Sunday, February 26, 2012

[TSS] Musings: Palestine

Joe Sacco's Palestine is a book I've wanted to read for a very long time.  Sacco is a journalist, and he reports on areas that are in the midst of dramatic conflict.  But his reporting style is of the graphic novel variety.  I was so thrilled to see his Palestine in the library, not only because I wanted to experience his very distinctive brand of journalism, but also because I have been very interested in reading more about the Israel-Palestine conflict since enjoying Mornings in Jenin some time ago.

This book is a collection of nine separate articles that Sacco published about Palestine during 1991 and 1992.  Sacco went to Israel late in the year, from Egypt, and spent the vast majority of his time in the territories that are currently occupied by the Palestinians, with increasing encroachment by the Israelis.  Interestingly, Sacco himself is very visible through this whole story.  He doesn't believe in the idea of being an objective bystander.  Instead, he lives with the people he interviews, listens to their stories, drinks their tea (lots of tea), eats food they provide but can barely afford, and gives his own opinion on a myriad of topics.  Sacco comes across as pretty arrogant and sometimes insensitive, but he has a clear passion for what he is reporting, and that comes through loud and clear.  This is in no way an objective account; Sacco makes only a perfunctory attempt to get the Israeli point of view.  But this, too, is done on purpose.  As Westerners, we nearly always only get the Israeli side, and he wanted us to see the effects of this long-term conflict on the Palestinians.  And what he presents us with is a gruelling, intensely personal and amazingly artistic account of his two months in Palestine, and the very humanizing stories of the difficulties, humiliations and terrors that the people who live there go through daily.


It is hard to review a book like Palestine without being terrified of crossing some line or coming across in a way that may set up other people's backs.  I felt the same way when I reviewed Mornings in Jenin.  These books are both very sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.  But Sacco's work, while it could hardly be described as unbiased, was very rigorously researched.  And at the end, you can see even his own helplessness seep out onto the page.  He asked so many people on different sides of the situation, with different backgrounds, "Do you think there can be peace between the Israelis and Palestinians?"  And the answer, overwhelmingly, was no.  There is so much distrust and anger on both sides.  For example, once Sacco took an Israeli woman for a walk through a Palestinian market just outside Jerusalem.  The fear on the woman's face, walking just minutes away from her own city, in her own country, was just overwhelming.  And then Sacco got frightened, too, and they both seemed to think that a riot would break out at any moment.  Nothing happened, but the woman is unlikely to ever venture out of her safe haven again.  It was amazing because she had clearly never interacted with a Palestinian before.  Even in the market, she didn't talk to anyone because she didn't want to draw attention to herself as a Jew.  I think that was one of the most disturbing scenes to me.  How can the two sides ever come to peace, if the people who have the most in common- the everyday citizens- don't ever communicate with each other?  It made me feel pretty helpless, too.

In some ways, Sacco's book was very repetitive.  He'd meet a Palestinian.  The Palestinian would start telling his or her story.  Inevitably, the story would involve Israeli police brutality, torture in prison, a very unfair judicial system, and the raiding or burning down of a home.  There was also a lot of unemployment and rock-throwing.  I got tired of this a few times because I didn't see the point of reiterating the same story over and over again; except that, in a way, I understand the need to prove to readers that these are not one-off occurrences, but regular experiences that people must deal with on a daily basis.

The most interesting section of the book, to me, was the all-too-short one about Palestinian women and their efforts to obtain equal rights to men.  It reminded me so much of the American Civil Rights movement because women's rights are being pushed aside in Palestine as people focus on getting rights as a people.  Who has time to worry about women in particular, they say, when basic human rights are being violated?  I really liked reading about the women involved in equal rights work, and I wish we had more about them.  But unfortunately, Sacco is a man and thus spoke more to men than women.

What added to my interest in these stories was Sacco's extremely engaging artistic style.  His artwork is truly amazing.  He has a true skill with perspective.  In one panel, the reader will feel claustrophobic with the amount going on inside the box.  In another, we see the desolation of a Palestinian village after curfew.  We get a close-up of a man's face to see his contorted, angry expression.  We see the tired bend of an old woman's back as she attempts once again to piece together her life after her home is trashed.  And the words are all spaced in a way that draws your eyes from one area to another, sometimes in long narratives, sometimes in short boxes, but always, always compelling you to continue.  It's brilliant.

Recently, Ana wrote a post about objectivity in reviews and how she does not love objectivity when reading about books because she wants to know how people reacted to what they read.  Reading Palestine made me wonder about objectivity in books themselves, too.  Is it better to read two, very vehement sides to a debate, rather than read one objective account of them?  On such a heated topic as the West Bank, it is clear that neither side (not that there are only two sides, either) is objective.  That is, in fact, the only clear thing about it.  There is so much exaggeration, anger and distrust on both sides that finding real facts can be a lesson in futility.  And being objective doesn't really help you make friends with all involved - people always want you to pick a side.  So is Joe Sacco right or wrong to present the conflict from only one side?  Personally, I think it resulted in a much more honest account of his time there.

