Joe Sacco’s first comics on the Israel-Palestine conflict appeared as nine issues in 1993 and were later published in a single volume in 2001, titled Palestine. Produced after a two-month journey through the Occupied Territories at the end of the first intifada (1987-93), Sacco’s relentless quest for testimonies across the region vertebrates the narrative of this volume. Its undoubted protagonists, however, are the innumerable Palestinian interviewees that share with Sacco’s persona the traumatic memories and experiences that define life under Israeli rule.
While the thematic focus is decidedly human, Palestine also offers a complex interrogation of the role of territory, urbanism, architecture, mapping and everyday spatial practices, and the indissoluble links of spatiality to national identity. Scholars such as Mary N. Layoun (2005) and Jeff Adams (2006) have begun to examine these areas of inquiry, which this paper seeks to develop. Layoun has suggested that the “synecdochic proposition of the comics’ structure” (318) utilizes the repeated events and testimonies as the part that stands for the whole of Palestine. Her insightful contribution, however, does not account for the means by which the comics, a graphic medium, actually succeed to convey a totality that “may be ‘perceived’ but is never ‘observed'” (318). This is a gap that the present article aims to address. In a similar vein, Adams’s study of domestic spaces in Palestine interprets them as graphic metaphors for Palestinian vulnerability and sense of perpetual waiting (173-4). Adams’s focus on the material aspects of domestic space can also be supplemented with an examination of those spaces that are only present in the comics in a phantasmatic manner—the disappeared or desired spaces that haunt the memory and imagination of the Palestinian community. Similarly, Adams’s over-reliance on the visibility risks neglecting the characters’ visually/materially unproductive radical use of space. As this essay argues below, the reconceptualization of the prison as a space of political organization is one of such practices.
This article therefore contributes to the incipient debate on spatiality in Palestine by discussing the production of visible, implicit, and omitted spaces within the comics, and by assessing their effect on a configuration of Palestinian identity and history of the conflict from below. In doing so, this paper seeks to incorporate into the analysis of Sacco’s Palestine the social and subjective understanding of spatiality that has been operating in the disciplines of history and geography since the nineteen seventies (Hubbard, Kitchin, and Valentine 4-5). The so-called “spatial turn” in the humanities has been crucial to understanding space “not simply as a concrete, material object, but also as an ideological, lived and subjective one” (Warf and Arias 3). Within this new awareness of spatiality, the comics’ omission of some spaces, as well as their emphasis on other spaces—perhaps emotionally present but de facto immaterial at the time of the narration—constitutes an untapped yet fertile area of enquiry.
For this purpose, I will use as a theoretical framework Henri Lefebvre’s seminal study The Production of Space, first published in 1974. According to Lefebvre, “(social) space is a (social) product” (27), that is, every society or mode of production collectively creates its own social space; in doing so, Lefebvre argues, the conditions of existence of that social order are reproduced, guaranteed, and concealed (27-29). For Lefebvre, this social production of space takes place through “spatial practices, representations of space and representational spaces” (46). Respecting this threefold consideration of spatiality, this article will first analyze how spatial practices within and outside the diegesis converge to subvert meanings of space, and to configure Palestinian identity as uprooted but active in its struggle to seize and re-conceptualize space. Second, it will consider the political and epistemological implications of Palestine‘s resistance to offer what Lefebvre terms “representations of space and “representational spaces.” It will be argued that this absence is a device to avoid institutional or essentialist discourses on the conflict. This will lead to the conclusion that the comics’ production of space is crucial to the configuration of a Palestinian identity, which is defined in spatial terms for its displacement, dispossession, entrapment, and will to re-signify a land that is materially and symbolically unstable.
Reclaiming the invisible: spatial practices in Palestine
By spatial practices, Lefebvre refers to the ways in which our daily routines effectively produce space. In this section I focus on three case studies—spatial practices in relation to the Palestinian home, the Israeli penitentiary centre, and public spaces in cities and refugee camps—to demonstrate how the characters’ spatial practices and Sacco’s own artistic use of the page as a space converge to comprise an uncanny space that supplements the political and emotional instability that Sacco encounters in his journey.
