It is a sign of the enduring status of the work of the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani that a collection of 17 of his books has recently been published in a boxed set, 45 years after his death.
Ghassan Kanafani was a prolific writer of novels, short stories, literary criticism and journalism, and is best known by Arab and non-Arab readers for a short novel called Men in the Sun, first published in 1962, about the tragic deaths of a group of Palestinian migrant workers.
He was also a member of the leadership of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group that had a high profile in the Palestinian resistance movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s (and which still exists).
His name is as well known to students of political history as to students of modern Arabic literature, yet these two aspects of his work are inseparable. His work combines political urgency with an innovative literary style and powerful storytelling.
He died in 1972 at the age of 36—killed, along with his teenage niece, in a car bomb in Beirut, probably in connection with his role in the PFLP leadership and its paramilitary activities. Dying in this way, when he was at the height of his powers, freezes him and his work into an image that continues to live, yet remains fixed in its historical moment.
Kanafani was the spokesman of the PFLP and the editor of its newspaper, al-Hadaf (The Goal). As a journalist, his output was prodigious. As his friend Fadle Naqib, now an emeritus professor of economics at the University of Waterloo, in Canada, recalled, “He loved writing, and he wrote in the way that you and I would breathe. He would write news, he would write editorials, he would write something about society and then literary criticism. I said to him, ‘You are not a human being, you are a writing machine!’”
And after a day’s work at the newspaper, he would go home and write fiction.
Kanafani’s life and work represent the high-water mark of a political outlook that in 2017 seems impossibly idealistic. In the PFLP’s Marxist vision, not only Palestine but the entire Arab world would be liberated, not just from foreign colonialism but also from archaic attitudes and social forms. The Palestinian resistance fighter was a revolutionary figure of the romantic type—a keffiyeh-wearing version of Che Guevara.
In 1986, for instance, the French writer Jean Genet’s book Prisoner of Love was published: an elegiac account of months he spent in the early 1970s with Palestinian fighters in Jordan. It was Genet’s last book, published three weeks after his death. Genet was enchanted by the heroic and idealistic young guerrillas he met there, who would go into battle with copies of the sayings of Mao Zedong in their back pockets.
Nora Parr, a professor of Arabic literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, welcomes the new edition of Kanafani’s work because it provides readable, well-edited versions of texts that previously had been available only in scrappy editions, and also makes available important works that had been hard to find, such as his account of Palestinian resistance literature after 1948 (The Literature of Resistance in Occupied Palestine).
This new edition is available only in Arabic, although its publisher, Nora Shawwa of Cyprus-based Rimal Books, says she hopes new translations can be made in due course.
Nora Parr says that in purely literary terms, Kanafani’s work remains interesting for its range of styles, from realism to surrealism. “But after 1967 [the year of the Six-Day War, in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights], his work became a lot more didactic,” she said. He created Umm Saad, one of the best-known characters in 20th-century Arabic fiction, a plain-speaking Palestinian everywoman who seems to embody the whole of Palestinian experience while stoically observing it.
“Umm Saad is still incredibly relevant,” Parr said. “She represents what Arab women are still pushing against.”
Men in the Sun is a short novel about a group of Palestinian men whose uprooting from their homes compels them to seek work as itinerant laborers. They make a bad bargain with a truck driver who promises to smuggle them from Iraq into Kuwait in an empty tanker truck. At the Kuwaiti border, the driver is detained by time-wasting officials, and by the time the driver returns to his truck, his passengers have died of asphyxiation. The story is at once harshly realistic and a political allegory about Arab politics.
It is written in a dreamlike narrative style, like hallucinations seen in a heat haze. A coherent narrative is often hard to achieve using avant-garde techniques of this kind, but Men in the Sun is as readable as it is powerful.
Kanafani would have been 75 years old in 2011. What would he think of the Arab Spring? “He would be on the side of the revolution,” Fadle Naqib said. “And he would be against the Muslim Brotherhood, which he would see as a counter-revolution. He would say to the young people who demonstrated in Tahrir Square that they did not go far enough.”