“I came to realize that we Palestinians have a duty to show ourselves in a realistic light,” writes Mohammad Sabaaneh in the preface of his collection of political cartoons, White and Black. “Not quite as ordinary people (because people who are able to live in the conditions of the life they face are anything but ordinary), but not quite as legendary heroes either. What is challenging about the Palestinian experience is that a rational Palestinian cannot identify with either picture.”
White and Black, a graphic telling of the human rights abuses perpetuated by the Israeli state against citizens of Palestine, was recently released by Just World Books, an organization dedicated, among other things, to better understanding the challenges facing the Palestinian diaspora. The drawings by Sabaaneh, who is wrapping up the final leg of a US book tour in support of the release, are populated by hollow-cheeked and weary-eyed Palestinians, huddled in refugee camps, navigating armed checkpoints, or trying to carry on some semblance of life while shackled to balls and chains. Spoiler alert: there is nothing remotely funny about these cartoons.
The young Palestinian artist attributes the inspiration for his work to the two weeks he spent in solitary confinement, during a five-month stint in an Israeli occupation prison. His images hyper-literalize the struggle of Palestinians to remain vital and connected to their homeland under conditions designed to crush their existence. There is little in the way of hopeful imagery, aside from the recurring motif of Palestinians as the root ball of a tree. “Our culture is our root in the soil,” reads the caption on one such image.
The book is divided into sections which deal variously with Palestinian history, life in occupied Palestine, the country’s relationship to world politics, and short stories that tell more personal tales. The images are more didactic than graphic, and lay out the emotional reality of subjugation in Palestinian daily living in candid and visually symbolic terms. These images carry blunt visual metaphors, like a Palestinian child attempting to jump rope while shackled to a ball and chain. Whether set within the confines of a literal prison, or in the wider, psychic prison of occupied Palestine, Sabaaneh’s message is one of a population struggling to bear up under the crushing weight of oppression.
If Sabaaneh’s work is a bit on the nose overall, it’s because he’s struggling to bring to light circumstances that are often widely elided for political reasons. Just as there is an agreement among Turkey’s political affiliates to overlook the perpetuation of the genocide of the Armenian people, Israel’s connection to the axis of power in the Western world seems to earn it a pass on the brutal aspects of its relationship with Palestine.
Graphic novels and cartoons seem to be an incendiary medium of political dissent worldwide, but especially in areas in the Middle East, where the stakes could not be higher. Naji al-Ali, a famous Palestinian cartoonist, was assassinated in 1987 — whether by Israeli or Arab leadership remains unclear, as he was openly critical of both. Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat had his hands broken for satirizing President Assad. Egyptian cartoonists tend to publish anonymously to avoid incarceration. Sabaaneh worked throughout his jail time, smuggling finished drawings out through visitors rather than risk their discovery.
If we are ever to change the pitch of societal relationships, we must learn to look at something like the work of Mohammad Sabaaneh and see not only a portrait of Palestinian life, but of our own. We must respond to the suffering of all people, not only the ones who most physically resemble us. Millennia of racialized geopolitics present anything but black-and-white issues, but White and Black is an opportunity to better exercise our capacity for empathy toward their real-world impact.