Category Archives: Palestine

Connections: Victor Shklovsky and Mourid Barghouti on sadness and satisfaction

In the footnotes to the annotated edition of The Victor Shklovsky Reader, there is a footnote that comes at the end of this paragraph from Resurrecting the Word:

The most ancient human poetic creation was the creation of words. Today, words are dead, and language resembles a graveyard, but newly-born words were alive and vivid. Every word is originally a trope. For instance, moon: the original meaning of this word is “measurer”; weeping is cognate with the Latin for “to be flogged”; infant (just like the old Russian synonym, otrok) literally means “not speaking.”” 

In the footnote, the editor adds:

Sadness derives from the Proto-Germanic *sadaz (satisfied), with sated progressing to weary.

This fascinating etymological connection between sadness and satisfaction finds its poetic home, I think, in Mourid Barghouti’s The Pillow, one of my favourite poems:

The pillow said:
at the end of the long day
only I know
the confident man’s confusion,
the nun’s desire,
the slight quiver in the tyrant’s eyelash,
the preacher’s obscenity,
the soul’s longing
for a warm body where flying sparks
become a glowing coal.
Only I know
the grandeur of unnoticed little things;
only I know the loser’s dignity,
the winner’s loneliness
and the stupid coldness one feels
when a wish has been granted.
The last two lines, especially.

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Filed under Mourid Barghouti, Victor Shklovsky

“We can claim to have made a garden of the world”: Loss and Remembrance in Mourid Barghouti’s ‘I Saw Ramallah’

“We lived the experience of our displacement in the lands of others, and we lived with other displaced people who looked like us. Did we write our displacement? Why should our story, our particular story deserve to be listened to by the world? And who listens to the stories of those men, women, and children who are taken by their displacement to that other shore from which no one ever returns? Our dead are scattered in every land. Sometimes we did not know where to go with their corpses; the capitals of the world refuse to receive us as corpses as they refuse to receive us alive. And if the dead by displacement and the dead by weapons and the dead by longing and the dead by simple death are martyrs, and if poems are true and each martyr is a rose, we can claim to have made a garden of the world.”

Part-memoir, part-reminiscence, part-history, part-elegy, part-jeremiad – but most of all, a paean to a lost nation, Mourid Barghouti’I Saw Ramallah is the story of a man who comes back to his occupied homeland after thirty years of exile. Much like the work of Primo Levi, this is a reflection, written after the fact, that tries to use the medium of language to understand the incomprehensible, to attempt a reconciliation with the irreconcilable. And, much like Levi, from the moment Barghouti sets foot upon Allenby Bridge that leads from Jordan to Occupied Palestine, his writing is shot through with agony and ambiguity in near-equal measure.

At last! Here I am, walking, with my small bag, across the bridge. A bridge no longer than a few meters of wood and thirty years of exile.

    How was this piece of dark wood able to distance a whole nation from its dreams? To prevent entire generations from taking their coffee in homes that were theirs? How did it deliver us to all this patience and all that death? How was it able to scatter us among exiles, and tents, and political parties, and frightened whispers?

    I do not thank you, you short, unimportant bridge. You are not a sea or an ocean that we might find our excuses in your terrors. You are not a mountain range inhabited by wild beasts and fantastical monsters that we might summon our instincts to protect us from you. I would have thanked you, bridge, if you had been on another planet, at a spot the old Mercedes could not reach in thirty minutes. I would have thanked you had you been made by volcanoes and their thick, orange terror. But you were made by miserable carpenters, who held their nails in the corners of their mouths, and their cigarettes behind their ears. I do not say thank you, little bridge. Should I be ashamed in front of you? Or should you be ashamed in front of me? You are near like the stars of the naïve poet, far like the step of one paralyzes. What embarrassment is this? I do not forgive you and you do not forgive me. The sound of wood under my feet.

    Fayruz calls it the Bridge of Return. The Jordanians call it the King Hussein Bridge. The Palestinian Authority calls it al-Karama crossing. The common people and the bus and taxi drivers call it the Allenby Bridge. My mother, and before her my grandmother and my father and my uncle’s wife, Umm Talal, call it simply: the Bridge.”

Allenby Bridge is a symbol – the most poignant symbol of Palestinian exile. And it is symbols – symbols and metaphors that fill Barghouti’s work. They are his primary means of communication, and of understanding. The many aspects of exile, displacement and loss are approached through metaphor. A hotel room, for instance, comes to embody rootlessness and transience – it absolves one from “immortalize the moment”, but also “provides a theater for short acts and surprises and a widening of the monotonous horizons of life…” That hotel room, then, is the shifting life in the refugee camps of Lebanon, portrayed so movingly by Elias Khoury in Gate of the Sun, and the temporary return to Kanafani’s Haifa – because transience and temporariness is what it means to be an exile. The Israeli soldier’s gun is – similarly – the symbol of loss and deprivation, loss of the homeland that itself has now become nothing more than a symbol under years of occupation. It is in this way that it is appropriate for Barghouti’s principal stylistic technique to be approaching truth through metaphor because, as he understands it, the occupation has transformed Palestine itself into insubstantiality, an image and a song: “His gun took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of the land. In his hand he holds earth, and in our hands we hold a mirage.” But it is not just Palestine and the homeland that is a mirage – it is the occupation itself that is built upon a series of symbols, although grounded in the harsh actuality of the settlements:

“If you hear a speaker on some platform use the phrase ‘dismantling the settlements’, then laugh to your heart’s content. These are not children’s fortresses of Lego or Meccano. These are Israel itself; Israel the idea and the ideology and the geography and the trick and the excuse. It is the place that is ours and that they have made theirs. The settlements are their book, their first form. They are our absence. The settlements are the Palestinian Diaspora itself.”

And it is precisely this abstraction, this world of ideas, images, symbols and metaphors that Barghouti is anxious to resist.

The Occupation has created generations without a place whose colours, smells, and sounds they can remember; a first place that belongs to them, that they can return to in their memories in their cobbled-together exiles. There is no childhood bed for them to remember, a bed on which they forgot a soft cloth doll, or whose white pillows – once the adults had gone out of an evening – were their weapons in a battle that had them shrieking with delight. This is it. The Occupation has created generations of us that have to adore an unknown beloved: distant, difficult, surrounded by guards, by walls, by nuclear missiles, by sheer terror.

    The long Occupation has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine. I only started to believe in myself as a poet when I discovered how faded all abstracts and absolutes were. When I discovered the accuracy of the concrete detail and the truthfulness of the five senses, and the great gift, in particular, of sight. When I discovered the justice and genius of the language of the camera, which presents its view in an amazing whisper, however noisy this view was in fact or in history. Then I made the effort necessary to get rid of the poem that was an easy accompaniment to the anthem, to get rid of the badness of beginnings.

