Fig. 1: Sacco, Palestine, 127
Fig. 2: Sacco, Footnotes in Gaza, 119
Fig. 3: Sacco, Footnotes in Gaza, 386
Fig. 4: Sacco, Palestine, 11
Fig. 5: Sacco, Palestine, 16
Fig. 6: Sacco, Palestine, 260
Fig. 7: Glidden’s How to Understand Israel, 176
Fig. 8: Glidden’s How to Understand Israel, 24
Fig. 9: Glidden’s How to Understand Israel, 83
Fig. 10: Glidden’s How to Understand Israel, 100
Fig. 11: Glidden’s How to Understand Israel, 171
Fig. 12: Delisle, Jerusalem, 14
Fig. 13: Delisle, Jerusalem, 33
Fig. 14: Delisle, Jerusalem, 33
Fig. 15: Delisle, Jerusalem, 140
Fig. 16: Delisle, Jerusalem, 175
Graphic Novels Explore an (Un-)Holy Land
by Nina Fischer
In recent years, graphic novels have staked a claim for cultural respectability, especially through their often-bold analysis of divisive social and political issues; for instance, in travelogues exploring today’s Israel and Palestine. This article analyses Joe Sacco’s Palestine (1993-6) and Footnotes in Gaza (2009), Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (2010), and Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City (2012) to demonstrate how graphic artists update the long cultural tradition of travel to the Holy Land representations. I argue that graphic novels are a contemporary chapter in portrayals of what the corpus describes as a decidedly unholy land of conflict.
In 1991, Maus II, the second part of Art Spiegelman’s depiction of his parents’ survival of the Holocaust and their lives in the aftermath of the genocide, made the New York Times bestseller list. In a response entitled A Problem of Taxonomy, published on 29 December 1991, Spiegelman, though delighted by the recognition of his work, asked the editors to move it from the fiction to the non-fiction list, despite its use of cartoon imagery. His insistence on Maus being a work of non-fiction shone an unexpected spotlight on comics, “a form of sequential art, often in the form of a strip or a book, in which images and text are arranged to tell a story,”1 a genre that had hitherto primarily been known for portrayals of superheroes with magical powers and busty women.
Spiegelman was among the artists paving the way for an entirely new development. In recent years, comics – or graphic novels2 – have staked a claim for cultural respectability, especially through their often-bold analysis of divisive social and political issues. Indeed, as Charles Hatfield argues, there are now graphic novels that “refuse fiction altogether, favoring history, the reportage, the essay, and the memoir.”3 A striking example of an artistic engagement with complex socio-political realities is provided by portrayals of contemporary Israel and Palestine. The first of these works, Joe Sacco’s Palestine, a perspective on the Palestinian plight written in the 1990s, is the best known, but a number of others have been published in recent years. Many have won awards, demonstrating the widespread interest in the subject and form. Some of these are works by local artists,4 others by international artists5 and among their ranks, there are several travelogues, all of which focus on life in the shadow of the Middle East conflict.
In the spirit of this special issue, I focus on three graphic novels that depict Israel and Palestine as experienced by a visitor from abroad: Joe Sacco’s Palestine (1993–6) and Footnotes in Gaza (2009); Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (2010); and Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City (2012).
The three authors have produced particularly popular volumes, all of which appeal to a wide audience: the texts were written in or have been translated into English and are therefore accessible to a broad and potentially global readership. Moreover, they all have been translated into other languages, pointing to their extensive circulation. The three offer a contemporary, popular-culture version of a well-known topos in the cultural archive: the journey to the Holy Land.
However, the journeys of the three authors selected here are guided by differing interests and intentions. The writers approach the topic from widely divergent perspectives and subject positions and therefore produce interesting material for comparative purposes: Sacco’s works are journalistic, recounting several months-long trips; Glidden’s travelogue recalls an identity-seeking voyage of two weeks; and Delisle’s work describes a year spent in Jerusalem with his family. Sacco’s books in particular feature a less prominent focus on travel as such, but they are nonetheless a portrayal of his journey to Israel and Palestine and are thus compatible with my focus. It is this combination of different perspectives that has guided my selection, as it permits an investigation of how the ‘journey to the Holy Land’ motif comes to the fore in works that are otherwise seemingly only connected by their setting and graphic novel format.
Over the centuries, travelers of all three monotheistic faiths have used many genres – chronicles, memoirs, and letters – to tell the world about their visits to the landscape of scripture, as discussed in this special issue. These contemporary graphic travelogues differ from earlier reports in both format and content: the voyages are not pilgrimages or crusades, nor are they colonial expeditions. Instead, what we find are the accounts of travelers observing and documenting life in modern Israel and Palestine, whose conceptions of the area are shaped less by religious stories than by the pervasive news images of violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
The content of these works represents a radical break from previous descriptions of journeys to the Holy Land; in addition, in terms of format, they specifically speak to a contemporary audience that does not contest the genre’s prerogative to engage with political issues, that possesses the necessary “visual literacy”6 to understand the narrative combination of images and text, and for whom the everyday language used is not off-putting – indeed, this audience might even be drawn to the works because of the format.
In order to address both of these elements (the travel motif and its updated format) and maintain a focus on local realities rather than the experience of the Holy Land through preconceived notions, this article will scrutinize a number of elements in the work of Sacco, Glidden, and Delisle. Among these are the positioning and interests of the author-protagonist within the travel narrative; the visual strategies employed; the encounters with local realities, specifically with respect to socio-political aspects; and the narrators’ accounts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, often depicted as the political-spiritual and touristic centers of Israel, respectively.
