Saturday, 17 November 2007
Devil in the detail
I have been reading Joe Sacco's Palestine, and I am very impressed.
Someone - a stranger - who saw me reading it remarked - a little sneeringly I thought - that it was an attempt at 'impartiality'. He didn't elaborate. I haven't finished it yet, and had barely started it at that time, but so far, I would strongly disagree. I will leave aside the literary arguments about the 'graphic novel' (Sacco himself prefers the term 'comic'. As he rightly points out, Palestine may be graphic, but it could hardly be described as a novel) form, and Sacco's authorial stance as device, etc., and focus purely on the political aspects of the debate.
To begin with, it is incredibly rare to hear any kind of reportage about Palestine and Palestinians. To hear anything at all which isn't to do with rocket attacks on Israelis, or Bushco, Olmert and the 'politics' of Hamas, Fatah and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
For me, as the late Edward Said pointed out in his introduction, the book's power lies in the way that it humanises the people who are embroiled in the horrific and degrading events in the West Bank and (worse) in the Gaza Strip. The portrayal is not of kuffiyeh-wearing fanatics or child suicide bombers, but of ordinary folk, drinking tea, talking about music, and enduring the extreme hardships of their everyday lives.
But by far the most moving sequence I have yet read is that which deals with the imprisonment and interrogation of a Palestinian man held in detention in the Occupied Territories. The man is violently arrested in front of his family in the middle of the night and taken to prison because he is suspected of being among a group of stone-throwers at a settler's home. He suffers terrible physical and psychological torture, being made to wear a hood, to stand for hours in a brace position, tied to pipes, or squatting. He is beaten regularly, made to listen to seemingly interminable loud music and deprived of sleep for days on end. No confession is forthcoming, no new evidence is found, but on returning to court, the period of detention is extended 3 times, so that he spends over a month enduring these agonies without charge. Such is the psychological damage that he begins to hallucinate that members of his family are dead and lying in front of him in his cell. At last, he is released - seemingly on the whim of a judge, which just happened to be different to the whims of previous judges.
I found all of this to be extremely affecting, and made me begin to think about the mechanics of these things. Clearly, the Israel/Palestine situation is incredibly complex, part of the wider geo-political situation, and it evokes powerful emotions. I have my views, but will save them for another day. What did strike me, however, was the detail of the torture. What kind of people are those who would actively carry out such acts against another human being? I don't mean those at the top who are responsible for the policies, because - not to excuse them for their pusillanimity - they are several steps removed from the reality on the ground. I mean the goons who micro-manage the torture, who administer the kicks, turn on the CD player, apply the electrodes, or (perhaps not strictly related, but I think relevant) pump seven dum-dum bullets into the head of a Brazilian electrician.
Much of the argument has already taken place, following the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, where the focus was on accountability at the highest level, but would posit the view that we should look in the opposite direction. If, as reasonable people, we want to stop this brutality, if we wish to move towards a world which is less evil, then I think we must focus on this question:
Who are the torturers, and why do they do it?