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Cartoon of Palestinian Boy Inspires, Years After Creator’s Murder

When pro-Palestinian student protesters took over Hamilton Hall at Columbia University last month and renamed it “Hind’s Hall,” the banner they unfurled contained images of a cartoon character created over 50 years ago that symbolizes the resilience of Palestinians.

On either side of the text were two images of a barefoot boy with tattered clothes and spiky hair, his back turned to us.

The character is called Handala (variously transliterated as Hanzala or Handzala), a name derived from a native plant that is deep-rooted, persistent and bears bitter fruit, and has become a potent symbol of the Palestinian struggle. The image was created by the Palestinian political cartoonist Naji Al-Ali in 1969, one of the most widely read cartoonists in the Arab world, who was murdered in London in 1987. (The case remains unsolved.)

Handala is 10 years old, the same age that Ali was when he became a refugee in 1948.

The Palestinian political cartoonist Naji Al-Ali created Handala in 1969. The character was perpetually 10 years old.Credit…European Pressphoto Agency

After the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, also known as the Yom Kippur War, Ali exclusively depicted Handala with his back turned, a gesture that transformed him into a silent witness of the horrors and outrages going on around him. The stance, according to the cartoonist, represented a rejection of the political machinations of foreign nations when it came to the fate of ordinary Palestinians.

Margaret Olin, a religious studies scholar at the Yale Divinity School and co-author of “The Bitter Landscapes of Palestine,” has been photographing Handala’s appearance in murals and as graffiti during her visits to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank over the past decade. “It’s become a symbol of the whole Palestinian movement to return to their former homes,” she said in a telephone interview.

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