In the last quartet of his poem about the Spanish Civil War, Auden writes:
“The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.”
Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, a collection containing one novella and six short stories, is about individuals struggling to shape their response to history’s refusal to help or pardon. The theme of Men in the Sun is slightly different from that which characterises his brilliant novella, Returning to Haifa, which I wrote about a few days ago. While that deals expressly with the relationship between the settler and the displaced, these stories are about the fate of the displaced, adrift in the new world that they have been forcibly thrust into. Israel is present in the background, of course (“In the morning, when the Jews withdrew, threatening and fuming, a big lorry was standing at the door of our house..“), but only insofar as it has unrolled the canvas upon which these characters, these human beings, must paint their lives and their destinies anew.
Like in Returning to Haifa, much of Kanafani’s writing emphasises the importance of symbols: how objects and places can become symbols and metaphors of loss, parting, exile or resistance. In The Land of Sad Oranges, for instance, the physical and mental disintegration of an individual unable to deal with the consequences of erosion is portrayed poignantly by the withering of an orange – because oranges were a central part of the life of the peasants in their homeland.
“You were huddled up there, as far from your childhood as you were from the land of oranges – the oranges that, according to a peasant who used to cultivate them until he left, would shrivel up if a change occurred, and they were watered by a strange hand.”
Or in the last lines of The Falcon, an improbable story of friendship between a falcon, and the creature that it is meant to hunt, the gazelle:
“I wonder where the gazelle went.”
In the pale light of the match I saw his face as it had always been: thin, harsh, cold. His lips moved:
“It went to die among its people. Gazelles like to die among their people. Falcons don’t care where they die.”
Or in the description of Umm Saad’s response to learning that her son has joined the fedayeen, in Umm Saad:
“Her hands were folded in her lap, and I could see the palms, dry as blocks of wood, cracked like an old tree trunk. Through the furrows that years of hard work had traced in them, I could see her sorry journey with Saad, from the time when he was a child until he grew to maturity. Those firm hands had nourished him as the earth nourishes the stem of a tender plant, and now they had opened suddenly, and the bird that had nestled there for twenty years had flown away.”
Memory and the past, as one would expect, our recurring themes in Kanafani’s work. In Returning to Haifa, much of the tension in the story is centred upon two opposing visions of Palestine: one that seeks to raise it up out of memory, to recreate what was Palestine before the nakba, to – in the simplest possible terms – go back to the past. The other is a vision of the future, of Palestine as a homeland in which none of “this” (displacement, exile, suffering) can happen. In If You Were a Horse, Kanafani skillfully uses a distinctly personal about individual tragedy to explore how memory works and responds to shattering events:
“He knew his father through and through, and he knew that the past was for him, a solid wooden box locked with a thousand keys that had been cast into the depths of the ocean.”
The refusal to engage with the past, while being continuously tormented by it, and having all your thoughts and actions intimately shaped by it, and the sheer unendurableness of the tension between the two, is described strikingly in this story. The political context is unmissable, even though it is, ostensibly, a story about a father, a mother and a son.
Men in the Sun, the novella that gives the collection its name, is quite simply one of the most powerful pieces of writing that I have ever read. So powerful, in fact, that a footnote in the preface to the collection tells us that when it was filmed under the name of Al-Makhducun (“The Deceived”), the plot had to be altered, since “a film similar to the novella in its denouement would have appeared glaringly incongruous at a time when the resistance movements were established.” It is the story of three Palestinian refugees in Baghdad, and their clandestine, illegal journey in a lorry, across the burning desert to seek a better future in Kuwait. The past and the present, the personal and the political, the individual story and the social condition – all continually merge, come apart and merge again, in a style reminiscent of Kundera. With all the dangers that accompany such broad generalisations, I think that it is nevertheless safe to say that in each individual life-story, you can read something of the history of a people; and in the way that an individual attempts to respond to and shape his situation, one can see an entire community searching for a way, some way, to deal with the torment of exile. Any further attempt to summarise this profoundly disturbing story would be nothing more than an abject failure, so I’ll replace that with two of the most striking quotes that, in a sense, sum up the human predicament that forms the basis of the story:
“On the other side of this Shatt, just the other side, were all the things he had been deprived of. Over there was Kuwait. What only lived in his mind as a dream and a fantasy existed there. It was certainly something real, of stones, earth, water, and sky, not as it slumbered in his troubled mind. There must be lanes and streets, men and women, and children running about between the trees.”
“None of the four wanted to talk anymore, not only because they were exhausted by their efforts, but because each one was swallowed up in his own thoughts. The huge lorry was carrying them along the road, together with their dreams, their families, their hopes and ambitions, their misery and despair, their strength and weakness, their past and future, as if it were pushing against the immense door to a new, unknown destiny, and all eyes were fixed on the door’s surface as though bound to it by invisible threads.”
