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A Challenging Work Full of Humanity
on 3 December 2009
The genre/form known generically as "graphic novels" has exploded across the publishing industry over the last five years or so. While most of this is fiction, there is a rich vein of autobiography, and a few other experiments with history and biography. What Joe Sacco has been doing since well before this trend emerged, is graphic journalism. He is a foreign correspondent, albeit one who works in cartoon panels rather than the pure written or spoken word.
This latest book of his is his biggest and most ambitious. His first book, Palestine, came out around 15 years ago and was an astonishing look at the lives of Palestinian life in the occupied territories and back into the start of the first intifada, with flashbacks to 1948. He then spent some harrowing time in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, resulting in his books Safe Area Goradze and The Fixer, which are vividly raw look at the horrors of that conflict. In 2001, he returned to Gaza with fellow journalist Chris Hedges (War is a Force Than Gives Us Meaning), looking into a reported massacre from the time of the 1956 war that he had seen mentioned in another Noam Chomsky's The Fateful Triangle. A few lines in a U.N. Report from the era subsequently sparked his interest in another incident in Gaza, so he returned in 2003 to try and track down the truth of that incident and see what role, if any, it played in the collective memory of the town.
What results is a sprawling, complex, multifaceted work that demands attention and engagement from the reader. Broken up into short sections/chapters/scenes of a few pages, it tells the story of the 1956 Suez Crisis, the Khan Younis massacre and "incident" in nearby Rafah at the same time, and Sacco's own contemporary quest to trace survivors of both and record their oral histories, against a background Israeli army destruction of Palestinian houses along the border of Gaza. It's a challenging mix of his own observations, quotes from historical documents, eyewitness accounts, and more -- all of which combine into a sad story of how quickly time can erase the past.
Unfortunately, whether or not you find the book compelling probably depends on your existing views toward Palestinian-Israeli relations. Readers sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians will find in the book yet further evidence of past Israeli atrocities and contemporary Israeli brutality. Readers sympathetic to Israel will seize upon discrepancies in the memories of those recalling events 50 years past, the lack of an irrefutable paper trail, and Sacco's positioning the story from the Palestinian point-of-view, to dismiss the work as a smear job. Of course, neither reading is complete, and part of the whole point of the book is to demonstrate how time takes its toll objective truth.
Personally, I'm not sure what steps Sacco could have taken to placate those demanding the "Israeli side" of the two incidents: perhaps placed a newspaper ad saying "Were you involved in massacring Palestinians in Gaza in 1956? If so, please contact me so I can make your involvement a public part of the historical record." However, it does seem a little odd that he doesn't give the unit numbers or anything like that for the Israeli army forces involved. There are also one or two points in his recreation of the story where some officers and possibly foreigners take steps to mitigate the brutality, and I wished that more archival detective work had been done to try and track down these figures. It's not clear to me whether he tried and the IDF archives just didn't have that material, or what. However, ultimately, it seems pretty clear that some despicable actions were taken against unarmed civilians, including murder. It's telling to me that at the time, a few opposition members in the Knesset attempted to raise inquires into the incidents and were blocked.
Graphically, the book is another Sacco masterpiece -- from detailed facial portraits of those he interviewed, to several stunning two-page spreads of sweeping scope from a raised perspective. The ramshackle feel of the towns and refugee camps of the 1956 period stands in stark visual contrast to hustling, bustling, built-up modern Gaza. Sacco's hand-lettering isn't the easiest to read, and here it's chopped up into so many small boxes that it can be a bit of a chore to read. But this is a minor quibble for a book that is so amazingly immersive. I've lived throughout the Middle East and have been to the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel, and Sacco captures the urban and natural landscape wonderfully. The one disappointment is the cover, which is very bland and doesn't give much of a sense of the contents.
If you have any interest in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the present-day situation in Gaza, I definitely recommend picking this up and challenging yourself to grapple with it. The format and discursive style offer a different lens on events and issues that will always be controversial. Even if you disagree with the approach or perspective, I think there's a lot of humanity display in the pages, and that alone is worth engaging with.