On April 21, 1948, as the forces of the Haganah and the Irgun launch a three-pronged assault on the city of Haifa, Said S. and his young wife Safiya, with thousands of other Palestinians, must flee to the boats. In the process, they are forced to leave behind their son, the five-month old Khaldun, a loss that naturally haunts them as they build a new life in exile, in Ramallah. Twenty years later, in 1967, when the borders are briefly opened, they make the journey back “home”, to find almost everything the same; yet what was once their house is now occupied by Polish Jews, sometime refugees from the holocaust; and who was once Khaldun is now Dov, brought up for the last twenty years by his adoptive Jewish parents, and now a serving member of the IDF.
I hardly know how to begin reviewing Hanafani’s searingly beautiful novella, Returning to Haifa. To speak of literary style and technique (for he is a brilliant writer) with respect to a work as self-avowedly political as this seems absurd; and yet, it seems even more absurd to try and set down, in cold, analytical prose, the substantive themes of the novella, themes that have left their burning mark upon the paper, arising directly out of the flames and embers of bitter personal experience. For Ghassan Kanafani was forced into exile himself, in the 1948 War, when he was twelve years old. He went on to become a notable Palestinian writer and activist, until his assassination by a car bomb in 1972. How then can one, whose own experiences are to Kanafani’s as water is to wine, ever hope to capture anything remotely close to their true sense? Nonetheless, I shall try.
Returning to Haifa focuses on a few core human themes: deep loss frozen forever by memory; exile and the yearning to return, in both space and time, to what was once was, and forever imagined unchained; the clash of that vision with hopes for a new future; and the nature of personal identity – all these themes, inextricably intertwined with one another, are dealt with in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“When he reached the edge of Haifa, approaching by car along the Jerusalem road, Said S. had the sensation that something was binding his tongue, compelling him to keep silent, and he feIt grief well up inside of him. For one moment he was tempted to turn back, and without even looking at her he knew that his wife had begun to cry silently. Then suddenly came the sound of the sea, exactly the way it used to be. Oh no, the memory did not retnrn to him little by little. Instead, it rained down inside his head the way a stone wall collapses, the stones piling up, one upon another.”
This is how the story begins. Two things stand out in this passage, two themes that Kanafani returns to repeatedly. The first is the exile’s longing to resurrect a dead past “exactly the way it used to be“, to see things as though he had never been away and nothing had ever changed since he had. The second is how insensible things, like memory, have acquired the images of violence and conflict – indeed, with the choice of a crumbling stone wall, a particularised violence and conflict, specific to the time and place. Walls and gates play an integral role in Said S’s imagination. Indeed, he sums up the tragedy of his – and by extension, his community’s – existence through another (extremely powerful) image, as he talks to Safiya:
“You know, for twenty long years I always imagined that the Mandelbaum Gate would be opened some day, but I never, never imagined that it would be opened from the other side. It never entered my mind. So when they were the ones to open it, it seemed to me frightening and absurd and to a great degree humiliating. Maybe I’d be crazy if I told you that doors should always open from one side only, and that if they opened from the other side they must still be considered closed. But nevertheless, that’s the truth.”
And what we understand from this is that a part of the reason why Said S. and Safiya see – and indeed, want to see – everything the same as it ever was, is their conviction that their exile is temporary, and their return imminent. Twenty years after 1948, facts are now at war with this conviction; and in Kanfani’s story, there is a poignant tension between the two. Either the facts, as one perceives them, must give way, or the conviction must be abandoned. The tension is present in their refusal to acknowledge changes – for instance, in Said S.’s reference to King Faisal Street by its old name, because “for him, the street names had never changed” and in the three familiar cypress trees by a well-known road, that now have new branches; it is present in Said S.’s tormented feelings as they climb up the stairs to their old house, where he “didn’t give either of them the opportunity to see all the little things that would jolt and throw them off balance-the bell and the copper lock and the bullet holes in the wall and the electricity box and the fourth step broken in its center and the smooth carved balustrade which the palm slid over and the unyielding iron grillwork of the masatib and the first floor…” And it is present, most powerfully, in the climactic scene in the house when, while talking with Miriam, the Polish-Jewish woman who now lives in what was once their house, Said S. notices that the glass vase that once had seven peacock feathers, is now a wooden glass that has five.
“For a moment he wanted to get up and leave. Nothing mattered to him anymore. Whether Khaldun was alive or dead made no difference. How things reached that point he simply couldn’t say. He was filled with helpless, bitter anger and felt as if he were about to explode inside. He didn’t know how his gaze happened to fall upon the five peacock feathers stuck in the wooden vase in the middle of the room. He saw their rare, beautiful colors shifting in the puffs of wind coming from the open window. Pointing at the vase, he demanded gruffly:
“There were seven feathers. What happened to the two missing feathers?”
