Palestine by Joe Sacco, published by Jonathan Cape, 2003
Joe Sacco’s famous graphic novel, Palestine, which was initially published in serial forms in nine volumes, and later in 2001, assembled as a whole, brings to us the rather surreal state of existence in what is known as the Israeli occupied land, Palestine. The very genre of the graphic novel brings forth not only the ‘question of Palestine’ with its hyper visibility on the surface level, but is predicated on the larger notion of the Palestinian presence, through different narratives. Palestine shows us the journey of Sacco, into Palestine, investigating the attempted erasure of the Palestinians, in mainstream discourses, retracing its origin into the (in)famous Balfour Declaration of 1917.
Joe Sacco’s graphic novel, Palestine stands out for its remarkable portrayal of the Palestinian issue, of the everyday life of the Palestinians in a land of not just conflict but a veritable battle field. Sacco must be credited for his acumen in capturing the nuances of the different narratives, thereby de-sensationalising the entire media hype. This graphic novel is a detour from our comfortable notions of ‘home’, making it a contingent space, where both the voice of the invader/settler and the exiled/settler, intersect.
One of the most interesting facets of this genre, is how Sacco brings an entire political issue into the realm of the comic, where the caricatured sketches have more than a few serious, in fact, philosophical implications, even while introducing an element of dark humour, sometimes, in a stark manner and at times with minor subtleties. Sacco must be applauded for the extensive detailing invested in this graphic novel that brings it somewhere between a black and white illustration and photographic representation and yet it exceeds both these forms, in its own fashion.
As readers, much like the journalist himself at the beginning, we are equipped with only the populist understanding of the deeply entrenched political scenario, that simply glosses over a rather problematic history and narrative. It is only when we enter the realm of this graphic novel, we are, much like Sacco himself, implicated. The graphic novel, takes us across the different cities that are largely occupied by Israel, from Hebron, Ramallah, Nablus, Jerusalem, Jabalia, West Bank to Gaza, all reviving the images of concentration camps in these refugee centres. Sacco in his chequered experiences, all over these places, shows us the portrayal of the everyday life of the Palestinians. He shows us the facade of human rights and democracy, squashed under the euphemism of ‘Collateral damage’. At the same time, the Palestinians’ constant resistance to oppression, by the act of not only throwing stones, but to continue to live life, through their expressions of fear, faith, happiness, hope, anger, marriage and childbirth, proud endurance of humiliations and sufferings and the innate urge to narrativize their stories, also comes to the foreground. It is in their daily practices of having tea with extra helpings of sugar, their gatherings filled with laughter, mockery and tears, that makes us empathise with them. It shows the Palestinians constantly performing the role of a Witness, giving testimonies to the oppressions they have been undergoing. At the same time, there is a level of scepticism, before the Journalist or to the Western Media as such. We see their despair and distrust of the larger indifferent world and yet their only reliance is on their need to narrate their stories, somehow. One of the most interesting facets of this graphic novel, is the role of the journalist, Sacco himself. He discards the notion of objectivity, for a more honest approach although from his subjective lenses. As such, he is presented as an active participant in his observations, with the package of his own biases and idiosyncrasies, while confronting a diametrically opposite cultural logic. At the same time, he subtly hints a jibe at himself and the larger petit bourgeois intellectuals, who after all would love a shower under hot water and rather sit themselves comfortably, reading ‘Edward Said’.
Palestine, obviously ends in the moment of crisis, of an Israeli soldier, interrogating a Palestinian child, who is left with a fatigued expression, anticipating the absence of reconciliation, and a bleak future. A moment that captures the extreme tension and fragility of relationship between two different individuals, hindered by the burden of history and blood. Sacco’s graphic novel, is a brave tale of resilience, of Palestinian identity, in the face of continued persecution. It is a brilliant political treatise, through the realm of aesthetics, to give representation to the voices of marginalised and also understand the power dynamics that determine the relationship of the executioner and the victim. At the end, I am reminded of the words of Mahmoud Darwish, that sums up the feeling of reading Palestine …. “ I have the wisdom of one condemned to die, I possess nothing so nothing can possess me and have written my will in my own blood : Oh inhabitants of my song, trust in water.’’
– Ayesha Begum