In this article, I propose that graphic novels are a contemporary chapter in a long-standing tradition of travellers describing their voyages to the Holy Land, now depicting journeys through a landscape of decidedly unholy conflict. Popular culture plays an immense role in our modern lives; indeed, it “fashions the landscape of the political imagination,”7 and I maintain that these graphic travelogues offer an innovative way for readers to develop an understanding of a place that is constantly politicized in the media and highly significant in the collective memory of all three monotheistic faiths. Given the appealing nature of and the current interest in the graphic format, these works must be recognized as a development that advances a long cultural tradition into the present by employing genre-specific tools to increase awareness of political issues. Joke Hermes has defined “cultural citizenship” as “a process of bonding and community building, and reflection on that bonding, that is implied in partaking of the text-related practices of reading, consuming, celebrating, and criticizing offered in the realm of (popular) culture.”8 She argues that pop-culture has a high “democratic potential”9 because it fosters participation through potentially widespread interest.10 The graphic novels selected are explicit about their intention to convey the contested issues of life in Israel and Palestine and to culturally and ethically engage the readers rather than being merely picture books of holy sites and touristic experiences.
Scott McCloud maintains that the visual nature of cartoons and especially their simplification strategy enables self-identification with characters who seem to be a blank slate.11 Authors often draw themselves into the story they are recounting, in what Charles Hatfield has called the ‘cartoon self’,12 and their self-descriptions as travelers allow readers to identify with them, too: We have all been tourists. Readers also expect a certain subjective positioning that (depending on the political situation or the characteristics represented) might lead them to reject or only partially accede to identification. In this corpus, the potential identification is further enhanced through the topos of the Holy Land journey and the role it plays in the collective memory of all three Abrahamic faiths – this is a cultural motif we can think ourselves into; for members of one of these mnemonic communities, it is part of their cultural heritage.
Only a realistic representation of the setting will allow us to recognize the iconic images of the Holy Land, such as the golden cupola of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, but the contrast between nonrepresentational characters and a realistic setting is another common characteristic of graphic novels. Scott McCloud has argued that the combination of a realistic background with simplified characters “allows readers to mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world.”13 This is yet another way in which the readers’ cultural participation in the larger issues is ensured.
However, this setting is familiar to us not only through the imagery of cultural memory. We live in a world that is saturated by news reports of the Middle East conflict, most of them violent scenes of exploding buses, stone-throwing teenagers clad in checkered scarves, Israeli soldiers at checkpoints in full military gear, and grieving mourners from both sides. The graphic novel format and its opportunities for visual recognition and identification allow the artists to combine narratives drawn from the cultural archive with media images, thus producing a new form of the ‘journey to the Holy Land’ chronicle and a new genre of conflict reportage.
Graphic novels as a format have received a significant amount of scholarly attention, especially in recent years, with the shift towards historical-political and autobiographical work. One scholarly focus has been comics created by Jewish authors, who have always played an important role in comic arts, especially (but not exclusively) in America; however, this scholarly interest only connects to Glidden’s exploration of her Jewish identity.14 Other related issues have also been the subject of recent research, including the use of religion in the graphic novel15 and the transnational element in comic art.16 Of my selected works, only Sacco’s Palestine has received significant attention;17 very little research has been conducted on graphic novels and the Middle East conflict otherwise.18 Juneau and Sucharov,19 for example, explore the use of graphic novels in the classroom in connection to international relations and the conflict in particular – specifically, their potential as a teaching tool that provides direct insight into different worlds, helps readers navigate the inherent complexities through imagery, and familiarizes pupils with how images create meaning and may distort ‘reality’. Although some attention has been devoted to the subject of travel,20 the specific perspective of travels to the Holy Land, which this special issue explores, has not yet been considered in relation to graphic novels.
Joe Sacco’s Palestine recounts his impressions from a two-month trip to the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the winter of 1991-2 during the first Palestinian Intifada [uprising]. All of Sacco’s travel pieces document suffering in areas of war and conflict, and Palestine is no exception: It portrays the author’s (mostly) random encounters and the ensuing stories of life under the Israeli occupation.21 Sacco’s work is bold and loud, with black-and-white images with frequent shifts in size and orientation; in particularly charged moments, the images bleed into the gutters between the panels, or the panels are left open and unstructured, almost swirling across the page. At times, Sacco even uses splash panels that cover the entire page. His graphic form is a clearly identifiable and idiosyncratic narrative-visual voice, characterized by a mise-en-scène that tends to affect the message. An example of this is his use of perspective, in which the guns of the Israelis are drawn larger than everything else and are angled to visually emphasize the oppression of Palestinians; for instance, in the scenes taking place in Hebron, a particularly explosive location. (Fig. 1)
Fig. 1: Sacco, Palestine, 127
After Palestine’s initial appearance between 1993 and 1995 as nine issues in a comic-book series, a single volume with an introduction by Edward Said was published in 2001, just at the height of the second Intifada, when the global media were focusing on the region. Said maintains that we live “in a media-saturated world in which a huge preponderance of the world’s news images are controlled and diffused by a handful of men,”22 especially when it comes to Israel/Palestine, but in his view, Palestine lacks any “obvious spin.”23 In other words, Said argues that Palestine is not influenced or distorted by its graphic novel format; rather, he feels that it presents a realistic representation of the conflict and the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, unlike the news reports, which he perceives as being manipulated. He interprets the book as the travel observations of a curious young man, maintaining that the “absence of a goal in his wanderings emphasize that he is neither a journalist in search of a story nor an expert trying to nail down the facts in order to produce a policy.”24 This Homage to Joe Sacco by the famous Palestinian academic (who, with his work on Orientalism, has made important contributions to the study of colonialism and its abuses of power) is a commendation for Palestine and Sacco’s supposedly unbiased stance; Said’s only mention of authorial judgment is a reference to Sacco’s “unmistakable skepticism”25 towards the Israelis.
