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Joe Sacco: Representing Palestine

Dominic Davies

Joe Sacco
Palestine (2001)
Footnotes in Gaza (2009)
Journalism (2011)

In his pioneering work, Orientalism (1978), the American-Palestinian academic and activist Edward Said initiated, for the first time, a serious interrogation and analysis of Euro-American representations of the Middle East, or the Orient, as he termed it then. His huge contribution throughout his life—the tenth anniversary of his death was just a few months ago, in September of this year—was both to the academy and to political movements, as a literary critic and public intellectual respectively. For Said, issues relating to the representation (or lack of it) of oppressed and colonised peoples in literature, especially in the Western canon, was intimately related to the political immediacy of the slow colonisation and eradication of his country of birth, Palestine, by Israel. This latter process, beginning formally in 1948, intensifying in 1967, and still ongoing, thus encompassed the entirety of Said’s adult life and forced him into exile in America. Orientalism founded a whole range of new discursive interactions around the problems and politics of representation, but it was his later work, Culture and Imperialism (1993), that solidified the interrelationship between these two spheres of his work. This later book took some seminal texts in the English literary canon as the subject of its analysis, but tied these literary greats to their implicit political complicity with—and occasional resistance to—Britain’s imperial project, in Egypt and Palestine (where Said has spent his childhood) especially.

Culture and Imperialism was written by Said during the First Intifada, or the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli expansion, that ran from the late 1980s up to 1993. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that issues of geography, and in particular landscapes of colonisation, occupation, and dispossession, surface prominently in this book of criticism. And it is equally unsurprising that Said, when asked to write a brief introductory essay to the collected edition of the Maltese-American journalist Joe Sacco’s Palestine (2001), not only accepted, but entitled the prefatory piece as nothing less than a “Homage to Joe Sacco”. Originally published serially in comic form in 1993, the issues of which Palestine is comprised were first collected into two volumes before being consolidated into this one, remarkable edition in 2001 by Fantagraphics Books. Sacco’s productivity throughout his life as both a journalist and comic book artist has been prolific, and is still ongoing, but it is arguably Palestine that both launched him to international fame and that remains emblematic and symptomatic of the political ethos that drives his work.

In his preface to Palestine, Said brings those concerns that had motivated his own tireless academic criticism and political activism through the previous decades to bear on Sacco’s contribution. He emphasises the importance of Sacco’s writing and drawing as a process of representation of Palestine and the Palestinians, one that punctures the bias that otherwise dominates mainstream discussion of the conflict, and that is generated, perpetuated, and consolidated by the West’s “media-saturated world”. Sacco offers a different—and much-needed, argues Said—narrative to the common depiction “of Palestinians as rock-throwing, rejectionist, and fundamentalist villains whose main purpose is to make life difficult for the peace-loving, persecuted Israelis.” And Palestine surely does this, with astonishing effectiveness. Written and drawn from the self-consciously first-person perspective of Sacco himself, it follows the journalist’s attempt to meet those inhabiting the bottom rungs of Palestinian society, to speak and listen to them, and to record their stories and experiences. The comic series thus shifts between accounts of Sacco’s own journeys through Palestine—both the West Bank and Gaza—in December of 1991 and January 1992, as the enthusiasm of the First Intifada was beginning to dwindle, whilst interspersing these sections of narrative with the individual stories of the Palestinians he meets.

The power of the comic book’s capacity for visualisation is realised most prominently in the moments of movement between these different sections of narrative. Sacco draws the characters who relate the stories to him with astonishing nuance, though occasionally with invented names and features when their safety may be in jeopardy—a display of journalistic sensitivity that is symptomatic of Sacco’s work. The result is that every Palestinian encountered has an individuality and personality that deconstructs and transcends the homogenising strategies of mass-media representation. Their stories, also visualised by the comic, seep into the work’s frames, taking readers through the various layers of obstruction—geographical, political, representational—that separate them from the actual experience of that Palestinian. This both intensifies and enables the communication of those previously unheard stories, while simultaneously retaining an awareness of the layers of mediation that it has to navigate. The journalistic narrative is ultimately concerned with the politics of occupation, dispossession and oppression of Palestinians by Israeli forces. However, the comic always recourses to a self-reflexive interrogation of the politics not only of these central issues, but also of its own capacity to represent. Sacco retains an awareness of his own consolidated and perhaps—as he himself would be more than ready to acknowledge—often compromised position within the political and cultural landscape he chooses to speak into.

