May 18, 2013
Eunice Wong on ‘Footnotes in Gaza’
Posted on Jan 8, 2010
By Eunice Wong
Joe Sacco’s latest volume of comic book journalism, “Footnotes in Gaza,” is a detective story drawn from the Greek tragedy of Palestinian-Israeli history. It is a search for the truth about a bloody 50-year-old incident almost obliterated from historical memory. Rigorous journalism and moral and philosophical musings are wrangled into an explosive feast of a comic book.
On Nov. 3 and Nov. 12, 1956, in the Gaza towns of Khan Yunis and Rafah, large-scale killings of Palestinian men—275 dead in Khan Yunis and 111 in Rafah, according to the United Nations—were carried out by invading Israeli troops. There is almost nothing written in English about these massacres.
“This is the story of footnotes to a sideshow of a forgotten war,” writes Sacco. Over a drawing of a crowd of Palestinian men, their hands up and their faces contorted, the text continues: “Well, like most footnotes, they dropped to the bottom of history’s pages, where they barely hang on.”
Sacco interviews Palestinian survivors from 1956, jigsawing back and forth throughout the book between the present and the past. We follow him through the throng and press of Gaza City, loudspeakers blaring Islamic calls to worship over the traffic, through Israeli checkpoints where roaming vendors sell tea and where, for one shekel, kids will join carpools to make up the three-person minimum. He pulls us into the impoverished refugee towns of Khan Yunis, with its narrow alleyways of mud and corrugated zinc roofs held down by bricks and scrap, and Rafah, where Israeli bulldozers routinely destroy Palestinian homes. Adolescent Palestinian boys sing and shout on top of the mountains of wreckage the machines leave behind.
In Khan Yunis and Rafah, Sacco chases down lead after lead. Portraits of the elderly survivors are drawn in small, neat rectangles. Their names are stenciled underneath. Old men re-enact the events of Nov. 3 or Nov. 12, 1956, the latter ominously remembered as the Day of the School. They pull themselves up out of their chairs, put their hands up, and turn to the wall. Many cry. Their weathered faces crumple in silent, close-up panels.
A poignant meditation on the nature of memory emerges. What does history mean in a place where bombings and killings occur daily? “They could file last month’s story today,” Sacco writes of his fellow journalists. “Or last year’s for that matter—and who’d know the difference?” But past and present, to the survivors, intersect with disturbing nearness and symmetry. Sacco often juxtaposes images from 1956 with those of modern Gaza. It is a simple but powerful technique that evokes the simultaneous layers of memory.
Faris Barbakh tells Sacco of stumbling upon more than 100 bodies lying along a ruined castle wall when he was 14 years old. The following page is a panoramic drawing of the wall, the bodies “from the beginning of the wall to the end,” and the boy standing before them. The facing page is the same site almost 50 years later, now a town square. Cars are parked where the bodies lay. Water towers have replaced the palm trees beyond the castle. The wall is plastered with posters and Arabic graffiti. Shoppers and schoolchildren populate the square. Barbakh, Sacco and his guide, Abed, stand where the aghast 14-year-old once stood. The effect is haunting.
Sacco’s black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings are photographic in their detail—down to the gap in Condoleezza Rice’s teeth—but they have an imaginative scope and perspective that would be hard to duplicate in photographs. We are given a bird’s-eye view of a sprawling line of firing squad victims, far below us, in a Khan Yunis street. The bodies are tiny and shattered, like smashed insects. The puddles of black blood pooling around them resemble a Rorschach inkblot. In other panels we are taken down the throats of women ululating in grief. And later Sacco places the reader directly in the terrified position of a Palestinian soldier in the moment of being identified to the Israelis by a collaborator. The collaborator’s hand and index finger loom in the foreground, stabbing straight at you, the reader. His face is furrowed with fear. His wide eyes look over his shoulder and down along his arm. Behind him—and in front of you—are uniformed Israeli soldiers gripping machine guns, about to take you away. This is a position no photographer could capture. A photographer usually transforms viewers into observers. Sacco makes the reader a participant. [Click here for a Google Images collection of hundreds of Joe Sacco drawings mainly concerning the Middle East and Bosnia. Click here to see seven panels from “Footnotes in Gaza,” at Amazon.com.]
Sacco transmits the lives of the people of Gaza, and the backdrop of violence and rage, with an unexpected tenderness. His eye is open to the ordinary human qualities of every person he meets. They shop in the market, drink tea, crack bad jokes and worry about their children’s futures. They condemn Israeli repression while complaining bitterly about the Palestinian militants who, they say, give the Israelis a pretext to assault civilians. They seek, even in the world’s largest open-air prison, a normal life.
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