The old woman looked where he was pointing, then looked at him again questioningly. He continued to hold his arm outstretched toward the vase, staring, demanding an answer. His entire universe hung in the balance, poised on the tip of her tongue. She rose from her chair and grasped the vase as though for the first time. Slowly she said:
“I don’t know where the two feathers you speak of went. I can’t remember. Maybe Dov played with them when he was a child and lost them:’
And with that, we are introduced into the climax of the story, the existence of Dov-Khaldun, that stretches the tension to breaking point. The scene is set at the very beginning, when Miriam says, almost inadvertently, and immediately realising the gravity of her mistake:
“When will he get here?”
“It’s time for him to return now, but he’s late. He never was on time getting home. He’s just like his father. He was … “
She broke off. Biting her lip, she looked at Said, who was trembling as if he’d been hit by an electric shock. “Like his father!” Then suddenly he asked himself, “What is fatherhood?” It was like throwing a window wide to an unexpected cyclone.
And here is where Kanafani begins to engage with issues of personal identity. Miriam’s simple binary definition of the problem, that can easily be resolved by Dov/Khaldun “choosing” his parents, now that he is of age, is rightly rejected by Said. Because, as Said realises:
“What Khaldnn, Safiyya? What Khaldun? What flesh and blood are you talking about? You say this is a fair choice? They’ve taught him how to be for twenty years, day by day, hour by hour, with his food, his drink, his sleep. And you say, a fair choice! Truly Khaldun, or Dov, or the devil if you like, doesn’t know us! Do you want to know what I think? Let’s get out of here and return to the past. The matter is finished. They stole him.“
And yet, things are not so simple. When Dov does enter the room and is informed of the situation, naturally, he denies any ties with his biological parents. This shocks Safiya, but not Said.
“I didn’t know that Miriam and Iphrat weren’t my parents until about three or four years ago. From the time I was small I was a Jew … I went to Jewish school, I studied Hebrew, I go to Temple, I eat kosher food … When they told me I wasn’t their own child, it didn’t change anything. Even when they told me later on-that my original parents were Arabs, it didn’t change anything. No, nothing changed, that’s certain. After all, in the final analysis, man is a cause.”
“Who said that?”
“Who said that man is a cause?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember. Why do you ask?”
“Curiosity. Actually, just because that’s exactly what was going throngh my mind at this moment:’
“That man is a cause?”
“Then why did you come looking for me?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because I didn’t know it, or to be more certain about it. I don’t know.”
There is, of course, a contradiction here. If man is a cause, then what did Said mean, earlier, when he said to Safiya: “they stole him”? Who is the “him”, this unchanging essence, permanent and invariant, born Said and Safiya’s son, and… an Arab? Said now realises the falsity of this picture, understanding that:
Isn’t a human being made up of what’s injected into him hour after hour, day after day, year after year? If I regret anything, it’s that I believed the opposite for twenty years!”
The twenty years that he lived in hope of “finding” Khaldun again, a hope that he now realises was futile, because “Khaldun”, whatever that be, has ceased to exist. There is nothing to be found.
Dov isn’t done yet. He accuses Said and Safiya of cowardice, of the unforgivable abandonment of flesh and blood:
“You should not have left Haifa. If that wasn’t possible, then no matter what it took, you should not have left an infant in its crib. And if that was also impossible, then you should never have stopped trying to return. You say that too was impossible? Twenty years have passed, sir! Twenty years! What did you do during that time to reclaim your son? If I were you I would’ve borne arms for that. Is there any stronger motive? You’re all weak! Weak! You’re bound by heavy chains of backwardness and paralysis! Don’t tell me you spent twenty years crying! Tears won’t bring back the missing or the lost. Tears won’t work miracles! All the tears in the world won’t carry a small boat holding two parents searching for their lost child. So you spent twenty years crying. That’s what you tell me now? Is this your dull, worn-out weapon?”
Said has nothing to say to this, but for once, Safiya does:
“And because we’re cowards, he can become like this?”
Does this single line not sum it all up better than any moral philosophy ever can? It seems almost deflationary when Said has to spend long paragraphs explaining this. All that could be said, all the truth of the world, and the history of the conflict, seems to be aptly contained in that one line, those nine words.
And realisation comes to Said, with this encounter with Dov, that the past cannot – can never – be reclaimed. That what is at stake here now is not the piecing together of a shattered mosaic, but the building of a new one. He and his wife represent a dead yesterday, but their other son, Khalid, represents the future. Until yesterday, Said had forbidden Khalid to join the fidayeen, but now he fervently hopes that his son has taken advantage of his parents’ absence to run away and do it.
“Do you know what the homeland is, Safiyya? The homeland is where none of this can happen.”
“What happened to you, Said?”
“Nothing. Nothing at alL I was just asking. I’m looking for the true Palestine, the Palestine that’s more than memories, more than peacock feathers, more than a son, more than scars written by bullets on the stairs. I was just saying to myself: What’s Palestine with respect to Khalid? He doesn’t know the vase or the picture or the stairs or Hilisa or Khaldun. And yet for him, Palestine is something worthy of a man bearing arms for, dying for. For us, for you and me, it’s only a search for something buried beneath the dust of memories. And look what we found beneath that dust. Yet more dust. We were mistaken when we thought the homeland was only the past. For Khalid, the homeland is the future. That’s how we differed and that’s why Khalid wants to carry arms. Tens of thousands like Khalid won’t be stopped by the tears of men searching in the depths of their defeat for scraps of armor and broken flowers. Men like Khalid are looking toward the future, so they can put right our mistakes and the mistakes of the whole world. Dov is our shame, but Khalid is our enduring honor. Didn’t I tell you from the beginning that we shouldn’t come-because that was something requiring a war? Let’s go!”
