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The man who takes sides

Cartoonist-reporter Joe Sacco tells Paramita Ghosh the difficulties of gathering memories and why it’s so important to ‘remember’ Palestine. Read the full interview.

books Updated: Apr 16, 2010 18:51 IST
Paramita Ghosh

Joe Sacco1. In many ways Footnotes is difficult to read, there seems to be a relentless documentation of violence. Was that deliberate? Are you trying to say that the days of ‘stories’ about Palestine are over and that the only way one can talk of that struggle is by remembering and recounting Israel’s role in violence?

A: Footnotes is a different sort of story, an investigation of two specific incidents that took place in the Gaza Strip during the Suez Crisis when large numbers of Palestinians were reportedly killed by Israeli forces. In that regard, I decided to tell the story from multiple perspectives to show that many people witnessed and experienced essentially the same thing. Ultimately, I was writing about massacres, and I had to present as much evidence as possible. To make this a "personality driven" book - in other words, one that told the story through the eyes of one or two engaging people - would have been easier to read but might not have convinced the average person that many people were shot down in cold blood.

2. Is there a reason why other than Mr Robert Fisk and you there are so few media men willing to invest in Palestine? Has Israel tried to make your job in accessing information about Palestine difficult? Do you find it difficult to get an Israeli visa? How does the Israeli army react to your books?
A: When the heavy bombing and large-scale invasion of Gaza took place more than a year ago, there was no mainstream Western reporter there. Some parts of the Palestinian territories are difficult to access because of distance from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where most foreign correspondents tend to congregate and socialize, and in this day and age of newspaper and TV newsroom cuts, stationing a reporter at places that are relatively isolated happens less and less if at all.

Israel can deny access when it wants to, especially to a place like Gaza, where it strictly controls the borders. I had different degrees of difficulty getting into Gaza - sometimes permission was delayed by a week or more - but I always managed to get in.

When I first started doing the research for Footnotes, it was possible to get into Gaza with an ordinary tourist visa. That has changed. I usually try to get a press pass, which is no guarantee of access but certainly helps.

I have no information about how the Israeli army reacts to my books, though on one reporting trip I was invited to spend time with Israeli soldiers on the Egyptian border, opposite the town of Rafah. They had found out I was looking at things from the Palestinian side and graciously offered to show me their perspective.


3. You have, of course, shown yourself to be critical of your (our) profession through the ‘character’ of Joe Sacco. Have you ever wanted to do a book on the profession itself? How close is the Sacco the character in your books to you really?
A: Well, I do have plans, in the back of my mind, to do a book about the journalists I've met on my travels. Mostly funny stories. The character that stands in for me in my books is, in fact, me, only I'm quite discriminating about what aspects of my personality I'm willing to show the reader. I hope those chapters in my book when I'm a more assertive character than usual make something about the topic or the people I'm interacting with stand out in relief.

As far as who I am in real life and what my values are, well, that's a complicated question. Generally speaking I'm pretty even-keeled: I can enjoy the good things about life though if pains me enough that so few people in this world have my advantages that I feel a need to do something about it - in my case that's reporting and drawing comics.

4. For Palestinians who lived through 1956 and those who are still trying to survive 2010 and beyond, the past is not dead and as you’ve shown in the book, it’s ‘continuous’. For Palestinians, and for non-Palestinians who continue to see the suffering from the outside, what is the value of books such as Palestine and Footnotes?
A: My hope is that readers will get a better sense of how hard history has been for Palestinians and how they have never had a break in their oppression to fully digest all the various things that have happened to them. Yes, events are "continuous," which means the people who are suffering today have little time to sort out what happened to their parents' or grandparents' generation. It is all part of a relentless continuum.

But clearly the past has a bearing on what is going on today. I want a non-Palestinian audience to develop an appreciation for the great catastrophes and indignities that Palestinians have suffered. Basically, I want the reader to feel some empathy. Reactions to my work have been various. Basically, the book Palestine served as an introduction to the issue for many readers. Footnotes goes deep into a very specific slice of history, and some Palestinians have contacted me to express appreciation for helping recover some of their story.

5. Palestine was more a West Bank book. Footnotes is, of course, Gazan. According to you, how ‘joined’ is the West Bank and Gaza in their opposition to Israel? How has the Hamas experience changed things between West Bank and Gaza?
A: The political division of Gaza from the West Bank is a real blow to the aspirations of Palestinians, I think. Infighting makes the Palestinians weaker, and the Palestinian Authority, which rules in the West Bank, seems ready to give in to Israeli-US scheme of things, as long as it can show moderate benefits to Palestinians. The Hamas regime in Gaza is more belligerent and seems more likely to stand up to Israel, but it's difficult to see how its actions have advanced the Palestinian cause. Also, Hamas's rule has been repressive.

The one positive development is the people's generally measured resistance to the wall the Israelis are building, but it remains to be seen how effective that will be.