Footnotes in Gaza
by Joe Sacco
In 1956, two bloody massacres occurred in Gaza Strip that left over a many Palestinians dead. The Palestinians claim that many of the over one hundred people killed were civilians; the Israeli soldiers claim many fewer fatalities, and that all of the men killed were soldiers. In an area constantly torn apart by war, the killings at Rafah and Khan Younis were quickly forgotten by the world at large, but fifty years later journalist Joe Sacco is determined to discover what really happened.
Sacco is a unique journalist who presents his work not in a series of newspaper or magazine articles but in the format of comic strips. In the mid-nineties his graphic novel Palestine, which focuses on the Palestinian people and their history, was highly acclaimed and won several awards. In some ways Footnotes in Gaza could be considered a sequel, or a companion piece to that successful novel. It zooms in on a smaller set of people while addressing many of the same issues in the Middle East. Sacco spent a lot of time in Rafah and Khan Younis, and conducted hundreds of interviews with residents of the towns who could remember the incidents of 1956, as well as scouring the official records of the U.N. and Israeli government. However, Sacco’s sympathies lie with the Palestinians, and the book is very clearly biased toward their version of history. That is, almost all of the oral accounts come from Palestinians; Sacco provides dozens of accounts from Palestinian men and women who witnessed the attacks in the two towns but speaks only to two Israeli historians. No attempt to find an eyewitness from Israel is mentioned, so as a reader I assume Sacco didn’t try. This seems one-sided. While it is true that the Palestinian view is not commonly reported and perhaps needs the special attention Sacco gives it, I couldn’t shake the feeling as I read that the story, in spite of the reporter’s never-ending rounds of interviews, was incomplete. In the footnotes of Footnotes there are reprints of official Israeli records and transcriptions of some of the oral interviews.
The other major problem that I had with the narrative was that there were simply too many people in the narrative. Many of the interviewees appeared once or twice and then never again; over the nearly 400 pages of this graphic novel these many faces started to blend together and became indistinguishable. One man’s tale of suffering would closely resemble another man’s account, and pretty soon all the details were completely jumbled together. While I can still remember the overall sequence of events, ask me to tell you any particular individual’s story and all I can give you is a blank stare.
If you’ve never heard much about the conflicts in the Middle East, Footnotes in Gaza can be a real eye-opener. The book covers a lot of ground, jumping all over history and presenting the lives of people that are ravaged by conflict but retain their humanity. There’s no glory here. Everything is carnage and depression. Yes. This was a depressing book. There’s nothing fun about it, and after hundreds of pages it gets boring, or tedious. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Footnotes in Gaza is very insightful. But there’s no levity to break the tension, and after a while the book just wore me out.
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a sample panel from Footnotes in Gaza