Henry Holt and Company recently sent me a complementary advance, prepublication review copy of Joe Sacco’s history in graphic novel format Footnotes in Gaza.
This may be one of the most heart-wrenching books I have ever read. This well-researched history relies on both interviews with eyewitnesses and official documents to provide the information for its powerful telling of a bloody event in 1956 in Gaza when 111 Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli soldiers and many others wounded and scarred. Some call it a massacre, others a dreadful mistake. No one disputes the number of dead nor the painful events of one incident in a long and difficult struggle.
This book is written from the perspective of a historian who is seeking the facts of an event that happened a full 50 years before the research began and shows his struggles with differing accounts, even from people on the same side of the conflict, and the difficulty, or perhaps impossibility, of separating the events of previous generations from the events of the current day. The people involved are human, fallible, full of pain and longing for safety, security and a life of peace.
To tell the story, Joe Sacco uses powerful drawings and shows an impressive understanding of the comic/graphic art style. Every word and image are vital. Not one moment of the reader’s time is wasted. My full attention was on the book from the moment I picked it up until I (grudgingly) had to put it down to do something else. This was true until I finished reading the final page. The author spent a significant amount of time in the Gaza Strip, living in refugee camps and towns with Palestinians. He conducted many interviews and took hundreds of photos while staying in people’s homes and walking the very streets where the events occurred. This dedication shows in the final project which is written and drawn with a voice and perspective that is unparalleled in my research on the region (which is extensive).
This, and other events in the region, deserve far more attention than they receive, but not merely from the angle of politics and warring opinions. These are not covered in this book. Rather, what needs to be seen and understood is how real people and their lives are affected. This book shows that in a way that never succumbs to sappy attempts to provoke pity. It is a dispassionate and clear sharing of personal memories from diverse sources of one main event, often pointing out moments of disagreement or comments that could not be corroborated. It is the events, not any attempt to manipulate the reader, which provokes the response.
If you only read one book about history and foundations for current day conflicts in the Middle East, read this one. I give it my highest recommendation. I will also warn you that it is the first book in a very long time that genuinely moved me to tears, so be prepared.