Eunice Wong on ‘Footnotes in Gaza’
Posted on Jan 8, 2010
By Eunice Wong
As an Israeli bulldozer demolishes homes and with Palestinian militants shooting at the armored machine, foreign activists chanting through megaphones and camera crews and photographers darting about, Sacco notices a mild-looking man, with a receding, stubbled chin, crouching on the ground. He is tearing up vegetation and stuffing it into a sack. “It’s for my sheep,” he explains. A few pages later smirking teenage boys harangue Sacco for not being Muslim and for wasting time on history. The conversation soon shifts to the Israeli bulldozers.
“Why is our country like this?” asks one boy, his face scarred with acne. “Because we’re not close to God,” answers another, his head down.
“I ask what they think is the best way to resist,” writes Sacco in a caption.
“Get close to God.”
There is a silent panel, the four boys’ tired, defeated faces stripped of bravado. And then one of them asks Sacco, “Do you like us?”
Sacco’s compassionate attention is a stark contrast to the cold utilitarianism of many reporters and the brutal efficiency of the war machine. Those who cannot see the human being, as Sacco does, embrace the doctrine of interchangeability: Almost everything—and everyone—can be replaced. The individual and the particular are swallowed up by the great broad strokes of policy, news stories and statistics. They miss what is most important—a quiet man scavenging for food to feed his animals, teenaged boys with acne who yearn to be accepted.
The work of journalists, including Sacco, cannot be done without a steady supply of human anguish. The more appalling the stories the better. Sacco is painfully aware of the ambiguities of his motives. “He knows it’s rubble that’s brought me, too,” Sacco writes of a Rafah man, his home about to be bulldozed, who refuses to talk to him. In a darkened home, Sacco and Abed press an old man to tell his story. He is reluctant—“It’s very hard to talk about”—but finally relents, after four silent panels of weeping. “Okay, I’ll tell you”—and the scene cuts to Sacco and Abed walking away from the house, beaming and satisfied. They look as though they have finished a very good meal. The old man stands brokenly in the doorway.
Sacco’s harshest judgments are reserved for himself. He is the hapless antihero of the book, drawn always without eyes behind his round wire glasses. Repeated images of himself, at one point, whirl and gesticulate as he expounds on atrocities to his friends, obviously enjoying the hardheaded grit of the subject. And then a volley of Israeli gunfire hits the building. He is instantly cowed. “Because I’m not under fire every day.” His friends continue the conversation without him. He is the outsider.
The final, merciless insight of the book is not about history, but about the voyeurs who come from industrialized zones of safety to watch. It is devastating.
The conclusion of “Footnotes in Gaza” is a harrowing, textless sequence of an anonymous man’s point of view on Nov. 12, 1956. It can be fully understood and its power fully realized only within the context of the oral testimonies Sacco has gathered. The stream of individual voices we have been hearing throughout the book converge in these last wordless pages. They are drawn in tight squares. What we see is obstructed and claustrophobic, sightless with panic and dread. “Can you imagine,” as one witness had said many pages earlier, “that one who is very fearful can see anything?” The man whose eyes we look through has raised his hands. We see his hands as he would, at the periphery of the panels. Sometimes we look down with him at his foot stepping accidentally on a body. He runs with a huddled mass of men. We see the backs of their heads, their raised arms, their cringing forms. He approaches the school gate. Enters it. The final page is black.
There is a sickening familiarity in the images of “Footnotes in Gaza”—terrified, brutalized men with their hands up, huddled together, herded in a column down the streets by helmeted, barking soldiers who shoot into the crowd. The chilling and recurring detail of shoes scattered in the street, lost by panicked, running men, recalls the horrific mountains of black leather shoes left behind in Nazi concentration camps.
“As someone in Gaza told me, ‘events are continuous,’ ” Sacco writes in his foreword. “[T]he past and present cannot be so easily disentangled; they are part of a remorseless continuum, a historical blur.”
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict seems, now, to be an eternal epic, reaching back into the murk of the last century. But how many years passed between the 6 million Jewish dead and 1956? Fifteen, 20? The Warsaw ghetto and Auschwitz-Birkenau were not abstract history lessons to those who pulled the triggers in Khan Yunis and Rafah. This is the shocking, “remorseless continuum” of human cruelty. The blind animal that is man, prey in the morning and predator at night, rises again and again to slaughter the helpless. It takes a poet and an artist—Joe Sacco is both—to call us back to our better nature.
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