On Monday, October 4th we discussed Men in the Sun (رجال في الشمس, rijal fi-sh-shams) by Ghassan Kanafani. Considered a major modernizing influence on Arab literature and still a major figure in Palestinian literature today, Kanafani was an early proponent of complex narrative structures, using flashback effects and a chorus of narrator voices for effect. His writings focused mainly on the themes of Palestinian liberation and struggle, and often touched upon his own experiences as a refugee.
Kanafani’s collection Men in the Sun & Other Palestinian Stories is based on many autobiographical events in Kanafani’s life. The stories in this collection share the common elements of isolation, disorientation and tragedy.
About the author:
Ghassan Kanafani (غسان كنفاني) was born in 1936 in the then Acre (Akka), British Mandate of Palestine. His father was a lawyer, and sent Ghassan to French missionary school in Jaffa. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Kanafani and his family were forced into exile, a part of the Palestinian exodus. The family initially fled north to neighbouring Lebanon, less than 11 miles north, but soon moved on to Damascus, Syria, to live there as Palestinian refugees. Kanafani completed his secondary education in Damascus, receiving a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) teaching certificate in 1952.
The same year he enrolled in the Department of Arabic Literature at the University of Damascus and began teaching in UNRWA schools in the refugee camps. He became an active member of the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM), a left-wing pan-Arab organization, in 1953. Before he could complete his degree, Kanafani left to Kuwait, where he worked as a teacher and became more politically active. In Kuwait he edited al-Ra’i (The Opinion) and also became interested in Marxist philosophy and politics. In 1960, he relocated once again to Beirut, where he began editing al-Hurriya. In 1961, he met Anni Høver, a Danish children’s rights activist, with whom he had two children. In 1962, Kanafani briefly had to go underground, since he, as a stateless person, lacked proper identification papers. He reappeared in Beirut later the same year, and became editor of the newspaper al-Muharrir (The Liberator). He went on to become an editor of al-Anwar (The Illumination), in 1967. The Palestinian membership of the ANM evolved in 1967 into the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), of which Kanafani became a spokesman. In 1969, he drafted a PFLP program in which the movement officially took up Marxism-Leninism. He also edited the movements newspaper, al-Hadaf (The Target), which he had founded in 1969, writing political, cultural and historical essays and articles.
Several days after the Lod airport massacre, a picture of Kanafani together with one of the Japanese terrorists was published. On July 8, 1972, Ghassan Kanafani was killed by a bomb planted in his car in Beirut; his niece was also killed. The bomb was attributed to Moussad.
About Ghassan Kanafani’s literary career:
Ghassan Kanafani began writing short stories when he was working in the refugee camps. Often told as seen through the eyes of children, the stories manifested out of his political views and belief that his students’ education had to relate to their immediate surroundings. While in Kuwait, he spent much time reading Russian literature and socialist theory, refining many of the short stories he wrote.. Kanafani published his first novel, Men in the Sun in Beirut in 1962. He also wrote a number of scholarly works on literature and politics. His thesis, Race and Religion in Zionist Literature, formed the basis for his 1967 study On Zionist Literature. He was, as was the PFLP, a Marxist, and believed that the class struggle within Palestinian and Arab society was intrinsically linked to the struggle against Zionism and for a Palestinian state.
Also an active literary critic, Kanafani’s seminal work, Palestinian Literature Under Occupation, 1948-1968, introduced Palestinian writers and poets to the Arab world. He also wrote a major critical work on Zionist and Israeli literature. In the spirit of Jean-Paul Sartre, he called for an engaged literature which would be committed to change.
Kanafani is credited with having coined the term “resistance poetry” to refer to Palestinian poetry written in Occupied Palestine, a now recognized genre within the Arabic literary sphere. Mahmoud Darwish, who dedicated one of his own works, The Palestinian Wedding, to Kanafani, writes in an introduction to a volume of Kanafani’s literary critical studies that, “It was Ghassan Kanafani who directed Arab public opinion to the literature of the occupied land [...] the term ‘resistance’ was not associated with the poetry until Ghassan applied it, thereby giving the term its special significance.”
Works in English
- Kanafani, Ghassan (Translated by Hilary Kilpatrick): Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories [ISBN 0-89410-857-3] 1998.
- Kanafani, Ghassan and Barbara Harlow, Karen E. Riley: Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa & Other Stories. [ISBN 0-89410-890-5] 2000.
