[Saturday Reads] Of Xenophobia, Refugees, War Crimes and Conflict Zones around the World in Joe Sacco’s Unsettling Comics “Journalism” and “Footnotes in Gaza”

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Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just booklove miscellany in general.

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I know that I can not let our comics reading theme go by without featuring Joe Sacco. That is simply the way of the world. I feel that reading him has been one of the most singularly visually and emotionally affecting reading experiences I ever had. And I know that my view of the world is forever changed because of this brilliant man.

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Journalism

Story and Art by: Joe Sacco
Published by: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2012
Book borrowed from the public library. Book photos taken by me.

I have read practically all of Joe Sacco’s graphic novels at this point – from his coverage of the Balkan wars in The Fixer, War’s End, and Safe Area Gorazde to his Palestine which my book club at the NIE discussed, and Footnotes in Gaza (I have reposted my review below).

This graphic nonfiction novel takes us to six countries that are centres of armed conflict, rife with poverty and abuse, homelessness and hunger perceived as a way of life. Sacco begins with a coloured vignette on The War Crimes Trials that was conducted in The Hague, Netherlands:

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As I was reading it, I was just struck by the futility of “frying the small fish” as the whales and piranhas of the world (namely Radovan Karadzik and Ratko Mladic) languish in their safe havens somewhere, safe from court proceedings that are worlds apart from the atrocities happening on the ground, the entire procedure seems ludicrous. I suppose this kind of dignified protocol with its “All Rise!” and gavels issuing definitive judgments and proclamations are necessary to remind us of civilization, order, standard operating procedures – even as the papers before this tribunal indicate otherwise – testaments to man’s savage nature unleashed by war.

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Sacco also wrote about the Palestinian territories but I will allow my review of Footnotes in Gaza below explore this issue further.

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I think I’ve learned more about history through Joe Sacco’s comics journalism than I ever did when I was in school. This is graphic reportage that reaches one’s innards and withers the bones underneath. Sacco traveled to the heart of Ingushetia, a neighboring Russian republic, to talk to internally displaced persons who are given choices between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea. An old woman named Asset managed to solve the conundrum:

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Then there is Sacco’s piece on Iraq where he was able to effectively portray the soldiers’ hypervigilance (“complacency kills”), their supposedly-laudable efforts at rehabilitating the country by training its men to fight the insurgents. If Sgt. Weaver is a representation of the US army’s trainors with his stench of superiority, brand of justified cruelty, and self-congratulatory pats on the back to justify all his screaming,

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then its no wonder all that fierce energy and harnessed fury need to be directed to someone, anyone, for it to have a semblance of meaning:

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Sacco also highlighted the torture of detainees even as Sacco claimed he tried to “curb his enthusiasm for details” out of respect to his respondents’ trauma.

I was especially struck though by his story The Unwanted where he unflinchingly chronicled the African migration to Europe through his own birthplace Malta. I guess this stayed with me even more as I witness what is currently happening to Syria with history being shaped before our eyes. It also reminded me that there are no easy answers when resources are perceived to be scarce and people from different cultures are left with no recourse but to co-exist with each other

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Xenophobia, racial intolerance, fear which turns to hatred and aggression are palpable in these small vignettes. How should refugees fleeing for their lives respond if they are treated as criminals, perceived as double rejects, and abandoned to fend for themselves without papers in a foreign land:

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Then there is also the searing poverty in Kushinagar, India where not even education is perceived to make a difference in children’s lives when people simply die and keel over from poverty:

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While there appears to be quite a number of government initiatives or schemes to help out the impoverished citizens, a great amount of money is lost in translation as bureaucracy requires multiple changes of hands from one middleman to the next who take it upon themselves to profit from other people’s misery.

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It is enough to make one weep at such a massive devastation of the human spirit. More than the physical structures that are bulldozed to the ground as useless rubble – it is how one’s soul can be easily crushed or fatigued or desensitized in the face of all that we seem unable to stop doing to each other.

Reading Journalism has made me despair even more at humanity’s vicious cycle of hatred and annihilation, perplexed at how little I seem to know about the world despite my claims that I read a great deal of books from around the world, and compelled to do something, anything, that would provide me the space to do a bit of difference – and I hope to begin by sharing this graphic novel with you all in the hopes that you find it and read it and be as urged as I am to do an act of kindness each day.

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Footnotes in Gaza

Story and Art by: Joe Sacco
Published by: Metropolitan Books – Henry Holt and Company, 2009
Review copy provided by Pansing Books. Book photos taken by me.

