Ghassan Kanafani’s Novellas: Constituting Palestinian Identity and Resistance

At twelve years old, Ghassan Kanafani entered exile, along with thousands of other Palestinians in 1948. He became an editor for the magazine Al-Hadaf of the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine in 1969. As a leader in Palestinian literature and activism, Kanafani called for a social revolution across the Arab world to achieve national liberation. Kanafani’s novellas Men in the Sun and Returning to Haifa embody the hopelessness, instability, and despair that continue to haunt the Palestinian quest for nationhood. An analysis of these two narratives reveals the power of Kanafani’s literature to illustrate the complexity and profundity of the Palestinian condition through time. Three major thematic binaries unite across both stories – temporality/space, passivity/resistance, and particularism/universality – to construct a powerful and living representation of the Palestinian’s histories, hopes, and struggles. Weaving these experiences together into a narrative fiction, Kanfani’s novellas constitute a tangible Palestinian identity and, ultimately, a distinct mode of resistance in reality.

Kanafani employs complex notions of time and space as distinctive components of the collective Palestinian experience. In Men in the Sun, differentiation between levels of temporality is almost entirely dissolved. Often sparked by a sensory experience, characters abandon the present and become enveloped in the past. Readers cannot always distinguish the boundaries of where and when the narrative is located. One of many incidents of this phenomenon is found in the chapter “Assad.” Standing before the smugglers, Assad becomes completely engrossed in his past, imagining his harsh journey through the desert years before: “Even when the earth turned into shining sheets of yellow paper he did not slow down” (18). His vision of the past fuses seamlessly with the reality of the present, as Kanafani continues, “Suddenly the yellow sheets began to fly about, and he stooped to gather them up” (18). Kanafani’s experimentation with time echoes Faulkner’s breakdown of linear temporality in The Sound and the Fury. The intimate, overlapping connection between past and present in Men in the Sun is also pronounced in Returning to Haifa. While the author includes clearer narrative barriers between past and present in this story, these characters also overwhelmingly inhabit their painful memories of the past as their defining mode of existence in the present.

In both novellas, the past defines each character. Readers differentiate between the protagonists in Men in the Sun based on their darkest memories. Said and Safiyya are introduced and characterized by their traumatic experiences 20 years earlier. The author collapses the distance between these personal histories and the contemporary narrative. Kanafani writes of Said in Returning to Haifa, “So he made the whole thing appear, to himself and to his wife, perfectly natural, as though the past twenty years had been put between two huge presses and crushed until they became a thin piece of transparent paper” (161). The blending of past and present in Kanafani’s works illustrates the Palestinian struggle to erect a stable existence in the present and ultimately gain momentum for a future. Edward Said describes this phenomenon: “If the present cannot be ‘given’ simply (that is, if time will not allow him either to differentiate clearly between his past and his present or to connect them, it is because the disaster … prevents continuity), it is intelligible only as achievement” (53). While the past entraps the characters in a present of paralysis and uncertainty, it also works to unite them in a quest toward the future. In this way, Kanafani renders the past as both a powerful barrier to Palestinian stability and a potent foundation of collective identity.

Like temporality, space is endowed with significant agency in both novellas. The desert in Men in the Sun represents the isolating, tumultuous, and unforgiving path toward a fruitful Palestinian future. The desert is ultimately the villain, killing the three men in the midst of their journey of suffering. Geography is closely connected to memory, as the scents and sights of the environment continually invoke characters’ past hardships. The desert is a placeless space, without any markers or borders. The narrative constantly repeats the same imagery of a blazing sun, expansive sand, and lonely black birds circling above. With such repetition, readers feel as if the protagonists have gone nowhere, made no progress in their journey. By positioning the desert in center stage, Kanafani cultivates the connection between placelesssness and hopelessness. This connection adds another layer of collective identity to the Palestinian selfhood that the author fashions in his narrative. In her introduction to Men in the Sun, translator Hilary Kilpatrick identifies Kanafani’s portrayal of the Palestinian peasant, like Abu Qais, as an indicator of the Palestinian’s political condition. She writes, “The nature of Zionist colonization, with its stress on acquiring land, struck at the existence of the peasants, the largest section of Palestinian society” (4). Kanafani animates space in order to centralize the role of displacement and landlessness in the creation of a collective Palestinian identity.

