Ghassan Kanafani: Palestinian Loss Through the Eyes of the Narrator by Ellen Liebenguth

Ellen Liebenguth

Ghassan Kanafani: Palestinian Loss Through the Eyes of the Narrator

War and conflict have ravaged the lives of the people living within the countries of Israel and Palestine within the twentieth century into the present. This conflict, whose motives continue to become less clear and more potent as years pass, have incited both Israelis and Palestinians to fight in the name of independence and for that of basic human rights. One such revolutionary fought for such ideals and believed that it was the duty of his people and their future generations to uphold the cause of Palestinian rights. Ghassan Kanafani, an author of Palestinian short stories, experienced the effects of war through multiple perspectives during his lifetime. He was a teacher at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency refugee camp at age 16 while he continued his high school education. He then went on to study Arabic Literature at the University of Damascus. He later worked as a writer for al-Haaf or The Goal, the newspaper at the heart of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine for which he was a member of (Riley 5-8). While many would say he was a revolutionary for his participation in armed politics, a person assume his stories and what he called “resistance literature” were simply propaganda to arm the Palestinian resistance for which he supports. However, his stories reflect a more domestic perspective and look into the eyes of everyday life in the conflict, in particular of children within the refugee camps and the war of 1948. In his short stories titled “He Was A Child That Day” “The Child Goes To The Refugee Camp” and “Paper From Ramleh,” Kanafani uses the lens of the perspective of children to illustrate the depth of what the Palestinians as a people have lost at the hands of conflict. Not only have the Palestinians been displaced from their homes, but Kanafani elucidates that they have also suffered a loss of heritage and belonging, a loss of innocence, and a loss of pride with accompanying humiliation at the hands of the Israelis in these specific three short stories.

The first loss of the Palestinians that Kanafani has emphasized within his short stories focuses on the Israelis taking from the Palestinians the ability to pass on their heritage and the conflict trying to create a disconnect between both the past and future generations of his people. He illustrates that they are trying to destroy a legacy and wipe out a heritage. In his short story “Paper From Ramleh,” the narrator is looking back at their experience as a child escaping Ramleh after the Jewish occupation and is witness to tragedy. They watch as the Israeli soldiers not only murder the town barber and “unassuming doctor” Abu Uthman’s wife, but his daughter Fatima, who represents his family line. The only dialogue that appears in the story is one question asked by an Israeli soldier to Abu Uthman and it is, “Is she your daughter?”  (38). By having these as the only spoken words in the story, Kanafani adds significance to these words and brings attention to them. With the power to kill any of these people, the Israeli recruit purposefully singles out a “daughter.” This is because Fatima, a child herself, represented Abu Uthman’s familial line, his next generation. They killed his daughter, but they also kill his wife as well after she cries out in grief for her dead child (39). By killing his wife, they took away Abu Uthman’s ability to have any more children with his wife and continue his legacy. As a Palestinian writer, Kanafani is fighting back with these stories.  In the article “Bearing Witness in Palestinian Resistance Literature,” writer Tahrir Hamdi says of Kanafani’s reasoning in writing stories such as this, “The Palestinian people must retain that will in the face of assassination, the suppression of the Palestinian story and history, and attempts at erasure or obliteration of the past, which the Palestinian witness writer must not allow to happen.” In writing a story such as “Paper From Ramleh,” he is trying to prevent this form of loss by creating a tangible reminder that what happened to his people did happen and by not allowing their suffering to be forgotten.

With a loss of heritage and connection to familial generations within this conflict, Kanafani also draws attention to how this could also be a loss of community and the separation of the people living within their own when the Israeli occupation came in 1948. In the story “He Was A Child That Day,” Kanafani has another narrator looking back on their childhood experience and the day the occupation came to Haifa. In this story, the narrator spends much of their time describing Haifa’s beauty and what life was like in the community. They say of life in Haifa, “This world was a small one, made up of workers, absorbed by the docks like a faulty siphon, from all the holes of Galilee and peasants from the district of Haifa, related by marriage from a time of memories…” (136). This statement accentuates how Haifa itself is connected to the many generations of people that have lived there, and it is a living representation of their memories and heritage. It is a “small world,” but it is theirs and where they lead simple lives in peace. These people and their families formed this world, this community, were neighbors and formulated a special bond from that. The narrator draws attention to this bond when they say, “A man took off his coat and covered the child with it. Another man, named Salah, took an orange from his basket, peeled it, and offered it first to his neighbor, as etiquette and custom required” (137). The words “etiquette” and “custom” imply a connotation of a set of manners and established ways of behavior set down by a community. They were a community that believed in putting a neighbor’s needs before his or her own whether it is offering an orange to his or her neighbor or offering a coat to a child. However, this community in Haifa is disrupted with the arrival of the Jews at the end of the story. The shift in tone is clear and dramatically changes when Salah corrects Ahmad and says, “No, they’re Jews” (138). The story becomes chaotic and hectic as the soldiers storm the peace of the narrator’s community and the narrator as a child is forced or “they will shoot” to leave his or her home and community, and also lose the connection between the generations of Haifa that was the narrator’s world.

