29 November 2009
Notes on Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza
Joe Sacco, interviewed by Roger Sabin, at London’s ICA
Roger Sabin interviewed Joe Sacco in September 2009, part of ComICA at London’s ICA. Here’s the full transcription, exclusively for the Eye blog.
RS: Hello everybody, and thank you for coming. Before I introduce Joe, I’d like to explain how we’ll structure this evening: we’ll have ten minutes of general biography for those who might not know his work, and then we’ll get into his new book, Footnotes in Gaza (below), which is going to be published in December.
RS: So, welcome back to London.
JS: Hello. Thanks.
RS: I’m going to go through some slides of your early stuff, starting with this one, which is Yahoo. This dates from 1991, 1992, something like that?
JS: Yeah, I started out my career doing this series called Yahoo. I was kind of finding my feet with it. I did a comic about touring with a rock band – that was sort of reportage. And I did other more serious things. This particular comic was about the use of air power against civilians. There was a comic about my mother’s experiences in Malta during the war. She wrote it basically, and I drew it.
RS: It was at that time when we corresponded for the first time – oddly enough, my mother had similar experiences in the war. I think Yahoo actually marked the point where you got interested in the Middle East as well, is that true?
JS: Yeah, I was working in Berlin, making a living doing rock posters. I was breaking up with a girlfriend in the States, and the first Gulf War was about to start up. The comic is about the personal and the political and how they resonate and collide, that’s where I started getting more and more interested in the Middle East.
RS: So all the while you were developing this documentary style?
RS: OK. Just to backtrack, you were born in Malta in 1960.
RS: Then you moved around. Tell us about that.
JS: My family emigrated to Australia when I was just a baby, and we stayed there till I was about twelve. Then we moved to the States, lived in LA. I went to Portland in Oregon when I was high school age. I’ve moved around a lot since then, but Portland’s kind of my home now - back to being my home.
RS: So you identify as Maltese-American?
JS: The label’s kinda funny. I dunno. When I’m in Malta, I’m Maltese. When I’m in America – I guess I veer towards the American side of things. But I still feel a little, slightly uncomfortably out of place wherever I am.
RS: That’s no bad thing...
JS: No bad thing at all! (LAUGHS)
RS: Portland, Oregon - that’s where you did your degree in journalism?
JS: In a place called Eugene, which was relatively close – the University of Oregon.
RS: So in terms of journalism, who were you reading; who was influential?
JS: The biggest inspiration is George Orwell, especially the book Road to Wigan Pier. That had a big impact on me - just because he actually stayed where miners stayed and went down to the pits and all that. That was very compelling. I love the idea of going to a place and sort of putting yourself into it. Later on, obviously, I got some influence from Hunter S. Thompson and also Michael Herr’s Dispatches. It’s a book about the Vietnam War. He was originally writing for Esquire. What I liked about that book is that it created an atmosphere. It wasn’t about event after event after event. He really gave me a sense of the feel of a place; the taste of it.
RS: So this was the New Journalism?
JS: I guess it’s New Journalism. I didn’t know what to call it at the time, when I was reading it. But it appealed to me.
RS: And part of that was about putting yourself in the story?
JS: That’s right.
RS: And questioning the idea of objectivity?
JS: Yes. I studied American-style journalism and at some point that began to break down for me. Because I feel that in the case of a lot of topics, you can’t be objective. For example, when American or British journalists go somewhere, they bring themselves with them, obviously, and they bring their culture with them. And that isn’t often reflected in their stories.
RS: In terms of comics, you’re picking up influences from Britain and from America?
JS: I’d say my major comic influences would be people like Robert Crumb. He interested me greatly, and you can see it in my work. Who else? Early Mad, when it was a comic book. That was frantic stuff, with all these things going on in the panels. You can feel the obsessive detail.
RS: And as a kid in Australia, I guess boys’ adventure comics from both the UK and US?
JS: I read Battle - the English war comics and also the American war comics.
