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​Palestinian Artist: ‘My pen is my weapon’

Nadezhda Kevorkova is a war correspondent who has covered the events of the Arab Spring, military and religious conflicts around the world, and the anti-globalization movement.

Published time: July 21, 2014 14:18
Image from Dr Alaa Allagta's facebook page.

Dr Alaa Allagta, a well-known Palestinian artist and author of political cartoons talks to RT about why all aspects of Palestinian life are politicized including the arts.

He proved himself as an artist at the age of 15 when Israeli soldiers punished him for his political cartoons exposing the occupation regime by breaking his fingers.

Dr Alaa Allagta (Photo by Nadezhda Kevorkova)

Nadezhda Kevorkova: When did you start drawing cartoons?

Alaa Allagta: When I was a child. When I was 10 I was drawing for fun. When I was a university student, I was drawing to make a living. Now, drawing is what I live for, it is my mission. I am a cartoonist for the only daily newspaper that comes out in the Gaza Strip. I left home when I was 18, after I graduated from school; but I have been to Gaza many times visiting my parents who had stayed behind.

NK: Are you free to go to Gaza now?

AA: Right now, no one is any more. Prior to el-Sisi’s coup it was possible for those Palestinians who have Palestinian IDs. My family are refugees inside Gaza. We come from the village of al-Faluja, but the family had to abandon it during the 1948 Palestinian exodus. The village was renamed and these days is known as Kiryat Gat. Everything Palestinian there was destroyed, with the exception of some old houses and a mosque. My mother was from a very rich family, she owned a lot of land and property, and she was quite an oligarch. And we lost all of it. My family has been renting out places to live in Gaza for decades now, as they had lost everything of their own. And none of them can even go and see the place they had come from, their original home. I have never seen it. They don’t allow refugees like me in that country. One of my colleagues is a Romanian citizen and she visited al-Faluja. She told me it’s a wonderful place, like heaven on earth. Yet no Palestinian can as much as take a look at it.

Dr Alaa Allagta was born in the Gaza Strip in 1972 and holds a degree in plastic surgery. He cooperates with four dailies in Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia, and with the Gaza Strip’s own and only daily. In 2014, he won second place in the Arabic Cartoons Contest. Currently he lives in Bahrain. Being a Palestinian refugee, he dedicates his work to people like himself who had to abandon their homes.

NK: In the 1960s, Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali created his famous Handala character, an image of a ten-year-old boy, turned with his back to the indifferent world, refusing to grow until he could return to his homeland. Do you think the world is still indifferent to Palestinians?

AA: You probably know that Naji al-Ali was killed (in London in 1987 by a Mossad agent Ismail Sowan – RT). My main mission is to give people hope. You know, the darkest hour is just before the dawn. This describes the times we live in. The dawn will come, but right now it is very dark. Yet we will not give up hope. People striving to regain their freedom must always have hope. If they lose it they become slaves to their problems and disasters. We must keep our patience, hope and will to achieve freedom.

NK: How did you know that drawing cartoons is your way, your mission?

AA: I loved the arts since I was kid. I always wanted to do something related to the arts. Back in the 1990s we didn’t have as many information resources or modern communication channels as today, so when I graduated from school with honors the stereotype was still alive, that the best and most respectable profession is that of a doctor. And so I went on to study medicine in order not to break my parents’ hearts. I went to Romania to a medical school. But inside me something was building up. I spent all my money on paper, pencils and paints. I drew or painted everything that looked beautiful to me. In Europe I understood that art has a high value there, which was different from how it was regarded in my world when I was growing up. I took every chance to draw. I drew during the lectures, and both students and our professors wanted to have my cartoons. When I graduated I discovered that I actually have a full portfolio my friends took care to collect all my drawings and put them together. And I remember the words of one of my fellow-students who said that I chose the wrong path. It really stayed with me. After graduation I returned home and contacted a few publishers, and all of a sudden I saw that I am basically as good as any other artist with proper academic training in arts.

