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An Uprising Pen (abridged)

“Omayya will be here shortly,” says the receptionist in the matching mauve headscarf and business suit. “Do have a seat.”
The Gaza offices of al Hayyat al Jadida, the official newspaper of the Palestinian Authority, take up most of the ninth floor of a high-rise building on one of the main streets of Gaza City. Outside, in the graffiti-covered concrete jungle, the honking of car horns mingles with the sounds of Egyptian pop music. But inside the newspaper offices, the atmosphere is serene and professional.
“Ah, you are here to see Omayya,” nods a young editor and beams at us.
Throughout Gaza City, the name evokes the same enthusiasm and respect, whether among taxi drivers, restaurant owners, or municipality workers.
Omayya Juha is a 30-year-old mother of one, a child of refugees and a devout Muslim. She is also the most successful cartoonist in the Palestinian Authority. Her daily drawings in al-Hayyat capture not only the anti-Israel defiance on the street, but also sharply satirize the Arab nations…
Juha has created her own iconography: a key, a tree (symbolizing the land), and the central character, Abu A’id, Father of Return. In an animated cartoon that greets visitors to her Web site, Juha depicts an old man with one leg missing, leaning on a giant key that serves as a crutch. “Even if I have given my leg, I won’t give the key,” he says as he hobbles over the screen.
The key is the house key of the refugee who, abandoning his home in 1948, held on to it in the expectation of returning soon.
Juha knows that even for the most eager Israeli peacenik, the right of return of refugees is a red flag.
But Itamar Marcus, of the Palestinian Media Watch center, believes the key symbolizes more than that.
“Beyond the right of return, the key means ownership. It says, ‘We are the owners of the land.’”
In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor in November 2001, Juha expressly stated she was not allowed to draw the key in the newspaper, only on her Web site. Yet Juha’s claims do not stand up to scrutiny. A look at her cartoons in al-Quds reveals many versions of the key theme.
A cartoon from July 2000 shows two mirror maps of Israel as lungs, connected to the trachea that is a key. The heart is the Dome of the Rock.
In another, the key hangs on one of four strings of barbed wire that pierce a bleeding heart in the shape of Israel. In a cartoon commenting on the Camp David accords, the key is a lantern, lighting the way of her central character towards Jerusalem, and away from a road leading to Camp David.
“She is very creative,” says Marcus, who monitors various types of Palestinian media. “She picked this image of the refugee in the keffiyeh and long gown. He is the person you think you know because you always see him and every time he has a different message for you.”
In a cartoon that appeared on the 51st anniversary of Israel’s independence, she drew a powerful tree, with little red-roofed houses hanging from the branches like apples. A tap labeled “peace deals” waters the “settlements tree.”
But for Juha, settlements are not only Jewish communities created in the West Bank and Gaza after 1967. Her grandparents’ village, today Moshav Tekuma, is for her a settlement. There is no difference between the borders of 1967 and those of 1948.
“I believe Israel should not exist,” she says. “There are Jews Natorei Karta who don’t recognize the State of Israel. And you want me to recognize it? I am the owner of the land. Jews should live in this land as citizens, not as a country.”
“When I say these things to journalists, they tell me, ‘You are Hamas.’ I am not. But Hamas, Fatah, all these factions have the same ideology. They want all the homeland, all Palestine. I don’t accept a division of the land. I don’t want a return only to 1967 borders.”
Juha’s uncompromising position is expressed without the crude venom that informs much of the Palestinian media. The Jews in her cartoons don’t have horns or tails and they don’t drink the blood of Palestinian children unlike in the cartoons of most other Palestinian caricaturists. More often than not, the Israelis in Juha’s cartoons look like giant pink-faced babies.
What contacts, if any, did Juha have with Israelis? Some Israeli students called her to discuss her drawings, she says. And she is in regular telephone contact with Mordechai Kedar, an Arab media expert at Bar-Ilan University.
When I suggest that it is ironic that her political cartoons have created contacts with Israelis that she never had before, she raises her voice for the first time in the interview.
“You should not take this for normalization,” she says sharply. “I don’t support normalization of relations with Israelis. They stole our land, they expelled us from the land, they killed our children and brothers. How can I have normal relations with them? The students asked me this question, too. I told them, okay, I was nice to you. But that doesn’t mean that I accept that you take my land.”
Juha’s success suggests that views are in tune with the mood among the Palestinian public.
“Her age and her background as a refugee give her a good sense of what the street feels,” says Kedar. “This is what gives her drawings their power.”
Marcus agrees. He says her commentary on the new cabinet presented by Yasser Arafat, for example, reflects the profound sense of skepticism and disillusionment.
In one cartoon, Abu A’id, unshaven, dressed in the patched clothes of the refugee, an empty trouser pocket turned inside out, sits on the ground. One hand carelessly holds a newspaper proclaiming the formation of the new cabinet, the other supports his head as he leans against a bare wall, gazing upward. “As long as it looks like change,” he sighs in the speech bubble.
The next day’s cartoon shows a black VIP limousine with two members of the Palestinian Legislative Council driving off towards Ramallah. A suave mustachioed man with stylish sunglasses says, “We’ll have a good meeting,” a cigarette dangling nonchalantly from his lips. His companion in the back of the car retorts, “as long as the new government is just the same old story there’s not much point!”
Marcus says these sentiments were confirmed by a recent opinion poll that revealed that more than 50 percent of the Palestinian population thought the cabinet reshuffle was insignificant, with more than 85 percent of respondents unable to name a single new cabinet member.
Nonetheless, little of the popular discontent with the PA finds its way into the pages of the newspapers. A recent report on freedom of expression in the Palestinian territories by human-rights monitor Bassam Eid entitled “Between the hammer of the PA and the anvil of self-censorship” found that the reported decrease in instances of torture of dissident journalists these days is largely due to the increase in self-censorship.
Juha openly admits that she is not allowed to draw critical cartoons of Arafat, although she sometimes would like to.
“When he does something I disagree with,” she says, “I feel like drawing about it but I stop myself. But when I support his stance, like in the recent siege of the Mukata, I make sure I express this in my drawing…”