Sketching an icon of refugee resilience


HandalaHandala is the eternal child; the eternal 10-year-old refugee child conceived in the fragmented childhood of the late Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali.

In March, I first saw Handala in a painting in the wretched Bourj al Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut; a camp similar to Shatila Camp, where Al-Ali grew up after his family was dispossessed of their home in Al-Shajara village near Nazareth during the 1947 Nakba.

The Nakba, with its symbol of precious keys from stolen or demolished homes (representing the right of return), is the Palestinian Catastrophe in which 750,000 Palestinians were forcefully expelled from their homes, from their beloved ancestral lands and roots by Israeli militia.

In a cartoon, Handala stands under a key hanging around the neck of the crucified Christ. Below is the caption 'Jesus is a Palestinian, says Naji Al-Ali; like all Palestinian people he too dreams of returning to his home in Bethlehem.'

Al-Ali has said of Handala's creation; '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.'

I learnt about Handala while perusing A Child in Palestine: The cartoons of Naji Al-Ali in a Jerusalem bookstore. On the cover Handala stands beside what seems to be a candle taller than him, but is in fact a pen: Al-Ali's pen was such a tour de force for truth that he was assassinated in London in 1987.

The image of this little child reminded me of Michael Leunig's iconic duck and his celebration of innocence as the ground of our conscience or what he calls 'the morality of the heart'.

Handala stands with his little hands clasped behind him silently witnessing the 63-year-wide cinemascope of 'slow motion ethnic cleansing' by Israeli state violence, by Arab and international betrayal and by callous human indifference. As a child he is vulnerable and needs protecting, so to stand by him we must reclaim, with heartfelt honesty, our lost innocence, to imagine what 10-year-old eyes, minds and hearts see and feel when suffering.

In Palestine, Handala is loved and cherished as a symbol of righteous steadfast resistance.

He is everywhere, not only on walls, stickers and T-shirts, but in the eyes of children as they watch their parents humiliated at checkpoints by abrasive Israeli soldiers; in the eyes of children dying of cancer because medicines are blocked from entering Gaza; in a child's scream as her home is obliterated by Israeli missiles or bulldozers; in the fear of 700 children per annum facing judges in Israeli military courts; in the anxiety of children who are spat at and harassed by settlers and soldiers while on their way to and from school; in the sound of sniper bullets fired at children near the Buffer Zone when collecting rubble for money to help their poverty-stricken families.

Handala transcends the page, transcends Palestine. He becomes every suffering child: its hopes, dreams, courage and rights.

'I presented him to the poor and named him Handala as a symbol of bitterness,' said Al-Ali. 'At first, he was a Palestinian child, but his consciousness developed to have a national and then a global and human horizon. He is a simple yet tough child, and this is why people adopted him and felt that he represents their consciousness.'

Handala is the refugee child in detention suspended in an emotional prison barely hanging on to the universal right to protection. Handala is in the eyes of little Seenan watching his parents drown near the illusory safety of Christmas Island. He is the Aboriginal child belittled by Canberra's intervention.

Humankind needs to be led by Handala to a life of conscience, compassion and responsibility. 

Vacy VlaznaDr Vacy Vlazna is Coordinator of Justice for Palestine Matters. She visited Palestine and Beirut earlier this year with APHEDA (Union Aid Abroad).She was Human Rights advisor to the GAM team during during the second round of the Acheh peace talks in Helsinki in February 2005 and was coordinator of the East Timor Justice Lobby as well as serving in the United Nations in East Timor for two years.. 