Despite Said’s acclamation, others, including Sacco himself, have noted partisanship in his work. He has clearly voiced his agenda: “I don’t believe in objectivity as it’s practiced in American journalism. I’m not anti-Israeli (...) It’s just I very much believe in getting across the Palestinian point of view.”26 Overall, Palestine has received positive reviews. For example, Mary Layoun calls it “a succinct and stunning account of daily Palestinian (and, by extension, at least some aspects of Israeli) life in the Occupied Territories during the early 1990s,” that absorbs and extends the “transnational circuit of media images and headlines that travels well beyond Israel or Palestine.”27
Footnotes in Gaza differs from Sacco’s first report on Palestinian life. In this volume, he explores two temporal settings: Gaza during the second Intifada – recounting his visit in the winter of 2002/3, when Gaza was still occupied and dotted with large Israeli settlement blocs – and during the Suez War in 1956. The travel motif plays a minor role; the reader only experiences the author’s stays in West Jerusalem and his time in Gaza. Throughout the text, Sacco portrays the hardships of the contemporary situation, especially the bulldozing of houses, but his main focus is a quest into the past: He wants to uncover the truth about the events that took place in Rafah and Khan Yunis in November 1956 by following the trail of two UN reports that noted massacres committed by the Israel Defense Forces against the local population. These reports have been reported by some authors28 and refuted by others,29 and Sacco maintains that they have been purposefully turned into historical footnotes. In an appendix, he offers some archival material, both on the historical incidents and on the contemporary house demolitions.
While his findings cannot be verified or disproven here, it is indisputable that Sacco is committed to uncovering the past; in the epilogue, he calls his undertaking a “historical investigation.”30 The author acknowledges the difficulties involved: Much of his argument is based on eyewitness reports, but memories change over time, sometimes drastically, and people can misremember or even create new memories from the stories told around them; consequently, eyewitness testimony is a source with inherent problems.31 Despite this caveat, Sacco promises to seek out the “definitive version.” (Fig. 2)
Fig. 2: Sacco, Footnotes in Gaza, 119
What he succeeds producing is a collage of memories, as he graphically connects the faces, names, and narratives of the people he interviewed: a living testimony of the events mediated by Sacco’s graphic language. One problem he does not acknowledge is that all this testimony has been translated into English, and this translation represents an additional act of mediation; we only learn that Sacco speaks no Arabic.32
Sacco, whose work falls into the category of ‘comics journalism’ and has a background as a journalist, positions himself as such in both texts; in Palestine, he dreams of being a successful documenter of what he has learned from his encounters and fantasizes about receiving prizes as “the guy with the pictures of the ‘violence’.”33 He inserts himself prominently into the narrative as a reporter-participant. Hans-Joachim Hahn has pointed out that the genre rules of comic art assume authors to be witnesses to the events they portray, and this subjective approach is incompatible with the general rule dissociating news reports and opinion pieces.34 This also has an impact on Sacco’s representation of the conflict: the Israeli side is barely given a voice in Palestine and is not represented at all in Footnotes in Gaza, demonstrating Sacco’s refusal to create a complex image and highlighting his intention to advocate for pro-Palestinian solidarity.
To this end, he builds on the tradition of war journalism. In Footnotes in Gaza, he portrays himself as part of a larger group of journalists in the Middle East. But unlike his colleagues who are scurrying after ‘good stories’ focused on current events,35 he is “heading to the Gaza strip for a 50-year-old-story. Because old stories are always good ones. Old stories are a sure thing.”36 His timing also situates Footnotes in Gaza within the realm of journalism. The book was published in December 2009, less than a year after Israel’s controversial Gaza campaign and in the wake of the much-discussed Goldstone report investigating war crimes committed by both Hamas and Israel.37 Sacco has thus once again positioned his work within a time frame in which Israel was prominently featured in the news, primarily in a negative light.
He also aligns himself with war photography: Footnotes in Gaza ends on images of human suffering.38 (Fig. 3)
Fig. 3: Sacco, Footnotes in Gaza, 386
In graphic novels, ending with a selection of photographs (or images that look like photographs) has become a tradition. Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, and Frédéric Lemercier were among the first to do this in Le Photographe, their war report from Afghanistan that interweaves comic images with photographs,39 and Ari Folman used the technique in Waltz with Bashir. In opting for this type of ending, using images of suffering without captions, Sacco visually and morally draws the audience into the witnessing collective.
However, although Sacco ostensibly explores the issues from a journalist stance, he simultaneously reminds us, often through purely visual means, of where we are. This serves to frame the report on the conflict within the recognizable framework of travel in the Holy Land, and the figure of the tourist certainly increases the accessibility of the difficult subject matter. The imagery evoked, drawn from the visual cultural archive, adds an unspoken layer to the narrative. The very first page of Palestine already provides a familiar picture: Sacco portrays himself leaning against the Old City ramparts of Jerusalem, looking out over hills, olive groves, and small houses, with a mosque on the horizon. This is a recognizable landscape, and the bag slung over his shoulder reminds us of his tourist status; throughout the book, we accompany Sacco on his journey through Palestine and a few sites in Israel. The theme is introduced textually as well: the chapter on visiting the Jabalia refugee camp, for instance, is entitled Pilgrimage40 and thus subtly plays on the motif of Holy Land journeys and the current (decidedly unholy) realities. The initial Biblical landscape of olive trees and medieval ramparts is contrasted to the world of suffering in Gaza,41 where many Palestinians lead rain- and mud-soaked lives in squalor; this opposition emphasizes Sacco’s underlying theme that humanitarian issues in the region demand attention.
