Updated on May 20, 2017
I can’t believe it’s taken me this long into the year to read a graphic novel! And I haven’t started with a light one, either. Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco is a beast of a book, and it’s all about Sacco travelling to Gaza to investigate the story of two 1950s civilian massacres there, whilst also experiencing the territory’s contemporary problems.
This is actually one of the most interesting parts of the book: at every turn Sacco comes up against people living with current tragedies who cannot understand why the writer must dig into an event almost entirely forgotten. Sacco argues that it is worth lingering over the ‘footnotes’ in history because they often “contain the seeds of grief and anger that shape present-day events,” and also because taking the time to digest one tragedy amidst a sea of them can provide the luxury of closure.
The book is illustrated with black-and-white images in a semi-realistic, semi-cartoon style. I was amazed by Sacco’s host of characters – even in large crowd scenes each person looks unique, and because this book is a collection of memories and stories from lots of different people, he has to make each speaking character not only different but memorable. An epic task, but one he achieves quite well.
Sacco covers two stories in Footnotes. The first is the 1956 massacre in Khan Younis, a city in the south of the Gaza Strip. 257 civilians were killed there (the numbers differ depending on the source) when Israeli soldiers arrived, herded the men into the streets and shot them. The second, to which Sacco dedicates more pages than the Khan Younis story, concerns the 1956 massacre in Rafah, another southern Gaza city, where Israeli soldiers once again rounded up the men, shot them against walls, beat them and ‘processed’ them (into rebels or non-rebels) at the local school. Sacco does a fantastic job of describing the complex politics around these events, but for that reason the beginning of the book is quite hard-going, especially if you don’t have a lot of knowledge about the Israel–Palestine conflict.
I really appreciated Sacco’s diversions from the main story to discuss the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. He presents us with many testimonials in this book, and he lays them out in such a way that you can see how the witnesses agree with each other, but also how they disagree. He discusses how difficult it is to try and filter out the truth from what are clearly emotionally charged stories, and towards the end he touches upon how jaded he has become, how he can listen to someone recounting a tragedy and remain sceptical and cold. The reader gets a sense of that too – we are so used to hearing stories of the dead and injured that we become immune to them. I think what Sacco is trying to do is take us back to the individuals and their personal experiences.
There were extremely touching moments in this book that have stayed with me. For example, there’s the double-page spread comparing a modern day street to how it looked years before, with bodies lined up against the wall. There’s the eyewitness who did not want to talk, pictured against a backdrop of the events he cannot talk about. There’s the eyewitness who survived just because he happened to be lined up at the end of a wall and was able to run away. But probably the most heartbreaking was a moment of vulnerability from a grandstanding Gaza teenager who wants to know what westerners think of the people in Gaza: “Do you like us?”
This is an amazing graphic novel but a difficult read, both in terms of complexity and subject matter. It’s also educational and I would recommend it for anybody who wants to know more about this conflict, and also if you want to read a thoughtful analysis of the problems of interpreting history.
“In danger, even animals seek each other out. Human beings do the same. That’s why many families lost more than one son. Because they were together.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read it? You can buy Footnotes in Gaza here.