The last story, A Letter from Gaza, is the most overtly political story in the collection. It is a letter from one friend to another, both of whom have grown up in Gaza; one of them has chosen to emigrate and go to California, “liberating… myself from this last tie too… far from the reek of defeat that for seven years had filled my nostrils.” The other has chosen to stay behind and work in Kuwait. And it is he who must explain to his friend why he hasn’t followed him away from a Gaza in which “my own self… had suffered so long. I hated Gaza and its inhabitants. Everything in the amputated town reminded me of failed pictures painted in gray by a sick man.” And yet, “What is this ill-defined tie we had with Gaza that blunted our enthusiasm for flight? Why didn’t we analyze the matter in such a way as to give it a clear meaning? Why didn’t we leave this defeat with its wounds behind us and move on to a brighter future that would give us deeper consolation! Why? We didn’t exactly know.”
It’s the idea of the “homeland” again, the idea that Kanafani writes of so lyrically in Returning to Haifa, the homeland that it is inextricably bound up with memory and desire. “What,” the letter-writer asks, despite the fact that Gaza is “closed like the introverted lining of a rusted snail-shell thrown up by the waves on the sticky, sandy shore by the slaughterhouse”, despite the fact that “this Gaza was more cramped than the mind of a sleeper in the throes of a fearful nightmare, with its narrow streets that had their peculiar smell, the smell of defeat and poverty, its houses with their bulging balconies” – despite all this, what “are the obscure causes that draw a man to his family, his house, his memories, as a spring draws a small flock of mountain goats?” And he gives himself the only answer possible: “I don’t know.”
But then something happens that does make him know, suddenly, abruptly and shockingly, what binds him to Gaza. It is the sight of his niece, for whom he has bought a pair of red trousers from Kuwait, in a hospital bed, and:
“My friend… Never shall I forget Nadia’s leg, amputated from the top of the thigh. No! Nor shall I forget the grief which had moulded her face and merged into its traits forever. I went out of the hospital in Gaza that day, my hand clutched in silent derision on the two pounds I had brought with me to give Nadia. The blazing sun filled the streets with the colour of blood. And Gaza was brand new, Mustafa! You and I never saw it like this. The stone piled up at the beginning of the Shajiya quarter where we lived had a meaning, and they seemed to have been put there for no other reason but to explain it. This Gaza in which we had lived and with whose good people we had spent seven years of defeat was something new. It seemed to me just a beginning. I imagined that in the main street that I walked along on the way back home was only the beginning of a long, long road leading to Safad. Everything in this Gaza throbbed with a sadness, which was not confined to weeping. It was a challenge; more than that, it was something like reclamation of the amputated leg.
I went out into the streets of Gaza, streets filled with blinding sunlight. They told me that Nadia had lost her leg when she threw herself on top of her little brothers and sisters to protect them from the bombs and flames that had fastened their claws into the house. Nadia could have saved herself, she could have run away, rescued her leg. But she didn’t.
No, my friend, I won’t come to Sacramento, and I’ve no regrets. No, and nor will I finish what we began together in childhood. This obscure feeling that you had as you left Gaza, this small feeling must grow into a giant deep within you. It must expand, you must seek it in order to find yourself, here among the ugly debris of defeat.
I won’t come to you. But you, return to us! Come back, to learn from Nadia’s leg, amputated from the top of the thigh, what life and what existence is worth.
Come back, my friend! We are all waiting for you.”
In Returning to Haifa, one of the central questions is whether a man is defined, no, created by a cause. And if we are all creatures seeking meaning, that meaning can only be provided by a cause. From Returning to Haifa and A Letter from Gaza, we get a distinct sense that oftentimes, it is not even open to us to choose our cause, the thing that we decide will give our lives meaning; oftentimes, it is the circumstances that determine it for us. And since it cannot be evaded, it must be embraced. It is a highly disturbing view of the self, but in Kanafani’s hands, it is utterly compelling.
Elsewhere, in a letter to his son, he puts it more eloquently than I ever can:
“I heard you in the other room asking your mother: “Mama, am I a Palestinian?” When she answered “Yes”, a heavy silence fell on the whole house. It was as if something hanging over our heads had fallen, its noise exploding, and then – silence.
Afterwards… I heard you crying. I could not move. There was something bigger than my awareness being born in the other room through your bewildered sobbing. It was as if a blessed scalpel was cutting up your chest and putting there the heart that belongs to you… I was unable to move to see what was happening in the other room. I knew, however, that a distant homeland was being born again; hills, plains, olive groves, dead people, torn banners and folded ones, all cutting their way into a future of flesh and blood and being born in the heart of another child… Do not believe that man grows. No; he is born suddenly – a word, in a moment, penetrates his heard to a new throb. One scene can hurl him down from the ceiling of childhood on to the ruggedness of the road.”
And I am reminded, in conclusion, of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, Silence for Gaza, which begins like this:
With dynamite she raps her waist
It is neither death nor suicide
Its Gaza’s style to announce her worthiness of life…