The larger travel motif of coming to Israel/Palestine, is included as well, but it primarily serves to introduce the content and the author’s intention to counter the allegedly pro-Israel stance of the global media. The beginning of Palestine is set in Cairo, a manic setting, brimming with people, noise,42 and also with anti-Israel sentiment.43 Soon after his arrival in Israel/Palestine, Sacco brings up the issue of terrorism and portrays himself as concerned by the comments of a young woman infatuated by the Palestinian cause.44 Juneau and Sucharov have argued that a central theme in Palestine is the attempt “to counter the widespread Western view of Palestinians as terrorists.”45 Throughout the work, Palestinian terrorism is not acknowledged; instead, the images emphasize that violence and intolerance stems exclusively from the Israelis. Indeed, towards the end of the book, after Sacco has acquainted himself and his readers with the roles he perceives in the conflict, he legitimizes some violence by referring to it as “military action against the occupying forces”46 rather than terrorism. When an Israeli acquaintance responds to this by expressing her longing for peace, Sacco does not comment, refusing to engage with the complexities of the situation.
Framed by visits to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Palestine also offers an interpretation of the historical events that led to the establishment of the state of Israel and reveals Sacco’s impressions of modern Israelis. In a chapter entitled Return – referencing the Jewish diasporic longing for return, the current law of return that allows all Jews to become Israeli citizens, and also the impossibility of return for Palestinian refugees – we encounter Dave, a young American Jew who is spending time in the country. Together, Sacco and Dave visit the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, and Dave talks about “getting into [his] heritage.” (Fig. 4)
Fig. 4: Sacco, Palestine, 11
This is then followed by a Jewish version of local history; in a two-page spread,47 we move from a portrayal of the Jewish hope for a homeland (encapsulated in the phrase ‘Next year in Jerusalem’) to an image of God accompanied by the biblical quote (Jehoshua 1:13) in which he promises the land to the Jews, to Lord Balfour’s 1917 declaration in favor of a Jewish homeland and other events in Israeli history. Sacco’s commentary ends with, “it’s been downhill for the Palestinians ever since,”48 a note that needs no further explanation.
Sacco repeatedly visits Jerusalem, the main contested site between the two peoples, and it is here that he initially introduces his readers to Israelis. The first Israelis he sees are handsome soldiers, both male and female. One of the men is “taking five on the Old City ramparts… gazing over annexed Arab land… Doing a Welcome-to-Marlboro Country.” (Fig. 5)
Fig. 5. Sacco, Palestine, 16
The ironic comment highlights the fact that for Sacco, no encounter with Israelis can be interpreted outside the framework of the conflict, even when there is an attempt at lightheartedness: “Even I’m pressing my legs together,”49 he says about the soldier, after observing some tourist girls who are smitten with the good-looking Israeli. Throughout his journey in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israelis are depicted as figures of power and violence – soldiers and settlers – and not as partners in dialogue, neither for the Palestinians nor for Sacco.
Towards the end, in a chapter entitled Through Other Eyes,50 Sacco encounters two young women from Tel Aviv who are visiting Jerusalem. At first, he gets along well with Naomi and Paula, who seem to be anti-settlement; as architects, they make the case that even visually, their architectural style does not fit in with the landscape. Later in their acquaintance, when they speak about the status of Jerusalem, one of the women says that the city “can never be divided again,”51 because it represents Jewish heritage, even from her perspective as a secular Jew. This comment leads to a discussion about the conflict, but Sacco ultimately fails to acknowledge Israeli concerns and their desires for peace. When he is asked why he has not been to Tel Aviv or made an effort to learn about the other side of the conflict, his caption reads: “And what can I say, I’ve heard nothing but the Israeli side most of my life, that it’d take a whole other trip to see Israel, that I’d like to meet Israelis, but that wasn’t why I was here…”52 In saying that, he mirrors Said’s claim in his introduction to the book that the global media is run by pro-Israel powers.53
When he finally decides to visit Tel Aviv, Sacco ostensibly shifts away from his one-sided perspective; however, even in this section, Palestine is his main concern. Visual elements reinforce his intentions. On a page with three panels, two portray the good life on the beach; the third panel, the exact same size, depicts a memory of the previous day in Nablus, in which the Israeli guns are once again the largest element. (Fig. 6)
Fig. 6: Sacco, Palestine, 260
But he does enjoy his visit: “it’s pleasant enough in Tel Aviv, which seems familiar, somehow, to my Western ears and eyes.”54 This sense of recognition never occurs in his Palestinian encounters, a point that adds a certain othering element to his documentation. The world of refugee camps and the Palestinian plight is unquestionably different from his prior experience (and that of his readers), but this mention of how he relates to the people in ‘Western’ Tel Aviv suggests that Orientalism is infiltrating his perspective. This visit is followed by a return to the West Bank, its harsh realities emphasizing the frivolity of beach life just as the Nablus panel did.
Unlike most other travelogues, the very end of Palestine is not a representation of Sacco’s departure: He is depicted on a bus headed to Gaza. Even though little Palestinian boys throw stones at the bus, he is sending us a message that he is not leaving the conflict behind; indeed, Footnotes in Gaza shows his return.
Jewish American graphic artist Sarah Glidden describes her 2007 journey to the Holy Land in How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. This trip took place within the framework of Taglit-Birthright Israel, a non-profit organization that takes young Jews to Israel on sponsored 10-day heritage trips, with the intention of strengthening their Jewish identity, bringing them closer to Jewish culture and history, and bridging the divide between Jewish communities around the world and the Jewish state.55 These trips have been happening for over 10 years, and almost 350,000 young adults from countries around the world have participated.56 Glidden was initially resistant to the concept and stayed skeptical throughout much of the journey that took her to the Golan, the Galilee, Tel Aviv, the Negev desert, the Dead Sea, and Jerusalem.57 Her graphic novel is clearly a travelogue, and we are constantly reminded of that the fact: large parts of the work are set on planes, buses, or in hotel rooms, and there are numerous depictions of the many sights the group visits.
