Ghassan Kanafani and the inexhaustible dialectic

Haidar Eid

Mondoweiss  /  July 9, 2022

Ghassan Kanafani’s fiction remains essential 50 years after his assassination because it moves us towards a new perception and understanding of art, revolution, and, of course, Palestine.

July 8, 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Ghassan Kanafani, a towering figure in Palestinian cultural and political life. Kanfani was killed in 1972, when Israeli Mossad agents planted an explosive device in his car that killed him and his 17 year-old niece, Lamees.  Here are some reflections on his lasting legacy.

The necessity of reading Palestinian literature in general and Ghassan Kanfani’s fiction in particular emanates from the importance of writing a narrative which is distinctly Palestinian. Most Palestinian literature is what Barbara Harlow would call “Resistance Literature” – a term borrowed from Kanafani himself.

The question that remains is: what is left that has not been written in Arabic about Kanafani? Or rather, can one write about him under the current conditions with the same optimism that led the late Egyptian founder of the modern Arabic short story, Youssuf Idriss, to ask us to hold onto Kanafani’s stories like we hold onto our Quran? 

Put differently, where does Kanafani fit within the new intellectual scene after the retreat of most of the “radical” intellectuals? 

What would he have done, as a Fanonian “native intellectual,” had he still been alive? How would the writer of Men in the Sun have reacted if those eponymous men were asked in the 1990s to stop banging on the walls of the tank, and instead to plead for extra percentages of their homeland? 

The relationship between the inhuman persecution of the Palestinians and their ideas and social values was powerfully expressed in narrative form for the first time in Kanafani’s novels. A correct understanding of his novels requires an understanding of the Palestinians’ past and present. Kanafani’s realism has the ability not only to “reflect” reality, as George Lukacs would put it, but also moves readers into a new order of perception and experience. Thus, he does not only defamiliarize reality, but also confronts it head-on. 

Kanafani had the ability to explore the dialectical relationship between the inward and outward realities of the colonized Palestinians. 

Complicated themes and questions recur throughout Kanafani’s novels: exile, death, and history. Such questions are indeed related to the role of Kanafani himself as a politically committed writer, revealing the “weakness” of some Palestinians in preferring the search for material security to the fight to regain their land (Men in the Sun). The responsibility of the Palestinian leadership in allowing Palestinians to suffocate in the marginal world of refugee camps demonstrates Kanafani’s prescience. As the Palestinian critic Faisal Darraj notes, the world of Kanafani’s different Palestinian characters is a composite of a poetic and organic relationship with the land (The Lover, Men in the Sun, and All That is Left to You). Being separated from the land, and seeking individualistic solutions, leads the men in the sun to an undignified and tragic death. That is to say, Kanafani had the ability to explore the dialectical relationship between the inward and outward realities of the colonized Palestinians. 

The world of All That is Left to You, for example, is one of socio-political paralysis that searches for possibilities of a better future. This requires a journey towards historical consciousness, a fact that–again, like in Men in the SunReturning to Haifa, and The Land of Sad Oranges–takes 1948 (the year of the Nakba) as the emerging center of the Palestinian narrative and, the frozen Palestinian image in the Palestinian collective consciousness. Historical consciousness forms through individual and collective transformations, while real and meaningful time materializes through action. Of course, in order to reach historical consciousness, one must get rid of false consciousness. The novel is open-ended because it is about beginnings rather than endings–that is, about a non-ending dialectical process. Hence the optimistic and open ending of All That is Left to You and the call for social revolution in Men in The Sun. From them, one concludes that history can never be closed. The role of the engaged intellectual in his battle to restore historical continuity after tragic events like the Nakba is, in Edward Said’s words, “to guarantee survival to what was in imminent danger of extinction.”

Kanafani’s stories of the struggle of men and women to free themselves from inhuman forms of oppression and persecution are undoubtedly related to the ideas, values, and feelings by which men and women–especially Palestinians–experience their society and their existential, political, and historical circumstances. In other words, to profoundly understand Kanafani’s ideological orientation and commitment is to understand both the past of the Palestinians and their present–an understanding that contributes to their liberation. Kanafani’s literature exercises considerable artistic influence, emerging from a confrontation with reality rather than from the attempt to escape it.

As a writer, Kanafani was not only a Palestinian refugee responding to history from his own particular standpoint and making sense of it in his own concrete terms–he also had an ideological perspective at his disposal that helped him penetrate the realities of (wo)men’s experience in specific historical and political situations.  His auto-critique of certain negative Palestinian practices reflects a kind of national and historical consciousness that renders Palestinians–and all colonized peoples–able to do something about their own present and future. Frantz Fanon, Aime Cezaire, Amilcar Cabral, and Steve Biko serve as exemplars of this dynamic tradition.

The western “enlightenment” project cannot be comprehended without a historical understanding of the development of capitalism–and its inhuman colonial manifestations–through the industrial and post-industrial periods, which according to certain postcolonial thinkers had no space for Third World peoples. But Kanafani’s call for a radical solution is supported by the victories of the movements of national liberation in the post-WWII period. Kanafani offers the alternative, which takes objective social and historical conditions into account, an alternative that asks the men in the sun (read: the colonized) to depend on their powers in the relentless struggle against the existing order, with all its attendant injustices that are foisted upon the developing world by the imperialist project. Hence the violent action (in the Fanonian sense) that appears at the end of All That is Left to You.  

Such novels could be said to have called into question the illusion through which the Zionist bourgeoisie falsely represented its colonial ventures to itself and to the West–as part of a mythical historic mission undertaken on the part of the Jews, and even on behalf of humanity. Kanafani’s revolutionary literary works draw attention to that part of humanity which is excluded from the Zionist-imperialistic equation–that is, the native Palestinians. This is the reality which Kanafani’s literature manages to reflect. It is a dialectical social and historical reality.

Kanafani chose his place in society, and responded to such historical changes from his own particular standpoint while making sense of them in his own realistic terms. His ideological choice is clear enough in the social background that colors characters such as Um Sa’ad, Abu Qais, Asa’ad, Marwan, Abu Khaizuran, and Hamid. This background deals with homeland as a concept that includes the environmental, cultural, psychological, existential, and social bases that shape their personalities. In telling their stories, Kanafani narrates the larger political and social conflicts created within Palestinian society and without it.  As Barbara Harlow rightly argues: “The resistance movement [in Kanafani’s literature] becomes symbolic of a re-entry of the Palestinian people into the historical course of events, a re-entry which would confer meaning on the past and create possibilities for the future.”

And yet, in rebelling against the dominant way of seeing the world, Kanafani imposes an alternative way of seeing. With the death and rebirth of Hamid in All That is Left to You, and Ghassan Kanafani himself through his martyrdom, new lives emerge. The Palestinian tragedy is not only to be found in demonstrations and headlines; rather, it can be found in the living and suffering of characters like Abu Qais, Marwan, Hamid, and Asa’ad–people carrying the history of the Palestinian people and the wretched of the earth on their shoulders. 

Without the Palestinian question, Kanafani would not have had his uniquely “Kanafanian” style, characterized by a realism that moves us into a new order of perception and understanding of art, revolution, and, of course, Palestine.

Haidar Eid is Associate Professor of Postcolonial and Postmodern Literature at Gaza’s al-Aqsa University