Ghassan Kanafani: A School of Palestinian Literature

Talal Salman, founder of As-Safir newspaper, speaks during the Ghassan Kanafani memorial in Babel Theater in Beirut, 11 July 2012. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)
Published Thursday, July 12, 2012
In 1967, Ghassan Kanafani participated in a debate on “The Current Position of the Arab Novel” with Halim Barakat, Zakariya Tamer, Yahya Haqqi, and Sabri Hafez.

Their contributions were published in Issue 127 of the Egyptian magazine, al-Majalla (Summer 1967).
There, Kanafani presented what should be considered a “Palestinian approach” to the definition of what it means for a Palestinian to be a writer. In commemorating the fortieth anniversary of his assassination on 8 July 1972, the following section particularly stands out.

“The Palestinian writer is able more than anyone else to explore the very special character of the Palestinian cause. This is particularly true if he belongs to the young generation who left Palestine when they were around ten years old. Now (in 1967), he is about thirty years old, and is therefore part of the productive generation. This means that when it comes to his roots, he is a true Palestinian.”
“He actually lived in the stolen land, after which he spent five years of homelessness and true suffering…Also during this time, he continued his studies, had contact with the Arab world, and would have read literature until he turned twenty.”
“Between the ages of twenty and thirty, he experienced the developments of the cause from a different angle, became aware of foreign cultures but never severed his roots with the Palestinian cause. This meant that he still worked for the cause politically or socially, perhaps visiting some relatives in refugee camps, observing them and hearing their stories …”
“His friends are Palestinian, his milieu is Palestinian and therefore there is a Palestinian pulse in what he has to say that I fear no writer who is not Palestinian can emulate in anything he writes about Palestine.”

One can find within this paragraph a series of visions which form the essence of the literary framework constructed by Ghassan Kanafani, not only for himself, but for all of us.

Two of these visions particularly seem fundamental to establishing the foundations of literary writing on Palestine.

The first vision can be seen in the way a writer – in particular, the Palestinian writer – should approach, first and always, the question of the meaning of Palestine.

This approach is communicated in Kanafani’s early writings. His rise as a writer began with the publication of Men in the Sun (1963).

the story of three Palestinians trying to escape from
their miserable lives in refugee camps by travelling to Kuwait in search of jobs.
The difficulty of obtaining a visa forced them to pay a “smuggler” to transfer
them to Kuwait in his tank.
At the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border, they entered the tank and under the heat of the
desert sun, they died inside the tank.
Their story reflects the political and social conditions that surround

The novel came out in a cultural and intellectual atmosphere in the Arab world where the Palestinian cause was nothing more than a “hollow backdrop” to the concerns of the Arab cultural elites.

The result of this was that their writings were consumed by generalized concepts which stripped the conflict with Israel of its historical and national context and reduced it to laments over the “tragedy” or “catastrophe” of Palestine.

As for the literature inspired by this preoccupation, it manifested itself in a sea of abstraction. In this atmosphere, Kanafani pioneered the process of guiding the Palestinian down from these lofty abstractions to the solid ground of specificity.

Kanafani’s essence lies in the second vision, apparent in his expression: “There is a Palestinian pulse in what he has to say [i.e., in what a Palestinian writer has to say] that I fear no writer who is not Palestinian can emulate in anything he writes about Palestine.”

Kanafani worked hard on writing as an art form. Focusing on him as a political preacher, as some people do, is akin to continuing attempts to assassinate the art form of his project, a vital link in the whole framework of his creativity.

Emile Habibi
Jabra Ibrahim Jabra

Arab and Palestinian critical writing considers Ghassan Kanafani, along with Emile Habibi and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, to be the founding fathers of the Palestinian novel, not in the chronological sense, but in the deeper meaning of foundation.

As the late Palestinian critic and poet Hussein al-Barghouti pointed out, they are the spiritual founders of the art of the novel itself.

In order to elucidate Kanafani’s visions further we have to examine what he says about the ability of the Palestinian, as a writer, to explore the very special character of the Palestinian cause.
It places us before the essence of writing, by considering it as a complex structural process, which has a special role when it comes to understanding life.

Months after the publication of Men in the Sun, Kanafani wrote to a friend explaining his method of writing:

“At the moment, my friends are showering me with advice not to spend too much time on journalism. Because — they claim — in the end it will destroy my artistic ability to write stories.”
“Frankly, I do not understand this logic. It is the same logic employed in the advice given to me in secondary school: ‘Ignore politics and concentrate on your studies.’ And advice I later heard in Kuwait: ‘Abandon writing and take care of your health!’”
“Did I really ever have a choice between politics and school, between writing and health, so that now I have a choice between journalism and writing novels? I have something to say. Sometimes I can say it by writing the lead story in al-Ghad newspaper, sometimes by writing the editorial…Sometimes I can only say what I want to say in a novel.”
“The choice they speak of…reminds me of an Arabic teacher who at the beginning of each academic year asked his students to write an essay on his favorite subject — ‘Which do you prefer, life in the village or the city?’ — when most of his students lived in a refugee camp.”

Antoine Shalhat is a Palestinian writer and critic. The above is an adaptation of his contribution to a seminar held in the gardens of the Khalil Sakakini Center (Ramallah) on the 40th anniversary of Ghassan Kanafani’s assassination. The seminar was organized by the Palestinian ministry of culture and al-Hadaf magazine.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian  
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