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Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel Hardcover – December 22, 2009
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Book DescriptionFrom the great cartoonist-reporter, a sweeping, original investigation of a forgotten crime in the most vexed of places.
Rafah, a town at the bottommost tip of the Gaza Strip, is a squalid place. Raw concrete buildings front trash-strewn alleys. The narrow streets are crowded with young children and unemployed men. On the border with Egypt, swaths of Rafah have been bulldozed to rubble. Rafah is today and has always been a notorious flashpoint in this bitterest of conflicts.
Buried deep in the archives is one bloody incident in 1956 that left 111 Palestinians dead, shot by Israeli soldiers. Seemingly a footnote to a long history of killing, that day in Rafah--cold-blooded massacre or dreadful mistake--reveals the competing truths that have come to define an intractable war. In a quest to get to the heart of what happened, Joe Sacco immerses himself in daily life of Rafah and the neighboring town of Khan Younis, uncovering Gaza past and present. Spanning fifty years, moving fluidly between one war and the next, alive with the voices of fugitives and schoolchildren, widows and sheikhs, Footnotes in Gaza captures the essence of a tragedy.
As in Palestine and Safe Area Goražde, Sacco's unique visual journalism has rendered a contested landscape in brilliant, meticulous detail. Footnotes in Gaza, his most ambitious work to date, transforms a critical conflict of our age into an intimate and immediate experience.
Take a Look Inside Footnotes in Gaza
Armed with a list of names, three men--including the author (shown wearing glasses)--walk through the alleys of a refugee camp in Gaza to find relatives of the victims.
|See more panels from the book|
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Having already established his reputation as the world's leading comics journalist, Sacco (Safe Area Gorazde) is now making a serious case to be considered one of the world's top journalists, period. His newest undertaking is a bracing quest to uncover the truth about what happened in two Gaza Strip towns in 1956, when aftershocks from the Sinai campaign may have resulted in the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli military. Sacco first came across the stories during research in 2001 and was shocked to discover that, but for one brief mention, the incidents had never been fully investigated. The resulting book is a blow-by-blow retelling of how Sacco, on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, embedded himself in Gaza and set about interviewing every witness he could find who had been in the towns of Khan Younis and Rafah on those fateful days. Sacco's art is alternately epic and intimate, but he exceeds himself in the scope of his ambition (particularly in one sequence that shows in vivid terms how desert refugee camps from 1948 turned into the teeming slums of today). But it's his exacting and harrowing interviews that make this book an invaluable and wrenching piece of journalism. (Dec.)
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
But he doesn’t try to take the information from the contemporary times or the history he seeks to over-generalize the conflict, just trying to say that these things are happening. That we see them from the Palestinian viewpoint helps to make their cause more sympathetic. They just want to live their lives. I bet that the Israelis would say the same thing. For me, though, I am sympathetic towards the more indigenous people than the ones who have had the support of two global hegemons to suppress the natives (and it is hard to speak of natives, as so many nations have flown their flags over that land).
The endnotes are some of the most interesting parts, where Sacco pulls the transcripts and you can see how some of the things he draws are shaped by the interviews he did, even though the graphic section is more compelling.
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.