Last weekend I read a really fascinating comic book. It was quite a departure from the comics I usually read since there were no superheroes nor were there any teenagers piloting huge mechanical robots. Palestine is dark, disturbing, thought-provoking and extremely difficult to read. Because all of it was 100 per cent true.
All his life, Joe Sacco had been taught to believe that the Palestinians were terrorists, but when he realised that the power dynamic in the Middle East was not what he had thought it was, it upset him so much that he decided that he would try to give the Palestinians a voice. In 1991, he travelled to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip armed with a notebook and a camera.
He conducted more than 100 face-to-face interviews, and lived amongst the Palestinians in their towns and camps. On his return to the US he compiled his experiences and views into a mini-series of nine comics titled Palestine; it has since been republished in a single volume.
As I have said earlier, this was not an easy read. Sacco pulls no punches and graphically depicts what he sees and hears. You meet Palestinians who have been ejected from their homes, beaten, deprived, tortured and dehumanised.
In a chapter titled, Moderate Pressure — Part 2, Sacco finds himself interviewing Ghassan, a man who had been arrested by the Israeli police “for reasons of national security” and thrown into a jail where he was blindfolded, physically tortured, and verbally abused for weeks.
Eventually, no evidence was brought against him and he was released. Ghassan’s horrific experiences are graphically illustrated over 10 pages and Sacco states: “Make no mistake, everywhere you go, not just in Marvel Comics, there’s parallel universes… Here? On the surface streets: traffic, couples in love, falafel-to-go, tourists in jogging suits licking stamps for postcards… And over the wall behind closed doors: other things-people strapped to chairs, sleep deprivation, the smell of piss… other things happening for ‘reasons of national security.’”
The conflict between Israel and Palestine is not easy to grasp. We only get a glimpse of it when fighting breaks out in Gaza or if there is another round of peace talks. The conflict lacks sustained coverage and it’s not because there’s nothing to report.
Sacco sums it up quite simply: “You gotta understand the… media. They want human interest. Klinghoffer gets killed and we get the full profile, the bereaving widow, where he lived and what he put on his corn flakes… you see the power of that?”
While the book does include some humour, it is very dark. Most of it is directed at Sacco himself who routinely breaks the fourth-wall and addresses the reader with self-deprecating commentary. “My comics blockbuster depends on conflict; peace won’t pay the rent,” he tells us.
In the end, Sacco leaves you with one of the most thought provoking questions of all: “… what can happen to someone who thinks he has all of the power — and what becomes of someone when he believes himself to have none?”
Palestine will move you and break your heart but I’d thoroughly recommend it to everyone. It’s first-rate journalism disguised as a graphic novel.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 2nd, 2012.