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Home/fronts: Joe Sacco's Footnotes in Gaza (Metropolitan Books, 2009)

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Joe Sacco's latest book is a return to Palestine and the origins of Sacco's own career in comics journalism, a field he has all but singlehandedly created out of the example of his remarkable work. Palestine was published serially by Fantagraphics beginning in 1993 and collected into book form a few years later. It is a book I have had the opportunity to teach many times, and each time I find it sparks strong responses on the part of my students. Some are frustrated by what they perceive to be the one-sided portrayal of the situation in Gaza: Sacco makes a decision early on in this project to focus primarily on learning about and teaching his Western readers about the story that is not told by the mainstream media, especially in the U.S.

Some are disturbed by the degree to which he highlights his own fears, his own ignorance, his own desire to exploit the generosity of his Palestinian hosts for the advancement of his own career.

Some, who have never thought about Palestinians except as shadowy, faceless "terrorists," must wrestle with their own guilt and sense of powerlessness. And all of this is precisely as Sacco intended. It is a book in many ways about ignorance -- our narrator's and our own, as well as an autobiographical comic about a young man trained as a journalist and raised on the aesthetics of underground commix struggling to find his own voice as he works to understand and articulate an experience that is genuinely unimaginable for the vast majority of his readers.

Footnotes in Gaza, Sacco's latest work and his first about Palestine in over a decade, is a very different book in many ways. The first difference is of course visual. Whereas Palestine still showed the influence of Robert Crumb in the use of exaggerated features (especially in the representation of our narrator) and occasional turns to broad physical comedy, Footnotes in Gaza is the work of a mature artist who has found his own style and voice. Those who have been following Sacco's work over the intervening years have seen the development in his visual style in his books on the Bosnian War, especially Safe Area Goražde (2000) and The Fixer (2003). But for those whose only other experience with Sacco is Palestine, the difference is striking. While Sacco continues to use the combination of free-floating narrative boxes and dialogue that defined his earlier work, here the representation of the narrator's own fears and fantasies -- the sweat flying from his brow or dreams of fame dancing in his Little Orphan Annie eyes -- are decidedly in the background. And in place of the outsized features that defined his characters in Palestine -- representing in part how alien and surreal the experience remained to the young cartoonist in first encountering Palestine twenty years ago -- the people we meet here are represented with quiet, understated dignity, or in the striking close-up portraits that often grace the opening pages of the various vignettes that make up the whole.

This is a different book in other ways as well. If Palestine was as much a book about Sacco and his own struggles to define a voice and a vocation in the shadowy gray area between comics and journalism, Footnotes in Gaza is a book about the shadowy gray area of historical memory, especially for a people who have been denied many of the continuities and institutions necessary to transform memory into history in the first place.

In Footnotes Sacco has come to Palestine to research a particular event of a half-century ago: a massacre by Israeli soldiers of over a hundred Palestinians in Rafah in 1956. Seeking out the survivors of the events that led up to that day and of the horrible day itself, Sacco attempts to piece together an accurate account of an event all but lost to history -- a "footnote," as he puts it, not only for Israel (history is, after all, told by the victors) and the West, but for younger Palestinians as well. Over and again, Sacco encounters young people baffled by his interest in this "ancient history," this focus on one day of incredible violence when every day continues to be one of violence and often death for the citizens of Rafah. And even for those who were there that day -- who lost relatives or were themselves beaten or shot -- a combination of forces (age, time, the recurrence of violence and loss over the decades) has made many of the details fuzzy, hard to pin down. Sacco shares with us both his own deliberative process, with the help of his Palestinian friends and associates, and the "raw footage" of the various interviews -- inviting us to use our own judgment or, as is more likely to be the case, to share with Sacco his growing sense that the attempt to find the "right" or "authentic" account of what happened that day might be less important than allowing these voices to be heard in the first place.

There is a particularly effective moment in the book when Sacco hears a moving account of the deaths of three brothers from the one surviving brother in the massacre at Khan Younis on November 3, 1956 -- but he learns that in fact the witness was likely not actually there. What is a historian to do with such contradictions? The obvious answer would be to discard the testimony as at the very best inconclusive. But this is not what Sacco does here: instead he leaves it intact, a traumatized memory that is quite likely a collective memory, the internalization of a story told over and over again by his family over half a century to the brother who survived such that he can now fully inhabit the scene as if he were there. As Sacco says of this moment: "I only want to acknowledge the problems that go along with relying on eyewitness testimony in telling our story. But all this should not let us forget the essential truth: Khamis's three brothers were shot by Israeli soldiers on November 3, 1956."

But are "essential truths" contained only in the numbers of the dead? Sacco understandably spends a lot of energy trying to pin down accurate numbers of the dead in the various episodes of 1956 he records, never able to arrive at definitely body counts. But the victims here, are also those who, like Khamis himself, have survived to continue to live out the next fifty years of violence, death, and destruction. Sacco weaves his search for stories of '56 with the ongoing crush of everyday life in the occupied territories. His witnesses of horrors a half-century ago are themselves often dealing with fresh wounds from bulldozed houses, dead or missing neighbors, the humiliations of border crossings beneath the shadow of the IDF tower or the grinding humiliation and poverty of decades of unemployment.

Perhaps the most haunting presence in the book is Khaled, a resistance fighter with a death sentence hanging over him, now floating through Gaza waiting patiently for the Israelis to assassinate him. He is exhausted, having lost all faith in both the integrity of Palestinian leadership and the intentions of the Israelis. He becomes an unlikely supporter of Sacco's research, leading him to people who might have memories or insights to share, and it is only much later that it occurred to me that this tired fighter's interest in the fighting and killing of a half century ago has everything to do with his own sense, on the verge of his own death, that history will have no memory for him--that his death, like that of so many he has seen and, yes, caused, will be instantly forgotten to history.

A people without a home is a people without history. The endless destruction of Palestinian houses is the daily destruction of memory, of history on a local level, where history begins. As Sacco walks with families through the houses they have lost to the bulldozers, over and over again they recount for him the memories buried in the rubble -- the labor of their hands to make a home from homelessness and the hopes for their posterity that motivated them to build a foundation for their families. Sacco's book never recovers a definitive "truth" about 1956, beyond the indisputable truth that hundreds of unarmed Palestinian men were rounded up from their homes and beaten, humiliated, or shot. Those who did not come when summoned were shot in their own homes. The lesson the Israeli military sought to convey a half century ago could not have been more clear: your "homes" are not shelter, they will not keep us from beating you, killing you. These homes are trash. These are the same lessons the bulldozers of a half-century later keep driving home by driving the Palestinians perpetually homeless.

Although Sacco's book is first and foremost a book about historiography and about the events of 1956 in the Palestinian territories, it is a book that should come home to all of us in thinking about the dispossessions that have built and continue to replenish our "homelands" -- for those of us in the U.S. the inescapable and irreparable fact that ours was itself built on the lands stolen from the American Indians, with roofbeams raised high by slaves stolen from their homes in Africa to build the homes of their "masters." The 1948 Israeli Declaration of Statehood read, in part: "The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people - the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe - was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness." Giving the Jews a home, it was rightly argued, would prevent the Holocaust from ever happening again precisely because the holocaust itself depended on the perpetual homelessness of Jews -- always marked as aliens, outsiders, Others. Sixty years later, homelessness and dispossession remain the tools of nation-building and global capitalism, whereby some get nations, homes, and cheap goods and produce at Wal-mart with which to furnish them, while others remain perpetually homeless, migrant, or enslaved to guarantee security and prosperity.