‘We make it smaller so we can fill it with happiness’: Kanafani, ‘Palestine’s Children’

Here is another collection of short stories by Ghassan Kanafani. As the name suggests, these stories are about Palestine (the lost homeland, the occupation, the struggle and all these things at once) as seen predominantly (but by no means exclusively) through the eyes of children; childen attempting to shape their world, and themselves being shaped – and sometimes destroyed, both physically and in other ways – by a conflict that has become a background fact of existence, seemingly as eternal and immutable as nature itself.

Palestine’s Children sees Kanafani employ many of the themes – and techniques – that he normally uses to striking effect. The Slope, the opening story of the book, is similar in many ways to that profoundly disturbing novella, Men in the Sun. Here, the doomed journey across the desert is replaced by a child telling a story in class: a clearly made-up story about his father, a shoemaker, who is so engrossed in his task (attempting to earn enough money to send his children to school) that he allows himself to be suffocated to death under the fruit and nut peels thrown down upon him by the rich man’s family that resides above his workplace. The simple story, absurd and unbelievable even as fantasy (and dismissed by the headmaster as such) is of course a savage commentary upon the refusal of the Palestinian people (until the first intifada) to resist the ocupation, and carry on with their lives as though nothing had happened. It is, in fact, the absurdity of the story that drives the message home. Who wouldn’t notice fruit peels raining down upon his head? Precisely he, Kanafani seems to be saying, who wouldn’t notice being roasted to death inside a truck (Men in the Sun) – or he who doesn’t notice his country being taken from him beneath his very nose. Or he who tells a young boy, in another story, with that characteristic fatalism:

… listen, Mansur. This generation is an accursed generation. You have to know that from the beginning.’

Or in another story where every paragraph accounting episodes in the struggle is punctuated by either ‘but that is besides the point’, or ‘but that is also besides the point.’

Perhaps the most powerful series of stories in the collection track the lives of two brothers: Quassim and Mansur. Born to a Palestinian villager, the elder is educated, becomes a doctor in Haifa and is involved with a Jewish woman, while the younger joins the fidayeen. Incidenta run in parallel. Just as Mansur has left from home, without informing his father, to join an attack upon a British-held citadel, Quassim is breakfasting in Haifa:

‘Doctor Quassim looked out at the houses of Haifa stacked at the foot of Mount Carmel and the stony field stretching off towards the port. All of it was exposed to the barrel of the gun set up on the roof of the house. He didn’t quite recall the details of the story which he had read that morning about the two Arabs who had been killed by bullets from some far-off gun, or whether the incident had occurred near this very region.’

This is strongly reminiscent of Camus’ ‘Mother died today; or maybe yesterday. I don’t know.’ And indeed, Palestine, and all that it stands for, is a distant strangeness to Quassim, who appears to be more at home in an alien society. As the fighting intensifies around Acre:

When he [Quassim] raised his head, something appeared in front of him. Through the pale blue mist were the domes and rooftops of Acre. At the same time he remembered Majd al-Kurum [his home village]. It seemed distant to him, an ambiguous distance not unlike oblivion.

And in turn, to Palestinian eyes, Quassim has become a stranger. He’s a stranger to his father, when he returns home to the village for a visit, and refuses to settle there as a doctor, preferring instead to continue to advance his career in Haifa, now Israeli territory. His father reacts naturally by thinking ‘at least there’s the other one [son]‘ – and yet, like most of Kanafani’s characters, subtle, complex and multi-layered, we cannot simply dismiss Quassim as a fifth columnist or a traitor to his people. Because of his own awareness of a fractured being in a fractured land living in a fractured time, it is difficult not to sympathise with Quassim somewhat, not least because we can so easily see parts of ourselves in him. Speaking with Eva, the Jewish woman with whom he is living, Quassim is careful ‘lest the conversation approach limits which were too uncertain for him.’ But that of course requires an awareness of the uncertainty. And it also calls forth this profound insight:

‘…there are a lot of things I didn’t tell you, and a lot of things that you don’t tell me. We make our world smaller with our hands in order to force outside its limits everything that has nothing to do with us. We make it smaller so we can fill it with happiness.’

So Quassim is aware of his own escapism, aware of what motivates it, struggling between forcing oblivion upon himself and the pull of his own intelligence the other way. Isn’t that so very true of all of us as well, even though we are lucky enough not to be faced with alternatives as stark as he is, that put his moral and intellectual abdication into sharp relief?

And all this while, Mansur walks around with a gun that is far too big for him to handle, getting into all kinds of scrapes, close to death always, but somehow with that inexplicable aura of child-like indestructability (ironically enough, he reminded me of Little Gavroche. The contrast is vivid and brutal, and not simply between the quiet morning of Haifa and the hail of bullets around the citadel.

Kanafani uses a number of different techniques to convey a sense of the incommunicable: the singularity and particularity of the Palestinian experience under occupation. In The Child Goes To the Camp, for instance, we have this refrain:

‘… it was war time. Not war really, but hostilities, to be precise… a continued struggle with the enemy.’

