The impossible and necessary vision of Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani
Image from Flickr via Wall in Palestine
By Natalie Storey
“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…It seemed to me just a beginning. I don’t know why I thought it was just a beginning.”
These are the words penned by the narrator near the end of Ghassan Kanafani’s story “Letter From Gaza.” The letter, addressed to a friend named Mustafa in California, announces the narrator’s decision not to emigrate from Gaza to the United States—one he makes after visiting his niece in the hospital. The girl has lost her leg to a bomb while saving the lives of her younger siblings.
On the final exam for the world literature class I teach at Hassan II University in Casablanca, Morocco, I asked the students to explain the meaning of this passage in their own words. I had given them “Letter From Gaza” several weeks earlier in an attempt to bring the course into conversation with current events in Palestine. The day we discussed it, I tried to push the students to think about the nature of hope in the story. In their answers, many of them explained what the narrator meant by “a beginning.” It was the beginning of war, some said. It was the beginning of suffering, others wrote. I felt disappointed at first. What about hope? I had sought answers that were less literal. I thought one or two of the students might pick up on how the amputation of Nadia’s leg jarred the narrator into reconsidering his relationship to Palestine—to begin a new, deeper connection to the land where he was born, seeking to reverse exile while rejecting nostalgia. But then I reconsidered. The students hadn’t failed; they’d instead read the harsh reality of resistance in Palestine—the near impossibility of resistance—that Kanafani considers.
Since November’s ceasefire and the United Nation’s recognition of Palestine as a non-member state, the backlash from Israel has been extreme and crippling. According to the Israeli watchdog group Peace Now, December marked the approval of a slew of settlement plans in Palestinian territory, which the organization describes as “lethal” for the two-state solution. Al-Jazeera reported in December that Israel stopped transferring tax and tariff money it collects for the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli government claimed it did this to pay off debts owed by Palestinians, but the sum amounts to one third of the authority’s revenue and might prevent the Palestinian government from paying its employees. So, it might be that it is just the beginning.
Instead of trying to label Kanafani’s politics, we should see him as someone who wrote into the space beyond nationalism.
Although I’m not Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish or Muslim, I feel compelled to talk about Palestine with my students in Morocco. I’m American. My students know that my government is implicated in the suffering and violence in Palestine. But while I want to start this conversation, I, of course, don’t have solutions or a vision of the future Middle East to offer. For that, I rely on Ghassan Kanafani, the great modernist fiction writer of Palestinian literature. In all the chatter about Gaza, about peace, a Palestinian state and Israeli settlements, he is still the most relevant voice.
Kanafani was assassinated, by car bomb, in Beirut 40 years ago. His stories remain relevant—even seem to grow more prophetic—with each renewal of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Over the years, literary scholars have argued over his politics: They dispute Kanafani’s support of the Palestinian nationalist cause, ask whether he condoned the use of violence to defend Palestine, and debate his Marxist credentials. But instead of trying to label Kanafani’s politics, we should see him as someone who wrote into the space beyond nationalism. His stories consistently evoke the idea of sovereign and sacred land that no one can own and around which no borders can be erected. He was also one of the early critics of Arab leaders who allied themselves with former colonial powers and then adopted their nationalist rhetoric. His work can help us imagine a future that eschews nationalist divisions and the exploitation of land.
I read Kanafani as an inter-nationalist resistance writer because his stories emphasize an intuitive relationship of respect between Palestinians and their land. This relationship has little to do with ownership or resource extraction; it is based on commitment, humility and a history with the land. I’ve borrowed the term “inter-nationalist” from Gayatri Spivak’s translation of Imaginary Maps: Three Stories by Mahasweta Devi. In the afterward, Spivak calls for a “vision of inter-nationality that is not only impossible but necessary.” Inter-nationality describes a world undivided, or, perhaps we might say, a puzzle pieced together so carefully that we can no longer take it apart.
But still, let us “learn to learn” from Kanafani. Let us imagine the “impossible but necessary” reality Kanafani called for in his fiction.
Spivak wrote, “I have no doubt that we must learn to learn from the practical ecological philosophers of the world, through the slow, attentive, mind-changing (on both sides), ethical singularity that deserves the name of “love”—to supplement necessary collective efforts to change laws, modes of production, systems of education and health care.” The fact is that we live in a world defined by borders, and I believe that there must be practical solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But still, let us “learn to learn” from Kanafani. Let us imagine the “impossible but necessary” reality Kanafani called for in his fiction.
Resistance in Kanafani’s fiction often takes a very basic form: respect for land. Land often plays a role in his writing that is comparable to that of human characters: it acts and narrates. The characters talk to the land and they hear its heartbeat. Land rescues, frightens, and, with its power to endure, astonishes the people. The characters make promises to destroyed patches of land they can never hope to own or extract anything from. Even when Kanafani’s stories are those of abuse, flight, and exploitation, the land lives—scarred but still alive, and imbued with a sacred integrity that exists outside human comprehension. We find that respecting this un-interpretable integrity means rejecting cluster bombs, border security fences, and the belligerent destruction of nature. In this way, respect for the land is an act of resistance.
