Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Handala in the Pitch: How Naji al-Ali’s Palestinian National symbol took Egypt’s football world by storm

On Saturday, Zamalek SC faced off against Smouha SC in the Egyptian Premiere. In a powerful act of solidarity with the Palestinian people, the Zamalek players ensured that Palestine was front and centre in the game.

Handala and Egyptian footballers

They made their entrance into the stadium donning the Palestinian Kufiyah, although some have claimed it wasn’t the original design.

Zamalek SC's Fatouh wearing the Palestinian Kufiyeh "Photo: Zamalek SC"
Zamalek SC's Fatouh wearing the Palestinian Kufiyeh "Photo: Zamalek SC" 

During their warm-up session before the game, the players sported the official jersey of the Palestine team.

The Zamalek's game kit is in the back while in front was the Palestinian National football team's jersey "Photo: Zamalek SC"
The Zamalek's game kit was in the back while in front was the Palestinian
National football team's jersey "Photo: Zamalek SC"

Additionally, the club announced its plan to donate a truckload of humanitarian aid.

Despite the significance of these actions, particularly the humanitarian aid efforts, one standout moment was when Zamalek players performed a "Handala goal celebration" after scoring five goals, in a powerful display of solidarity with Palestine that resonated across Egypt.

Zizo celebrates his goal with the rest of the boys doing that Handala celebration
Zizo celebrates his goal with the rest of the boys doing that Handala celebration 
"Photo: Zamalek SC"

Notably, Ahmed El-Sayid, also known as Zizo, along with the team captain, Shikabla, and several other players, participated in this moving gesture, resulting in their photos going viral.

Zizo celebrates his goal with the rest of the boys doing that Handala celebration
Shika celebrated his goal in a Handala style 
"Photo: Zamalek SC"

It's worth noting that this wasn't the first time Egyptian footballers had incorporated the Handala celebration into their performances in the past few days.

Al-Ahly SC celebrating their goal in Tanzania , it was another version of Handala celebration
Al-Ahly SC celebrating their goal in Tanzania, it was another
version of the Handala celebration

In their match against Tanzania’s Simba, the players of Al-Ahly SC celebrated their two goals in a Handala way at the inaugural African Football League.

This Handala celebration, which is a protesting act in its own way took place in the presence of FIFA chairman, Gianni Infantino.

According to Egyptian press and football enthusiasts, the trend of Handala-mania celebrations began two weeks ago.

The players of Egypt’s U20 National team celebrated their goals in the Handala style during their game against Jordan and the rest is history.

The U20 team aka Young Pharaohs celebrated their goals in Handala style. 

This fever for Handala has also spread to women’s football pitches.

Ten days ago, the Egypt women’s U20 team played a match against Sao Tome Principe U20. Egyptian striker Hala Mostafa became a sensation after she celebrated her goal in the match with the Handala style.

Hala Mostafa doing the Handala celebration
Hala Mostafa doing the Handala celebration

FYI, Egypt triumphed in the game with an impressive score of 11-0!

Even the youngest players have been unable to ignore recent events.

Mohamed Ramy, a U12 junior from Port Said’s Al Masry SC, copied the iconic move of Mohamed Aboutrika by removing his jersey to reveal a T-shirt with a message he had written himself using a sharpie: “Palestine in our heart.”

Mohamed Ramy and his "Palestine in heart" t-shirt
Mohamed Ramy and his "Palestine in the Heart" t-shirt 

This act mirrored Aboutrika’s protest during Egypt’s 3–0 victory over Sudan in the 2008 African Cup of Nations. After scoring a goal, Aboutrika removed his jersey to reveal a T-shirt with the message “Sympathize with Gaza,” protesting against Israel’s 10-day blockade of Gaza. I do not think that Ramy was born yet during then.

Trika and Gaza in 2008
Trika's action was the biggest manifestation of support for Palestine in the Egyptian 
football history during then.  

Despite receiving a yellow card for violating FIFA’s rule against displaying political slogans during play, and facing potential further sanctions, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) ultimately decided not to impose any punishments.

Aboutrika’s actions in this game led to stricter rules both in Egypt and internationally regarding political slogans in football. As far as I remember, Egyptian footballers can no longer make such overt political statements during games. This has led them to come up with new and innovative forms of protest, such as the Handala goal celebration.

Interestingly, the Handala goal celebration is not a new recent creation, nor did it originate during the current Gaza war.

It first appeared during a relatively insignificant game between a-Smouha and El Entag El Harby SC, which coincided with another Israeli attack on Gaza in May 2021.

