“It’s almost as if history bleeds”


Images from Palestine, Joe Sacco, 2001 

From The Believer:

The Believer: The notion of what history is, or how history moves, was implicit in your other books, but it’s explicit here. You talk about capital-H “History.”

Joe Sacco: History is a combination of a lot of things. You can’t isolate events today and say, “Oh, well, this happened—those awful people.” The acts might be brutal, but there must be a context to it. I certainly didn’t want to drop the reader into those incidents without telling the story of, well: Why are there refugees? Why were the Israelis and the Palestinians battling along the border? Who were the fedayeen? What was the Israeli response to that? But more than that, I think, for me, the book ends up being—this is going to sound strange—a dead end. Because I don’t know where to go from here, except to delve into human psychology. I think I understand how history works. I understand why one people are battling another people. I understand that they both want land. But ultimately there’s a level that I haven’t really got to yet. I’m touching on motive in places, like what makes someone pull a trigger? What makes one person beat another one to death? I know we can dehumanize people. Obviously, that’s the main thing. And I know we can fear them enough that we’d kill them before we think they’re going to kill us. There’s all that going on. But I think I need to go in another direction after this book. What am I going to do after this? Keep detailing massacres? For me, personally, I think I’m not going to get anything out of it anymore. I’ve come to the end of that.

BLVR: You mean in the arc of your career?

JS: In the arc of my understanding of why people do things and how things develop the way they do. It’s not that there aren’t other incidents I could detail and make a great book about—an interesting book. It’s just that for me, personally, it won’t lead me anywhere new, and it’s kind of about me on some level. If you’re a creative person, it has to be, I think.

BLVR: One thing I liked about Patrick Cockburn’s review in the New York Times Book Review was that he was saying there’s a real contribution here in terms of journalism and unearthing these events. The documents the Israeli researchers helped you work with—were they previously closed and classified, or was it just that no one had dealt with them?

JS: Perhaps no one had dealt with them. I had read bits of Ben-Gurion’s testimony, but one of my Israeli researchers found a newspaper that reprinted his entire response to the incident at Rafah. In a Chomsky book, I read a snippet of the story of Mark Gefen, the eyewitness soldier who talks about a “human slaughterhouse.” It was footnoted to a magazine back in the ’80s.
Someone found it, and then my editor translated the whole document for me. There is some new stuff in this book, definitely. I wish there was more.

BLVR: How did you find the people you interviewed?

JS: I went and I spoke to Israeli historians in Israel. You can go and look at the IDF archives, but it’s all in Hebrew. I did talk to military men, brigade commanders. One of my research assistants looked up people who are mentioned in different press accounts who were there, who died, and talked to their families. I mean, there was an effort to try to find something. But definitely I think an Israeli historian needs to really step in and take another look at this. One person alone cannot write a history of this sort of thing. I think you need many angles.

BLVR: It seemed like what you’re emphasizing in terms of the movement of history is the continuousness of the past and the present. That’s something that’s always fascinated me.

JS: You’re talking to people who remember it but get it confused with other incidents. It’s almost as if history bleeds. In people’s minds, one bit of history bleeds into another bit of history. Some people have a very hard time keeping straight what happened in ’67, what happened in ’56. And it gives you this idea, especially in the particular case of the Palestinians, that history hasn’t really stopped. They’ve never had the luxury of looking back and isolating things, and thinking about it and coming to terms with it. Whether it’s pure anger, or a feeling that they want justice… I mean, there are Palestinians who even said, “You’re wasting your time doing this. You’re wasting our time doing this, because the Israelis are bulldozing homes a few hundred meters away.”

“Interview with Joe Sacco”, Hilary Chute, The Believer