Resist because living through ideas can not only create a supine antipathy, and hold one in thrall to dangerous illusions, but it is precisely a mode of control:

    I have always believed that it is in the interests of an occupation, any occupation, that the homeland should be transformed in the memory of its people into a bouquet of ‘symbols’. Merely symbols. They will not allow us to develop our village so that it shares features with the city, or to move with our city into a contemporary space. Let us be frank: when we lived in the village did we not long for the city? Did we not long to leave small, limited, simple Deir Ghassanah for Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Nablus? Did we not wish that those cities would become like Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Beirut? The longing always for the new age.

    The Occupation has forced us to remain with the old. That is its crime. It did not deprive us of the clay ovens of yesterday, but of the mystery of what we would invent tomorrow. I did not come here to reclaim Al-Abrash’s camel. I used to long for the past in Deir Ghassanah as a child longs for precious, lost things. But when I saw that the past was still there, squatting in the sunshine in the village square, like a dog forgotten by its owners – or like a toy dog – I wanted to take hold of it, to kick it forward, to its coming days, to a better future, to tell it: “Run!”

These passage are almost Kundera-esque in their fierce denunciation of mythologizing and romanticizing, and their commitment to a brutal – if prosaic – realism. But where Kundera draws his motivation from seeing oppression justified in the name of abstraction, Barghouti is struggling with that perennial problem that we find in virtually all of Palestinian writing: the longing for a certain, remembered – yet unattainable – pre-colonial past, in tension with a desire for an uncertain, unknown – yet possibly achievable – post-colonial future. Like Kanafani, Khoury and all the rest, Barghouti is concerned with how to bring about the second; and it in that context that he feels the pressing, urgent need to inveigh against the symbolization of the Palestinian tragedy that also ensures its fossilization within a timeless, unchanging present.

Exile is understood by developing associations not with places – because “I am always without a place“, but with time – time, “a mist that never stops moving“. What one remembers, as an exile, are stretches of time: in Cairo, “wisps of fog that formed themselves into a shape that pleased me one morning“, and in ‘Ein al-Dir, the thorns of brambles scrambled through in days of childhood. And again, what one wants to retrieve is not a place, but a time: “Do I want to scramble through brambles now? No, what I want is the time of scrambling.” But of course, the tragedy of exile is precisely the impossibility of that – and indeed, the impossibility of any complete experience. “For all displacement is a semi-sentence, a semi-everything”, Barghouti writes, “they snatch you from your place suddenly, in a second. But you return very slowly. You watch yourself returning in silence. Always in silence. Your times in faraway places watch too; they are curious: what will the stranger do with the reclaimed place and what will the place do with the reclaimed stranger?” And we are back again to the ambiguity, the lack of closure, the absence of any fulfillment that characterizes this entire experience.

Lyrical and mellifluous, Barghouti’s writing is, I think, an exemplar of poetry in prose: appealing directly, as it does, to the primary imagination, its rhythm and its cadences alternatively beguiling and compelling, and all the while without losing the sharp edge of the substance – the indescribable nature of loss, displacement and exile – in the telling of it. That is why I have, in this review, given primary place to excerpts – this is a book that is best experienced, rather than described. And the closing is perhaps the best example of Barghouti’s art, and the point I’m trying to make:

I crossed the forbidden bridge and suddenly I bent to collect my scattered fragments as I would collect the flaps of my coat together on an icy day, or as a pupil would collect his papers scattered by the wind of the fields as he comes back from far away. On the pillow I collected the days and nights of laughter, of anger, or tears, of foolishness, and of marble monuments for which a single lifetime cannot suffice to visit them all with an offering of silence and respect. 

Tonight, with everyone in the house asleep and morning about to break, I ask a question that the days have never answered:

What deprives the spirit of its colours?

    What is it other than the bullets of the invaders that have hit the body?



Filed under Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine

“The moon is closer to us now than are the fig trees of our departed village”: Laughter and tragedy in Emile Habiby’s “Saeed the Pessoptimist”

The big man sent his own men to surprise me at my stall one noon. They led me off to prison after charging me publicly with having disobeyed the compulsory stay order. My going to Shafa Amr to buy melons, they said, had threatened the integrity of the state. Whoever, as they put it, transported red melons in secret could also carry radishes secretly and there was, after all, only a difference in colour between red radishes and hand grenades! And red was not, under any circumstances, the same as blue and white. With a watermelon, moreover, one could blow up a whole regiment if grenades were hidden inside it. “Don’t you see that, you mule?”

     “But I cut the melons open with a knife so the buyer can see,” the “mule” responded.

    “Oh! Knives too, eh?” they exclaimed. 

Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist brings Rabelais and Swift to Israel and Palestine. You cannot forbear to laugh, but the moment you pause to reflect, the laughter dissolves into the underlying darkness.  Innocence hangs like a thin film of translucent dew upon the surface, barely masking a savage indictment of the human condition just beneath (think of Voltaire’s Candide). The story follows the adventures of Saeed the Pessoptimist, a Palestinian who stays behind after the creation of the state of Israel, becomes an Israeli informer, and finds himself getting into one scrape after another with the authorities, while becoming more and more estranged from his sometime-countrymen. Filled with supernatural happenings, twisted chronologies and unbelievable denouements, the narrative tries to paint reality even while unmooring itself from reality; almost as though the only way to capture the bizarre actuality that is Israel/Palestine (labels are political) is by breaking with traditional narrative realism.

Saeed has been called an anti-hero by critics, but what truly strikes one about him is his passivity. Whether it is failing to kiss his lover goodbye as she is dragged away by the police for deportation, failing to stop his son from becoming a fedayeen, or failing to carve out any kind of independent existence for himself (a la Candide, before the end), Saeed never does anything. Things are done to him. In this way, he becomes a synecdoche for the larger Palestinian condition, as reflected in the works of so many other Palestinian writers. In Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, Palestinian inaction is symbolized by the passivity of three men as they roast to death in a truck; in Saeed, it is symbolized by Saeed’s overriding inability to act in any circumstance, especially when contrasted with the people in his life, lovers, sons and friends. Habiby makes a witty observation about this right at the beginning, before providing us an extended demonstration through Saeed’s character:

“The Arabs, that miserable teacher of ours concluded, always did thing quicker then – they thought faster than the earth moved around the sun – whereas they have now surrendered their power of thought to others … for the Arabs, so said this accursed teacher, would first act and then dream, not as they do now – first dream and then continue to dream.” 

Ghassan Kanafani once compared the Palestinian condition to people waiting on the shore for a boat that would never come. Saeed is a story – albeit hilariously told – of missed chances, delays, incompleteness, unfulfillment and disappointment. Saeed as a person is, of course, the greatest disappointment of the story, but it is also individual events that perennially fail to come to resolution. Consider, for instance, how the theme of the return to the homeland – something crucial to Palestinian writing – is dealt with by Kanafani, and by Habiby. In Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa, the return is accompanies by a confrontation, a tragedy (of sorts), and definite closure. In Habiby’s account, however, what happens is that… nothing happens.

“What about our house?” I asked at last.

“They are occupying it.”

“Do you know who they are?”

