Joe Sacco Tries To Solve a 54-Year Old Mystery In 'Footnotes In Gaza'

​Joe Sacco's latest project - the 418-page journalistic graphic novel "Footnotes in Gaza" - was borne of an editor's harsh cuts. Working on a project in Gaza for Harper's Magazine, Sacco was amazed to learn that virtually nada had been written about the worst Palestinian mass killing in the region's long and bloody history. U.N. documents showed that hundreds died in 1956 in the villages Khan Younis and Rafah. But why? 

When a Harper's editor hacked out Sacco's initial detective work, that sealed the deal: Sacco had to know the truth. Years later, the result is a book packed with contradictory stories from Israelis and Gazans, all told in Sacco's trademark comic-book cum literary nonfiction style. Click through for a Q&A.

To tell the story, Sacco rented an apartment in the heart of Rafah's refugee camp and hung with freedom fighters like the admitted killer Khaled. In telling their stories and centering his book on two Israeli masscres, he undoubtedly draws sympathy for the Palestinians - a perspective that has drawn harsh rebuttals from Israeli critics.

"The problem with the perspective in the West is that if it's a Palestinian or an Arab narrative, it's automatically unreliable," Sacco says. "I reject that completely."

Sacco speaks at the Miami Book Fair International today at 2 p.m. in the Centre Gallery (Building 1, Third Floor, Room 1365).

New Times: As journalists we can sympathize with the origins of this book, which grew out of an editor's cuts, right?

Joe Sacco: For whatever reason, probably just for space, the initial work I did on this question was cut from our story. History is the first thing that will get cut in a story like that. But in telling the history, you help people understand how you got here to this point. It seemed incumbent to talk to those people portrayed in these U.N. documents that don't really conclusively state what actually happened. 

If some of these people are still alive, I figured, we should talk to them. I'll really investigate this to my best abilities, I thought. That was the work I did in Khan Younis. 

Why do you think this incident had been ignored for so many years?

That's a question I cannot answer. It's a topic, to be sure, that's been scoured by historians but the ones that are usually paid attention to are the Isreali historians. Even when they're critical of what the military has done, it's told from an Israeli perspective. A couple local historians who I sat down with gave me an overview of what happened in town, but these are people who aren't getting paid for their work. It's just a labor of love. 

I think in the West, we tend to trust Western, Israeli scholars inherently, and a Palestinian narrative will be automatically marked or dismissed.  But there's another component to this. I don't think Palestinians are particularly good at telling their own history. So many things are going on at so many different times that to concentrate on looking at past seems beside the point. We're talking about 60 some years of conflict. It's the present that interests them the. 

Did you run into a lot of resistance from the Palestinians you interviewed?

It was almost a mental resistance on their part because their whole lives are events to them. Why is that killing fifty years ago more important than what's going on today? 

But you know, what we tend to do in the West is ask, 'Why do they hate us?' Why do they look at us negatively when we're the honest brokers? If you pick up a paper today and read about some terrorist incident, you think it's out of the blue. It's a brutal and heinous act, no doubt. But if you actually want to undersand the context of the act, you need to know all the history. 

In your storytelling, you present a lot of contradictory narratives from those you interview. What's the thinking behind that kind of approach?

It was a challenge to tell this story, and there are a few ways to deal with it. One is to just smooth everything out. The other is to confront the reader with the contradictions. I wanted to demystify the process of getting the history together. People contradict each other. People make up events, even if they believe it happened to them. 

I've tried to be very open about the process behind my writing. That's just my natural inclination, to talk about what it's like to meet people and to report. I always think of the reader in terms of someone I'm sitting at dinner with, and they're asking, 'What was it like?' You try to explain the funny stories, too. This is a grim book. But it could be a lot grimmer without showing the humor and frustrations I went through. 

Part of it is, when I read news stories I always want to know the background. Foreign correspondents used to seem like demigods to me. How did they get there? How did the talk to that guy? It all seemed weirdly contrived. When you go and do this yourself, you realize, I'm really relying on this translator. I didn't want to readers to be as mystified. 

One recent review called this book "lighting on a bookshelf," and others have criticized your work for being too close to the Palestinian perspective. How do you respond to those critics?

I think that's the problem with the perspective in the West. If it's a Palestinian or an Arab voice, they distrust it. They say, 'This is unreliable.' But I reject that completely. Yes, some of these people can be unreliable. Just like any one from any culture can be unreliable. I do point out people in the book who don't go with general flow or who seem to be self-serving. I do point out where I might be willing to believe someone more than someone else. I understand there are problems with this approach, but it's hard for me to stomach the idea that Palestinians are inherently not to be trusted.

Also, as far as I could I tried to find documentary evidence. I don't read Hebrew, but I hired researchers to comb Israeli archives. As much as possible, I tried to find something from an Israeli perspective as well. I do think that with history, I doubt there's such a thing as a definitive account. Yes, my story is mostly reliant on Palestinian survivors. It doesn't mean an Israeli historian shouldn't also look at it from a purely Israeli perspective. There are good Israeli historians out there who have done just that.

Are you drawn to these kinds of stories, where an objective "truth" is really difficult if not impossible to find?

I don't know if I'm drawn to them, but I'm not afraid of them. There is an arc to my stories, and just because it's bumpy doesn't mean it doesn't exist. The story does have kinks when I'm talking to people. I can also be a filter. For instance, I'm trying to create these scenes in 1956, and obviously I wasn't there. I can get photographs of what the camps looked like, and I can ask what was this camp like. Am I converting it completely accurately? Probably not.

Any writer or storyteller who wants to tell a story should try to tell something new about it or there's no reason to tell the story at all. Unless you come up with some new way to look at it or new details, what's the point? What I'm drawn to is stories that you feel will be lost forever unless you tell them. These stories from Palestine will be lost forever when this generation dies. 

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink