Kanafani and Shibli: Different Stagings of Palestine, Different Stagings of Death

By Süreyyya Evren

Gassan Kanafani, Güneşteki Adamlar, trans. Mehmet Hakki Sucin (Istanbul: Metis, 2023).

Adania Shibli, Küçük Bir Ayrıntı, trans. Mehmet Hakki Sucin (Istanbul: Can, 2022).


Ghassan Kanafani, Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories, trans. H. Kilpatrick (Lynne Rienner, 1999).

Adania Shibli, Minor Detail, trans. Elisabeth Jaquette (Fizcarraldo Editions, 2020).


We begin with two Palestinian novels. Both are short. Both are suitable for Borga Kantürk’s Library of Short Distances (2020) project[1]. Both could be read on an Izmir-Istanbul flight. Yet they also carry a heavy emotion weight, handing down deaths that are difficult to bear. Their lightness is the lightness that comes through the continuity of pain, the fact that it never ends, that it does not belong to a place and time: it is a pain experienced on the road.

Ghassan Kanafani’s book is from the 1960s, written in 1963. At the time, Kanafani (1936-1972) was a young writer and part of the socialist movement; he was just 27 when Men in the Sun was published. Nine years after publishing the novel, he died when his car was rigged with a bomb in Beirut. I think of my own birthday as I imagine this assassination, which took place in July. Before I read further, I think about how I intersected with the sphere of that death as a baby, as I was born in May 1972. Is there any minor detail here? (We’ll get to the minor details later.) Men in the Sun revolves around three Palestinians trying to immigrate to Kuwait without documents and the trucker who took money to transport them illegally. While crossing the border with an empty water tanker, the group chose to travel in the hottest hours, to avoid being caught by the patrols. (The theme of patrols is binding; Shibli also starts from the world of Israeli soldiers on patrol in her Minor Detail.)

Kanafani’s heroes trying to immigrate to Kuwait have two checkpoints in front of them. Each time they arrive at a checkpoint, the three travelers—Abu Qays, Assad, and Marwan—will enter the water tanker, according to the plan. However, the water tanker is too hot under the sun. Staying in it too long is dangerous. Each pass through the checkpoint must take a maximum of seven minutes. They achieve this at the first checkpoint; however, at the second, this period is drawn out, due to a delay on the part of the customs officers. By the time the trucker, Abul Khaizuran, returns, all three fugitives have died of heatstroke. And that’s all. That’s it. This “real death” is experienced without decoration in the story. They are suddenly simply dead, found dead, out of the blue they appear dead, and even manage to cause trouble with their dead bodies. The trucker thinks, selfishly, that he cannot bury all three bodies by himself, and as, in his great thoughtfulness, he does not want to leave them in the desert and feed them to dust and animals, he thinks of throwing them away in the trash, so that—and he is still explaining it thoughtfully—the garbage collectors will find the bodies, take them to the city, and bury them properly. After throwing the corpses in the trash, he does not forget to go back and collect what is in their pockets, again selfishly. And finally, he groans, “Why didn’t you bang on the sides of the tank?” –with a strange thoughtfulness not only for himself but in the name of all of us: “Why didn’t you say anything? Why?” A revolt spills out of him.

Kanafani can be said to pursue several political goals. He not only aimed his criticism at the mechanisms for fleeing the country, but also at Palestinians’ silence in the face of what has happened to them, and the fact that they maintained this silence even to the point of death—dying without resistance, silently, for nothing. In that sense, Men in the Sun is a wake-up call, a mind-opening model of mediation. Here, death comes in a water tanker in the desert while three men try to change countries through a smuggler chosen because he was the cheapest. This trucker robs the bodies and takes their watches and money after concluding that they are dead, and while he never intended to kill his customers, he throws them away with good intentions (a good burial for everyone involved). Unexpectedly, the character that the author uses to criticize this inaction is the trucker who, after his injury during war, thinks that nationalism is futile and has decided to devote himself to earning money.

The story that passes before us is powerful in its own right, and can be read without drawing any conclusions. Yet the story’s simplicity also drives us to look for more. The expression “men in the sun” also evokes “men in the moon.” In 1963, humans had not yet set foot on the moon, but the mission had already begun. It also suggests that “we go to the sun while others go to the moon.” But we’re going to burn in the sun—in vain. (Could it be read as including a critique of Enlightenment-based self-sacrifice?)

The silence and noiselessness of the deaths happening before our eyes in Men in the Sun is striking. These are “real deaths” that try to be almost unobtrusive. They happen without catching the reader’s eye. (We also see this kind of rapid ending in a death scene in Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail.)

