The Arab Roaming the Streets of Tehran
07 Jul 2009 18:06
In Memoriam: Ardeshir Mohassess (1938-2008) Cartoonist: Historian of our fears and frivolities
By HAMID DABASHI in New York | 7 July 2009
It was in late February 2004. Quite tired after a long day, I was hanging out with a number of Palestinian filmmaker friends in front of Khalil Sakkakini Cultural Center in Ramallah. I was waiting for Annemarie Jacir to finish her chores introducing the films we were screening that night. Our friends from Yabous Productions, an East Jerusalem based Palestinian art organization that was hosting us, were expecting us for a late night dinner.
Annemarie and I were in Ramallah for the Palestinian wing of the film festival, "Dreams of a Nation," which we had earlier organized in New York in January 2003. In Palestine, we were screening films in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Nablus, and Gaza City. We were elated, quietly happy.
The weather was cool, the air crisp, and the breeze across the West Bank quite pleasant. It reminded me of the summer nights of Ahvaz, though this was still in February in Palestine. Israeli military jeeps were patrolling the Sakkakini Foundation neighborhood in an inconspicuous way. The soldiers looked like GI Joe figurines--their quiet plasticity visibly robotic. The jeeps cruised quietly around us like they were driving themselves, or else guided by some sort of remote control, a playful child maneuvering them from behind an olive tree nearby for our amusement. A powerful floodlight lit the terrace in front of the Sakkakini Foundation.
"You are Iranian, right?" the young Palestinian filmmaker standing next to me asked. Raed was his name, a soft smile that looked like it had been carved at birth on his youthful face. I told him I was. "What are you doing here," he wondered, with a certain metaphysical tone in his voice; 'Of all places, what are you doing in this particular place,' it's as if he were saying. There was a pleasing sense of wonderment in Raed's voice, punctuated by a knowing smile. He was not expecting an answer; but it was as if knowing the answer, the expression gave him a certain playful satisfaction.
Nothing, I said, answering his metaphysical ponder with the only negative dialectic I know.
The films we were showing--a couple of Elia Suleiman shorts, if I remember correctly--had ended. People were beginning to walk out of the small theater. "You have come all the way here," Raed continued with his merriment at the heel of my disarming casuistry, "to show us films?"
He was a master of emotive dissonance. His face betrayed his frivolity. When I said, yes, because you have not seen these films, he just widened his face with a bigger, warmer, more reassuring smile. I thought I had been an object of curiosity to him; but he acted as if he was directing me in a Fellini film--tongue in cheek--despite myself.
Annemarie finally came down and was busy chatting with some of the people in the audience. I spotted Adania Shibli behind her--a young Palestinian poet I had come to know and admire during that trip. Behind Adania Shibli was Miguel Littin, the Chilean-Palestinian filmmaker who had come all the way from Santiago to be with us during the festival.
"Here," Raed said, as he turned to me as he reached deep inside the front pocket of his jeans and pulled out his keychain. He carefully took his keys out of the ring and handed me the keychain, from which was hanging a small statuette. "Here is your Oscar!"
Keys are very powerful objects for Palestinians. They symbolize and represent their lost, confiscated, stolen, and occupied homes. What was holding Raed's keys together was no less powerful a symbol.
I took the keychain and looked at the small statuette. Initially I could not tell what it was. It took me a few seconds to figure out it was Hanzala. "Do you know who he is?" Raed wondered.
Yes, I do, I said. Thanks.
"He is a witness," he said, "just like you!"
Not many non-Palestinians know of Hanzala, the legendary creation of Naji Salim al-Ali (1938-1987), a Palestinian cartoonist, known, loved, and celebrated for a sustained body of work that has survived him with astounding power and tenacity. It is estimated that he sketched nearly 50,000 cartoons, in which he documented various phases of the Palestinian national liberation struggle. He was as much, if not more, critical of spineless Arab leaders as he was of the Israeli occupation of his homeland. Born in Palestine, raised in Ain Al-Helwa refugee Camp in Southern Lebanon, he eventually emerged as the visual conscience of his people. Before he was assassinated on 22 July 1987 (he died a few weeks later in London), Naji al-Ali had immortalized the figure of Hanzala: solitary, serious, single-mindedly determined to bear witness to his people's history.
Hanzala is by far the most famous persona in Palestinian visual and emotive vocabulary--a curious and persistent figurine who stands witness to the suffering and struggles of his people. He is, above all, a witness, an eyewitness, to be exact, a muse of conscience, commanding us to act, with his back turned to us, as if he is leading us forward, towards the scene, where history is happening. He just stands there, with his back towards us, the spectators, and facing the scene of the crime, or the struggle, or the atrocity, or the defiance. His turned back to us is also accusatory--what are you doing, just standing there watching, it is as if he is saying--what is there to watch? Why don't you join us, come in, into the picture, into history, where the action is, the injustice, the struggle, where we, where he, where what he witnesses, needs your help, at least your testimony.
