Joe Sacco on Palestine

Al Jazeera speaks to the award-winning cartoonist and author of comic book, Palestine.

joe sacco

Sacco’s work often portrays Israeli raids as particularly brutal [Fantagraphics] 


“I had a difficult time finding a job in journalism … One  that remotely interested me … One that addressed the need to do something inspiring …


“I never thought of it as a career path; never even thought of it as a hobby. It was a passion … I would draw comics … but still wanted to be a hard news reporter…”.


As a result, Maltese cartoonist Joe Sacco, went to the West Bank and Gaza to spend time with Palestinians between 1991 and 1992. On his return to the US, he started writing and drawing the award-winning book, Palestine.

With a special edition of the comic book released in November, Al Jazeera speaks to Sacco about his experiences, methodology, and the 15 years since the comic book’s first release.

Q: What were you trying to do with Palestine?



“I like to tell a story … The way I tell a story is via comics”

Joe Sacco,
author of Palestine

I don’t really know what I was trying to do, but I think my impetus for going was that I felt the American media had really misportrayed the situation [between Israel and the Palestinians] and I was really shocked by that.

I grew up thinking of Palestinians as terrorists, and it took a lot of time, and reading the right things, to understand the power dynamic in the Middle East was not what I had thought it was… And basically, it upset me enough that I wanted to go, and, in a small way, give the Palestinians a voice – a lense through which people could see their lives.

There are two ways in which Palestinians are portrayed – as terrorist and as victim.

There may be truth in certain situations for both descriptions, but Palestinians are also people going to school, who have families, have lives, invite you into their home, and think about their food.

I’m deeply saddened by what’s going on there … the same is true for Bosnia. I was appalled by what was going on and went to see what I could do. I was compelled to go and do these stories, as this was the only form of solidarity that I could offer from within me.

There are so many things in the Middle East that I’m interested in – Lebanon, Hezbollah, Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria – but I feel that if I’m to pursue this course, I’ll need to learn Arabic.

Q: What was your methodology in creating Palestine?


I wasn’t sure what I was gong to be doing when I went to the Palestinian territories. I already had a minor career as a cartoonist and knew that was my direction.

I went thinking, well, I’ll do a travelogue of my experience there, but I knew I’d be talking to people and taking notes, so when I got there, I felt the journalist impulse came to the fore, interviewing people, getting stories, looking at the occupation and needing to do something about it.

So I began looking at major aspects of occupation, finding people who had those experiences and finding people with something to say about it.

It became methodical, but there were certainly more random aspects to the book. I let myself be pulled in many ways, with the mindset: “What ever comes up, comes up.”

I took photos purely for reference, and I had a sketch book with me but I found myself not really using it. My photos aren’t good; I only use them to have an idea of what things looked like as I mainly wanted to talk to people.


The book has a very organic feel. So many of my adventures were random. I’d get into a taxi to a certain city, and I thought: “Let’s see who comes up to me.” Someone was always likely to approach me and I’d say to them: “I’m here to see how you live, what your lives are like.”

More often, the Palestinians I met would say: “If you want to see something, follow me.” People at that time appreciated your interest in them and their lives, and were less worried or paranoid like they are today.

Q: Do you think your work tried to reconcile the differences between Israelis and Palestinians?

I wasn’t trying to reconcile the differences between Israelis and Palestinians. I wanted to show some of the small issues related to the occupation. In fact, I don’t think I showed anything spectacular.

I heard torture stories that were unusually harsh, but I decided not to use those kinds of stories, and instead something less shocking, something more of an “everyman” experience.



I think it’s the “everyman experience” that people can relate to. It’s harder to imagine; harder to put yourself in the picture of someone who is being humiliated.


For the average Westerner, the hooding of a detainee, stress positions, sleep deprivation … obviously all Americans know that goes on now, but those sorts of things go on in cells all over the world.


Showing physical trauma, psychologically, would make it more difficult to bond with the reader, which is what I ultimately wanted to do.

I’m more comfortable as a journalist talking about stories that were about the common man.

Q: Edward Said wrote the foreword for Palestine – how did that come about?

Out of the blue I received a book from him, Peace and its Discontents, with a nice note written about the Palestine release, when they were a series of comics. Allegedly his son had been reading them.


Some years later, when Palestine was released as a single volume, I was asked: “Who should we get to write an intro?”

I wrote to Edward Said, and said that I would be honoured if he could do it, understanding that he was unwell at the time and in fact, didn’t expect him to say yes. When he did, I was overwhelmed.

Q: Ever thought about turning this book into a film?

I don’t think the book, Palestine, can be made into a film. It’s too episodic. I’ve been approached a few times, but nobody has come to me with a legitimate way of making [it a] film.

I like doing comics. It’s the thing I’m good at and I get to work on it alone.

I am in 100 per cent control. I design the sets and lighting, I don’t need millions of dollars to do it. I don’t want a committee telling me how to produce it.


The great thing about my work, as a cartoonist, is that it’s a one man show.

Biography: Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco was born in Malta. He graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. His comic book, Palestine, won an American Book Award in 1996, and his graphic novel, Safe Area: Goradze, about his time in Bosnia, won the Will Eisener Award for Best Original Graphic Novel in 2001.

Sacco is currently working on a comic book about the southern Gaza Strip called Footnotes in Gaza, due for release at the end of 2008.

Pictures courtesy of Fantagraphics Books.

Source: Al Jazeera