Cartoon of Palestinian Boy Inspires, Years After Creator’s Murder

When pro-Palestinian student protesters took over Hamilton Hall at Columbia University last month and renamed it “Hind’s Hall,” the banner they unfurled contained images of a cartoon character created over 50 years ago that symbolizes the resilience of Palestinians.

On either side of the text were two images of a barefoot boy with tattered clothes and spiky hair, his back turned to us.

The character is called Handala (variously transliterated as Hanzala or Handzala), a name derived from a native plant that is deep-rooted, persistent and bears bitter fruit, and has become a potent symbol of the Palestinian struggle. The image was created by the Palestinian political cartoonist Naji Al-Ali in 1969, one of the most widely read cartoonists in the Arab world, who was murdered in London in 1987. (The case remains unsolved.)

Handala is 10 years old, the same age that Ali was when he became a refugee in 1948.

After the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, also known as the Yom Kippur War, Ali exclusively depicted Handala with his back turned, a gesture that transformed him into a silent witness of the horrors and outrages going on around him. The stance, according to the cartoonist, represented a rejection of the political machinations of foreign nations when it came to the fate of ordinary Palestinians.

Margaret Olin, a religious studies scholar at the Yale Divinity School and co-author of “The Bitter Landscapes of Palestine,” has been photographing Handala’s appearance in murals and as graffiti during her visits to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank over the past decade. “It’s become a symbol of the whole Palestinian movement to return to their former homes,” she said in a telephone interview.

Handala, she explained, “has the resonance of Paul Klee’s ‘Angelus Novus,” which Walter Benjamin described as the angel of history. “He’s facing the ravages of time and disaster, but he’s turned around so that you see the disasters too.” She added that the character “also has a tinge of Günter Grass’s Oskar in ‘The Tin Drum,’ a child who also refused to grow while the disasters of Germany took place around him. He’s the child as witness, the child who’s stuck witnessing, just waiting for the disasters to pass.”

The figure of Handala, she observed, is “plastered on houses in East Jerusalem, where residents are being forced out by illegal settlements. He’s carried into protests. He’s everywhere.”

The image has appeared in the United States — “my son’s in-laws are Iraqi, and they have a bumper sticker on their car,” Olin added. “One of the reasons the character is so ubiquitous is that Ali made him very easy to draw.” She said that children in West Bank refugee camps have drawn smiling faces on the back of Handala’s head when they encounter him in murals, turning his suffering into joy.

Ali was known to be an equal opportunity critic, as likely to take aim at the failure of Arab countries in the region to support Palestinians as Israel and the U.S. He even took aim at the Palestine Liberation Organization at times in his Handala images.

Peace activists in Israel have also adopted the figure of Handala over the years, showing him embracing another cartoon boy — Srulik, created by the Israeli cartoonist Kariel Gardosh, which became an embodiment of Israel. But Handala is not common there. Nizan Shaked, a professor of cultural studies at California State University at Long Beach, grew up in Haifa, Israel. She said in an email interview that she only encountered the character in 1998, when she moved to the U.S.

The character has been re-embraced by activists and artists alike in the last seven months. The Freedom Flotilla Coalition, a grass roots solidarity movement that works “to end the illegal Israeli blockade of Gaza,” according to its website, has christened one of its ships Handala. A publishing house in Italy and an artist’s group in Japan have created posters in which the character has been reinterpreted for today.

And Handala has even made it to Venice, in a solo exhibition not affiliated with the Biennale. At the Roberto Ferruzzi Gallery in Dorsoduro, the Palestinian artist Malak Mattar’s paintings are on view until June 14. The show features “No Words” (2024), which the artist describes on Instagram as “the largest documentation of the unfolding genocide on Gaza.” The canvas, the largest she has ever attempted, at over 16 by 7 feet, is a nod to Palestinian mural culture. Handala appears near the top of the painting, looking at a wall. Unlike Mattar’s earlier paintings, which are intensely colorful, this work is rendered in somber gray, black, white and brown.

Mattar, who was born and raised in Gaza City, was living there until Oct. 5, when she left to pursue a master’s degree in London, she said in a telephone interview. Her painting focuses on the people who have been forced to evacuate to escape the Israeli military bombings of Gaza, where, she said, many of her friends, family members and colleagues have been killed.

“When I was much younger as an artist, Handala was very significant in my work,” Mattar said. “Growing up in Gaza, he was a very emotional symbol — he is a boy we all related to, he’s a boy that spoke for all of us and our feelings.”

“He is a child who was displaced, who the entire world failed.”

Last month, Hadi Eldebek, a Lebanese American musician and educator and member of Silkroad Ensemble, worked with his collaborators in the Brooklyn Nomads to create a multimedia concert at Roulette in Brooklyn dedicated to Naji Al-Ali and his ubiquitous character of resistance. Musicians and dancers performed while animations of Ali’s cartoons were projected above them. “To me — as a Lebanese, as an Arab, as a Muslim, as a human being — Hanzala represents me,” Eldebek said.

What seems to unite the artists who are re-embracing Handala is a sense of his enduring relevance.

“Some members of the audience at the show asked me if we had commissioned a contemporary cartoonist to make the images we showed, since they seemed to represent all the horrors we’ve seen on the news since Oct. 7,” Eldebek said. “But they are images made in the 1970s and 1980s, when Ali was looking back already on decades of suffering.”

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