Returning to Haifa further enunciates the agency of space and its participation in a shared Palestinian identity and past. The city of Haifa and Said and Safiyya’s house are as much actors in the story as the characters themselves. Said thinks, “I know this is Haifa, but it refuses to acknowledge me,” and later repeats the same thought about his former home (150). Said can only understand these spaces in the context of the past, so he insists that Haifa and his home remain the same as they were 20 years ago. Kanafani writes, “For him, the street names had never changed” (152). For Said, place is past. That is why it is so hard for Said to accept the new street names, the new branches on the trees, and the missing feathers in his home. Said’s son, a symbol of the land of Palestine itself, embodies this notion perfectly. The name that Said calls him, Khaldun, comes from the root meaning “to remain” or “to last forever.” But his name does not last forever – it is changed by his Jewish adoptive parents. So too have Haifa, Said’s home, and all of Palestine been captured and altered by new ownership. When Said is forced to inhabit the present, his struggle to deal with the differences between the past and present of the city and his house signifies the struggle of the Palestinian refugee, placeless and instable.

A.B. Yehoshua’s short story “Facing the Forest,” written in 1963 and therefore contemporaneous with Kanafani’s works, also imbues much agency into the relationship between memory and space. In this narrative, an Israeli sits in a tower above a young Zionist forest comprised of trees foreign to the area (part of the Jewish Agency’s claim to land after 1948) to watch for and prevent a forest fire. In the end, he incites a mute Arab worker to burn down the forest. In the forest’s ashes, the remnants of a destroyed Arab village appear, and only the native desert plants remain. While much more nuance must be given to a true analysis of “Facing the Forest,” the centrality of space and temporality in the literary self-fashioning surrounding the 1948 occupation is clear. In Returning to Haifa, readers see the layers of space and memory embedded into the city of Haifa and Said’s house, similar to the layers of space and memory embedded in Yehoshua’s forest. Creating an unbreakable connection between time and place, Kanafani forms a distinct Palestinian narrative of trauma and displacement that must be shared and overcome to fashion a liberating future.

The binary relationship between passivity and resistance is another important theme at work in Kanafani’s novellas. These conditions are clearly explored in Returning to Haifa, in which the author draws a connection between temporality and action. This relationship characterizes the story of Faris al-Lubda. His brother Badr was a martyr who died as a resistance fighter in 1947. In his honor, the Arab man who inhabits Faris’s former home named his son Badr. He says about the picture of the martyr, “It helped me not just to resist but also to remain” (177). These two Badrs represent the possibility for Palestinian continuity from the past to a future. Faris’s brother, a symbol of the tragic history shared by the Palestinian people, inspires the man to act in resistance and therefore move toward a future of sustained livelihood, as symbolized by the young Badr.

Throughout the narrative, Said transforms from a passive condition into one of newly found resistance. At the beginning, Said tells his wife, “Let’s get out of here and return to the past. The matter is finished. They stole him” (172). In this moment, Said wishes to escape the present by inhabiting the traumatic memory that paralyzes him. In Dov’s rebuke against Said, calling him weak and passive, he says, “Don’t tell me you spent twenty years crying! Tears won’t bring back the missing or the lost. Tears won’t work miracles!” (185) Kanafani shows that tragic memories of the Palestinian past must be mobilized toward collective action, not passive lament. By the end of the story, Said realizes this too. He understands that a solution will only arise through fighting, as his departing words illuminate, “You two may remain in our house temporarily. It will take a war to settle that” (187). The novella ends with Said’s hope that his son Khalid had joined the resistance fighters. Once again, a son, a symbol for the Palestinian future like the young Badr, is correlated with the call for resistance. By weaving the notions of temporality and action together, Kanafani demonstrates that a shared identity over the past holds the power to ignite a shared pathway toward Palestinian resistance and liberation.

Men in the Sun further nuances this binary between passivity and resistance. In many ways, readers sense that the characters’ agency has been revoked. Each character expresses feelings of dejection, humiliation, and isolation. The deaths of Abu Qais, Assad, and Marwan are passive deaths. They do not knock or plea for help, and they do not even see their killer, the sun, from inside the closed water tank. But Kanafani does not simply portray these characters as men destined to be passive. Subtle moments of resistance complicate this reductive reading. For example, the fat man who runs the smuggling office repeatedly tells each of the three men, “I’m not forcing you to do anything, I’m not forcing you” (16). The reiteration of this line signals to the reader that the men were not passively stuck in the past but instead possessed the strength and courage to embark on the strenuous journey of resistance. The novella concludes with the desert echoing back Abu Khaizuran’s question, “Why didn’t you knock on the sides of the tank? Why didn’t you bang the sides of the tank? Why? Why? Why?” (56) This question asserts the character’s potential agency – their passive death was not fated, and it was not beyond their control. Rather, the passive quality of their death was a choice. In addition to this passivity, the cause of their death was time itself. Each minute spent in the tank was heavy with emphasis and calculation. But all too soon, the time for survival passed. Kanafani demonstrates the potential and the need for Palestinian resistance, asserting that the time for achieving liberation will pass if the people do not unite in resistance soon enough.