RS: Our next slide is the cover to Palestine – this is really the book that broke you. When we were talking about Yahoo, you were an ‘indie cartoonist’ but now you’re a ‘graphic novelist’. So it’s quite a leap – tell us about that?
JS: It actually came out of a series of comic books, and was then put in book form. I was living in Berlin. I’d been reading a lot about the Middle East. I was quite agitated by reading about it. I thought I should go and see events for myself. I didn’t want to go on an adventure tour. I had already started a career as a cartoonist, and I thought, well, maybe I can do a series of comics about this. I’d come out of an autobiographical tradition of comics, so it seemed natural. I just had the basic idea - I will do a story about my experiences in Palestine. It became a little more journalistic as it went on. When I got there, some of my old journalism training kicked in. It organically came together.
RS: This is an interior page, and this is you in the background [indicates]. That’s Joe drawing himself, for people who don’t know his work. Your drawing has changed quite a bit from then.
JS: Yes. You can pretty much say I didn’t know how to draw at this stage! I knew how to draw in a certain way. But I realised the material I was dealing in was pretty serious. And as I was working on this series of comics, I decided as much as possible I would tone down the cartoony-ness when it wasn’t really necessary – cos sometimes it is necessary. I would try to draw more representationally. It was difficult. Today if you look at my work, it’s relatively representational compared to this sort of thing. When you do a cartoon, you can capture a moment - if you’re just drawing people realistically, you’re not going to capture that sort of fury and anger.
RS: And again, it’s important for you to be there, because when you interview someone they respond to you.
JS: That’s right.
Above: page from Joe Sacco’s Palestine.
RS: There’s no pretence to some sort of third-person distance.
JS: No, no, coming out of the autobiographical tradition, I just naturally put myself in the comics. But then I realised that was a good way of alerting people to the fact that this was a very subjective viewpoint. And that my figure represents that this is a subjective work.
RS: How was the book received?
JS: It did really badly when it was a comic book. It sold to the point where I was surprised when my publisher kept it going. I think it sold about 2000. But then when it was collected into a book, after the success of my work on Bosnia, suddenly it just started selling. Now it’s kind of the biggest seller I’ve had. So eventually it kicked in.
RS: This is the book on Bosnia [Safe Area Gorazde], so could you explain about the follow-up?
JS: I just finished the last issue of Palestine, and a couple of weeks later I was heading to Bosnia. I’d pretty much go to places I felt compelled to go. When I went to Bosnia I didn’t know what I’d be looking at. I figured I’d go to Sarajevo, obviously. The town of Goražde was surrounded by Bosnian Serbs for three and a half years and heavily shelled. The people really were deprived, often in near-starvation conditions. While I was there, the Serbs were forced to open it up to UN convoys. And I had a press pass, and based on that, you could actually get on the convoy. So I went there and I fell in love with it. This was a place where people hadn’t told their stories. And also where, if you were a foreign face - you weren’t a UN soldier - to them this was an indication that OK, maybe the siege is going to break. I was being invited into people’s homes, and they were getting sugar and making cakes and things like this and dragging me in.
RS: How long did it take you to do the book?
JS: About three and a half years.
RS: How long for the latest book?
JS: The book I’ve just finished took about seven years. But I did a couple of smaller pieces while I was doing it. But pretty much the last four years I’ve been sitting at my desk.
RS: So it’s not exactly immediate journalism.
JS: No - that’s a slight problem with it! (LAUGHS)
RS: You’ve done other things too. You did a report on the war trials, which focused on Bosnia and the rest of former Yugoslavia.
JS: Yes, this was for Details magazine. It was a short piece about the Hague War Crimes Tribunal. And it was a good thing for me to go, because it somehow brought everything to a conclusion for me personally. Having been involved in 1995 and 1996, and finally seeing some people being put on trial. It’s always worth seeing people be put on trial for these sorts of things.
RS: Interesting. I’ll come back to that comment later, if I may. To the meat of the evening then. This is the new book, Footnotes in Gaza (below). It’s out in December, and is published by Jonathan Cape.
