This review was written for the Palestine Chronicle.
This is not what you expect: an accomplished and self-reflective work of history enclosed within a layer of war reportage – in comic book form. But Joe Sacco’s “Footnotes in Gaza” is just that, an unusually effective treatment of Palestinian history which may appeal to people who would never read a ‘normal book’ on the subject. The writing, however, is at least as good as you’d expect from a high quality prose work. Here, for instance, is page nine: “History can do without its footnotes. Footnotes are inessential at best; at worst they trip up the greater narrative. From time to time, as bolder, more streamlined editions appear, history shakes off some footnotes altogether. And you can see why… History has its hands full. It can’t help producing pages by the hour, by the minute. History chokes on fresh episodes and swallows whatever old ones it can.”
The pictures – aerial shots, action shots, urban still lifes, crafted but realist character studies – work as hard as the words. Sacco depicts fear, humiliation and anger very well indeed, and often achieves far more with one picture than he could in an entire newspaper column. The cranes at work on a Jerusalem skyline are worth a paragraph or two of background. So is the fact that almost every Palestinian male has a cigarette in his mouth. And when dealing with historical process – the changing shape of the camps, for example – the pictures are more than useful.
Continue reading “The Spinning Wheel”
“We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere…
We have a country of words.”
A traditional Arab media operation, according to Abdel Bari Atwan, is “characterised by editorial interference from the owners, slavishness to social hierarchies, backstabbing and nepotism.” It goes without saying that all the Arab local-national press, TV and radio stations are controlled by their respective regimes. Only in the pan-Arab sphere, beyond the control of any single regime, is there a possibility of anything better. Yet of the pan-Arab newspapers, ash-Sharq al-Awsat and al-Hayat are owned by different branches of the Saud family dictatorship, while the smaller-circulation al-Arab is part of the Libyan regime’s propaganda apparatus. Even after the satellite revolution, pan-Arab TV remains tame and partial, fattened and diluted by Gulf money, often providing its viewers a contradictory diet of Islamic and American-consumerist bubble gum. The second most famous channel in the Arab world, al-Arabiyya, is yet another mouthpiece for the Sauds (during last winter’s Gaza massacre it became known amongst Arabs as al-Ibriyya, or ‘the Hebrew’). The most famous channel, al-Jazeera, is of course the model that broke the mould. Its challenging reporting and inclusion of all sides in open debate has had a revolutionary effect on the Arabs.
Al-Jazeera’s print equivalent is the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi, founded in 1989, seven years before al-Jazeera. It may not have the immediate impact or mass audience of al-Jazeera (it’s banned in most Arab countries) but with its cast of excellent writers, its fearless exposure of Arab regime corruption, its scoops (al-Qa’ida chooses to communicate with the world through its pages), its renowned culture section, and its refusal to bury news from Palestine behind the football results, al-Quds al-Arabi is indispensable. Rather than backstabbing, its staff have sometimes worked for no pay to keep the operation afloat. Its founder, editorialist and editor-in-chief Abdel Bari Atwan is as passionate and articulate in speech as on the page, and is admired by the Arabs for his call-a-spade-a-spade style on those TV channels which dare to host him, usually al-Jazeera Arabic and Hizbullah’s al-Manar. Atwan’s “The Secret History of al-Qa’ida” is a book-length account of his meeting with Osama bin Laden and of the development of the al-Qa’ida network. Now Atwan has written an autobiographical memoir titled with a line from a Mahmoud Darwish poem, “A Country of Words.”
Continue reading “A Country of Words”