Joe Sacco

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Interview: Joe Sacco  By Laila El-Haddad


When it comes to the world of cartooning, Joe Sacco is considered a luminary. Sacco, who is hailed as the creator of war-reportage comics, is the author of such award-winning books as

Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde.

His latest work, Footnotes in Gaza, is an investigation into two little-known and long-forgotten massacres in 1956 in the southern Gaza Strip that left at least 500 Palestinians dead. It is a chilling look back at an unrecorded past and an exploration of how that past haunts and shapes the present – including the beginning of mass home demolitions in 2003 in Rafah.

Sacco navigates the fuzzy lines between memory, experience and visual interpretation almost seamlessly all while painting an intimate portrait of life under occupation and in spite of occupation – a life not only of repression and anger but one full of humour and resilience.

My mother narrowly escaped death during the 1956 massacre in Khan Yunis. Yet I struggled to find any information or record of this event as I grew older. Why do you think that is?

I was curious about the same thing.

What led me to this is a UN document referenced in books about the Suez War according to [which] up to 275 [Palestinians] were killed in Khan Yunis and then a few days later, about 111 in Rafah.

These are large mass killings the UN is alleging. And it was a surprise to me that I had read very little about them.

I thought clearly some of the people who lived [through] this must still be alive. Why not go and try to actually make an attempt to gather their stories?

The book speaks a lot to the inexhaustible nature of this conflict. As you state in the book, headlines written 10 years ago could very well be today’s headlines. To what extent do some of the book’s themes – exploitation, massacre, subjugation, occupation, disenchantment, survival – repeat themselves till this day?

I think you see a lot of those elements.

Palestinians are very weary of other Arab regimes. They’re weary of their own government. And I think you see that in the parts about 1956, about the Egyptian army not putting up much up a fight, and even the fedayee basically coming to the conclusion that the Egyptians were using them which is probably the case.

And today, you see the fact that a lot of Arab regimes give lip service to the Palestinian cause but then you see what the Egyptians are doing on the border with the help of the US army corp of engineers; obviously in their mind it’s clear the Egyptian government has thrown in its walk on the side of the blockaders. So yes, there are certain themes that are repeated.

What is your favorite scene?

The feast at Eid al-Adha revealed the importance of tradition [Joe Sacco]

The feast (Eid al-Adha). I got a break from drawing soldiers and bodies. But it was also such an amazing experience to see. I kind of wanted to throw the Western reader at this.

I almost passed out – it really made me queasy to see all this and I wanted to confront the reader with this.

I want to show everyone’s involved and the beauty of it: the slaughter and kids playing in the blood, the way they divide it [the meat] up and give a third to the poor.

For me that was really an amazing experience actually to something like that and to see how people hang on to their traditions, hang on to what makes them feel like a human being despite everything.

You cite a chilling quote from a 1949 Israeli foreign ministry report predicting what would happen to the Palestinian refugees: that “some will die but most will turn into human debris and social outcasts”.

That seems to have been in some ways a fair prediction, unfortunately.

Look at Gaza today. I mean talk about outcasts – it’s as if it dropped off the map. Cut off from everyone. No opportunity to get out. And let it dry out and fall into the sea as I think [Shimon] Peres [the Israeli president] put it.

Throughout the book, you weave seamlessly between past and present, massacre and house demolitions, as though for the people involved these events exist in the same plane or time frame. What have you learned about how the past influences the present in this case?

In some ways the past is sort of swallowed up by the present with the Palestinians because so much is going on now. Every generation of Palestinians has something that is simply going to stick in their claw, as it should.

All these experiences sort of add up. They don’t get transmitted as a coherent story. But they do get transmitted as bitterness from the parents. And each generation I think picks up that bitterness from the generation before it and has their own bitterness from their own situation to give to their children – and you know what we can’t expect more from people in a way. I think we’d all behave in exactly the same way.

This is not something you can just forget or [say] ‘let’s move on’ [about]. It has to be acknowledged, it has to be talked about. History has to be written not just by the victors, but by the people being victimised.

You were asked this question over and over again in the book: Why 1956 in particular?

Mainly because it seems like a very large event. This is not to downplay anything [else] that happened. But we’re talking about hundreds of people. We’re talking about taking people out of their homes, or shooting them in their homes, or lining them up against the wall or in the streets and shooting them.

I just wondered why this wasn’t a story I’ve been able to read about.

And in the end, you just become attached to getting the story; you go from sort of justifying in your own head why you’re doing it to feeling like you are after something come hell or high water.

