Faris Barbakh lives in the town of Khan Younis in southern Gaza. In 1956, when he was 14 years old, Israeli soldiers burst into his family’s home and took away all the men, his father, older brothers, uncles. A short time later, Barbakh was sent to fetch water and on his way he “saw all the bodies. More than 100 bodies ... close to the wall, from the beginning of the wall to the end ...”
The wall Barbakh is referring to is part of Khan Younis’ Mamluk castle, built in the 14th century. The bodies are those of the town’s men, gunned down and lying in pools of one another’s intermingling blood.
This is but one of the deeply personal, first-person accounts cartoonist-reporter Joe Sacco illustrates with the deft touch of a master craftsman in his latest graphic novel, Footnotes in Gaza, the story of two long forgotten mass killings of hundreds of Palestinian refugees by the Israeli military, lost to a history rife with constant bloodshed.
On November 3, 1956, the Israeli military entered the town of Khan Younis, ostensibly searching for terrorists and guerrilla fighters. They killed 275 men. Nine days later, on November 12, Israeli soldiers went to a neighboring town, Rafah, and after herding that town’s men to the school and shepherding them through a gantlet of bats and clubs, another 111 lay dead.
Documentation of these two events is scarce, rating only a few lines in a United Nations report. Initially, Sacco himself recalled it only because of a passing reference made in Noam Chomsky’s book, The Fateful Triangle, he had read years earlier, and after the Khan Younis portion of an article he had illustrated for Harper’s Magazine in 2001 had been edited out, Sacco decided he would tell the story himself.
Sacco is unique among journalists. While he researches and reports as well as anyone, it’s his method of storytelling that stands him apart from his peers. Rather than relying solely on words on a page to tell his stories, Sacco brings his subjects to life with intricate, detailed artwork in the form of a comic book.
On one page, Sacco gives us a bird’s eye view of the bodies lining the crumbling castle wall, young Faris Barbakh walking toward them. And on the facing page, from the same angle, Sacco shows us the same wall nearly 50 years later, plastered with posters and covered in graffiti, cars parked in front of it where bodies once lay.
Sacco uses this technique often throughout Footnotes in Gaza, juxtaposing the past and the present, to literally illustrate both how much and how little the lives of these Palestinian refugees have changed.
It is a technique Sacco has used before, first with the American Book Award-winning Palestine in 1996, a collection of stories about his time in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the early ‘90s, and then with Safe Area Gorazde, a book about the Bosnian War which won the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Novel in 2001. With these three graphic novels, Sacco has carved himself a niche as the foremost journalist/cartoonist working today.
For Footnotes in Gaza, Sacco embedded himself in the Gaza Strip for about three months between November 2002 and March 2003, living among his subjects, eating their food and earning their trust. He was constantly peppered with questions from curious Palestinian youths, who wondered why he was asking questions about incidents that happened nearly 50 years ago.
Sacco recounts a conversation with a group of teenagers with bad acne and wearing western clothing. One of the boys asks, “Why is our country like this?” referring to the almost daily demolition of Palestinian homes by the Israelis.
“Because we’re not close to God,” another responds.
When Sacco asks them what they think is the best way to resist, one boy says, “Get close to God.”
“With bombs,” another says, looking at the ground, already defeated, beaten down by the harsh life of being a refugee in his own land.
To ensure accuracy in his reporting, Sacco carries with him a tape recorder and a digital camera. He photographs his interview subjects, their homes, their families, so that he can recreate them later in pen and ink. For the flashback sequences, he visited the United Nations Relief and Works Agency archives, pouring through old photographs, and dug through Israeli Defense Forces records.
Sacco concedes in the book’s foreword that when talking with people about an event 50 years in their pasts, when many were children and young teenagers, their memories may not hold up to scrutiny. Whenever possible, Sacco sought corroboration from other sources, knowing full well one person’s account of an incident that far back in their memory may not be wholly accurate. Indeed, Faris Barbakh, the man who as a child found the bodies lining the wall of the castle, could remember only the names of eight of the 12 relatives he helped bury that day.
Some critics of Sacco’s work have accused him of having a bias toward the Palestinians, which Sacco denies. He has said in interviews that he merely thought the voices of the Palestinian people were rarely heard in mainstream media. In the end, Footnotes in Gaza is neither a condemnation of the Israeli occupation nor pro-Palestinian propaganda, but a well-researched and important book about a forgotten chapter of the horrors that have plagued the region for centuries. While everyone else focuses on the macro, Sacco hones in on the micro, the individuals who have been first-hand witnesses to countless atrocities, and he perhaps uncovers part of the root of today’s animosity between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Sacco interviewed Hamas co-founder Abed El-Aziz El-Rantisi, who was nine years old in November 1956. El Rantisi, who was later killed by an Israeli missile, recalled the day his uncle was killed: “I still remember the wailing and tears of my father over his brother ... It left a wound in my heart that can never heal ... This sort of action can never be forgotten ... [T]hey planted hatred in our hearts.”