Michel Faber praises the work of a visionary Palestinian cartoonist
- The Guardian, Saturday 11 July 2009
The pen is mightier than the sword, they say. The Palestinian political cartoonist Naji al-Ali certainly hoped it might be, and once drew a sword with a pen nib at its point. More characteristic of his peculiar genius for symbolism is the drawing used on the cover of this book,
in which the pen stands upright, its nib doubling as a candle flame.
It’s a potently simple image, yet complex: the dripping wax suggests sorrowful tears; the pen’s upright balance is perilously unsupported, like the Palestinian state itself; yet the backdrop of night sky, with its foully obscured moon, seems to reference the Amnesty International
catchphrase about it being better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
Naji al-Ali steadfastly declined to make speeches, allowing his cartoons to speak for him. I don’t know whether he felt, as many visual artists do, that images are diluted by “explanation”, or
whether he figured he might stay alive a bit longer if he (and Hanthala) functioned as mute witnesses rather than quotable demagogues. In any event, his luck ran out in 1987, when he was shot in the head outside the London offices of a Kuwaiti newspaper he was working for. Reportedly, he’d recently been warned by the PLO to “correct” his attitude to Yasser Arafat – a warning to which he responded by lampooning Arafat once more.
The “Zionist settler project” or “Zionist entity” drives out the “indigenous” population, but the indomitable Hanthala “proudly declares that he is prepared to grasp his Kalashnikov to find the answers”.
Maybe because I’m aware that Israelis have their own truth which will always be Israel, and the words therefore smell of absolutist non-communication. Or maybe it’s because al-Ali’s artistry nuanced and universalised the political views he undoubtedly shared with the editors of this book.
diplomacy, describes how “devastated” al-Ali was by the 1982 Lebanon invasion and notes that in the subsequent cartoons, Hanthala “lost his cool”. That’s one way of putting it. Hanthala stops watching and starts flagwaving (literally), kicking the Israeli map and throwing rocks. The crucified Jesus yanks a nailed hand from the crossbeam to throw a stone in support of the intifada. It is in such images that one gets a sense of al-Ali being unhinged, perhaps, by the unrelenting scale of Palestinian misery, and
For much of his working life, al-Ali insisted that it was essential to retain hope. Some of his later cartoons suggest that he found it increasingly impossible to cling to that ideal, and that instead of chronicling the endurance of the Palestinian people during a horrible phase of their history, he may have felt he was paying witness – with Hanthala-like impotence – to a gradual genocide, a final solution that would exterminate forever his boyhood dreams of homecoming. If that’s so, then this book will have two legacies. First, it will introduce British readers to al-Ali’s formidable talent, albeit with a selection that doesn’t do full justice to his greatness. Second, and very sadly, it may serve as documentary proof that the sword is mightier than the pen.
posted by annie at 8:17 PM