In Memory of Ghassan Kanafani, The leader, the writer, the martyr

Ghassan Kanafani: The leader, the writer, the martyr

 Comrade Ghassan Kanafani was born in Acre in 1936, and his family was expelled from Palestine in 1948 by Zionist terror, after which they finally settled in Damascus. After completing his studies, he worked as a teacher and journalist, first in Damascus, and then in Kuwait. Later he moved to Beirut and wrote for several papers before starting Al Hadaf, the weekly paper of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), in 1969.

He was the spokesperson of the PFLP and a member of its Political Bureau, as well as a great novelist and artist whose immense contributions cannot be overstated.

To begin with, Kanafani was an active member of the Arab Nationalist Movement, the forerunner of the PFLP, but later, along with his comrade George Habash, he became a Marxist, believing that the solution to the problems which faced the Palestinians could not be achieved without a social revolution throughout the Arab world.

Kanafani was killed when his car exploded on July 8, 1972: murdered by Zionist agents. His sister wrote:

“On the morning of Saturday, July 8, 1972, at about 10:30 am, Lamees (Kanafani’s niece) and her uncle were going out together to Beirut. A minute after their departure, we heard the sound of a very loud explosion which shook the whole building. We were immediately afraid, but our fear was for Ghassan and not for Lamees because we had forgotten that Lamees was with him and we knew that Ghassan was the target of the explosion. We ran outside, all of us were calling for Ghassan and not one of us called for Lamees. Lamees was still a child of seventeen years. Her whole being was longing for life and was full of life. But we knew that Ghassan was the one who had chosen this road and who had walked along it. Just the previous day Lamees had asked her uncle to reduce his revolutionary activities and to concentrate more upon writing his stories. She had said to him, “Your stories are beautiful,” and he had answered, “Go back to writing stories? 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.’ He was able to convince the girl that the struggle and the defense of principles is what finally leads to success in everything.”

In the memoir which Ghassan Kanafani’s wife published after his death, she wrote:

“His inspiration for writing and working unceasingly was the Palestinian-Arab struggle…He was one of those who fought sincerely for the development of the resistance movement from being a nationalist Palestinian liberation movement into being a pan-Arab revolutionary socialist movement of which the liberation of Palestine would be a vital component. He always stressed that the Palestine problem could not be solved in isolation from the Arab World’s whole social and political situation.”

This attitude developed naturally out of Kanafani’s own experiences. At the age of twelve he went through the trauma of becoming a refugee, and thereafter he lived as an exile in various Arab countries, not always with official approval. His people were scattered, many of them making a living in the camps or struggling to make a living by doing the most menial work; their only hope lay in the future and in their children. Kanafani himself, writing to his son, summed up what it means to be a Palestinian:

“I heard you in the other room asking your mother, ‘Mama, am I a Palestinian?’ When she answered ‘Yes’ a heavy silence fell on the whole house. It was as if something hanging over our heads had fallen, its noise exploding, then – silence. Afterwards…I heard you crying. I could not move. There was something bigger than my awareness being born in the other room through your bewildered sobbing. It was as if a blessed scalpel was cutting up your chest and putting there the heart that belongs to you…I was unable to move to see what was happening in the other room. I knew, however, that a distant homeland was being born again: hills, olive groves, dead people, torn banners and folded ones, all cutting their way into a future of flesh and blood and being born in the heart of another child…Do you believe that man grows? No, he is born suddenly – a word, a moment, penetrates his heart to a new throb. One scene can hurl him down from the ceiling of childhood onto the ruggedness of the road.”

“To our departed and yet remaining Comrade; you knew of two ways in life, and life knew from you only one. You knew the path of submission and you refused it. And you knew of the path of resistance and you walked with it. This path was chosen for you and you walked with it. And your comrades are walking with you.”

Comrade Kanafani’s ability to illustrate, beyond any. shadow of doubt, the deprivation and sufferings of his people, as well as to transform an ideology and political line into popular literature made him a grave threat to the Zionist entity.

The following are excerpts from a tribute to Ghassan by one of his colleagues, a Palestinian author, S.Marwan, published in Al Hadaf on July 22, 1972.