I tell you it was a time of hostilities… you don’t know how a fighter runs between shots all day long…’

‘It was a time of hostilities. I tell you this because you don’t know. The world at that time had turned upside down. No one expected any virtue. This would have seemed too ridiculous.’

The story itself involves a bizarre set of circumstances that involve finding a five pound note in a refugee camp, and its subsequent fate – bizarre enough to be surreal. But that is the point – this time of hostilities, as the narrator repeats, has simply overturned nomos – any kind of structure or order that we are accustomed to cut up our world with; and accordingly, the creatures that inhabit it have passed beyond our judgment of their actions. Ironically – again – I was reminded strongly of Primo Levi’s account of the Lager in Auschwitz in If This Is A Man, and his repeated exhortations to the reader cautioning him against judging human action in an environment that was alien beyond comprehension. Because, as the narrator reminds us at the end, ‘It was a time of hostilities. You won’t understand.’ Because we can try to imagine, but we cannot hope to understand.

I’ve blogged earlier about Mahmoud Darwish’s poem about Gaza, and Kanafani’s own story about Gaza, here. The story Guns in the Camp takes up this theme in more detail, bringing out through fiction what Frantz Fanon makes explicit in The Wretched of the Earth: that on occasion, political violence is the only method by which a subjugated, brutalised and humiliated people can regain their humanity and agency. Guns in the Camp is about the transformation of Abu Saad from a grumpy, ill-tempered man, quarelling ‘with his own shadow’, to a warm-hearted, generous neighbour. The reason for this transformation is described, with moving pathos, by his wife:

What could Abu Saad do except lose his temper and take it out on the people and on me and on his own shadow. Abu Saad had been crushed. Crushed by the poor, crushed by the victors, crushed by the ration card, crushed under a tin roof, crushed under the domination of the country… what could he do? Saad’s going [to the military struggle] restored his spirits and that day he was a little better. He saw the camp in another way. He lifted his head and began to look around. He looked at me and he looked at his children differently. Do you understand? If you could just see him now, strutting around like a rooster. He can’t see a gun on a young man’s shoulder without moving aside and caressing it, as if it were his own gun that had been stolen and he had just now found it again.’

And indeed, at the end of the story, Umm Saad expressly compares the situation to a blooming grapevine. Fanon, I think, would have nodded in appreciation at the accuracy of the metaphor.

Symbolism is a staple feature of Kanafani’s work. I’ve written about it before, both in Returning to Haifa and Men in the Sun. Symbolism – poignant, powerful, synecdochic – little incidents and things that speak of so much more. Thus, when one of his young revolutionary fighters strays too close to an explosion, and loses his hearing, it isn’t just an unfortunate tragedy of war. No, it is another attack upon the inculcated culture of defeat that Kanafani is so concerned to undermine, as he makes this story about something far beyond the misfortune of the individual soldier, even while remaining within the confines of his own life story, the story told by his comrade to his uncomprehending uncle:

‘… for a long time he lay on his shabby bed and all that while he listened to the endless stories. Stories about old men and mothers and children. Fear and shame and lamentation. Helplessness and loss. Surrender. The uncles’ stories, about wisdom and circumstances. For four years he listened. He listened a lot, a whole lot. Inv everything he listened to, there was one truth, and that was that his sister had run away from home. She was lost. I tell you, he listened a lot, a whole lot. Inv that place filled with shame and defeat and ruin, there was nothing but an ear to hear, to listen to the echoes of words and stories and lamentation which couldn’t destroy even a single fly, couldn’t even bury one truth. His sister was gone.

Now Hamid has decided to stop listening…

And, in the midst of such expressly political fiction, Kanafani never loses his brilliance as a writer, especially, an imagist of great power. Not only are the images vivid, but they accentuate the impact of theme and content sharply. On going deaf, Hamid hears only ‘mountains of steel collapsing‘ – fitting, for a revolutionary making his life among guns and tanks. Or, for memory and forgetting:

The image of his mother fell out of his head and shattered and the pieces and splinters of it were strewn about.’

Or again:

….the words dispersed around him in the same way as a drizzling rain disperses when it encounters a powerfully gushing torrent.’

As an immediate precursor to tragedy, this particular contrast between tranquil, pastoral evening scene and what is to come is almost unbearable:

‘…he began to blow into it [the pipe] an air of injured rebuke, of an eternal lover. He might have lived in any one of the villages scattered like the still stars throughout the land.

And perhaps the most fitting image for the land of Palestine:

…the fields wandered off to the left, undulating with bloodstained green.’

Ghassan Kanafani was assassinated by a car bomb at the age of 34. By all accounts, the Palestinian national movement lost one of its great representatives and spokespersons. As a reader, I think the loss to world literature was equally irreparable.

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2 Comments

Filed under Ghassan Kanafani, Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine

2 responses to “‘We make it smaller so we can fill it with happiness’: Kanafani, ‘Palestine’s Children’

  1. Sounds as if Kanafani was such a powerful storyteller. It seems that, at least in America, we get so few stories from the Palestinian point of view.

  2. Pingback: 2013: The Year in Books | anenduringromantic

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