Slowing down and sitting with silence: The limits of graphic witnessing in Footnotes in Gaza

Essay by Tova Gaster

Art by Keeley Sieben

In 1948, the Zionist military forces destroyed thousands of Palestinian villages, violently and irrevocably fracturing Palestinian society. The Nakba echoes through Palestinian collective memory and contemporary politics through the many displacements which have followed, most of which remain under-reported by Israeli-mediated historical recollection. One such suppressed massacre occurred in the city of Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip in 1956, when the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) killed 200 Palestinians, and injured and traumatized more. In his 2010 graphic narrative Footnotes in Gaza, comics journalist Joe Sacco aims to tell the 1956 Khan Younis massacre’s untold story via a work of history, a work of journalism, and a critique of both. His conversations with the community of Khan Younis and Rafah soon make it clear that it is impossible to meaningfully historicize the events of the 1956 without addressing the ongoing continuum of violence that continues to displace and traumatize Palestinians two generations later. Sacco’s depictions of Palestinian engagement with his project poses historiographical questions: Where does history (past) end and journalism (present) begin? And how can the investigative and narrative contributions of either usefully compel international political change in issues of systemic state violence? 

These are questions that have long occupied historical human rights scholars who aim to study the histories of systemic violence without flattening their ongoing and highly personal impacts. Footnotes in Gaza provides a meaningful example of how the unique formal features of comics historiography and journalism can ethically integrate past and present to impactfully engage broad audiences in empathetic readings of subaltern histories. I argue that the graphic techniques Sacco uses to represent the temporal cadence and emotionality of oral histories aims to facilitate embodied empathy in readers—bridging affective gaps between contemporary Western audiences and Sacco’s representations of Palestinian historical experiences. However, the concluding chapter’s graphic silence, unmediated by speech bubbles or by narration, usefully suggests the limits of embodied empathy as a vehicle for justice.

‘Everyday here is ‘56’: Political presentism against historiographical objectivity

Early 20th century European historians, led by David Hacket Fisher, coined the pejorative term “presentism” to criticize the historiographical tendency to insert contemporary priorities into historical narratives. Their critique aligns with the German school of history, which argues that the discipline should strive for scientific objectivity and focus on pursuing historical insight for its own sake, rather than limiting historical scholarship towards topics of current political relevance. It is certainly ineffective to read history with the assumption that historical figures acted with contemporary worldviews. However, it has become increasingly accepted for historians—especially those working in the public or literary spheres—to study the past with the intention of understanding and contextualizing historical wrongs to advocate for their redress.

Historian Jeffrey R. Wilson categorizes several varieties of presentism, including political presentism, which is described as “deliberately using concerns of the present to motivate our study of the past” or to advocate for political change. Political presentism requires that the historian abandon the nominally-objective approach which characterized norms of 20th century Western historiography by taking an explicit stance. Progressive branches within both history and journalism increasingly believe that apolitical objectivity is a misleading, even oppressive, standard. Historically, the “objectivity” standard has often implicitly positioned white masculinity as the predominant mark of rational authority, thus invisibilizing and normalizing power structures. This also relates to temporality: Some presentist historians suggest that a strictly linear narrative of historical progress is in itself a Western construction. Many cultures conceive and produce history through nonlinear narratives, often carried by oral histories and storytelling. More saliently, descendants of survivors of colonial violence who are still impacted by intergenerational and ongoing trauma often do not have the privilege of holding the past at a distance—rather, it is inextricably imbricated with the present. 

Footnotes in Gaza contravenes dominant academic agendas of confining history to the past by conveying Palestinian refugee experiences of history as an ongoing cycle. Each new injustice both reinforces historical traumas and obscures them by eclipsing old harms with new ones. Throughout the text, Palestinian sources repeat the sentiment that trying to ascertain the truth of what happened in 1956 is pointless, since similar massacres and dispossessions recur every day without time to mourn and to memorialize, let alone seek justice. One Palestinian man disdains Sacco’s insistence on hearing specifically about 1956. He displays recent bullet holes in walls and exclaims, “Every day here is ‘56!” The ongoing crisis of settler-colonial intrusion does not allow many internally-displaced Palestinian refugees the luxury of documenting and narrativizing their experience to produce what the western academic tradition would value as “history.” Further, literary scholar Charlotta Salmi analyzes Footnotes in Gaza as a response to the epistemic violence of dominant histories themselves. Israeli state narratives of history and the eye of the Western media—including the UN—relegate Palestinian experiences such as the 1956 massacre to the footnotes, and consequently categorize their lives as less valuable or “grievable.” Sacco brings these histories to the forefront

Footnotes in Gaza’s artistic method contributes to integrating current human rights concerns with their historical and historiographical violence. In one respect, Sacco’s presentist graphic techniques simply aim to represent the oppressive continuum of history communicated by Palestinian sources’ testimonies. But, in his mission as a journalist, he also practices political presentism with the aim to expose injustice and affect change. The question that sublimates throughout Footnotes in Gaza’s illustrated investigative journey, then, is how, and to what extent, can exposing past and present harm bring about justice in the present? Since Footnotes in Gaza has no direct ability to intervene in international political processes, one way that it aims to do so is through highly personal interventions into readers’ perceptions of Palestinian experiences with Israeli apartheid.

