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.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.