Much like a guidebook, the volume starts with a chapter entitled Orientation and a map showing the bus route of the tour and political elements; for example, it indicates which areas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are under Palestinian Authority Control and which are controlled by the Israel Defense Force.58 The later chapters are also introduced with maps, and again the graphic novel mirrors a guidebook; for example, the reader is provided with a detailed street map of Tel Aviv showing the highlights of the tour, such as Rabin Square.59 The maps have multiple functions: they emphasize the fact that this is not a fictional journey; they help readers to orient themselves; and they tell a story about the places being visited. Visually, Glidden works with watercolors, employing a complete palette of hues. Some of the landscape images, such as the depiction of a Galilee sunrise60 or the Negev,61 could easily serve as postcards. In particular, the view over the Western Wall and the golden Dome of the Rock evoke well-known images, and Glidden’s caption-free illustrations only enhance the picture-effect. (Fig. 7)
Fig. 7: Glidden’s How to Understand Israel, 176
But this is not merely a travelogue; it is also a journey into Glidden’s Jewish self-identification and the problems she (as a secular, left-wing American Jew with a Muslim boyfriend) has with Israel and its treatment of the Palestinian population. The country we encounter with Glidden is certainly not holy, but instead a land that demands difficult ethical considerations. Questions of self-definition, in particular concerning her Jewishness, are introduced in the text from the very beginning. Already in the opening scenes at Newark Airport,62 we encounter a multitude of Jewish identities and lifestyles, from the tough Israeli security officials to Orthodox Jews, to Glidden’s friend Melissa who joins her on the journey and who, although Jewish, had never even participated in a Shabbat meal before their trip.
Glidden’s complex feelings about Israel are roused when she sees Israel’s West Bank Barrier for the first time.63 Having just arrived in the country, Glidden looks out of the tour bus window, tired and jet-lagged, “waiting for the scenery to look more like how I’d imagined Israel and less like rural Pennsylvania.”64 Her ideas of Israel are given no introduction; instead, we are thrown directly into the conflict. As the bus drives along what at first looks like a prison wall, she suddenly realizes that it is the barrier. Depicting herself as agitated, with movement lines emphasizing her distress, the caption above the image reads, “And just like that, Israel has become real. Not Pennsylvania, not a bus full of Americans.” (Fig. 8)
Fig. 8: Glidden’s How to Understand Israel, 24
Israel has constructed several barriers (for instance, on the border with Gaza), but the West Bank Barrier is the most controversial because much of it has been built outside the 1949 Armistice Line (the so-called ‘Green Line’) and infringes on Palestinian-owned land.65 The explanation for the barrier Glidden hears from her Israeli guide Gil immediately actualizes the conflict, the complexities of the situation, and the fact that there are no simple solutions: “My personal opinion is that, while I hate how it hurts many people, every day that I wake up and there’s no attack on the news, I think about the wall.”66 Glidden had never before fully grasped the realities of Israel’s security problem and its human cost; accompanying her journey, readers are also confronted with the issue.
The complexities continue to challenge her initially pro-Palestine position. Despite her misgivings about the occupation and the treatment of the Palestinians, Glidden repeatedly notes that she feels unexpectedly at home in Israel. The city settings in particular make a real impact on the New Yorker. In Holon, a city near Tel Aviv, Glidden suddenly notices how much she fits in physically. She compares this to previous experiences in other countries: in France she had felt unfashionable, in Asia she had felt immensely tall, but in Israel, as she notes, “I could easily be one of these people.”67 And there is more to this realization: “In fact, the only reason I’m not one of them right now is because when my great-grandparents fled Eastern Europe and considered their two options, they chose the United States.”68 It is a moment of belonging: she knows that Israel could have been her home in another life, and she blends in so well that she is spoken to in Hebrew. However, when she cannot respond, it becomes clear that she does not entirely fit in, there is a language barrier: “Crap. My cover’s been blown.”69 This is another way in which the visual element draws the reader in: The question is written in Hebrew letters, conveying Glidden’s experience of incomprehension to a non-Hebrew-speaking audience. (Fig. 9)
Fig. 9: Glidden’s How to Understand Israel, 83
In Tel Aviv, she also fits in socially; however, her time in this city pushes her to the breaking point, as the certainties she had known before her first-hand encounter come under fire. During a tour of the Independence Hall Museum,70 a historical landmark in Tel Aviv where David Ben Gurion declared Israel a state on 14 May 1948, she is forced to consider the lack of options Jews had after the Holocaust when only a few countries offered entry visas, contemporary Israeli life under the constant threat of terrorism, and the mutual longing for peace. When she sees a group of soldiers who are barely out of their teens and begins to contemplate both Jewish and Palestinian suffering, Glidden is overwhelmed. She calls on the visual medium to portray her inner turmoil: she depicts herself wandering through images of the soldiers’ young faces, Nazi violence, emaciated victims of concentration camps, and a checkpoint along the Israeli wall. The scene in which she bursts into tears is a mosaic of recognizable images (suicide bombers, exploding buses, and people grieving) jumbled together; all of these images are known to the reader, either from earlier pages of How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less or or from their own media-shaped conceptions of Israel. (Fig. 10)
Fig. 10: Glidden’s How to Understand Israel, 100
Later, Glidden admits to one of the guides what her real problem is, now that she has been confronted with the complex, contradictory, and challenging realities of Israeli and Palestinian life: “I came here… I think I wanted to know for sure that Israel was the bad guy. I wanted to know that I could cut it out of my life for good.”71 This initial hope is not fulfilled, as the trip forces her to realize that there is no simple black-and-white solution – the realities on the ground complicate the often one-sided understanding of the conflict propagated by the media. Unlike Sacco’s work, the first-hand experiences and reflections in Glidden’s graphic novel communicate to the reader that neither side in the conflict has a monopoly on righteousness, and neither side is blameless.
