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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.

india Updated: Apr 16, 2010 23:29 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times

Footnotes in Gaza
Joe Sacco
Jonathan Cape Rs 899 pp 432

Somebody once asked Robert Fisk why he filed 'biased' reports from West Asia and did not take into account Israeli or American views.

His answer was, to me, the best possible reply to people who expect — and, I suspect, want — journalists to drain themselves of feeling and be equally on the side of right and wrong.

"If I was covering Auschwitz," said Fisk, "should I have got a quote from Berlin?"

Joe Sacco's done to the comic book form what Fisk's done with reportage: call a wall, a wall.

In his new book, Footnotes in Gaza, pages are like crammed burial grounds filled with Palestinians killed by Israelis a week ago. A year ago. Fifty years ago.

Last month, I was in Gorakhpur and was staying in Hotel Vivek. Sacco, impossible as this sounds, was in a room a floor above mine. For a man who prefers to do his job "outside the public eye," Hotel Vivek was the perfect base-camp: leaky air-conditioners, middling service, sleepy waiters... Sacco said he had come to India to research on "rural poverty".

Over email, last week, the American cartoonist, whose standing now matches that of Art Spiegelman, legendary author of the anti-Holocaust graphic novel Maus, spoke about why it's still important to 'remember' Palestine.

Footnotes…, in fact, was written to 'rescue' the 1956 massacres at Rafah and Khan Younis in southern Gaza from antiseptic United Nations reports: "Perhaps Israeli soldiers had simply panicked and opened fire on the running crowd."

The American magazine that had commissioned Sacco as an illustrator to accompany a journalist writing on Palestinians in Khan Younis edited the incident out.

Footnotes… brings together fugitives and schoolchildren, wives, widows, policemen and sheiks to look back to a day in 1956 when Israel's military head Moshe Dayan gave orders to "hit Gaza…not much…just one or two barrages." Result: 50 killed, 100 wounded.

In many ways, Footnotes… is difficult to read. One of the things that make it 'difficult' is that unlike his earlier book Palestine, Sacco seems to have done away with 'telling stories'. Instead, there seems to be a relentless body-count.

"I decided to tell the story from multiple perspectives," says Sacco.

"To make this a personality-driven book — 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."

There are, in fact, many kinds of death that await Palestinians. The words of Khaled, a resistance fighter are unforgettable: "I expect to be killed, I expect to be assassinated but now it's taking too long."

It's vintage Sacco as he goes house-to-house in search of specific memories in his trademark close crop, owl-glasses and a mouth half-open (or half shut) trying to put two and two together. The news-gathering isn't painless.

"The young ones don't want to talk about '56. What good would tending to history do them when they were under attack and their houses were being demolished now? And I remembered how often I sat with old men who tried my patience... how often I rolled my eyes because I knew more about that day than they did," Sacco notes in the book.

The tone he takes towards journalists on their 'Palestinian beat' makes one wonder if a book on the profession itself is in the works.

"Well, I do have plans to do a funny book about the journalists I've met on my travels," he says. "As for who I am in real life and what my values are, well, that's a complicated question."

I think he has answered it fairly plainly in Footnotes. But as in all his other books, in Footsteps in Gaza Joe Sacco has taken sides.

For the full interview, log on to

Also Read:

The Great War for Civilisation: War correspondent Robert Fisk reports from the bloody terrains of the Middle East. A running history of war.

First Published: Apr 16, 2010 23:23 IST