Marina Abramovich, in her autobiography Walk Through Walls, tells about a project she named How to Die?Her main idea was this: “When you see real death on television, footage of some terrible disaster or other, you might stare for a moment, but then you can’t take it anymore; you just change the channel. When you watch an opera, theater, or film, and you see the heroine die, you identify with this kind of organized, aesthetic death. You look, you’re moved emotionally, and you cry.”[2] So when we see a real death on TV or elsewhere, we cannot stare for long; we want to turn our heads, we try to change the channel, we startle, we squirm. “Real death” is not something to stare at. However, death as it is staged in operas, that is, “opera death,” can be looked at for a long time. The “opera death” can be entered into and observed; it is made for this experience; its aesthetic is spread over time and space. It creates a desire to identify with the deceased, triggers emotions, and deepens them. Abramovich’s plan in her project was to juxtapose an “opera death” scene with a scene of a “real death.”

Kanafani’s novel offers a single scene of “real death” in which three people die at the same time, while Shibli wraps two “real deaths” in a cascade of details reminiscent of an “opera death.” I will argue that she turns these untimely deaths—the first in 1949, the second in the present—into “whistle deaths,” through use of the constantly rustling wind, and the dust and sand that licks, swarms, and seeps.

When I think of “opera deaths,” the death scenes in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut come to mind. Or the death scenes in Puccini’s La Bohème, still fresh in my memory from a recent watch. Especially since Mimi, one of the main characters in La Bohème, first pretends to die in a long operatic death scene, making the audience and other characters think she is dead, but then actually dies in a second “opera death” scene. La Bohème, in this sense, shows the rehearsal inherent in “opera death” and creates an opportunity to compare it with the performativity of a “real death,” while also opening up a space to compare the appearance of the “whistle death” that I referred to earlier, which has the additional aspect of not being dependent on time and space, and is characterized by being on the road, being disguised, as if life were blown away by the wind, being light, continuous, but not based on show. However, it does not disappear as fast as “real death.”

I have already mentioned that the deaths in Kanafani’s novel are narrated as a single “grave, but real death” event. The trucker does not want to look too long at their faces; the author does not want to tell stories at length; nor do the dead bodies themselves want to be seen too much. One second, they are human beings in the flesh, the next they disappear suddenly in the desert heat. Even in fiction, they are like “real deaths” that cannot be looked at for a long time without startling.

Now, I’ll move from Kanafani to another Palestinian writer, Adania Shibli (b. 1974), who published Minor Detail in 2017[3], at the age of 43. 

Shibli takes, as her starting point, a rape and murder that took place in 1949. (In 1949, Kanafani was 13 years old. Fourteen more years would pass before the Men in the Sun was published.) She treats this incident as a “real death” and also creates a “whistle death,” by establishing a kind of an “opera death of details” around it.

Minor Detail consists of two parts. In the first, we follow an Israeli officer who will play a critical role in the gang rape and murder of a Bedouin teenage girl in 1949. When we say we follow, we are really following and watching. The narrator watches him from behind a camera, taking care to record his every move as if she were keeping an observation log. In this section, we must try to understand events by following the behavior of the officer. The text uses a style and language that is almost like a diary written from the outside. Then, in the second part, we read the impossible diary of a young Palestinian woman living in modern-day Ramallah—impossible because she eventually describes her own death. When, at first, we hear about a minor detail, we might think that minor detail will be related to some major event. Yet, we learn that the “minor detail” at the center of the book is that the narrator’s birthday is the same as the Bedouin girl’s death-day in 1949. A death/birth bond. And, as if for that reason alone, the narrator attempts to investigate the 1949 event at great personal risk: she travels by using someone else’s identity card, gets into someone else’s rented car, gives another name when asked, and ultimately gets pulled towards death.

Apart from the connection between these two death/birthdays, there are many details in the book, and perhaps with the contribution of the title, the reader’s attention is constantly drawn to small details during the reading experience. Minor Detail offers a narrative that closely follows the movements of the bodies and the positions of the objects and invites the reader to tear through the void alongside the hero.