You can see, my child, how dim my eyes are. And Europeans all look the same anyway. No one goes fishing anymore.”

    “Would they let me in if I visited our house?” I asked.

    “How should I know, my son?”

    She crossed herself. I said goodbye, feeling very uneasy that she had made that sign of the cross.

    When I reached the front of our house and saw laundry hanging out, my courage deserted me and I pretended to be taking a stroll along the seashore. I kept passing back and forth in front of our house. Each time I almost knocked on the door my courage left me.

    Eventually evening arrived. A woman emerged and began collecting the laundry. She stared at me and shouted something. I hurried away but saw a man of about her age come out of the house and help her collect the wash. I thought to myself: This must be a trick. Why else would a man bring in the family laundry? This was never done by my father, God have mercy on him, although my mother was always sickly and overworked.

Contra Kanafani, there will be no moment of epiphany, no discovery of meaning or truth, even though it is a tragic truth. And contra Khoury, even meaningful love is impossible for Saeed, because even that is defined by its interruptions and its incompleteness, at all times.

    Yuaad shook hands with me and bade me farewell. Then she brought her face close to mine and asked, “Did you kiss my mother before she left?”

    “No. They were standing between us.”

   “In that case you have missed the second kiss too.”

    Then she was gone. 

But if Saeed, even in his delay, is not Prince Hamlet and is never meant to be, ironically enough, the people he is closest to – lover, wife, son, friends – are his mirror images. Where Saeed turns informer, they join the revolution; where Saeed vacillates, they are constant; where he delays, they are decisive. And the contrast between characters is reflected in the contrast of styles. Saeed’s own experiences are portrayed with a savage, almost mocking (Swiftian?) humor, as he finds that being an informer is no guarantee of safety, ending up seeing the inside of a jail cell thrice, each time for absurd reasons. But it is when his supporting cast comes on stage, that the tone changes into something deadly serious. So, in one of the funniest scenes in the book, Saeed is arrested (for the first time) for following orders a bit too scrupulously, and putting up a white flag of surrender outside his Haifa home in the immediate aftermath of ’67. This is taken as a declaration that Haifa is an occupied city, and consequently, an act of rebellion. In prison, Saeed makes the mistake of quoting Shakespeare, and is soundly beaten for his pains. All grotesquely funny so far; and then, in his cell, he meets a Palestinian revolutionary, who considers him – wrongly, but by default – to be a comrade.

He healed my wounds by talking about his own. He kept widening that single tiny window in the wall until it became a broad horizon that I had never seen before. Its netted bars became bridges to the moon, and between his bed and mine were hanging gardens. I told him of myself, what I had always aspired to for myself. I did not want to lie, but I did not want to soil the majesty of the moment by speaking of personal details: these the jailers had stripped from me when they stripped off my clothes. Here we were, one naked man facing another. Would Adam ever have left Paradise of his own free will?”

The mask has dropped, and for all the time that it was on, the revelation hits home harder than it ever cold otherwise. The stylistic shifts – from Voltaire to Darwish, in an instant – are found again when his son Walaa is holed up inside an underground shelter, and speaks of speaking freely, longing, for once, “to be careless about what I say, because all my life you’ve told me to be careful“, insisting that he cannot wait any longer, that it is his generation that must resolve the issue, because “it is my generation.” The clarity and urgency of Walaa’s words and thoughts – again – put Saeed’s own dithering into sharper perspective than could otherwise be possible. Or again, consider this deliberate shift:

These settles, then, laughed good-naturedly when the following story about them spread. The elders of Zikhron Yaqub disagreed about the following problem: is it lawful for a man to sleep with his wife on the Sabbath or is the act a kind of work and therefore not lawful on that day? They went to the rabbi for a decision as to whether it was work or it was pleasure. The rabbi thought long and hard and then he ruled that it was pleasure. They asked him for his reasoning. He replied: “If I had ruled it to be work you would have give it to the Arabs of Fraydis to perform.”

    My, how we laughed at this story – Jacob because he hates the Ashkenazi Jews and I because he laughed.

    And who would be so unfair as to blame the people of Fraydis for owing their preservation to vintage wine? Who, after all, erected the tall buildings of this country, cut and paved its broad streets, dug the trenches and fortified the shelters? Who planted, plucked, and ginned the cotton, then wove it into clothes for the lords of Raghdan and Basman, palaces in the Amman, to wear so proudly. 

Like most other Palestinian writing, Saeed is a story of exile and about a lost homeland. Yet unlike the stories of Kanafani or Khoury, or the poetry of Darwish or Barghouti or Tawfiq Zayyad, there is one crucial difference: Saeed is an exile in his own home, and not on the outside looking in. The ambiguity, the doubt – the agony, even – is thus complex and often undefinable. As the book progresses, we see – we feel – Saeed’s growing estrangement both with his Israeli employers (and masters) and with the nascent Palestinian revolutionary movement. He is of both worlds, and of neither; understanding and understood by neither, liminal and homeless. Once again, then, he is simply caught up in the events, responding to them as they happen with the simple aim of survival. We cannot pity him because he has little moral fibre; and yet, we cannot condemn because we see ourselves in him, or what we would be like we we to face a situation of the sort – because who would be bold enough to predict their own heroism in the face of adversity? Habiby has painted a complex, ambiguous character, neither hero nor really anti-hero, someone who resists judgment and classification, but seeks – actively – our empathy. And more than that, perhaps, we are in no position to give.

I’ll end with an excerpt that once again reflects – fascinatingly – how very different Palestinian works are nonetheless – at bottom – concerned with very similar basic themes. The nakba, as we know, when it happened, was considered only  temporary situation by those who fled their homes in Mandatory Palestine. Of course, that temporary situation became permanent. That, however, did not stop many of the refugees from dreaming of a -now impossible – return to status quo ante. This conflict – between a generation that wants to restore a destroyed past, and one that wants to build a new future on its ruins – is explored repeatedly in Palestinian literature. It is the (implicit) debate between Said and Khaldun in Returning to Haifa. It is Younes, in Gate of the Sun, throwing away the oranges brought from old Palestine and exclaiming furiously, “The homeland is not oranges – the homeland is us!” And it is explored here as well, in one of the most moving passages of the book, with which I’ll close:

    “How can your brother believe that things will return to where they began?”

   “He got that idea from his elders; of his beginning an old man remembers only the prime of youth and so thinks fondly of it. Do you really know how the beginning was, uncle? The beginning was not merely sweet memories of pines over Mount Carmel, or orange groves, or the songs of Jaffa’s sailors. And did they really sing anyway? Do you really want to return to the beginning, to mourn your brother torn to pieces by the crane as he carved his living from the rocks. You want to do it all again, from the beginning?”

    “But your brother, Saeed, said they had learned from the mistakes of their predecessors and commit would not them again.”

    “If they had really learned, they wouldn’t have spoken at all of returning to the beginning.” 

    “You’re so young for so much wisdom, Yaad; wherever did you acquire it?”

    “From my long life that is still before me.”

