Joe Sacco: a story-teller in Palestine by Maria Nadotti

Palestine. This is the title the American Joe Sacco has given to his lucid comic strip reportage about the history and life of the people of Palestine. He has felt no need to add any subtitle as an explanation, an aid to interpretation, or a guide – the name Palestine is self-explanatory. And it took him several years, from 1991 to 1994, to get his personal vision or should we say experience, of Palestine down on paper. The three successive American editions which appeared in 1993, 1994 and 1998 bear witness to the complex work of a narrator who is not content just to say through words or show through drawings.


It all started in 1991. “I wanted to see for myself the living conditions of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Although the 'peace process' was already in motion in Madrid, the likelihood of an acceptable peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis seemed remote”. So off Sacco went to East Jerusalem, and from there to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On his own. Literally letting himself be led by that precious thing – chance – and by an intense willingness to listen, observe and communicate. From home, Sacco seems to have brought nothing but Questions. I am using capitols to make a distinction between real Questions – those in search of real Answers, or rather of many contradictory and provisional answers that need rearranging until some meaning becomes apparent – and false questions, which are really nothing other than prejudices seeking confirmation and often not even that, because they can do well without. As Sacco himself suggests more than once, setting down on the planet Palestine when you come from the America of the Stars and Stripes is no easy option: you are hampered by heaps of sentimentalism, a fair amount of guilt, a mish-mash of hearsay, commonplace, latter-day Orientalist clichés, and the vague impulse to run away inherent in one who, although refractory to the Empire's values and motivations, actually comes from the Empire and inevitably risks being identified with it. So what does our author do at the opening of this dizzying pamphlet/journal/history book/short story for several voices? In my opinion he constructs a triangle, indirectly making clear that 3 is the magic number, the number of solutions, of ways out, of honorable compromises. He begins with a dense, knowledgeable text to remind us about the basic truths of Palestinian/Israeli political economics. Then there is a map showing the geography of discord, with Israel, shaped like a knife-blade, plunging into the near East while the Occupied Territories/Palestinians State in formation are trying to hang on but are almost slipping away down the absolute verticality of the drawing. And lastly, there is the author himself, a witness, a gatherer of stories and a narrating voice. Depicted with discretion from behind, he looks down from the walls of Jerusalem, almost merging into their porous surface, onto that landscape of sand and stones, towards the sunset tinged with gold.


A historical digression, a map and a gaze.


Let's try it again. There's the past: the inert and immutable that was, the need for – and the encumbrance – of memory. Then the present: cartography illustrating the asymmetry of power and the volatility of top-down solutions, empty and too full, silence, White (Israel) wiping out and invading Black (the Arab countries) or Black swallowing White, while behind the Black/White symbolism you can sense friction between bodies. And finally the distant observer, story-teller and witness: extraneous to the scene were it not for a free act of love, capable of seeing and recounting in a kind of intimate voice off. Sacco says that he can constructed his history of Palestine by interviewing everybody he met, getting them to tell him not only their own stories, but also the many stories they had heard family, friends, acquaintances tell, and then their dreams, desires, fears, fantasies, the small misfortunes – all in all the concrete stuff of life. However, the author's position is far more than that of a clever interviewer: his secret lies probably in his ability to be there without getting in the way, in blending into the scene to such an extent that you forget he is there. Yet Sacco does include himself in many of his drawings, often to nudge along a conversation or elict a confidential remark, sometimes constructing a subtext, that of the personal journal, reflections on “What am I doing here?”. These latter pages are irresistible, because their subject – heaven help political or ideological correctness – is the surreal, twice-compounded extraneousness of the foreigner (even though he is there for a purpose) in the land of Palestine: his physical characteristics, his clothing, his European intellectual's little glasses, the American English he speaks, his camera, are a signaling apparatus which nail him down as being visibly “other”. Often mistaken for what he is not (an Israeli, a simple tourist), and treated as a such, Sacco ingeniously takes advantages of this primacy of signifiers to express in his turn truths that a visitor driven by political passion often might not have the courage to name, or perhaps, even to see.


Sacco's mordant pen does not yield to the pressure of blackmail, whether it be political, moral or sentimental. And the fact that he is so sincere and so sincerely out of line, with so little desire to serve any cause, lends his credibility. Joe Sacco has probably given to the Palestinian Nakba and its ferocious (and today so relevant consequences) what Art Spiegelman gave to the Holocaust a few years ago with Maus: history made of voices and pictures which concern us. It is impossible not to listen to it with attention.

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