Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel Paperback – Oct 12 2010
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"Sacco has produced a series of extraordinary comic books that convey, with unusual attentiveness to the details of everyday life, the impact that war has on civilians" Boston Globe "Sacco is Art Spiegelman's most talented artistic descendant... [He] is tipped to win the comics world a second Pulitzer" The Economist "There is virtually no precedent for what he does... Sacco is legitimately unique" The New York Review of Books "Joe Sacco's brilliant, excruciating books of war reportage are potent territory... He shows how much that is crucial to our lives a book can hold" -- Margo Jefferson The New York Times Book Review --This text refers to the Album edition.
About the Author
Joe Sacco, one of the world's foremost cartoonists, is the author of, among other books, Palestine, which received the American Book Award, and Safe Area Goražde, which won the Eisner Award and was named Time magazine's best comic book of 2000. His books have been translated into fourteen languages and his comics reporting has appeared in Details, The New York Times Magazine, Time, and Harper's. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
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1. Sacco makes a very strong case for believing that the present turmoil in the Gaza Strip has some deep roots in the past;
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This latest book of his is his biggest and most ambitious. His first book, Palestine, came out around 15 years ago and was an astonishing look at the lives of Palestinian life in the occupied territories and back into the start of the first intifada, with flashbacks to 1948. He then spent some harrowing time in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, resulting in his books Safe Area Goradze and The Fixer, which are vividly raw look at the horrors of that conflict. In 2001, he returned to Gaza with fellow journalist Chris Hedges (War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning), looking into a reported massacre from the time of the 1956 war that he had seen mentioned in another Noam Chomsky's Fateful Triangle. A few lines in a U.N. Report from the era subsequently sparked his interest in another incident in Gaza, so he returned in 2003 to try and track down the truth of that incident and see what role, if any, it played in the collective memory of the town.
What results is a sprawling, complex, multifaceted work that demands attention and engagement from the reader. Broken up into short sections/chapters/scenes of a few pages, it tells the story of the 1956 Suez Crisis, the Khan Younis massacre and "incident" in nearby Rafah at the same time, and Sacco's own contemporary quest to trace survivors of both and record their oral histories, against a background Israeli army destruction of Palestinian houses along the border of Gaza. It's a challenging mix of his own observations, quotes from historical documents, eyewitness accounts, and more -- all of which combine into a sad story of how quickly time can erase the past.
Unfortunately, whether or not you find the book compelling probably depends on your existing views toward Palestinian-Israeli relations. Readers sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians will find in the book yet further evidence of past Israeli atrocities and contemporary Israeli brutality. Readers sympathetic to Israel will seize upon discrepancies in the memories of those recalling events 50 years past, the lack of an irrefutable paper trail, and Sacco's positioning the story from the Palestinian point-of-view, to dismiss the work as a smear job. Of course, neither reading is complete, and part of the whole point of the book is to demonstrate how time takes its toll objective truth.
Personally, I'm not sure what steps Sacco could have taken to placate those demanding the "Israeli side" of the two incidents: perhaps placed a newspaper ad saying "Were you involved in massacring Palestinians in Gaza in 1956? If so, please contact me so I can make your involvement a public part of the historical record." However, it does seem a little odd that he doesn't give the unit numbers or anything like that for the Israeli army forces involved. There are also one or two points in his recreation of the story where some officers and possibly foreigners take steps to mitigate the brutality, and I wished that more archival detective work had been done to try and track down these figures. It's not clear to me whether he tried and the IDF archives just didn't have that material, or what. However, ultimately, it seems pretty clear that some despicable actions were taken against unarmed civilians, including murder. It's telling to me that at the time, a few opposition members in the Knesset attempted to raise inquires into the incidents and were blocked.
Graphically, the book is another Sacco masterpiece -- from detailed facial portraits of those he interviewed, to several stunning two-page spreads of sweeping scope from a raised perspective. The ramshackle feel of the towns and refugee camps of the 1956 period stands in stark visual contrast to hustling, bustling, built-up modern Gaza. Sacco's hand-lettering isn't the easiest to read, and here it's chopped up into so many small boxes that it can be a bit of a chore to read. But this is a minor quibble for a book that is so amazingly immersive. I've lived throughout the Middle East and have been to the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel, and Sacco captures the urban and natural landscape wonderfully. The one disappointment is the cover, which is very bland and doesn't give much of a sense of the contents.
If you have any interest in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the present-day situation in Gaza, I definitely recommend picking this up and challenging yourself to grapple with it. The format and discursive style offer a different lens on events and issues that will always be controversial. Even if you disagree with the approach or perspective, I think there's a lot of humanity display in the pages, and that alone is worth engaging with.
Amid the 1956 Suez crisis, Israeli soldiers killed a large number (the exact figure is, of course, disputed) of Palestinian refugees from Gaza's Khan Younis and Rafah camps. According to a UN report, 275 Palestinians died in a November Israeli operation in Khan Younis; around the same time, scores of men were shot in Rafah.
FOOTNOTES provides the historical context for these incidents mainly through interviews with Israeli historian Mordechai Bar-On--General Moshe Dayan's personal assistant during the Suez crisis--and an unnamed Palestinian fedayee who took part in raids against Israel. Illustrating the contents of these interviews, Sacco sets the scene: a cycle of fedayeen raids and Israeli retaliation; Egypt's arms deal with Soviet-satellite Czechoslovakia; Nasser's dramatic nationalization of the Suez Canal; and the tripartite collusion between Israel, France, and Britain to gain control of the Suez.
