Review: Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco

There are words I’m familiar with but don’t have any personal knowledge or experience of: blockade, Kalashnikov, fedayeen, Gaza, Palestine, Israel.  These are words from a different world and maybe even a different time that are far, far removed from my own suburban American experiences.  I don’t know what it’s like to watch my family and friends gunned

down or what it’s like to see my house bulldozed down because of tunnels that possibly exist underground.  I don’t know what it was like 50 years ago to have been herded into a school just because of my nationality because of who I may or may not have known.  I don’t know what it’s like to have to duck bullets or listen to the bombs exploding in the distance.  I don’t know what it’s like to be so hated that I’m physically and mentally persecuted just because of my nationality or where I live.  That’s why the work of Joe Sacco is so important; he lets us know what it’s like.  Sacco tells the stories of the people who have to live with that reality and fears every day, whether it’s in Bosnia or in Palestine and the Gaza Strip.

Sacco’s new book Footnotes In Gaza may be Sacco’s most fascinating work to date as he explores 1956 in the Gaza Strip, presenting two massacres which he believes have just become “footnotes” in the history of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.  In two separate events that year, the U.N. reports on the mass killings of over 300 Palestinian men by Israeli soldiers but history seems to have forgotten these events.  Traveling to and living in the Gaza Strip for a number of months, Sacco interviews people who lived through 1956, who remembered the events in the cities Khan Younis and Rafah.  Through the memory-faded recollections of many people, Sacco tries to reconstruct the 50 year old events in the two towns, wanting to  give a voice to the people who lived and died in these forgotten massacres.

Like any good cartoonist or good journalist, Sacco tells stories.  More than the reporters embedded in war zones who are just trying to produce 3 minute snippets or a few inches of text that will just be buried among other reports of Iraq, President Obama, the Taliban or, worse yet, Jon & Kate, Sacco recreates the experience for his readers.  Through his books, I’ve experienced even just a small part of the wars of the last 15-20 years that no one wants to talk about.  He’s been on the ground in Palestine and in Bosnia and told us what that’s like, who he met and how they lived.  He’s made real the events that maybe get reported on the 11 o’clock news only if it is a real slow news day.

Sacco’s exploration of 1956 Gaza is a fascinating one because there are no easy answers or even easy questions in his book.  Fifty years is a long time and people’s memories change, which is evident in the different and sometimes conflicting tales he’s told by people who were supposedly there.  One person could tell him one version of the Khan Younis massacre while a block over, someone could have a completely different take on the events.  Sacco sifts through numerous interviews and recollections of those days, trying to reconstruct what happened but no two people ever seemed to remember events the same way.  While Sacco insists to the people that he’s interviewing many times during the book that he’s only interested in 1956 and doesn’t want to hear about events from 1963 or even three years ago, over half of the book focuses on Sacco’s journey in the present day to find the truth.  We follow him and get pulled into the investigation with him as he shows us the trials he had to go through to find reliable sources and to put their stories together.

The past and the present collide in Sacco's story.

Even as he says he is only interested in 1956, it is quite clear that he is just as interested in the Gaza Strip of today, maybe even more so.  We hear about the Gaza of the past through his interview subjects’ stories but we see the Gaza Strip of today through Sacco’s own, personal experience as he relates it in his book.  There’s the constant struggle Footnotes In Gaza has between the past and the present, between the story that Sacco wants to tell and the story that he actually ends up telling.  He wants to tell the reader about 1956 but he ends up enlightening us much more about present day life in the Gaza Strip as he interacts with both soldiers and civilians while hunting down his story.

It’s troubling to see 1956 and the 2000’s held up as a mirror to each other because you’re left asking “what has really changed?”  After 50 years, the same hatreds fuel both sides and the destruction has gotten worse.  Sacco doesn’t want to just show the killings in 1956 because he shows the constant fear, oppression and anger that the Palestinians live with today as they have to duck bullets and bomb from the Israeli forces.  He shows us the Palestinian homes that are bulldozed down on a daily basis by the Israeli’s, who fear tunnels and insurgents.  This is what people live with, what they know and that’s what Sacco always excels at showing his readers.  Through his words and pictures, he shows us what these people have to live with and how they have to survive.  He makes their stories more than just a 30 second sound clip on some cable news network show.

There’s the span of 50 years between Joe Sacco and the incidents that he wants to write and draw about.  There’s 50 years between the events of 1956 and people’s memory of those events.  There’s 50 years where nothing has gotten better; the Israelis and the Palestinians still hate each other maybe with an ever growing intensity.  Joe Sacco’s Footnotes In Gaza lives within that 50 year span, connecting the beginning and the end of it.  He makes the minor events of 1956 have some meaning for his readers of today and he tries to make the people who died then and the people who die now more than just footnotes in history.  Through his pen, we find the people of our world and can only come away stunned by what one man is capable of doing to another man.

Footnotes in Gaza is available on

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