When once asked if the subjects and narratives of his comic-book reporting were biased, Sacco made no pretense about the decisions and motivations underlying his choice of projects, commenting: “I report objectively those things I choose to report on.” This self-awareness comes through in Palestine itself. In the book’s final section, Sacco, for the first time, gives voice to the opinions and perspectives of some Israeli characters, as he wonders whether they might not deserve more narrative space of their own. However, to concede this space would be to miss the point of this particular journalistic project: the subject of Sacco’s comic is the unheard Palestinian, and the object of his comic is to give the unheard Palestinian a voice. Furthermore, he translates these issues of representation into an astonishing aesthetics of self-reflexivity through ever-increasing layers of meta-narratives and a range of motifs that run throughout. At one narrative moment in Palestine, for example, Sacco’s fictionalised version of himself, recently returned from an impoverished town in Southern Gaza, has a warm shower and gets into bed with a copy of Said’s Orientalism: “I make it through a couple dozen pages of Said’s dense prose”, Sacco tells us, before he falls asleep. For those who don’t know Orientalism, it is in the text’s opening 24 pages that Said outlines and initiates his project to deconstruct the (mis)representation of the Arab world and to excavate the politics implicit within that process—Sacco thereby includes his own reading of the text that pioneered the interrogation of Western representation of the Middle East meta-textually, as itself an episode within the narrative of his own representational project. Indeed, throughout all of Sacco’s comics, the author always depicts himself in glasses, the lenses of which are unfailingly opaque: Sacco’s eyes remain hidden from view, as though operating as a constant reminder to the reader to think about, and question, what it is we are seeing; to remember the discursive layers separating reader from speaker, the most prominent of which is, of course, Sacco’s authorship itself.

In the preface to his later work on Palestine, Footnotes in Gaza (2009), Sacco again highlights the politics and problematics of representation, as he acknowledges that “any act of visualisation—drawing, in this case—comes with an unavoidable measure of refraction.” But the motivations underlying this book, which rather than being set in the journalistic present instead attempts to recover, through interviews and archival research, two atrocities committed against Palestinians in the mid-1950s, are still the same, and are encapsulated within its title. As the comic’s own narrative tells us in its opening pages:

History can do without its footnotes. Footnotes are inessential at best; at worst they trip up the greater narrative. From time to time, as bolder, more streamlined editions appear, history shakes off some footnotes altogether.

This passage highlights the politics of representation, but also memory, that underlie Sacco’s work. Sacco is not only concerned to give a voice to those so often silenced by the mainstream media in the contemporary world. He also wants to recover those details, or “footnotes”, that have gone undocumented because they are inconvenient to the grand narratives produced by history’s winners. Of course, Sacco’s retrospective project requires a great deal more visual imagination on his part, a problem that he is quick to acknowledge. But the power of this visualisation, the sensitivity of his drawings, and the careful seeking out and documentation of reliable sources, make these important historical as well as fictional works, as the spheres of graphic literature and politics are drawn together with striking effectiveness. And, of course, as time passes, the stories documented by Palestine, now collected together beneath Said’s preface, have lost their political immediacy as the incredibly complex and fast-moving situation on which they report has moved on—in Sacco’s own preface to Palestine in 2001, he notes with dim irony that the publication of this comic documenting moments in the First Intifada itself coincides with an ongoing Second Intifada, a result of the fact that, ultimately, “the domination of one people by another, has not ceased.” But they are still incredibly relevant, not only as absorbing and graphically beautiful documents, but also as important historical ones.

For a concise definition of what Sacco’s work is really about, however, it is perhaps best to turn to the more recently published collection of some of his shorter work, aptly entitled, Journalism (2011). It is in this book that one gets a full impression of the scale of Sacco’s over-arching objective to give a voice to the voiceless. Whilst always maintaining that self-reflexivity that holds the problematics of such a project of representation in check, he documents the suffering of what Franz Fanon once provocatively called “The Wretched of the Earth”; from the mistreatment of African asylum seekers arriving in Malta to the structural violence perpetrated against the rural Dalit populations of Northern India. And it is in the preface to this collection that Sacco asks, “A Manifesto, Anyone?” Once again acknowledging that drawings are an interpretive medium, he makes the point, explicitly, that has always underpinned his work, implicitly:

the blessing of an inherently interpretive medium like comics is that it hasn’t allowed me to lock myself within the confines of traditional journalism. By making it difficult to draw myself out of a scene, it hasn’t permitted me to make a virtue of dispassion. For good or for ill, the comics medium is adamant, and it has forced me to make choices. In my view, that is part of its message.

Dominic Davies [1] is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is Editor-in-Chief at the Oxonian Review.