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Footnotes in Gaza
by Joe Sacco
Metropolitan Books, 416 pages, $29.95.
If you’re at all familiar with Joe Sacco’s comics — if you’ve read any of his previous graphic novels, like Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde or The Fixer — then it won’t come as much of a shock to you when I say that his latest book, Footnotes in Gaza, is another exemplary work, perhaps even his best to date. You’re already aware of the high standards he continually sets for himself as a storyteller and an artist and how he amazingly seems to reach those benchmarks time and again. You probably don’t need much convincing.
If you haven’t read any of Sacco’s books up till now, you’re in for a treat. Well, I suppose “treat” is the unequivocally wrong word to use considering the book’s grim subject matter, but there is something so captivating and masterful about Sacco’s work — he uses the medium to such great effect, squeezing every bit of tension and drama from his narrative while avoiding obvious, sentimental heart-tugging or one-note political polemics — that it’s hard not to be stunned by the power of artistry on display, even while you’re being moved to anger or sadness by the tragedy he’s recounting.
In Gaza, Sacco goes back in time to chronicle two overlooked events from 1956 when Israel invaded the Gaza Strip during the Suez Crisis. One takes place in the town of Rafah, the other in Khan Younis. In both, Israeli soldiers slaughtered innocent male civilians while allegedly searching for rebels and Egyptian soldiers (the back of the book puts the total at about 111 dead).
Sacco had little information about either incident to go on and thus has to rely mostly on eyewitness accounts. At least a third of the book documents Sacco’s struggles to find trustworthy people to talk to, most of them now elderly and unwilling or unable to remember such a horrible event. He is up front about his struggles to wring the facts out of these people and frequently will stop the story to comment on discrepancies or outright contradictions between accounts.
While Sacco does talks to some Israelis, he makes no bones about where his sympathies lie. While he clearly finds some of the blatant anti-American and anti-Israel attitudes distasteful and eschews violence regardless of the causes (an encounter with a man recruiting suicide bombers is chilling) he has his heart on his sleeve here, and it beats for the Palestinians. If you are pro-Israel to the point where even the mere suggestion that its government might do unconscionable and barbaric things (as many governments often do) strikes you as an act of unforgivable anti-Semitism, then you probably shouldn’t read this book.
Of course, the obvious question is why go back so far in time. Why talk about 1956 when people are suffering right now? And, as Sacco, clearly shows us, suffering in equal, if not greater amounts?
In fact, a number of people ask Sacco that question directly time and again in the book, but the author’s overall theme is clear: the abuses and treatment of the Palestinians today is directly linked to the past. It is only through an understanding of what came before that we can even begin to figure out how to arrive at a solution for the present. If you want to know why the middle east problem is so intractable. go back to 1956.
Sacco is methodical and generous in the wealth of detail he provides, both in terms of his writing and layering of narrative upon narrative, and in his rendering of the events. In a book of this nature, creating a sense of place is of the utmost importance; you need to feel that you are there with the men hunched over and pissing on themselves in Rafah for fear of being shot, or being lined up in a firing squad in Khan Younis, to gain any sense of empathy. Thankfully, it’s a skill that Sacco excels at, and he makes both modern-day and 50s-era Gaza seem like real tangible places and not something the lives only in memory or on the national news.
Footnotes in Gaza is filled with memorable moments. So many that to start to pull them out one after the other becomes an seemingly pointless exercise. PLO fighter Khaled, lying in his bed and fearing for his family’s future. The doctor who is able to escape certain death only by the luck of being positioned on a corner. The man who tries to protect his home from both terrorists and Israeli bulldozers. The wife who in a state of near-madness, washes her husband’s bloody clothes.
And so on. If there’s one thing to be gleaned from Footnotes in Gaza, it’s that these stories of tragedy and death are near endless. All the more impressive then, that Sacco was able to sift through and discover two moments from the near-forgotten past, and make them sing out so forcefully that it seems like time has not dimmed its fury or injustice of the moment one bit. This is a tremendous book.