From the Editors
As a person who grew up in a diasporic Palestinian family, there have always been symbols around me that reminded me of Palestine. My grandparents’ homes are adorned with them; from framed pictures of gateways in Jerusalem’s Old City, to mini sculptures of the Dome of the Rock mosque, they are all remnants of their memory of an occupied homeland. Such symbols were all intelligible to me except for one relic that I could not comprehend at the time, as a teenager still educating myself on a long and convoluted history. This relic was an image of a boy with short spikes for hair, his hands crossed, with only his back visible; it was not necessarily a beautiful illustration, but his picture sprung up often.
The boy’s image was always coupled with something related to the Palestinian struggle; therefore, it was clear that this was a highly iconic symbol in the Palestinian collective identity. I was embarrassed to not be aware of him, but I eventually mustered up the courage to ask my aunt about him. I found out that his name is Handala, and he is a cartoon created by the late Naji Al-Ali, a Palestinian political cartoonist.
Al-Ali was displaced from his home village of Al-Shajara during the Nakba, or the catastrophe, that displaced over 750,000 indigenous Palestinians during the creation of the Israeli settler-colonial state in 1948; this process of ethnic cleansing continues today. Thus, Zionist militias destroyed Al-Shajara, along with 480 other Palestinian villages. Al-Ali’s family’s expulsion from their homeland forced them to live in the Ain Al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon; it was an event that shaped his entire life and political consciousness, and one for which he never saw justice.
Al-Ali expressed his feelings of loss and exile through art. Time magazine once dubbed him a man that “draws with human bones.” With these human bones, Al-Ali created Handala, both to symbolize his own lost childhood in the refugee camps, on a personal level, and to symbolize resistance to all forms of oppression. Born a Palestinian, Handala is meant not only to represent Palestinian resistance to colonial Zionism, but evolved to represent a more universal human consciousness.
This cartoon boy is meant to be ten years old: Naji Al-Ali’s age upon his expulsion from Palestine. A kind of colonized counterpart to Peter Pan, Handala is frozen in time, as Al-Ali noted that he ceased to age after the Palestinian exodus of 1948. He is supposed to be seventy-four-years old by now, but the tragedy he suffered has suspended him in a state in which “the laws of nature do not apply to him.” Handala is simultaneously theWretched of the Earth, the colonized, the poor, the oppressed, and the exiled; his bare feet illustrate the poverty experienced in the refugee camps and, as such, his class consciousness. The similar but antipodal Disney character lives in a land of fantasy, a magical world where a child can remain the same for eternity; yet for Handala, his kind of Neverland is one created by a colonial anti-fantasy, and when one is liberated, they can age, flourish, and finally live a childhood. Peter Pan is metaphorically Handala’s opposite; the former constantly chooses to be a child, the latter is dying to age.
The word “Handala” in Arabic literally means “bitterness,” as it is also the name of a shrub that grows in the desert, and Al-Ali meant for the name to reflect the tides of the Arab world. Handala’s existence continues, despite his creator’s passing. As long as the now five to seven million Palestinian refugees remain where they are, and as long as the Israeli apartheid system continues, Handala will remain ten years old, and will continue his sumoud (defiance) against them. We saw him this year when over 2,500 Palestinian Handalas in Israeli prisons went on hunger strike, we continue to see him as Palestinians protest against the occupation, and we still see him wafting in the refugee camps which have continued to exist, their residents waiting to return to their permanent livelihoods. He was there when Palestinians and allies took part in a Global March to Jerusalem this year, as well as when refugees in Lebanon were shot and killed by Israeli forces when they tried to return home on the Nakba day commemoration of last year. He was the one refugee that also attempted to return and yelled,“I’m going back to my country!” as he was detained. He is, at once, both the physical and sentimental key that the internally and externally displaced Palestinians still hold.
This potent symbol’s clutched hands and back facing the world are intended by its artist to be an affront to solutions presented to Palestinians in “the American way.” Indeed, these solutions are offered to this day, including the non-existent two-state solution in the name of a realpolitik that would safeguard the continued existence of a settler-colonial, apartheid state.
