Since the publication of Palestine in 1996, an examination of the lives of Palestinians living under the Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, Joe Sacco has been hailed a cartoonist-journalist of enormous skills. In his new book, Footnotes in Gaza, published this month by Metropolitan Books, Sacco returns to the Gaza Strip to look into the shrouded history surrounding two little known and brutally violent events—massacres of unarmed refugees by Israeli troops in November 1956—that took place in the towns of Khan Younis and Rafah.
According to a U.N. report, 275 people were killed in the town of Khan Younis and in a second incident at about the same time; more than 100 refugees were killed in the nearby town of Rafah. Now returning to the Gaza Strip, Sacco sets out to find out the truth about the incidents—to the degree that you can after 50 years—and in the process manages to map out a broad and ultimately tragic history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition to receiving the American Book Award for Palestine, Sacco has received an Eisner Award and is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. In a telephone interview with Sacco, PW Comics Week talked to him about his research for Footnotes in Gaza as well as his experiences living in the Gaza Strip and interviewing everyone from a former Fedayeen to ordinary Palestinians living in a constant state of war and deprivation.
PWCW: Why did you do this book?
JS: Well I did this book because I became aware of a couple events that actually took place in 1956 [the killings at Khan Younis and Rafah] and I figured if I didn’t touch it no one else would. I am one of those people that don’t like to see history being lost forever. I think there are important stories that just are never told and this is just one that I became aware of and I felt a need to tell it. I think it will help people get an insight into what’s been going on in that region for a while. I also wanted to talk about what I saw while I was there. I wouldn’t call this book strictly current events because things have changed in Gaza since I was there but I feel like I saw a lot of home demolitions and things like that and I felt a need to record this or else it will be something else that will be forgotten. It will become just another footnote in Gaza.
PWCW: Obviously the book builds on Palestine, your first book on the region and on the Israeli occupation. Are there any differences between the two? Many of the same issues obviously still exist that you covered in the first book.
JS: Well there are a lot of things, I mean some dramatic things have changed and some things haven’t changed at all. The occupation continues and the occupation hasn’t gotten any easier in fact it’s gotten a lot tougher on Palestinians. So in some ways it does feel maybe little bit like Palestine part 2. But I didn’t really want that. What I really wanted to do was look at a historical issue and what was going on when I was there. The home demolitions were a rather large campaign. I’m focusing on that. I’m also focusing on people in the resistance a little more. I didn’t really focus on that in Palestine; there’s some mention of it in the Palestine book but I’m a little more focused in this book on the specifics.
PWCW: You look into the history of these two massacres of Palestinian refugees in 1956 by Israeli troops—there’s no other way to describe it—but it seems as though you really created a complex book that does a number of things besides illuminating those incidents. The book seems to be a broad history of the Israeli occupation.
JS: Well, I wanted once in my life to write a really sprawling book that took in a lot of information and really spanned some time, decades in this case. I did want to show how refugees really live in Gaza. When you see it on the news there’s no context. I think people sort of forget the genesis of [the occupation]. People were expelled or fled from their homes and so my thinking is I want to show the whole development of how these Palestinian refugee camps came into existence and why people started to infiltrate back into Israel; how they got to their recent homes, how they get food and things like that; just the conditions people live under. It’s important for me to set that context up because it's from that that the Fedayeen [militant armed Arab resistance] are born and it's from that that there are Israeli raids coming across attacking Gaza in the 1950s. And then it's from that that you create this whole atmosphere of brutality. Things get either out of control or are really pushed to the extreme; in this case it's the killings of large numbers of noncombatants
PWCW: There’s a conflict in the narratives here between the Palestinian and the Israeli views of history; how both sides characterize each other. A significant part of the book is about veracity and memory or really the power of memory to keep this struggle between occupier and occupied going. You interview many people about the events of these two horrific events and in the best sense of journalism you constantly seem to be questioning whether what you are hearing is really actually true.
JS: Yes and I think it’s important for the reader to see that sort of thing. I mean I don’t think history books are a matter of just assembling all the facts, getting them in the right order, and there it is, that’s history. History becomes something in people’s minds, it’s filtered through memory; it’s filtered through someone like me who has to interpret that in the medium I’ve chosen. What I’m trying to do is show those things, show those problems to the reader. I don’t want the reader to think that this is something you just gather and spit out.