JS: The book deals with a couple of events that took place in 1956 in Gaza during the Suez Canal crisis. Gaza, at that time, was administered by the Egyptians. In this short war, which also involved Britain and France against Egypt, Israel occupied Gaza for about four months before the US – basically going back to when the US forced Israel to do anything – required them to leave. In that short period there were a couple of incidents that took place that I wanted to see if I could find people who remembered them. These things really haven’t been talked about much or written about in the English language as far as I know or knew. They are just mentioned very briefly, and usually referring to a UN report that talks about them and sort of says, well, the Israelis say this happened, the Palestinians say this happened. So I figured, well, there’re probably some people who remember it, so let’s go and ask. Also, like a lot of my books, it’s about the process of getting the story. So it doesn’t just take place in the 50s, it takes place in 2002 and 2003 when I was there.
RS: This slide is from the preamble to the book, and involves three things that I think are crucial. You’ve got the attitude of journalists, and a questioning of what journalism is. Then you’ve got the past, then you’ve got the present and the way the two eras are interlinked. Is the comic form something that you think is particularly good at that sort of juxtaposition?
JS: Yeah, rather than just reading it, sometimes your eye goes to the page and you have all these elements working at once. So they’re all working simultaneously. I think that’s why you can mesh different elements. You can also use counterpoint, especially when it comes to relating the present to the past. When I was there it was a period when there were a lot of Israeli incursions, home demolitions and also bombings of Israeli civilians. I’m putting those things together, then I drag it into the past. It seems like there are layers, and this book is about peeling back to a specific layer.
RS: So why did you go back to Gaza in the first place?
JS: I went back because in 2001 I went there with a journalist named Chris Hedges and he was writing, and I was drawing, for Harper’s magazine. And he wrote something about what happened in Khan Younis in ‘56. I tipped him off because I remembered it from some very brief reference in a Chomsky book. So I said, when we are in Khan Younis, you should ask some older people about this. He did, and he included that in his story, and it was cut from the magazine article. And that didn’t sit well with me. I thought, it’s funny how history is always the first thing to go. And obviously, OK, what’s going on now is interesting and important, but it’s got its context. People aren’t acting the way they do now because they’ve forgotten their past: they’re acting the way they do now because of their past. So I thought it would be a good thing to see if I could find something out about that.
RS: This is the opening page. Here’s where you talk about the political situation, and this odd alliance between Britain, France and Israel.
JS: And they all had their own reasons...
RS: But you’re not interested in that, particularly, are you?
JS: Well, I’m very interested in that. But other historians have dealt with it and tackled it, and quite well. I felt the need to describe the situation. My story isn’t about the big picture. It’s really about the incidents that get left out when the story of the big picture is told. I wanted to get into the stuff that is forgotten.
RS: We know this historical episode as ‘the Suez Crisis’ in this country – but it has different names in different places.
JS: That’s right.
RS: Your drawing style is much more documentary-like in tone.
JS: Well, in some ways what you see in your head translates more on to the page. But you never get it exact. And you have to realise that you have your limitations and you just have to live with them. But I think this [style] worked well for me. I wanted it to be relatively representational but on the other hand I never want to lose that cartoonishness that I think that helps people put themselves into that situation.
RS: This next slide is a rather lovely full-page image of the camp as it was in 1956. Presumably photo referenced?
JS: Yes, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is the agency that works with Palestinian refugees, has an archive in Gaza City. So I went there. They were very kind, they opened up their archive, and if they had a double of any picture they just gave it to me. So I have quite a nice collection of photos of refugee camps in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. A lot hadn’t changed up till about the mid-70s. There was some growth. Now the camps look quite different to this. They’ve become cities.
RS: ...And this [slide] is about what happened there. This was the first incident you concentrate on; there are two main incidents in the book. Tell us about this one.
JS: In Khan Younis on November 3rd 1956 the camp fell to the Israelis after a very, very brief battle. And according to Palestinians I talked to, Israeli troops went in and went door to door, took men out, lined many of them up and shot them; men of military age. And this is one of the incidents where one of the men told me what happened. They just lined them up in the street and shot them with a Bren gun.