“Imperialism has layed its body over the world, the head in Eastern Asia, the heart in the Middle East, its arteries reaching Africa and Latin America. Wherever you strike it, you damage it, and you serve the World Revolution.”

Imperialism is not a myth or a word repeated by the news media, a motionless picture that doesn’t affect the human reality. In Ghassan Kanafani’s conception, it is a mobile body, an octopus which colonizes and exploits, spreading itself over the world through western monopolistic enterprises.

Imperialism is directing various forms o€ aggression against the toiling masses of the world, and particularly in the underdeveloped countries.

Based on the slogan: “All the Facts to the Masses”, raised in Al Hadaf, Ghassan Kanafani put his clear intellect in the service of the masses and their objective class interests, leading him to state: “The desire for change which is sweeping through the Arab masses, must be motivated by ideological and political clarity, which is absolute. Thus, Al Hadaf devotes itself to the service of that revolutionary alternative, as the interests of the oppressed classes are the same as the goals of the revolution. It presents itself as the ally of all those carrying on armed and political-ideological struggle to achieve a liberated progressive nation.”

The natural base for Ghassan’s intellectual and artistic work was adopting and defending the interests of the toiling masses, not only of the Palestinians, but also the Arabs and the international oppressed classes. Because of this fundamental base for all of his work, Ghassan Kanafani, as a Marxist, adopted the path of armed struggle as the only way to defend the oppressed.

He was himself part of them; he lived and experienced the poverty caused by capitalism and imperialism and he remained within the ranks of the oppressed masses, in spite of the capitalists’ temptations and their attempts to encircle his journalistic life. He remained a humble man who worked day and night to raise and develop the quality of human life out of the adversity imposed by history.

Addressing himself to a group of students, Ghassan said: “The goal of education is to correct the march of history. For this reason we need to study history and to apprehend its dialectics in order to build a new historical era, in which the oppressed will live, after their liberation by revolutionary violence, from the contradiction that captivated them.” Ghassan Kanafani had not only achieved the knowledge of historical materialism, but he applied it in his work. The concept that he believed in and lived for was shown clearly in what he said and wrote. The primary contradiction, is the one with imperialism. Zionism and racism. It is an international contradiction, and the only solution is to destroy these threats by a united and steadfast armed struggle, he encouraged and raised the spirit of internationalism among all the people he addressed or knew.

This belief made him reject all compromises, all bourgeois or divisive solutions, which do not encompass or apply the thesis and development of the revolution and its long path towards liberation, striking the Interests of imperialism and consolidating with the masses. He said in a comment about the martyred Patrick Arguello: “The martyr Patrick Arguello is a symbol for a just cause and the struggle to achieve it, a struggle without limits. He is a symbol for the oppressed and deprived masses, represented by Oum Saad and many others coming from the camps and from all parts of Lebanon, who marched in his funeral procession.”

In discussions about the imperialist reactionary schemes against the revolutionary forces, he stated:

“The results of the imperialist assault will be directed against the oppressed masses to prevent them from mobilizing and fighting.”

This position was based on the analysis of the stand of the Arab regimes and the regimes of the underdeveloped countries in general, which retreat under the strokes of imperialism.

In the context of international revolution, he said:

“Vietnamese revolutionaries have been struggling against imperialism for tens of years. They will transfer their revolution to other places; first, because their revolution is continuous, second, because they are internationalists . . .”

“The Palestinian cause is not a cause for Palestinians only, but a cause for every revolutionary, wherever he is, as a cause of the exploited and oppressed masses in our era.”

As the struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism was the main issue for Ghassan Kanafani, the conspirators behind his assassination feared his clear and logical confrontation stand, which was revealed in his works and through the western news media. This drove imperialism and its reactionary allies to stop the pen which refused to surrender to their temptations or warnings. Ghassan Kanafani transformed the Palestinian and Arab cause to a cause through which we adopt the struggle of all the exploited and oppressed in the world.

Ghassan’s commitment will remain a monument for the struggling masses. He said in a meeting with the staff of Al Hadaf: “Everything in this world can be robbed and stolen, except one thing; this one thing is the love that emanates from a human being towards a solid commitment to a conviction or cause.”

