Why You Should Read Ghassan Kanafani

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When someone asks me for a book recommendation, I ask them “Have you read Ghassan Kanafani?” Usually, not so many people I know are familiar with the name. It might be because most Egyptians are merely focused on their own culture and heritage and prefer reading their own writers rather than long dead Arab ones, or I’d rather say that when the word “Palestinian” comes up, tragedy would pop up into one’s mind right away. “I want to read something lighthearted, you know. I don’t wanna read about massacres or things that would keep me up at night thinking of victims who live miles away and whose victimization is all put into question,” a friend once told me in a very blunt manner, as you can see.

On the other hand, when I find someone who is interestingly curious about Kanafani, I quickly suggest Men in the Sun. “Just start with this, and I’m sure you won’t keep your hands off his other writings,” I say confidently. A couple of days later when I get a follow-up text on the recommendation and I read “How come I’ve never heard of that genius before,” I smile snobbishly and think to myself, “Cause they never want us to know about him.”

Whether the later “they” refers to Zionists or other Arab leaders and lobbyists who all share the same ideals, it is pretty clear that Ghassan Kanafani has been a patriotic symbol, who unfortunately has not had the much-deserved appreciation for his works and endeavors to end the Zionist existence.

Not Your Typical Palestinian Saga Writer

Men in the Sun Book Cover (Translated by Hilary Kilpatrick)

Men in the Sun Book Cover (Translated by Hilary Kilpatrick)

The Palestinian-Israeli or Arab-Israeli struggle is usually in Egyptian drama in a very direct, oftentimes a superficial manner. However, with Kanafani, you get much depth into this struggle. You’d read about Um Saad, the maid who turns into a political leader in a snap of a second while talking proudly about her son and his heroism, you’d feel the confusing anger and sadness of the father who returns to Haifa searching for his long lost baby who grew up to become a soldier at the IDF, and you’d try to fly to the desert and knock the inside walls of that lorry tank to get those poor men outside.

In other words, in his writings, Kanafani managed to make millions of people worldwide feel the disorientation of the Palestinian people, that Kanafani experiences himself when he was forced to move out of his homeland and become a refugee in Syria in 1948. You’d feel the struggle without having to be in a battlefield, reading tons of research paper or watching politicized documentaries that would twist facts. He made the ongoing complex struggle feel a lot more relatable to a wide readership-base in a time when wars were not live streamed yet. Kanafani used simple characters with very complicated dilemmas, and you, as a reader, find no option but to get immersed in a humane struggle.

Another Master of Arabic Modernist Literature

Kanafani’s notable works started making their way to the literary scenes in the early 1960s. Back then, in an era dominated by many Arab writers, mostly Egyptians, who were influenced by French Romanticism at the time, his writings were stunningly shocking. The resistance realism was ahead of its time with all its depth and psycho-analyst motifs. Usually Arab writing style is sometimes known to be quite longish with an appeal to descriptive style and delving into meticulous details, but Ghassan Kanafani broke such stereotype with his concise writings that are filled up with intensity and that are open to as many interpretations as your imagination can get you to.

Another aspect that set Kanafani apart from his literary rivals is the diversity of his writings. Whether you choose a novel, novella, play or even a critique, it seems that he was able to wear as many literary hats as he could get his hands on while maintaining one single characteristic; originality. In Men in the Sun, you’d be left for hours struck by the realist elements and start an endless cycle of questioning for your long-held beliefs, in The Hat and the Prophet, you’d be dazzled by how an Arab was capable of crafting a well-though absurdist play that is of no less-importance than the writings of Samuel Beckett or Albert Camus.

As Flawed As We All Are

Ghassan Kanafani and Ghada Al Samman

An affluent writer, a patriot, a leader at the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Kanafani was all that and even more. Such traits would normally label him as a bullet-proof hero who might be too good to be true, but Ghassan Kanafani was just a flawed human being as we all are. Regardless of his physical frailty, he was not just made up of a string sense of dutifulness, but that strong personality hiding behind an enormous moustache was often brought to his knees. His affair with Syrian author Ghada Al Samman was quite known to their acquaintances at the time, but it was not until Al Samman has decided to publish his love letter to her that another aspect of Kanafani’s life was brought under the spotlights. Al Samman’s move was ridiculed, attacked and even put into question, but so many people later on were able to relate to Kanafani as a lover who was obviously frail to worldly powers; the feminine power.

Like his other writings, Kanafani’s letters are an eye-opener to another realm of romantic fantasies. They also allow us to get a glimpse the life of this patriotic man whom we can only try to know personally through the talks of some of his family members, memorable books, or even short footages of very rare interviews.

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Noha Rahhal

Noha is the Founder & Editor in Chief of Sans Retouches. Apart from her obsession with glossy stuff, Noha is a hardcore bookworm and a music addict. If you happen to spot her in any of Alexandria’s hot spots, you’d find her either pouring her thoughts on a chic notebook, picking a political argument with some fellas or even enjoying an exotic meal to keep her full for days.

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