Handala’s sumoud will not go unrewarded, despite all of the counter-forces that are trying to suppress his liberation. For example, U.S. Senator Mark Kirk’s recently passed resolution which labels only Palestinians “directly displaced” by Israeli ethnic cleansing in 1948, but not their descendants, as ‘refugees,’ will not harm the continued demand for the Right of Return. This was a violent act, especially coming from the government that maintains its stream of funding to the Israeli state that has caused and continued the Palestinian exile in refugee camps. Such a policy would trim the number of Palestinians with refugee status significantly, from the United State’s perspective, and cut funding they receive through the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). It would also blatantly attempt to drop the (International Law-guaranteed) right of Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral homeland, by suggesting that only a minority of them are refugees.
Al-Ali’s signature cartoon is multi-faceted, but most importantly, he is indigenous; not presenting a “claim” to Palestinian land, as some have suggested, but showcasing a material reality caused by a continuous project of exile. He is the foil to Peter Pan: a person with agency despite hegemonic attempts to suppress him and his identity. Indeed, he is a boy who does not espouse a smile or visceral contentment, but has a just cause that has garnered allies the world over.
He stands, with his bare feet and crossed hands, against anything that would sell short his right to full justice. He knows that indigeneity is not something to be determined by the white man by way of the “international community,” and that the memories, the stories passed on for generations, and the land that the Palestinians once lived upon will not vanish. He knows that the last sixty-four years of human resilience were not futile. His experience with the Nakba is not historical or a distant memory; but it is on going. It is a past and current wrong that needs righting. It is an experience that has rendered millions of children with an inability to age. Indeed, it is not an “event” as such, but an everyday fact.
Legislation, such as this recent Senate bill, which tries to erase the Palestinian Handala as an indigenous person with a right to live in his ancestral homeland, are both an affirmation of the threat he poses to white supremacy and the need to facilitate his disappearance. As American indigenous scholar Andrea Smith writes in her “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” indigenous people must “always be disappearing, in order to allow non-indigenous peoples rightful claim over this land. Through this logic of genocide, non-Native peoples then become the rightful inheritors of all that was indigenous-land, resources, indigenous spirituality, or culture.” This disappearance of native peoples is thus endemic to any colonial ideology, including Israeli and American colonialism. Therefore, the native’s voice, his continued existence as such, and his demand for justice must be sidelined, ignored, and made invisible.
In light of such attempts to bring about his disappearance, Handala’s strongest weapon is the politics of memory. As Joseph Massad writes in his piece titled “Resisting the Nakba,” the Palestinian people have “succeeded in overthrowing Zionist official memory.” He writes:
For Zionists, the very name “Palestinian” functions as some magical incantation that could obliterate them at the existential level. They are not necessarily wrong in their impression, for the name Palestinian is itself the strongest form of resistance against their official memory. The name “Palestinian” has also been generative of continuities in Palestinian culture and life, in Palestinian identity and nationality, things that Israel had hoped it obliterated completely and whose survival will always threaten its mnemonic operation of inventing a fictional memory of non-Palestine, of non-Palestinians.
Thereby, this renders his very existence as a Palestinian an undeniably potent challenge to Zionism’s colonial construction of the invisibility of the indigenous population. Hence, the re-writing of reality and history of Palestine as a fantastical “land without a people for a people without a land,” attempts to construct settlers as indigenous and vice versa.
The existence of the Palestinian Handala, the refugee, the exiled, and the indigenous makes the Right of Return the most important tenet of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. It is the central demand for confronting historical and current injustices. Therefore, the economic and political pressure on Israel must not and cannot stop until the refugees return to their homeland. This right remains at the core of Palestinian demands, as Dr. Salman Abu-Sitta put it, “It is sacred because no force or miracle will convince the Palestinians that the land they and their ancestors lived on for centuries is not theirs.” It is a right that seeks to mitigate the wrongs imposed on Palestine in the form of settler-colonialism, ethnic cleansing, military occupation, inhumane siege, and apartheid, and to create a land where people can live in equality without colonial privileges given to a part of the population.
Handala stands on the precipice. His feet will soon experience the warmth of shoes. His body will cease to stand still, but will move, will march, and will return. He will finally be able to use his key. He will be animate, and he will witness the checkpoints, the walls, and the guns dissolve. He will see the elevation of the human spirit.
The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was quoted as saying, “We have triumphed over the plan to expel us from history.” Indeed, Handala has triumphed, his existence can no longer be denied, and his return is inevitable. Thereby, Handala’s Neverland is not a fantasy, nor a dream, and neither is it a request. It is a promise that he will grow older, that the laws of nature will apply to him, and soon. Fairuz put it beautifully in her song, “Sanarji’ou Yawman,” when she sings, “We will return, the nightingale told me.”
The nightingale affirmed it to me.
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