Comrade Ghassan Kanafani and the Culture of Resistance

The following is from the website of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist-Leninist organization that has been waging armed struggle against U.S./Israeli occupation for 40 years. For more about the life of Ghassan Kanafani, read “Comrade Ghassan Kanafani: The leader, the writer, the martyr“.

Towards a Better Future – Kanafani and the Culture of Resistance

by Dr. Ahmed Masoud

In 1977 a local theatrical group in Nazareth was banned from performing an adaptation of Ghassan Kanfani’s novel Men in the Sun (1962). The Israeli authority prevented the actors from going on stage and threatened imprisonment. The script was written by a Palestinian writer who was assassinated in a car bomb by Israeli agents in Lebanon in 1972. It is not surprising for governments to censor literature if it does not comply with its propaganda, but assassination is something which needs more careful examination. Why would the Israeli government feel threatened to go as far as killing Ghassan Kanafani? In order to find the answer for this question, one must look at not only the life and works of this writer but also delve deep into his mindset and how his writing has become a manifesto of the new Palestinian revolution.

Born in Acre in 1936, Kanafani witnessed the struggle of his people during the Nakba (catastrophe) in 1948 which led to the establishment of the state of Israeli and the deportation of over 800,000 Palestinians from their homes and many thousands killed. After he was expelled from his village near Acre, he settled with his family in Damascus. Kanafani continued his education to study Arabic literature at the University of Damascus while working as a teacher in the United Nation Refugee Working Agency (UNRWA [1]). Like many other Palestinians, Kanafani saw a new world opening in the Gulf with more countries discovering oil and becoming richer. He moved to teach and work as a journalist in Kuwait between 1955 and 1960 until he went to Lebanon to work with George Habash, Chairman of the Popular Front Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), as an editor of Al-Hadaf (The Goal) Magazine.

What differentiates Kanafani from other Palestinian writers is his progressive thinking whereby his writing urges people to resist their circumstances and employ their capacities to work towards a better future. This can only be obtained by continuously seeking new avenues to make life better for Palestinian refugees. In the years following the Nakba, Palestinian refugees were looking for their family members and establishing connections with those who remained. Kanafani was the first to criticize this status and wanted his people to be ready to face the coming challenges.

The only thing we know is that tomorrow will be no better than today, and that we are waiting on the banks, yearning, for a boat that will not come. We are sentenced to be separated from everything – except from our own destruction. [2]

This statement comes across as a pessimistic view of the Palestinian situation; however, it is a reminder for those who are suffering to stop being pre-occupied with their current circumstances as their future will be no different if they carry on the same way. Post Nakba Palestinians held a romantic view of Palestine, lamenting their separation from their villages, families and lost land. This natural reaction to the disaster was fuelled by the rough conditions in the refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and other parts of the world. To Kanafani, however, it was important not to get obsessed in a vicious cycle of grief which would bring no change but further mourning.

Thus, Kanafani’s mission was to create a culture of resistance which would depend on two levels; firstly, a rejection of any attempt to normalize the refugee problem, either by offering citizenships in the countries they are in or compensations. This view is clearly presented in his masterpiece Men in the Sun, which tells the story of three Palestinians who try to cross the desert border between Iraq and Kuwait in an empty water tank in search for work. As well as the anger on Arab regimes and the way they treat Palestinians, the novel suggests that a progressive future can be only achieved at home. The way the three men die in the water tank at the end of the novel reflects Ghassan’s ability to arouse his reader’s dissatisfaction of their status.

Secondly, once a certain level of denunciation is achieved, Kanafani prepares his readers to the next step which is to start working towards a better future. This can be done by joining the resistance movement which was developing in Lebanon and other parts of the Arab world under the leadership of the PFLP and other organizations. To Kanafani, the resistance movement is the only way forward given that Palestinians have nothing to lose but their misery. His second novel Returning to Haifa (1970) shows the importance of joining/supporting the resistance movement when presenting the story of Said and Saffiya, the couple who go back to Palestine to look for their home.

The story of the novella is set on two different timelines: during Al-Nakba in 1948 and almost 20 years later, a few days after the June war in 1967; keeping the dates of the Nakba and Naksa [3] in the readers’ consciousness. Returning to Haifa tells the story of a married couple who go back to find their old house in Haifa after leaving it for twenty years, looking for more information about their son, Khaldoun, whom they were separated from during the flee. As the journey progresses more stories are unfolded about how the 1948 disaster happened and how Palestine became Israel. When Said and Safiyya reach their old house, they find that it has been inhabited by a Jewish woman called Miriam. To the couple’s surprise, they discover that their son was still alive and was adopted by Miriam who gave him the name Dov and brought him up as an Israeli, becoming a reserve army officer. The novel ends with the couple returning back from their journey having realized that Palestine is not what it was but it is what it will be. The novel finishes with Said wishing that his other son Khalid has joined the resistance movement.

He used to know Haifa stone by stone, intersection by intersection. How often he had crossed that road in his green 1946 Ford! Oh, he knew Haifa well, and now he felt as though he hadn’t been away for twenty years. He was driving his car just as he used to, as though he hadn’t been absent those twenty bitter years…The names began to rain down inside his head as though a great layer of dust had been shaken off them: Wadi Nisnas, King Fisal Street, Hanatir Square, Halisa, Hadar.

Suddenly, the house loomed up, the very house he had first lived in, then kept alive in his memory for so long. Here it was again, its front balcony bearing its coat of yellow paint. Instantly he imagined that Safiyya, young again with her hair in a long braid, was about to lean over the balcony toward him. There was a new clothesline attached to two pegs on the balcony; new bits of washing, red and white, hung on the line. Safiyya began to cry audibly. He turned to the right and directed the car’s wheels up over the low curb, then stopped the car in its old spot. Just like he used to do – exactly – twenty years ago. [4]

In the first few chapters, Returning to Haifa appears to be a more romantic novel about a couple who wants to go back to their beautiful life before the disaster. The main reason why they are heading back to their old home was to find out what happened to their child whose fate has haunted them for twenty years. The description of the way Said and Safiyya felt emphasises this conception of the novel. However, Returning to Haifa is a progressive novel, inviting Palestinians to get rid of the past and work towards a better future. This is very clearly illustrated when Said S. asks himself and his wife a crucial question “What is homeland?” [5] and the answer comes from Kanafani’s rejection of the reality of Palestinians “Do you know what the homeland is, Safiyya, homeland is where none of this can happen” [6]. Said realizes in the end that what he went for was not strong enough to claim homeland; he went back searching for his dusty memories and did not find what he expected.

For us, for you and me, it’s only a search for something buried beneath the dust of memories. And look what we found beneath that dust. Yet more dust [7].

The shock of the parents when seeing their lost son dressed up in an Israeli military suit and defending Israel is perhaps one of the most powerful scenes in the novel. Kanafani uses the conversation between the father and the son to emphasize his message that what happened in 1948 should not only be remembered romantically. “My wife asks if the fact that we’re cowards gives you the right to be this way. As you can see, she innocently recognizes that we were cowards” [8]. At the end of this conversation, Said announces that he has another son called Khalid and who has joined the Fidayeen (Freedom fighters). It is this line that offers hope to Said and to most Palestinians; it is the resistance movement.

Said rose heavily. Only now did he feel tired, that he had lived his life in vain. These feelings gave way to an unexpected sorrow, and he felt himself on the verge of tears. He knew it was a lie, that Khalid hadn’t joined the fidayeen. In fact, he himself was the one who had forbidden it. He’d even gone so far as to threaten to disown Khalid if he defied him and joined the resistance. The few days that had passed since then seemed to him a nightmare that ended in terror. Was it really he who, just a few days ago, threatened to disown his son Khalid? What a strange world! And now, he could find no way to defend himself in the face of this tall young man’s disavowal other than boasting of his fatherhood of Khalid – the Khalid whom he prevented from joining the fidayeen by means of that worthless whip he used to call fatherhood! Who know? Perhaps Khalid had taken advantage of his being here in Haifa to flee. If only he had! What a failure his presence here would turn out to be if he returned and found Khalid waiting at home [9].

As well as resistance, place is equally important in Ghassan’s culture of resistance. The refugee camp appears to always be the core of Kanafani’s works. The stories of Men in the Sun, All That’s Left to You (1966), Um Sa’ad and others all relate to the refugee camp which is a symbol of Palestine. In the refugee camp, then, some sense of place is maintained by the presence of community living together. This dual quality of camp life also dominates its portrayal in Ghassan Kanafani’s work. Despite its impermanence, poor housing, and insanity conditions; the refugee camp has become a living symbol of struggle. It is not a homogenous space, alien and meaningless like desert and city. The Palestinians who live in the camps have shaped them into their own places [10].

Life in the refugee camp is more strongly portrayed in his novel Um Sa’ad (1969). Based on a real character, according to Kanafani, the novel is formed of conversations between Um Sa’ad and the narrator. Um Sa’ad represents the Palestinian strong mother who rebels against the norms which her people have come to accept, like life in the refugee camps. The capturing element about this novel is the way Um Sa’ad celebrates the fact that her son has joined the resistance movement believing that it is only then change can happen, appearing as an example of the revolutionary Palestinian woman. Kanafani, in his preface to the novel, describes her as an example of the Palestinian woman who was affected most by the conflict and now living under tough circumstances looking for a change to come.

Um Sa’ad is not only one woman…her voice to me has always been that voice of a certain layer of our Palestinian society which paid a high price for the defeat and who now lives under the roof of poverty and keeps defending their life [11].

Finally, Ghassan Kanafani is an influential nationalist as well as a talented writer even though his views are translated into literary works and not political agendas. In fact, it is because of this that he was able to help the resistance movement become more popular amongst the ordinary people who might not necessarily think of resistance as a way of changing their future. As well as becoming a manifesto of the Palestinian revolution, his writing has become classic in modern Arabic literature which is often described with a mixture of style, content and a vibrant language. Kanafani’s novels certainly combine those three elements eloquently. Ghassan Kanafani’s contribution to modern Arabic literature lies in his legacy as a founder of the literature of resistance. His works have been translated into many languages worldwide, including English and French.


1. UNRWA was, and still is, the main source of aid to Palestinian refugees in camps inside and outside Palestine. It offers food, healthcare, education and sometimes housing for very poor families.
2. Ghassan Kanafani, “Diary 1959 – 1960” Quoted from Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and Other Stories by Ghassan Kanafani, Biographical Essay by Karen E. Riley, p. 5.
3. Naksa is the Arabic word for “setback” when Israel occupied West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, Golan heights and the Sinai desert
4. Ghassan Kanafani, Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and other Palestinian Stories, translated by Barbara Harlow & Karen E. Riley, Lynne Rienner Publishers, London 2000, pp.152/161
5. Ibid, p. 186
6. Ibid, p. 186
7. Ibid, p. 187
8. Ibid, p. 186
9. Ghassan Kanafani, Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and other Palestinian Stories, translated by Barbara Harlow & Karen E. Riley, Lynne Rienner Publishers, London 2000, p. 182
10. Barbara McKean Parmenter, Giving Voice to Stones – Place and Identity in Palestinian Literature, University of Texas Press, Texas 1994, pp. 65-66
11. Ghassan Kanafani, The Complete Works: The novels, volume 1, Arab Research Association, Beirut 4th edition 1994, p. 242 (translated by the author)

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