What makes, I think, the encounter between Said, Safiya, Miriam and Dov so very powerful is the sheer impossibility of drawing any kind of definitive – and therefore, comforting – moral conclusions. And not just that – it is not as if this is a dispute over art or philosophy, where thinkers throughout the ages have treated the fragmentation of value and the unattainability of clear conclusions. On the contrary, it is a dispute where we want – and need – to have some kind of moral clarity. We cannot say, with Flaubert, that “Stupidity consists in wanting to reach conclusions. We are a thread, and we want to know the whole cloth… What mind worthy of the name, beginning with Homer, ever reached a conclusion? Let’s accept the picture. That’s how things are. So be it…” We cannot say this because it seems grossly irresponsible to engage in moral abdication where countless lives have been destroyed and countless more are at stake. We desperately need firm ground, a compass that points North, a fixed point, a moral position that is at least temporarily immune to undermining.
Kanafani gives us none of that. Two aspects of the confrontation stands out. “Is man a cause?” Dov asks, almost rhetorically. We are reminded promptly of the writings of Milan Kundera, especially of Life is Elsewhere, where Kundera launches an acerbic attack upon the kind of absolutism that comes through in Dov’s sentence; the idea that the individual spirit is subservient to a goal higher than itself (in Kundera’s case, the cause of the revolution), the idea of human beings as instrumental pieces upon some cosmic chessboard, even the idea of moral absolutes. And especially, coming from the mouth of an IDF officer, we could be inclined to treat it in a similar way; but Said, who is far more reflective, agrees with him entirely, and even expresses a wish that his son, Khalid, has taken advantage of his father’s absence to run off and join the fidayeen. What Said seems to have realised – and perhaps what Kanafani is getting at is that, ex hypothesi, conflicts that run so deep and so bitter create men and woman who are no more or no less – nor can ever be – than the causes that they serve. It is not a question of choice, because it defines and characterises you from the moment you are born, through every moment of your childhood and youth, shaped of course, by society. So while Kundera is clearly against the romanticisation of violence and the lyricism of revolution, Kanafani is far more ambiguous; he shows us that in certain situation, it might simply become part of what it is to live, a human being, in that society. Where does that leave my moral judgment against man being a cause, that I thought was as firmly rooted after reading Kundera? I’m not sure. But perhaps that is the point; how our comfortable moral systems simply break down in the face of such suffering.
And then again, once Safiya asks – and Said explains – whether their cowardice gives Dov the right to act as he did, and once Said elaborates:
First you say that our mistakes justify your mistakes, then you say that one wrong doesn’t absolve another. You use the first logic to justify your presence here, and the second to avoid the punishment your presence here deserves. It seems to me you greatly enjoy this strange game. Here again, you’re trying to fashion a race horse out of our weakness and mount its back. No, I’m not decreeing that you’re an Arab. Now I know, better than anyone, that man is a cause, not flesh and blood passed down from generation to generation like a merchant and his client exchanging a can of chopped meat. I’m decreeing that in the final analysis you’re a human being, Jewish or whatever you want. You must come to understand things as they should be understood. I know that one day you’ll realize these things, and that you’ll realize that the greatest crime any human being can commit, whoever he may be, is to believe even for one moment that the weakness and mistakes of others give him the right to exist at their expense and justify his own mistakes and crimes.”
He was quiet for a moment, then looked directly into Dov’s eyes. “And you, do you believe we’ll continue making mistakes? If we should stop making mistakes one day, what would be left for you then?”
At this point, one can divine the distinctly humanist direction in which this story is going. But within a page, this equilibrium is shattered when, on his departure, Said tells Miriam:
“You two may remain in our house temporarily. It will take a war to settle that.”
And once again, the indication seems to be that maybe the humanist framework is simply inadequate to deal with a problem of this magnitude, this depth. Is there an adequate framework? Kanafani doesn’t provide one, and it seems difficult to imagine what such a framework would look like.
There are many other themes in the story that I wish I could explore here, and so many striking images and pieces of fine writing that I have an almost irresistible desire to quote (repeatedly), but I will stop here.
In summary, I’ve often felt that good literature can capture a situation, in all its complexity, far better and deeper than actual history (Hugo’s Les Miserables is a great example). After reading Returning to Haifa, I do feel that I know something about the Israel-Palestine concept that I couldn’t possibly have known otherwise.
PS. Kanafani’s Wiki page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghassan_Kanafani
PPS: Returning to Haifa isn’t available online. I do, however, have a scanned copy, and would be happy to email it to anyone who’s interested in knowing more about this great writer.