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Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972)


Palestinian novelist, short-story writer, and dramatist, who was murdered, together with his niece, when a bomb planted in his car exploded. Main themes in Kanafani's writings are uprootedness, exile, and national struggle. He often used in his stories the desert and its heat as a symbol for the plight of the Palestinian people. Kuwait provides the background for his short story 'The Slave Fort,' an adaptation of King Lear. The narrator visits his friend, a half-mad old man. He is the father of four sons who have become the richest people in the desert. The sons quarrel about who should provide a home for him. The old man settles in a humble hut of wood and earns his living by selling oyster shells. The narrator and his friend give the man two loaves and start to open the shells to find pearls. They find nothing, but the old man says:

"All thinking must set forth from the point of death, whether it be, as you say, that of a man who dies contemplating the charms of the body of a wonderfully beautiful girl, or whether he dies staring into a newly shaven face which frightens him because of an old wooden box tied round with string. The unsolved question remains that of the end; the question of non-existence, of eternal life – or what? Or what, my dear Ahmed?" (from 'The Death of Bed Number 12', 1961)

Ghassan Kanafani's life and career as a writer was closely connected to the situation of the Palestinians, and his intense involvement in Palestinian affairs gave him a unique vantage point. Kanafani's two first novels, which experimented with language and form, rank among the most complex in all of Arabic fiction of that time. He wrote in Arabic, for an Arab audience, but the translation of his novellas Rijal fi-al-shams (1963) and Ma tabaqqa lakum (1966) into English have made his work available to a wider audience.

Kanafani was born in Acre, in the North of Palestine, the son of a lawyer. In 1947 Palestine was partitioned into Arab and Jewish zones by the United Nations. Israel's wars of independence drove 780 000 Palestinians from their homeland. Kanafani's family lived in Jaffa until the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe) of 1948. Just before the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war at midnight on 14 May 1948, they first fled to Ghazie, a small Lebanese villlage, and then to Syria, settling there as Palestinian refugees.

After finishing his secondary education, Kanafani began teaching in a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UMRWA) schools. In 1952, he entered the University of Damascus, where he studied Arabic literature. Before receiving a degree, Kanafani was expelled from the university due to his political activities. He moved to Kuwait, where he worked as a teacher and journalist, and then Beirut, where he was amongst other things the editor of the pro-Nasser paper al-Muharrir. During these years Kanafani's political activities increased. In 1967 he began to work for the newspaper Al Anwar. Kanafani's Adab al-Muqawama fi Filastin al-Muhtalla 1948-1966 (1966), which included a crical study and poems by Palestinian writers, introduced Palestinian resistance poetry to the Arab readers outside Israel.

The Palestine Liberation Organization was founded in 1964. Kanafani was a member of the Movement of the Arab Nationalists (Harakat al-Qawmiyin al-Arab), a left-wing organization headed by Dr. George Habash. While studying in Damascus he had joined the Arab Nationalist Party. In 1969 he became spokesperson for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a branch of the Movement of the Arab Nationalists, and the editor-in-chief of its weekly Al-Hadaf. The PFLP specialized in small-scale operations

Arab-Israeli wars continued in 1956 and 1967. Kanafani's first novel, Men in the Sun, came out in 1963. The book was adapted for the screen by the Egyptian director Tawfiq Salim under the title al-Makhduun. Men in the Sun is the story of three Palestinians, who attempt to escape to Kuwait in the tank of a water truck. The characters represent three different generations. In the gloomy ending, they perish in their journey across the desert, referring to the end of the Palestinian people. While the refugees are dying under the heat of the sun, they knock continuously on the wall of the tank, crying, "We are here, we are dying, let us out, let us free." Some Arab countries banned the film due to its criticism of Arab regimes. (Unveiled: How an American Woman Found Her Way Through Politics, Love, and Obedience in the Middle East by Deborah Kanafani, 2008, p. 43)

Hania A.M. Nashef has argued that the Palestinian novel "is not only a chronicle of the Palestinian and Arab history of dispossession, renewal, and defeat, but it also constitutes distinctive aesthetic forms and features  that register the story of both Palestinian and Arab historical transformation after the nakba." (Palestinian Culture and the Nakba: Bearing Witness by Hania A.M. Nashef, 2019, p. 3) Kanafani's ambitious and experimental novel, All That's Left to You (1966) is considered one of the earliest and most successful modernist experiments in Arabic fiction. Kanafani used multiple narrators  two of them, the clock and the desert, were inanimate. The protagonist of the story is a young man named Hamid. He dreams of being reunited with his mother from whom he was separated in 1948. Hamid had fled to Gaza while his mother left for the West Bank. He tries to find her but becomes lost in the desert, crossing paths with an Israeli soldier. He is forced to eschew his original plan and turn to confront his enemy. Although he dies before locating his mother, he is in death reunited with his lost land. The thematic development reflects the change in political climate, and the initiation of the Palestinian armed struggle.

Umm Sad (1969) reflects the situation of the Palestinians following the defeat of the Arab armies in 1967 and the rise of the Palestinian Resistance Movement. One of the central characters is a woman, Umm Sad, whose son joins the resistance. Kanafani's last published novella, A'id ila Hayfa (1969, Return to Haifa), had also a direct political message. In these books Kanafani abandoned interior monologues, flashbacks, and other complex techniques, and used straightforward narrative and dialogue. The works marked the shift from nationalist ideals to a more pronounced Marxist ideology. Return to Haifa concludes with a call for action. The novella was published in Hebrew in 2001.