Ahmed Abdel Kader, an Egyptian midfielder from Al-Ahly SC known for his unique goal celebrations, was on loan with Smouha SC.

During that Premier League match against El Entag El Harby SC, Abdel Kader celebrated his goal in a way that would never be forgotten. In fact, it was the most memorable aspect of this local game.

Mohamed Abdel Kader stood with his back to the camera, one arm behind his back and the other raised high, making the victory sign with his hand. 

Abdel Kader doing the Handala celebration for the first time in Egypt  in May 2021
Abdel Kader doing the Handala celebration for the first time in Egypt 
in May 2021

While many didn’t understand the gesture at the time, a few, including the Palestinian embassy in Cairo, recognized its significance.

Abdel Kader was mimicking one of the most famous poses of Handala, Palestine’s cartoon national symbol created by legendary Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali. The young footballer was expressing his solidarity with the Palestinian people against the Israeli attacks in East Jerusalem and Gaza.

This gesture came at a time when the Israeli army had launched another attack on Gaza in May 2021 following clashes in East Jerusalem that led Islamic Jihad to fire rockets against Israel. The Palestinian embassy expressed its gratitude to Abdel Kader for his show of support.

Thus, it was during this seemingly insignificant game between Smouha and El Entag El Harby that this significant goal celebration was born, marking another surprising chapter in the story of Handala.

Handala’s story

Handala first appeared to the world in the issue of the Kuwaiti Al-Seyassah newspaper dated 13 July 1969.

Naji al-Ali created Handala, drawing from his own experiences as a ten-year-old Palestinian boy who was forced to leave his home in the village of Al-Sharaja of Palestine in 1948.

Interestingly, Handala was initially depicted facing the reader, but from 1973 onwards, Naji al-Ali chose to present him with his back turned and his hands clasped behind him.

Handala's face
Here is Handala's face and he is not the happiest boy 

According to al-Ali, Handala’s posture, characterized by his back turned and hands clasped, symbolizes the character’s rejection of solutions presented in an “American” manner. 
This stance also serves as a symbol of rejection against all current negative trends in the Middle East region, according to Palestine’s most renowned cartoonist.

The Handala 
famous stand

Handala’s ragged clothing and barefoot stance signify his allegiance to the impoverished.

The rest, as they say, is history. Handala outlived his creator, who was assassinated in London in August 1987. To this day, the identity of those responsible for his assassination remains unknown.

Remarkably, Egyptian footballers, often accused of lacking sophistication, began to understand the significance of Handala, starting with Ahmed Abdel Kader himself.

One thing is certain: Naji al-Ali must be watching from the other side with joy as Egypt celebrates his creation, Handala.

This comes after decades of suppression in Cairo due to al-Ali’s rejection of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel and his relentless criticism of Anwar El-Sadat.

Even after his assassination, it was forbidden to speak about him in Cairo. When the late Egyptian actor Nour El-Sherif decided to produce a biopic about al-Ali, he faced an unprecedented attack in the Egyptian media.

The film, which starred Nour El-Sherif as Naji al-Ali and was directed by renowned director Atef El-Tayeb, was released in 1992. It is one of El-Tayeb’s most deliberately overlooked films. I only discovered that he directed it while researching for this post.

Upon its release, the film faced an unprecedented backlash led by none other than Palestinian President Yasser Arafat himself. According to El-Sherif, Arafat travelled to Cairo to ask the late President Hosni Mubarak to ban the film. However, it was not banned as the Egyptian authorities did not find anything insulting to Egypt in the film.

Despite this, the film was a flop due to the media attack.

Seeing the Handala goal celebration, one of Naji al-Ali’s greatest artworks, spreading across Egypt’s football pitches is indeed a significant development.

Handala and al-Ali 

In the end, it’s Handala that everyone remembers, not the journalists who launched an unwarranted attack and spread rumours about Nour El-Sheikh.

Without a doubt, Handala, the 10-year-old forcibly displaced boy, is not only the most famous refugee in the Arab world but also the oldest and most renowned refugee globally.

In this dark hour, I hold onto the hope that one-day Handala will return to his home village of Al-Sharaja, God willing.

Returning to the world of football, it’s worth noting that Egyptian footballers, both domestically and internationally, are expressing their solidarity with Palestine on social media more than ever before.

You might understand why many Egyptians were disappointed with Mohamed Salah and his “all lives matter” stance.

Given his position and popularity, he could have done more. It’s not just about donating money.

However, I completely understand that despite the strong pro-Palestinian support in Liverpool, it’s challenging to take action when your agent is a Trump supporter, even if he is Colombian with Lebanese-Shia origins.

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