Tag Archives: Kanafani

“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.

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Filed under Emile Habiby, Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Hamid has decided to stop listening…

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

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

Or again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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.”

 And:

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.

Why?

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…

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Filed under Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish