Naji al-Ali was born in the village of al-Shajara, in the district of Tiberias. His father was Salim Hussein. His wife, Wadad Salih Nasr, was from the Palestinian town of Saffuriyya. He had four children: Khalid, Usama, Layal, and Judi.
When Israeli forces occupied his village, he was forced to flee with his family to southern Lebanon where they settled in the Ayn al-Hilwa refugee camp, near Saida, where they all lived in a 10-meter-square tent. His artistic talent was apparent from that early period.
Naji al-Ali completed his elementary education in the school run by the Union of Christian Churches (Union des Églises Chrétiennes) and obtained the elementary school certificate in 1951. He worked for a while picking oranges and olives, then moved to Tripoli in north Lebanon to learn a trade in the Technical School run by the White Fathers (Pères Blancs). In 1953 he obtained a diploma in car mechanics and, returning to Beirut, worked in several industrial workshops.
In 1957, he travelled to Saudi Arabia where he worked as a car mechanic for two years; he drew in his spare time. With the little money he saved, he built for his family in the refugee camp a large room of brick and metal with a small kitchen and bathroom.
In 1959 he enrolled in the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts (Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts). But his frequent detentions in the barracks of the Lebanese army, due to his membership of the Arab Nationalist Movement and his distribution of its pamphlets, prevented him from completing his studies at that academy. Luck intervened, and he found a job as a teacher of drawing to children at the Ja‘fariyya School in the city of Tyre.
Palestinian author and journalist Ghassan Kanafani was the first to publish his drawings in al-Hurriyya magazine in 1962. Kanafani had attended an exhibition of Ali’s drawings held in Ayn al-Hilwa camp, and he was impressed by what he saw. From that time on, Naji al-Ali’s drawings appeared occasionally in the pages of the magazine.
In 1963, and through the efforts of Ghassan Kanafani, Naji al-Ali moved to Kuwait to work as an editor, illustrator, and artistic director in the weekly magazine al-Tali‘a, which had nationalist leanings. In 1966 he returned to Lebanon where he worked for almost a year as an illustrator in the magazine al-Hurriyya and the daily al-Yawm, after which he returned to Kuwait.
When the magazine al-Tali‘a was temporarily shut down in 1968, he moved to work as a full-time caricaturist in the Kuwaiti daily newspaper al-Siyasa until 1974.
In March 1974, Naji al-Ali returned to Beirut to work as a caricaturist in the daily al-Safir, which had just begun being published. From that period onwards, his fame spread throughout the Arab world through the character of the child Handhala (colocynth) first created by Naji in 1969 when he was working at the al-Siyasa in Kuwait. Handhala is a ten-year-old child who will never grow up until he returns to his original homeland; he always appears with his back turned and his hands locked behind him. Handhala was to become something like Naji’s signature of his drawings. He described the figure as “a sort of compass for me, and the compass constantly points to Palestine.”
Naji al-Ali returned to Kuwait again in 1976 to work at al-Siyasa until 1978, then returned once more to Beirut to work at the al-Safir until 1983.
In early 1983, and following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, he joined the editorial board of the Kuwaiti al-Qabas daily, but the Kuwait government decided after two years to expel him, so he sought refuge in London in October 1985 and worked at the international al-Qabas newspaper.
On 22 July 1987, an unknown young man shot Naji al-Ali in London near the offices of the international al-Qabas newspaper. The bullet entered beneath his right eye. He was in a coma until his death on 29 August 1987 and was buried at the Islamic Brookwood Cemetery in London. The identity of the party behind the assassination is still not known with certainty.
In 1979, Naji had been elected as secretary general of the League of Arab Caricaturists and also a member of the general secretariat of the Union of Palestinian Writers and Journalists.
Naji al-Ali is considered among the most prominent Arab and world caricaturists. His drawings, nearly forty thousand in number, are characterized by their biting criticism of the Palestinian and Arab situation. These drawings became his only way of expressing his anxieties and the suffering and agonies of his Palestinian people. He created several figures that recur in his work. The character of the child Handhala symbolized the agony of the Palestinians but is nevertheless steadfast in facing all trials. Another character, Fatima, represented the Palestinian woman who refuses to compromise and had a clear vision of the cause of Palestine and how to solve it; she has a husband, a tall, thin, and hardworking man with a long moustache. Then there is the character of the fat man with his bare bottom who represented opportunistic Arab leaders, and the character of the Israeli soldier who most often stands bewildered as Palestinian kids pelt him with stones.
In 1979, Naji al-Ali won first prize in the Exhibition of Arab Caricatures held in Damascus. The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers awarded him in 1988 the Prize called “The Golden Pen of Freedom” as one of the most important caricaturists of the world. The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun selected him as one of the ten most important caricaturists in the world.
Following his assassination, The Naji al-Ali Cultural Center was established in Beirut to perpetuate his memory. The Egyptian film star Nur al-Sharif played his character in a feature film called “Naji al-Ali” directed in December 1991 by the Egyptian Atif al-Tayyib with a screenplay by Bashir al-Dik. The Jordanian director Hana al-Ramli produced a short documentary film about the Handhala of Naji al-Ali called The Icon.
"وما قتلوه وما صلبوه ولكن شبه لهم". القدس: منشورات صلاح الدين، 1976.
[They Killed Him Not, nor Crucified Him but so It Appeared to Them]
"كاريكاتير ناجي العلي". بيروت: المركز العربي للمعلومات، 1983.
[The Caricatures of Naji al-`Ali]
"ناجي العلي في القاهرة: كاريكاتور". القاهرة: دار المستقبل العربي، 1993.
[Naji al-Ali in Cairo: Caricatures]
"ناجي العلي 1985-1987: كاريكاتير". دمشق: أطلس للنشر والتوزيع، 2008.
[Naji al-Ali: Caricatures 1985-1987]
A Child in Palestine: The Cartoons of Naji al-Ali. With an introduction by Joe Sacco. London: Verso, 2009.
الأسدي، عبده وخلود تدمري. "دراسة في إبداع ناجي العلي". بيروت: دار الكنوز الأدبية، 1994.
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علال، عبد الرحمن. "ناجي العلي: رسام حدّ الاغتيال". "المستقبل العربي" (بيروت)، العدد 438، آب/ أغسطس 2015، ص 130-143.
كلّم، محمود عبد الله. "ناجي العلي كامل التراب الفلسطيني: من أجل هذا قتلوني". بيروت: بيسان للنشر والتوزيع، 2001.
معمر، فؤاد. "الشهيد ناجي العلي". عمان: إثراء للنشر والتوزيع، 2012.
النابلسي، شاكر. "أكله الذئب: السيرة الفنية للرسام ناجي العلي". بيروت: المؤسسة العربية للدراسات والنشر، ط 2، 2007.
"ناجي العلي: الفنان، الإنسان، القضية". بيروت: مركز ناجي العلي الثقافي، 1992.
Abdul Hadi, Mahdi, ed. Palestinian Personalities: A Biographic Dictionary. 2nd ed., revised and updated. Jerusalem: Passia Publication, 2006.
Descamps-Wassif, Sara. Dictionnaire des écrivains palestiniens. Paris: Institut du monde arabe, 1999.