And then in a way you become slightly ruthless in your bid to get it and in some ways you begin to lose site of … getting the story in some weird way seems to eclipse the story in your mind.

How so?

I think I’ve written about this in Christmas with Karadzic. You get into this mode of being a journalist so it’s something going off in your head when you get ‘the quote’. It’s your way of distancing yourself.

You’re working to get precise information and line up your facts. It’s almost like being a surgeon. In some way it’s necessary to be cold hearted about how you’re going to get the story, but there is sort of a dehumanising aspect. It was my own commentary on what I was feeling.

Many parts of the book seem non-non sequitur: a heady celebration by seemingly detached Western journalists in Tel Aviv; an Eid al-Adha festivity; the beginning of the Iraq war; checkpoint delays. What was that about?

I think the whole concept of getting the story would be interesting to the reader, because I want to demystify it a little bit and give the reader a sense that they’re travelling along with me trying to find these things out. I want to give the reader a taste of my experiences.

But beyond that, I was there at a very particular time and I think its valuable stuff to record.

One segment that stands out in my mind was of a disgruntled man trying to defend his home from demolition. The caption reads: “For the photographers his house is an image; for the militants, it’s cover; for the internationals, it’s a cause; for the bulldozer operator, it’s a day’s work.”

Yes, exactly. Even me, he sees everyone as kind of a vulture in their own way. And everyone can explain themselves. I could explain my presence there. But to him, it means so much more, and to him if I wrote him up in the story it’s still his home if it gets knocked down, that’s his life, his money. Everything is invested in there. His memories are invested in there.

Do you think the outcome of Operation Cast Lead would have been any different if it happened in 1956?

I would like to think it would be a big deal. But I mean we saw what happened during Cast Lead and what you realise is there were no mainstream Western journalists there. And that sort of says something right away. I mean Gaza to me is a real story but most journalists are based elsewhere.

I think enough images came out that it definitely didn’t make the Israeli version of events seem to add up. Perhaps less so, because I think the mainstream here tries to balance … to be so-called objective.

You’ve said you don’t believe in objectivity as it’s practiced in American journalism. Can you elaborate?

The reason I came to that conclusion is because when I was in high school what I saw on TV news and what I read in the newspapers gave me the impression that Palestinians were terrorists.

And later on I began to understand why. Every time the word ‘Palestinian’ came up on the news it was in relationship to a bombing or a hijacking or something else like that. And that is objective journalism: just reporting what’s going on. ‘This is a fact’ and leave it there. What it meant was that I had no education from the American mainstream media about what was going on there.

I knew nothing about the Palestinians. I didn’t know why they were fighting at all or what they were striving for. It never seemed to come up in the American media.

I want to show things from my point of view because I think it’s more honest in a way to be subjective. Admit your prejudices; admit those points when you feel uncomfortable in a certain situation. Just admit it.

And then beyond all that, I find it very difficult to be objective when to me there is a clear case of a people being oppressed. I’m not sure what objective means in a situation like that. I would rather be honest about what’s going on.

Which means perhaps the oppressed aren’t all angels – but the fact would remain that they are oppressed.

Your detractors say that your portrayals of the Palestinian conflict are filled with distortion, bias and hyperbole.

What I would point out is that I don’t sugarcoat the Palestinians. I don’t sugarcoat their anger, their vitriol. I don’t sugarcoat acts they commit that as far as I’m concerned don’t help their cause. I lay it out.

But what’s important to me is to get the context of the situation. What’s important to me is to tell the Palestinian viewpoint because it’s not told well.

Maybe we see Palestinian talking heads on TV. But what about the people on the street? What are they feeling? And its then you see their humour; you see their humanity; you see them being angry and you begin to understand why.

And I think that sort of journalism does a service.

That’s what I’m trying to get across. I don’t really think of it as biased, I think of it as being honest.

I’d rather put myself in the shoes of someone who’s bombed than someone who’s the pilot – I know all the glory goes to pilots and its very sexy and all that, but ultimately that’s not my interest. My interest is the people who are hurt.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?

The most challenging aspect was the sheer length of time it was going to take. When I realise it’s a very long and involved book I just sort of project myself a few years into the future and say “do I have what it takes to do this? Is this book going to keep my interest?” The length of time is difficult but the book seemed to be worth that sort of time.

The most rewarding?

The rewarding part comes in fits and starts. When you really have something in your mind’s eye and draw it right and I feel like I’m living and breathing it. That’s what’s rewarding – when you can sort of really feel it.