There is so much in this book.  Sacco gives some context about what people are referring to, but usually he just lets them talk and relate their stories.  And it's clear that they want to tell their stories and share their experiences.  I really appreciated this book, and I have so much respect for Sacco's storytelling style.  I love the way he uses perspective in his drawings, the way he positions his words to make the most impact, particularly when combined with the drawings, and the way he is so comfortable inserting himself into the story in all his heavily biased, arrogant glory.  His authorial style is so different than any I've encountered before, and I look forward to reading more of his books on other areas of conflict in the world.


14 comments:

  1. This sounds powerful and provocative and like a must read for me. I've read extensively about the middle east but never in graphic novel format.

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    1. Yes, it was a really cool way to learn about the conflict. I think Sacco's artistic style is really great.

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  2. Wow, well let me add this to the graphic novels about other countries/cultures that I should read! (Persepolis and Pyongyang being the other two). I wonder if the repetitiveness would get to me too, but otherwise sounds good. That's an interesting thought about whether it's better to have an objective point of view or not. That's what I used to think, but on the other hand I think seeing it from different perspectives is important too as long as you're able to try to maintain your own objectivity while understanding his point of view as well.

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    1. Yes, it's definitely a balancing act, but in a way I think it's easier to stay objective by reading very subjective differing views.

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  3. So much to say here!!!!!

    Okay, first - I've really wanted to read this for years, but have been too terrified to because of the potential violence/gore drawn into it. :(

    Second - I wonder if the repetativeness was less because it was getting across a point, and more because when you do go to talk to Palestinians, this IS the first thing they all talk about. I met tons and tons of people when I was there, men and women both, in many settings, and the conversation turned to those exact topics every time, usually very quickly. Even the kids, in the middle of talking about the latest dance TV shows out of UAE, would tell me about how their 10-year-old best friend was shot by a sniper while she played dolls, or how their brother got tortured in jail, etc. They all have stories, and they all want their stories to be known.

    Third - I wonder if the reason there were more male perspectives here is because it's less proper there for a man to interview a woman, and thus (whether or not he wanted to) Sacco was constrained a bit in his choices.

    Fourth - One of the things my brother said when we left Palestine/Israel (I may have mentioned this in those emails we sent back then) is that he didn't see any way for this conflict to resolve, because the two sides were kept almost completely separate from each other. The only contact they have is through the soldiers. The Israeli soldiers are sent out to Palestine to keep control, and are going there with stories of terrorism and riots and all the rest, so they are scared and angry and defensive. They then act aggressively with the Palestinians, and then the only Israeli citizens the Palestinians see are the ones who are in a position of aggressive power over them. The Palestinians react against the Israeli soldiers, thus confirming, in the Israeli's eyes, everything they've been told. It's a cycle that only deepens the hate on both sides. :(

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    1. Oh, so much about this comment makes me sad. I was so tempted to email you about this book after I read it so that we could take up our conversation again! But I left too quickly for Ireland to manage it. It is disturbing to me how separate the sides are. It really implies that they don't want peace at all, and are making no real efforts to reach it...

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  4. I know so little about this conflict, and wonder if this is the place to start in reading about it. I do have to admit that the artwork and the way this story is told really captures me, and makes me want to seek it out. It does sound frightening, and the fact that people are living this way is more than shocking to someone who has no information on the subject. I loved this review because it was respectful but still had a lot of gravity. You do amazing things with your writing, Aarti, and open my eyes to things they have been long closed to.

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    1. Aw, thanks Heather :-) That is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me!

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  5. I haven't even heard of this before. I will have to see if my library has it. I haven't really been reading much in the way of graphic novels so far this year. I need to add a few in.

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    1. Yes, I hadn't read any in a long time, but now I crammed a bunch in all in a row.

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  6. Wow, this sounds like a very powerful book. I agree with you about not wanting to offend people with my reviews, especially when the subject is not as personal for me as it might be for others. But I also have to agree that I usually appreciate reading someone's actual opinion, even if I don't agree with it, so maybe I worry too much. Great review!

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  7. Fascinating review, Aarti. I've had this one on my TBR for several years now, as I was supposed to read it for a grad class that ended up falling through the cracks. I tried reading it by myself a few years later, and admittedly, I struggled with it. It's one of those books I'm certain I'll try again, since it could've just been a mood thing. As much as I enjoy his perspective, overall I find the visual style overwhelming and claustrophobic. Rightly so, given the topic, but still hard for me to take in unless I'm in the right reading mood.

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  8. This is one of my favorite comics, so I'm glad you wrote this very thoughtful review. I also really loved Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco. You should definitely read it.

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  9. Fantastic review of what sounds like a truly emotional and important read. It's on my shelf and I'm really looking forward to reading it myself. I like what you say about objectivity, I think sometimes we need to see one side or the other but the important thing for us as readers is to search out the other side too, if we can. In this case, as you say, Sacco is really just giving us the one side that we so rarely see, right?

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