    “Will you be leaving me?”

    “Water cannot truly ever leave the sea, uncle. It evaporates, then returns in winter in the springs and rivers. It will always return.”

This is widely regarded to be a classic of Arab literature, and deservedly so. Highly recommended.


Filed under Emile Habiby, Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine

“Memories come back in bursts of images”: Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love

In 1939, Billie Holiday recorded and sang Strange Fruit. The song was about the lynching of Black Americans in the South, and with lyrics such as “Pastoral scene of the gallant south,/ The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,/ Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,/ Then the sudden smell of burning flesh…”, it was meant to conjure up familiar scenes of trees, with all their associations of peace, tranquility, shelter, cool breeze, and so on – and then brutally displace that vision by demonstrating how, for Black Americans, those very same trees symbolised the lynchings of blacks that were so prevalent in the South at the time.

Forty-seven years later, in Prisoner of Love, Jean Genet would write:

“The Panthers and I were to give a couple of lectures there [Stony-Brook University]… Just as I was getting into the car to leave [Black Panther] party headquarters in the Bronx, I asked David Hilliard if he was coming with us.

He smiled faintly and said he wasn’t, adding what seemed to me an enigmatic comment.

‘There are still too many trees.’

I left, together with Zaid and Nappier, but all through the journey I kept thinking of what he had said. “There are still too many trees.” So, for a Black only thirty years old, a tree still didn’t mean what it did to a White – a riot of green, with birds and nests and carvings of hearts and names intertwined. Instead it meant a gibbet. The sight of a tree revived a terror that was not quite a thing of the past, which left the mouth dry and the vocal cords impotent. A White sitting astride the beam holding the noose at the ready – that was the first thing that struck a negro about to be lynched? And what separates us from the Blacks today is not so much the colour of our skin or the type of our hair as the phantom-ridden psyche we never see except when a Black lets fall some joking and to us cryptic phrase.” 

That a French modernist writer in the 80s would arrive at precisely the same insight as a song written by a white man and performed by a black jazz singer in the heart of the deep South in the 30s – in almost so many words – is perhaps emblematic of what is so unique about Prisoner of Love. The book is primarily – although by no means exclusively – about Jean Genet’s two years (1970 – 71) spent in the Palestinian refugee camps during the interminably long Palestinian revolution, around the time of Black September; and perhaps it is because Genet himself was a perennial outcast, with neither roots nor a home, forever in rebellion against society, and never bound to a land, a territory or a culture – that empathy, understanding and awareness come so naturally to him, qualities that make Prisoner of Love above all else a searingly honest work. 

Prisoner of Love is neither a story, nor a work of history; it is not a travel memoir, and still less is it a piece of political reportage. If you approach it looking for the narrative coherence of a novel, or the dispassionate analysis of wartime journalism, you will be disappointed. It is, simply – as Genet stresses repeatedly – a series of images. Images of events, of battles, of massacres, of tragedies, of courage and cowardice – but above all else, images of human beings – the fedayeen, with whom Genet spent those two years (and to whom he would return in 1984), and with whom he fell entirely in love. Genet has no respect for the traditional categories of time and space: reminiscent of Elias Khoury’s Gate of the SunPrisoner of Love moves – seemingly arbitrarily – between the ’67 war, the First Intifada, the 1970-71 Jordanian conflict, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and the infamous War of the Camps, the Sabra and Shatila massacres, and the situation in 1984 – with occasional detours into prior history. It also moves between Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria – and the United States, where Genet was heavily involved with the Black Panthers movement. Yet there are two themes that unite this seeming epitome of disorder: Genet’s obsession with the power of words and images to construct reality, and his constant, ironising self-awareness. These lend the book its distinctive tone and character, and it is upon these that I shall primarily focus.

The role of images and words in building reality and in creating history is a theme Genet almost commences the book with, stating, in its early pages:

“The fame of heroes owes little to the extent of their conquests and all to the success of the tributes paid to them. The Iliad counts for more than Agamemnon’s war; the steeles of the Chaldes for more than the armies of Nineveh. Trajan’s Column, La Chanson de Roland, the murals depicting the Armada, the Vendome column – all the images of war have been created after the battles themselves thanks to looting or the energy of artists, and left standing on the part of oversight on the part of rain or rebellion. But what survives is the evidence, rarely accurate but always stirring, vouchsafed to the future by the victors.”    

In the rest of the book, he applies this framework to analyse the Palestinian revolution. He quotes – repeatedly – Arafat’s statement to him that they – the Palestinians – exist thanks to the fact that in the West, they “take photographs of us, they film us, they write about us.” With great perspicuity – and one could almost say, with great prescience – he examines how vocabulary and the use of words have become weapons in the ongoing war:

“If you’re against Israel you’re not an enemy or an opponent – you’re a terrorist. Terrorism is suppose to deal death indiscriminately, and must be destroyed wherever it appears… very smart of Israel to carry the war right into the heart of vocabulary, and annex the words holocaust and genocide… the invasion of Lebanon didn’t make Israel an intruder or predator… the destruction and massacres in Beirut weren’t the work of terrorists armed by America and dropping tons of bombs day and night for three months on a capital with two million inhabitants… words are terrible and Israel is a terrifying manipulator of signs… sentence doesn’t necessarily precede an execution… if an execution has already been carried out, a sentence will gradually justify it.” 

Yet most of all, Genet understands how words and images fulfill a desperate – and essential – human need for a narrative, a narrative to believe in, to hold on to, and to fight for, a narrative that, because it is both beyond and larger than a single individual, can become the rallying point for a movement or a struggle. Here, he bears striking similarities, in his writing, to the remarkable Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, who also focuses on the power of myth in the building of nations, societies and communities. In Kadare’s The Siege, a story about the Ottoman Turks’ besieging of an Albanian Castle as a precursor to a wholesale invasion of Albania, the semi-mythical leader of the resistance, one Skanderberg, keeps up a seemingly futile opposition, doomed from the start, and destined to destruction. Yet, as the protagonists of The Siege realise, through this concerted act of resistance, Skanderberg is creating a myth of the Albanian nation that will outlast the Turkish conquest, and allow a return to the past once the time of the Turks is over. Skanderberg is building an Albania in the heavens, one that – unlike the Albania that is contained in castles, farms and homesteads – is indestructible.

What is remarkable is how the songs of the fedayeen, that Genet records, express an almost identical thought, through almost identical imagery:

” ‘And if Palestine never came down from the Empire of Heaven to dwell upon earth, would we be any less real?’ So sang one of the fedayeen, in Arabic.”