While “Paper From Ramleh” emphasized a physical loss of generations and “He Was A Child That Day” on the loss of the aspect of community, another of his short stories, “The Child Goes To The Refugee Camp,” sees this loss as possibly the loyalty of one’s family and how the conflict can impair relationships between generations. The narrator looks back on their childhood and how they felt as a child living in a refugee camp. The narrator, unlike Abu Uthman in “Paper From Ramleh,” still has their family together and physically intact despite that they are displaced in a refugee camp. They talk about how they lived with seven brothers, their father and mother, the aunt’s family, and their grandfather (99). While these generations have survived the conflict, it is clear that the family structure and the traditional roles of the family have been left askew by the conflict. The narrator says of how hunger in the camp has affected their family life, “This is what I call a time of hostilities. You know there is absolutely no difference. We fought for our food and then fought each other over how it would be distributed amongst us. Then we fought again” (100). Kanafani through his narrator in this particular story is emphasizing that the conflict has not only displaced the Palestinians from their homeland, but from their traditional family structure and relationships. When they should be joining together in this difficult time, these generations of family are turning against one another. Later in this story, the narrator finds five pounds and decides to keep it for himself or herself rather than share it the family. The narrator says of keeping it, “They didn’t really know what it meant for a child to have five pounds in his pocket in a time of hostilities …I threatened them all, using words I had never used in my life used, to leave home forever. The five pounds were for me and only me” (103). This is a prominent statement by a child who has seventeen family members that are starving in this camp and this could feed them. The money’s possession of the child was reminiscent of how the ring in J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings possesses characters and bringing out the worst within them. The irony is that by the end of the story, the narrator’s money is gone after a truck hits them and then suspects their own brother Isam stole it from him or her (106). Kanafani is stressing through such irony how the conflict has brought such devastation and such hard times upon the people of Palestine that they can easily forget who the real enemy is, even going as far as to fight and steal from your own family and forgetting your heritage.

The second loss that Kanafani is bringing to light in these short stories is the loss of innocence. Innocence is the epitome of what it means to be a child. It is during this stage of life that people are able to remain ignorant and unaware of the truth of the horrors that exist in their world. However, Kanafani highlights for his readers that the Israeli Palestinian conflict has stolen away that childlike innocence in favor of the reality of conflict and of war. In “He Was A Child That Day,” the narrator is forced to reconcile the destruction of the reality of their childhood when the reality of the Israeli soldiers and occupation arrive in Haifa that fateful day in 1948. This is made evident from the narrator’s mixing of the imagery of the natural beauty of Haifa with imagery of war. The first line of the story says, “the blazing redness of the morning sun anointed with the sands of the silver coast” (135). This image conjures the picture of a beautiful coast, but the potency of the word “red” insinuates “blood” and the coming of the blood that will be spilt. It is important to acknowledge here that the narrator knows what is going to happen, so this why he or she is able to foreshadow what will happen and show duality in the language. Another moment where the imagery illustrates a “duality” when the narrator says, “The fields wandered off to the left, undulating with blood-stained green, the waves continuing their eternal efforts to mount the silver sand” (136). This time the description specifically refers to “blood” when the narrator describes the beauty of the dark green grasses in the fields outside Haifa. In addition to this description of the beauty of the waves upon Haifa’s shore, it implies there is an enemy at the gates. By saying, “continuing their eternal efforts,” the description is foreshadowing of the Israelis efforts to come and occupy Palestinian territory and Haifa. It is this combination of the imagery of the incoming war and the beauty of the child’s peaceful world in Haifa that illustrates a clash of innocence and the tragic horrors that come with war and conflict.

While in “He Was A Child That Day” the realities of war and innocence clash together in a single event for a child, “Paper From Ramleh” illustrates that it was not only children who lost innocence in this conflict. In “Paper From Ramleh,” the loss of innocence not only occurs for the child witnessing true tragedy, but for Abu Uthman, who loses the innocence in that he believed anything was possible and the best in humanity. The narrator says of him and his optimism before tragedy:

His whole life Abu Uthman had been a gentle and loving man. He believed in everything, but most of all he believed in himself. He had built his life from nothing. When the revolt in Jabal al-Nar cast him into Ramleh, he lost everything. So he began anew, just as friendly as any plant in the good earth of Ramleh (40).

