Saturday, 10 April 2010

Review: A Child in Palestine, The Cartoons of Naji-al-Ali

A Child in Palestine is toilet reading for the politically conscience. Not to trivialise the book or it's subject, but its shape and size and well pieced together chapters make it ideal toilet reading. Naji-al-Ali was a Palestinian political cartoonist who was shot in the head outside the London offices of the Kuwait newspaper he was working for in 1987 (after he was expelled for good from Lebanon). Born in the Galilee village of al-Shajara irn either 1936 0r 1937 and was expelled from the country (along with hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians) in the 1948 war that created the state of Israel. His family eventually settled down in a refugee camp in Southern Lebanon. Being no stranger to the refugee experience it comes as no surprise that he was most famous for drawing the figure of the Palestinian refugee child . This figure came to represent a silent but defiant witness of the atrocities committed against the Palestinian people by the Jews (as well as the hypocrisy and vested interests of the Palestinian government). In the passionate, well-informed, and fascinating text between the images, al-Ali's work is placed in a broader cultural, historical, social context that gives you a rich lesson in Palestinian politics and resistance, but also shows how al-Ali himself was an important part of the fabric of Palestine. Hanthala the refugee became a symbol for the Palestinian people that would sprang up everywhere (often in graffiti) and al-Ali is often spoken about with the same reverence Alsatians reserve for their best poets. In the book we are given excellent reasoning behind Hanthala who is never allowed to grow old because to do so would normalize the plight of the refugees, and who is made to look ugly, like the child no one would want, which helped the Palestinians who felt poor and unwanted, identify with him all the more.

The drawings themselves are simple and bold, but make use of a scratchy and unrestrained cross-hatching technique that you don't often see in the likes of Western editorial cartooning. There is a real sense of place in al-Ali's work and he isn't afraid to make his cartoons morbid and bleak as opposed to always chasing the punchline, although when a punchline is present it is often put in place to show the absurdity of the situation. As this is editorial cartooning, al-Ali deals unchanging stereotypes, his Arab leaders look like fat shapeless blogs while his Jew's come across as maniacal gnomes. Although his constant portrayal of the heroic, the tragic, Palestinian common man could perhaps be construed as being a bit reductive at times. To show humour in the face of unequal odds is a great strength but it is clear from this book al-Ali did not want to take the plight of the Palestinians lying down and as the book progresses Hanthala becomes a more active figure, raising his fist defiantly, throwing stones, sounding bugles, and raising flags.
However as al-Ali was never closely tied with any of the political factions in Palestine (although there were rumours as to where his sympathies laid) he could perhaps have been accused of substituting action for mere words and pictures. Although in a country where mere words and pictures can lead to imprisonment, expulsion and death al-Ali is a brave torch for the silenced minority.

(I am aware of my slight bias towards the subject of this book due mainly to the facts gathered by Joe Saccos Palestine, and perhaps I shouldn't jump the gun in my judgements of the Palestine/Israel conflict because the facts I have gathered so far are of course ever so slightly objective and I don't know enough about the situation to make a valid assessment of it, however that doesn't change the fact that this book is an important piece of history and worthy of holding up against the current situation)

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