The sign on the ruins reads "Gaza" and on the winged fighter "Victims of revolution and fighting". Image from Dr Alaa Allagta's facebook page

NK: Were you affected by the developments that have been taking place in Palestine and how? When did you start doing political cartoons?

AA: In 1988, when the First Intifada began, I was 15 and I wanted to protest against Israel, so I started drawing on the walls. I mocked Shamir, who was the mastermind behind the punitive operations. Israelis caught me and hit my fingers with a stick with nails on it in front of my parents’ eyes, so that I wouldn’t draw any more. They wanted my parents to stop me from drawing. That is how I understood that my childhood drawings were causing them such agitation that they saw me as a future terrorist. I decided that since it was affecting them so much I would continue. Doctors treated my hands, and all the nerve endings were intact. My desire to draw intensified. I should say I did not get a very good plastic surgeon: you can still see the scars on my hands. When I was studying medicine, I realized I could have done a better job.

NK: So you even chose a medical field that’s connected to art?

AA: It is also a form of art, and it needs to be a vocation. Plastic surgery is one of the highest-paid occupations, but I decided to leave it for caricature.

NK: Were there any artists in your family?

AA: No, none. They say talent is a genetic thing, but not everyone manages to develop it. We should watch the children and try to develop their talents. Many parents suppress them, choosing an occupation for their child instead. I might have stayed a plastic surgeon, but one girl’s words back in medical school were my wakeup call. During classes, I could not wait to get back to my table and start drawing. Time flew when I did, I could draw all night long. I didn’t cast aside my professional education and I use it when needed, though art is the most important thing. Wherever I find myself, I consult on surgery free of charge.

NK: Your preference lies with the political cartoons specifically?

AA: We are Palestinians. Politics permeates all spheres of our life. Whatever we do, wherever we live, politics finds us. Even in a doctor’s office. So most of my caricatures are political cartoons.

NK: What are your political views, then?

AA: I have my own views on Palestinian politics, as well as the Arab world and global politics.

NK: Have you accepted the 1993 Oslo Accords?

AA: When it comes to Palestinian people, the Oslo Accords aren’t being fulfilled even to a minimum degree. Up until now, the Palestinians reaped no benefits from it: the people’s suffering has only increased, illegal Israeli settlements are growing in number and size, more and more Palestinian civilians are getting killed or thrown out of their houses and lands, and the “Judaization” of our territory is in full swing.

Image from Dr Alaa Allagta's facebook page

NK: I’m being so persistent because many people believe that Palestinians are a people with collective responsibility. For eight years, the Israeli government has been punishing the entire Gaza Strip for voting for Hamas in 2006. Meanwhile in Gaza, you can see portraits of all Palestinian leaders, regardless of their political affiliations, painted on the fences. People showed me the grave of a Christian lawyer from the PLO who participated in drafting the Oslo Accords. Hamas leadership claimed that the Palestinian people remember everyone who contributed to the effort. But the factions have their differences. Whose side are you on?

AA: I express the pain of the Palestinian street. I talk about the suffering and wishes of a common Palestinian. I am saying that Palestinians, like any other people in the world, want to be safe and to have a home. I am saying that Palestinians, like any other people, have a right to resist and oppose. It is a right given by all the confessions and the international law.

I do not draw politicians, either to praise them or mock them. I cannot lock myself in the confines of one political party. I want to be in every home and touch every heart. So I am talking about what every Palestinian understands, not political parties.

The Palestinian people agree that negotiations with Israel took us nowhere. Resistance is the only way to defend our rights. Madrid in 1991 and Oslo (where the secret negotiations between Israel and PLO took place – RT) changed nothing for Palestinians. Negotiations bring no results, and they can go on and on forever. Who would agree to that? The Palestinian people, who are being fired at, resist and learn from other nations’ experience, like from the Russian Revolution and other uprisings. We try to draw conclusions and learn our lessons from the world history. My pen is my weapon.

NK: We live in the world of copyright, where everyone tries to protect their work. Are your political cartoons in public access?

AA: I have a website where all my cartoons are collected. I also have accounts in social networks (Alaa Allagta on Facebook). You can take any cartoons from there.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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