Graphic historiography and embodied empathy

Sacco aims to facilitate readers to empathize with the flow of time and the historical experiences of Palestinian subjects, approaching graphic history with an approach I term “embodied presentism.” While the 1956 Khan Younis massacre and the experiences of Sacco’s informants in 2010 may seem irrevocably removed from many readers’ experiences, the graphic narrative techniques in Footnotes in Gaza brings visceral consideration of ongoing Palestinian traumas into the reader’s ongoing present. I analyze this through his depictions of the facial expressions and cadence of his Palestinian sources as they speak, and the illustrated silences that remain when language fails. While readers may already understand or relate to Palestinian experiences of historical, historiographical, and ongoing marginalization, I specifically analyze the intent and impact of the text upon Western audiences, considering widespread analysis of its utility as a pedagogical tool. 

Scholars including Hillary Chute and Eszter Szép argue that comics’ combinations of visuals and text can affect more tangible and meaningful emotional engagement than conventional prose. This occurs not only through narrative, but also through the design features of comics journalism which inform how readers physically engage with the page. For example, authors can manipulate the pacing of the comics narrative by visually drawing out a moment into multiple discrete boxes, leading readers’ eyes to pause. Text, illustrations, style, and layout all present a more visceral portrayal of character’s emotive perspectives on their historical realities. Chute consequently argues that comics’ spatiality suits them well to explore embodiment, as their uniquely multifaceted visual impact can provoke bodily awareness in readers in tandem with the characters. 

Szép argues that Sacco’s comics and other similar works build a shared sense of vulnerability between subject, narrator, and audience. In interviews, Sacco has described that drawing each pose—of a man raising a club, or of a body crumpling to the ground—required physically identifying the muscle movements in his own body to understand how to represent their anatomies: “You have to inhabit other peoples’ pain or other peoples’ aggression … You are looking at yourself in the mirror trying to think of how that works, you know?” However, while the human state of mortal vulnerability is universal, the Palestinian refugee-specific experiences of displacement, colonization, violent trauma, and grief are not. Sacco, with his own illustrated effigy as a mediator, uses comics journalism to construct a tenuous window—between present and past, and between Western awareness and his representations of Palestinian experience.

Challenging settler-colonial effacement through portraiture and pacing

The Israeli settler-colonial project aims to efface Palestinian presence to justify the violence of history, which it repeats to maintain occupation. In this context, the basic act of illustrating people’s faces is an important and humanizing intervention. Memory scholar Nina Fischer observes that Jewish women’s comics about Jerusalem often omit Palestinian faces, illustrating a broader pattern of invisibilizing Arab presence and humanity. Instead, they only reveal Palestinian presence through the Arab landmarks in the city, or through indistinct crowds. Sacco seeks to speak back to settler-colonialism by directly reinscribing Palestinian faces into historical narratives, instead of marginalizing them as faceless footnotes.

In one of Sacco’s most impactful anecdotes, he follows a former resistance fighter wanted by the Israeli government named Khaled. While Khaled tells Sacco stories about the history of his community, Sacco also records Khaled’s related struggles in his present—clearly connecting historical and ongoing state violence through a highly specific and personal lens. 

Sacco uses graphic pacing to further connect his impression of Khaled’s internal temporality to the reader’s embodied reading experience. The majority of Sacco’s portrayal of his interview with Khaled occurs on the move as they walk the streets of Rafah, but the final portion of the interview rests on eight close-up panels of Khaled’s face as he lies on his back in bed. This contrast between the dynamic form of the respected militant on the prior page with the intimacy of his lined face in repose signals to the reader to slow down and linger on his words. Khaled describes how his criminalized status makes it impossible for him to leave the country, but neither is it tenable for him to stay. His hand rises to his face in grief as he says that he can’t explain to his daughter why he can’t come home, followed by a wordless panel of his face, eyes closed in exhaustion. In the next panel, his eyes are open and resigned: “…I expect to be assassinated, but now it’s taking too long.” By controlling and lengthening the pace at which readers consume Khaled’s words, Sacco’s portrayal aims to reflect Khaled’s experience of an interminable present, dreading and awaiting his own murder by the state. 

 Although Khaled is not speaking about the ‘56 massacre, the passage of time since Footnotes in Gaza was written and published in the early 2000’s renders him a historical subject. As a reader in 2022, although Khaled’s whereabouts are unknown to us, if Khaled is still alive he presumably remains targeted. To a reader engaging with his story through the medium of comics journalism, his present is ongoing — a reflection of historical injustice against Palestinians as a detemporalized traumatic present. 

 By redrawing Khaled’s features eight times, Sacco cultivates ongoing confrontation with Khaled’s humanity to reject a political discourse that devalues his life. Direct eye contact creates a visceral connection with the contemporary reader to produce an affective empathetic response: the past is both personal and present. Szép argues that in another one of Sacco’s works of comics conflict journalism, The Fixer, Sacco retraces sources’ faces as a project of ethical engagement — an offering of effort to show respect for their stories. Similarly, scholar Charlotta Salmi argues that Footnotes in Gaza produces “alternate frames” for recognizing the value and gravity of lives in historicized conflict zones for those of us who live outside of them. 

However, just as the capacity of comics to convey embodied empathy is limited, oral histories are by nature incomprehensive. Many experiences are forgotten, incommunicable, or unverifiable, which becomes especially clear when Sacco and his collaborator and translator Abed visit an elderly man to ask about the minutiae of his experiences at Khan Younis in 1956. When they ask the old man what happened at the massacre, what they call The Day of the School, he responds, “It’s very hard to talk about.” The lines of his speech bubble waver and dip low towards the floor of the panel, representing and instantiating a sinking sensation as the man begins to remember. From there, the page flows into four  silent close-ups of the man’s face. His expression crumples and he sheds a tear, wipes his eyes, composes himself. In the private space between each frame the man is clearly re-living intense tragedies, slipping backward in his own history in grief. The long silence and the gaps between each frame forces the reader to slow down. The gutters between the panels hold deep connections between his traumatic past and his unstable present. However, unlike other testimonies, Sacco does not show us the memories themselves. Instead, he allows the man the silence to reflect. This signals to the reader that some experiences are incommunicable, and some memories are as private as they are personal. 

Graphic witnessing and the limits of recognition

Until the final chapter, Sacco’s calls to empathetic presentism are tempered by a litigatory compulsion to seek the truth of what happened in 1956—to expose injustice at all costs. Sacco stuffs his narrative with emotive testimonies from a dizzying quantity of characters, which overflow seamlessly from the present to the past and back. He hopes to uncover the scale and the faces of a massacre which Israel has repressed, the wider world has forgotten, and which, to many Palestinian survivors, has slipped beneath the relentless waves of violence which continue to occupy their present. 

However, building a case of testimonials to verify the existence and impact of a massacre of innocent people only works within a legal system which promises justice. For a fifty-year-old crime by a powerful state which continues to carry out the same genocidal project, no such justice exists. In this context, empathetic engagement with historical subjects of ongoing genocidal violence can seem like a bleeding-heart exercise—what purpose does it serve to perseverate on a collective pain that most readers will never truly know, let alone have the power to stop? Sacco ultimately confronts this question of actionability with a claim to the significance of bearing witness and sitting with grief.

In the final chapter, the speech bubbles and Sacco’s narrative voice that interjects into them disappear. He draws the 1956 massacre again. The final chapter reinscribes lines that have become bluntly familiar to both artist and reader: the schoolhouse, where the massacre took place, the men on the ground, the barrels of guns. Sacco places the perspective of the narrator in the way of a club, which crashes into the panel at the implicit viewer. The final page goes black, bluntly and wordlessly suggesting the unspeakability of a historical trauma which so many did not survive. 

While the Palestinian survivors and descendants he spoke to live on within history’s continuum of violence and survivance, there is no empathy and no presentism for the dead. For a reader, the affective response that the scene of silent and senseless violence evokes does not produce a clear pathway for words—let alone for action. Here, Sacco demonstrates the limits of what experiences are expressible and understandable to those who did not intimately experience them. 


While this silence can be read as an act of memorial and respect, the blunt conclusion can also be read as an implicit acknowledgement of how limited awareness-raising can be to motivate change. Sacco’s slow silent walkthrough of the massacre is powerful, but a reader can just as easily flip through quickly and discount the panels for their wordlessness. Sacco’s text is an incitement to empathetic engagement, but by no means a mandate. Graphic novel scholar Rebecca Scherr argues that Sacco’s interconnected goals to raise awareness and to inspire empathetic engagement fit within the “politics of recognition”—visibilizing marginalized communities which dominant power structures seek to dehumanize. However, as Footnotes in Gaza’s inconclusive ending suggests, the politics of recognition only go so far. The assumption that knowing about atrocities will cause people to do something about them is naively optimistic. In the face of deep histories of state violence, scholars of critical pedagogy argue that it often does not hold true.

While insufficient alone, I would argue that awareness-raising about Israeli apartheid for North American audiences remains a meaningful action. The majority of the American and Canadian public remains if not uniformly positive, at least generally uninformed towards current events and history in Palestine. Vocal minorities continue to push Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) forward as a strategy for international pressure. Still, public apathy, ignorance, and political corruption allows Western governments to continue to sell arms to Israel. Footnotes in Gaza seeks to lay the groundwork for Western readers to grasp, through Sacco’s empathetic representations of Palestinian testimonies and temporalities, the on-the-ground history and ongoing reality of Israeli apartheid. There is no meaningful collective action without people understanding and emotionally connecting to the cause for which they mobilize. Cultivating empathy for marginalized people serves as a foundational, but by no means final, step towards creating an equity-motivated and politically-engaged populace.

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