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A review a day: Footnotes in Gaza

by  in Comic News Comment
A review a day: <i>Footnotes in Gaza</i>

It’s the last day of the year, and why not look at a book that, according to some, is the best graphic novel of the year! But will this reviewer think so????

Joe Sacco’s latest, Footnotes in Gaza, is published by Metropolitan Books, part of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. It costs a mere $29.95, which isn’t that bad considering it’s over 400 pages long.

And while I hesitate to call it a masterpiece because this might be how good Sacco is all the time (I’ve never read anything by Sacco, something I’m definitely going to have to rectify), this is a marvelous book. I’m going to have to mull over whether it’s the best of the year, but it’s in the running.

I ought to explain a few things about this book. First, it’s immensely difficult to review, at least after one reading, because Sacco packs the book with stuff that you really need to chew on for a while. I wanted to review it before the end of the year, however, to give you an impression of what’s going on without delving too, too deeply into it. If that makes me a bad reviewer, so be it. I’m sure much smarter people across the Internet have reviewed this sucker much better than I will, so if my meager ramblings interest you, hit Google and check better ones out! But I’ll give it a whirl!

The second thing I want to explain is my expectations going into this book. Without going all FOX News on anyone, I do think a lot of celebrities and literati seem to favor the Palestinians in the conflict with the Israelis. This is a bugbear of conservative commentators who think all Arabs are terrorists and all Jews are nobly fighting for their ancestral homelands. Similarly, many liberals seem to think the Israelis have become as bad as Nazis and the poor Palestinians are simply desperately clinging to lands they owned for centuries before the British and Americans betrayed them at the end of World War II and allowed Israel to come into existence.

This incredibly simplistic narrative works for the attention span-challenged in the world, and as we all know, network news pander to those types. I suppose I come down on the side of Israel, only because I believe the country has a right to exist. Both sides’ behavior over the past sixty years, however, is often reprehensible, and the idea that one side is “right” and the other “wrong” doesn’t seem correct. Of course, even in the real world, people want heroes and villains, so the idea that both sides might be doing horrible things doesn’t seem to occur to many of them. Going into this book, I thought Sacco would be on the Palestinians’ side, mainly because of the way the book was described – he was digging into the reports of a massacre of Palestinians by the Israelis in November 1956 in the towns of Khan Younis and Rafah in the Gaza strip. Sacco doesn’t necessarily describe the incidents as “massacres,” but the press about the book did, and when you use a loaded word like “massacre,” you surely are aligning yourself with the victims. I was still very interested in the book, but I worried that we would get a simplistic narrative of noble Palestinians fighting a valiant battle against Israeli occupiers. I shouldn’t have worried. Sacco is too good to get caught up in simplicities. The book is slanted toward the Palestinians, but not excessively so.

Sacco is somewhat of an anomaly in comics. He’s a historian/journalist, not really in either world. This is not an unusual career in the world of prose – you can find several history books written by journalists; Robert Kaplan is probably my favorite, but he’s certainly not unique – but in comics, it’s somewhat unusual. Sacco is not only a good journalist and a decent historian, he’s a fine graphic artist as well, so his books are unique.

In this comic, Sacco tells two intertwined stories: He investigates the deaths of Palestinians in Gaza in 1956, but while he’s writing that story, he also tells the story of the current Palestinians and how the past both has and doesn’t have an impact on their lives. Sacco is desperate to get the story of 1956 down before all the survivors die off, as official records are remarkably sparse and sanitized (we get several documents at the end in appendices, but Sacco doesn’t interview any Israelis who were in Gaza at the time, possibly because he couldn’t find any or they wouldn’t speak to him), and so he wanders Khan Younis and Rafah looking for people who witnessed the massacres.

While doing this, he naturally meets several people who are currently fighting against the Israelis, and he puts their stories into the book as well. The book becomes much deeper because of this, as Sacco must constantly try to balance his desire to figure out something that, for the people living through the trouble in 2003, is completely irrelevant. Sacco does a tremendous job showing how it’s still relevant without becoming pedantic – he never actually tries to convince the younger people that what happened in 1956 matters, allowing instead for his narrative to show how the events still resonate. (At one point in the book, he tells some young people that if they’ve forgotten what happened fifty years earlier, in fifty years no one will remember what they’re doing, but that’s as close as he gets to a soapbox.) The reader gets a fuller understanding of the irony that often accompanies history without Sacco being too obvious about it.

Footnotes in Gaza is a very balanced book, even if Sacco doesn’t try to get the Israeli side. He himself provides the balance, as do several people he interviews in the book. At one point a character tells him that the Israelis are all soldiers, so it doesn’t matter if “innocent” people are killed in bombings. The Arabs decry the practice of Israelis killing civilians indiscriminately, but they think nothing of sending women and children out as suicide bombers. Sacco doesn’t comment on this, simply lets the characters speak. He gives us many sides of the story, both in the Fifties and in the present. The biggest lack in the historical part of the book, as far as I can remember (and yes, I’m doing this from memory, so I could be missing plenty), is that the people who became the Jewish government in 1948 were willing to create a two-state system in Palestine, and the Palestinians, backed by the major Arab countries, rejected this because they thought they could defeat the Israelis in combat. This is never mentioned in the book, but Sacco does make sure that the Palestinians aren’t simply the good guys fighting against the evil Jews. He doesn’t bring in the Israeli point of view much, but when he does, he makes it clear that things are definitely not as simple as the Palestinians would like us to believe.