Topic tags: Vacy Vlazna, Naji Al-Ali, Palestine, cartoonist, Handala, refugee camp, Shatila Camp, Al-Shajara, Nakba



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Existing comments

I feel for Handala - but perhaps he represents all children who are victims of war. He also represents the Israeli children wounded and maimed by Palestinian rockets and he represents Tamil, Sudanese and Somalian children. Every child wounded in war is the victim of horror. I think the sooner the Middle East agrees to a 2 state solution the better. And that means universal agreement on Israel's right to exist and a Palestinian state.
Skye | 06 July 2011

I also feel for Handala . As Vacy Vlazna so movingly writes : " Handala stands with his little hands clasped behind him silently witnessing the 63-year-wide cinemascope of 'slow motion ethnic cleansing' by Israeli state violence, by Arab and international betrayal and by callous human indifference ." The callous human indifference shown towards the Palestinian people seemingly knows no end. Decade after decade after decade the world watches the brutal ethnic cleansing of Palestine by the racist apartheid state, Israel. Every child killed in war - Palestinian or Israeli -is a victim of horror and many hundreds of Palestinian children were killed in the 23 days after boxing day 2008 : that brutal Israeli assault on the trapped people of Gaza. Inhabitants of the world's largest ever concentration camp. Humankind does indeed need " to be led by Handala to a life of conscience, compassion and responsibility."
DAVID HICKS | 06 July 2011

interesting, and touches the heart strings, (for those who have any left) - re a symbol of resistance we knew nothing about, in a country? dominated by a symbol? of domination and exploitation
robert wesley-smith | 07 July 2011

A beautiful article. Indeed, so many children are the innocent victims of insensitive adults, of the criminal weapons' industry, of colonial and imperial powers, unreasonable and selfish politicians, all of these driven by greed, power &/or anger.
Marlene | 07 July 2011

I have often wondered why the British backed the formation of the Jewish state of Israel over 6o years ago. It did not do this for any other religious group. Nor has Britain become involved in other land-grab wars unless gold, diamonds, oil, ancient artefacts, etc were for the taking. But Britain did have a long history of stealing Jewish wealth and then killing and/or exiling Jews from England. This was not so socially acceptable post-WWII so perhaps British financial and military support to give Jews someone else's homeland was a seemingly democratic alternative. The bulldozers and sophisticated weapons have been used against the Palestinians ever since, in a David and Goliath reversal which shames many Jews. Thankyou Dr Vlazna for speaking out about this. We usually hear only of "promised lands" and "god's chosen" - especially by fundamentalists who, as Time reported, are now waiting for Doomsday because of this land-grab!
Annabel | 07 July 2011

This is so sad. I can't believe that the whole world, with very few exceptions, cannot see the injustice of the continued occupation by the Israelis - and the taking of more and more land as each day goes by, all the time saying it is the Palestinians who aren't appropriate partners in peace. Hypocritical in the extreme.
gabi | 07 July 2011

When one reads this about Handala, one hopes it is a fairy tale, something written ages ago about a fictional character that couldn't possibly exist in 2011. Yet, the story of Handala encapsulates exactly what I experienced during the two months that I spent in the West Bank last year....armed Israeli Occupation Force soldiers on many streets, watch-towers with soldiers observing the daily lives of the Palestinians, 3 am raids on houses where young people are seized and put in prison, no reason, no contact with their parents.....Handala is alive and well as long these situations exist.
Marty Morrison | 07 July 2011

Great article. Handala is indeed the epitome of Palestinian and human torment. The article contributes towards the internationalisation of Handala, something that we should be doing. Well done Vancy
Rami Meo | 07 July 2011

What a powerful piece of writing. Whilst it reminds us of the injustice suffered by Palestinian children - and yes Jewish children - this article to me to places where children are dominated, hurting, suffering. I felt rather breathless after reading it. Many thanks
Claude Mostowik msc | 07 July 2011

Naji Al-Ali.

This is who we must remember from this article. Assassinated in 'civilised' times, in a city noted as such, for raising awareness of childhood horror?

This is of even greater tragedy than the children, for if we are not free to raise the issues, even as cartoons, then these issues will continue unabated.

SCOTT | 11 July 2011

Thank you Vacy for such a moving writing, and reminding us of the importance of the interconnection of shared suffering at global level. That way we can express solidarity in a more efficient and stronger way.
ana | 11 July 2011


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