So the Palestinian Revolution, for Genet, is not simply about regaining lost land, but simultaneously rediscovering – or reconstructing, or constructing, or creating – whichever word you prefer – a Palestinian identity, a sense of peoplehood and nationhood. So:

“The Palestinians wanted to be an entity – wanted to leave an image of themselves as a single whole, historically, geographically, politically. Even when they were scattered to the four winds they wanted to form an indivisible and unchanging block in the midst of the Muslim universe and of the universe itself. ” 

Yet, Genet accepts none of this uncritically. His sense of self-awareness brings an ironic perspective both to the Revolution that he has committed himself to, and his own description of it. He worries repeatedly that words only end up “blotting out” reality; the quasi-Nietzschean view according to which language is a distorting mirror (words as “rainbow-bridges”, that is, carriers of illusion) – and so, his own account of the Revolution is nothing more than an exercise in obfuscation and omission:

“But what if it were true that writing is a lie? What if it merely enabled us to conceal what was, and any account is, only eyewash? Without actually saying the opposite of what was, writing presents only its visible, acceptable and, so to speak, silent face, because it is incapable of really showing the other one.”

As for the Revolution itself, Genet is dubious about the “fantasy” it seeks to protect; the internal fissures within the movement itself, and the doubtful motives of many for endorsing a movement that, from distance, “looked like Delacroiz’s Liberty on the Barricades”, because “distance, as often happens, lent a touch of divinity.” And he understands too, that “Palestine”, like any essentialising entity, hides beneath its still facade of uniformity, a boiling cauldron of difference and dissent:

“Like the word France, the word Palestine means different things to different people – peasants, aristocrats, financiers, the fedayeen, the leading families and the new bourgeoisie. None of these groups or individuals seems to suspect that these differences exist, and that they may eventually lead to conflicts. The word Palestine will one day no longer mean what it seems to do now, namely a common accord. Instead it could stand for a fierce class struggle.”

It is like speaking about the mountains. Every person who tells us what the mountains mean to him, “speaks for himself.”

It is this combination – of image-obsession and a keen, ironic awareness – that is at play, again, in Genet’s writing of the Palestine itself – the lost homeland. This, of course, is a theme that no book on Palestine can ever avoid – and we have discussed before, on this blog, the works of Ghassan Kanafani, Elias Khoury and Ibrahim Nasrallah that treat this theme in their own way. At the beginning of the book, Genet comes upon two fedayeen circumventing the ban on card-playing in the camp by playing a card game – with a set of imaginary, non-existent cards. In a beautiful paragraph, Genet describes how this scene comes to symbolise, for him, the Palestinian movement:

The game of cards, which only existed because of the shockingly realistic gestures of the fedayeen – they’d played at playing without any cards, without aces or knaves, clubs or spades, kings or queens – reminded me that all the Palestinians’ activities were like the Obon feast, where the only thing that was absent, that could not appear, was what the ceremony, however lacking in solemnity, was in aid of.

This idea of the lost homeland that exists as a crystallised, unchanging – yet absent – vision is something we see in the works of Kanafani and Khoury, where in fact this becomes a point of contention: the generation of the nakba, for whom the Palestine of 1948 remains an unchangeable, eternal absent reality comes into conflict with the generation of the First Intifada and the PLO, for whom Palestine is the future that must be built from scratch (remember the passionate declamation of the revolutionary leader in Khoury’s Gate of the Sun: the homeland isn’t oranges (from the destroyed Palestinian village); the homeland is us!” Genet’s description here speaks volumes:

“Every district in a camp tried to reproduce a village left behind in Palestine and probably destroyed to make way for a power station. But the old people of the village, who still talked together, had brought their own accent with them when they fled, and sometimes local disputes or even lawsuits too. Nazareth was in one district, and a few narrow streets away Nablus and Haifa. Then the brass tap, and to the right Hebron, to the left a quarter of old El Kods (Jerusalem). Especially around the tap, waiting for their buckets to fill, the women exchanged their greetings in their own dialects and accents, like so many banners proclaiming where each patois came from.”

For a book that is, self-proclaimedly, nothing more than a succession of images, Genet’s sense of imagery is sharp and beautiful. I conclude with two of my favourite:

“There are the trees again – I haven’t really conveyed how fragile they were. The yellow leaves were attached to the branches by a fine yet real stalk, but the forest itself looked as frail to me as a scaffolding that vanishes when a building’s finished. It was insubstantial, more like a sketch of a forest, a makeshift forest with any old leaves, but sheltering soldiers so beautiful to look at they filled it with peace.”


“It was the Palestinian phenomenon that made me write this book, but why did I stick so closely to the obviously crazy logic of that war? I can only explain it by remembering what I value: one or another of my prisons, a patch of moss, a few bits of hay, perhaps some wild flowers pushing up a slab of concrete or granite paving stone. Or, the only luxury I’ll allow myself, two or three dog roses growing on a gaunt and thorny bush.

Moss, lichen, grass, a few dog roses capable of pushing up through red granite were an image of the Palestinian people breaking out everywhere through the cracks.”

By turns tranquil and savage, calm and brooding, detached and passionate, filled with biting political commentary, vivid descriptions of historical events, and above all, the most deeply personal of memories and individual interactions, poignant and never failing to move deeply, I add Prisoner of Love to that list of books, such as Returning to HaifaGate of the Sun and A Time of White Horses, that have taught me more about Palestine than any work of history or journalism. Because, as Genet says himself:

“Historians’ discovery of new sources and new interpretations make no difference. They try to replace so called archetypal images with others. But are they truer? Neither truer nor less true, since they’re all images from the past. Historians may demolish a legendary hero whose image, accurate or not, fascinates us still. But they’ll only be able to replace it if they provide facts and explanations that we can sympathise with and assimilate, if they create new images that give us something we can talk about.”


Filed under Jean Genet, Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine

“If men believe that they’ll outlive an empire, they will.”: Ibrahim Nasrallah, “A Time of White Horses”

History records that about four hundred Palestinian villages were obliterated during the war of 1948, the nakba. Ibrahim Nasrallah’s A Time of White Horses is a story of one such village, the village of Hadiya, through the first half of the 20th century. It is the story of a community living upon the precariously shifting sands of an ever-changing world, first under the Ottoman Empire, then under the British Mandate, and finally through the conflagration of 1948. At one level,  it is a simple narrative of individual human lives, loves and sacrifices, turning upon the cycle of seasons, centred upon the near-mythological figure of the horse in Palestinian consciousness; but by the closing of the day, it comes to stand for something much more – the collective story of a nation, of dispossession, loss, resistance and – ultimately – exile. If men believe they’ll outlive an empire, they will – says one of the characters in the middle of the book, when everything yet hangs in the balance, and hopes of a happy ending have not yet entirely been dashed. Yet Nasrallah does not allow us to have the comfort of believing in that aphorism. Rather, we’re left with a bleak, despairing sense of inevitability, forced to believe, rather, in the truth of the opposite sentiment, voiced by the father of the young Yasmin, as he is persuading her to break off her engagement to a revolutionary: “Empires survive longer than people do. And this Empire is here to stay.

The tale is simple enough. Hadiya, a Palestinian village, struggles to remain independent through the successive depredations visited upon it by the Ottomans, the British, and the Jewish settlers. At the same time, individual sagas unfold, stories of love, marriage, conflict and family, centred upon the figure of the revolutionary Khaled and his white mare Hamama, stories depicting the relationship of the Palestinians with their land, with their horses, and with each other.

