Friday, March 26, 2010

Palestine as portrayed by Joe Sacco

I was never much into graphic narratives or “comic books” as a kid. I’ll show my age by mentioning the ones that I DID read, so maybe its best that I hold something back. I always enjoyed “regular” books, you know, the ones with little to no pictures or illustrations. It seems that from a very young age, I put a certain stigma on the graphic narrative as being in the same category as cartoons (which I will tell you were before the days of the adult cartoons such as South Park). In other words, I didn’t take graphic narratives very seriously.

Well, years later I return to the graphic narrative and I am starting to regret the stereotypes that I’ve put on both graphic narrative readers and authors. The activist that awakened me to the power of the format is Joe Sacco, a brilliant journalist who has mastered the art of associating images in different configurations to convey tension, dialogue, intense situations and the unmistakable art of drilling an image into your memory. I’m sure that those of you who have read many more graphic narratives than I are familiar with all of this already.

The book that I read from Sacco was Palestine: The Special Edition, which included a total of nine individual narratives in one hardbound collection. If you’re a bit of a dork like me and you just like the feel of a book, then this will be aesthetically pleasing to you.

Sacco is to be commended for taking upon himself the immense task of documenting the effects of the first intifada (from 1987-1993) from on the ground. He spent time in both the West Bank and Gaza and delivered an incredibly honest and often humorous account of his culture shock and attempts to deal with the atrocities that the Palestinians face daily.

Sacco portrays himself (for better or worse) as human, and not always sure of what to say or even if he had the compassion and sacrifice within himself to help those in need. To me, this is exemplary of so many currents in the discourse surrounding the solidarity with the Palestinians. The Arab nations, the activists in the U.S. and around the world all talk good rhetoric, but are COMPLETELY unfamiliar with what happens daily to those suffering. Even worse, they don’t know how to deal with the minute by minute, hour by hour events when they arrive with the intention of contributing to the cause. Much of this is due to the idea of “benevolence”; It’s due to the underlying feeling of superiority that the more enlightened are helping the have-nots.

There was dissonance and impatience, as Sacco honestly illustrates that he was scared to death at times. He was often conflicted as to what to say to those who asked him “What difference will it make that you are here?” and “What can you do for us to get the message out to the West?” The Palestinians have been understandably cynical as to what effect dissent in respect to mainstream media will have upon the day to day conditions of their lives. Some of those exchanges became so intense that he was honest enough to state in the narrative that he just wanted to leave the conversation.

What stuck out to me from Sacco’s artistry was his masterful touch at making the images HUMAN. You can not escape that these are a suffering people and not just a conglomeration of human lives that are constantly portrayed as terrorists. They have fears, they live in poverty and misery, and they simply want to be recognized as equals.

At the end of the book, Sacco runs into two Israeli women, who he portrayed as typical Westerners, both in the United States and Israel. They had that sense of entitlement, the Zionist conviction that this land was there’s. However, Sacco also admitted that he had not allowed himself the opportunity to see the Israelis in any other light than soldiers and murderers. He did not immerse himself into dialogue with those Israelis who face their own form of dissonance as to justice when it comes to Palestine. His purpose was to document the untold stories of the Palestinians that we never hear about in the face of constant Zionist propaganda in the West. To that extent, he is brilliant in making the book feel as if you are in the middle of the action along with your friend Joe. It is a PERFECT book to introduce someone to the conflict. I can not wait to follow up this reading with Sacco’s newest book Footnotes in Gaza.

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