“The Attack”: Lost In Translation

Yasmina Khadra’s (the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehou) “The Attack” was published in France at the tail end of the second intifada in 2005. It sold over 600,000 copies in France alone and has been translated into several languages. A personal account of a Palestinian man caught up in his wife’s suicide bombing, Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri adapted the novel for film in 2012. Subsequently, “The Attack” was adapted into a graphic novel, a medium commonly used to portray the Palestinian narrative, by French authors and illustrators Loїc Dauvillier and Glen Chapron, which was recently published in English by Firefly Books, the focus of this review.

“The Attack” plot centers around Dr. Amin Jaafari, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, whose comfortable life in Tel Aviv is blown apart after his seemingly secular and assimilated wife commits a suicide attack against Israeli civilians. Incredulous that his partner of ten years, who never showed any hint of extremism, could do such a thing, Jaafari attempts to retrace her final days to unravel how it came to pass.

That’s the beginning, middle, and end of the graphic novel.

In terms of pure intrigue, “The Attack” certainly captures the attention, but for anyone remotely familiar with Israeli portrayals of Palestinians, the English text is a vulgar repetition of Israeli clichés and slander. This very premise is ludicrous: A Palestinian orphan who grew up in the West Bank acquiring Israeli citizenship? Not likely. Moreover, the idea that Palestinians might snap at any moment and turn their bodies into bombs is not only absurd, but also a racist depiction steeped in Orientalist discourse.

Jaafari’s wife, we are repeatedly told, was perfectly happy living in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv and traveling to Europe. Borrowing from Israeli hasbara handbooks, “The Attack” identifies her motivation as “shame” over her privilege in Tel Aviv hobnobbing with the “enemy” while her people suffer. Israelis have long used shame, especially over family honor, as an explanation for Palestinian violence, which is a distraction from the brutality of Israel’s occupation.

“The Attack” descends into further absurdities when Jaafari travels to Bethlehem accompanied by a Jewish colleague to meet the Palestinians who radicalized his wife. The uninformed reader might not infer that Jaafari and his colleague stay at an apartment outside of Bethlehem located in an illegal Israeli settlement: “The Attack” erases the occupation, an omission that defines the whole text.

Traveling across the West Bank, “The Attack” acts as a tour guide that could have been drafted by an Israeli embassy: Nearly all Palestinians are portrayed as cheerleaders of suicide bombings, the occupation is invisible, and the Palestinians’ bitterness is of their own making. Jaafari’s inquiries agitate local militant leaders, one of whom subjects him to harsh detention. Upon release, the local leader informs Jaafari that this is why the Palestinians fight, because of the hardship he just briefly tasted. Yet, the source of that hardship, Israel’s occupation, is never identified. This oblique reference to hardship that is divorced from the reality of Israeli occupation defines the text in stark contrast to the victimization of Israelis at the hands of a Palestinian perpetrator.

In such context, Palestinian hatred of Israel, which comes across as a place where Israelis are loving and generous toward their Palestinian neighbors, appears irrational, psychotic even. And we reach the apex of Zionist revisionism when Jaafari comes across a Jewish sage in the West Bank who laments the construction of the Israeli separation barrier as something forced on Israel by Palestinians who have been led astray and turned into murders by their own leaders, and dismisses their suffering as immaterial to Israel. Such self-serving logic is well-rehearsed among Israelis and pro-Israel partisans.

If the Israeli foreign ministry authored a graphic novel, it wouldn’t look much different from “The Attack.” Erase the occupation. Portray Palestinians as congenital suicide bombers. Depict the average Palestinian as a religious extremist who revels in blood spilling. And blame the Palestinians for their own misery. One could give the authors the benefit of the doubt and say that they had to streamline the story for graphic form and ended up inadvertently offensive. But, Joe Sacco’s “Palestine” and “Footnotes in Gaza” and Harvey Pekar’s “Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me” have demonstrated that graphic novels can be excellent mediums for telling even complex stories. Alas, “The Attack” doesn’t follow in that fine tradition.

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