Much like the writing of Ghassan Kanafani and Elias Khoury, Nasrallah weaves in the Palestinian story into the warp and woof of his work. His individual stories are pregnant with the vocabulary of parting, rife with the language of loss. The tone is set at the very beginning, when a beautiful – stolen – white mare arrives upon the borders of Hadiya. “There’s no protection,” says Khaled to the thief, “For someone who does nothing to protect a free spirit.” Horses, that play a crucial role in for two-thirds of the book, as poignantly real as human characters, intervening in the lives of people in the most intimate way imaginable – come to symbolise the sense of freedom and refusal to submit that marks the village of Hadiya in its long story of resistance. Yet closely bound up with that is an ever-present sense of fragility; just like a horse, utterly beautiful and yet so easy to lose, freedom too can be lost in the blink of an eye. “Hajj, do you know what it’s like to search for something you love for thirty years and never find it?” – Shaykh Sa’adat asks Hajj Mahmud, referring to another of his horses, and the question resounds with overtones and undertones. And, as the story wears on, as the years draw on inexorably towards 1948, the horses begin gradually to fade from the stage into irrelevance, ending with the shooting of the white mare Hamama – and with their passing, there is an inevitable sense of the passing of all things, of Palestine and of the homeland.

The language of loss is especially striking in the depiction of the passionate – yet doomed – love affair between Khaled and Yasmin, doomed because of Khaled’s determination to take on “the Empire… that is here to stay.” (Contrast this with the story of Yunis and Nahila in Gate of the Sun). Khaled becomes a revolutionary, their engagement is broken off, and Yasmin is married to someone else. When Khaled meets her next, he is bringing back the body of her husband, slain in battle.

She was like a beautiful edifice that had been abandoned, with nothing in it but the spiders that kept multiplying to fill the corners. 

This reminded me strongly of my own visit to the village of Lifta, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the last surviving Palestinian village whose inhabitants were forced to flee, and never returned – ruined structures now prey to creeping nature and to the animals, with an overwhelming sense of melancholy and loss. Abandoned buildings, once beautiful, once home remain one of the enduring images of the Palestinian experience of 1948 (recall Kanafani’s scene of the abandonment of Haifa in Returning to Haifa), so much so that the “key” – carrying with it the right of return – is now one of the most potent symbols of Palestinian resistance. But there is something more to it – by virtue of original abandonment, that which has been abandoned is lost permanently. So:

It was the final meeting, which had been necessary in order for her to realize that she had lost Khaled forever, just as he realized that he had lost her forever.”

And once again, I am reminded strongly of Returning to Haifa, where the Palestinian family comes back after ’67 to visit their old home, and realise that the Palestine that they knew and preserved in their dreams all through the long years of exile is lost irrevocable, was lost at the moment of departure.

He looked at the handkerchief again. He thought of casting it to the wind so that it would carry it wherever it wished, or maybe even return it to her. 

There is an ambivalence here, an ambivalence that runs through Kanafani and Khoury as well, the ambivalence of defining oneself in relation to the lost homeland, and by extension, defining the homeland as well: a fixed, unchanging image of what was once was and what now can never be, or – as Yunis shouts so memorably in Gate of the Sun, accepting that “the homeland is us!” The ambivalence is depicted, as well, in the attitude of Mahmud, who leaves Hadiya to become a journalist in Jaffa. Can you give me an ending without an ending?, he asks; An ending that’s a beginning? A beginning whose ending is a beginning?… the greatest kind of ending… an ending and a beginning at the same time.

If the language of loss has come to define the Palestinian experience in some of its best writings, then so has the language of violence. As with Kanafani, Nasrallah uses well-known metaphors, but draws them out, heightens them, intensifies them. On being told by his new wife that she will never be hers until he succeeds in mounting her murdered husband’s horse, Habbab feels as though:

“An eerie tremor went through him like a fine blade… he felt it reach the centre of his chest, then splinter into smaller blades that spread through his entire body.”

Similar metaphors are scattered throughout the book. But as the story progress towards nakba, the symbolism begins to reduce. It is almost as if the events that now grip Hadiya are too powerful, too serious, too overwhelming to be captures by abstractions. The imagery grows more direct now, more closely linked to the event itself. Standing in the woods after a disastrous battle, Khaled’s thoughts grow melancholy:

He gazed for a long time into the ravine, and as he did so, it seemed to him that the earth was nothing but a deep ravine in the universe, a ravine hard for human brings to climb out of. Some of us manage to get as far as a treetop. Some of us make it halfway up. Some of us get to the top of the mountain. Some of us try to get out by riding in an airplane, or on a fast horse, or by  car or train. But nothing comes of any of our attempts. We’re in the ravine, at the bottom of the universe, and we have to make the decisions that make us feel that we’ve risen higher than an airplane or become faster than a horse, a car or a train, that we’re about to reach the edge and ascend into the heavens. 

And of course, this is a metaphor too, but this metaphor is grounded in rifles, dust and blood. No more so than when the monastery betrays the trust of the people of Hadiya by launching an audacious land-grab, having hidden away the title deeds that were entrusted to their safe-keeping – the (still temporary) loss of Hadiya does indeed stand for the loss of Palestine, in every way the following paragraph describes, but it hits harder because there is actual loss that is serving as the metaphor:

The Court’s ruling told them that their memories were nothing but dreams, that their dreams were illusions, and that the afflictions they had suffered and the sacrifices they had made in order to keep this land had all been in vain. They realized that they were being stripped of the shovels with which they had dug, the scythes with which they had harvested, the horses they had lived with through the bitter and the sweet, the cows they had milked, and the flocks they had kept vigil over in open fields to protect them from death and the jaundice of the dry seasons.

And in the final attack upon Hadiya, a man stands “in front of a demolished building and a no-longer-existent door… waiting.” Kanafani said, memorably, that the plight of the Palestinian people was like standing upon a deserted shore, waiting for a boat that would never come. The parallels are stark, but here there is a real demolished building, and a real interminable wait because, as we have learnt, “the silence [has] explodednever to return.”

And it is at the very end, with the closing of the book, that the last of the metaphors lodges in the brain as powerfully as a memory. As the village of Hadiya burns behind them, as they walk into permanent exile, the villages hear Summaya, Khaled’s wife, singing:

Bring a lantern, friend,

And light the darkness for me.

I’m afraid there’s a long road ahead,

And that you’ll be burdened with me for a long time,

You’ll be burdened with me for a long time. 

This, of course, is prescient; it brings to mind the sixty years that are to come, all of the exiled wanderings, the wars and the massacres, in Jordan, in Syria and in Lebanon, the resistance movements and the intifadas, the battles in the refugee camps that Khoury writes of so brilliantly, a near-continuous story of sustained suffering. As the song ends, and the people turn back for one last glance at their village, the dovecote goes up in flames, and the last, desperate flight of the birds, their bodies aflame, seems to sum up everything:

The doves were flying away, covering distances she never thought a bird whose wings were on fire could cover. By the time they began falling in the surrounding orchards, vineyards, and plains, a new fire was ablaze. And when the trucks reached an elevated spot from which the people could see Hadiya for the last time, tongues of fire were consuming it from all directions.