If Palestine made me feel naked, this one totally broke me and crushed my spirit repeatedly, wringing it dry. Here, Sacco explored a forgotten-period in history, one that is not even officially included in the annals of significant historical moments that are pivotal and life-changing for a particular group of people. These events are relegated as nothing more than mere footnotes, an afterthought, unverified moments in history notwithstanding multiple eyewitnesses and firsthand accounts that document unspeakable atrocities – leaving 111 Palestinians dead, shot by Israeli soldiers back in 1956.

Similar to a dog with a bone, Sacco tenaciously investigated this period during that dark day in Rafah and the “large-scale killing of civilians in Khan Younis in 1956.” He gnawed on this story to bits, ignoring everything else but that dark damned spot that he obsessed and mulled over, never letting go, tearing it apart, shredding it til he gets into the very marrow of the bone, unmindful of the fact that it could poison him and that bits and pieces of himself would die in the process. And I join him through this journey, held his gaze which he meticulously drew and transferred in stark black and white figures that glare at me through the gaping holes of people’s memories and miseries. Sacco unearthed all these sordid stories from the dark corridors in people’s minds, because he wanted to make this comic book – for the world to know about this teeny-tiny footnote that is all but forgotten, and mostly-unrealized, and practically undocumented in world history.

In Sacco’s Foreword, he rationalized his morbid fascination with this significant period in the Israel-Palestine conflict:

This episode – seemingly the greatest massacre of Palestinians on Palestinian soil, if the U.N. figures of 275 dead are to be believed – hardly deserved to be thrown back on the pile of obscurity. But there it lay, like innumerable historical tragedies over the ages that barely rate footnote status in the broad sweep of history – even though, as El–Rantisi alluded, they often contain the seeds of the grief and anger that shape present-day events.

And as he noted, he is but a thorough newspaperman is what he is:

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What exactly happened in 1956 is gradually unraveled like a noir film, peppered with Sacco’s self-deprecating commentaries, his sharp-as-razor insights, and his flair for facts sans drama making it even more powerful and oddly, paradoxically-dramatic than usual.

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He juxtaposes the old (see left page above) and the current one (see right page above). The same thing can be seen in the photo I have taken of the page below:

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Just like a postmodern film, Sacco’s narrative shifts back and forth from that day in 1956 he is obsessed about to modern-day events and recent incidents that for most of his respondents/interviewees deserve greater attention, much more media-mileage, as this is the stuff of current events. For most of them, the atrocities that are being perpetrated in the here and now should take precedence over some obscure moment in history that some outsider is avidly curious about, where most of the eyewitnesses are dead, missing, or too old and broken to share their narratives properly. As one of his interviewee’s sons snidely claimed with a measure of disgust: ” ’56? ’56?…. Every day here is ’56.”

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Women, in particular, are feral in their rage as their homes which they have built from nothing, are again bulldozed and torn down with the justification of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) that there are tunnels being used by terrorists to smuggle in wanted people, weapons, and other supplies.

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The rage is palpable, thick with loss, lathered with a bloodlust for retribution – among the only recourse left for the powerless, the weak, the defenseless. No wonder the cycle of vengeance continues; and the unceasing, blind-white hatred that streaks like lightning within one’s skin. Sacco’s Appendices also include his interviews with Major Sharon Feingold and Captain Jacob Dallal, the Israel Defense Forces spokespersons and commanders, back in 2003. Find the book to know more about their comments and insights regarding the home demolitions in Rafah, or just watch the major television networks that mostly air the Israeli’s version of events and facets of truths.

Yet, regardless of what is happening around Gaza at the time that Sacco was doing his research, he is lost somewhere in the 1950s as you can see here:

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Such is his obsession with 1956 that he tunes out anything from his respondents that are not in reference to this particular period, no matter how heartrending. He has chosen to feel something only in relation to this Armageddon-like day. I was struck by his flat-out admission that it has reached a point when he would refuse to even enter the home of his potential respondents if they do not have anything relevant to say, as he feels trapped by the niceties and the tea provided for him alongside narratives that he has no particular use for…

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… because this is what he wants to listen to, the image that he wants conjured in the mind of his respondents, this ghastly experience that they have to unearth from the bowels of their memory, as they resurrect the dead, experience the beating and the unremitting pain all over again:

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This book brought unbidden tears to my eyes, especially when Sacco noted that he has lost something in the process of creating this monumental work that needs to be read by all:

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Footnotes in Gaza won the Ridenhour Book Prize (2010)

#AWBRead2015 Update: 84 (35)

  1. […] insight into the seemingly-endless Palestine-Israel conflict (Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza immediately come to mind). I thought this one would show me the other side of the […]

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