RS: Bren guns bring an extra vicious dimension because they were heavy calibre weapons. As the guy says - you can’t really read it - but he comments on the fact that these bullets are ‘heavy bullets’. [Next slide] This is another scene from the same incident with bodies against a wall.
JS: This is Khan Younis castle, it’s on the main square there. According to people I talked to, many people were taken to this wall and just lined up and shot.
RS: You get a sense of the scale of the thing here...
JS: According to the UN, 230 male people were killed on this day.
RS: So smaller than My Lai, but significant.
JS: It is significant. Yeah, it’s significant.
RS: So are you quite shocked this hasn’t been written about much?
JS: No, I think there are many incidents in history that haven’t been written about. So I’m not particularly shocked. What was interesting to me was how often that young Palestinian people hadn’t heard this story. It’s very hard to keep family members out of the room when you’re interviewing someone. And it’s more difficult to interview an older person when his sons are there, and his grandsons, and little kids are there. They listen respectfully. Some of the younger men in their 20s said they hadn’t heard about this. Some of them said, ‘why are you writing about this, look at what’s going on NOW’.
RS: If you’re going to write about a massacre, you’re going to attract a certain amount of flak about whether this is Israel-bashing. How do you respond to that?
JS: What I tried to do was get as many eyewitnesses as possible. And I felt like I needed to be convinced by it. I think in the book I talk about the problems of the story, or certain people’s stories.
RS: Did you make an effort to talk to Israelis, to get their side of the story?
JS: I got two Israeli researchers to go through the archives to see what they could find. Which turned out to be almost close to zero about the Khan Younis incident: the second incident, there is something about that. There was one Israeli soldier who actually wrote about this in the early 1980s. And he wrote about coming across, as he put it, a human slaughterhouse. He had died, but I managed to call his widow. And she gave me the number of a guy he mentions in the story, and I managed to track that guy down. He really evaded the issue – he said he saw nothing himself. He finally told me that this guy was actually kind of a newspaper man. But he meant that in a pejorative sense. ‘Ah, he’s a newspaper man. He’s going to tell you lies anyway.’ So I include that in the book. It’s always harder to get stories from people who might have committed atrocities or seen them from the side that committed them. It’s always going to be more difficult. I think at some point Israeli historians have to step in.
RS: There are a couple: there’s Benny Morris.
JS: There are definitely great Israeli historians who have been detailing this sort of thing. I sat with Benny Morris and we talked about it. I called up every Israeli historian that I could get hold of. Some of them knew about the incidents, but none had examined it themselves. Benny Morris knew about it – he called it a massacre. And Benny Morris himself is actually quite right wing, but he’s a very good historian.
RS: So when you’re dealing with something as atrocious as this, is there a psychological effect on you? Does it take a toll?
JS: I got tired of drawing bodies. [LONG SILENCE]
RS: OK. Moving through the book, this is a page with a sub-heading ‘Memory and the Essential Truth’, which is about the process of gathering information – something there’s a lot more of in Footnotes than there was in your original Palestine book. So tell us more about what you’re doing here. You have several eyewitnesses, and what you seem to be doing is calling attention to the way that people forget.
JS: Right, there was one incident when four brothers were taken out of their homes and lined up and shot. But one of them actually managed to escape. And I managed to talk to him and talk to the widow of one of the men who was killed. And talk to a guy who was a little boy at the time. They tell essentially the same story about the shooting itself, and about how he escaped. I include a few of the differences. What’s interesting is that one of the brothers was badly wounded and he didn’t die right away, they took him into the home. The old lady described how he died, and also the young boy – this was all separately – described how he died. And the guy that actually escaped, his brother, told me he came back that night and was there when his brother died. But the old woman and the young boy say he wasn’t there. I bring that up because I want to confront the reader with the kind of problems I had doing this story. To me, the essential truth was that three brothers were killed. The fact that they remember it differently - or perhaps that one of the brothers feels like he should have been there when his brother died, and has kind of made it part of his own personal mythology - it’s not irrelevant, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that three brothers were killed. But I do want to confront the reader with the kind of problems with oral testimony. There are problems with oral testimony... Academic historians are always looking at documents. But I think there are problems with documents, too.
