Response to review of A Child in Palestine

We recently featured a review of A Child in Palestine, an overview of the great Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali's work. The book's editor, Abdulhadi W. Ayyad, has responded to the review. Below are Mr Ayyad 's letter and a response by Ethan Heitner, the writer of the review.

I read with interest your review of A Child in Palestine, which focused on the cartoons of Naji al-Ali, written by Ethan Heitner. Being the writer of the main body of the text, I feel it falls on me to correct a few misconceptions contained in Mr Heitner's review.

To begin with, the book never sought to be a biography of the late Naji al-Ali. The fact that contributors to the Wikipedia website have listed more exhaustive details of the artist's life is impressive, and says a lot about Wikipedia. What we did seek to accomplish was to make the works of Naji al-Ali accessible to a new audience.

There we find the reviewer's suggestion that my writing "overdetermined" the messages in what he felt were intentionally ambiguous drawings: I feel that this criticism is somewhat misplaced.

The fact is, Al-Ali consistently employed visual imagery to allude to well-known idioms which would be obvious to native Arabic speakers, for whom his cartoons were made. I had to assume that the typical reader of the book would not have been able to appreciate this fully, and wrote the text accordingly.

Finally, Mr Heitner suggested that my writing on Al-Ali tended towards the "hagiographic". I can fully concede this point, but I must point out that Naji al-Ali remains for Palestinians of every political hue a truly untainted national hero. While it might not suit the more cynical Western reader, the fact is that patriotism remains an important, vibrant force amongst Palestinians, and this will inevitably reflect itself on how any Palestinian will write about Naji al-Ali, at least for some time to come.

To adopt a well-known Arabic aphorism, judge people by what they attempt to do. If the book had been intended for those familiar with the Middle East, or had it been planned as a biography, Mr Heitner could have expected another text.

Yours,

Abdulhadi W. Ayyad

Ethan Heitner responds:

Dear Mr. Ayyad,

Thank you for taking the time to respond. I appreciate that the book is an introduction for Western readers to the work of Naji al-Ali. As I expressed in my review, I can only hope that a future edition will contain more material (both cartoons and critical text). The importance of Naji al-Ali and his work should not preclude us, and in my opinion compels us, to attempt to look at his work and life critically and rigorously.

- Ethan Heitner
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.