I hope at the very least what this has done is elevated the depths of these episodes to some extent so that people are aware of them and that other scholars or historians will get in on this. As far as the West goes this might be the first attempt to crack this.

There is a section titled ‘memory and the essential truth’. What is the essential truth of this conflict?

Generally speaking, you can fault people for their memory, you can say that all testimony does have problems, and people will put themselves in situations they weren’t [in] or exaggerate or whatever, but the essential truth is that many people were killed, and that’s what it comes down to and the overall arc of everyone’s story always sticks to that essential truth.

It took you six and a half years to complete this book. Why so long?

I would say the last four years were pretty much spent just drawing.

Given what has happened over the course of the past few years, did you feel frustrated in any way that your work may not be relevant to the here and now?

Yes, frustrating on some level but then I’ve stopped thinking of myself as someone who’s going to get something out and make an immediate change. What I do think [about] this book; you’re recording two things: One is something that happened in 1956, and the other is something that happened when I was there in 2003: the home demolitions.

You devote a fair bit of the book to those home demolitions in Rafah, though the main topic of the book is the massacres of 1956. Why?

I was a witness to what happened in 2003 and I think it’s valuable stuff to record.

At the time all the Palestinians were there were asking me: “Why do you care about what’s happened in 1956? What about what’s going on now?”

Well those home demolitions in Rafah aren’t going on anymore and have been overtaken by other events. So now do we just forget the people who had their homes demolished then?

The other important thing is to show that events are continuous. It’s almost like another injection into the Palestinian psyche of what’s going on – another pummeling basically. This is 2003’s pummeling. I’m writing about 1956’s pummeling. And in the midst of today’s pummeling. And I want to show that.

And that’s why I refer to a lot of things that happened in the early 1950’s when there were attacks back and forth and also what happened in 1967 and how people get all that mixed up.

They can never look back at 1948 and just think about that. There is no closure.

How do you decide how to visually interpret the memories being relayed and what, if any, filters to use?

I try to draw in a pretty representational manner. I did have to decide how much violence I was going to show. And my idea was I would show it pretty straight, I wouldn’t try to make it look spectacular or anything like that. Of course I’m a filter on that; I’m drawing; and I think that’s clear, but a film director directs his character and that’s kind of what I’m doing too.

One of your biggest supporters is Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir; Closed Zone), who has said you’ve had a tremendous influence on him. Who has been your inspiration?

From a writing perspective I’d say Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens with their book Blaming the Victims, as well as Noam Chomsky. Writers like that have helped educate me about what was going on.

In some ways, I felt like I was being thrown through a loop when I was reading their stuff because I never even considered some of the things. It was all sort of fresh and new to me. Some things felt like a punch in the gut mainly because I have never thought of it this way. From a cartooning standpoint, I think Robert Crumb [an American artist and illustrator].

It has been said that you have set new standards for the use of the comic book as a documentary medium. What in your opinion are its advantages and shortcomings?

It’s very labour intensive. Unless you really hone your style to something simple you can’t really talk about what happened just yesterday. I should say I can’t. The advantage is that it’s a very accessible medium people open it up and they are interested right away. How many people would pick something up about an incident that took place in 1956 in Gaza if it was in prose?

It has a certain strength in that it can take you back in time and it can drop you in a place. I can really set the reader right in Rafah or Khan Yunis and I can do it in the 1950s or in the present day. There is an immediate connection with Gaza when you open the book.

How do the people you interview respond to your method?

When I was first in the Palestinian territories, in the early 1990s, I was a little sheepish about things. But what I soon found was that Palestinians have their own hero, the cartoonist Naji al-Ali who told their stories with drawing and he’s revered (Sacco wrote the introduction to A Child In Palestine: The Cartoons of Naji al-Ali). It helped me in a way.

For this book, I was much less self-conscious about what I was doing or how I did it. They could open to the pictures of the Jabaliya refugee camp, and they sort of got it right away. They could see themselves in the drawing.

Pictures are a universal language. There was a direct connection to what I was doing.

What is next for Joe Sacco?

I’m actually finishing up something now – a 48 page piece on African migrants trying to get to Europe and landing in Malta. They are really trying to get to mainland Europe but they end up in Malta. And Malta is where I was born.

I went there I talked to Africans, I talked to Maltese. It has more government stuff than I usually do. And half of it is being printed in the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Laila El-Haddad is a Palestinian freelance journalist currently based in the US. She is co-director of the award-winning short film Tunnel Trade, which first aired on Al Jazeera’s People & Power.

Her blog can be read at