Though he painstakingly researches the official documentation of the Khan Younis and Rafah incidents, most of the book comes from oral history interviews conducted with survivors and witnesses. FOOTNOTES tells not only their stories, but the story of Sacco's experience of getting those narratives. Interspersed with the oral histories are scenes of daily life, particularly during Sacco's March 2003 visit to Gaza. We experience his frustration with the fallibility of his sources, who are prone to forgetting things or going on tangents. We witness the large-scale demolition of Palestinian homes along the Egyptian border--part of Israel's effort to disrupt smuggling networks--and the Palestinian reaction to the start of the Iraq War. The book also offers us a glimpse into the grinding poverty of life in the Strip.
FOOTNOTES' major drawback is its one-sidedness. Sacco provides the official Israeli accounts of the Rafah incident and the home demolitions, but these appear--ironically--as a footnote, relegated to the back of the book. Entirely absent are first-person narratives from Israelis who were there. Since the Israeli documents paint a very different picture of what happened, such narratives would have added credibility either by telling a conflicting side of the story or by confirming the Palestinian testimonies. They would have also allowed readers to glean something about why these shootings happened.
The graphic novel format makes for a unique reading experience, one that is more immersive than a text with words alone. One becomes absorbed in each panel, from two-page panoramas of the camps to the expressive faces of Sacco's interviewees. The combination of Sacco's remarkable 400 pages of illustrations and the first-person accounts allow him to dredge both incidents out of the impersonal footnotes and restore their human realness.
Fighting began on October 29 and followed Egypt's decision in July to nationalize the Suez Canal, after the withdrawal of an offer by Britain and the United States to fund the building of the Aswan Dam, which was in response to Egypt formally recognizing the People's Republic of China (during a period of mounting tensions between China and Taiwan).
In 389 chunky pages of drawings and text, Sacco - through blowing dust and debris off the hidden past, interviews and research on currently available documents - delves into the Israeli military incursions into Khan Younis and Rafah refugee camps in the Gaza Strip after routing the Egyptian army through merging the past with the present and by reaching out to a number of historical signposts. The disturbing facts and theories surrounding the beatings, shootings and collaborators when the Egyptian-ruled area was briefly occupied by Israeli forces are accentuated by Sacco's observations as he strides across the bridge of official pronouncements to the truth.
"Well, like most footnotes, they dropped to the bottom of history's pages, where they barely hang on," writes Sacco. "While we feverishly dig away at 1956, daily events are shovelled back at us, obscuring our finds, making it that much harder for our subjects to focus on the stratum in question.
"That woman we met in the last chapter, for example, 80- or 82-year-old Ta'ah Khalil Outhman...her leg was broken when her house was demolished on top of her a few days before we talked."
A modern meeting of international journalists after a day of filing stories begins the journey, with a twist to what is spoken, but actually meant, when a hot deadline is turning colder by the minute: "Waitress! What's on the menu? Bombings! Assassinations! Incursions! They could file last month's story today - or last year's, for that matter - and who'd know the difference?"
It quickly moves to following Sacco and Abed, a respected individual in Khan Younis, who can open very slightly the closed doors to many reporters, based on a special trust that cannot be won through good deeds by outsiders: "We believe there is a hidden agenda behind each Western donor - especially American donors. Their idea is to make us focus on how to democratize ourselves and to forget that we are still slaves."
Some interviews with eyewitnesses flow with a candidness that the many years did not erase, but Sacco meticulously goes through a number of recollections and juxtaposes the remembrances with knowledge that was unearthed through a variety of other sources. Patience was oftentimes the hardest part, which is shown as Sacco attempts to ask specific questions to a former guerilla fighter, who actually provides amazing background information that sheds new light on a number of issues. The rocky road of the reporter leads to tangible snapshots at the two locations and the slaughter that took place.
"The U.N. report presents two incompatible versions of the Khan Younis `incident,' and so in this case, as in many others, history-by-document drops us into a muddied soup of `on the other hands' and `possiblies' seasoned, perhaps, with a few `probablies,'" Sacco writes. "But, clearly the refugees' claim in the U.N. report dovetails the eyewitness testimony Abed and I gathered many years later. Namely: the fighting had stopped; the men were unarmed; they did not resist.
"And I remembered how often I sat with old men who tried my patience, who rambled on, who got things mixed up, who skipped ahead, who didn't remember the barbed wire at the gate or when the mukhtars stood up or where the jeeps were parked, how often I sighed and mentally rolled my eyes because I knew more about that day than they did."
that Gaza is like any other place on this planet. Gaza Is Israel's modern day Warsaw ghetto. Gaza is Israel's ant farm where the food supply is strained and in some cases like last year's war on Gaza, Israel set the
UNWRA storage facilities ablaze. Israel and its watchtowers are the maniacal child whose joy is to step on the ants and destroy their natural day to day activities. Israel's policy in the Gaza strip are set by madmen
who have lost all touch with their humanity. Where are they going with this and how far will they go is quite clear for anyone who reads Sacco's graphic novel.
The entire investigative tale, with its demolished homes and weathered inhabitants, is illustrated in jaw-dropping, painstaking detail. Sacco captures the omnipresent grief, pain and anger, along with occasional moments of humanity and levity.
Over 400 pages long, this is not a mere comic book. This is a hefty, eye-opening read that will tug at your heart.