HistoryMiddle East

Who Was Ghassan Kanafani?

If you have a deep understanding of Palestinian history, you’ll know Ghassan Kanafani. A Palestinian novelist considered a hero, read more about his life and works.

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If you have a deep understanding of Palestinian history, you’ll know Ghassan Kanafani. A Palestinian novelist considered a hero, read more about his life and works.

Ghassan Kanafani is considered a revolutionary hero amongst Palestinians.

He was immortalised in Palestinian history on the 8th of July, 1972, when a devastating event cut his life short. As he entered his car alongside his young niece Lamees, an explosive device rigged to the vehicle ignited, claiming their lives. This heart-wrenching moment transformed Kanafani into a martyr for the Palestinian cause, a stark reminder of the ongoing struggle faced by his people.

Kanafani’s legacy is one of resilience, eloquence, and a profound dedication to the Palestinian struggle. His impact reached far beyond his time, as evident in the words of his obituary in the Lebanese Star, describing him as “a commando who never fired a gun, whose weapon was the ball-point pen, and his arena the newspaper pages.”

Delving into his roots, Kanafani’s birth in 1936 in Acre coincided with the inception of al-thawra al-kubra (the Great Revolt) of 1936-39. This anti-colonial uprising against British rule deeply influenced his upbringing. The struggle was deeply personal for Kanafani, as his family members actively participated in the revolt, exposing him to the determination and resilience of his people.

Raised in a comfortable setting, Kanafani’s life took a drastic turn with the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba in 1947-48. The impact of this traumatic event compelled his family to seek refuge in Damascus, leading to an exile that transformed their lives from comfort to hardship.

During his formative years, Ghassan found solace in artistic expression, channeling his observations of Palestinian refugees and their stories through painting, drawing, and writing. These experiences laid the foundation for his future literary contributions.

Kanafani’s journey took a significant turn when he enrolled at Damascus University in the mid-1950s to study Arabic literature. His encounter with George Habash marked a pivotal moment that further ignited his political involvement. Kanafani’s writing began to reflect Pan-Arabist themes, capturing the agonizing reality of Palestinian displacement and oppression in works like “Letter from Gaza,” “Land of Sad Oranges,” and “Men in the Sun.”

By the mid-1960s, the Palestinian political landscape was evolving, prompting Kanafani and fellow activists to draw inspiration from global anti-colonial struggles. This period culminated in the founding of the PFLP in 1967, with Kanafani assuming a leadership role. His fervent dedication to the cause led him to Beirut, where he continued to amplify the Palestinian voice through media.

Even as a prominent critic of Israel and a steadfast advocate for Palestinian rights, Kanafani did not resort to violence himself. Tragically, his commitment to the cause made him a target, leading to his untimely demise on the 8th of July, 1972.

Kanafani’s contributions continue to reverberate, serving as a poignant reminder of the enduring Palestinian struggle. His legacy is one of unwavering commitment, intellectual prowess, and a fierce determination to secure justice for his people, transcending generations and inspiring Palestinians across the globe.

Published Works

Men in the Sun

Men in the Sun is arguably his most celebrated work.

It’s about a trio of Palestinian men from different generations, all seeking employment, striking a deal with a clerk to be illicitly transported to Kuwait via a driver. The men undergo harsh treatment and are subjected to degrading experiences during the process. Frustrated by this mistreatment, they opt for an alternative plan, arranging to travel with a truck driver who himself is a Palestinian and has suffered surgical castration during the 1948 war.

Their journey unfolds as they are compelled to journey within the truck’s cargo bed, traversing the arid desert on their route to Kuwait. Along the way, they encounter multiple checkpoints where they are obliged to conceal themselves in an empty water tank under the scorching midday sun. The driver navigates the bureaucratic complexities of these checkpoints, procuring the necessary documents to advance.

At the final checkpoint, tantalizingly close to their destination of Kuwait, the driver is unexpectedly detained by checkpoint officials who taunt him with rumours of his personal escapades. This delay prolongs their journey. Eventually, as the driver gains clearance to proceed, he unlatches the tank only to be confronted by the grim sight of their lifeless bodies – the harsh conditions have taken their toll on the men.

This poignant narrative encapsulates the trials and tragedies faced by these Palestinian men as they pursue a modest hope for better prospects.

All That’s Left to You

“All That’s Left to You” unveils a compelling narrative spanning twenty-four hours, interweaving the tangible present with the echoes of the past for a brother and sister ensconced in Gaza, a region marked by separation from their kin. This anthology of tales serves as a testament to Kanafani’s standing within contemporary Arabic literature. Beyond merely depicting the hardships and dreams of his compatriots, the Palestinians, for whose cause he ultimately sacrificed his life, Kanafani stands out as a trailblazer in the expansive domain of Arabic storytelling.

Palestinian Children

A collection of short stories vividly depicting the experiences of Palestinians amidst the chaotic Middle East conflict. In each narrative, a child, despite being caught in challenging circumstances, transforms from a helpless victim into an engaged participant striving for a brighter future.

On Zionist Literature

For the very first time translated into English, Ghassan Kanafani’s “On Zionist Literature” delves into a deep analysis of a collection of literary writings that back the Zionist colonisation of Palestine. In this book, Kanafani dissects the works of authors like George Eliot and Arthur Koestler, intertwining his literary critique with a historical perspective. He unveils the political purpose and ideology behind Zionist literature, revealing how the tales used to validate the Zionist control over Palestine emerged and were frequently spread through popular literary pieces. This was done to garner support for Zionism and shape how the Western public perceives it.

You can purchase a copy of his work online.

Article image source: Middle East Monitor