I would also like to demystify the process of gathering information. I think what I was able establish is the veracity of the arch of the story [and the killings] as far as the specifics, as far as memory goes. Yes, some of that is going to blur, some of that might even be exaggeration. But clearly I’m also trying to present competing visions of exactly the same incident so sometimes people are contradicting each other. In the end I cannot for the life of me sort out that stuff and I want to admit it.
PWCW: In the introduction to the book, talk about the difficulties of compiling this work. But could you talk a little bit about the specific visual research. For instance you visually recreate the Gaza of the 1950s and you jump cut back and forth between the early architecture of the region and the contemporary visual landscape of today. Can you talk a little bit about what your technique was? You must have used many photographs.
JS: Well it wasn’t such a problem to recreate the [contemporary period] when I was there because I took a lot of pictures. It was more difficult to recreate what the camps looked like in the 1950s. However I went to the UN, the United Nations Relief and Work agency archive, that’s the UNRWA archive in Gaza city and they had a very good historical archive of photographs. So I actually have copies of all these pictures of what the camps looked like in 1955, 1956. I also relied on what people said. I did a series of interviews with people who seemed to have the strongest memories of what the camps looked like and one guy even took me around once and showed me the roofs of that time. I mean most of those buildings are gone now and they’ve been replaced, but he took me just to show me, here is one roof that you know still exists that was just like it was in ‘56 so I took pictures of that. Even an original door from ‘56. So as much as possible I’m trying to get it right but again I will admit I’m still a filter. I also spent time at a library there trying to get the clothing right. I can’t say its 100% what I would like it to be, but then, you know, if you want to have 100% accuracy you’d have to have cameras there at the time.
PWCW: The book jumps between the present in Gaza, which is depressing and despairing, and the past and these killings, which are horrific. In a weird way the shifts from Gaza in the 1950s to the contemporary situation, almost gives the reader some relief, despite the current sufferings, in a relative sense from the horrible conditions in the 1950s.
JS: Yeah in a relative sense, but you know its funny because when I was there in Gaza it was one of the quietest periods in Rafah. I mean there were home demolitions but not so many people were killed. There were suicide bombings in Israel and this stuff was going on all over the place and it didn’t seem to touch me. I’m grateful for that but you know the people I spoke with had undergone a lot of violence in the months previous to my visit and after I left there was great amount of violence in Rafah. So to them what was going on in contemporary times was really dreadful and some of them, especially the younger ones, wondered why the hell was I looking at some historical event.
PWCW: The book also offers accounts of your encounters with Palestinian teenagers, which you seem to portray as kind of irritating.
JS: Well I mean what’s funny is sometimes I avoid teenage boys no matter whether I’m on the streets of Portland, Oregon or in Gaza. I mean teenage boys are just teenage boys
PWCW: It’s pretty universal.
JS: In a place like Gaza especially. Even kids younger than teenage years, you don’t have a filter on how they’re going respond to you. They could respond in a very friendly way or they could pick up a stone. Gaza has a very young population. Per capita it has one of the youngest populations in the world. In the journals that I was keeping at the time, I always had notes to myself about drawing children; children are constantly in the background, they’re constantly following you around and if anything is happening, like someone shooting, their first inclination unless they’re just terribly afraid, is to see what’s going on. They’re very curious so if there are guns firing, you’ll find them in those areas. In the most dangerous situations, yeah
PWCW: I think one of the most important aspects of your work is your ability to recreate everyday life, beyond the war and resisting the occupation. People have to go out and find food and find jobs and find places to live and there are very vivid recreations of what passes for ordinary life in Gaza.
JS: Well life has to go on. Markets are open, streets are busy and then you realize that 200 meters away, 300 meters away homes being bulldozed. I mean it seems very strange but you know there are kids going to school, they’re in their little school uniforms with their back packs on going to school or coming back from school. I’ve encountered kids that would be watching a demolition or something like that and they still have their school packs on. Life does go on in a war zone.
PWCW: There’s also a very vividly illustrated section about the slaughtering of a bull for a seasonal feast.