Glidden’s journey also takes her to Jerusalem. As she recounts, “I’ve been looking forward to being in Jerusalem most of all. It’s the epicenter of the big mess: ancient, holy and constantly oscillating between negotiable and non-negotiable.”72 One reason behind Jerusalem’s complexity is related to the many historical narratives revolving around the city, and Glidden uses a combination of visual and textual elements to explain this range of stories – especially those concerning Mount Moriah, the site over which Jerusalem’s most iconic feature, the golden dome, towers. In Hebrew, this place is called Har Ha-Beit [the Temple Mount], the location where the two Jewish temples once stood. In Arabic, it is Haram al-Sharif [the Noble Sanctuary], the site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. This is heavily contested territory, as it is a place of origin of all three monotheistic religions, said to be where God set the earth’s foundation stone and also the location of Abraham’s binding of Isaac. Glidden illustrates these stories separately in an inset notebook page with explanatory captions. The notebook format implies that the picture was drawn while she was listening to the stories, once again a reminder that we are reading the account of a journey. (Fig. 11)
Fig. 11: Glidden’s How to Understand Israel, 171
But Jerusalem is also complicated in other ways. The visit includes, for instance a trip to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, as well as meetings with Israelis and Palestinians from the Bereaved Family Forum (people from both sides who have lost family members in the conflict). At this point, Glidden shares the fact that her brother had been killed in an accident, and that she feels personally connected to this experience of familial loss.
Thus, although it is difficult, Jerusalem also becomes a place of belonging, especially after the end of the official trip, when she and Melissa stay with one of their guides, a student just like them. They go out with young Israelis, and Glidden feels right at home as they watch a modernist play she could well have seen in America (except that is performed in Hebrew). However, once again, fitting in invokes conflicting feelings: “They live in Israel, I don’t. They understand what is happening in this play, I don’t. But we probably have so much in common. I’m ashamed to admit to myself that I like this feeling of being in this room. I’m even more ashamed at how much I don’t like being outside of it.”73 This last comment refers back to an uncomfortable moment in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem when Glidden had asked herself whether some Arab boys nearby were just playing or yelling at them, and she had longed “to be back inside a homey Jerusalem cafe [sic] talking about the city’s culture clash instead of wandering around inside it.”74
Glidden ends up not visiting the West Bank, even though she had intended to do so when she first considered going on the trip: “I really want to go to the West Bank. I think it’s our responsibility to check out the reality on the other side of the Green Line.”75 The practical challenges are too great; in the end, she and Melissa go to a lecture at the pluralistic Shalom Hartman Institute that suggests a more open-minded view of religion disconnected from political arguments. Here, for the first time, Glidden is moved by a religious idea, because the concept is humanistic and not essentialist – she represents herself as enraptured by illustrating a heart over her head – and offers a way to deal with the complexities she has been struggling with.76
However, Glidden does not leave us with a sense of resolution. Like a true travelogue, the final pages show her departure. What we see are mostly images without captions; no captions are needed, as everything is recognizable: a last night out partying in Tel Aviv, the airport procedures, and her arrival in Istanbul. In a way, this reduces the Israel trip to one of her many journeys, but an encounter in the hostel in Turkey indicates that the voyage was different from the rest. She discovers that other young travelers imagine Israel as a war zone. When asked what she thinks, Glidden is stumped. Her only answer at that moment is to say, “Well….”77 Ultimately, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less is her response to this question.
Canadian graphic artist Guy Deslile’s Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City is the most recent addition to the canon of Holy Land graphic travelogues. Both the original French Chroniques de Jérusalem and the English title make reference to the topos with the use of the word chronicles (emphasized in English with the explicit use of the term Holy City). Delisle’s artwork, employing a limited palette, is much more restrained than Sacco’s; notably, he refrains from extending images into the gutters between the relatively orderly panels. Delisle portrays the year in his family’s life when they were living in East Jerusalem because of his wife Nadège’s job as an administrator for Doctors Without Borders. The text is a sequel to his earlier works, created during the family’s placements in Burma and his travels to China and North Korea.78
Much of what the book describes are everyday challenges. One example is the need to negotiate the three ‘holy’ days of the Jerusalem week: Friday for Muslims, Sabbath [Saturday] for the Jews, and Sunday, the day the Christian stores (the only ones selling alcohol in the neighborhood) are closed.79 The stories are framed within his experiences of being in Israel/Palestine in 2008-9 while the Gaza campaign was taking place. The political events had a personal impact on his family – for instance, Delisle watches rockets being launched into Israel on TV and then finds out that his wife cannot leave the Gaza strip, as the military has closed the border because of the rockets.80
Whereas Glidden explores a touristic and personal perspective and Sacco positions himself as a journalist, Delisle takes on an observational role, recounting the experiences of the internationals involved with the NGOs working in the region. These observers are half-traveler, half-resident, but neither Palestinian nor Israeli. Delisle’s intermediary position allows the reader an interesting view of an entire year in Jerusalem.
