The Palestinian Return Centre (PRC) in London held a webinar entitled “Naji Al Ali: 35 Years on from an Eternal Legacy”.
The webinar was chaired by Jasmine Hawamdeh, an independent artist based in Toronto. She believes that “artists have the power to humanize statistics, tell a story on a canvas, provoke emotion and recode the mental maps that people project into the world. Art isn’t meant to change minds, instead it is meant to smash through some of the warped lenses through which we’ve been told to see through”.
The first speaker was Sliman Mansour, one of the most distinguished and renowned artists in Palestine. His style embodies steadfastness in the face of a relentless military occupation. His work — which has come to symbolize the Palestinian national identity — has inspired generations of Palestinians and international artists and activists alike. Born in 1947, Mansour spent his childhood around the verdant hills and fields of Birzeit — where he was born — and later his adolescence in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. These experiences left a significant mark on his work, heightening a sense of gradual loss in Palestine, especially after the occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem in 1967.
The second speaker was Dalia Elcharbini (b. 1989), a Palestinian-Canadian contemporary artist based in Toronto, Canada. She draws inspiration from patterns found in nature, poetry, her Palestinian heritage and philosophies that she lives by like Taoism; a philosophy that advocates for leading a life directed by your gut and living in harmony with the laws of nature. Her work aims to tap into the human mind and elevate the viewer into a higher state of consciousness.
The third speaker was Carlos Latuff, (born 30 November 1968) a Brazilian political cartoonist. His work deals with themes such as anti-Western sentiment, anti-capitalism, and opposition to U.S. military intervention. He is best known for his images depicting the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the Arab Spring events.
On board was also Hadil AlSafadi, a Palestinian artist from Safad, born and raised in the diaspora. Hadil uses her art as a tool to advocate for human rights and social justice of many causes, particularly the Palestinian cause. From a young age, she started drawing using traditional media, but now works digitally. Her Vibrant digital drawings pay homage to a homeland that she could never visit. Her dedication towards the cause stems from a desire to reclaim the narrative about Palestine and delivering the truth about apartheid. She considers herself a story-teller with a duty to raise awareness about the realities of the Palestinian experience, culture, and heritage. “Return” to Hadil means the reclamation of the entire 27,027 square kilometers of Palestinian lands. It means returning to her hometown, Safad, and retrieving the home that was stolen from her grandfather. Return means the liberation of all prisoners, women, children, and men. Return means being able to visit Jerusalem without a permit and praying in Al-Aqsa without having to go through any IOF check-points. It means the elimination of borders between Jerusalem, West-Bank, Gaza strip and the 48 Lands.
The final speaker was Halima Aziz, a German-based passionate Palestinian artist and Design student. Born in 1999, her mother is from Tulkarm and her father is from Gaza. She was born in Germany but spent her childhood in Gaza, Palestine. Halima experienced Israel's military assault on Gaza in 2008 and survived it. In 2009, she moved back to Germany and by the age of 17 years-old she started to paint about Palestine. In Germany, she noticed that just few people knew about what is happening in Palestine, and this is how she started to paint about it. She is proud to be a Palestinian and showing her culture through her paintings. Her artwork emphasises and expresses her feelings and emotions towards what she experienced in Palestine. She’s also expressing what the Palestinians are still experiencing and have to go through. "I believe that through my art and other art from amazing Palestinian artists, people will understand more clearly how we as Palestinians feel and what we have to go through. Everyone should care about it because it’s a human right issue. I hope and believe that one day Palestine will be free and we will return back to our homes.“
The speakers highlighted Naji AlAli’s strong sense of belonging. Naji is an important figure not just because of his art but also his life story. In 1995, he made an exhibition in Kuwait and old man came with the Kuffiyeh and traditional Palestinian dress. Naji left everybody and rushed toward the man to hug him, in a symbolic gesture epitomizing his strong bond with Palestine and sense of belonging to his people.
The speakers highlighted how Naji’s love for Palestine and the Palestinian culture made him feel that the Nakba of 1948 and the ensuing challenges are a personal problem. His sense of belonging is the power that made him a legend.
The artists agreed that Naji represents the unshakable truth and the courage to speak the truth. “The very fact that he was targeted and eventually assassinated speaks to the power of art in infiltrating society and influencing the public opinion”, said one of the speakers.
They further highlighted the renowned reputation of Handala and his symbolic presence in art and culture. From approximately 1975 through 1987, Naji Al-Ali created cartoons that depict the complexities of the plight of Palestinian refugees. These cartoons are still relevant today and Handala, the refugee child who is present in every cartoon, remains a potent symbol of the struggle of the Palestinian people for justice and self-determination.
Naji Al-Ali wrote: “The child Handala is my signature, everyone asks me about him wherever I go. I gave birth to this child in the Gulf and I presented him to the people. His name is Handala and he has promised the people that he will remain true to himself. I drew him as a child who is not beautiful; his hair is like the hair of a hedgehog who uses his thorns as a weapon. Handala is not a fat, happy, relaxed, or pampered child. He is barefooted like the refugee camp children, and he is an icon that protects me from making mistakes. Even though he is rough, he smells of amber. His hands are clasped behind his back as a sign of rejection at a time when solutions are presented to us the American way."
On 22 July 1987, at least one gunman opened fire on the Palestinian cartoonist and activist Naji al-Ali outside the London office of the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Qabas. After receiving a bullet to the head, Ali was taken to hospital and died more than a month later, on 29 August.
Angered by reports that Israel's Mossad intelligence agency had prior knowledge of the plans to kill Ali, Britain's then-prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, expelled Israeli diplomats and shut down the spy agency's London headquarters. Nevertheless, no one has been charged with Ali's murder,
Naji Salim Hussain al-Ali was born in the village of al-Shajara in Galilee, in Mandate Palestine, in 1937, before the creation of Israel. At the age of 10, as Zionist armed groups encroached on his home village, Ali and his family fled north to Lebanon, taking refuge at the Ain al-Hilweh camp in the southern city of Sidon.
Recalling the experience, Ali wrote: "I was a child of ten when we came to Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp. We were hungry, dazed and barefoot. Life in the camp was unbearable, full of daily humiliation, ruled by poverty and despair."