Two Sides Of A Coin: Palestine, Persepolis, and the Graphic Novel Genre: their Use in Bias and Politics

History is often said to be written by the winners, especially through propaganda and half-truths sustained by biased journalism. But on the same token, there are rebellious writers who would have the truth be known. Some do this through journalism, some through video, and some through art. Some have even been using the graphic novel form to bridge the gap between the written word and the visual scene, showing and telling readers their perspective. In Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Joe Sacco’s Palestine, we see just that: accepted truths being challenged to expand the perspective of those the truths are exposed to. History can be extremely biased, but in the medium of the graphic novel creators can challenge these notions in a variety of ways.

Palestine, Cover

Palestine is a nation of much debate. Israeli enthusiasts and Zionists argue that the land belongs to the Jewish people, as promised in the Holy Book, the Torah. Fundamentalist Christians also agree and sympathize with the ‘Chosen People of God’ who are owed the ‘Promised Land’ of Zion. But there is also the problem of the Palestinians, who have been living there for ages now. And yet, especially in America where the United States and the media generally support Israel, the Palestinians are often overlooked. Luckily for them, Joe Sacco has tried his best to give us the perspective of the often overlooked Palestinians with his graphic novel, Palestine.

From the beginning we are immersed immediately into the figurative center of the country. We are given no ‘journey to’ narratives, no ‘outsider’ introductions. Readers simply start in Palestine among people who are not much different than the people we may meet in any other city.

As the story continues, we get, very early on, how some may think about the situation when Sacco quotes Lord Balfour. Balfour says “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land… We do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country” (pg 13).

Or Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion assuming that “A Palestinian ‘is equally at ease whether in Jordan, Lebanon, or a variety of places.:” He continues with tactics: “In each attack a decisive blow should strike, resulting in the destruction of homes and the expulsion of the population,” which result in a devastating end: ”Palestinian Arabs have one role left—to flee.” (pg 42).

Finally we see the mindset of Golda Meir, around 1948: “It was not as though there were a Palestinian people considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”
I’m sure the Palestinians would disagree.

The narrative continues with Sacco’s encounters with the Palestinian citizens. To say Sacco’s account isn’t biased would be untrue: rather, the account is as biased and one-sided as possible to overturn and overshadow the extensive coverage and opinions of the Israel-sympathizers and give some empathy for the underdog Palestinians. Sacco does this in a number of ways.

First and foremost, his choice of art style is perfect for satire. It makes everyone he features a caricature of their actual selves. His artwork grossly details the people around him while making the background art as detailed as possible (mainly a backdrop for his ‘set’). This allows readers to see the Palestinian’s flaws as humorous and comical but decidedly human, a people we can relate to and sympathize for.

Joe Sacco Self-Portrait

Also, his heart is used for perspective, both socially and artistically. We see this in a hospital where children have been injured from the war (pp. 30-36). Featured is a boy who’s been hurt by a stray bullet that went through his wall. Others featured are victims of a shooting at a school that gives one girl multiple fractures, injures another more gravely, and kills another. And yet, the first little girl smiles. Sacco makes readers view the scene  from the perspective of looking up her leg, putting as much of the injury into the picture as possible and letting the girl’s smile make her more innocent. More sympathetic. How can we as readers allow this grievous assault to happen to such a sweet, pure little girl?

Further more, soldier stories in the novel are generally negative, and pictures of the soldiers are generally the same: a good shot of their guns, almost always out, their faces always angry. Within the novel we hear tons of stories of Palestinians wronged by Israeli soldiers. We meet a tearful man who was forced to cut down 70 year old olive trees because the soldiers believe someone threw “a stone or a Molotov Cocktail” from his field (pg 60-62). We meet Ghassan, a man who was practically abducted and tortured for seemingly no reason (104-113). We meet a tough woman who resists their attempts to break her and we get the aftermath of a shooting incident in Hebron in Chapter 5, where an innocent man trying to close his store was shot. The resulting article of the incident was heavily slanted in favor of the Israelis (pg 132). Again, while Palestine is definitely biased in favor of the Palestinians, Sacco reminds us why he needs to do this.

One of the most powerful moments is when a nurse details her experiences. Showing a scar on her neck she relates how a bullet skimmed her neck when she protested a killing at Bethlehem University. She also describes how soldiers come and go all the time disrupting the activities at the hospital. “Soldiers do what they want”, she says: they come into the operating theater without masks, they question visitors, they’ve shouted at people donating blood, they’ve beaten her director. “Other staffers tell me of soldiers obstructing ambulances, of taking patients ‘right from the [operating] theater…’” (pg 35). Accounts like these really cause readers to feel for the Palestinians, to realize that they aren’t all the belligerent soldiers we see in the news.

They, in Sacco’s eyes, are just the losers of this situation, in a world where winners get to tell the story. So who will tell theirs?
Simialrly, Satrapi’s Persepolis does a fantastic job of giving Western civilization an inside peak into Iranian history and culture with her own family and life experiences. Satrapi herself serves as a foil to the personification of Iran post-1979, especially how she so adamantly rejects the fundamentalist Muslim views of women that have become stereotypes for Arabic women in general.

Persepolis Covers

Satrapi’s simple artwork couples with dark tones and themes and touches upon all the darkness of the changes Iranians were forced to endure. Satrapi, using her younger self in the novel as “Marjy”, shows how both she and her family were almost caught a few times in the act of being rebellious. Specifically she shows how her family tried to resist with their parties, and only with some quick thinking were able to get rid of possibly heavy retaliation (pg 108-110). She also shows her parents trying to smuggle in merchandise for their daughter without getting caught (126-130). She was also almost punished by two fundamentalist women for wearing American paraphernalia (pg 130-134).

One thing particular useful to Western readers is the chart she creates on page 75. She shows the differences between fundamentalist women and the modern woman and fundamentalist males and their progressive side. On that same page, she shows that not only does she have to fake being as pious as possible, but that others are trying to out-do each other as well.

On pages 34-35, we see where the crowd mentality can be just as dangerous for an unstable nation. A widow cries for her dead husband, who a group of anti-war protesters have taken and revered to encourage people. Problem was, the first man they had was a real martyr of some sort. The widow’s husband, on the other hand, died of cancer, not war. But shortly they ignored her pleas, dragging him away, and, perhaps both comically and tragically, even she began to chant with the crowd.

It is these accounts that have truly taken a different medium and produced something that seeks to change major problems in the world: historical and political inaccuracy through bias and an unwillingness to seek the truth due to, and leading to even more, ignorance. While viral media has become the dominant form of sharing breaking news or showing the truth to certain accepted social perspectives, Sacco and Satrapi use art, and a message, to convey something both moving and revealing about our world.

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