The graphic novel is structured around this year. Each chapter represents a month, while the subchapters depict encounters, events, and their explanations. With its stories of life in a East Jerusalem and descriptions of the NGOs’ difficulties with the Israeli authorities, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City seems more closely related to Sacco’s work than to Glidden’s. Delisle even makes a direct reference to Sacco when he finds out that his coordination request for Gaza has been declined. The Israeli reaction to his application: “The guy who draws comics? Forget it.” His response is, “Maybe they’ve mixed me up with Joe Sacco?”81 And while there are similarities, Jelena BuliÄ‡ has identified a distinct difference between the two authors and their respective approaches: “Whereas Sacco has access to the (private) lives and stories of others, Delisle remains on the sides, as a spectator and an outside observer.”82
Like Glidden, Delisle quite explicitly takes his readers on a journey. The first page shows two maps: one of the world, with Israel/Palestine marked, and one of the country itself, allowing readers to orient themselves.83 The entire last page depicts a plane; even without a caption, we understand that the Delisle family is leaving.84
The first chapter emphasizes the travel theme, showing an overnight flight and Delisle’s attempts to quiet his screaming toddler. When an elderly man seated next to him tries to calm her down, the author and the readers have their first visual encounter with Israel: he has a tattoo from Auschwitz on his forearm. On this indelible symbol of Holocaust memory, Delisle says: “We’ve seen so many horrific images from that time in history that my imagination just takes off.”85 With this remark, he introduces an issue that plays a role in many Israeli/Palestinian encounters: they are pre-shaped by other images, either from collective memory or from the news media. His next observation is evocative: “But I’m treated to a whole other picture tonight, as this old Russian plays with my daughter thousands of feet up in the sky.”86
Most things on his journey turn out differently than expected, and certainly deviate from preconceived notions and images of voyages to the Holy Land. Upon his arrival in the country, for example, Delisle greets his driver with a Hebrew Shalom,87 then realizes that an Arabic Salamaleikum88 might be more appropriate. However, the driver responds in both languages, and no confusion or reproach can be seen on his face. Towards the end of the book, we meet him again; as it turns out, he also speaks English and Russian and has found good jobs abroad. However, as a Palestinian, this represents a problem: “If I leave the territory for more than three years, I’m no longer considered a resident in my own country.”89 So he returns periodically and works as a driver until his papers are renewed because, as he says, “This is my home! They can never make me leave.”90
Delisle, more than the other authors, introduces the reader to the city at the center of the conflict: Jerusalem. Its status is one of the most critical issues in every round of peace talks because neither Israelis nor Palestinians are willing to make concessions when it comes to authority over the city, which represents a central site of collective memory and identity for all three monotheistic religions and for both nations. All throughout its existence, the city of Jesus’ life, suffering, and crucifixion, which is the Yerushalayim of diasporic longing and Jewish nationhood, and at the same time Al-Quds, the Holy, where Mohammed’s night journey took place, has been fought over. The Judeo-Christian tradition in particular has elevated Jerusalem as a sacred site and an axis mundi connecting heaven and earthly life. However, what we encounter through Delisle’s eyes and pen is a very real city, and one that is not easy to comprehend or navigate.
Delisle’s first foray into his neighborhood, Beit Hanina, “an Arab village that was annexed following the Six-Day War in ’67,”91 shows him that it is more than a little run-down; indeed, it reminds him of him of his earlier travels most of which took him to the Third World.92 (Fig. 12)
Fig. 12: Delisle, Jerusalem, 14
But this is not all; he learns that even geographic designations are political and often difficult to navigate. When he asks whether he is in Israel, he receives the following response: “According to the Israeli government, we’re definitely in Israel, but for the international community, which doesn’t recognize the 1967 borders, we’re in the West Bank, which should become Palestine (if that day ever comes).”93 Also his next question, “But Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, right?” requires a lengthy answer: “Again, it depends: For the international community, it’s Tel Aviv. That’s where the embassies are. But for Israel, it’s Jerusalem. The parliament, or ‘Knesset’ is here, not in Tel Aviv.”94 Delisle’s true reaction is not the “Hmmm, ok” of his speech bubble, but the “I don’t really get it, but I tell myself that I’ve got a whole year to figure it out”95 contained in the caption. This reaction allows his readers a similar sense of relief – we have only just begun to understand.