The Hebrew adaptation of Return to Haifa was staged in 2008 at the Cameri Theatre, adapted by Boaz Gaon and directed by Israeli director Sinai Peter. Well before the premiere, the religious newspaper Makor rishon wrote that "the Cameri, budgeted by taxpayers, is taging a work written by a terrorist." (Multiculturalism in Israel: Literary Perspectives by Adia Mendelson-Maoz, 2014, p. 51) In the theater version, the ending suggests dialogue. The play focuses on a Palestinian couple, who visit in 1967 their old home in Haifa, where they had left their infant son, Khaldun, during the chaos of the Arab-Israeli war. It turns out that Khaldun has been adopted by a Polish-Jew couple, and given a new name, Dubinka. He first rejects his biological parents, who had abandoned him, but his final choise is left open.

Kanafani was assassinated in Beirut on July 8, 1972, by a car bomb planted allegedly by Israeli agents. The explosion also killed his seventeen-year-old niece Lamees. At first it was considered a possibility that Jordanian agents had hot-wired his Austin 1100. Kanafani had been selected as a target after an attack in May 1972 at Tel Aviv's Lod Airport, which left twenty-four dead. The massacre was carried out by the Japanese Red Army. Photographs of Kanafani with Japanese terrorists were sent to newspapers. Moreover, on behalf of the PFLP, Kanafani had apparently defended the Lod massacre. The Beirut English-language newspaper The Daily Star wrote: "Ghassan was the commando who never fired a gun. His weapon was a ballpoint pen and his arena newspaper pages."  (The Daily Star, July 9, 1972) When the Palestinian political leader and writer Kamal Nasir read Mahmoud Darwish's elegy to Kanafani he said: "What more can a poet write after this? What is there left for you to say when my time comes?" ('Remembering Ghassan Kanafani, or How a Nation Was Born of Story Telling' by Elias Khoury, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 42, No. 3, Spring 2013) On the 19th July, 1972, a letter bomb came close to killing Kanafani's second-in-command. Kanafani was posthumously awarded the Lotus Prize for Literature by the Conference of Afro-Asian Writers.

By the time of his death, Kanafani had published eighteen books, and left fragments of three novels that came out posthumously. Beside novels, Kanafani wrote four collections of short stories, literary criticism, plays, and historical expositions. He also tried his hand as a painter. Kanafani was married to Anni Høver, a Danish children's right activist, whom he met in 1961. They had two children. Kanafani's daughter Laila has developed children's art projects at the Ghassan Kanafani Cultural Center in Lebanon established to honor the memory of her father.

For further reading: Palestinian Culture and the Nakba: Bearing Witness by Hania A.M. Nashef (2019); The Palestinian Novel: From 1948 to the Present by Bashir Abu-Manneh (2018); 'Remembering Ghassan Kanafani, or How a Nation Was Born of Story Telling' by Elias Khoury, in Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Spring 2013); Debunking the Myths of Colonization: The Arab and Europe by Samar Attar (2010); 'Ghassan Kanafani 1936-1972: Palestinian novelist and short-story writer' by Paul Starkey, in Encyclopedia of Literary Translation Into English: Volume 1, edited by Olive Classe (2000); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing by Barbara Harlow (1996); Ghassan Kanafani: A Study of his Novels and Short Stories by Fayha Abdul Hadi (1990); Man Is A Cause: Political Consciousness and the Fiction of Ghassan Kanafani by Muhammad Siddiq (1984); The Arabic Novel by Roger Allen (1982, 2nd ed. 1995); Al-Tariq ila al-khaymah al-ukhra by Radwa Ashur (1977); Ghassan Kanafani: The Life of an Palestinian by Stefan Wild (1975); Ghassan Kanafani by A. Kanafani (1973)

Selected works:

  • Mawt Sarir raqm 12, 1961 [A Death in Bed No. 12]
  • Ard al-burtugal al-hazin, 1963 [The Land of the Melancholy Orange]
  • Rijal fi-al-shams, 1963
    - Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories (translated by Hilary Kilpatrick, 1978)
  • al-Bab, 1964
  • Alam laysa lana, 1965
  • Adab al-muqawamah fi filastin al-muhtalla 1948-1966, 1966 [The Literature of the Resistance in Occupied Palestine, 1948-1966] 
  • Ma tabaqqa lakum, 1966
    - All That's Left to You: A Novella and Other Stories (translated by Jeremy Reed, May Jayyusi, 1990)
  • Fi al-Abab al-sahyuni, 1967
  • Al-Adab al-filastinial-muqawin tahta al-ihtilal: 1948-1968, 1968  [Palestinian Resistance Literature under the Occupation 1948-1968]
  • An al-rijal wa-al-banadiq, 1968
  • Umm Sad, 1969
  • A'id ila Hayfa, 1969
    - Palestine's Children (translated by Barbara Harlow, 1984) 
  • al-A ma wa-al-atrash, 1972
  • Barquq Naysan, 1972
  • al-Qubba'ah wa-al-nabi, 1973
  • Thawrat 193639 fi filastin, 1974
  • Jusr ila al-abad, 1978
  • al-Qamis al-masruq wa-qisas ukhra, 1982
  • 'The Slave Fort' in Arabic Short Stories, 1983 (translated by Denys Johnson-Davies)
  • Faris faris, 1996
  • Palestine's Children: Returning to Haifa & Other Stories, 2000 (with others, translated by Barbara Harlow and Karen E. Riley)
  • Ma'ārij al-ibdā': mā lam yunshar min al-kitābāt al-ūlá lil-shahīd al-adīb Ghassān Kanafānī mā bayna 1951-1960, 2009 (taḥrīr ʻAdnān Kanafānī)

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