The Role of Comics in the Palestinian Narrative

palestine comic

HandalaPalestine has many calling cards: the olive tree branch, the golden Dome of the Rock, the kufiyyeh, et cetera. . . . But all are arguably surpassed by Handala, the little refugee kid drawn by the late cartoonist Naji al-Ali. With his back turned against a world that turned its gaze away from the Palestinians starting with the 1917 Balfour Declaration that spoken only for Jewish self-determination, Handala has become the quintessential mark of Palestine solidarity from graffiti on the Israeli separation barrier to necklaces donned by activists. Naji al-Ali, whose life was tragically cut short by a PLO angry with his dissenting views, may have marked the first entry of comic and graphic images in Palestinian storytelling.

Another notable contributor is the Maltese-American graphic novelist Joe Sacco, who is unsurpassed in harnessing the comic book to extraordinary effect in his widely acclaimed Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza; the former of which may be the best introduction to those unfamiliar with Palestine’s fate under Zionism.

Sacco's Palestine
Sacco’s Palestine

Baddawi 

The graphic novel was also the chosen medium for Palestinian-America Leila Abdelrazaq, whom we interviewed. The Chicago-born child of a refugee from Lebanon’s Baddawi camp, Abdelrazaq was writing individual comics for her blog when she was approached with the idea of producing a full volume. That graphic novel became Baddawi, which relates her father’s upbringing in the camp and Israeli-Lebanese collaboration against the Palestinian refugees.

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Abdelrazaq has become a prolific illustrator with a very distinct style. Below are two images from a collection produced during the annual Palestine Festival of Literature and “represent a range of responses to the festival, from feeling at home to feeling out of place, moments of safety and moments of vulnerability, and the uncomfortable reality of “occupation tourism.'”

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The young artist has also produced a solidarity design emblazoned on a t-shirt in support of Palestinian political activist Rasmea Odeh, who has been symbolically prosecuted persecuted by the U.S. government in an effort to clampdown and intimidate pro-Palestinian rights activism in America.

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Palestine In America

Palestinian-American Marguerite Dabaie‘s comics and illustrations reflect a broad interest and even varied aesthetic styles, but Palestine is a recurring theme for the author. She has published two short graphic novels about growing up as an American of Palestinian heritage: The Hookah Girl Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

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In the short graphic The Hummus Wars, Dabaie adopts a sardonic voice toward Western representations of Arabs, the expectations placed on Arab-Americans, and the gastronomic feud between Israel and Lebanon. hummuswars1hummus1hummus2hummuswars3

West-East Solidarity

French graphic novelist Maximilien Le Roy has distinguished his body of work by focusing on the underdog struggles of the Global South or Third World liberation movements along with those Westerners who are in solidarity. Le Roy has drawn comics on Gaza, the war in Indochina and France’s occupation of Algeria. Not translated into English, his graphic novel Faire le Mur (Taking on the Wall) is about a 22-year-old Palestinian man in the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem who finds relief from the confined and closed reality of occupation through his drawings. His imaginative escape begins to take on real life urgency when he meets a visiting young French woman and has to risk climbing over the Israeli wall if he’s to win her over.

As part of the first Palestine Comics Festival in 2009, Le Roy taught a comics workshop at the Aida camp.

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Dissent from Zionism

And, lastly, there is Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me by graphic novelist Harvey Pekar. Mr Pekar was already an established figure and even pioneer of the graphic novel by the time he turned his attention to Israel/Palestine. The comic was publishes posthumously and is a personal account of Mr. Pekar’s conflicted relationship with Israel as an American Jew growing up in a pro-Zionist household in a larger pro-Zionist community who strongly dissented from Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.

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The following are selections from two Palestinians who have not (yet) produced graphic novels, but have drawn either political cartoons or what are called webcomics; short, self-published comics.

Mohammad Saba’aneh from Jenin was arrested in 2013 crossing back into the West Bank from Jordan via the Allenby Bridge. As is customary for Palestinians detained by Israel, he was held for several days without any formal charges – a detention renewed by Israel’s military court – due to Israeli suspicions that the young cartoonist (who in 2010 was awarded an official trip to the U.S. as part of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program) provided unspecified material to an unidentified “hostile organization.”

That hostile organization turned out to be a Jordanian publishing company that Saba’aneh contacted in the hopes of published a volume of his cartoons. Since the publisher previously put out a book on Palestinian prisoners, Israel deemed contact with the publisher a national security threat. No satirist could make this up. The artist was sentenced to five months imprisonment and a 10,000 shekels ($2,600) fine for “contact with a hostile organization.”

His imprisonment for seeking to publish his cartoons did not exactly engender the type of Western solidarity exhibited toward the Charlie Hebdo satirist publication.

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Gaza Facing the killer
Gaza Facing the killer
Israeli Apartheid Wall..
Israeli Apartheid Wall..

Hanzala [Handala]
Hanzala [Handala]
Samir Harb is an architecture and comic who often portrays Palestine through the infrastructure of occupation. In the below comic, Harb illustrates the network of international donations controlled by the Palestinian Authority based in the administrative capital of Ramallah, which has emerged as an affluent bubble geographically and socially divorced from the daily struggles of less fortunate Palestinians with a leadership that lives far more comfortably than average Palestinians.

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By Khelil Bouarrouj

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