Celebrated novelist and short-story writer Ghassan Kanafani was born on this day in 1936. Almost fifty years have passed since his assassination at the age of just 36:
There is an urgency to Kanafani’s writing, both in its substance and the insistent movements of its style. He wrote intensely and prolifically: novellas, short stories, playtexts, literary criticism, and journalism, producing a wide body of work, including 18 books, before he died in a car bombing at 36.
In a remembrance published in Al-Fanar in 2017, Kanafani’s friend and colleague Fadle Naqib noted: “He loved writing, and he wrote in the way that you and I would breathe. He would write news, he would write editorials, he would write something about society and then literary criticism. I said to him, ‘You are not a human being, you are a writing machine!’”
Kanafani would spend a day working at his newspaper, the profile notes, and then “he would go home and write fiction.”
Kanafani worked as an editor of al–Huriyyah and Muhallaq Filastin in Lebanon, and then as founding editor of al-Hadaf, where he worked until his assassination in July 1972.
The author Rasem al-Madhoon writes in Jadaliyya, in Nehad Khader’s translation, of seeing Kanafani speak in Gaza City in 1966. Al-Madhoon describes Kanafani as a “thin, handsome young man” who “went to the podium to speak in a language that combined dream with reality in an ambiance that was more akin to a dream.”
According to al-Madhoon, Kanafani noticed and encouraged other emerging writers, such as Mahmoud al-Rimawi and Ahmad Dahbour.
Although himself a member of the middle classes who attended a French school in Jaffa, Kanafani focused his fictional attention on the marginalized, particularly refugees. And, as Elias Khoury writes in “Remembering Ghassan Kanafani,” the arid inhumanity of borders is central to Kanafani’s novellas: “in Men in the Sun, the Jordanian-Iraqi border is a terrifying, rat-infested desert nightmare, while the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border becomes the locus of a soundless death in infernal heat. In All That’s Left to You, the Negev Desert between Gaza and Jordan— a place where nothing but the glint of death survives—is the silent meeting ground of the Palestinian protagonist and the Israeli soldier.”
And, just as physical borders appear nightmarish and impossibly larger-than-life, the borders between periods of time are often collapsed, with past, future, and present existing in an urgent simultaneity.
Not only literature, but also visual art and film, have been influenced by Kanafani’s sharply carved, memorable portraiture. Al-Madhoon writes: “He merged human tragedy with a popular folk sensitivity that understands the spirit of the marginalized, and he remained their loyal companion and has not departed for them despite the destruction of his body that bloody morning.”
Five to read online:
“The Land of Sad Oranges,” translated with an introduction by Nejmeh Khalil-Habib
“The Horizon Beyond the Gate,” translated by Annie Weaver
“The Stolen Shirt,” translated by Michael Fares
“Jaffa: Land of Oranges,” trans. Mona Anis and Hala Halim
Excerpts from Return to Haifa, trans. Barbara Harlow and Karen E. Riley
“Letter from Gaza,” translator not listed
المخدوعون (The Dupes), a film directed by Tawfiq Saleh, based on Kanafani’s Men in the Sun
Books in translation:
Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories, translated by Kilpatrick
Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa & Other Stories, translated by Harlow and Riley
All That’s Left to You, translated by May Jayyusi and Jeremy Reed
“Remembering Ghassan Kanafani,” by Elias Khoury, trans. Maia Tabet