Digging Up A Deadly Past

The Gaza Flotilla Raid in May that left nine dead and dozens wounded has already faded into the background of oil-soaked news. While in Seattle earlier this month, the Rabbit witnessed attempts at keeping the issue alive: dueling protests on the University of Washington campus in which both bullhorned sides invited the other into the space between them for “real” discussion (neither side budged while we watched), and a large, pro-Palestinian march the following day through downtown. Similar actions have been  reported around the country and the world. The opposing UW protests emerged in our mind as an symbol of how little chance there is of worthwhile resolution to the West Bank and Gaza issue. No doubt,  by the time summer is over, the flotilla incident will be just another footnote in a long, cruel and bloody struggle.

The death toll in the flotilla incident is small compared to that alleged in the two incidents illustrated in Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza. The book is a long account of Sacco’s investigation of two actions in Gaza that occurred back in 1956, one in the town of Khan Younis that left 275 Palestinians dead, another in Rafah that left 111 dead. While the overall effect of Sacco’s narrative is one of shock, disgust and shame it also serves as a reminder of the on-going nature of repression and killing that has marked the Palestinian-Israeli struggle for some 60 years.

Sacco, author-illustrator of Palestine and Safe Area Grorazde is the premier graphic journalist, the creator of detailed, researched, investigative comics that are no laughing matter. He approaches his subject in classic Gonzo style, injecting his search for stories into a larger narrative. This injection strengthens his reporting with its wide-angled, contemporary background to, in this case, events over 50 years old. That he concentrated on personal accounts, often to make up for a lack of official documentation, makes his work extremely engaging. Perspective–no pun intended– is everything in his work.

Sacco traveled to Gaza in 2001 with reporter Chris Hedges for Harper’s magazine and soon returned to collect accounts of the massacres that occurred during the ’56 Suez conflict. As readers of Palestine know, his sympathies are with the Palestinian people and this will disqualify him as a legitimate source for many. Yet anyone reading his book and examining the illustrations cannot help but conclude that the Palestinians suffer overwhelming poverty, repression and the effects of  what amounts to war. His infrequent sympathies for Israelis thrust into terrible situations as well as infrequent but obvious disapproval of some Palestinian actions offer precious little balance to a story that has little of it to offer.

In his introduction, Sacco acknowledges  the “scant” official documentation of the events he investigates as well as the questionable reliability of oral testimony. What documentation he was able to discover by sending researchers into the Israel State Archives and the archives of the Israel Defense Forces is listed (and quoted) in the Appendix. He issues the hope that his work will cause some Israeli veterans to come forward with accounts of their own.

Sacco also cautions readers not to see his illustrations as fact. Despite using historical photos when drawing his landscapes, he says that drawing comes with “a measure of refraction” and should be seen as such. (It’s surprising how little things have changed from his depictions of 1956 to the  current day drawings.)

Sacco makes clear the complications of life in Gaza; the waste, the shortages, the crowds, the filth.  He claims that the half of Gaza’s workforce which once worked in Israel have found themselves replaced by Thai, Romanian and Chinese workers.  Invited by a United Nations Relief Worker Agency employee to visit a home in Khan Younis, Sacco sweats and becomes claustrophobic at the tight conditions in which the 11 people live.  He notes what little work is available to them, hunting scrap or the rare teaching position funded by UNRWA. He finds that the Palestinian Authority hires police whose only duty seems to be to collect salaries. The most well-off man he meets works for an American aid agency as a facilitator of “democratization.”  “Basically, it’s bullshit,” says the man.

These modern-day accounts of Sacco’s investigation and story gathering make the book far more relevant than just an account of the massacres. When those accounts do come, they are filled with horror, grief and inexplicable cruelty. Some of Sacco’s most extreme panel’s are over-sized Hieronymus Bosh-like nightmares depicting killing, detention and states of cruel pandemonium. Cross-hatched scenes of darkness or those with the story-teller super-imposed on his own story are done to chilling effect.

Unlike Palestine, the art work doesn’t evolve but maintains a direct, composed style. The strongest work in Palestine is its portraits. Here, the portraits are all of a kind, similar in mood and expression. Footnotes’ best illustrations comes in the narrative flow. Sacco is a master at finding the right action and composition to move his story forward and even the scatter of spent shell casings on a blank background has an impact on his story.

Comic touches are few. A restaurant menu is rolled open to reveal “Bombings! Assassinations! Incursions!” Sacco makes laughs at his own expense and his is the only overly characterized face: large lips, receding hairline, eyes constantly whited out behind  large, round spectacles. He also makes fun of the press corp and their proclivity to drink and party even as duty calls in sections that recall the indifferent press in the movies The Year of Living Dangerously and Under Fire.

That party scene  serves to illustrate his frustrations — and hopes — beyond the murderous bickering. Among the international crowd of reporters and N.G.O.s are “hepcat Arabs from Ramallah and right-on Jews from Tel Aviv sharing salads and grooving to the same post-bop jazz. Are the dark-haired cuties who jump up when the dance beat kicks in Palestinian or Israeli?…Ahhh, even in the belly of the world’s most intractable conflict there’s a glimmer of hope in which to exalt!”

At end, Sacco feels shame for what he’s lost while gathering his accounts, “for losing something along the way as I collected my evidence, disentangled it, dissected it, indexed it, and logged it onto my chart.” This confession comes as something of a surprise as he has shown nothing but compassion for those who experienced the killings. In a series of almost four wordless pages he runs a final account through his mind, from a perspective inside the punished crowd, as if in attempt to develop an empathy he didn’t have. If he didn’t succeed with himself — and what preceeds it suggests that he did — Sacco certainly succeeds with the reader.–Cabbage Rabbit

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