Regarding domestic spaces, Palestine provides a number of visual cues that signal the instability of daily life for Palestinians. Jeff Adams has noted how “the oil lamp on the arm of the sofa, the corrugated metal roof” coexist with “the pictures on the walls, the potted plants on tiered stands” (169). Certainly, objects in domestic spaces reveal the fossilisation of the temporary in the refugee’s house, but an examination of domestic spatial practices may disclose that Palestinian identity is defined by its constant retrieval of spatial otherness within the materiality of the house.
Whether in solitude or in company, remembrance and mourning constitute the essential practices attached to the domestic spaces in the comics. The Palestinians’ testimonies of personal loss and material dispossession are the object of a triple pursuit in the comics. First, Sacco’s persona wants to see the intifada that he only knows “from appendices in small press books” (30) and uses private spaces as the main site to secure first-hand testimonies of “public and private wounds” (29). Secondly, Palestinian interviewees desire to give testimony to their traumatic experiences, and for this testimony to be further communicated. One of Sacco’s first Palestinian interlocutors pleads to him: “You write something about us? I showed you, you saw! You tell about us?” (10). Thirdly, studies on trauma and testimony note that the very traumatic event pushes the victim to retrieve, narrate, and relive the traumatic events they have experienced. According to Shoshana Felman, a traumatic event “‘pursues‘ the witness and … the witness is, in turn, in pursuit of it” (Felman and Laub 22). In other words, since an unassimilated traumatic event has no closure for its witnesses-survivors, it will be repeatedly relived by them. In the comics, the memory of the traumatising experiences lived in the home trigger the constant recovery of spatial and temporal otherness.
This triple compulsion to retrieve the memory of the traumatic event constitutes the main domestic spatial practice of the characters Sacco encounters, which results in the introduction of “other spaces” into the physical materiality of the house. These spatial alterities may be physically external to the house where the remembrance is taking place, such as a homeland lost in the 1948 Naqba or Catastrophe, i.e. the declaration of the State of Israel. These spaces might also be ghostly redoublings of the same house where testimony is being given. As a result, the house in the present time may be currently experienced as an alien space because of the emotional breach opened by a traumatic event, such as the death of a son at the hands of Israeli settlers (70). In short, remembrance and mourning as the main domestic spatial practices result in the production of domestic spaces as the photographic negative of a house: absence is constantly called upon to occupy, and consequently efface, the materiality of the domestic setting. The physical internal space is inhabited by what is not there, alongside what has been placed to signify this loss.
This symbolic rejection of the house as a home is echoed by Sacco’s artistic use of the page. If the temporal linearity of the story in Palestine is disrupted by the use of analepsis, spatial continuity is likewise destabilized by the insertion of panels that retrieve these mourned spatial ‘othernesses’ and place them in the present—Palestine graphically depicts thus the motions of traumatic memory. The obliterated homeland of the refugee (Sacco 15, fig. 1) or the lost olive trees on Palestinian property (62, fig. 2) can therefore be said to temporally expel the Palestinian houses of the present time from the comics’ panels. Consequently, Sacco’s production of fictional Palestinian domestic spaces acts like a graphic centrifugal force: the home becomes a space from which the reader’s gaze is diverted, or a site from which the spectator is ejected. This production of space, then, parallels the Palestinian emotional exile from their current houses and re-enacts their physical expulsion from their homeland.
Similarly, close-up portraits of the Palestinian interviewees’ faces often occupy the totality of the panels when the location is the domestic space. This technique is in harmony with Sacco’s wider methodological approach to the conflict, which he summarizes by claiming that “faces are what it’s all about” (Sacco 71)—both a reminder of the superficial, “human interest” coverage of conflict in the media, and of Sacco’s resistance to it by means of his substantial account of the human conditions of Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. Close-ups further contribute to efface the present sites of the testimony, insofar as panels are physically overtaken by human features. In other cases, the interior of the main room in the house is captured from a high-angled point of view (69, fig. 3), a position that emphasizes the characters’ loneliness and impotence. Sacco’s deployment of these techniques results in a highly self-conscious production of fictional spatiality. Thus, the material domestic space in the present is graphically displaced by the spaces of memory—rendering visual the impossibility of making the space called “home” familiar.