Abu Uthman had everything uprooted from him after the revolt, yet he was still able to believe enough in himself and humanity that he could “regrow” and rebuild what he had lost. Despite that he went through tragedy, he earns the love of the people of his community (40). At the end of the story, the narrator reveals that Abu Uthman went to the mayor’s office and killed himself in what was a suicide bombing (41). Abu Uthman’s killing himself signifies not only the destruction of himself, but the destruction of his innocence and naiveté at the possibilities of that he or anyone can change anything if they set their mind to it. In the end, the conflict changed his ideals of hopefulness and the ability to overcome anything if he or she works hard enough into “rubble” like himself.

While the revelations of “Paper From Ramleh” and “He Was A Child That Day” are more severe and more jarring, the revelations that the child narrator faces in “The Child Goes to Camp” are no less significant or real. While the other stories dealt with loss of innocence when they experienced trauma firsthand, the narrator from this story is forced to experience a loss of childhood when they are needed to grow up fast and deal with the pressures of making a living to help both one’s self and their family. Isam and the narrator are given the task of lugging around a basket to the marketplace and trying to fill it with enough to provide for the family. The narrator says of this task, “We had to find stuff to fill our basket. From in front of shops or behind the cars. Even from the tops of tables if the owner happened to be taking a nap or was inside his store” (100). The children are forced to reconcile with the idea of survival over morality. They are left with the reality that they must do whatever it takes to survive, even if they are doing something wrong such as stealing. The narrator acknowledges this reality and states, “The world at that time had turned upside down. No one expected any virtue” (101). The narrator explains that the reality of a “time of hostilities” was that people have to do what’s necessary for them to survive, even if it means throwing out all other virtues out the window. This is a profound statement to hear from a child and it makes the experience of displacement within Palestinian refugee camps only more realistic to Kanafani’s readers. The narrator, at the time of his living in the camp, had lost their childhood in the sense that they did not have a secure home, was not provided for by their parents, and have just entirely lost the feeling of security and freedom from worry that usually accompanies childhood innocence. Kanafani is illustrating through this story and the children’s loss of innocence within the street culture how hard the Palestinians must work to rebuild their lives and their identities after the displacement and destruction caused by the war. John Collins in an article titled  “Exploring Children’s Territory” says of this particular story by Kanafani and another author, “they do argue for the possibility of a semi-autonomous “children’s territory” within a generally oppressive social context” (1). Collins is indicating that despite the “oppressive social context” the war in 1948 began,  the children are able to find a way to still formulate some form of identity and through this, Kanafani provides hope for the Palestinians in being able to find some form of autonomy after future even after everything that has happened and that they have lost.

The third loss of the Palestinian experience that Kanafani emphasizes in his short stories is that of pride and how they were and continue to be humiliated by the Israelis. It is through the process of dehumanization that creates a sense of lost pride and humiliation among the people of the Palestinians. The loss of self pride is evident in the story “The Child Goes To The Camp” when the characters are willing to sacrifice self-worth and are willing to lower themselves in the name of greed that has sprung from their deprived state in the refugee camp. After being displaced from their homes, the refugees are in a place where they can barely fulfill their own basic human needs. The narrator says of this deprived state, “The prime example of this within the story is the narrator’s grandfather who is unwilling to share his newspaper in fear that someone will take it from him. However, it is the grandfather’s willingness to steal from his grandchild, the narrator, to be able to pay for his newspaper that is the most distressing.  The narrator says of this experience, “But my grandfather knew that the five pounds was still in my pocket, and that night in fact he got up and tried to take it while I was sleeping (I always slept with my clothes on). I woke up, however, and he went back to his bed and to sleep without a word” (105). The grandfather, a figure thought to be wise and experienced, was trying to steal from his own grandson while he was sleeping. The situation seems rather ridiculous at first reading; however, it shows a darker tone within the household. The narrator, as a child, could not even sleep safely without worrying a family member was going to try to take their belongings. The child wakes up to find his grandfather there trying to steal his five pounds from him and the grandfather went back “to sleep without a word.” This also implies the Grandfather was humiliated by the actions he took to get something as simple as newspaper from a ten-year old child. Through the quirkiness of this incident within his story, Kanafani stresses how much his people have lost coming here to these camps that even surviving and getting what you need requires a sacrifice of dignity.