The murder narrative from 1949 is conveyed through a gaze that watches events of the first part take place, the traces of which are explored in the second. Yet the first part does not contain only one murder. Our officer is at the head of a group whose mission is to clear the region of Arabs and Bedouins by patrolling constantly and to contribute to its settlement. Usually, they leave their camps without seeing anyone while on patrol. The locals know how to hide from them, deftly using the dunes. But one day, they catch a group of Bedouins with their camels. The killing of all the Bedouins and their camels passes almost unmentioned. We know only that these killings took place and that we are advancing with the officer and his soldiers. The next stage is about finding a single girl curled up on the ground in the sand, taking her to the camp, washing her, oiling her (with naphtha oil, so that the whole camp won’t get lice), making contradictory and volatile decisions about her fate, then raping her individually and collectively, and finally killing her. This final killing is the decisive killing of the first part of the book and Shibli’s first “whistle death” scene. It occurs with the sudden fall of a teenage girl as she was running and screaming, and then a calm shower of bullets to make sure she is dead. This ultimate death of the Bedouin girl is silent. Death as cessation of sound. And so, her screaming halts.

Comparing these two authors, Kanafani and Shibli, who have both put forward examples of political art, and comparing the ways in which they handled their political object, can help us to think through the literary strategies and tactics they applied.

Kanafani exposes the main problem first: the criticism of passivity, and of fleeing one’s country, come to the fore as central themes. The sub-problems he exposes are also critical: chronic poverty, the problems of the Palestinian family, the dominant attitudes toward sexuality, the transition of individuals from heroism to being greedy, and so on. But he exposes these sub-problems only in passing, interspersing them as somewhat convincing observations from cultural reality. His tactic for addressing his main issues is as follows: He creates awareness of the problem by presenting the problems as part of a story with a strong emotional charge, and he proposes a solution by giving the example backwards. He seems to offer two solutions: a) we should not keep fleeing the country, and b) we should come out of this deadly silence. In order to make these proposals visible, he takes the situation of silence and fleeing the country to an extreme. The literary effect seems to arise from the extreme disaster he chooses and his coolness in narrating events along the way.

Another of Kanafani’s moves, presented at the very end of the book, is that the questions “Why didn’t you hit the walls of the water tank? Why didn’t you make any sound? Why?” are not declared by an examplar Palestinian comrade/citizen in the novel, nor by a heroic soldier/revolutionary, but by an old fighter who caused the deaths of the migrants he is carrying while having a chat about his impossible (impossible, because he had been an eunuch during war) sexual adventures, as he devoted himself to earning money, indifferent to almost any ethical direction. 

The critique of passivity comes out of the mouth of the man who will persuade—even deceive— immigrants into fleeing by dangerous means, send them to their deaths by locking them in a water tank that turns into a well of death, and then throwing their dead bodies in the trash. At the end of the novel, it is the voice of Abul Khaizuran that has the final word and gives advice to all of us.

Another move of Kanafani’s is that he criticizes the departure (escape), but at the same time tells makes this choice seem inevitable. Does he mean “I know it all, but …”? But, what? What is it that he suggests? This is perhaps a point that extends Kanafani’s text beyond politics. It does not feed off a proposal for concrete solutions, but rather tries to prioritize the idea of ​​an internal transformation without concrete conditions and to do it by hitting the bottom. Few details remain from the Kanafani story, as if it had been designed to be remembered as a single bite. On the other hand, I remember details of Shibli’s investigative researcher, who was chasing down the incident in 1949 (unnamed, just like the nameless officer who wandered around as if he were hallucinating), in, for instance, the moment she took the yogurt she accidentally found in the hostel where she stayed one night and was not sure whether she had the right to take it, and in the moment she ate it in the car the next day. It’s as if her personality is visible to me in that detail with the yogurt. This is of course just the experience of a single reader. I think Shibli’s style is based on giving every reader a chance to catch the story from whichever details resonate with them.

There are also the elements of surprise and play through fever and throbbing. In Shibli, there is the throbbing line she captures by intruding into the private space of evil: the wound, the fever, the tremors and hallucinations. Shibli does something else as well: In Minor Detail, she describes how a wound opened in Israel in 1949 is still open and throbbing in Israel today. She exposes it. This political novel has a political strategy that aims at double display: first of all, it took place in 1949, and because it happened to a Bedouin girl, it’s a twice-marginal detail, a fleck of pain that connects two people with their days of birth and death. She carries it to the present. Shibli’s second major exposure is the exposure of conditions in today’s Palestine: the difficulty of moving from place to place as a Palestinian; abandoned, ghostly villages; borders; the limitation of daily life by fear; threats, tricks, and identity changes; the necessity of asking for help from others to supersede these constraints. And language. Arabic. In a podcast where she is a guest[4], Shibli explains that there are many situations in Israel where Palestinians do not differ in appearance from Israelis, but when the Palestinian individual speaks in Arabic, that different language, Arabic, suddenly changes everything.

Shibli, in a way, suggests that anyone who investigates such a past death will learn that death is still possible today. But she does not offer a solution. The deaths she draws come out of the book like a whistle comes out of untreatable pain. Or perhaps like forgotten circling voices in the desert.