RS: This is very much about taking a story, getting several eyewitness accounts and corroborating the evidence. In the first Palestine book, there was criticism – it was lauded and it’s a fantastic book obviously – but there was criticism that you were believing eyewitness accounts too readily. Whereas in this book you’re not. It’s much tighter, it’s much more a work of journalism. Would you agree with that?
JS: I’d defend Palestine a little more in that nothing I put in the book was out of the ordinary. For example, I’ve got torture stories – I actually left out the ones that seemed a little out of the ordinary and left in the ones that seemed more typical – where the guy is tortured and kept awake. That sort of stuff was borne out by what the Americans did in Iraq. That’s typical stuff you do when you’re trying to break someone. It’s true though that in this one, again, I’m trying to confront the reader with the problems I had. But in the end I am trying to sift and get to the overall arc of the story. And when you talk to 20 or 30 people, who have seen the same thing separately, you can tell if something has an overall arc and is essentially true.
RS: Footnotes is nearly 400 pages long, it’s a whopper, and it seems as if you’ve given yourself space to do that; to explain the process.
JS: Right. Right, I think this story is important enough to do that.
RS: Now as you’ve said, some of the story is in the present, or the present as it was then, in 2002 or 2003. Tell us what was happening here [new slide].
JS: I was staying in Rafah, which is on the Egyptian border. At that time, the Israelis were saying - mainly because of the smuggling tunnels, which of course you’ve heard about since – that they were bulldozing Palestinian homes along the border because they claimed that tunnels were being dug from those homes to Egypt. Rafah is divided - there’s actually an Egyptian Rafah. And it’s true, there were and there are tunnels and there is smuggling. But I would say a lot of homes that were being bulldozed had nothing to do with smuggling tunnels. This page depicts that process. And that family, the next day I met them, and I actually got to be good friends with one of the sons from that home. He’s a big part of the story. That was kind of an indication to them that it was time to get their stuff out of the house; that their home was also going to be knocked down. The Israelis also claimed that either they were destroying the homes because a tunnel was coming from it, or something was fired from that house. But what’s interesting though, if you look at a map, it’s just lines of homes that are being bulldozed – they’re not leaving [the odd] one out there. We’re talking about 4000 people being displaced by the time I got there and many more after I left.
RS: So it’s as effective as bombing, then?
JS: It takes more time, it takes more time.
RS: And this weird crane thing in the background? That’s a drill?
JS: What it’s doing is drilling a hole. And I assume it’s putting a charge in, and then you would explode the charge to basically collapse any tunnel in the vicinity.
RS: So you picture these kids messing around while this is going on. Then all of a sudden an armed vehicle comes your way. I love this page, because you have fairly regular panels before then, and then you’ve got this, which is all about fragmentation and fear and chaos. Tell us about that.
JS: Which is why it was kind of good to tone down my work, so when you want to do something like this it stands out more. Kids are used to violence – they get into this frame of mind that they can show off in its vicinity. And these kids were doing it, certainly. Finally, this Israeli vehicle came racing towards us, and of course they’re clearing out. While a photojournalist – the craziest people I know are photojournalists – holds his ground to take pictures. But I wanted to get a simultaneous feeling with this. It’s hard to see here, but the captions are going down but they’re also going in a circular way. I wanted this simultaneous feel where you get a sense of: the armed vehicle coming at you, the photographer taking pictures, the idea that one boy is trapped - he didn’t get away in time and he’s sort of stuck - and the kids running away. At these sort of moments, everything happens really quickly. In the blink of an eye, a lot of things are happening. I just wanted to give the reader that feel.