This call for resistance may be contextualized in a final thematic binary that is operative throughout the two novellas, particularism and universality. Kanafani’s political critique and activism specific to the Palestinian cause are balanced by his global representations of morality, human imperfection, and suffering. In Men in the Sun, Kanafani exposes the faults of Palestinian leaders. Kilpatrick writes that the novella is “an attack on the corruption of the Arab regimes which allow [Palestinians] to suffocate in an airless, marginal world of refugee camps,” as symbolized by the characters’ deaths in the water tank (3). The men die silently as they wait for the leader they trust, Abu Khaizarun, who is delayed by the bureaucracy’s indecent infatuation with gossiped sexual exploits. Abu Khaizarun fought for Palestine but lost his manhood in the process. Unable to accept his loss, he fled from the hospital before completely recovering, “as though his flight could bring things back to normal again” (38). With this, he loses faith in patriotism and instead turns to material gain. He tells Assad, “I want more money, more money, much more. And I find it difficult to accumulate money honestly” (40). As a representation of Arab leadership who lost Palestine, Abu Khaizarun abandons Palestinian resistance, indulges in indecency and corruption, and ultimately entraps and suffocates his men.

Such political particularism is also present in Returning to Haifa, which is set in a specific historical time and place. Like Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz, this historical placement assigns particular politics onto a more general allegory. But the novella simultaneously touches upon universal human ideas, with the discussion of fatherhood, homeland, and Dov’s philosophical claim that “man is a cause” (181). Kanafani nuances his depictions of Miriam and Iphrat, the Jewish characters, with stories of their traumas, motivations, hopes, and sympathies. In this way, Kanafani’s renderings of political events and experiences are capable of incorporating subtleties and complexities that historiography often fails to capture. Karen Riley and Barbara Harlow name Kanafani’s literary achievement “the human dimension” that history alone cannot provide (13). This is true for Men in the Sun as well. The three protagonists in this novella represent different stages of life. Marwan is a symbol of youth, Assad is a young man, and Abu Qais is an old man. Kanafani illustrates an entire community and an entire life cycle through these three characters. While each of these representatives is rooted in his own distinct history, their stories and feelings “could be matched by the stories of thousands of displaced persons who have been uprooted in Europe and elsewhere,” as Kilpatrick explains. In partnership with the centrality of the distinct Palestinian narrative and experience in both novellas, the universality of human suffering persists in Kanafani’s works. Perhaps this duality of particularism and universality relates to Kanafani’s political vision for a widespread transformation of the Arab world that would prioritize the Palestinian cause. Kilpatrick describes this, “[Kanafani fought for] a pan-Arab revolutionary social movement of which the liberation of Palestine would be a vital component” (1). Read in this light, the novellas’ thematic balance between the particular and the universal is deeply rooted in the author’s value for pan-Arab agency and resistance on behalf of Palestinian nationhood.

In his essay “After Mahfouz,” Edward Said explains the major difference between Egyptian and Palestinian literature. Mahfouz’s novels, set as the norm for Arab literature, arise from and contribute to a “culturally compact” Egypt, whose identity is “never in doubt” (319). In contrast, Kanafani’s literature originates in and speaks for “a fractured, decentered, and openly insurrectionary place” (320). But in Men in the Sun and Returning to Haifa, Kanafani succeeds in overcoming these destabilizing obstacles. The author constructs a foundation for a collective Palestinian identity, rooted in a shared traumatic past and a devastating condition of displacement. This self-fashioning creates a distinct Palestinian present and a mobilizing force toward a future of liberation. Through a literary exploration into the relationship between temporality and passivity, Kanafani articulates the potential and demand for Palestinian resistance. Rife with political critique specific to the Palestinian cause, Kanafani situates universal human needs and emotions into his accounts of history. By transforming these lofty concepts of time, space, agency, and politics into a tangible force of Palestinian identity, unity, and action, Kanafani performs a tangible and impactful act of resistance in his composition of Men in the Sun and Returning to Haifa.

By Lucille Marshall. Written for Contemporary Culture in the Arab World with Professor Joseph Massad at Columbia University.

Works Cited

Kanafani, Ghassan. Men in the Sun & Other Palestinian Stories. Trans. Hilary Kilpatrick. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1999. Print.

Kanafani, Ghassan. Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and Other Stories. Trans. Barbara Harlow and Karen E. Riley. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000. Print.

Said, Edward W. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000. Print.


About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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