Sunday, August 12, 2007

Palestine by Joe Sacco

After starting it a couple of months ago, I finally got around to finishing Joe Sacco's brilliant graphic novel Palestine. Admittedly, I put it down at the time because I felt emotionally strained by its strong central narrative. But, after looking at it staring at me from various places in my life since the beginning of June, among them table tops, bookshelves, and the backseat of my car, I returned to Sacco's harrowing tale of injustice and resistance.

Any book that comes loaded with a 5 page foreword (entitled "Homage to Joe Sacco"!) by Edward Said, the late and great Palestinian-American public intellectual, is definitely a book I want to engage with intellectually. This is precisely the case with Sacco's oeuvre.

Don't make the mistake of seeing this book, essentially a compilation of Sacco's comic strip of the same name, as an easy read. It is not. Sacco, himself inspired by Said, set out to visit Palestine and Palestinians near the end of the first intifada, and to illustrate their lives under Israeli occupation. This is precisely what he does with stunning clarity.

From squalid refugee camps to East Jerusalem, from tales of resistance to stories of horrific violence, Sacco walks us through the myriad complexities of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation. This is a story of tremendous terror, the type that masks itself not primarily in bombs and guns - although it seems that every Palestinian who Sacco meets has been touched in some way or another by torture, gunfire, or beatings - but the terror of being perpetually imprisoned in the everyday. It is this permanent state of claustrophobic horror, where a disaster, in any number of forms, is always waiting right around the corner, that unsettled me to the core.

The techniques the various Israeli forces (whether the IDF or settler security organizations) use to humiliate, dis-empower and ultimately disarm Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation is nothing but overwhelming in its planned intensity. Demolishing decades-old olive groves, randomly bulldozing homes, vengefully controlling water levels and electricity, collectively punishing thousands and thousands of people with extreme financial deprivation - it's all stock-and-trade of the Israeli occupation.

Sacco masterfully captures this all in black-and-white scenes of conversations in Palestinian homes over steaming cups of tea. But his artwork is strongest in capturing the stifling and at times vibrant street life of Jabalia, a large refugee camp in Gaza, perhaps the most densely populated piece of land in the world (65,000 people in two square kilometres), or the bustling Arab markets of East Jerusalem. Through it all, Sacco gives a human touch to the Palestinian people, not through demonizing Jewish Israelis, or even idealizing Palestinians, but by asking us to question our own humanity in the face of such systematic deprivation.

There are two observations about this book that I must mention before closing. First, I began to read Palestine right after reading Art Spiegelman's amazing Maus: A Survivor's Tale. The reason I had to put Palestine down was because of the undeniable parallels in techniques of terror used by those in power. Whether the Nazis in Germany or the Israelis in Occupied Palestine, the consistently de-humanizing strategies described in both stories were extremely troubling to me, not only because of the intense irony of Jewish people and survivors of an almost incomprehensible Holocaust then engaging in many similar tactics, but mostly because of the planned intensity of such de-humanization. This was oftentimes paralyzingly mind-boggling. But I found a way out of this moral and intellectual quandary to read through the rest of Sacco's work.

Second, besides the many stories of violence, it was the inspiring stories of Palestinian resistance that most often struck the deepest chords with me. The best example is of the organization and resistance in the Ansar III prison, built specifically for the overflow of prisoners due to the intifada. Despite the unbelievable humiliation, violence and over-crowding of the place, prisoners organized themselves in units to welcome newcomers, equitably organize meals and even teach university courses - including such topics as the history of the Jewish peoples - and any number of inspiring examples of human creativity in the face of utter adversity.

All in all, I recommend Palestine to all readers wanting to learn more about Palestine and the Palestinian people. Importantly, it also stands out as a beacon of hope in a sea of excuses for the ongoing Israeli occupation. As Sacco put it in his foreword, written in 2001, "The Palestinian and Israeli people will continue to kill each other in low-level conflict or with shattering violence - with suicide bombers or helicopter gunships and jet bombers - until this central fact - Israeli occupation - is addressed as an issue of intellectual law and basic human rights."

While I might disagree with his reliance on a law framework to limit our discussion of violence, it nonetheless strikes me as a moral stance well-worth taking.