Palestine Revisited

A brilliant new book redraws Gazan history.

Kristian Williams March 3, 2010

Joe Sac­co has spent his career cov­er­ing war zones – Pales­tine, Bosnia, Iraq. But unlike most war cor­re­spon­dents, his dis­patch­es arrive in the form of comics. Sac­co uses car­toon ren­der­ings of the peo­ple he inter­views, along with metic­u­lous­ly detailed back­ground scenes, as the vehi­cle for his strik­ing style of journalism.

Sacco largely lets the survivors speak for themselves. Through his art, he shows us what things looked like from their perspective.

In his lat­est book, Foot­notes in Gaza, Sac­co returns to the Mid­dle East to inves­ti­gate two inci­dents that took place decades ago, dur­ing the Suez Cri­sis of 1956. The first inci­dent is a mas­sacre of 275 Pales­tin­ian men by Israeli forces at Khan You­nis. The sto­ry is decep­tive­ly straight­for­ward: The sol­diers shot the men in their homes or dragged them into the street, lined them up against a wall, and shot them. The sec­ond sto­ry is far more com­plex. Dur­ing an anti-gueril­la oper­a­tion, the Israeli mil­i­tary entered the bor­der town of Rafah and ordered all the men to appear at a near­by school. They held the men there, sur­round­ed by sol­diers and con­certi­na wire, and ques­tioned them for the greater part of the day, hop­ing to iden­ti­fy mil­i­tants hid­ing among the pop­u­la­tion. At the same time, patrols searched the rest of the town, look­ing for arms or men (pre­sum­ably ene­mies) who had refused the order to appear at the school. But the mil­i­tary ratio­nale obscures the human detail – the fear, humil­i­a­tion, need­less bru­tal­i­ty, and, in the end, the arbi­trary exe­cu­tion of more than 100 Palestinians.

Rather than rely on the ster­ile lan­guage of offi­cial doc­u­ments, Sac­co large­ly lets the sur­vivors speak for them­selves. Through his art, he shows us what things looked like from their per­spec­tive. With a great deal of local assis­tance, he found and inter­viewed dozens of peo­ple who wit­nessed these events more than half a cen­tu­ry ago. They are old now, and they have seen a lot since then. Their mem­o­ries rep­re­sent Sacco’s great­est source of infor­ma­tion, and his great­est frus­tra­tion. Details have fad­ed, events blur togeth­er, sto­ries become inter­twined. Wit­ness­es may for­get what they have seen, or may remem­ber what they have mere­ly heard. Some­times they have trou­ble telling the difference.

Sac­co has tak­en his time – six years and 400 care­ful­ly drawn pages – to assem­ble the evi­dence, weigh it, and present it fair­ly. He is hon­est about his dif­fi­cul­ties, about his doubts and frus­tra­tions. He shows us the dif­fer­ences in the var­i­ous accounts, notes the con­tra­dic­to­ry evi­dence, and admits to dis­card­ing sto­ries that he or his aides con­sid­er unre­li­able. His cho­sen medi­um – the com­ic – is per­fect for this sort of work. For the com­ic allows the read­er to lit­er­al­ly see the dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. The nar­ra­tion can run along­side, or over­top, the imagery, the two ele­ments com­ple­ment­ing one anoth­er while pre­serv­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of irony, uncer­tain­ty, ten­sion, or con­flict. But just as impor­tant are the things the medi­um doesn’t do. It doesn’t pro­vide us with a pseu­do-real­i­ty like film or the dis­em­bod­ied objec­tiv­i­ty of jour­nal­is­tic prose. The com­ic is obvi­ous­ly an arti­fice, a cre­ation. And Sacco’s nar­ra­tive style – putting him­self in the frame, recount­ing not only the prod­uct of his research but the process as well – makes the most of the medium’s unique features.

Sacco’s approach also pro­vides a kind of con­text. Because he did his research in mod­ern-day Gaza (or almost: between 2002 and 2003), the sto­ry of 1956 is sur­round­ed and framed by oth­er sto­ries: Israeli attacks and Pales­tin­ian funer­als; sui­cide bomb­ings in Tel Aviv; the build-up to the U.S. inva­sion of Iraq; and a long series of home demo­li­tions, includ­ing the one that killed the young Amer­i­can peace activist, Rachel Corrie.

Why write about some­thing so long ago when all of this is hap­pen­ing now? Sac­co is asked this ques­tion, and he asks it of him­self, repeat­ed­ly. Of course it’s bad now,” he replies, but that doesn’t dimin­ish what hap­pened then. …. Events are continuous.”

Foot­notes in Gaza encom­pass­es this con­ti­nu­ity and makes its sig­nif­i­cance vis­i­ble on the page: 1956 mat­ters in part because 2003 mat­ters; and 2003 (by impli­ca­tion) mat­ters in part because 2010 mat­ters. It is easy to lose sight of the impor­tance of his­to­ry, because we are always in the midst of it. We are always liv­ing it.

Kris­t­ian Williams is the author of Our Ene­mies in Blue: Police and Pow­er in Amer­i­ca and Amer­i­can Meth­ods: Tor­ture and the Log­ic of Dom­i­na­tion.
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