25 November 2021

Srulik, meet Handala


by Gil Zohar


JERUSALEM - Driving east from Jerusalem on the winding Jordanian-built road that once led down from the Mount of Olives to the Dead Sea, one passes through a series of Arab suburbs and soon comes to a dead end in front of the grotesque West Bank barrier.

Called Geder ha-Hafrada (separation fence) in Hebrew and jidar al-fasl al-�unsuri (Apartheid wall) in Arabic, the insurmountable (if still incomplete) barrier has no doubt contributed to a reduction in terror and car theft. However, my objection to it is more existential: like some of those in West Berlin who spray-painted their protest for freedom on the Bundesrepublik side of die Mauer even as armed GDR guards used deadly force to prevent anyone from approaching the Wall�s eastern side, I believe all walls must fall.

It is a metaphor that has repeated itself from Joshua�s encircling of Jericho, to the Berlin Wall and its remaining East Side gallery, to Garth Hewitt�s ballad: �They�ve Cancelled Christmas in Bethlehem� - about the stranglehold the wall has placed on both day-to-day life and religious pilgrimage in the place where Jesus the Prince of Peace was born 2,000 years ago.

The world today is caught between two conflicting ideologies: The growing trend of some democratic countries to join in unions with open borders, joint legal systems, and a common currency, of which the European Union - notwithstanding its problems - is a great success. Then, there is the trend of other countries - many repressive and undemocratic - to defend their borders with minefields and walls. Like John Lennon, I prefer the first vision - of a growing global union without barriers. Imagine that.

Thus armed with the tools of the graffiti artist - an exacto knife, cardboard and spray paint - I recently made my way to Abu Dis with my friend Haj Ibrahim Abu el-Hawa, my daughter Bareket, and fellow artist Eva Feld to make our mark. Reasoning that a picture is worth a thousand words, we chose a symbolic image whose meaning is unequivocal.

The image we created depicts �Handala� raising hands with �Srulik� (see picture). The two iconic cartoon characters are respectively well known by Palestinians and Israelis; yet, each is equally unknown by the other. It is a symmetry of ignorance of the other�s narrative that will have to be overcome before true peace can be achieved.

Allow me to explain the mirror meanings of the twin caricatures.

Handala - an omnipresent image on T-shirts and key chains in the aswaq (plural of souq) of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip - was created by Naji al-�Ali in 1969. A 10-year-old child - driven in 1948 from his Galilee village of ash-Shajara (14 km from Tiberias) to the �Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon - al-�Ali went on to become the leading political cartoonist in the Arab world.

Before being assassinated in London in 1987, al-�Ali produced more than 40,000 bitingly sarcastic cartoons lampooning Arab leaders and lamenting the stateless status of his people. His autobiographical image of Handala - a barefoot, faceless, refugee youth - remains a potent symbol of the struggle of the Palestinian people for justice and self-determination.

Al-�Ali wrote: �Handala is my signature. I gave birth to this child in the [Persian] Gulf. He was born 10 years old, and he will always be 10. At that age, I left my homeland, and when he returns, Handala will still be 10, and then he will start growing up. The laws of nature do not apply to him. He is unique. Things will become normal again when the homeland returns.�

Impish Srulik - a diminutive of �Yisrael� (Israel) - carries an equally rich symbolism in depicting nascent Israel and, in particular, its native-born �Sabras�. The illustrated character was first drawn in 1956 by the cartoonist Kariel Gardosh, better known by his nom de plume Dosh. The Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor drew Srulik for decades in the pages of the daily Maariv until his death in 2000.

Dosh generally depicted Srulik as a young man wearing a �kovatembel� hat, �Biblical sandals�, and khaki shorts. He drew him as a pioneering Zionist and lover of the Land of Israel, a dedicated farmer who in time of need dons an IDF uniform and goes out to defend the State of Israel - equipped with an Uzi machine gun. In contrast to the anti-Semitic stereotype of the weak or cunning Jew, which appeared in the Nazi weekly Der St�rmer and other European and Arab newspapers and journals, Dosh�s Srulik was a proud, strong and sympathetic Jewish character.

Shalom Rosenfeld, editor of Maariv from 1974 to 1980, wrote: �Srulik became not only a mark of recognition of [Dosh�s] amazing daily cartoons, but an entity standing on its own, as a symbol of the Land of Israel - beautiful, lively, innocent... and having a little chutzpah, and naturally also of the new Jew.�

Introducing Srulik to Palestinians and Handala to Israelis is not a bad way to begin to redress each side�s ignorance of the other�s narrative. The ways in which they epitomize the historical and cultural narrative of their own people imbue these cartoons with an impact stronger than words.

When a peace treaty is ultimately implemented between Israel and Palestine (as I�m sure it must), perhaps the image of Handala and Srulik holding hands could be adopted as a neutral symbol of co-existence. Their creators Naji al-�Ali and Kariel Gardosh both knew firsthand of persecution and exile; the iconic figures they bequeathed us share the hope of living in freedom and peace. When peace finally arrives, new and emotionally satisfying images and symbols will need to be created to bridge the chasm between Jews and Arabs in our broken Promised Land.