What’s interesting about the way Sacco tells the story is that he steps into the story quite often to question what he’s doing and what people are telling him. He doesn’t do this as much in the present, but when he and his translator assemble the facts of what happened in Gaza in 1956, he begins to ruminate on how much they can trust.

Footnotes in Gaza becomes as much about how we create history as it is about what actually happened. Very early on, Sacco writes “This is the story of footnotes to a sideshow of a forgotten war.” A page later, he writes, “History can do without its footnotes. Footnotes are inessential at best; at worst they trip up the greater narrative.” He’s setting this up as ironic, because as we see throughout the book, history is made of “footnotes” (and I love footnotes, myself), but to a certain degree he’s right: All of the people he interviews in his book are “unimportant” in the grand scheme of things. Sacco steps outside his narrative quite often to explain what is happening in the wider world, from the machinations that led to the Suez Crisis of 1956 to George Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which was ramping up while Sacco was in Gaza. The “little people” often get lost in the sweep of history, as Sacco admits. But those people are the bricks and mortar of history, and Sacco does a fine job building the foundation. As he interjects himself into the narrative, this also becomes a story about how he (and, to a degree, the reader) reacts to the history – the end of the book has nothing to do with what happened in 1956 or what’s going on in the wider world of 2003, but how Sacco himself tries to understand the events. It’s history as self-absorption … and I don’t say that as an insult, I say it as the way we all have to process the world. Sacco has an epiphany at the end that, historically speaking, is fairly brilliant. But it also allows him to suddenly understand why digging into the past has been so difficult. We have been following this track throughout the book, and it’s fascinating how Sacco wraps it up so perfectly. How much can each of us really know about what’s going on? That’s the conundrum of history.

Not only is this the history of an event, it’s a social and cultural history as well. Sacco “embeds” himself in Gaza for a few months, and he sees how the Palestinians act in their everyday lives, with the threat of Israeli attack (or, more likely, house demolition) constantly on their minds. Sacco can’t understand why so many young people don’t want to talk about 1956, until we realize that they live with the fear of sudden death every day of their lives. Why should one event stand out when there are so many similar events to mourn? But what Sacco does by simply chronicling the lives of the Gazans is give us both an appreciation of their dilemma and a kind of a tragic resignation that they and the Israelis are so locked in their cycles that peace has no hope. He writes often of the Oslo accords of 1993 and how many Palestinians viewed it as a sell-out by their leaders.

The rifts among the Arabs, both in the 1950s and in the present, are one reason Isreal has been able to survive (ironically, this was the reason the Crusader kingdoms survived so long a millennium ago). The people on the ground feel that they have been betrayed by the upper crust of the Arab world, because those leaders don’t have to live in a border zone where Israeli bulldozers might demolish your house at any time with very little warning. The leaders don’t have to worry about poverty and joblessness and the slow grind of life in Gaza, where a simple journey from north to south might take hours or even days because the Israelis can close the only road whenever they want, causing traffic jams that stretch for miles (they guard an east-west route from a Jewish settlement to Israel proper, which means they can block Palestinian traffic for any reason, or no reason). Sacco shows us all of this without excusing the horrors the Palestinians perpetrate on the Israelis, and it makes this a far more complex portrait of the region than we might expect. You know, from a comic book.

Sacco is a marvelous artist, too, with astonishing and meticulous attention to detail. He often gives us full-page spreads of Rafah today, with rubble lying on recently bulldozed ground, and the sheer scale of the destruction is impressive and tragic. When he returns to 1956, he wonderfully shows the mass of humanity that were herded into a schoolyard in November of that year and made to crouch for hours. When they’re released, we get a full page of the men breaking down a stone wall as they try to escape, and we can feel the relief mixed with terror that the men feel as they finally reach freedom. We get a true sense of the desert and the desolation of Gaza and the impermanence of even the large towns (one detail I noticed was Sacco showing the rebar sticking out of pillars on the tops of houses – I saw this in Egypt and never got a sufficient explanation for why it occurred, but it makes the houses look half-finished and therefore ready to be torn down). His large cast of characters tend to blur together, mainly because both the older men and women dress in traditional styles and aren’t in the book long enough to make much of an impression, but Sacco, his translator, and a few other key characters come to vivid life in the book.

Sacco expresses the horrid banality of life in the refugee camps and the towns of Gaza, and whenever the kids run after him in the book, we can guess that some of them, at least, become soldiers to alleviate the boredom they feel. Sacco does a wonderful job showing how the boredom can suddenly turn deadly as the Israelis destroy a house (and Sacco mentions Rachel Corrie, the American protestor who was killed when an Israeli bulldozer accidentally crushed her) or, at night, believe they see people with weapons and start firing into the streets. Mainly through the precise art, Sacco shows how nerve-wracking this kind of life can be. He also does some nice things when cacophony is called for, overlapping narrative balloons and drawings to create an artistic assault on the senses that reflects the swirl of emotions that often override logic in the region. It’s nicely done.

I really can’t recommend Footnotes in Gaza enough. It’s emotionally wrenching, wonderfully drawn, meticulously researched, relevant, timely, and fascinating. Sacco manages to walk a fine line between compassion for his subjects and condemnation for some of their actions. He also manages to present a balanced look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even as it’s clear he has a great deal of sympathy for the victims. The book is a wonderful historical document but also a gripping story of tragedy and cover-up. Sacco doesn’t attempt to explain why the Israelis would cover the events in Gaza up or even if they actively did so, but he does raise questions in our mind about the way it was handled by the authorities, and that’s always a good thing, no matter whose side you’re on. Footnotes in Gaza manages to be a human interest story that not only works well as history, but as something that explains why we study history in the first place. It’s really an amazing comic.

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