Joe Sacco, Palestine (1993–1996, Jonathan Cape 2003)
If, like me, you quail at the thought of reading Amnesty International’s recent report, Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians, subtitled Cruel system of domination and crime against humanity (downloadable as a PDF at this link), you may find the information easier to absorb in comic-book form. Joe Sacco’s Palestine is one of the classics of comics journalism, aka graphic non-fiction.
Sacco spent two months in Israel’s Occupied Territories – Gaza and the West Bank – in the northern winter of 1991–1992, during the first intifada. He produced a series of comics about the experience, which were collected into a single volume in 2001, with an introductory essay by Edward Said. This London edition came two years later. More than 20 years after publication, and 30 years after the events he recounts, the specifics of the situation in Israel and Palestine have changed but the book is still urgently relevant.
Edward Said’s introduction speaks of his childhood love of comics and how this book brought that love together with his lifelong advocacy of the Palestinian people. Here’s part of his description of the book:
As we also live in a media-saturated world in which a huge preponderance of the world’s news images are controlled and diffused by a handful of men sitting in places like London and New York, a stream of comic-book images and words, assertively etched, at times grotesquely emphatic and distended to match the extreme situations they depict, provide a remarkable antidote. In Joe Sacco’s world there are no smooth-talking announcers and presenters, no unctuous narrative of Israeli triumphs, democracy, achievements, no assumed and re-confirmed representations – all of them disconnected from any historical or social source, from any lived reality – of Palestinians as rock-throwing, rejectionist, and fundamentalist villains whose main purpose is to make life difficult for the peace-loving, persecuted Israelis. What we get instead is seen through the eyes and persona of a modest-looking ubiquitous crew-cut young American man who appears to have wandered into an unfamiliar, inhospitable world of military occupation, arbitrary arrest, harrowing experiences of houses demolished and land expropriated, torture (‘moderate physical pressure’) and sheer brute force generously, if cruelly, applied … at whose mercy Palestinians live on a daily, indeed hourly basis.Page iii
I’d only add that Sacco doesn’t portray the Palestinians as saintly victims. At times he recoils from an antisemitic remark (he doesn’t correct his informants when they talk of ‘the Jews’, but his own narrative refers meticulously to ‘Israeli soldiers’, ‘the Israeli government’ and so on), and you feel how strongly he hopes the voices of despair are wrong. He’s also unsparing of himself as the visiting US comic-making journalist who wants to see real suffering because that’s what he needs to make his comic dramatic. He squirms for a whole page when he colludes with sexism. And he manages to find glimmers of humour, mainly in the endless cups of tea he has to drink in order to hear people’s stories.
Here’s a page, sadly without an image of gawky and bespectacled Sacco himself, to give you an idea:
Sacco returned to Gaza in 2002–2003 to investigate a massacre that happened in 1956. The resulting book, Footnotes on Gaza (2009) is almost as hefty as Palestine and definitely worth reading alongside it (my blog post at this link).