This month marks the 45th anniversary of Ghassan Kanafani’s untimely death on July 8, 1972. Kanafani was a charismatic and talented writer and artist, and perhaps the best known Palestinian prose writer. His novels, novellas, and short stories are in print all over the Arab world, they have been translated into many languages, and are part of the canon of modern world literature. When I first became acquainted with him in the summer of 1969, Kanafani had already written three of the five novels that constitute the literary output for which he is most renowned: Men in the Sun (1963), The Land of Sad Oranges (1963), All that’s Left to You (1966), Umm Sa’ad (1969), and Return to Haifa (1970).
While still an undergraduate in the US, I met him one summer in Beirut at the office of al-Hadaf, the weekly magazine of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), of which Kanafani had just become the editor. I was immediately struck by his manifest intelligence, his self-deprecating and sardonic sense of humor, and his pleasant, open demeanor and ready smile. As editor of al-Hadaf and spokesman of the Marxist PFLP (which the U.S. and Israel consider a “terrorist organization” to this day), and in light of his literary talent, he had rapidly become an important figure in what was then the Palestinian national movement’s revival. For the same reasons, he became a target of all the many enemies of this movement, at their head the Israeli government and its military and intelligence services.
Beirut at the time was witnessing an early stage of the renaissance of Palestinian culture and of the political agency that had been temporarily extinguished in the aftermath of the Nakba of 1948. Kanafani, together with a number of other gifted and politically committed writers and poets like Mahmud Darwish, Emile Habibi, Fadwa Touqan, Samih al-Qassim, and Tawfiq Zayyad, some still living inside Palestine and some in exile, played a central role in this renaissance. Their writings helped to revive a sense of Palestinian identity and purpose that had been severely tested by the Nakba and the barren years that followed. Deeply involved in politics since his late teens, Kanafani authored widely-read books about Palestinian resistance literature in addition to his novels, plays, and short stories, and he was a prolific journalist as well as a talented visual artist.
Born in Acre in 1936, Kanafani and his family had been forced to flee their home by the Zionist offensive that depopulated the cities of the Palestinian coast in April and May 1948, eventually settling in Damascus. He was 33 when we met, three years away from the Israeli Mossad car bombing that would kill him and his seventeen year-old niece Lamis Najm forty-five years ago. His funeral, which I attended, was the largest I had ever seen, with seemingly hundreds of thousands of mourners making up the cortege. It was the first of many funerals of Palestinian militants that I was to attend over the next eleven years in Beirut, many of them also mourning writers, artists, and intellectuals.
Even forty-five years after his assassination, Kanafani is still being pursued. A theatrical adaptation of his brilliant novel, al-‘A’id ila Haifa (Return to Haifa), which had been commissioned for production by a major New York theater, was recently cancelled because of pressure from the board, according to what I was told by the theater’s director (it may soon be produced in London). Those responsible for banning the play could not have read the novel on which it was based or the script that had been developed.
Return to Haifa is one of Kanafani’s most humanistic and sensitive works: it sympathetically depicts a Jewish Holocaust survivor bringing up a boy whose own Palestinian parents had been forced to leave him behind in 1948. Reading Kanafani’s work (the subject of a chapter in Bashir Abu Manneh’s acclaimed new book, The Palestinian Novel, and of the work of other respected critics like the late Barbara Harlow), one encounters with enormous immediacy many dimensions of the Palestinian experience of exile. One only wishes that those who banned the production of Return to Haifa (and others like them) could read Kanafani’s work or see it on the stage. Perhaps they would learn something about the reality of Palestine.