Delisle often uses visual elements to explain what he encounters. Readers learn, for instance, that the path of the Green Line was drawn on a map by Israeli officials and their counterparts in Jordan. Delisle portrays this as two military men with a big pencil sitting like children on top of a map, pointing and drawing boundaries. (Fig. 13)
Fig. 13: Delisle, Jerusalem, 33
The next image is a map with Israel and Palestine in different colors and scissors on both sides, now reminiscent of a children’s cutout game, and possibly offering a tacit comment about the childishness of political manoeuvring, especially in this region of the world. (Fig. 14)
Fig. 14: Delisle, Jerusalem, 33
Delisle also uses visual means to explain the Old City and his prior knowledge about it. Coming from a Christian background, he sees it as the setting for the stories about the apostles, which he represents with drawings of toy models (not unlike Glidden’s method). After just a few panels, however, contemporary realities take over again: in order to get to the Western Wall, a checkpoint must be passed.96
Delisle provides a visual explanation of Mount Moriah as well; he uses the term ‘Noble Sanctuary’ (the translation of the Arabic Bait-ul-Muqqadas) for the site, thus giving an indication of his social context in Jerusalem. But his historical survey includes all elements; we see, for example, the two Jewish temples lying in ruins after they were destroyed by the Babylonians and the Romans (in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively). Later on during his stay, Delisle visits the esplanade with the Dome of the Rocks and the Al-Aqsa Mosque and is amazed by the space, the architecture, and the unexpected contrast to the bustling streets of the Old City below. (Fig. 15)
Fig. 15: Delisle, Jerusalem, 140
His travels extend beyond Jerusalem; he also visits cities in Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The visits to Tel Aviv are the most touristic but the most ‘normal’ experiences on this contemporary Holy Land pilgrimage, much like in the other graphic novels. After having spent some time navigating Jerusalem and its many divisions –social, religious, and ethnic –, the Delisles decide to spend a day on the beach in Tel Aviv. He is shocked to discover “A normal city – with normal people.”97 He adds a caveat, though: “for the most part,” he says after passing by a rave. But on later visits, he reminds his readers that young people dancing in the street are not the only unusual aspect of the city. As he and his friend sit on beach chairs overlooking the ocean, they observe military aircraft heading south towards the Gaza strip. The Gaza conflict had just heated up and, even after the end of the fighting, Tel Aviv is much closer to the fault lines of the conflict than its touristic image suggests. (Fig. 16)
Fig. 16: Delisle, Jerusalem, 175
Graphic novelists are not the only contemporary artists to have updated the ‘journey to the Holy Land’ motif. Another example is provided by a 2010 episode of the award-winning animated series The Simpsons.98 In an episode entitled The Greatest Story Ever D’ohed, the most famous cartoon family on TV goes on a church trip to the Holy Land, where Homer Simpson succumbs to Jerusalem Syndrome, a psychosis featuring religiously themed delusions triggered by a visit to the city.99 He believes himself to be the Messiah, and with his message of unity (“Spread the word: Peace and chicken!”), he attempts to resolve the conflict between people and religions. This might seem foolish at first, but his message of inclusion – we all want peace and all the faiths permit eating chicken – rather than exclusion was publically recognized when Kevin Curran, the episode’s writer, was nominated for the 2010 Humanitas Prize (awarded for film and TV writing promoting human dignity, commonality, and freedom). Like the graphic novels, if perhaps with more humour, the Simpsons episode illustrates an engagement with the realities of conflict in Israel/Palestine using a pop-culture medium.
In their respective voices, and driven by their own personal interests and situations, Delisle, Glidden, and Sacco have produced travelogues of their experiences in Israel and Palestine. These works show that such journeys have changed over the years: these travelers have not come with swords to take back the Holy Land from the heathens or to occupy it; instead, they come armed with pencils to document and communicate the situation in the region. These are not pilgrimages, either, as the intention is not to engage with the divine, but rather with everyday human life in a contested space. In the process, the artists have developed a new form of representing and reporting the conflict made possible by the versatility of graphic art. As Scott McCloud says, “it is a vessel which can hold any number of ideas and images.”100 With this perspective on graphic representations, we move away from the traditions of the format, which had long been monopolized by fictional and humorous material; in the selection of works presented here, the format is a means of interrogating socio-political realities. Derek Parker Royal argues that “given its reliance on symbols and iconography, comic art speaks in a language that is accessible to a wide audience, transcending many of the national, cultural, and linguistic boundaries imposed by other media and giving it a reach that is as democratic as it is immediate.”101 This view is congruent with Joke Hermes’ arguments concerning cultural citizenship discussed in the introduction to this article. This artistic engagement with a distant conflict argues for a global cultural citizenship in which pop-culture has become an additional element within the larger mediascape. Graphic novels are subjective representations, as the texts filter impressions not only through the artists’ opinions and words, but also through the visual images. Sacco admits that “any act of visualization – drawing, in this case – comes with an unavoidable act of refraction,”102 but no journalistic ‘objectivity’ is expected from graphic art in the first place. Indeed, the texts focus on the human element of the conflict rather than addressing large-scale political considerations.
However, these graphic forms of reporting conflict are also contemporary travelogues, as they tie into the longstanding topos of the Holy Land journey, at least visually if not more explicitly – for example, in their explanations of Jerusalem’s many meanings. Considering the graphic travelogues from this perspective allows them to be perceived as part of a tradition involving accounts of journeys to the Holy Land. The reports from the land of conflict involve the readers on a number of levels. First, through the potential for personal identification with the traveler figure, whose subjective positioning is expected; second, with the ‘journey to the Holy Land’ motif as an element of the cultural archive of all three Abrahamic religions; and third, by invoking and reworking media images. All of these aspects are employed using the textual/visual form as a “communicator.” 103
These texts convey to their readers the reality of a land that is anything but holy in an engaging, contemporary format; their popularity indicates the value of such approaches to the conflict in our increasingly mediatized world, especially when they evoke traditional topoi to offer multi-layered and complex images. It might be worthwhile to consider how other products of popular culture have explored the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the ‘journey to the Holy Land’ topos – for example, crime novels and thrillers, such as bestselling author Richard Patterson’s Exile (2007), set in Israel/Palestine. Such works communicate critical issues to a wide readership and thus demonstrate cultural citizenship potential, in a somewhat different form than the graphic novels analyzed here, which build on a tradition of socio-political engagement since the appearance of works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
Nina Fischer is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Program in Cultural Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her research areas include memory, Israel, and Holocaust Studies. She is currently working on on a book about travelers’ representations of Jerusalem from the 19th century until today in literature and film. Her monograph on the literature of children of Holocaust survivors Memory Work: The Second Generation is forthcoming with Northwestern UP.
I want to thank Genie Babb, Hans-Joachim Hahn, Sarah Lightman and the editors of this special issue for their comments and support. Thanks are also due to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback.
How to quote this article:
Nina Fischer, "Graphic Novels Explore an (Un-)Holy Land", in Travels to the "Holy Land": Perceptions, Representations and Narratives, eds. Serena Di Nepi, Arturo Marzano, Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of Fondazione CDEC, n.6 December 2013