Comrade Kanafani’s literary work

Selected works:

Mawt Sarir raqm 12, 1961
Ard al-burtugal al-hazin, 1963
Rijal fi-al-shams, 1963 (Men in the Sun)
al-Bab, 1964
Alam laysa lana, 1965
Adab al-muqawamah fi filastin al-muhtalla 1948-1966, 1966
Ma tabaqqa lakum, 1966 (All That’s Left to You)
Fi al-Abab al-sahyuni, 1967
al-Adab al-filastinial-muqawin tahta al-ihtilal: 1948-1968, 1968
An al-rijal wa-al-banadiq, 1968
Umm Sad, 1969
A’id ila Hayfa, 1970
al-A ma wa-al-atrash, 1972
Barquq Naysan, 1972
al-Qubba’ah wa-al-nabi, 1973
Thawrat 1936-39 fi filastin, 1974
Jusr ila al-abad, 1978
al-Qamis al-masruq wa-qisas ukhra, 1982
‘The Slave Fort’ in Arabic Short Stories, 1983 (trans. by Denys Johnson-Davies)

Towards a Better Future – Kanafani and the Culture of Resistance by Dr. Ahmed Masoud

In 1977 a local theatrical group in Nazareth was banned from performing an adaptation of Ghassan Kanafani’s novel Men in the Sun (1962).
The Israeli authority prevented the actors from going on stage and threatened imprisonment. The script was written by a Palestinian writer who was assassinated in a car bomb by Israeli agents in Lebanon in 1972. It is not surprising for governments to censor literature if it does not comply with its propaganda, but assassination is something which needs more careful examination.
Why would the Israeli government feel threatened to go as far as killing Ghassan Kanafani?
In order to find the answer for this question, one must look at not only the life and works of this writer but also delve deep into his mindset and how his writing has become a manifesto of the new Palestinian revolution.

Born in Acre in 1936, Kanafani witnessed the struggle of his people during the Nakba (catastrophe) in 1948 which led to the establishment of the state of Israeli and the deportation of over 800,000 Palestinians from their homes and many thousands killed. After he was expelled from his village near Acre, he settled with his family in Damascus. Kanafani continued his education to study Arabic literature at the University of Damascus while working as a teacher in the United Nation Refugee Working Agency (UNRWA1). Like many other Palestinians, Kanafani saw a new world opening in the Gulf with more countries discovering oil and becoming richer. He moved to teach and work as a journalist in Kuwait between 1955 and 1960 until he went to Lebanon to work with George Habash, Chairman of the Popular Front Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), as an editor of Al-Hadaf (The Goal) Magazine.

What differentiates Kanafani from other Palestinian writers is his progressive thinking whereby his writing urges people to resist their circumstances and employ their capacities to work towards a better future. This can only be obtained by continuously seeking new avenues to make life better for Palestinian refugees. In the years following the Nakba, Palestinian refugees were looking for their family members and establishing connections with those who remained. Kanafani was the first to criticize this status and wanted his people to be ready to face the coming challenges.

The only thing we know is that tomorrow will be no better than today, and that we are waiting on the banks, yearning, for a boat that will not come. We are sentenced to be separated from everything – except from our own destruction.2

This statement comes across as a pessimistic view of the Palestinian situation; however, it is a reminder for those who are suffering to stop being pre-occupied with their current circumstances as their future will be no different if they carry on the same way. Post Nakba Palestinians held a romantic view of Palestine, lamenting their separation from their villages, families and lost land. This natural reaction to the disaster was fuelled by the rough conditions in the refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and other parts of the world. To Kanafani, however, it was important not to get obsessed in a vicious cycle of grief which would bring no change but further mourning.

Thus, Kanafani’s mission was to create a culture of resistance which would depend on two levels; firstly, a rejection of any attempt to normalize the refugee problem, either by offering citizenships in the countries they are in or compensations. This view is clearly presented in his masterpiece Men in the Sun, which tells the story of three Palestinians who try to cross the desert border between Iraq and Kuwait in an empty water tank in search for work. As well as the anger on Arab regimes and the way they treat Palestinians, the novel suggests that a progressive future can be only achieved at home. The way the three men die in the water tank at the end of the novel reflects Ghassan’s ability to arouse his reader’s dissatisfaction of their status.

