Shooting the Witness: The cartoons of Naji Al-Ali

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The Political Cartoon Gallery, London, until 12 April

As a Palestinian child growing up in Kuwait, the cartoons of Naji Al-Ali in my father's daily newspaper had a powerful effect on me. At the time I was a typical Arab kid: acutely aware of our plight yet blissfully ignorant of the endemic political issues plaguing the Palestinian struggle. I felt that these seemingly simple cartoons affected me in a personal and private way, which is exactly what every one of his millions of admirers felt too.

It is this aspect of his work that showed his brilliance: through the medium of political cartoons, Naji Al-Ali managed to transcend verbose political discussions enmeshed in newspaper columns and free the message, stripping it into its most basic elements and deconstructing any trailing webs of deceit.

"My father's works were characterised with an unwavering commitment to the rights of the Palestinian people and the portrayal of the injustice that befell them in 1948 and which unfortunately continued in other forms in their diaspora," said Khalid Al-Ali, Naji's son and one of the organisers of the exhibition.

"Long before the Oslo accords, he had foreseen the disastrous policies adopted by the PLO and the Arab regimes and their present grim consequences. Furthermore, he devotedly and clearly aligned himself with the poor and the underprivileged in a region where the gap between the haves and have-nots widened stratospherically in the oil era.

"It is also worth noting that during his lifetime he had dealt with all the major events that were occurring in the region such as the Lebanese civil war, the Camp David agreement, the first Gulf War, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, etc. In short, the Palestinian refugee, for him, was not confined to a specific geographical area but transcended into the whole of the oppressed Arab masses."

Al-Ali's pen favoured no organisation or political party: if and when someone slipped up, no man, party or regime would be spared his ire. While this gave his work integrity and respect, it created enemies among those who did not want to be exposed for what they really were.

Another interesting feature of his work is the presence of a young boy (Hanthala), with his ragged clothes, uncombed hair and his back turned to the reader looking towards home, Palestine, witnessing the event portrayed. This boy is said to represent Al-Ali who left Palestine as a child in 1948 as the Israelis unleashed waves of terror to drive Palestinians out from their homeland. Since then time has stopped for the child. Hanthala, like any child, is innocent, uncorrupted. He speaks his mind freely and openly without any consideration to the powerful. He represents Al-Ali's conscience, making sure that the artist does not deviate from his sacred and just cause.

Al-Ali's coverage of the conflict, although stark, was not bleak. He portrayed the resilience of the Palestinians resisting the occupation, and we often see powerful representations of women defying the Israelis and refusing to acquiesce.

The exhibition shows a selection of Al-Ali's work, and even though no display can do justice to the decades of output, one gets an overall view of the range and artistry of the work. Most of the exhibited cartoons have a timeless quality since they showed up the causes rather than the disease, US-backed Israeli occupation of Arab lands, class struggle, pompous and weak Arab leaders, and oil seeping like blood everywhere.

Naji Al-Ali was assassinated in London in 1987, and the killers have not been brought to justice. While he may be gone, his work resonates powerfully with many millions of people.

"His works are still very much pertinent to what the Middle East is still going through," commented Khalid Al-Ali. "In many cases it seems as if they have been drawn today and not over 20 years ago. Hanthala, the barefoot child he had created is a symbol which is used on T-shirts, postcards, key-rings, necklaces and drawn on the walls in the Palestinian refugee camps in the Arab World."