Palestinian cartoonists’ artistry is familiar to anyone who has noted the fertile intersection of graphic art and the Palestinian struggle. Naji Al Ali, the famed creator of Handala the little refugee, pioneered the portrayal of Palestinians through political cartoons in the 1960s. This genre arguably reached its apex with the publication of Joe Sacco’s graphic novels Palestine (2001) and Footnotes in Gaza (2010). And now Mohammad Sabaaneh continues — and transforms — the tradition with White & Black, his striking collection of nearly 200 drawings, which will be published this May by Just World Books.
Between the rich details documented in Sacco’s cartoons and the fantastical portrayals of Handala, Sabaaneh’s style comprises a cross-fertilization of Sacco’s realism and Al Ali’s surreal depiction of the Palestinian experience. Sabaaneh’s style communicates his own reckoning with the reality of exile and return. Born and raised in Kuwait in the 1980s and ’90s, Sabaaneh’s earliest visions of Palestine and Palestinians were nourished by the heroic images of the Fedayeen, the resistance fighters branded as the vanguard of the Palestinian liberation movement who embodied the spirit of Palestine in the 1960s and 1970s. But Sabaaneh’s return to Palestine just before the outbreak of the September 2000 Second Intifada (uprising against Israeli occupation) let him see Palestinians in a very different light.
His formative experience, he relates, was the five months he spent in an Israeli jail in 2013, including roughly two weeks in solitary confinement. Sabaaneh realized that the imprisoned Palestinians around him were not the stuff of legend, but rather simply men and women capable of fear and pain like all human beings. They were people concerned not with heroic feats, but rather, the mundane affairs of daily life that the occupation had denied them, such as lighting a cigarette or kissing their kids before school.
Yet, at the same time, “people who are able to live in the conditions of life they face are anything but ordinary,” either, Sabaaneh writes. He contends that many Palestinians adopt the ideal of heroic resistance as a survival strategy given the harsh realities they confront. In the end, Sabaaneh’s goal as an artist has been to break free of the requirement that Palestinians be depicted as mythic figures. Sabaaneh’s experience taught him that this image was not an accurate portrayal of Palestinian experience under occupation. But neither is an image of ordinary domesticity accurate. Sabaaneh’s genius as an observer of his people lies in his ability to convey the Palestinian spirit without either overdramatizing or understating reality.
Although Palestinians have defied all expectations that they would have long since succumbed to Israeli colonization, they are still mortal like the rest of us. Conveying this requires a skilled hand. Take the image whose caption headlines this article: “Like cactus, we are tough and patient.” The cactus, Sabaaneh notes, has become a key symbol of Sumud — Arabic for “steadfastness.” This indigenous plant is not exceptional — it grows freely across the landscape — but it continues to grow despite harsh surroundings that otherwise renders life impossible. Here are the Palestinians, Sabaaneh tells us in this drawing, standing sturdy like the cactus: not quite ordinary, but not the stuff of legend either.
While most of Sabaaneh’s drawings do not draw upon his experience of imprisonment, it was while he was jailed, often alone in his cell, that he began to ponder the fate of the Palestinians. It’s quite fitting that imprisonment would midwife Sabaaneh’s rebirth as an artist. Israeli imprisonment of Palestinians is central to maintaining the occupation. Every family can count at least one member held by Israel. An estimated 800,000 Palestinians have been jailed since 1967 by an Israeli military court system that, with its nearly 100% conviction rate, makes a mockery of justice. Sentences are almost always based on so-called “confessions” under extreme duress, and many Palestinians are held under “administrative detention,” a relic of Britain’s emergency rules during the Mandate era, that allows for 6-month stretches of detention without charge, which can be renewed indefinitely.
Before his own imprisonment, Sabaaneh used to draw the hero prisoners of Palestinian art and political posters, but he found his faith shaken when he surrendered to his weaknesses, wondering whether everything he drew was a lie. The old myths didn’t fit his new reality, and that was his inspiration for depicting the Palestinian struggle anew through his graphic art. In so doing, Sabaaneh demonstrated the artist’s power to subvert overlords.
If anything resembles Foucault’s Panopticon, the Israeli prison system comes close. Sabaaneh relates the horrific dehumanization that begins when embarking on the transport truck, a hunk of metal freezing in the winter and scorching in the summer; the constant movement from one jail to the next to keep the prisoner disoriented; the solitary confinement meant to break one’s will. And, as Sabaaneh argues, it also makes it easier for Israeli soldiers to view the Palestinians not as fellow humans, but rather, as herded cattle. Sabaaneh reveals that he viewed his captors as another occupied people. For all that, he could not bring himself to portray Israeli soldiers in anything but an unflattering light because their actions conveyed nothing but brutality. But, like most Palestinians, he didn’t surrender. In solitary, he’d make mental lists of things to do once he got out of prison — a common practice among prisoners.
At the top of that list was a process of re-imagining how to draw Palestinians. To that end, he would steal pencils and paper during interrogations and smuggle out drawings with cellmates when they were released. He purposely kept his drawings vague so that, if found by a guard, they wouldn’t appear to depict the nature of a prison system that Israel strives to keep hidden. He added the specific details once he was released. In this act of subversive resistance — using the tools of the occupier and the knack of the artist to dissemble — Sabaaneh was performing the very reality he strove to depict in his art.
He wouldn’t call himself a hero, and expressly writes that prisoners can be “anything but heroic.” Still, it takes courage to subvert a system far greater, and more watchful and vindictive. Sabaaneh faced the certainty of further punishment if he had been caught smuggling drawings out of prison. (One can imagine him being charged with attempting to use pencils as weapons to create drawings that cause violent “incitement.”) Through his ordeals in prison, Sabaaneh finally found his “voice” as an artist. The Palestinians he depicts are not larger than life; they’re not the daring heroes dominating the famous PFLP and DFLP posters of the 1970s. Instead, Sabaaneh’s Palestinians are tough and patient human beings. They preserve their humanity and dignity in countless small ways that might go unnoticed as individual actions, but which collectively subvert and question the great power asymmetry between Palestinians and their oppressors.
“How would history read,” Sabaaneh muses,” if those who bled and suffered through it had written it?” White & Black attempts to answer that question for the Palestinian people, who’ve been robbed of freedom, their birthright as sovereigns on their land, and their “permission to narrate.”
For those unfamiliar with Palestine, White & Black offers a compelling window into the work of one of the most astute political cartoonists today. Comics fans will recognize that Sabaaneh employs some of the common techniques of graphic artists, such as recurring themes (e.g. the Palestinian mother’s womb symbolizing life and renewal). The drawings are striking in their depth, and the vivid faces — comic in structure but evocative in detail — are unforgettable. Sabaaneh demonstrates an extraordinary ability to render the ordinary heroic in its own steadfast way.
Khelil Bouarrouj is a Junior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.