4/17/12

"Footnotes in Gaza" by Joe Sacco

"History is a weapon. History ideally strives for objectivity above the battle....But historians, like everyone else, are prisoners of their own experience and their own times....The selection of facts from the past involves an interpretation, a sense of priorities, a sense of values as to what matters." - Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

"History is written by the victors" - Attributed to Winston Churchill

Joe Sacco’s "Footnotes in Gaza" is a massive work on a footnote in history.  It’s massive both in size, over 400 pages long, and in scope, attempting to bring a narrative to a series of conflicts in the murky Middle East that span the past seventy years. His focus is on a single bloody event in 1956 when the Israeli army moved into the Gaza strip, ostensibly looking for instigators in the towns of Khan Younis and Rafah, and eventually killing at least 386 Palestinian refugees, possibly more.  The story is told with painstaking care, peeling back each level as if it were sunburned skin, picking out the details, the facts, the myths, the emotions, and compiling it into a "comic book."

Which also point out the massive effort behind the work.  Sacco’s commitment to his book is evident in the fine print on each page.  On the first page he’s signed it "J. Sacco 3.05". The final page of artwork is signed "4.09." Over four years spent drawing each page, not to mention the time invested researching the subject in libraries and in the field in 2002 and 2003.

To unwind this complex story Sacco has to bring context to so many things: the landscape, political forces over time, key actors in events, and even to address why so many eyewitnesses have unreliable accounts.

"This is the Gaza Strip, 40km long by no more than 12 km wide, one of the most densely populated places on the planet. In 2002-3 when I visited, 1.3 million Palestinians lived on about 70 percent of the land. The rest was the domain of 7,500 Jewish settlers who set up their enclaves after Israel seized Gaza in 1967 and the IDF soldiers who protected them."

The key actors can be divided into categories. There are those recognized by history, such as Moshe Dayan, Egypt’s president Jemal Abder Nasser, as well as the countries of England, France, Russia and the US.  Then there are those who were alive during the incidents of 1956, some participating in Sacco’s project, some long gone or missing who have left only artifacts. And finally there are the characters from Sacco’s present - himself, his guide Abed, the aging mutarad fighter Khaled, a Palestinian resident of Gaza named Ashraf, and the endless stream of the Palestinian refugees who form a sort of Greek chorus, echoing the events we see as they cross the stage.

Gaza has always been a bit hazy in my mind.  I knew, in general, that it was in the Middle East and was involved in the Palestinian / Israeli conflicts.  But I never understood how it came to be, or what life was like for the refugees living in the strip. The most effect it had on my life was when the video group that I work with did a documentary on Rachel Corrie, an NGO representative who was killed while protesting the destruction of homes in Gaza.  Corrie achieves a chapter in "Footnotes in Gaza," not because death in Gaza is unusual, but the death of an American in Gaza brings more attention.

Sacco painstakingly renders key events that made Gaza what it is today: the 1948 declaration of independence by Israel, the refugees pouring into Gaza, the evolution over time from tents to shacks to towns, the institutionalization of this status.  He explores the conflicts and machinations between Israel trying to expand and enforce its borders, Egypt trying to modernize and create a united Arab state, and the creation of  the Fedayeen fighters of the 1950’s, as well as more current events of the 80s, 90s and 21st century.  Sacco doesn’t hesitate to draw the dead and dying in his work, showing the suffering without embellishing it.  But he has also put human faces to events that would otherwise be bloodless, nameless events - "incursions", "shootings", "conflict."

I found a reviewer on Amazon who pointed out a weakness that some might find in "Footnotes in Gaza." "FOOTNOTES' major drawback is its one-sidedness. Sacco provides the official Israeli accounts of the Rafah incident and the home demolitions, but these appear--ironically--as a footnote, relegated to the back of the book. Entirely absent are first-person narratives from Israelis who were there. Since the Israeli documents paint a very different picture of what happened, such narratives would have added credibility either by telling a conflicting side of the story or by confirming the Palestinian testimonies. They would have also allowed readers to glean something about why these shootings happened."

The work that this most reminds me of is Crumb’s "Book of Genesis." Not just because of the content - set in the holy land, full of conflict. But the massive size of this work, and the attention to detail, the composition of the frames. It’s a documentary rendered as graphic literature.  The cartooning style makes "Footnotes in Gaza" much more approachable, and also helps to bring faces and places to history, to a story that has always been confused in my mind.

Sacco has a skill for capturing faces without making them stereotypes or caricature.  Each player in Gaza is identifiable, and shows their humanity in traits such as the way they hold their mouths, a mole or missing teeth, a shock of hair pushed to one side.  I also liked the way that Sacco made the hands so expressive -showing disgust, frustration, anger, or even power.   When drawing himself he seems to be slightly smaller with opaque round glasses. He’s the narrator who stays out of the way, but not enough to fool us into thinking he’s invisible.  Instead he’s there to bring context to the story - much like a TV reporter appears in a news story.

This is perhaps the most interesting part of "Footnotes in Gaza," especially considering the quote by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and the one frequently attributed to Winston Churchill.  The Palestinian conflict has gone on so long that’s simultaneously happening, and forgotten history.  Sacco explains to the people as he interviews them that he’s interested in the events of 1956. In one scene a father shows what the destruction of housing and fighting in the Gaza strip is doing to his family: bullet holes in the wall, tanks rumble by, the kids are afraid to use the bathroom that’s on the outer wall of the house.  "Every day here is ’56!" says the man, disgusted by the situation.  Yet, if history is a weapon, this book, "Footnotes in Gaza," is Sacco’s way to bring freedom to the way he sees the Palestinian story, a way to provide a context, a sense of values as to what matters: seeing the Palestinian refugees as people, and treating them as people deserve to be treated.



Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel by Joe Sacco has been nominated for an Oregon Book Award in the category of best "Graphic Literature."  In February of this year it was announced that the book is also slated to be made into a movie.  Joe Sacco doesn't appear to have a website, nor is he on twitter.

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