Secondly, once a certain level of denunciation is achieved, Kanafani prepares his readers to the next step which is to start working towards a better future. This can be done by joining the resistance movement which was developing in Lebanon and other parts of the Arab world under the leadership of the PFLP and other organizations. To Kanafani, the resistance movement is the only way forward given that Palestinians have nothing to lose but their misery. His second novel Returning to Haifa (1970) shows the importance of joining/supporting the resistance movement when presenting the story of Said and Saffiya, the couple who go back to Palestine to look for their home.

The story of the novella is set on two different timelines: during Al-Nakba in 1948 and almost 20 years later, a few days after the June war in 1967; keeping the dates of the Nakba and Naksa3 in the readers’ consciousness. Returning to Haifa tells the story of a married couple who go back to find their old house in Haifa after leaving it for twenty years, looking for more information about their son, Khaldoun, whom they were separated from during the flee. As the journey progresses more stories are unfolded about how the 1948 disaster happened and how Palestine became Israel. When Said and Safiyya reach their old house, they find that it has been inhabited by a Jewish woman called Miriam. To the couple’s surprise, they discover that their son was still alive and was adopted by Miriam who gave him the name Dov and brought him up as an Israeli, becoming a reserve army officer. The novel ends with the couple returning back from their journey having realized that Palestine is not what it was but it is what it will be. The novel finishes with Said wishing that his other son Khalid has joined the resistance movement.

He used to know Haifa stone by stone, intersection by intersection. How often he had crossed that road in his green 1946 Ford! Oh, he knew Haifa well, and now he felt as though he hadn’t been away for twenty years. He was driving his car just as he used to, as though he hadn’t been absent those twenty bitter years…The names began to rain down inside his head as though a great layer of dust had been shaken off them: Wadi Nisnas, King Fisal Street, Hanatir Square, Halisa, Hadar.

Suddenly, the house loomed up, the very house he had first lived in, then kept alive in his memory for so long. Here it was again, its front balcony bearing its coat of yellow paint. Instantly he imagined that Safiyya, young again with her hair in a long braid, was about to lean over the balcony toward him. There was a new clothesline attached to two pegs on the balcony; new bits of washing, red and white, hung on the line. Safiyya began to cry audibly. He turned to the right and directed the car’s wheels up over the low curb, then stopped the car in its old spot. Just like he used to do – exactly – twenty years ago.4

In the first few chapters, Returning to Haifa appears to be a more romantic novel about a couple who wants to go back to their beautiful life before the disaster. The main reason why they are heading back to their old home was to find out what happened to their child whose fate has haunted them for twenty years. The description of the way Said and Safiyya felt emphasises this conception of the novel. However, Returning to Haifa is a progressive novel, inviting Palestinians to get rid of the past and work towards a better future. This is very clearly illustrated when Said S. asks himself and his wife a crucial question “What is homeland?”5 and the answer comes from Kanafani’s rejection of the reality of Palestinians “Do you know what the homeland is, Safiyya, homeland is where none of this can happen”6. Said realizes in the end that what he went for was not strong enough to claim homeland; he went back searching for his dusty memories and did not find what he expected.

For us, for you and me, it’s only a search for something buried beneath the dust of memories. And look what we found beneath that dust. Yet more dust7.

The shock of the parents when seeing their lost son dressed up in an Israeli military suit and defending Israel is perhaps one of the most powerful scenes in the novel. Kanafani uses the conversation between the father and the son to emphasize his message that what happened in 1948 should not only be remembered romantically. “My wife asks if the fact that we’re cowards gives you the right to be this way. As you can see, she innocently recognizes that we were cowards”8. At the end of this conversation, Said announces that he has another son called Khalid and who has joined the Fidayeen (Freedom fighters). It is this line that offers hope to Said and to most Palestinians; it is the resistance movement

