A ragged, barefoot boy, hands clutched behind his back, stands witness to the scene before him. The small boy in the cartoon is Naji al-‘Ali, popular cartoonist, at age 10, when he was expelled from his native Palestine to Lebanon in 1948. Naji used to say that the boy was a symbol of the Palestinian people and, more personally, of his aborted youth. “They tell little children to turn their backs, but I don’t turn. The boy is the age I was when I left Palestine, and he will not grow up until I return.”
I met Naji al-‘Ali (born ‘Ali al-Adhami) nearly two years ago in Detroit. We talked about his work and I asked to take his photograph for publication. He refused. He wanted to be represented through his cartoons and, besides, he confided, he thought it was safer not to have his image published. “Don’t be surprised if I’m killed a month from now,” he warned me. “I’m a marked man, but I’m relaxed.” Last month he died in exile after several weeks in a coma. An assassin shot him in the head on July 22 as he entered the London offices of Al-Qabas newspaper. I wonder how he knew and why I didn’t ask him more.
I was introduced to the soft-spoken, small-framed man near the hotel convention exhibition of his original sketches. I was familiar with his cartoons from my years at Al-Fajr newspaper in Jerusalem, where we often reprinted and translated them into English for our weekly edition. On many occasions, we felt his caricatures most closely and intelligently commented on and reflected the popular mood among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In person he was humble and politically astute.
Naji sketched out a brief biography: born in al-Shajara village in northern Palestine, expelled to Lebanon, where most of his family still lives in ‘Ain al-Hilweh camp. Like most camp kids, Naji got his start drawing on the walls of the camp, and later on the walls of Lebanese prisons where he was incarcerated — without trial — for Palestinian nationalist politics, for brief stints from 1958 to 1963. “I wanted to be a painter, but I never studied academically, and then I decided to become a caricaturist. Paintings are only for special occasions, but political cartoons can raise people’s spirits on a daily basis. I saw that it was my duty to agitate people, using simple language.”
Though he felt politically closest to the Palestinian left, Naji told me, he consciously chose to publish in mainstream dailies. He published regularly in Al-Safir (Beirut) until he was forced to leave Lebanon in 1983, and for the last several years in the Kuwaiti daily, Al-Qabas. “My political sympathies are known [in particular, his sharp criticism of all the Arab and Iranian regimes and the PLO leadership], but I won’t give my work to the papers of the organized left. If I worked for a specific line, the group would think I was theirs, and the masses would believe I was associated with that group; but when I publish in a daily, it gives me independence. I’m more free and all the democratic papers publish me anyway. In addition, this way I’m not an economic burden on the left.”
Naji al-‘Ali was such a popular cartoonist in the Arab world that publications that “loathed [my] politics” also published him. Hundreds of his drawings were stuffed away in the drawers of newspapers in Arab capitals — waiting, said Naji, “for a year or more, until the position of the government changed.” Naji seemed really excited when he told me about plans to study animation techniques, believing he could reach an even wider audience by videocassette. Like most artists living under repressive circumstances, Naji relied heavily on symbolism, which he called “a secret language between me and the readers…. Most of the newspapers are also not free.” His most well-known symbol — the boy with his hands behind his back — wandered where Naji, the man, could not go: Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Kuwait, Palestine — all countries where he was forbidden entry.
Naji took his family to Kuwait in 1983 after they left the “Phalangist threat in Lebanon…. Beirut was where I felt most at home.” But once again the authorities were uncomfortable with his work. “They expelled me from Kuwait (to London) under pressure from Saudi Arabia and maybe even from the PLO…. They knew there’d be a big fuss if I was killed inside — easier to pin the blame on someone. If I’m killed outside — in London — you couldn’t easily know who did it.”