It’s unclear what President Bush knew of Palestinian life when he visited the occupied city of Ramallah on the West Bank in January of this year. He had something of an eye opener when weather forced him to abandon his helicopter and take a motor caravan through a checkpoint in the soaring concrete barriers that divide the West Bank. It was his first time seeing what the Palestinians endure on a daily basis. “Checkpoints,” Bush said when asked of his impression. “…create massive frustrations for the Palestinians. You’ll be happy to hear that my motorcade of a mere 45 cars was able to make it through without being stopped, but I’m not so exactly sure that’s what happens to the average person.”
It’s doubtful the President saw the crumbling shelters and open sewers or the effects of curfews, crushing unemployment, lack of food and medicine and constant harassment from the Israeli military that’s so common in West Bank villages. These conditions aren’t commonly known to Americans. The American news media tends to paint the Palestinians as rock-throwing, rocket-launching terrorists. Seldom does it show the reasons Palestinians are in revolt.
Journalist-cartoonist Joe Sacco went to Israel and the Occupied Territories in 1991 near the end of the First Intifada and spent two-and-a-half months gathering interviews for a series of nine comics that began coming out in 1993. They’ve now been assembled in a deluxe volume that, in the style of the best documentaries, is at once informative, entertaining and disturbing. Despite the fact that it’s set 15 years in the past, Palestine: The Special Edition pulls the curtain back from life in the Occupied Territories. Little has changed since. If you had to live like this, you’d be throwing rocks too.
Sacco doesn’t claim to provide a balanced look at the Palestinian question. Indeed his sympathies are adamantly with the Palestinians and one of the book’s attractions is watching this sympathy develop. Something of a Gonzo journalist, Sacco’s stories hinge on his presence and his innocent-abroad participation in meetings and misadventures. The somewhat cartoonish way he draws himself contrasts sharply with his depictions of the Palestinians, especially as the book progresses and the drawings take on more realism. We discover much about the author: his ignorance upon arriving in Cairo for the journey north, his fear of the Israelis, even his catastrophic sexually-open relationship back in the States, something that clashes mightily with the values of his Palestinian friends.
As Sacco sits down to tea with his contacts he’s given stories of torture, unreasonable detainment and murder. Scenes of muddy streets, open sewers and uncollected garbage fill the pages. Sheer humiliation is a daily occurrence. Curfews come before sundown. The Israelis seem to arbitrarily detain Palestinians, destroy homes and undermine their livelihood. When a Palestinian family makes a small living from their olive trees, the Israelis come in and have them cut down. We can’t help but conclude that the Israelis want to drive these people out.
Sacco doesn’t portray all Israelis as evil. There are sympathetic soldiers and a nod to the peace movement. Nor does he entirely paint the Palestinians as innocent victims. Many declare their hatred of Jews. There’s little mention Palestinian violence against Israelis. An infamous attack in which a Palestinian forced a bus into a ravine, killing 15 passengers is pictured but the perpetrator is described as a family man with no political affiliations. To his credit, Sacco addresses problems within the Palestinian communities including the treatment of women (there’s an interesting chapter in which he quizzes women about the wearing of the hijab), the rivalry between various political factions and the murder of collaborators, something that contributed to the end of the First Intifada.
Sacco’s illustrations are often done from a photographic perspective. He has an interesting way of depicting his interviewees, drawing them head-on in portrait style as they tell their stories. He often illustrates group and street scenes from the ground up, giving his subjects presence and motion. His best scenes are panoramas, often with cock-eyed narrative boxes pitched at extreme angles. These detailed, oversized panels show his arrival by donkey cart in the grim refugee camp of Jabalia or street protests in front of nervous soldiers in Ramallah and East Jerusalem. The extensive essay that accompanies the comics reveals the methods of his craft and some of the artistic and journalistic choices he faced.
Near the end of the book, Sacco and his Palestinian contacts encounter an Israeli roadblock and spend nervous hours creeping along, watching soldiers take men from their cars and lead them away. It’s nothing like Mr. Bush’s experience. –Cabbage Rabbit
Palestine: The Special Edition by Joe Sacco; Fantagraphic Books, hardback, 286 pages, $29.95, www.fantagraphics.com
A version of this review first appeared in the OC Weekly