RS: To stay with the kids then, one of my favourite pages in the book involves when they’re having a conversation with you. Things are a bit quieter now, and they’re coming on rather macho. They’re telling you how they want to blow up Israelis and tie bombs to themselves and this sort of thing. And at the end they’re looking at you for a response. And this guy in the final panel says, ‘So, do you like us?’ [Laughs]
JS: They’re kids, they want to be accepted. A few minutes before they were hassling me, and hassling another guy who had a camera, a foreigner. Fourteen year-old-kids are fourteen-year-old kids anywhere, I try to avoid them. And they were sort of picking on me. When it comes down to it, when they were sitting quietly, suddenly they calmed down and they want to be your friend. Young boys, especially, they don’t know whether they should throw a stone at you or greet you. [Laughs]
RS: Again, this is something comics do very well. The kids feature in a lot of the episodes from 2002 - they’re always there in the background. It gives you a sense of the place.
JS: If somebody’s a writer, how many times is he going to write, ‘and meanwhile, kids are at my heel,’ or ‘meanwhile, kids are in the background,’ or ‘meanwhile, there are kids everywhere’. In comics you show the background all the time. Then the reader feels it too, the reader gets a sense. You don’t say it once. Dramatically, it’s just there. And you just create image after image after image and the reader gets it, I think, after a while.
RS: The pages that focus on the kids seem quite mournful. Do you see them as a lost generation?
JS: I hate to make that kind of pronouncement. Gaza is not an easy place to live. When you’re that age, your possibilities are very limited.
RS: OK, so this is another slide. You’re trying to get some information. That’s you at the bottom there with your fixer - can I call him a fixer?
JS: I wouldn’t call him a fixer, he’s kind of a guiding friend – ‘fixer’ seems more professional.
RS: You’re hammering on doors trying to speak to these old people about these incidents. Sometimes they’re not coming up with the goods, and you’re getting angry with them, in a way.
JS: Well, not angry, I wouldn’t say it was anger. But I went there knowing I had about a month’s worth of interviews to do. Especially with older people, I knew that some of them go to the mosque five times a day - you make an appointment and they’re not there when you get there. Some of them had gone to Haj, and they get back and they’re tired, and they need a few days. You had to deal with this stuff all the time. I’m an impatient Westerner, I want to get to the damned story. I learned to try as quickly as possible to cut out the ceremonies. They’re very nice ceremonies where they invite you in - they want to talk a bit first, they want to let you have some tea, and that sort of thing. But in the bottom panel, I started asking people at their doorway, asking if they were there in ’56. What I didn’t want to do was sit down with someone for half an hour and find out he wasn’t there. There’s a lot of misinformation – ‘he was there for sure’. I go and I meet the guy and he’s younger than me! You just wanted to vet people sometimes.
RS: You’re not an innocent any more in this book. In the first Palestine book, you’re much more of an ingenue. It wasn’t as professional. But here you are being quite hard-nosed in a way.
JS: Well, ‘hard-nosed’ – I don’t know if that’s the word. I’ll accept it I guess. With the Palestine book - I don’t know how many of you have read it - but I’m bumbling around a little more, I’m a really naive. And that’s how I was at the time. But [by the time of Footnotes] I’d gained some experience, and it would seem out of place to portray myself in that same way. I’m a character that’s developing, just as my personality is. And yes, journalistically speaking, I feel I know what I’m doing a little more, I’m much more purposeful. Palestine was much more organic. I would go to a town like Nablus, and whatever I found I would write about. I am looking for something specific in this one.
RS: It’s a much more mature work in every way, I think. And this is you shaping and selecting what you’ve got.
JS: Right, what is good was that my guide and friend Abed, he really got into this story too. He started evaluating people’s stories. And being a Palestinian himself, he would say, ‘You know, I don’t really believe this guy’s story, I think he’s exaggerating.’ He was one of those bullshit filters I kinda needed. My feeling was, if he said, ‘I don’t believe that guy’s story,’ as far as I was concerned, that was a veto. So we would discuss this stuff a lot. I made this chart – it was kind of ridiculous in a way. There were so many people and I couldn’t remember their names. I’m not good at remembering long Arab names. I would just number the people and say, what do they remember about this, this and this? It was like a chart broken down, so very quickly I could compare stories and see what each person was saying.
