Book Review

Palestine by Joe Sacco

Palestine by Joe Sacco Did you see the recent TV series about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis? It doesn't matter when you're reading this. There's always a TV series on about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The message, it seems, is that we must learn about the horrors of Hitler's regime if we are to avoid repeating them. In practice what it means, however, is that Hitler's name is forever being dragged into service to justify more and more slaughter. Has there been a single time since the Second World War when the idea of "another Hitler" hasn't been used to sell a war to the general population? But there's a double-standard at work here. When one state doesn't like what another state does, it is commonly seen as acceptable to compare the state to Hitler's regime, regardless of the violence done to the truth. On the other hand, whenever forces opposed to a state compare that state's repressive policies with those of fascism, there is no shortage of people who suddenly discover their opposition to polemical exaggeration and the need for historical accuracy. Of course it is true that there are real differences that it would be dishonest and wrong to play down between a dictatorial state motivated by a murderous racial ideology and a modern, democratic state motivated more by the need to control trade routes and the supply of key resources, including a compliant workforce. But with these important distinctions in mind, let's also remember that these same states are only ever a couple of emergency decrees from state repression that differ from fascist repression in form, not content.

Take Israel. It's not uncommon for the Israeli state to be called fascist by those on the left. The writer Ellis Sharp goes as far as to compare Israel's supporters and their blindness to its policies with that of Holocaust denial. If that seems too strong, let me urge you to read Joe Sacco's superlative Palestine. It may well be wrong to call Israel fascist, but if so, we need some other strong term to express our disgust at a state that systematically imprisons tens of thousands of people without trial, fires live rounds into demonstrations and tear gas into schools, beats wounded men and women lying in their hospital beds, bulldozes people's homes, desecrates their farmland and steals their water supply, imposes curfews and collective punishments such as cutting off electricity supplies... the list goes on and on, and it must surely sicken and depress anyone with an ounce of humanity left in their bones. It's bad enough as a dry list, but when it comes to life in vivid detail in the hands of Joe Sacco, it becomes even more distressing. This book collects all nine issues of Joe Sacco's Palestine comic series into one volume, which were written after he spent two months in the occupied territories in the winter of 1991-92, towards the end of the first intifada. Of course, much has already been written on this subject, but none in such an accessible form and none, in the words of Edward Said, that match this "political and aesthetic work of extraordinary originality". With the exception of one or two novelists and poets, says Said, "no one has ever rendered this terrible state of affairs better than Joe Sacco".

Yet "terrible" seems far too mild a word for the crimes against humanity documented in Sacco's book. The conflict in Palestine appears to most of us in the West, if we are aware of the conflict at all, as a sort of 'Northern Ireland problem': an inexplicable and irrational conflict, with its roots in an ancient and natural hatred between two groups of people, separated by race and/or religion. We may be used to seeing Palestinian youths on our TVs throwing rocks at the Israeli army, or the announcement of yet more deaths, yet more explosions and shootings. But the implication of the coverage -- especially on US media channels, but even on more supposedly sympathetic channels too -- is that a beleaguered Israeli state, its army and its general population, is only doing what any reasonable, democratic state would do when faced with the extremism and terrorism of the other side. Sacco is the antidote to this propaganda. His antidote does not just consist of an objective portrayal of the facts through historical writing and investigative journalism -- although he does this as well. His brilliance consists in how he brings personal stories to life through novelistic, comic-book story-telling, showing what it is like to actually live with this oppression and brutality on a daily basis; with an occupying force that would really rather you would stop making a fuss and roll over and die; what it's like to try to get on with a normal life in the face of all this, bringing up a family, getting a job, dreaming about a better future for you, your family and your community. In other words, Sacco turns what could easily have been a rant or a textbook of dry abstractions, into the living, breathing reality -- the utter nightmare -- of everyday life in Palestine.

But no matter how angry the book makes you feel, you'll forget about it soon enough, as Sacco subtly makes clear as you read. This is not because you're a bad person; it's just that it would drive you mad if you thought about it all the time. If you live in Palestine, however, forgetting about it, even for the duration of one birthday party, is impossible. Even if you were lucky enough or mad enough to forget about it, the reality is likely to kick your door down in the middle of the night and drag you off to a torture camp for a sharp reminder. It's important to understand that this is not an exaggeration, nor is it an exception to the rule, nor merely the fate of a handful of militants, extremists and activists. When Sacco meets a young man who hasn't been to prison, he finds himself thinking, Why not? If you live in Palestine and you haven't been put in prison, or know friends and relatives who have, then you're a living, walking freak show. Indeed, young men who haven't been to prison feel uncomfortable with their exceptional status. In other words, for Palestinians, this nightmare is all just business as normal. In one of the most affecting chapters in the book, Sacco describes how, beneath the surface -- "traffic, couples in love, falafel-to-go, tourists in jogging suits licking stamps for postcards" -- and behind closed doors, other things are happening for "reasons of national security" -- "people strapped to chairs, sleep deprivation, the smell of piss". He takes us from the bustle of everyday life behind closed doors to the systematic and brutal torture of a middle-class family man (released after nearly three weeks as there is absolutely no evidence against him), then segues beautifully and disturbingly back into the bustle of 'normal' life outside.

