Guileless in Gaza

Joe Sacco’s Graphic Narrative of 1956 and 2003

By Eddy Portnoy

Published January 05, 2010, issue of January 15, 2010.
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It is difficult not to be impressed by Joe Sacco’s “Footnotes in Gaza.” A unique journalistic product, Sacco’s latest book offers an in-depth look at disputed events that took place after the Israelis occupied Gaza at the beginning of the aborted British-French-Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956. Perhaps these are neglected “footnotes” in the history of this pitiful strip of land, but Sacco makes them central as he assiduously researches the events. He does so while crafting an engaging, first-person narrative that offers not only a description of how he went about his research during much of 2003, but also a meta-narrative of life in Gaza during that time. An indefatigable reporter, Sacco conducted numerous interviews and consulted a number of different archival and textual sources as well. Formatted like a graphic novel, “Footnotes in Gaza” is presented as a deadly serious work of fact.

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A prequel of sorts to his award-winning 1995 work, “Palestine,” a provocative book that presents the author’s interviews with dozens of Palestinians and Israelis in the occupied territories during his stay there in 1991-1992, “Footnotes in Gaza” sits in the same genre as Sacco’s “Safe Area Gorazde,” a riveting visual account of war in Bosnia during 1992-1995. If you’ve never seen Sacco’s work, you should get hold of one of his books, because his work as a serious visual journalist — creating graphic narratives of recent conflagrations in Europe and the Middle East — is truly nonpareil.

Israel’s forays into Gaza have never been a tea party. Used as a launching point against Israel since the Jewish state’s inception, Gaza acted and was treated like an enemy state, even when thousands of Israelis were settled there under occupation. While that occupation ended in 2005, Gaza still suffers the effects of decades of violence. “Footnotes in Gaza” homes in on two forgotten massacres — one in Khan Younis and the other in Rafah — both perpetrated by the Israeli army in November 1956, during which hundreds of Palestinians were beaten and killed.

The Israeli explanation of the hundreds of dead is that the army was quelling a riot. The Palestinian version is that the events were unprovoked massacres. This is the voice Sacco gives to a Palestinian narrative from a period that is rarely mentioned, since these events of 1956 have long been overshadowed by the seemingly more important wars of 1967 and 1973. Even some Palestinians complain to him during the course of his research that he’s barking up the wrong tree. But by putting the events of 1956 under the microscope, “Footnotes in Gaza” helps us to understand why contemporary Gaza continues to be a pressure cooker overflowing with anger and resentment.

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Throughout the 400-page narrative, Sacco presents a visually stark collection of oral histories, some of which contradict one another, he admits, but which also supply descriptions of realities on the ground. For example, many Gaza residents tried to keep militants away from their homes, but they found their houses destroyed by Israel nevertheless. Dissenting internal views are often highlighted, such as those of one man who bitterly complains: “The Arabs don’t know their own history.” With a common perspective of Palestinians as either victims or victimizers, the book presents a Gazan society with breadth, one we don’t often see. Sacco humanizes Palestinians in a way their usual venue, the nightly news, never quite manages to do.

Sacco cleverly uses numerous variations of cartoon panels, often varying their size, sometimes cascading them across one another, as visual devices that speed the narrative. He also exploits perspective to the advantage of the victims, bringing the reader to the center point of an Israeli clubbing, or presenting the physical viewpoint of a wounded Palestinian on the ground.

Perhaps Sacco’s most effective device is the contemporary meta-narrative he has woven into his story of the 1956 massacres. Using himself as a main character, he pivots between the terrors of 1956 and the terrors of 2003 as he researches his story. A likable schlemiel who has good rapport with everyone, Sacco often wonders whether or not to believe a particular informant, and every once in a while he discards a story he feels is not credible. A reporter with scrupulous integrity, Sacco admits it when the story “wobbles.” He understands the pitfalls of using these oral histories and engages them as well as he can to get at the real story.

For Sacco, that real story is an amalgam of Palestinian oral histories of the events in Rafah and Khan Younis in November 1956. Nonetheless, it would have been useful for him to have interviewed Israelis involved in the affair, rather than merely supplying text-only appendices offering information from the Israeli side. While he did hire two Israeli researchers to look through Israeli archives on the events, it would have been pertinent to provide the Israeli side with a voice. Mordechai Bar-On, then chief of staff to Moshe Dayan, makes a brief, if limited, appearance, and his is the book’s most substantive Israeli voice. However, Israeli soldiers appear throughout the book mainly as one-dimensional aggressors. As a result, the power of Sacco’s images is skewed heavily against Israel.

That fact is perhaps one of the best reasons to read ”Footnotes in Gaza.” With its cacophony of Palestinian narratives and perspectives unfamiliar to American readers, “Footnotes in Gaza” offers an unusual window onto the minutiae of Palestinian daily life and history. Told entirely from the Palestinian perspective, it will probably make supporters of Israel queasy. But those who care about Israel should also concern themselves with the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, who continue to chafe under what they call a “siege” and the Israelis call an “embargo.” In this war of words and images, perspective makes all the difference.

Eddy Portnoy is a writer living in New York.


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