More information about the book here.

A note on the translation: the person who recommended A Time of White Horses to me said that its language was perhaps the most beautiful thing about it. If that is so, the translation is disappointing – it fails to capture either the lyricism of Gate of the Sun, or the simple power of Returning to Haifa – and suffers, at times, from distinctly pedestrian writing. Of course, I do not know Arabic, and I could be wildly off the mark here – but when, for instance, the same adjective is used twice in two sentences to describe the same event, it makes for poor writing at the best of times.



Filed under Palestine

‘We remember in order to forget’: Elias Khoury, ‘Gate of the Sun’

Sameeh would always talk about his dream of writing a book without a beginning or an end, ‘an epic’ he called it, an epic of the Palestinian people, which he’d start by recounting the details of the great expulsion of 1948. He said we didn’t know our own history and we needed to gather the stories of every village so they’d remain alive in our memories.

In a hospital in Beirut refugee camp, Yunis, an old Palestinian freedom-fighter, is dying. All accept his impending death with resignation, save for one man: his spiritual son, Dr Khaleel, who remains convinced that by telling Yunis stories about their past lives, by telling him enough stories, he can revive him, reconstruct him, almost, in words and tales. And so it begins, from the tongue of Khaleel, the ‘epic of the Palestinian people’: shifting between 1948, the formation of the PLO, the intifada, the six-day war, the Lebanese civil war, the massacre of the camps and beyond, and all the years in between; following the exiles through village, camp and battlefield, intertwining individual stories of love, loss, betrayal, heartbreak, struggle, sorrow and joy, with the violent and bloody events – the battles and the massacres – that have set their stamp upon the political map. And so, out of the ‘stories of every village’ is assembled the history the Palestinian people after the nakba, that book ‘without beginning or end.Gate of the Sun is an utterly remarkable and compelling book, in every way.

Like Ghassan Kanafani, Khoury’s writing grapples with the fundamental question: what is Palestine, the homeland, that was lost? In Returning to Haifa, Kanafani sharply contrasts two visions of the homeland: one, backward-looking, that refuses to accept 1948 as a fact, that has fixed the homeland as it was before the loss, that will only accept a return to that vision, a vision that doesn’t even exist anymore; and a forward-looking one that seeks to reclaim that which was lost, but without any preset notions of what the homeland is, or must be. With as much deftness and brilliance, Khoury highlights the same clash – present throughout the book in numerous temporary-return stories, but most specifically – in this memorable interaction between Khaleel, Yunis and the old woman, Umm Hassan, after Umm Hassan has brought back an orange-tree branch from Palestine to the Lebanese refugee camp where they all live in exile. It is an exchange that deserves to be quoted in full.

I cut an orange from the branch so that I could taste Palestine, but Umm Hassan yelled, “No! It’s not for eating, it’s Palestine.” I was ashamed of myself and hung the branch on the wall of the sitting room in my house, and when you cam to visit me and saw the mouldy fruit, you yelled, “What’s that smell?” And I told you the story and watched you explode in anger.

“You should have eaten the oranges,” you told me.

“But Umm Hassan stopped me and said they were from the homeland.”

“Umm Hassan’s senile,” you answered. “You should have eaten the oranges, because the homeland is something we have to eat, not let it eat us. We have to eat the oranges of Palestine, and we have to eat Palestine and Galilee.”

It came to me then that you were right, but the oranges were going bad. You went to the wall and pulled off the branch, and I took it from your hand and stood there confused, not knowing what to do with that bunch of decay.

“What are you going to do?” you asked.

“Bury it,” I said.

“Why bury it?” you asked.

“I’m not going to throw it away, because it’s from the homeland.”

You took the branch and threw it in the rubbish.

“What a scandal!” you said. “What are these old women’s superstitions? Before hanging the homeland up on the wall, it’d be better to knock down the wall and leave. We have to eat every orange in the world and not be afraid, because the homeland isn’t oranges. The homeland is us.”

Because Yunis knows something that Khaleel only dimly perceives: memories, if indulged in too long, can become a trap, a labyrinth from which the only way out is into more memories, to the point where memories transform themselves into lived reality. We remember to forget, says Khaleel, in a moment of deep insight. And later, he asks: ‘is memory a sickness – a strange sickness that affects a whole people? A sickness that has made you imagine things and build your entire lives on the illusions of memory?’ At other times, Khoury’s characters compare memories to swarms of ants, overwhelming in their ferocity, inevitable as a flood. And memories twist and mangle time, beyond all recognition. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than by the predicament of the grandmother:

My grandmother’s pillow doesn’t look like a pillow any more. It’s turned into a heap of thorns. My grandmother used to stuff her pillow with flowers, saying that when she rested her head on it she felt as though she’d returned to the village, and she’d make me rest my head on it. I’d lay my head on her pillow and smell decay. I joined the fedayeen when I was nine years old to escape the flowers of El Ghabsiyyeh that my grandmother would pick at the camp’s rubbish dump. I hated the perfume of decay and ended up connecting the smell of Palestine with the smell of the pillow.

The same grandmother wears a broken watch – as though she’d killed time at her wrist?, Khaleel wonders. Time that used to exist before the nakba, where now remains only a vague, undefined, suffering limbo.

The idea of limbo, of an interminable wait, is the natural consequence of this strange cocktail of memory, loss and time. Kanafani movingly described the plight of the Palestinian people as ‘waiting by the shore for a boat that will never come.’ Waiting terrifies Khoury’s characters, not least because it has become such a staple – almost permanent feature of their lives. As Khaleel tells Yunis, in anger:

Is waiting nothing? You’re mocking me: waiting is everything. We spend our whole lives waiting, and then you say “nothing” as though you want to dismiss the whole meaning of our lives.

But with the wait, even the lifelong wait, there is the clung-to conviction that it is temporary. This is what Yunis tells Khaleel, in 1982 (Israel’s invasion of Lebanon) and in 1985 (the massacre of the camps): ‘everything is temporary‘ – even this, even exile, even the loss of the homeland, all those things that have defined and continue to define their lives. And underlying the conviction – like most convictions – is the barely-expressed terror about its actuality. But what would happen, asks Khaleel, if we were to remain in this temporary world forever?