The shocking images Sacco conjures up are as striking as any novel or film could possibly be, combining the best of reportage, historical writing and literature in one format; it is moving, infuriating, humane, witty, self-deprecating, and as objective as it is possible to be while remaining politically engaged. Sacco's approach reminds me of the effect achieved by the historical writer John Prebble, who combined historical writing with novel-like story telling, bringing history alive by seeing it through the eyes of those living at the time. As Nicholas Lezard puts it in a recent review of Maureen Waller's London 1945, the source of strength of this approach is "its wealth of individual, anecdotal detail".

"This is the kind of thing that some historians are rather sniffy about," says Lezzard, "and in fact Waller has been criticised for it in the past [...] But I have absolutely no problem with this approach here. There are plenty of works that deal with larger political issues, but suffering and privation happen at the personal level, and while it is one thing to know that grain supplies were diverted from making spirits during wartime, it is another to read of a woman breaking a precious bottle of gin after slipping in the blackout, and the efforts made by friends and neighbours to find another one [...] You can't help reading this and thinking: this is what it was really like."

This is what Sacco seems to capture well: "what it is really like" in Palestine. And "what it is really like" means dealing with some facts of life on the Palestinian side that right-thinking Westerners may not like very much. There's the Islamic attitude to women (he looks at this from the point of view of Islamic men, Palestinian feminists, "ordinary" Palestinian women, and problematises his own attitudes to the question), the anti-Jewish form of much of Palestinian thinking, and so on. There's no doubt that there's lots to disagree with, but, as Sacco shows, the answers that seem so easy to us are very far from obvious from their point of view. The people wielding the sticks and guns in Palestine and Israel are Jews, and the people on the other end of their boots are bound to notice the fact. Sacco does intervene, fishing desperately for stories from older Palestinians about the times when Jews and Arabs lived side by side in peace; cringing when people smile and leap for joy when they talk about the time Saddam Hussein launched missiles at Israel during the first Gulf war, delighted that at last "the Jews" were getting a taste of their own medicine. "Yikes!" says Sacco. "These guys could use the services of a good public relations officer!" The other side, of course, already has a multi-milllion dollar PR machine to speak for it.

Sacco always puts himself into the picture, worrying about his role there as a supposedly detached, objective reporter; as a relatively comfortable Westerner painting pictures of oppression and murder for personal gain. When an angry demonstration kicks off, for example, Sacco portrays himself as being both absolutely terrified (such demonstrations are savagely broken up, sometimes with live ammunition, as a matter of routine), but also excited, hoping there will be violence because it will add some much needed excitement to his comic book ("my comics blockbuster depends on conflict"). Unfortunately, there's no happy ending, and Sacco's honest enough to admit that there are very few solid grounds for hope. But he's also humane enough to scrabble around for every scrap of hope there is, dig for it, and finds enough to let us put the book down without entirely despairing for the future. There's the organisation in the big prison camps, for example: the prisoners form themselves into committees to organise the fair distribution of food and drink, entertainment, education, talks, protests, and so on. There's the fact that the prison guards have to be constantly rotated because they come to sympathise with the prisoners, begin to act more humanely, even smuggle them in extra cigarettes. (A recent documentary on Auschwitz claimed that the reason prisoners were gassed and not shot was because of the effect the killings were having on those doing the killing.) Since Sacco wrote the book, there has been a number of changes in the situation in Palestine, including the installation of a Palestine Authority, a second intifada, and renewed peace talks, although you'd have to be peculiarly optimistic to see much signs for hope in any of this either. As Sacco says, none of the major outstanding issues outlined in his book have been resolved. His brilliant book is, unfortunately, and depressingly, as relevant as ever.
-- Reviewed by Stuart Watkins on 30/08/2004

Further Information
ISBN-10: 0224069829
ISBN-13: 9780224069823
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Publication Date: 19/08/2004
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 296

Readers Comments

  1. " a normal life in the face of all this, bringing up a family, getting a job, dreaming about a better future for you, your family and your community"
    that's the whole point .if the palestinians want that life they can have
    it under bibi's regime. that's what they had between 1967-1987.then the first intifada started and the disaster of oslo culminating in hamas' rise sealed their fate. the palestinians don't have to like a jewish state[although some do as and they are buying apartments within the green line for fear they'll be stuck in palestine] but if they actively try and destroy it they can expect to live under a sometimes brutal occupation.

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