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For Mohammed Ziad Awad Salayma, age 17, killed on his birthday (12-12-12) because, being hard of hearing, he did not understand Israeli soldier Nofar Mizrahi, who shot him at point blank range.
There is something hapless about Guy Delisle’s character in his comics. He is the husband of an Médecins Sans Frontières worker, Nadege, whose postings to Myanmar and Israel-Palestine provided the opportunity for their family (including children Louis and Alice) to see the world. Delisle had itchy feet before these spousal appointments. He had been to both China and North Korea as part of his work as a supervisor of animation work. These resulted in his quirky, but informative comic books, Shenzhen (2000) and Pyongyang (2003). When I first read these, I was put to mind of the work of Joe Sacco, whose Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992-1995 (2000) and Palestine (2001) is the gold standard in political comic journalism. Delisle’s work is no less serious than Sacco’s, but there is a major difference. Both put themselves into the frame, but Sacco is there to break the idea of objectivity and to offer his critical voice as antidote to the saccharine way in which conflict is too often recorded (this is consciously laid-out in his new book Journalism, Metropolitan Books, 2012). Delisle is also in his books, but he is the clueless observer who bumps into things, is silly with those whom he encounters and through the fabric of everyday interactions is able to reveal something about places that are so rarely understood by those who do not make the studied attempt.
The “Delisle” in the books finds his voice when he becomes a father, as he goes with Nadege to her posting in Myanmar with young Louis and then to Israel-Palestine with Louis and Alice. In both books that resulted from these tours (Burma Chronicles, 2008; Jerusalem, 2012), Delisle is seen pushing a stroller, wondering about daycare and parks, trying to find a way to entertain himself between the delightful tedium of parenting full time and the exciting cultural worlds that surround him. His Myanmar book is filled with small details of the privileges of the paranoid kleptocracy that rules the country and the privations of ordinary people, interspersed with the stories of the simple joy of living. But then, out of nowhere, the politics breaks through. Delisle is taken to the northern town of Hpakant, in Kachin State, where he finds that workers in the Chinese-owned jade mines receive their wages, he is told, in heroin. For a small price, the workers visit the “shooting galleries,” which the government allows since drugs are a good pacifier for a region that is otherwise home to a major insurgency. The naïve dad becomes the documentarian of callous suffering.
If I were the Israeli government, I’d have done some research on Delisle before letting him into the country. With his family, Delisle moves to Jerusalem for 2008-09. While Nadege is at work at MSF in the Palestinian territories, Delisle uncovers the everyday inequities of Israel. The family live in East Jerusalem, part of the occupied territories,
which are held in developmental stasis – they find a population devastated by the “separation wall” and by the constant presence of the Israeli forces. Meanwhile, across the various green lines, Israel is, as the Israelis like to say, a little bit like Europe. The stark divides are revealed through the light touch of the inconveniences of life for a parent trying to raise his two children. And of course Delisle is well aware that his is only a temporary condition, and that he has the advantages of the NGO foreigner. Parts of this book reminded me of Nicolas Wild’s Kabul Disco (HarperCollins, 2009), a vision of a war-torn city from the standpoint of an NGO worker who is trying to navigate everyday life.
But then Israel begins Operation Cast Lead. Nadege is called to Gaza, but her MSF colleagues cannot get in. Israel has closed the Strip. It is through their experiences and the Al-Jazeera journalist Ayman Mohyeldin’s reports that we hear of Gaza. It is the outpost – the no-man’s land. But the war on Gaza punctuates the book. It is the ellipse. The rest of the book goes back to documenting the suffocation of the
Palestinians by the Israeli state, the emergence of a dogmatic nationalism in Israeli society and the conundrums of the expatriate who feels deeply for the victims but can do little for them. At a party of expats toward the book’s end, Delisle is asked about art projects in the Palestinian territories. “Getting into North Korea was easier,” he says. He would know.
Inside Gaza, during Cast Lead, there was no room for ambiguity. Fida Qishta, born and raised in Rafah, took to the video camera and held fast to it to document her world. Snippets of her professional work as a marriage videographer show us how people living under such a long occupation remember to find joy. But near them in this painful meditation of a film, Where Should the Birds Fly, the humiliation of survival creeps in. Scenes of ordinary farmers and fisherfolk trying to do their trade while Israeli snipers and gunboats shoot at them get straight to the point. All those who talk of Hamas rockets being fired into Israel should take a look at this section of Qishta’s film, where there is a banal, even tendentious use of the gun to degrade and frighten unarmed Palestinians as they try to make a living. Bulldozers and border crossings make it impossible to lead lives.
Then comes Cast Lead. It is a good thing that Qishta has her camera and that she is so brave. The scenes are disturbing and honest – there is nothing manufactured about her film. We are there on the day (January 18) an Israeli attack killed forty-eight members of the family of Helmi and Maha Samouni – whose house in Zeituon, in the suburbs of Gaza City, was bombed and then occupied. The departing Israeli soldiers left behind love notes to Palestine, graffiti in Hebrew and English: Arabs need 2 die, Make War Not Peace, 1 is down, 999,999 to go, Arabs 1948-2009. Qishta went to see fifteen-year old Ayman el-Najar in Naser Hospital in Khan Younis, victim of an Israeli bomb (which killed his sister). He shows Qishta his wounds, his body wracked by white phosphorus burns (the graphic image seers). Qishta takes refuge at a UN compound, shelter to fleeing Palestinian families. Israeli F-16s release their bombs, some land on the UN buildings, the night resplendent with the white phosphorus traces, beautiful in the sky, barbaric on the skin.
Then we meet Mona. She is the highlight of this disturbingly accurate film. At age ten, she is Qishta’s guide into the suffering and resilience of Gaza. Her farming family were herded into a neighbors’ home by Israeli troops who accuse her brother of being with Hamas; the home is then bombed from the sky. Qishta asks Mona how many people in her family died that day. “In my immediate family?” ask Mona, innocent to the gravity of the answer. So much death, but she appears resigned and wise. “If we die,” she says gravely, “we die. If we survive, we survive.” She shows Qishta a drawing she did of the massacre. “It was a sea of blood and body parts,” she says. “They took the most precious beloved of my heart,” meaning her parents. She points to a person in her drawing, “This is Palestine. I drew her bleeding.”
There is a scene by the beach. Mona is telling Qishta about her feelings. It sounds to my ear like a child’s version of the kind of grand horizon of Mahmoud Darwish:
I really love the birds because they have freedom,
They fly, they sing, and they travel.
In the morning, they chirp.
Here in Gaza we are like caged birds.
We can’t fly, breathe or sing.
We are locked in a cage of sadness and sorrows.
I wonder if Delisle would have been able to maintain his detachment if he had met Mona. I wondered this as I thought about how I had watched Qishta’s film. Did I watch it, and then turn away, feeling the overwhelming futility, escaping into something mundane? Can I bear the weight of what young Mona carries, the devastation of her loss?
Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press).