Hanzala is testimonial.
Disregarding us, Hanzala is watching. Nothing escapes his attention. We don't see his face or his eyes, because his face is turned away from us and towards the scene of the crime, and his eyes are fixated on what he is watching, what needs watching, what the criminals don't want anyone to see. The Palestinian history of invisibility, of denial, is at the heart of Hanzala's visual fixation. But even beyond Palestine, Hanzala is the moral mind's eyes watching that which is made invisible. Our eyes wide shut, his are wide open--and yet, and there is the rub: we cannot see his eyes, for he is in our eyes, he is our eyes, mediated through the distanced space that holds us back from where he stands, right in front of the event, where history is happening. Single-handedly, Hanzala sees our hesitant bets and raises it by his courage.
Hanzala does not just watch and bear testimony. He also acts. He picks up a pen and draws a stone and throws. He lights a candle. He defies submission. Hanzala persists. He never gives up.
Hanzala has survived the death of his creator Naji al-Ali and continues to lead a thriving, engaged, and committed life where he is most needed--not just in Palestine. I have an anti-globalization T-shirt someone once gave me with a picture of Hanzala! When during the summer of 2004, I was traveling through the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, I saw the power of the living memory of Naji al-Ali in the figure of his Hanzala adorning the walls and banners of Palestinians in their direst moments and most defiant aspirations. Walking through these camps, you will see many replicas of Hanzala informing, assuring, warning, admonishing, leading on, or encouraging the residents to do one thing or another. He grew up in refugee camps. He knows them inside out, and deeply cares for their inhabitants. I remember once in Badawi Refugee Camp up in northern Lebanon near Tripoli, we screened Rashid Mashharawi's "A Ticket to Jerusalem" (2002) from the rooftop of a UNERWA building and onto a wall upon which stood Hanzala, his back turned to us as he was writing on the white wall, al-Qods Lana/Jerusalem is ours. On another occasion, in Shatila Refugee Camp in Beirut, I had seen Hanzala signing his signature under a statement over a pile of garbage that had not been collected yet: Hafezu ala Nezafat al-Mokhayyim/Look after the Sanitation of the Camp.
Born in Palestine, raised in a refugee camp in Lebanon, Naji al-Ali and Hanzala, the creator and the character, traveled deep and wide into the world, made of Intifada, of uprising against tyranny, of a transnational metaphor. Hanzala is and remains Palestinian, but he is also metamorphosed into a global metaphor, a visual trope, a witness everywhere, just like John Steinbeck's Tom Joad: "Whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Whenever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there... I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an'-I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry ... ."
That visual universality remains rooted in the Palestinian predicament and defiant spirit, but then it goes global in its powerful implications.
A racist rumor is now roaming through the streets of Tehran (exacerbated by even more racist instigation by monarchists from abroad)--that among the security forces beating up on the demonstrators are people who do not speak Persian, that they speak Arabic, that they are dark skin and thus not Iranian--from Lebanon, Palestine, or Iraq.
The whitewash imagination of those who make up these stories has habitually dismissed Iranians from the southern climes of their homeland as "Arabs," as if being Arab was a misdemeanor. This idea of fictive foreigners beating up and killing Iranians used to be Afghan when millions of Afghan refugees fled their homeland and sought refuge in Iran in the 1980's; now they have become Arabs. The same racist imagination in and out of Iran now seeks to fish from this muddy water. They have no clue that the only Arab that I know for a fact now roaming the streets of Iran is Hanzala, watching over his Iranian brothers and sisters, a witness to their courage and imagination--blessing their Intifada, teaching them a trick or two.
Once in a Palestinian refugee camp I met an Iranian warrior fighting for Palestinians. His nom de guerre was Abu Said, for he had named himself after our martyred poet Said Soltanpour (1940-1981). He spoke his Arabic with an enduring Persian accent, and his Persian with Arabic intonations. So does Hanzala, if he were to speak. But he only watches, witnesses, and keeps a record. He holds the key to my home too--a colored southern boy, born and Iranian bred, an honorary Arab, a Palestinian at heart.
Beyond borders and across linguistic divides, Hanzala lives, breathes, thrives, warns, watches, witnesses, and keeps a record, for the whole world to see. He is everywhere: From the forgotten fury of young and old men and women suffering the indignity of exile in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, to the bruised bodies of defenseless mothers and children in Gaza, to the wounded soul of widows and orphans in Iraq, to the broken bones of humanity in Afghanistan, and then down to the murdered youth and the beaten and broken bodies of young and beautiful protesters in the streets of Iran, assuring them all that he is watching, witnessing, keeping a record, his accusatory back turned to our shame, writing on the walls of Tehran "Thawra hatta al-Nasr/Qiyam ta Piruzi/Uprising until Victory!"
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau (excluding images)