In short, the repeated narrative’s retrieval of mourned spaces is accompanied by artistic devices that graphically fragment, efface, or isolate the Palestinian houses where testimony is being given. As a result, Palestine confronts the reader with the paradoxical ubiquity of the domestic space, and the actual non-existence of a home as a space where the materiality of the house encapsulates the co-occurrence of family members and an emotional attachment to the land. The characters’ domestic spatial practices and Sacco’s own artistic practices result in the Palestinian house being a space of ghostly encounters and the configuration of Palestinian identity as uprooted and homeless.
If domestic spaces become sites of absence, prisons provide the opportunity for conceptualizing and enacting an otherwise “impossible” space—the nation-state of Palestine. Chapter four opens with an account of how the inmates of the largest Israeli prison, Ansar III, make subversive use of the penitentiary space in order to produce a system of self-government. As ex-convict Mohammed explains to the protagonist, “no one was allowed to speak to new prisoners when they came in, so there would be no question of recruiting” (88). This freedom of political association sets the basis for the coordination of penitentiary means and self-generated resources, a coordination through which the convicts guarantee nourishment and education to the imprisoned community. For instance, the establishment of a “tea committee” (87) allows them to ensure equal access for all to the hot drink, whilst the “education committee” facilitates “lectures on ecology, philosophy, Einstein [or] the break-up of the Soviet Union” (87). These committees are representative of the dominant form of political organization during the first intifada, when “[l]ocal popular committees dealt with food storage and distribution, security, education, self-reliant agriculture, health care and so on” (Schulz 61). Inside the spatial confinement of Ansar III, these committees transform the penitentiary space into an invisible, scaled-down version of an ideal democratic nation-state, where ideological affiliation is respected and coordinated efforts are directed towards the optimal functioning of the community. From a material perspective, the subversive/democratic spatial practices of the prisoners do not alter the fact that this pseudo-governing system remains subjected to Israeli control.
Such overlapping of symbolic spaces upon the same physical site warrants an examination of Michel Foucault’s notion of “heterotopia.” The term “heterotopia,” introduced in Foucault’s 1967 essay “Of Other Places,” refers to concrete places that “are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which all the real sites … that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted” (24). The prison is a quintessential example of heterotopia because of its reproduction of the disciplinary relations that exist in a community, in this case the regulating practices of the Israeli state upon Palestinians as deviant individuals. However, the subversive use of penitentiary space by the Palestinian prisoners results in the production of the prison as a more complex type of heterotopia. Insofar as heterotopias are “capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (Foucault 25), it can be argued that the spatial practices of both the Israeli prison guards and the Palestinian prisoners imprint upon the penitentiary centre two spaces that outside the prison walls are mutually exclusive: namely the Israeli and the Palestine nation-states.
Therefore, spatial practices in Palestine create a twofold heterotopia within the prison, where two different abstractions of space materialize and overlap. Concerning Israel, the prison is indeed a “heterotopia of deviation” (Foucault 25), that is, a physical site at the margin of Israeli society where received deviant subjects are compulsorily kept under surveillance. In relation to Palestine, conversely, the prisoners use the penitentiary space as what may be called a “heterotopia of sovereignty,” a site that allows for a temporary, self-governing community inside an Israeli prison. Only in the otherness of a heterotopic space is it feasible to overcome the otherwise impossible materialization of a Palestinian autonomous political system, a system that may represent and govern a community living in its acknowledged homeland. If, as Foucault notes, the subject that enters a heterotopia actually experiences some kind of exclusion (26), it may be argued that Palestinians undergo a double segregation within the penitentiary centre. Upon entering the prison as Israel’s heterotopia of deviation, they are excluded from their already restricted existence within the Israeli state. Upon entering the prison as Palestine’s heterotopia of sovereignty, they are barred from the possibility of realizing that same self-governing Palestinian political system outside the penitentiary center.