The temporary world, the world of exile, death, defeat and loss, but also and equally, the world of the imagined homeland. Imagination, along with memory, plays a crucial role in the novel. History is imagined, Yunis tells Khaleel; an illusion to make people believe that they’ve been alive since the beginning, that they are heirs of the dead. Khaleel protests. If history is an illusion, what would it be for? What would we fight and die for? Doesn’t Palestine deserve our deaths? And the answer, of course, that gradually reveals itself through the book, is that Palestine is, like all things, imagined as well. It is imagined in the pillow, in the broken watch, in the orange branch – the homeland is us. When Khaleel enters a beautiful street in the Circassion Quarter of Beirut, he imagines the streets of Haifa, and those from the tales ‘my grandmother told me… of the city by the sea, where the streets were shaded by trees and jasmine, and there was the scent of frangipani.’ A refugee puts olives on the top of his tent and sings songs to express his nostalgia, imagining the homeland is a plantation. But the imagined Palestine is fragile, fragile because constantly under threat, constantly in need of creation, because stasis here will mean destruction. As Khaleel wonders:

Do you believe we can manufacture our country out of these ambiguous stories? And why do we have to manufacture it? People inherit their countries as they inherit their languages. Why do we, of all the world’s peoples, have to invent our country every day so everything isn’t lost and we find we’ve fallen into eternal sleep?

This invention takes place at multiple levels of symbolism and metaphor; perhaps what’s best about Gate of the Sun is that it is not, at the end, a story about events, but a story about people. At its heart lie two love affairs: Khaleel’s love for Shams, that ends in betrayal and brutal violence; and Yunis’ love for his wife Naheeleh, who lives across the border, and whom he undergoes great dangers to meet in a secret cave called Bab el-Shams (‘Gate of the Sun’); and through the story, love, longing and loss become symbols of Palestine. Every word, act and gesture is loaded with significances. Right at the beginning, Yunis tells Khaleel that if he truly loved Shams, he would have avenged her – and there seems to be a hint of self-criticism in that. We are told, later, as justification for Shams’ betrayal, that a lover must take refuge in other relationships in order to escape the incandescence of his passion. We are told, of Yunis’ own love, that ‘When she was there, he was fully there. When she was absent, he invested himself totally in waiting.‘ Immediately after recounting Yunis’ secret wanderings through Palestine, Khaleel thinks out loud: ‘No-one who hasn’t crossed a desert like the desert of Shams has meaning to his life’; before concluding, ‘Love is feeling yourself to be lost and unanchored. Love is dying because you can’t hold on to the woman you love… that’s love, master – an emptiness suddenly filled, or a fullness that empties and melts into thin air.’ So smoothly, so effortlessly, something entirely, passionately individual and personal has come to mean an entire world beyond itself; love, exile and the yearning for the homeland – like in the best of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, they have become virtually indistinguishable.  And it’s there in the poetry that the characters quote, seemingly nothing more than fiery love poetry:

I’ll see you coming with the cloudless sky,/ disappearing through the cloudless sky,/ among the almond leaves.

In his political and social commentary, Khoury is unsparing. There is no romanticisation of intifada or revolution for him; in words strikingly similar to Milan Kundera, Khaleel castigates the revolution for leading to ‘monstrosity‘, since it allows persons to ‘enter into history, be the reader and the read at the same time.’ Artists and intellectuals are singled out for special treatment – their particular tragedy, writes Khoury in words that hit home, hard – is they must go, look – and then forget: strikingly portrayed in a scene involving a French theatre crew that, inspired by an idealised account of the glory of death in the refugee camp – has arrived to do some ‘fieldwork’ before putting on a play. As Khaleel observes drily – and savagely (albeit in a different context):

‘He was an intellectual and a writer and a journalist, and they don’t go to war or get involved; they observe death and write, thinking that they’ve experienced

Yunis himself despises the intellectuals who, visiting the fighters, ‘theorise and philosophise, and then go back to their comfortable homes‘. And nowhere is this made clearer than in the words of the lead actress of the French crew to Khaleel, who has spent part of her early years on a kibbutz, and has come to the refugee camp racked with guilt and confusion. I can’t see the victim as someone turned executioner, she says, because that would make history meaningless. Coming, as it does, on the heels of vivid accounts of massacre, war and death, this grand narrative-building, this flight into concepts and words, sounds the most absurd and meaningless thing ever – to say nothing of being disrespectful and insulting. You can’t intellectualise this, is the point, you can’t possibly make something abstract out of the Shatila Camp massacre – there is only experience and suffering.

Even Palestine itself isn’t spared. Rejecting grand narratives there as well, Khaleel locates – with savage irony and paradox, the creation of ‘Palestine’ right in the middle of – and due to – the nakba.

‘Gaza dissolved in a sea of refugees and became the first place to be collectively
Palestinian. It was there that the Palestinians discovered that they weren’t
groups of people belonging to various districts and villages, the disaster had
manufactured a single people.’

This concern with the rejection of essentialism is central to the entire style of Gate of the Sun, that takes place through so many stories told from so many different perspectives and angles, overlapping, criss-crossing, sometimes contradicting each other. It is a concern that Khaleel voices frequently.

‘I’m scared of a history that has only one version. History has dozens of versions, and for it to ossify into one leads only to death… We mustn’t see ourselves in their mirror, for they’re prisoners of one story, as though the story had abbreviated and ossified them…  Please, father – you mustn’t become just one story. Even you, even Naheeleh – please let me liberate you from from your love story, for I see you as a man who betrays and repents and loves and fears and dies. Believe me, this is the only way if we’re not to become ossified and die… You haven’t ossified into one story. You’re dying, but you’re free. Free of everything and of your story.’

Ossification, a fate worse than death. The issue is particularly poignant and urgent at present day, precisely because of the existence of a Mandated Narrative on everything that has happened in the Middle-East since 1948, with its clear, unproblematic demarcations of right and wrong, good and evil. The peril of such essentialist history is clear and present, and Gate of the Sun is an eloquent warning, expressed powerfully in Khaleel’s admission:

‘The stories are like drops of oil floating on the surface of memory. I try to link
them up but they don’t want to be linked.’

There is much that could be said about the enigmatic character of Yunis, and Naheeleh, his equally complex love; of the doomed love affair between Doctor Khaleel and Shams; of the uncompromising accounts of war, death and massacre; of the hair-raising tales of Yunis’ endless journeys through the region, to the point where the old revolutionary ‘saw his life as scattered fragments -from Palestine to Lebanon, from Lebanon to Syria, from one prison to another’; but there are things to be read and moved by, not to be described.


‘I’m standing here. The night covers me, the March rain washes me, and I tell you, ‘Master, this isn’t how stories end. No.’

I stand. The rain forms ropes that extend from the sky to the ground. My feet sink into the mud. I stretch out my hand, I grasp the ropes of the rain, and I walk and walk and walk…’


This book will stay with me for a long time.



Filed under Elias Khoury

‘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.


Filed under Ghassan Kanafani, Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine

“And then – silence”: Kanafani, Men in the Sun

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 Gazawhich begins like this:

With dynamite she raps her waist 
She explodes 
It is neither death nor suicide 
Its Gaza’s style to announce her worthiness of life…


Filed under Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish

“A Man is a Cause”: Kanafani, Returning to Haifa

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?”

“Said what?

“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:

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.


Filed under Ghassan Kanafani, Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine