Short Fiction in Translation: Ghassan Kanafani’s ‘The Crucified Sheep’

Introduction by Rachel Green

This previously untranslated story, written in Kuwait in 1960 and published in Kanafani’s first collection, Death of Bed 12 (1961), provides a glimpse into some of the concerns of the author’s early Kuwait writings, or what Mai al-Nakib calls his “Kuwait stories.” Like many of the stories Kanafani wrote in this period, “The Crucified Sheep” foregrounds the class differences that emerge among populations coming into contact in the Arab Gulf at the beginning of the era of oil exploitation. Any socioeconomic distinctions between the protagonist and his well-to-do friends, who are taking a trip together through the desert, pale in comparison to the abject thirst they see through their dusty car windows. Kanafani’s later writings, such as Umm Sa’ad, bear witness to the inspiring agency of Palestinian refugee youth in the camps. But many of his early stories, such as “The Crucified Sheep,” channel the trappings of a decidedly middle-class affect, where individualist aspirations mingle with guilt. Radwa Ashour argues that Kanafani wrote the Palestinian experience always with an eye towards an understanding of social class. Yet she, like many subsequent critics, found the early stories too sentimental to warrant a class-based analysis. A more complete picture requires that we reconsider his early work as a starting point, thus placing into clearer relief the range of his literary and ideological evolution.

‘The Crucified Sheep,’ from Death of Bed 12

By Ghassan Kanafani

Translated by Rachel Green

The fiery summer sun blazed in all directions, extending before my eyes without end. Dust particles kept slapping the windows of the moving car. When I shifted my gaze to the faces of my travel companions, the harshness of our journey was clear; their hair was white from the dust, and even their eyelashes were awash in a bitter dusty milk. They panted as the sweat carved forking paths down their dusty faces and proceeded to drip down their necks.

The sentence which had entertained me since the beginning of the trip, but which I now found despicable, continued to ring in my ears:

This journey is astonishing! Today is a tragedy, but tomorrow we’ll say it was an adventure.

The long caravan of cars proceeded on the winding, sandy path, fracturing the desert silence like veins pulsing with insanity, swallowed up by the depths.

His exhausted, exhausting friends were engrossed in a bout of philosophy.

– There isn’t there any decency in the world. So then what?

– Indeed—it was decreed that we get trapped in our minds and find nothing firm to grab hold of. Decency is for other people. But, as for you, you’re nothing but doubt incarnate!

– That’s true…

– It seems to me that sometimes a person who gets obsessed with a moral exemplar might be the closest to abandoning his faith. Because, when he doubts, he’ll do that overzealously, too.

It seemed to me that these words had no point at all. When a person beholds the status quo, the matter of justifying it becomes a mere perfunctory thing. We had seen! This was all that concerned me.

– Was it the Bedouin who made your head pound with all that philosophizing?

– Ahh, the Bedouin! I almost forgot him. Maybe it was the Bedouin… Maybe it was this damn heat… I don’t know.

I knew that it was the Bedouin alone! When an intellectual gets taught a lesson from a lost Bedouin in the Empty Quarter they feel a little chagrined. And here, my good friend was trying to blame his headache on the sun. No, it was the Bedouin. And however much the car tried to distance itself from that place where we left him, we remained mercilessly yoked to those piercing eyes that trailed our car until they were buried by the heat and dust. I wanted to stop listening to my friends’ conversation, but couldn’t figure out any other way to keep busy between these pulsing walls:

– You haven’t stopped philosophizing since we left Kuwait. Do you remember when you told me that your decision to go along with a hajj pilgrimage to Mecca was the biggest farce of your life?

– Totally! But I went! I lived my whole life a complete non-believer, so the only way I was going to make the hajj was as the doctor on a caravan. Can you believe it?

– I can believe it all right… You usually spend summers in Cairo, Lebanon, or maybe Switzerland. So to spend them in this hell reaching as far as the eye can see must have been really horrible for you. But for me…

– You lover of trips! You always want us to stop the car, and we find ourselves stopping short and flying through the melting windshield. But tell me: Do you do it so you can talk about it one day with some girls, all puffed up like some crazy rooster?

The doctor’s views bothered me to no end, but he certainly knew how to entrance the others. Our other friend burst out laughing, convinced of his defeat by compliment.

He would talk about his adventures with some girls! Wild! I wonder what he’d say to them this time? He’d probably start like this:

– My God! We saw him there, in the middle of the desert, with the sun beating down mercilessly on the sand. But there he was, calm and composed. Where’d he come from? We had no idea. How’d he get here? We had no idea. What was he looking for? Probably searching for water for his scrawny sheep. Standing there, grazing nine lean sheep in the desert thistle.

– It was as if he were a crucified man in the middle of this astonishing desert.

He really did extend his arms out to the side, almost horizontally, but he was, nevertheless, standing on the ground. As the car got closer, our shock went away little by little, and curiosity took its place. Because we—from atop a small hill—could see him clearly.

…a dark-skinned Bedouin staring coldly, as if he were accustomed to seeing such sights all the time.  Hoisting his arms above an old rifle which extended across his shoulders and the back of his neck. Wearing a kufiyya thrown absent-mindedly over his head, and an ancient thawb which didn’t keep off the sun or dust. His nine sheep were lying down around him, panting with a barely audible whinny. It was clear that the extreme heat was exhausting them.

When the movements of the cars slowed, and then they stopped at his side, it seemed to me that a strange fit of fever was making me reconsider the presence of this person something real…far away from everything…only lean sheep to keep him company in his solitude, and an ancient rifle splayed on his shoulders. I thought for a moment that I needed to touch him in order to be convinced that he was present and for real.

A voice behind me shouted, bellowing exuberantly with a similar fear:

– He’s out of a Spartan legend… Man and Deity in one and the same place. What do you think he’s doing here?

The doctor answered him coldly:

– He’s worshipping God.

And if he were to begin telling the story in this way, he’d catch the attention of the ladies, and one of the other guests would give him a cigarette so he could continue pontificating, and maybe one of the girls would spill a drop or two of her drink in the throes of attraction to the scintillating chatter. As for him, it was inevitable that, at that moment, he’d be at the climax of his happiness. And the questions will come at him from all directions:

– What was he doing there? Did he seem to have a strong build? He was dark, isn’t that right? Did you all talk to him? Wasn’t he armed? Half crazy, you say? How can a single Bedouin take on a whole caravan of huge cars? It’s bizarre that he would flag you down! Did he speak in standard Arabic?

As for him, he’d get more and more puffed up as he calmed their outburst:

– Why are you all so surprised? In that desert beyond the world, a traveling doctor might see anything. In those days, nothing could shock us. And so, when we saw him standing there, totally alone except for his nine scrawny sheep… Well, it didn’t yet occur to any of us to be astonished or amazed, the way we are now.

He’d say that only as he was telling the story! As for what we witnessed together… When we all stared at him through the windshield of the dusty car, the astonishment consumed all of us at the same time. He looked small in the distance, with nine black points around him in the yellow of the burning sand. I heard a voice behind me. The driver had gotten out and we heard, through the car window, their conversation:

– You’re headed toward the hajj, isn’t that right?

– Yes… Do you need supplies?

We all got out of the car and made our way toward him. His eyes contained something inexplicable, and it appeared he didn’t want anything except for us to go on our way and leave him alone.

– I don’t want supplies. I don’t eat much.

– What are you doing here?

This was asked by a voice from behind. The Bedouin’s eyes shone with sudden surprise, as if the question made no sense to him. He muttered:

– I put these out to pasture.

– Out to pasture? What pasture?

– The thistle is still somewhat tender.

– But it looks like your sheep are sick.

He looked toward the sheep as if seeing them for the first time. A rigid flash of pain glinted in his eyes. He shook his head:

– They’re thirsty.

– Then give them something to drink.

– I don’t have any water… I haven’t come across a drop all day.

The sadness in his eyes grew until it overtook everything, and it appeared to me that he was on the verge of tears. But the creature behind me wanted to keep asking questions.

– And you—aren’t you thirsty?

– Me?

He shook his head again, his arms still spread out over the rifle. He continued:

– I don’t matter. But these poor dears are thirsty…

– How do you eat here?

– I take a gulp of milk from the this one’s udder every morning. But she’s thirsty.

– When will you go back to your family?

He pursed his lips and continued to shake his head in silence. He gazed again at his recumbent sheep, then cried:

– I don’t matter. But these sheep are thirsty!

Then he bleated in our direction with begging eyes and cried in a beseeching voice:

– Don’t you have any water for these poor dears?

The driver resisted:

– No, I swear. We don’t have a lot of water. But if you’d like, we can give you something to drink.

The Bedouin ignored the offer, and gestured with his head toward the barrels of water on the roof of the car. He asked:

– Aren’t those water?

– Yes, water. But it’s for the cars.

– Water for the cars? he asked in astonishment.

– Cars always need a lot of water, the driver continued.

– But they’re thirsty. Maybe they’ll die.

He stared at the barrels of water with dread. Then he shook his head, as if he couldn’t understand such a position for the life of him and repeated:

– The sheep are thirsty. They might die…

– If you like, you can give them your water.

– I’d like water for my sheep. Don’t you see that they’re thirsty?

– Would you like food?

He shook his head again. He let his eyes wander up beyond all of our faces then implored in a grievous voice:

– Don’t you see that they’re on the verge of death? They’re thirsty.

– But we can’t give you water.

– Why not?

– Because of the cars…

– The cars? Do all of these cars together equal a single sheep from my flock?

For a moment, it sounded like a good joke. But no sooner had a sharp look of sadness flashed in his eyes than we were returned to the bitterness of the situation.

– Does your family live far from here?

He pointed above the rifle to a space behind his back and said wearily:

– Far away.

– And now what will you do?

He shook his shoulders again and stared at his sheep, then into our faces, and calmly pivoted to contemplate the desert, turning his back on us.

When the engine began to rumble anew, we heard the cries of the driver as he made his final offer:

– We’re ready to give you whatever food you’d like. We’ll give you as much water as you need. Don’t you want that?

And through the dust of the car window, we saw him turn around to face us, crucified on his rifle, as we had witnessed him the entire time, and his lips cried in a trembling voice:

– They’re thirsty… They may even die this evening…

The cars pulled out, and the crucified man got smaller and smaller in the distance until the heat and dust made him disappear.


*          *          *


The bout of philosophy was still going in the minds of my friends in the front seat, and I found myself compelled to repeat to myself that despicable sentence which continued to assault my senses for a long time:

– This journey is astonishing. Today is nothing more than a tragedy, but tomorrow we’ll say it was an adventure.

Ghassan Kanafani was a major Palestinian author. He was born in Acre in 1936 and died in his booby-trapped car in Beirut in 1972. His writings range from fiction to political essays, historical studies, theater, and literary criticism.

Rachel Green is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Kanafani’s Kuwait period is one of the literary sites she reads in her current book project, Map of Dreams: Empathy and Enclosure in the Modern Middle East.