Deaths are fast in Minor Detail. Silent. Sharp. “Whistle deaths.” “Real deaths.” The murder narrative includes the words of an officer who indifferently walks on the border of hatred. The wound on the leg of the murderer and rapist officer is throbbing, and Shibli writes from inside the wound.

The officer in Minor Detail is like Hamlet, in that we wonder: is he crazy or is he pretending to be a little crazy? Driven by his tremors and hallucinations, does he proceed in cold blood, unaware of what he is doing? What is the intention of their throbbing deaths? Minor Detail starts with the officer character being stung by an insect, and the officer then hunts and kills various creatures in his room, but was he able to find the stinger? We are not sure. We don’t understand his purpose at times; it’s as if he has the girl cleaned to truly separate her, but then when he realizes the soldiers have raped her, he gets involved and multiplies the brutality. Because of him, we watch the footage of the critical events in the first episode, which come to us as if recorded by a shaky camera.

The only discourse the officer spells out openly is the training jargon he uses while talking with his soldiers, and the speech he gives them. There, too, we see the officer describing his military mission as “clearing the weeds” and making the Israeli garden suitable for habitation.[5]

In one of the miserable men’s pubs in Istanbul, we learned— as a result of the type of conversation that pops up in such places—that some of the customers were middle-aged truckers. International truckers. “I love the Turkish flag,” one of those truckers told me, “It is one of my favorite things in the world.” “Why?” I asked. “Because,” he said, “trouble is common at the borders, many kinds of trouble. But as soon as I see the Turkish flag, I think this and relax: ‘Those guys have to accept me! They cannot do anything other than allow me in!’”

I take this anecdote as ironic closure from a Turkish pub: The funny thing in the story, for me, is that you normally expect these truck drivers to be nationalist for ideological reasons. And you don’t normally ask, “Why do you like the Turkish flag?”, because it is obvious: “Because it is our flag.” Instead, the driver was a pragmatist. We can connect this to the pragmatism of the trucker in Kanafani, where the fugitives bear all the problems while crossing borders into foreign countries. It is an ironic connection (an homage to Kanafani), because Kanafani also wants us (he addressed the Palestinians of course, but also “us,” as all readers) to stay in the country we belong to and resist. But why choose that country over others? With a pragmatism shared by some other truckers in other parts of the world, Abul Khaizuran could have easily answered as: Because our country has to accept us—it cannot do anything other than allow us in. 


Süreyyya Evren published many novels, storybooks, essays, art criticism, compilations, research books, children’s books, and translations and poetry books; lectured on modern and contemporary art and sociology of arts at many institutions; worked as editor for many art projects and co-curated the 6th edition of the international literature festival Read My World (2018) in Amsterdam, Netherlands, focusing on Turkish literature. Evren now works as the editor-in-chief at Arter, Istanbul, Turkey.

This essay originally appeared in Punctum in its original Turkish.

[1] Kantürk briefly explains the Library of Short Distances project here: https://www.saha.org.tr/en/studio/artists/borga-kanturk. As its name suggests, this work, which is based on books that are not too thick and that can be read and finished on short distance journeys, is currently on display at the Arter Library in Istanbul.

[2] Marina Abramović (James Kaplan ile), Walk Through Walls: A Memoir (Londra: Penguin Books, 2017), p. 204.

[3] Both books, Minor Detail and Men in the Sun, have been translated to Turkish by Mehmet Hakkı Seçin: Ghassan Kanafani, Güneşteki Adamlar (Men in the Sun), (Istanbul: Metis, 2023) and Adania Shibli, Küçük Bir Ayrıntı (Minor Detail), (Istanbul: Can, 2022).

[4] “Adania Shibli : Minor Detail”, Tin House, Between the Covers with David Naimon.

[5] The discourse of the officer, reminded me of the work of Israeli artist Ella Littwitz’s (b. 1982, Haifa) Uproot (2015).  

In 1941 (a few years before the 1949 murders), the botanist Michael Zohary published The Weeds of Palestine and Their Control, where he described 143 weeds that needed to be eradicated for the sake of the successful agricultural endeavors on the soil that would, several years later, become the State of Israel. In this work, Littwitz collected an archive of the seeds listed in Zohary’s book and placed them between small glass plates or in flasks used in laboratories. Uproot was exhibited in the group exhibition Locus Solus (2022, Arter, Istanbul) and in the exhibition guide it is noted that a direct translation of the book’s original Hebrew title would read: The Bad Weeds of Israel and How to Get Rid of Them.


Leave a Reply