RS: And the bigger point is obviously that history is about selection and shading.
JS: It is completely about selection. I’m sure most historians can tell you that. They have to decide in the end what goes in and what gets left out. You realise you’re actually leaving stuff on the cutting room floor that’s history. And you just say, well, that’s just how it has to be.
RS: OK, this is the second incident in the book, from the second half of the book. This happens somewhere else in Gaza?
JS: The first instance that I mention took place in Khan Younis, the second took place in Rafah, which is the town to the south. And it’s really the main focus of the book. This was about ten days after what happened in Khan Younis. In this case the Israelis were screening for Fedayeen – for guerrillas. And the book tries to set up the context of perhaps why the Israeli response was so harsh. The Fedayeen were crossing into Israel and making attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. Israel was clearly making incursions, and giving them twice or three or four times as much. But when the Israelis took over Gaza, they decided, at least in Rafah’s case initially, and later everywhere, they decided they were going to screen for Fedayeen. And also for Palestinian soldiers in the Egyptian army who had simply slipped out of their uniforms and just gone back to their homes. So they gathered all men from the ages of say 14, 15 up to about 65 or so. They pulled them together in a school. And they made them run down this corridor of soldiers, which led them to the school.
RS: These images are very reminiscent of depictions of the Holocaust, aren’t they?
JS: I don’t relate any of this stuff to the Holocaust. I just think this is the way armies do screening operations. The Holocaust is its own thing, this is its own thing. This, as an incident, is certainly a horrible incident. About 110 men were killed. Of course, in the Israeli version, which is in the UN report, loudspeaker vans were going around the camp, saying all men report to the school - that sort of thing. And some men hadn’t heard, and they heard late, and they started running to the school. According to Israeli versions, Israeli soldiers panicked when they saw this crowd running at them, so they just started firing. So I started thinking, how many people killed does it take to stop a crowd? I don’t think it’s 110. So that just seemed odd to me. The Palestinian version is just basically that they were shot at as they were running, which is, I feel, truthful.
RS: And here is an image of that.
JS: This is a famous incident in Rafah where a group of men were shot as they were running. One of them survived with, he claims - and I’m sceptical of this - 35 bullet [wounds].
RS: How would he count them?
JS: That was my question. He was obviously badly wounded. He basically made a joke of it when he was talking me. But he was left for dead.
RS: Here is the follow-on from this incident. You see these Israeli troops with clubs.
JS: Along the way the Palestinians were kicked and hit with rifle butts and clubs, and some, it seems randomly, were shot.
RS: And here again [new slide].
JS: At the gate of the school there were two or more Israeli soldiers with large clubs, that were clubbing people as they came. Almost every single man I talked to remembers this very vividly. This is kind of the horrible part of the story in a way, because they all remember this. A number of men were killed at the school gate.
RS: The guy here in the middle, the old guy, holding his head, he’s actually ‘in the moment’.
JS: He’s telling me and I’m showing the moment.
RS: So there’s no panel division, because he is living it.
RS: Very powerful. And this old guy, he doesn’t want to remember, does he.
JS: He was young. Some younger kids, as young as twelve went because they were afraid – to see their older brothers and father leave their house scared them, so they wanted to go with them. So a number of kids made it in too. But he didn’t want to talk about it. I actually visited the school, which was built by the British in the 30s. It’s essentially the same school. And it’s still a school. He was the gardener there, and he was at this incident.
RS: But he says to you, other people remember this better than me, go and talk to somebody else.
JS: That’s true, and he might have just been being honest.
RS: But you’ve still got him in that final panel.
JS: Right - yeah, there’s a final panel where I have him in the present day, and behind him is the scene that would have been behind him as he was talking to me. Then I sort of segue into what’s going on in ’56.
RS: To the schoolyard?
JS: They were crowded-in, and they were made to sort of lean forward and cover their heads. For a long period there was constant firing over their heads, obviously to shake them up. A lot of the old men were describing it, and so I’m showing the scene in 1956 as the big panel, and in the little panel I showed how a number of the men would actually demonstrate to me how they were sitting. I’m constantly trying to put the present and the past together.
