Book Review: "Palestine" by Joe Sacco


The conflict between Israel and Palestine is not easy to grasp. That it seems like it has been going on forever has also diminished the “appeal” of engaging the conflict, or at least the novelty of doing so. In only fits and starts it seems the American media covers the conflict—when fighting breaks out in Gaza or dignitaries meet for yet another round of fruitless negotiations and peace talks, for example. Sustained coverage is lacking, no doubt. Perhaps the American public is just worn out on the subject. In the first three days of this week, for example, I can recall numerous stories on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the increasing terrorism and violence in Pakistan, bombings in Iran, and even worrisome violence in the slums of Brazil and Algeria. But Israel and Palestine…? It’s not that they are out of the news, but certainly the topic is beneath the fold.


Up until a couple of years ago I knew little about the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. Despite my interest in international affairs and despite the conflict’s forays into the headlines of American newspapers, I generally avoided the topic. I did so because I knew the particulars and history were too nuanced and went too deep for me to get a real grasp on the situation quickly—it would take months for me to get my bearings, and I just did not have the time, energy, or interest. In short, I relegated the conflict to my peripheral interests and left the knowledge-gathering, opinion-making, and peace-building efforts to others. It just wasn’t going to be in my area of interests. It got to the point where even if the conflict was being discussed in the news I turned the channel or flipped the page—it barely registered on my radar.


My negligence, however, began to wear on my conscience and my ability to have a serious discussion on Middle East affairs. One cannot weigh in on Middle East politics without at least a cursory knowledge of the Israel-Palestine situation. How could I not have an opinion about one of the most serious conflicts of my time? How could I not even know who the main players were? How could I not even sketch the outlines of either side’s arguments, or even have a basic understanding of the history? It became… embarrassing.


So, to make up for my shortcomings, in 2007 I took perhaps one of the most demanding courses of my academic career, a simulation course on the Israel-Palestine-Syria conflict led by Natasha Gill. It was intense, to say the least. (I played Elliott Abrams first, then Javier Solana). I am grateful for having participated in the simulation, for it gave me the footing I needed to navigate Joe Sacco’s award winning Palestine (Fantagraphics, 2002), a groundbreaking and sobering work of comic journalism.


Over the course of a couple of months in 1991 and 1992 (during the first intifada) Sacco conducted hundreds of interviews in the West Bank and Gaza. The result is an inside look into the minutiae of daily living of Palestinians under constant scrutiny and occupation of Israeli forces. Palestine gives us insight into the lives of Palestinians—as refugees, businessmen, students, the unemployed, farmers, neighbors, fathers, mothers, and children. They are destitute. They are angry. They are fearful. They are hopeful. They are humiliated. They are pessimistic. They are so many hopes, dreams, desires, and emotions. They live under curfew, trod through streets clogged with ankle-deep mud to share tea with friends. They—Palestinians—throw stones at Israeli soldiers who return fire with rubber and real bullets. They suffer collective punishment, both sanctioned and not, at the hands of Israelis.


Leaky roofs. Mud. Outhouses. Tea. Keffiyehs. Donkeys. Tear gas. Coffins. Prison. Guns. Rats.


Bureaucracy. Torture. Statelessness. Disenfranchisement. Desperation. Fear. Exhaustion. Hopelessness.


It’s a bleak narrative, but so is the reality of Palestine. In Sacco’s Palestine, the reader becomes involved in the Palestinian plight. We begin to sympathize with the hurdles they must jump in order to thrive in business. We feel the pain of the parents’ whose children have been hit by bullets. We shiver in their cold rooms and we squint through their dark nights. We tremble when unnamed soldiers appear like Storm Troopers on the muddy streets of refugee camp X, Y and Z. In short, Sacco’s reporting of his encounters with Palestinians and his re-telling of their stories of woe and tragedy are gripping and moving. On completing Palestine the reader can be forgiven for feeling exasperated by the Israel-Palestine situation, but also overwhelmingly desirous for a peaceful resolution.


In an interview with January Magazine, Sacco was asked about his audience. “In some cases I think it's people who don't know anything about the topic, but sort of want to know a little bit, and they're just kind of intrigued by the medium as a way of telling it, or a way of getting inside some topic: Oh, it's a comic book about that, OK, I'll read that. They don't want to read Edward Said or Noam Chomsky. That's part of it. But the other group is people who actually know the region quite well, other journalists or UN people or whatever. A lot of those people contact me.”


In short, for those unfamiliar with the Israel-Palestine conflict, and for those well-versed in the situation, Palestine provides an excellent introduction or refresher.



This is one of several "quick reviews," a series that provides a snapshot of international arts and culture.

Comics, Israel, Middle East, Palestine, Quick Review