Review: Footnotes in Gaza

Seeking the true picture


By Joe Sacco
Jonathan Cape £20

Joe Sacco has built a formidable reputation as a comics journalist. His early work, Palestine, won an American Book Award and he received the 2001 Eisner best original graphic novel award for Safe Area Gorazde, about the conflict in Bosnia.

That same year, Sacco was preparing an article on Gaza for Harpers magazine with journalist Chris Hedges. This included material on events of 1956 that was cut from the published article.

Sacco felt compelled to return to the region and try to establish what exactly happened when Israeli troops entered the Gazan towns of Khan Younis and Rafah in November 1956. Footnotes in Gaza is the result of four years’ painstaking research. It is an extraordinary work combining investigative journalism and oral history and moving seamlessly between past and present.

Sacco builds up a richly detailed portrait of modern Gaza, circling the two key incidents that make up the bulk of the book, the killing of many of the men of Khan Younis and Rafah, and the impact of this on Palestinian attitudes towards Israel.

Sacco shares his doubts about what he is hearing

Sacco himself is present as a character throughout, together with his “fixer”, Abed, a complex mixture of liberalism (he aspires to study in America), and prejudice who nonetheless proves to be a compelling guide to Rafah’s political, social and physical strata.

The power of Footnotes lies in Sacco’s unblinking focus on the everyday lives of the inhabitants, on events that never reach the headlines. For many of his interviewees and their families, there is something perverse about his focus on events of half-a-century ago. Yet it becomes increasingly clear that this past defines the present.

Sacco lived in Gaza during his research, and the record of his daily life there, and that of others whom he meets, becomes fraught with history as he visits key locations.

Sacco mines the paradox of the Western media’s simultaneous fascination and disinterest for the region. He makes a sharp contrast between the media circus attendant upon Rachel Corrie’s death — which occurs during his stay — and the wealth of unrecorded detail that he himself observes.

Footnotes gives space and vivid life to generations of Palestinian men and women who invite Sacco, and thus the reader, into their homes to witness their daily struggles.

The range of communal life in Gaza is starkly depicted as Sacco, while resisting teenagers who vie for his attention, engages with communal elders who in their turn resist answering his more probing questions.

We meet wanted activists and others longing to escape, hear their own words, and recognise their human complexity. Through his brilliant artistry, Sacco creates a compelling sense of immediacy, sharing with readers his own doubts about what he is hearing — and indeed about his role in the whole enterprise.

It is perhaps this awareness of his own subjectivity that enables Sacco to bring compellingly to life one of the world’s most densely populated areas. His images and words are constructed in such a way as to leave us space for our own thoughts while compelling us to keep reading. One emerges chastened from the experience, having learned, from Joe Sacco, a lesson in empathy.

In short, Footnotes is fascinating, first-hand, powerful history, sensitively handled and wrought into a shocking masterpiece.

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