Therefore, the prisoners’ spatial practices transform Ansar III into an ambivalent space. Its received meaning as a disciplinary site is enforced but also superseded and subverted. As a result, the penitentiary center becomes an effect and depository of the aims of both Israeli and Palestinian consciousness. Because of its encapsulation of the Palestinian identity and its testimony of personal nationalistic engagement, it becomes clear why the notions of prison and prisoner have “become sources of pride and boasting” in Palestine (Hourani 445). For this same reason, it is a source of personal shame to admit, like Mohammed does in the comics, that he’s never been imprisoned (Sacco 195). In considering the spatial practices within Ansar III, the comics’ configuration of Palestinian identity receives two more layers: in addition to those of homelessness and uprootedness, imprisonment and proactive political will may be added. As Helena Lindholm Schulz has noted, “embedded in Palestinian identity is the endeavor to obtain the elevation to statehood, to become like others, to have what others have” (120). The prisoners’ struggle to produce a surrogate democratic organization within the prison walls epitomizes the Palestinian simultaneous exile from, and craving for, full political autonomy.
The present assessment of the spatial practices in Palestine would be incomplete without considering spatial practices regarding public spaces. Rather than focusing on institutional barriers such as checkpoints, Sacco concentrates on the production of invisible spatial obstructions. Israeli civilian and military characters often use their bodies as symbolic and material barriers that impede Palestinians’ free movement. Walking through Hebron provides the protagonist with the opportunity to witness what the caption ironically calls “kids with Uzis,” that is, armed settlers to whom “it’s always safest to give … a wide berth” (37; emphasis in original). The narrator acknowledges thus that the mere presence of armed Israeli settlers unleashes a violent tension and a temporary closure of the public space that cannot be represented in a map of the region, as those are static depictions of fixed, official boundaries.
Since pathways and roads are undermined as public spaces, the Palestinian everyday experience of the outdoors is one of spatial anxiety: a road may unexpectedly turn into a barrier by means of a human blockade. The resulting instability constitutes a synecdoche of the wider limitations in mobility experienced by Palestinians. It also epitomizes the shifting nature of the official barriers of Israel/Palestine, and the toxic elasticity of the territory as described by Eyal Wizman’s Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (2007):
The frontiers of the Occupied Territories are not rigid and fixed at all; rather they are elastic, and in constant formation. The linear border, a cartographic imaginary inherited from the military and political spatiality of the nation state has splintered into a multitude of temporary, transportable, deployable and removable border-synonyms—’separation walls’, ‘barriers’, ‘blockades’, ‘closures’, ‘road blocks’, ‘checkpoints’, ‘sterile areas’, ‘special security zones’, ‘closed military areas’ and ‘killing zones’ — that shrink and expand the territory at will. (4)
By acknowledging the effects of the spatial practices of Israelis, Palestine reveals an unofficial political geography that works from inside the state, and that supplements the established “spatial provisionality” of Israel, where “the borders and borderlands … seem to be repeatedly readjusted and extended when opportunity and pretext allow” (Falah 973). Moreover, the comics dismantle the post-Enlightenment belief in the correlation between existence, materiality, visibility, and knowledge. In this case it is not the tangible space but the invisible barriers raised by a threatening human presence that provide the grounds for a sound spatial knowledge of the Palestine-Israel conflict.
As regards Sacco’s artistic production of public spaces, their graphic elusiveness is analogous to that of the Palestinian houses. With the exception of refugee camps and three other instances I examine below, the comics resist an explicit graphic depiction of most streets, roads and their architectonic features, so that the visual effacement of public spaces encompasses their actual unavailability for Palestinians. Streets are represented as always-already occupied by Israelis. This appropriation may be materialized by the physical presence of the Israeli forces, or it can be a symbolic blockade such as the frequent curfews. Thus, it is the Israeli occupation of public space that acquires visual prominence, rather than the features of public space itself. Settlers become street barriers when patrolling (37, fig. 4; 65, fig. 5), as do soldiers when they unexpectedly dismantle street markets (119). As a result, urban public space is graphically invisible given that it cannot be depicted as public.