JS: Yes, I mean its funny, that’s probably my favorite scene. I think there could be a whole market for anthropological comics. I also want to show that, yes life goes on, there’s a feast, people are worried about their lives; there’s fighting and homes are getting destroyed but people still like to continue their traditions they need those things. It’s important to them to keep a sense of who they are. When you look at the tunnels that are being dug under Rafah and going into Egypt, they’re bringing in animals sometimes because it’s hard to find animals to slaughter for the feast so they smuggle those.
PWCW: So much of the book seems to be about finding shelter. You capture the architecture, the buildings and recreate the vistas of the 1950s as well as contemporary Gaza.
JS: I feel if you’re going to do journalism in comics you have to bring something to it besides talking heads. It’s very important to me to develop a setting and I want the reader to be lost in those buildings and in those streets. I tried as much as possible to make it look right and get the buildings in the right place. What’s important to me is that someone from Rafah is going to pick that up and say I know exactly where this is, I know this place
PWCW: I have to mention your ability to capture physical postures and facial expressions. I think there's a danger for almost every cartoonist about lapsing into visual clichés and you seem to have managed to avoid that. You seem to be able to depict a whole range of expressions with subtlety. No small accomplishment in a book of this nature
JS: That is a bit of a struggle. There are some crowd scenes where I realize when I’m talking to a bunch of people or a bunch of kids and some are looking at me suspiciously and some don’t know what to make of me and some think its just funny that I’m there and you know they are happy to see me in this kind of funny way and its all going on at once. I realize you cannot draw everyone with the same expression. There’s not some collective subconscious where everyone’s feeling exactly the same way.
PWCW: Obviously you take photographs, but is capturing or visually recreating these emotional exchanges simply the ability to take a good picture of someone?
JS: Well you know there are emotional exchanges that are so powerful that they stick in your mind and fortunately I’m also very good about keeping a journal. I make notes to myself about people and perhaps not their expressions but the mood and it’s the mood I’m trying to recreate.
PWCW: Is there a generation of young Palestinians that just wants to get out; that have just kind of given up on whether they can survive?
JS: Yes I think there are people like that I think among the younger people. There are no opportunities; there are almost no options at all; they are really backed into a corner. Individuals who have nothing to do with any violence are just backed into a corner. If I actually try to put myself in their shoes I just I wouldn’t know what to do, frankly.
PWCW: I think westerners very often want to know about the range of discussion among the Palestinians about their leadership and about their situation. There is a section in the book I think where Palestinians themselves are being critical of the strategies of their leadership and of Hamas. Is that kind of dialogue typical?
JS: Yes very typical. If you get to know people well enough of course they talk about it. I mean all agree that they’re oppressed by the Israeli government. You find people who are gleeful at a suicide bombing and you find people who just shake their heads and think, well you know this is not only the killing of innocent people but it has sort of no purpose at all and it doesn’t even advance the national goal at all. In fact it probably hinders it. They’re very critical of their own leadership. I wanted to show this is not some monolithic group of people we’re talking about. There are a lot of things going on and that’s something I wanted to present.
PWCW: Now that this book is done and out what are working on now or is it too soon to be tossing that question at you?
JS: No, no. I’m working on a of couple things at the moment. On my desk are illustrations of Camden, New Jersey, for a Harpers magazine article written by Chris Hedges. The other thing I’m working on is a story for a comic for the Virginia Quarterly Review. It’s quite a long story about African migrants trying to get to Europe. They’re crossing the Sahara and then getting on these boats and trying to make it to [Europe] and a lot end up in Malta, where I’m from. So I wanted to see how the Maltese are dealing with it and what’s going on with the migrants there and what the migrants think of how the Maltese are reacting to them. I’m half way through with that and I think that will be split between two issues since it’s a 48 page story.
PWCW: What’s your reaction to the state of comics journalism these days; that is using comics as a tool of journalism and in this case history?
JS: I think comics have a sort of a history of doing history relatively well. I’d like to see more of it and I know that there are some people like Josh Neufeld who did a book about Katrina [and New Orleans] and I know there are a number of European cartoonists who have been doing journalism in comics form. The medium is still very fresh and it’s still sort of a new car and there are many ways you can drive the new car. You can’t look at comics and say everything has been done in comics. I think we’re still in the medium’s infancy. Some great work is being done but clearly there’s a lot of fresh ground to trample.
[Photo of Joe Sacco by Michael Tierney]