The Palestinian boy who remains 10 years old

Handala is often reproduced – this image is from a wall in Bil'in, West Bank Palobserver, under a CC License

Palestinian political cartoonist Naji al-Ali was born in 1937 in al-Shajara, a small Palestinian village in the Galilee. In May 1948, the village was completely destroyed by Jewish forces, and its 893 residents were exiled. al-Ali’s family escaped to Ayn al-Helwa, a refugee camp in southern Lebanon. He was only ten years old.

While in Lebanon, he acquired a passion for drawing, and began expressing his political thoughts and feelings, as well as his pain, through art – a talent for which he is now well-known

In 1969, when al-Ali was working in Kuwait, he created his most famous character: Meet Handala*, a ten year old boy.

Shown only from the back, his clothes are ragged, and his feet are bare. His hair sticks up like a hedgehog’s quills, and his hands remain clasped behind him. His face is a mystery.

Handala is a Palestinian refugee.

On 15 May each year, the day that Israel officially declared independence 65 years ago, Palestinians around the world commemorate their Nakba, their Catastrophe.

During Israel’s creation, between 750,000 and 900,000 Palestinians were expelled from over 500 villages and became refugees.

An additional 150,000 Palestinians remained within what are now Israel’s borders. Palestinian citizens of Israel currently make up 20 per cent of the population (1.6 million), however 427,000 of them are considered internally displaced persons (IDPs) – people not living on their land of origin.

Handala represents every Palestinian who suffered, and still suffers because of the Nakba.

Describing Handala, al-Ali said: ‘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…his hands are clasped behind his back as a sign of rejection at a time when solutions are presented to us the American way.’

al Naji still has vivid memories of home: ‘I feel that I can recall and sense every bush, every stone, every house and every tree I passed when I was a child in Palestine.

‘The character of Handala was a sort of icon that protected my soul from falling whenever I felt sluggish or I was ignoring my duty. That child was like a splash of fresh water on my forehead, bringing me to attention and keeping me from error and loss. He was the arrow of the compass, pointing steadily towards Palestine,’ he told novelist Radwa Ashour of al-Muwagaha, in 1985.

But the Nakba is not over yet. According to the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU), 93 per cent of Israel’s land is owned by the Israel Land Authority and Jewish National Fund. Thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel, including Bedouin, live in villages which are not recognized by the state, even though the villages were built pre-1948. They do not receive basic services such as water and electricity. Up to 30,000 Bedouin face eviction from their desert homes.

Currently, over 500,000 Jewish settlers live in settlements and outposts in Palestine, built on privately-owned, confiscated lands. Since 1967, approximately 27,000 Palestinian homes in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem have been demolished. Over 500 Israeli checkpoints or roadblocks or other barriers hinder Palestinian movement around the West Bank at any given time.

Handala was born a little boy of ten years old. ‘He will always be ten years old. At that age, I left my homeland, and when he returns, Handala will still be ten, and then he will start growing up,’ explained al-Ali. ‘The laws of nature do not apply to him. He is unique. Things will become normal again when the homeland returns.’ 

Naji al-Ali was shot on August 22, 1987 outside the London office of al-Qabas, the Kuwaiti newspaper that he worked for. Five weeks later he died, never to return to his homeland. Were al-Ali alive today, he would be 76. Sixty-five years after he was ‘born’, Handala is still 10 years old.

*Also known as Handhala and Hanzala.