Book Review: Joe Sacco’s “Palestine”

Joe Sacco is a journalist who is also a cartoonist who uses the graphic novel form to convey his personal experience living in zones of conflict. His nearly 300 page work “Palestine” is the result of two months he spent in Israel’s occupied territories in late ’91 and early ’92. “Palestine” is a vivid and difficult to read series of shorts which convey the racism, violence, torture, hatred, and hope of the many Palestinians Sacco met over his two months visiting many Palestinian towns both the West bank and Gaza.

My friend Andrew lent me this book last week, and I thought it would be no problem to read it in a few days and return it before I head back to Toronto. I have finished it, but it took considerably longer than I expected. Normally I would zip through a 300 page graphic novel in just a sitting or two, but Palestine is full of emotionally wrenching stories, and on many occasions I was forced to put it down. It is not simply the brutality of the oppression which makes the stories difficult – but the fact that despite being 20 years old and widely confirmed in character by other accounts, these stories are still largely absent from the western consciousness. How many Canadians know that for many decades the torture of suspected terrorists was legal under Israeli law? How many Canadians even know what “internment” is, let alone how it is used to terrify and enact revenge on Palestinians without trial? How many Canadians even know their direct complicity with the occupation through the Canadian militaries’ collaboration with the IDF?

Reading narratives of oppression is never easy. I remember distinctly reading both volumes of Maus for the first time at my ex-girlfriend Kate’s kitchen table. I read both volumes in one afternoon, and while they were not easy to read there was a certain completeness, a sense of quietude about them – there is no debate about whether the Holocaust was justified, or whether its perpetrators should be held to a standard of justice. Reading about the Holocaust is horrifying, but the trauma is distinctly in the past – one does not read it with a knot in one’s stomach knowing it is still going on – because it isn’t still going on. Not to say anti-semitism is dead – no forms of racism are dead – but anti-semitism is no longer defended or justified in polite society, whereas it remains quite common for racist attitudes about Arabs to be considered acceptable in public and in the mainstream media. Reading Maus is terrifying because it reveals to you what humans are capable of doing to each other – but reading Palestine is terrifying because it reveals what humans are doing to each other right now, and forces you to recognize the structures of concealment, justification and distraction that make narratives like this appear “partisan” and overly pro-Palestinian. “Biased” is of course just another word for “having goals”, so anyone who sides with the oppressed is de facto “biased” and can be dismissed without being taken seriously.

If you get a chance to read Palestine, I suggest you seize it, and take it seriously. Of course it’s only one man’s experience, and its 20 years out of date – but it tells real stories about real people that he met, people like you and I who just want a fair shake in life, and have their own hopes and dreams (and are of course, therefore “biased”). Joe Sacco is often accused of only telling the Palestinian point of view, so he writes his response into to the book:  “I’ve heard nothing but the Israeli side most of my life.”

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Joe Sacco’s “Palestine”

  1. I read it about 5 years ago and picked it up to reread yesterday. I was inspired to reread it after watching that Israeli TV show “Prisoner of War”, which inspired the HBO series “Homeland”. It’s an awesome book and I am not surprised that there are so many sad and astonishing things I forgot about it these last 5 years – Palestinians’ suffering gets such little ‘airtime’ here in the UK that you just forget the details.

    Good review by the way!

  2. I enjoyed this novel immensely, as a Canadian I feel sickened at the actions and words of our government spoken on behalf of us as citizens. I have written to politicians and petitioned to no avail. I would encourage other Canadians to do the same.

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