Said rose heavily. Only now did he feel tired, that he had lived his life in vain. These feelings gave way to an unexpected sorrow, and he felt himself on the verge of tears. He knew it was a lie, that Khalid hadn’t joined the fidayeen. In fact, he himself was the one who had forbidden it. He’d even gone so far as to threaten to disown Khalid if he defied him and joined the resistance. The few days that had passed since then seemed to him a nightmare that ended in terror. Was it really he who, just a few days ago, threatened to disown his son Khalid? What a strange world! And now, he could find no way to defend himself in the face of this tall young man’s disavowal other than boasting of his fatherhood of Khalid – the Khalid whom he prevented from joining the fidayeen by means of that worthless whip he used to call fatherhood! Who know? Perhaps Khalid had taken advantage of his being here in Haifa to flee. If only he had! What a failure his presence here would turn out to be if he returned and found Khalid waiting at home9.

As well as resistance, place is equally important in Ghassan’s culture of resistance. The refugee camp appears to always be the core of Kanafani’s works. The stories of Men in the Sun, All That’s Left to You (1966), Um Sa’ad and others all relate to the refugee camp which is a symbol of Palestine. In the refugee camp, then, some sense of place is maintained by the presence of community living together. This dual quality of camp life also dominates its portrayal in Ghassan Kanafani’s work. Despite its impermanence, poor housing, and insanity conditions; the refugee camp has become a living symbol of struggle. It is not a homogenous space, alien and meaningless like desert and city. The Palestinians who live in the camps have shaped them into their own places10.

Life in the refugee camp is more strongly portrayed in his novel Um Sa’ad (1969). Based on a real character, according to Kanafani, the novel is formed of conversations between Um Sa’ad and the narrator. Um Sa’ad represents the Palestinian strong mother who rebels against the norms which her people have come to accept, like life in the refugee camps. The capturing element about this novel is the way Um Sa’ad celebrates the fact that her son has joined the resistance movement believing that it is only then change can happen, appearing as an example of the revolutionary Palestinian woman. Kanafani, in his preface to the novel, describes her as an example of the Palestinian woman who was affected most by the conflict and now living under tough circumstances looking for a change to come.

Um Sa’ad is not only one woman…her voice to me has always been that voice of a certain layer of our Palestinian society which paid a high price for the defeat and who now lives under the roof of poverty and keeps defending their life11.

Finally, Ghassan Kanafani is an influential nationalist as well as a talented writer even though his views are translated into literary works and not political agendas. In fact, it is because of this that he was able to help the resistance movement become more popular amongst the ordinary people who might not necessarily think of resistance as a way of changing their future. As well as becoming a manifesto of the Palestinian revolution, his writing has become classic in modern Arabic literature which is often described with a mixture of style, content and a vibrant language. Kanafani’s novels certainly combine those three elements eloquently. Ghassan Kanafani’s contribution to modern Arabic literature lies in his legacy as a founder of the literature of resistance. His works have been translated into many languages worldwide, including English and French.

1.UNRWA was, and still is, the main source of aid to Palestinian refugees in camps inside and outside Palestine. It offers food, healthcare, education and sometimes housing for very poor families.
2. Ghassan Kanafani, “Diary 1959 – 1960” Quoted from Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and Other Stories by Ghassan Kanafani, Biographical Essay by Karen E. Riley, p. 5.
3.Naksa is the Arabic word for “setback” when Israel occupied West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, Golan heights and the Sinai desert
4.Ghassan Kanafani, Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and other Palestinian Stories, translated by Barbara Harlow & Karen E. Riley, Lynne Rienner Publishers, London 2000, pp.152/161
5.Ibid, p. 186
6.Ibid, p. 186
7.Ibid, p. 187
8.Ibid, p. 186
9.Ghassan Kanafani, Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and other Palestinian Stories, translated by Barbara Harlow & Karen E. Riley, Lynne Rienner Publishers, London 2000, p. 182
10.Barbara McKean Parmenter, Giving Voice to Stones – Place and Identity in Palestinian Literature, University of Texas Press, Texas 1994, pp. 65-66
11.Ghassan Kanafani, The Complete Works: The novels, volume 1, Arab Research Association, Beirut 4th edition 1994, p. 242 (translated by the author)

River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian

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