We can find clues about this type of resistance saturating Men in the Sun—a story of the failed emigration of three Palestinians—from the first sentences to the refrain: “The lorry traveled over the burning earth…” Here’s how Hilary Kilpatrick’s translation of the novella begins: “Abu Qais rested on the damp ground, and the earth began to throb under him with tired heartbeats, which trembled through the grains of sand and penetrated the cells of his body.” From the beginning, Kanafani focuses on the relationship between the land and Abu Qais. Although he cannot understand what is happening, before his death Abu Qais keeps returning to lie on the ground and listen to its heartbeat. Men in the Sun also refers to the pumping stations along the formerly British-controlled Iraq Petroleum Company Pipeline—details that historicize nation-creation in the Middle East while subtly noting its connection to extractive industries.
Borders, maps, walls and other ways humans try to delimit land only appear in Kanafani’s work as arbitrary and destructive barriers. In Men in the Sun national borders cause the death of Abu Qais and the other two emigrants hiding in the belly of the water tanker. The men suffocate while Abul Khaizuran—a hapless Palestinian nationalist who has lost his connection to his homeland—discusses his non-existent sex life with a guard at a border crossing. Thus national borders, and the attempt of a nationalist freedom fighter to restore something of his masculinity, causes the deaths of the migrants. The novella identifies the border in question as the one between Iraq and Kuwait, not Israel and Palestine, leading me to believe Kanafani questioned the legitimacy not just of Israel but of all nations.
The dissolution of boundaries reaches its height in Kanafani’s later novella, All That’s Left to You. The novella tells the story of a Palestinian family—separated from each other by the movements of war—in four narrative voices: Maryam, her brother Hamid, Time and The Desert. Kanafani said the novella’s stream-of-consciousness form, in which the four voices flow into each other until they finally fuse, was inspired by The Sound and the Fury. To read this novella, you must convince yourself to stop worrying over which narrative voice is speaking. Kanafani made the Desert a narrator, and gave it the most reliable narrative voice. The Desert speaks for inter-nationality: it doesn’t recognize national boundaries and works to both help humans and erase their trails and traces.
Literary critics have tended to focus on the character Hamid, a cowardly Palestinian boy who gets lost in the Desert and then runs into an Israeli solider, who is also lost. In the novella, it is the Desert who supplies the context we need to understand that Hamid is lost and has undertaken a foolish journey to run away from Palestine. The Desert recognizes Hamid’s frustrating wrong-headedness and impotency, describing him as a “paltry creature.” It observes, “In time he’ll whiten to a skeleton, dried up by the sun, immutably assimilated by the sand.” And, “He was just like all the rest, afraid of the infinite expanse, of a horizon without hill, landmark or path.” The Desert knows Hamid is lost, that he is in danger because night and the Israelis are coming, but it cannot warn Hamid because Hamid is not able to communicate with it. The boy is eventually forced to recognize his dependence on the Desert and also to acknowledge its integrity, which the novella represents as existing outside human comprehension. We might call this the beginning of Hamid’s ecological awareness: it is the beginning of his empathy for land. “For the first time in his life he saw (the Desert) as a living creature, stretching away as far as the eye could see, mysterious, terrible and familiar all at the same time,” reads the translation. The Desert is uninterpretable, yet human characters feel empathy or it. Thus, the Desert cannot be possessed.
Back to “the beginning.” In “Letter From Gaza” Kanafani writes, “I imagined that the main street 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 sadness which was not confined to weeping. It was a challenge: more than that it was something like the reclamation of the amputated leg!” I did have one student, a bright eighteen-year-old named Soukaina, who wrote that the beginning in “Letter From Gaza” was the beginning of a new relationship between Gaza and the narrator. “This new Gaza made [the narrator] stick to his hometown even more [than] if he had plans to leave to a better part of the world,” she wrote.
This is the hope of the story. The narrator imagines the characters will one day be able to travel a long road leading back to Safad, a formerly ethnically mixed town that was cleansed of Palestinians by the Israelis after 1948. Although the road marks a memory of violence, the narrator also suggests that it might again one day be unobstructed by checkpoints, that one day Palestinians and Israelis might be able to travel on it freely.
The future Kanafani imagines is a time without borders. This is an imagination that allows that a little girl’s amputated leg can be reclaimed. These are impossible hopes, but they are the type of hopes that allow a people to keep on living even when a peaceful future in Palestine—or anywhere—seems impossible. It’s the act of this impossible hoping that will one day, inshallah, move the rest of us to act.
Natalie Storey is currently a Fulbright scholar in Morocco where she teaches composition and literature. She is at work on a memoir about the two years she spent living in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. She holds an MFA from Pennsylvania State University.