Sacco deploys perspective as the main artistic device to convey the Israeli appropriation of public space. A low-angled point of view results in the visual distortion of the Israeli civilian bodies, which are enlarged to occupy not only the public space of the road but also the totality of the physical space of the panel (fig. 4, 5). Additionally, the low-angled point of view in these images favors the subjective identification of the comics’ readers with Palestinians, since Israeli self-empowerment is seen from an inferior and therefore victimized position that cannot be aligned with the Israeli cause. Moreover, in these portraits of civilians’ seizure of public space, the kippah or skullcap regularly crowns the higher part of the panels, which enables an unequivocal connection between Orthodox Judaism and violent appropriation of space. As the floor is the point from which these scenes are viewed, public space remains non-representable, impossible to be seen, and becomes as inaccessible for the reader as it is for the fictional Palestinian passerby.
Even when public spaces are viewed from a slightly elevated perspective, they remain elusive or fragmented. Such is the case with the streets of Ramallah when Israeli soldiers are patrolling. Although this perspective allows for the readers to see public space, it is its seizure and division that is being highlighted by the movements of the soldiers—what the captions refer to “the West Bank ‘Swan Lake'” (119; fig. 6).
Once again, the chosen perspective in these frames renders more difficult the readers’ identification with the soldiers, who are viewed from above while erecting a human barrier on the street. Public demonstrations are another case in point of the graphic elusiveness of open spaces. Sacco’s re-production of the Peace Now demonstration in Jerusalem is dominated by human bodies and words in captions (18), whilst the following passionate Palestinian demonstration fills the frame with facial close-ups (19).
The graphic elusiveness of public space achieves dramatic heights when the panels portray a confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians, such as the one that follows a Palestinian demonstration in East Jerusalem (56; fig. 7). Different perspectives seamlessly amalgamate into a pseudo-collage that foregrounds facial expressions and body movements, to the detriment of the actual subject matter and site of the confrontation, that is, a contested space. The difficulty of conceiving such space beyond the conflict is thus manifested.
Sacco’s resistance to graphically produce public/open spaces in Palestine has indeed some exceptions: there are some images of Jerusalem and its walls. Yet the most daunting and detailed representations of public space and architecture are those pertaining to the refugee camps. Adams has noted that “Sacco’s resistance to the refugee camp heterotopia in the Palestine narrative is achieved partly through depictions of the domestic and interior life of Palestinians” (172). While Adam’s observation is acute, there is a similarly profuse depiction of open spaces in refugee camps. From chapter six to eight, the number of panels containing views of these open spaces (Sacco 145-51, 163, 175-6, 181, 183, 185-6, 191, 208-9, 217-24) is actually comparable to that of the panels focusing on the domestic house, a point that should cast doubt on the comics’ alleged privilege of domestic spaces.
An analysis of Sacco’s production of the exterior spaces in “Refugeeland” (145) reveals that the exterior-interior dichotomy is no longer valid in these areas. Although public spaces may conceptually envelop domestic spaces, Palestine is evidence that the outside does not delimit the inside de facto. Rain, hail and sand are not intruders but part and parcel of the refugees’ rooms (151, 181). Likewise, allegedly private spaces like toilets become public, since they lack “some basic features… Like … a couple more walls” (169). Thus, it may be argued that Palestine emphasizes the collapse of the exterior-interior dichotomy within the refugee camp to show that these two concepts are inapplicable for Palestinians at the end of the first intifada. Deprived of genuine homes and of actually available public spaces, the Palestinian emerges as the inhabitant of a blurred middle ground, of spaces whose functions are dislocated.
Nevertheless, the profuse representation of the external features of the refugee camps contrasts with the diminished presence of public spaces elsewhere in the comics, which may be linked to an interest in showing the effect of institutional spatial practices. The artistic codes used in the production of open spaces within refugee camps also differ. Contrary to the framed, claustrophobic depictions of imprisonment, images of the external appearance of the refugee camps tend to bleed out from the frame of the panel to the margin of the page, emphasizing their resemblance to photojournalism. The most impressive of these portraits of open spaces is the view of Jabalia refugee camp in a full bleed, double splash in pages 146-7 (fig. 8).
In this particular two-page panel, Sacco’s rejection of those idiosyncratic codes of comics—such as the use of captions, speech bubbles or gutters—may be read as an attempt to moderate the artistic mediation of the genre and thus tame its fictionalizing features. In doing so, the realistically compelled and dramatic image claims its self-explanatory nature. The wider scope and higher vantage point of this and other similar panels allows the reader to visualize and conceptualize the outcome of the Israeli spatial politics. As noted in one of the captions, “in 1971, in order to facilitate the pacification of Gaza, General Ariel Sharon’s bulldozers cut swaths through this and other refugee camps—widening roads, isolating sections, giving IDF vehicles more room to manoeuvre” (186). The comics’ emphasis on the representation of open spaces in the refugee camps gives testimony of how Israel uses space as a means to implement repressive politics and to enforce the dispersion of the Palestinian community. Open spaces are re-signified here too: far from facilitating cohesion and movement within a community, open spaces are the instrument and effect of political repression. Metonymically, they also point to the sheer unavailability of land for Palestinians.
In all, the spatial practices of the characters in the fiction, alongside the artistic practices that Sacco mobilizes to depict them, intersect to configure the Palestinian identity as uprooted, dispossessed and inhabitant of dislocated spaces, spaces such as penitentiary centers or open roads that are constantly subject to re-signification through the practices of their inhabitants.
Unmapping Palestine, veiling its religions:
against representations of space and representational spaces
Alongside spatial practices, representations of space and representational spaces complete the Lefebvrian account of the social production of space. This section will discuss the political significance of Palestine‘s resistance to engage with these two remaining means of spatial production. The comics’ omission of the conventional representations of space given by political geography will be argued as a politically compelled manoeuvre, insofar as it prevents a graphic understanding of the conflict from above, from the grand narratives of international politics. Likewise, the comics’ elusiveness regarding the religious representational spaces of the Israeli-Palestinian communities will be interpreted as a further attempt to dismantle a religious/institutionalized vision of the conflict. Through this detachment from religion, Palestine disarticulates a reductionist reading of the situation in the Middle East as the inability of two ethnic-religious groups to live peacefully in the same space. Thus the comics allow for a foregrounding of space as the very object of contestation, and the means and effects of the Israeli oppression upon the Palestinian community.
Lefebvre characterizes what he terms “representation of space” as “the space of scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers, as of a certain type of artist with a scientific bent” (38). In the Lefebvrian scheme, these two-dimensional representations “‘codify’ space through signs and symbols” (McDonagh 52), producing a conceptualization of space out of the experience of it. Such conceptualizations are imposed back upon space, shaping it and directing further spatial practice (Gottdiener 131). By creating intelligibility out of/upon a space, geographical maps and urban plans fashion, from above, a reading of the possible, legitimate, official, or acknowledged uses of that space.
In the case of Palestine, representations of space in the Lefebvrian sense are omitted. The characters that the protagonist meets and interviews are far removed from the empowered position of urban planners or state-boundary designers. Therefore, official representations of space within the fictional universe are non-existent. At an extradiegetic or artistic level, maps or illustrations could have been used as visual supports for a better understanding of the conflict, but Sacco avoids the reproduction of official or unofficial conceptual representations of space. This resistance to engage with political geography contrasts with the amount of visual and narrative data that Palestine does provide regarding temporality. From Theodor Herzl’s formulations on modern Zionism (Sacco 42) to the Balfour Declaration of 1917 (12), from the 1948 creation of the state of Israel (42) to the start of the intifada in 1987 (192-4), Palestine‘s chronology of the Israel-Palestine conflict unfolds in a non-linear manner with minimal detail. Nevertheless, it covers the main political milestones. However, Sacco does not match the representation of political-historic time with the official, political representations of space, and this is significant. Unlike his follow-up to Palestine, Footnotes in Gaza (2009), there are no conventional maps in this first collection. This absence can be explained by examining the consequences of abstract representations of space and the particular spatial conditions of Palestine.
The absence of what Lefebvre terms “representations of space” in the Palestine comics may be understood as a resistance to accept institutional, a priori conceptual constructs, and a will to keep the reader at the level of history from below. In this respect, Sacco’s position may be clearer considering Michel de Certeau’s arguments on visibility and power in “Walking in the City” (1980). According to de Certeau, “[t]he ordinary practitioners of the city live ‘down below’, below the thresholds at which visibility begins” (93). In other words, using the city irremediably prevents a visualization of the totality of the city because spatial practices are “down below.” On the contrary, the visibility gained by observing the city from a high point enables its conceptualization as a whole, although this conceptual totality will not be truthful because, for de Certeau, “the constellation of lives that make city what it is, the actual experience of the city, in other words, is not contained in the concept of the city” (Buchanan 110). Thus, the empowerment and knowledge experienced by the reader of the city-as-a-map (de Certeau 92), which is construed by this panoramic visibility, is actually an epistemological deceit, insofar as it is blind to the practices that make the city what it is.
The de Certaudian framework allows for an interpretation of the presence of macro-history and the absence of political geography in Palestine. The innumerable everyday personal stories can testify for micro-history, and thus complement and contest the discourses of political and military macro-history. However, the conditions of the Palestine-Israel conflict do not allow for the use of everyday space to balance and subvert any conceptual representations of space, such as maps. As this article has argued above, Sacco’s configuration of a particular Palestinian consciousness relies on the diegetic and artistic instability and disappearance of both private and public everyday spaces. Therefore, this elusiveness of micro-spaces cannot supplement or re-signify the abstract and technical, macro-historical representations of space. Attuned with the comics’ interest in oral history and history from below, Sacco eschews the technical representation of space and thus refuses to provide the reader with a conceptualizing and empowering approach to the conflict.
Once more, Palestine dismantles the positivist epistemological assumption that visibility and conceptualization are conducive to knowledge. In the comics, the elusiveness and the invisibility of space—of the space of macro-history, and the everyday space of micro-history—becomes enlightening of the conditions of Palestine and of a particular Palestinian identity. Since technical representations of space are steeped in dominant forms of knowledge and ideology (Lefebvre 41), their rejection allows for an understanding of the conflict that is detached from a priori conceptualizations. Moreover, Sacco’s preference for spatial invisibility aligns the comics’ readers with those experiencing space, with a particular emphasis on Palestinians, whose visual access of space is limited and not panoramic. This strategy also acknowledges the non-representable nature of a region whose geography has been qualified as “elastic,” since the Palestinians’ “environment is unpredictably and continuously refashioned, tightening around them like a noose” (Weizman 4-5).
Finally, “representational spaces” constitute the other great significant absence in the production of space within the Palestine comics. Lefebvre elusively defines representational space as that space “directly lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of ‘inhabitants’ and ‘users'” (38; emphasis in original). This rather obscure definition may be clarified by Lefebvre’s reference to representational spaces in the medieval period: “Representational spaces … determined the foci of a vicinity: the village church, graveyard, hall and fields, or the square and the belfry. Such spaces were interpretations, sometimes marvelously successful ones, of cosmological representations” (45). In all, representational spaces are lived and used, but the experience of its inhabitants and users is related to the attached symbolic meanings of those spaces.
In Palestine, there are scarce instances in which the respective representational spaces for the Israeli and Palestinian communities are present. The protagonist’s visit to the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron is one of the rare cases in which a religious representational site receives any direct attention (Sacco 38). During the visit, the protagonist witnesses how his Muslim guide is harassed by Jewish visitors to the Cave. Although the actual setting of the dispute is religious, and so are the provocations of the Jewish intimidators, religion is not portrayed as the ultimate cause of the problem. Religious representational spaces do not appear again in the comics except on four occasions. The first time is the exterior of a mosque, which is portrayed as the imaginary setting of the protagonist’s reflections on the situation of the woman in Islam (135). The second and last time a purely Islamic site appears in Palestine is to illustrate the civic re-signification of religious sites, such as the use of minarets to announce to the community that child is missing (188). The third representational space is the interior of the Catholic Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem during the Christmas Eve celebrations (280). Finally, the Temple of Mount in Jerusalem is visited twice by the protagonist: the first time, he is accompanied by “an American Jew named Dave” (11); the last time, he sees it with two women from Tel Aviv (256). The convergence of Judaism, Islam and Christianity in the Temple of Mount transforms this site into a testimony of the overlapping of religious narratives upon space.
It may be argued, then, that these rare instances of religious representational spaces illustrate the plurality of confessions in Israel-Palestine and the re-signification of spaces through practice. The presence of these hybrid representational spaces suggests that Israel/Palestine cannot be compartmentalized into spaces that are essentially Jewish, Muslim or Christian. Despite the abundance of religious sites in the area, Sacco resists their re-production on the page, which constitutes yet another rejection of an institutional view of the conflict, a view from above. Finally, by secularizing Palestine, Sacco disallows the configuration of the Palestinian and Israeli identities as two homogenous groups whose religious backgrounds are antagonistic. On the contrary, the dissolution of religious representational places allows for a foregrounding of space as the object, the means and the effects of the Israeli oppression upon the Palestinian community.
Drawing geographies of affect: Palestine‘s politics of vision
Sacco’s Palestine comics deploy spatial practices, representations of space, and representational spaces in order to configure a particular Palestinian identity, which is defined in spatial terms as displaced, dispossessed, entrapped, and willing to re-signify a land that is materially and symbolically unstable. Moreover, it has revealed how Sacco’s artistic creation of space, alongside the characters’ production of space in the fiction, positions the comics in an alliance with social history or history from below and in opposition to institutional accounts of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Finally, the adoption of the Lefebvrian framework has allowed for a consideration of the significance of invisible and absent spaces, which had been hitherto overlooked in a scholarly debate marked by a visual-material understanding of space.
The identification of remembrance and traumatic testimony as one of the main domestic spatial practices for Palestinians in the presence of Sacco’s persona has shown that the materiality of the house is invaded by negation and absence, producing the house as that which is not fully home, as that which is not rooted to the land and to familial co-occurrence. The graphic displacement of the house in favor of facial expressions or remembered spaces has been noted to encompass the fictional production of the domestic space as one of absence. The reiteration of this pattern configures a particular Palestinian identity that is homeless de facto and struggles for the right to return “home.” Another feature of Palestinian identity, the coexistence of its political denial and political will (Schulz 120), has been identified in relation to the spatial practices in the penitentiary centers. A study of the prisoners’ practices in Ansar III has proved useful in showing how two abstract conceptualizations of political spaces—the mutually exclusive nation-states of Israel and Palestine—are symbolically overlapped onto the same physical site. The prison simultaneously becomes Israel’s heterotopia of deviation and Palestine’s heterotopia of sovereignty. Finally, the examination of Israeli spatial practices and Sacco’s artistic devices in relation to open spaces has led to a consideration of official and unofficial means of Israeli seizure and fragmentation of space, whose impact on the Palestinian experience is that of promoting a sense of entrapment even within open spaces.
Sacco’s reluctance to re-produce the representations of space given by political geography has been interpreted as a device to avoid a detached, abstract view of the Israel-Palestine conflict from above, forcing the reader to ally with the Palestinian experience of space. Likewise, the comics’ elusiveness towards the religious representational spaces of the Israeli-Palestinian communities can be argued as an attempt to dismantle an institutionalized/religious vision of the conflict. Through its secular view on the territory, Palestine foregrounds space, and not religious faith, as the subject of contestation.
The production of space in Sacco’s Palestine thus echoes the words of Edward W. Said in The Question of Palestine: “The fact of the matter is that today Palestine does not exist, except as a memory or, more importantly, as an idea, a political and human experience, and an act of sustained popular will” (5). Through the representation of the political and human experience of the Palestinians during the first intifada, and through the pursuit of their memories and their re-significations of spaces, Palestine rejects the appropriation of institutionalized discourses on the conflict and discloses the existence of a shifting, ghostly, and invisible Palestine—a phantasmatic space for an “impossible” state.
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