Joe Sacco is one of a very unique and rare breed of journalist and war correspondent. He reports in comics- longish, book-length comics. His research is scrupulous, and he is painfully honest about his intentions and subjectivity to the subject. He’s also a little self-deprecating, which is refreshing coming from a war correspondent these days.
Palestine is the result of Sacco’s trip to the West Bank and Gaza strip in the early 1990s during the First Intifada (Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation). It was first published in a series of 9 comics in 1993 and then collected in paperback form in 2001. Palestine is generally considered groundbreaking for its form and subject.
The book chronologically follows Sacco’s arrival in Cairo to his departure. For context, he occasionally provides flashbacks to historical events, the Gulf War, and the beginning of the intifada. But for the most part he provides story after story and scene after scene of desolate conditions and broken lives in the Palestinian refugee towns.
The 2001 edition I have has an excellent introduction by Edward Said, which I will liberally quote from rather than bore you with my drivel. Said writes:
In Joe Sacco’s world there are no smooth-talking announcers and presenters, no unctuous narrative of Israeli triumphs, democracy, achievements, no assumed and re-confirmed representations — all of them disconnected from any historical or social source, from any lived reality — of Palestinians as rock-throwing, rejectionist, and fundamentalist villains whose main purpose is to make life difficult for the peace-loving, persecuted Israelis. What we get instead is seen through the eyes and persona of a modest-looking ubiquitous crew-cut young America man who appears to have wandered into an unfamiliar, inhospitable world of military occupation, arbitrary arrest, harrowing experiences of houses demolished and land expropriated, torture (“moderate physical pressure”) and sheer brute force generously, if cruelly, applied (e.g., an Israeli soldier refusing to let people through a roadblock on the West Bank because, he says, revealing enormous, threatening set of teeth, of THIS, the M-16 rifle he brandishes) at whose mercy Palestinians live on a daily, indeed hourly basis.
My only problem with the book is that the avalanche of wasteland-like refugee towns and Kafkaesque stories of torture being told over endless cups of tea in small living rooms packed with people showing their wounds all run together. Even Sacco says that he has “heard this all before” at one point, and that is roughly halfway through the book. I felt like I never really got to know any of the Palestinian characters. They all seemed like the same character with that same broken-spirit expression, except maybe the woman in the segment “The Tough and The Dead.” I liked her. I think the character issue is just a problem of sheer mass of information. And of course that’s my opinion. I could be totally wrong.
Even with that one fault, it is a great work of nonfiction, and I don’t know of anything like it dealing with this subject. Said writes in his introduction:
…his comics about Palestine furnish his readers with a long enough sojourn among a people whose suffering and unjust fate have been scanted for far too long and with too little humanitarian and political attention. Sacco’s art has the power to detain us, to keep us from impatiently wandering off in order to follow a catch-phrase or a lamentably predictable narrative of triumph and fulfillment.
I’ll leave you with that.