- Kanafani, Ghassan, with Roger Allen, May Jayyusi, Jeremy Reed: All That’s Left to You [ISBN 1-56656-548-0] Interlink World Fiction, 2004
Works in Arabic (Note: Some Names are roughly Translated)
- mawt sarir raqam 12, 1961 (موت سرير رقم 12, A Death in Bed No. 12)
- ard al-burtuqal al-hazin, 1963 (أرض البرتقال الحزين, The Land of Sad Oranges)
- rijal fi-sh-shams, 1963 (رجال في الشمس, Men in the Sun)
- al-bab, 1964 (الباب, The Door)
- ‘aalam laysa lana, 1965 (عالمٌ ليس لنا, A World that is Not Ours)
- ‘adab al-muqawamah fi filastin al-muhtalla 1948-1966, 1966 (أدب المقاومة في فلسطين المحتلة 1948-1966, Literature of Resistance in Occupied Palestine)
- ma tabaqqa lakum, 1966 (ما تبقّى لكم, All That’s Left to You)
- fi al-adab al-sahyuni, 1967 (في الأدب الصهيوني, On Zionist Literature)
- al-adab al-filastini al-muqawim taht al-ihtilal: 1948-1968, 1968 (الأدب الفلسطيني المقاوم تحت الاحتلال 1948-1968, Palestinian Resistance Literature under the Occupation 1948-1968)
- ‘an ar-rijal wa-l-banadiq, 1968 (عن الرجال والبنادق, On Men and Rifles)
- umm sa’d, 1969 (أم سعد, Umm Sa’d)
- a’id ila Hayfa, 1970 (عائد إلى حيفا, Return to Haifa)
- al-a’ma wa-al-atrash, 1972 (الأعمى والأطرش, The Blind and the Deaf)
- Barquq Naysan, 1972 (برقوق نيسان, The Apricots of April)
- al-qubba’ah wa-l-nabi, 1973 (القبعة والنبي, The Hat and the Prophet) incomplete
- thawra 1936-39 fi filastin, 1974 (ثورة 1936-39 في فلسطين, The Revolution of 1936-39 in Palestine))
- jisr ila-al-abad, 1978 (جسر إلى الأبد, A Bridge to Eternity)
- al-qamis al-masruq wa-qisas ukhra, 1982 (القميص المسروق وقصص أخرى, The Stolen Shirt and Other Stories)
- ‘The Slave Fort’ in Arabic Short Stories, 1983 (transl. by Denys Johnson-Davies)
About the selected book of short stories: Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories:
Ghassan Kanafani’s short stories Men in the Sun & Other Palestinian Stories is based on many autobiographical events in Kanafani’s life. The stories in this collection share the common elements of isolation, disorientation and tragedy. With the occupation of Palestine after WWII, entire villages became displaced and geographically orphaned. These stories emphasis their desire to be home and their struggles, and ultimate failure, to survive. The central novella Men in the Sun, follows the tale of four men trying to escape into Kuwait with the help of an military man, hiding them in his lorry. Kanafani gives us four individual lives, stories and strengths brought together, united to escape the terror in Palestine and build a new life for themselves. Men in the Sun features a variation of voice and perspective from paragraph to paragraph. For a moment we are in the head of one character, an old man crossing the desert to Kuwait. The next we’re taken back in time to 1948, when that man was forced to leave his country by the ravages of war. Then we’re transplanted into the shoes of another character, a young man hitching a ride from Jordan to Iraq. All this is done smoothly enough not to interrupt the narrative, but instead, the perspective of the plot wanders as thoughts naturally wander in one’s mind.
The other six stories that make up the collection reflect an equally emotional reaction of the Palestinian people to the 1948 war, through similar symbolism and sad irony. “The Land of Sad Oranges” portrays a father, once successful and proud, who loses his orange trees and becomes a refugee. As he moves his family to their new and diminished location, this man breaks down to an extremely low point. This story of loss and anger ends with the image of a shriveled orange, symbolism again for the hopes and dreams of the Palestinian people. In the short story, “Umm Saad”, Kanafani confronts the life of a mother in a Palestinian refugee camp. In this ironic tale, the mother’s son holds the dream of becoming a guerrilla soldier, to fight for returning what was lost to his family. His mother sadly supports this goal, one of the few things that she can provide him, while knowing the risk that he is taking. The last story in the book is entitled “A Letter From Gaza”, which concerns a decision that many of the Palestinian people have faced in the past. When a childhood friend encourages a man to find success and money in the United States, the other responds with the story of an innocent young girl who lost her leg due to the conflict. In this emotional story, it is stressed that this child’s sacrifice must not be lost, but be a reminder of all which has been lost. Instead of joining the friend in America, the other writer tells him instead to return to Gaza, to learn from the amputated leg, and to learn “what existence is worth”. Kanafani ends the collection of stories on this note, one of sadness, yet also one of hope.