence of many army, and finally by the Israeli invasion, I stood facing it all with my pen every day. I never felt fear, failure or despair, and I didn't surrender. I faced armies with cartoons and drawings of flowers, hope and bullets. Yes, hope is essential, always. My work in Beirut made me once again closer to the refugees in the camps, the poor, and the harassed."
"When I was younger I thought I would actually be able to help achieve all our aspirations for independence, unity, justice. Many died for those aspirations and things are only getting worse. That, certainly, can make one; despair. But more than ever, I feel a sense of duty to go on doing what I have to and can do."
Ali was assassinated at the beginning of the first Palestinian Intifada. Twenty years later, images of Hanzala continue to persist throughout Palestine, the Middle East and indeed the world and his legacy remains strong as dozens of artists throughout the region use him as an inspiration. Hanzala will one day return home and turn to face us, smiling.
The official Naji Al-Ali website can be found here, while these (1, 2, 3 and 4) are some interesting sites with articles etc.