by Joe Sacco
The Israel/Palestine debate is a polarized topic, one that invokes shouting and insults almost as soon as it's mentioned. Given the divisiveness of the issue, and the sensitivity of some of the loudest speakers on both sides, it's almost inevitable that Joe Sacco's graphic novel Palestine will get him condemned as a terrorist, a Zionist, or possibly both.
But Palestine is an invitation away from debate, from the presumptions of knowledge held at an oceanic remove from the subject, and towards observation. Just look, for a moment, without considering the political rights or wrongs of the situation. Sacco's artistic style makes it easy: here are extravagant backgrounds to lead the eye, strange and hypnotic layouts. And here, alongside the twisting narrative captions, are caricatures, faces held somewhere between a cartoonish universal and the hard angles of reality, compelling in anger or grief or confusion. Here's the face of a deaf child learning how to read, a cheerful old teacher who denounces the chances of peace with a laugh as he sits in a refugee wasteland. Here are the expected faces of former Palestinian organizers, who proudly tell of attacking Israeli troops and the injuries suffered in the process. And the less comforting face of a young woman, tortured on the verbal accusation of a man she never met. "It's all about the faces," Sacco says, with detailed attention to prove it.
Those who say Palestine is anti-Semitic will argue that the cases of torture, abuse and blatant civil rights violations are lies or exaggerations, or that the residents of the refugee camps brought individual cases of retribution on themselves. Sacco's work is all drawn from photos, so he has the evidence to prove each case real; as for the justice of each case, he never argues one way or another, only insists on sharing what he's seen. If there's a pervading agenda throughout Palestine, it's just to show that there are people in Palestine who are actually suffering, and who are actually people. Sacco and his sometimes traveling companion Saburo bear witness to the tales and the faces. And Sacco, perhaps without fully realizing it, throws in another witness, the landscape of the refugee camps and the battered former villages of what was Palestine before becoming a war zone. Rendered in detail more personal than a photograph can ever achieve, the camps are grim settings that link all the tales Sacco uncovers, mute but ever present. Among the most painful results of the conflict are the rows of decapitated and deadened olive trees that surround many Palestinian camps. While humans may be charged with throwing stones or hosting terrorist plots, the trees can hardly be considered threatening. But they've been punished nonetheless, victims of a war they never joined, wooden symbols of the prosperity the long conflict has taken from anyone who might touch the land.
For all the scenes of Palestinian misery, Sacco makes no attacks on Israel. He interviews several Israelis in the course of the book, but few seem willing to discuss the matter with him. Nor does he insist that he has a right to intrude on this debate. Cartoonishly distorted, opaque glasses covering half his expressions, Sacco's stylized alter-ego is distinctly set apart from the detailed caricatures of his interview subjects and occasional traveling companions. His one connection to the situation is that he's willing to listen, to Palestinians and soldiers, pacifists and Zionists. Few are willing to extend him the same courtesy; his attempts to share the experiences he hears with others are rebuffed, sometimes with disinterest and sometimes with fury.
But the attempt is still here, in artful black and white. Palestine is a crushing journey, and has no ending in sight. The last panel of the last page is merely a driver looking for a way out with the help of an Israeli soldier. The symbolism may be a little too obvious, but nonetheless rings true. The story of Palestine is far from over, the players still moving long after the book shuts. Before we presume to know the plot or act as co-authors, we should at least take the chance to look behind the scenes of the story so far.