RS: This is back to the present, when you were there. This is the outbreak of the second Gulf War, isn’t it. You happened to be there just at the wrong time.
JS/RS: [both] Or the right time! [Laughs]
JS: I was there when the Gulf War started up, the second one.
RS: And these are the kids, and they’ve got pro-Saddam posters. They’re burning models of American planes . . .
JS: American and British planes and tanks, yeah.
RS: So what was your attitude – did you say that ‘I’m Maltese!’? [Laughs]
JS: You know, there were some people from the International Solidarity Movement there, so they knew some foreigners. But no-one was bugging me. I was always with people who were trusted in the community. There was none of that feeling. And Palestinians always told me they separated governments from the people, like the American government from American people.
RS: So you didn’t take any heat there?
JS: No, I never took any heat from Palestinians.
RS: But you did get shot at by Israelis? [New slide]
JS: I can’t say that I was shot at. I think they were warning shots, basically.
RS: Right. But these are tracer bullets going over your head.
JS: Right, it lets you know it’s there, it lets you know which way it’s going.
RS: And is being shot at a badge of honour in the macho world of war reporting?
JS: No, I was trying to show how foolish I was where I ran, because everyone else ran the other way! And where I ran was in the line of sight. So, they were laughing at me. Not very macho! [Laughs]
RS: This is the end of the book, and these are the Israeli hearings into the incidents in ’56.
JS: They weren’t really hearings. There was a report that was made that my researchers couldn’t find. Just references to a report. David Ben-Gurion, then Prime Minister, spoke at the Knesset. The Rafah incident was brought up by a Communist member of the Knesset. What’s kind of heartening in a way is the number of Israeli politicians who wanted to find out what happened in Rafah. There was a motion to debate – it was defeated pretty heavily. But there were some Knesset members that wanted to know. And my researcher managed to find some secret document that hadn’t been released until this point, where Moshe Dayan, who was the Israeli general at the time, basically in charge of the armed forces, he talks about it. But it seems that even in talking to the Knesset members in a closed-door meeting – I don’t know if he didn’t know or not – but what he describes seems to be sort of a watered down incident. And it had to do with Palestinians breaking into the UN stores while there was a change in shift, or one unit was replacing another. Basically saying, there was a riot by Palestinians: Palestinians were being unruly, we fired on them. And there’s a letter from Golda Meir that I happened to find in the UN archives in New York, where she said ‘Unfortunately there were casualties among the mob’, which is the title of this particular chapter. But I wanted to have the Israeli points of view, the official points of view - there are a number of them. Finally, the UN account, which reflects the Israeli position, was that Israeli soldiers panicked because of this running crowd and just fired into them.
RS: And that final panel is of Israeli troops fleeing in terror.
JS: Yes. Fleeing. And then some of them fired.
RS: So this is another side of the story. That brings us to the end of my slides. My final question for you is this. We’ve been talking about war crimes. I know you’ve reported on the Hague and so on. Should we be hunting down the people that were responsible for this? Should we be hunting them down like old Nazis, old Serbs? Should there be a trial? Would that in any way help the peace process?
JS: I think it’s important for people to know historically what happened. But I don’t know. I don’t think that’s for me to say, really. First of all, there are strict lawyerly guidelines about things like that. It’s more important to me that the information comes out. Both sides need to know what the other side has done. Out-and-out war criminals – you could say there are some, in this case. As for whether they should be tried or not, that’s something I can’t really say. It’s more important to me that people know what happened. I kind of want this book to be a shot across the bows of Israeli historians – OK, prove me wrong; or come up with something else; or let’s hear the Israeli version. That’s more important to me.
Joe Sacco, interviewed by Roger Sabin, at London’s ICA, 29 September 2009
A preview of Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza (Jonathan Cape)
As part of ComICA 2009 www.comicafestival.com
With many thanks to: Paul Gravett and ComICA, and Joe Sacco.