Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Ghassan Kanafani and Humanizing the Palestinian Cause

Ghassan Kanafani Palestinian Cause
Picture taken at Dar al-Fan gallery in Beirut in 1971 shows from L to R: Lebanese novelist Emily Nasrallah, Beirut’s Pen Club president, writer and researcher Jamil Jabre, novelist Halim Barakat, the late Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani and Lebanese novelist Yussef Habshi al-Ashqar. From the early 1950s up to the break out of the 1975 civil war, Beirut was considered the cultural capital of the Arab world where countless intellectuals from nearby countries sought refuge and expressed their thoughts freely in a pluralistic ambiance due to political restrictions in their countries. AFP.

Youssef Sharqawi

The Palestinian is born condemned to a catastrophic present that does not belong to him. Instead, he has to go into exile. The rest of the human beings have a future without the two-opposites conflict: affirmation and denial of existence.

The Palestinian emerges into the world from the womb of a calamity, a catastrophe, which immediately captures him in a needle-eye sphere, in which he is to prove his right to exist.

It remained that way until a man came out from a private cave named Ghassan Kanafani. This man put history on trial and condemned it, not only as aggression but rather as submission. And that trial is tragic in its entirety.

Kanafani has proven that the Palestinian cause cannot be raised to the highest possible peak nor pushed to the fullest extent, except through tragedy. That cause is a tragic and catastrophic one.

It is not like the tragedy of Greek theatre that comes from an irrational fate, nor is it like the Shakespearean tragedy that comes from an anomaly in human behaviour. Instead, it overthrows its human being and exiles him, only because of the history he bears, to his imposed historical condition. The absence of his existential conditions dictated that there must not be a necessity of an action that he can do, as it plunges him into a whirlpool where it tries to force him into contentment with his ineffectiveness and uselessness. That is the Palestinian human.

Ghassan realized this from the start, so he judged history and took revenge on it. He was able to dig deep into the soil of time and create a state – unprecedented – for humanity, for the memory of humankind.

It is a strangely kneaded state where people start building characters bound by their inactivity and inaction. He condemns this state as well as the history that granted it this idle entity. We see this in his first novella, Men in the Sun. The final question of the novella sounds like a cry in the face of humanity. That question was the following: “Why didn’t you knock on the sides of the tank? Why didn’t you bang the sides of the tank? Why? Why? Why?”

There is a strange defeat. It is a rebellious defeat that might explode everywhere. It is a defeat that needs to change its historical conditions to create a new entity and essence.

Ghassan tackles human behaviours, not only as a destiny but also in terms of defining the essence and the identity.

Destiny and identity are the same. To die in a tank means for anyone that he is fragile; passive. As for he who dies in battle, it means that he is full of toughness. Fate is identity, and identity is destiny. Ghassan was aware of this. Therefore, he resorted to the tragic, where he determines identity in the same manner he determines destiny.

Ghassan’s literature was closely related to the changing historical conditions. During the period of Palestinian disability, he wrote about personalities mired in their idleness. When the Palestinian movement started, he established a cohesive correspondence in his novella All That’s Left to You. Although he was not full of optimism, Ghassan was not overwhelmed with despair. Therefore, the two opposing forces – the executioner and the victim – were left with no known fate. He did not predict defeat or victory.

Here, his characters did not choose to escape but rather saw tearing borders apart to settle their internal rupture. In this novella, the Palestinian refugee flees from his past towards his future. He escapes from his hell (asylum or camp) to his purgatory. The conflict of contradiction in the novel ends with the victory of purity over impurity.

In the third stage, Ghassan highlighted the great revolution that came about in Palestinian life after the outbreak of the resistance. He presented the novella Umm Sa’ad. In that novella, the socialist realism of the Palestinian mother was very similar to that of Gorky’s Mother. Umm Sa’ad was the type of a character that would immediately find a place in the heart of the readers. The reader cannot help but sympathize with her.

Through his approach to dealing with history, Ghassan provided the upcoming Palestinian memory with potency. Through the authentic tragic sentiment with which he was so proficient, Ghassan offered the Palestinian memory a tool of expression. His approach to that tool relied on a particular essence, entity, and identity. It consists of bitter pride that hurt its owner and did not make him happy. It is an angry pride mixed with vague sadness and hypersensitivity, as man sells his whole life for one moment of dignity. Likewise, Ghassan did not use romantic vibes to portray idealistic superheroes. Instead, he told the world that this human being, uprooted from his home and land, needs a universal hand to sympathize with him.

He has bestowed human qualities on inanimate objects. He loaded them with the human tragedy as he treated the tent of asylum that the air of exile removes from its roots as a human. He did the same with the wedges of the tent that cannot withhold the storms. The same applies to the supplies card that humiliates and wounds the dignity of the Palestinian. For Ghassan, we should treat bread, stones, trees, and pictures hanging on the walls like human beings. In other words: He has humanized the defeat and the Nakba. He created a memory for all of these incidents and elements.

Condemnation and guilt haunted Ghassan’s first fictional characters. Yet, he got rid of them when the historical circumstances changed. His later characters have an essential characteristic outlined in nobility, transcendence, and loftiness.

But these characters are also immersed in their tragedy and temporal condemnation because they have no present. All that they had was exile. They are trying to restore their human essence, not only by looking for their stolen time but also for places, villages, and cities. That is, by reclaiming the place: Palestine.

He is the ally of the pain of the prevailing past. For Palestinians, there is only past. Ghassan turned what is particular to Palestinians into a thing that concerns all humanity. He has philosophized the world in which the Palestinians have no share, for they stole his share. He Philosophized and assigned the relative to the absolute. He humanized all the details related to the Palestinian tragedy and conveyed it to the world, crying out: Why? Why? Why



  1. اليوسف، يوسف. رعشة المأساة، مقالات في أدب غسان كنفاني، دار كنعان، ٢٠٠٤، المصدر بالعربية:





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