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Profile: Ghassan Kanafani (1936 – 1972)

Late Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani [Twitter]
Late Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani [Twitter]

Palestinian activist and novelist was murdered in Beirut by a bomb planted in his car by Israel’s Mossad spy agency 47 years ago this week; on 8 July 1972 to be exact. He was 36 years old. Today, his writings remain among the most influential in modern Palestinian literature, indeed, among modern Arab literature, with his works translated into as many as 17 languages and published in 20 countries.

According to the Israelis, Kanafani was murdered in response to the Lod Airport attack two months earlier, even though he did not play a direct role in it. The attack was carried out by three members of the Japanese Red Army recruited by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Palestinian Marxist organisation founded by revolutionary George Habash after the 1967 war. Kanafani was the official spokesman of the PFLP at the time.

Ghassan Kanafani was a refugee, a journalist, an editor and a political activist. First and foremost, though, he was a writer, “a commando who never fired a gun, whose weapon was a ball-point pen, and his arena the newspaper pages,” said his obituary in Lebanon’s Daily Star.

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Born on 8 April 1936 in the northern city of Akka (Acre), during the British Mandate occupation era, Kanafani and his family were forced into exile along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the 1948 Nakba. They settled in Damascus along with many other Palestinian refugees. That is where he completed his secondary education and worked as an art teacher in schools run by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). It was during this time that he began to write short stories.

Kanafani’s higher education was at the University of Damascus in the Department of Arabic Literature. However, before he could graduate, he was expelled for his political ties with the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN), a pan-Arab nationalist organisation that would develop into the PFLP.

Graffiti tribute to Ghassan Kanafani in Palestine territory. [Wikipedia]

Graffiti tribute to Ghassan Kanafani in Palestine territory. [Wikipedia]

He moved to Kuwait in 1956, continued to teach and took up journalism as an editor of a MAN-affiliated newspaper, Al-Ra’i (The Opinion). He worked with MAN again after moving to Beirut in 1960, editing the group’s newspaper Al-Hurriya (Freedom).

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The young writer soon began publishing his stories, often closely intertwining his political activism with his works. Kanafani’s sister Fayzeh, whose 17-year-old daughter Lamees was in the car with him at the time of his assassination and was also killed, once reflected that on the day before the murders, Lamees had asked her uncle to cut back on his revolutionary activities and concentrate more upon writing his stories. “Your stories are beautiful,” she told him. “Go back to writing stories?” he answered. “I write well because I believe in a cause, in principles. The day I leave these principles, my stories will become empty. If I were to leave behind my principles, you yourself would not respect me.” According to his sister Fayzeh, “He was able to convince the girl that the struggle and the defence of principles is what finally leads to success in everything.”

It is a fact that his writing explores complex political questions encased in beautiful narratives and lyrical prose.

In 1962, he published his novella Men in the Sun to widespread critical acclaim. It tells the story of three Palestinian refugees of different generations trying to cross the Iraqi border into Kuwait in the hope of getting jobs there. The tragedy comes at the end, when the refugees make it across the border, but die in the water tank in which they had hidden. The story ends with the haunting question, “Why didn’t they bang on the walls?” Thus, they died not because of the sun’s brutal heat, but because of their own silence. For this reason, the ending has often been read as a criticism of the political defeatism within Arab societies and a call to “bang on the walls” of the passive corruption infecting the Palestinian community.

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The 1967 Six Day War was a significant turning point in Kanafani’s writing and political career. The pessimism and frustration embodied in his earlier works turned into a focus on creating change through active struggle.

His 1970 novella Returning to Haifa is set in the aftermath of the war and tells the story of a Palestinian couple, Sa’id and Safiyya, returning to their home in the city having been forced to leave it in 1948. They go back to look for their son, Khaldun, whom they left behind in Haifa during the Nakba, and find Miriam, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, living in their home. She is raising Khaldun as an Israeli Jew; he is a member of the Israeli Army and goes by the name “Dov”.

Khaldun/Dov stands in direct contrast to Said and Safiyya’s other son, Khalid, who is a fighter for the Fedayeen, the Palestinian freedom fighters. Said had previously forbidden Khalid from joining the Fedayeen, but after returning to Haifa, he gives his blessing. In this story, Kanafani sounds the call for armed resistance, while at the same time calling into question the fundamental structures of a “family” and a “home”.

Statue of the late Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani was demolished by Israeli authorities

Statue of the late Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani was demolished by Israeli authorities on 17 December 2018 [Arab48]

As one of the foremost leaders of Palestinian resistance literature as well as the person who actually coined the term itself, Kanafani argued that Palestinian literature was deeply connected with international struggles against oppression, a theme common to other Palestinian literature such as the writing of legendary poet Mahmoud Darwish. This form of literature has also played an important role in keeping the Palestinian identity alive, especially between 1948 and 1967, when there was much less organised armed resistance than after the Six Day War. “Palestinian resistance literature, just like armed resistance, shapes a new circle in the historical series which practically has not been cut throughout the last half century in the Palestinian life,” wrote Kanafani.

After the war, he joined the PFLP and became its official spokesman. Two years later, he resigned from his editorial position at the Nasserist newspaper, Al-Anwar (The Illumination), to found Al-Hadaf (The Goal), the PFLP’s newspaper. He worked as its editor until his assassination.

As’ad AbuKhalil, a Lebanese-American political science professor at California State University, highlighted the impact of Al-Hadaf: “He [Kanafani] made Arab Marxist revolutionary ideas cool and trendy… combining art with literature, all for the purpose of the liberation of Palestine.”

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Almost 50 years since his assassination, Ghassan Kanafani’s works and views have proven to be timeless as Arab youth continue to be inspired by his writings, both within and beyond their classes. At King’s Academy in Jordan, for example, all grade 10 students read his formative works Returning to Haifa and Men in the Sun as part of their English course entitled “Arabic Literature in a Global Context”. The class explores various themes such as identity, loss and political resistance.

Kanafani’s ideas on Palestinian identity and struggle form an essential part of the lessons, building a foundation for discussions on other types of political resistance around the world, from resisting the Qaddafi regime in Libya to fighting for gender equality in Nigeria. As he once said, “The Palestinian cause is not a cause for Palestinians only, but a cause for every revolutionary… as a cause of the exploited and oppressed masses in our era.”

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