Book Review: Palestine

In conjunction with my post on graphic novels as pedagogical tools, what follows is my review of the graphic novel Palestine by Joe Sacco, which I first read for my research paper.

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Personalizing the Occupation

In an attempt to understand and convey to a wider audience the graphic realities of life under occupation, Joe Sacco’s Palestine is an account of this two month sojourn in the occupied territories. Having stayed through the winter of 1991-1992, he was witness to roughly the last gasp of the First Intifada. Told from Sacco’s perspective, the book chronicles the everyday stories of Palestinians he encountered in the occupied territories across both the West Bank and Gaza.

Originally published as a series of nine short comic books, the compiled graphic novel is told through a series of vignettes, lacking a singular plot structure. The thread of commonality weaving together these snapshots of Palestine, is always the occupation, at times extending to include the peace process of the 1990s.

As Allen Webb notes in his essay “Literature from the Modern Middle East: Making a Living Connection,” “Sacco ‘s illustrations capture the destitution of the West Bank, Gaza, and refugee camps in a way that is still relevant and provides backdrop for works of Palestinian literature.”

With Overdrawn features, his characters at first appear as caricatures, merely cartoonish and comic representations of the real people interviewed in Sacco’s seminal work of the documentary graphic novel genre. Combined with rushed captions that blare across the page, the result is initially overwhelming.

The rushed style of art and narration, however, imbue each chapter with a sense of immediacy that immediately engages the reader with the shifting narratives. As Dick Doughty ascertains in his review of Palestine, Sacco’s “distorted, occasionally grotesque faces and fisheye-lens point of view convey the sheer madness of life under occupation.”

The art not only conveys the realities of occupation, but amplifies these realities as well, much more substantially than could be expressed through a text alone. The visual component allows readers to connect more intimately and immediately with a particular actor they might otherwise never have an interaction with, making the experience more tangible, even through a mediated recollection.

At the same time, Sacco’s style of drawing “encourages the reader…to see the self in the other, to erase all differences in a gesture of ‘cultural understanding.’” Nima Naghibi and Andrew O’Malley find this to be true of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, as they discuss in their essay, “Estranging the Familiar: ‘East’ and ‘West’ in Satrapi’s Persepolis.” The same holds true, however, for Palestine as well, even with an external observer for a narrator.

While the reality of life under occupation is certainly different from the standard an American reader would expect, the medium through which it is conveyed is a familiar one, and, coupled with the oddly distorted cartoon style, works to bridge that social divide and establish a common ground for viewing and understanding the occupation.

The Politics of Witnessing

Intent on telling the other side of the occupation, Sacco set out to explicitly challenge the dominant American political stance on Israel at the time. From the very beginning of the narrative, he notes that Americans could only be made to care about the plight of Palestinians through human interest stories.

As Sacco collects accounts of “Palestinian misery,” as he refers to them, he intersperses these accounts with key historical events from the timeline of Palestine’s contested history. Doing so allows Sacco to effectively place currents events of the moment in the appropriate historical context, for instance, relating instances of police brutality or settler violence to the Nakba, or the outbreak of the First Intifada.

Collecting these “teardrop[s] in the bucket” of collective oppression (Palestine 62), Sacco relays stories of being forced out one’s home, of unprovoked settler attacks, of unlawful detentions without charge or trial, of extreme destitution in Gazan refugee camps, and of course the many instances of physical abuse at the hands of Israeli soldiers, among many more deprivations. In fact, the accounts of imprisonment are so numerous they inure Sacco to the fact of incarceration.

Reflecting on both the occupation and the peace process at the very end of the novel, Sacco concludes that “we all want peace, whatever that is, but peace can mean different things, too, and isn’t described identically by all who wish to imagine it…” (Palestine 281).

Even more poignantly, however, after two months of documenting stories of loss and brutality, Sacco reflects for a moment on the psychological impact of the powerlessness of Palestinians under occupation, especially during direct encounters with Israeli soldiers. He wonders whether the impotence implicit in being an occupied population fosters or belies hope for a better future.

Educating but not Moralizing

Palestine doesn’t end with a prescription, a path towards peace, although this was never Sacco’s intention in documenting Palestine. Rather he presents all that he’s encountered, still no closer to an idea of what might lead to peace, and allows readers to process for themselves the realities he’s outlined and to cast their own judgments over the effectiveness of the peace process.  

This is an especially important characteristic when considering the use of Palestine as a pedagogical tool: that it does not moralize to the reader. Of course, this does not mean that Sacco does not take a stance himself. His decisions from the beginning to document the Palestinian experience was motivated by a pervasive lack of understanding of this experience in mainstream American media.

The effect then is to create a balanced perception, not to churn out propaganda, and as Edward Said notes in his introduction to the 2001 collected edition, “there’s no obvious spin, no easily discernible line of doctrine in Joe Sacco’s often ironic encounters with Palestinians under occupation, no attempt to smooth out what is for the most part a meager, anxious existence of uncertainty, collective unhappiness, and deprivation.”

Therefore, although Sacco is not an impartial witness, clearly expressing his sympathies with the plight of Palestinians, Palestine‘s primary goal is not to push Sacco’s sympathies onto the reader, but to introduce the unheard perspective and to understand how that perspective is routinely “otherized” by the occupation.

Joe Sacco, a comic artist, journalist, author, and illustrator, who has published works focusing on the Middle East is in conversation with historian Zachary Lockman, a professor in NYU’s Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. In this video clip they discuss Cartoon Journalism. You can view more segments of their conversation here.

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