While in Kanafani’s story “The Child Goes To The Camp” the narrator’s grandfather sacrificed such dignity in order to get what he wanted, the stories of “Paper From Ramleh” and “He Was A Child That Day” illustrate that dehumanization came firsthand for some at the hands of Israeli soldiers and how their helplessness in the situation was itself a destruction of their honor. In “He Was A Child That Day,” the narrator watches as the soldiers come into their world and treats them as if they are animals; talking to them as if they were such. The Israeli soldier says to the people after they have lined them up and searched them, “This is war, you Arabs…you say you’re so brave, and you call us mice” (138). The Israeli soldiers searched them and made sure that the people had no weapons in their basket; ensuring they could not fight back, but taunting them for being peaceful. By ensuring that these people could not fight back, the Israeli soldiers took away their right to defend themselves and protect their home and communities. They were not allowed the dignity of fighting back. The girl with the machine gun comes forward and shoots them all one by one until they are a “bloody heap” in a ditch (138).  This is reminiscent of a poem by a Palestinian poet by the name of Harun Hashim Rasheed. He captures in his poem “Raise Your Arms” the feeling of dehumanization and how it is more honorable to die than be unable to fight back. One line of his poem reads, “I wished the wall on my head” (267). For the narrator of Rasheed’s poem, it is more honorable the wall to fall upon the heads of him and his comrades than to stand there helplessly waiting for the bullets of the Palestinians. Much like the situation of the poem, the situation of “He Was A Child That Day” illustrates helplessness at the hands of the enemy and Kanafani strongly indicates a theft of the right to fight back. It is no longer become a war fought between two sides, but genocide in the making.

Like the people of Haifa had their dignity stolen in the inability to die defending themselves in Kanafani’s “He Was A Child That Day,” his other story “Paper From Ramleh” shows a loss of dignity and humiliation at the hands of Israelis during the treatment of the narrator at the hands of the soldiers. The narrator says of his experience:

Helpless as I felt, I looked at my mother standing among the women, her arms raised in the air, crying silently. But just at that moment, through her weeping, came a small, tearful laugh. I felt my leg twist under my weight and almost give way from the excruciating pain. Even so, I laughed too (39).

The soldier is physically abusing the narrator and causing them “excruciating” pain, so it seems out of place that both the narrator and their mother would be “laughing.” The laughing could be a confusion of how to react to such cruelty and treatment, but it could also be Kanafani drawing attention to this situation as not only cruel, but humiliating. The laughing and the crying represent a coexistence of both suffering physical pain and also the pain of being degraded and demeaned. Another form of humiliation that occurs within this story is that of Abu Uthman when he is forced to pick up the body of his dead wife and bury her in front of everyone. The scenario is reminiscent of the ancient punishment of crucifixion. In crucifixion, the prisoner would often be forced to drag their own cross before they were nailed to the cross and died of asphyxiation (Biblical Archeology Society). The lines that conjures this image states, “Abu Uthman stooped down to pick up in his two aged arms the body of his wife” and then, “Once again I watched his hunched back soaked with sweat as he walked slowly between the rows of soldiers” (39). The word “hunched” implies carrying a heavy weight and the fact that he had to carry his wife through “rows of soldiers” implies a similar humiliation a prisoner suffered as they carried their own cross to die. In the end, the death of his wife and child bring on his own death, so technically the body of his wife could be metaphorical of his own cross. Kanafani emphasizes the persecution of his people and the inhumane treatment through both this metaphor of crucifixion and through the contrasting reactions of both mother and child when the soldiers abuse the narrator.

Kanafani emphasizes different forms of loss within the stories “Paper From Ramleh” “He Was A Child That Day” and  “The Child Goes To The Camp” through the perspective of Palestinian children that witnessed the events firsthand and suffered the effects of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Rather than seeking to arm the resistance and the next Intifada, Kanafani seeks through writing short stories in the eyes of children to bring a new perspective to the truth of Palestinian suffering and brings the harsh realities of the effects of the conflict upon the readers just as those same realities came as harsh realizations affected of the child narrators within these stories. Kanafani once said of his writing, “Sometimes I can’t say what I want to say in anything but a story” (Riley 7). It was only through writing that Kanafani could express the pain and struggle of the Palestinian people throughout the years of this conflict. Rather than a call for resistance, it seems to be more of a call for an ending that will pain and suffering such as this and the dehumanization of his people.

Works Cited

Biblical Archeology Society Staff. “Roman Crucifixion Methods Reveal the History of            Crucifixion.” Bible History Daily. Biblical Archeology Society, 17 July 2011. Web. 20          Apr. 2016.

Collins, John. “Exploring Children’s Territory: Ghassan Kanafani, Njabulo Ndebele And The          `Generation’ Of..” Arab Studies Quarterly 18.4 (1996): 65. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

Hamdi, Tahrir. “Bearing Witness In Palestinian Resistance Literature.” Race & Class 52.3     (2011): 21-42. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

Kanafānī, G. (1984). Palestine’s children (B. Harlowe, Trans.; K. G. Riley, Ed.). London:          Heinemann.

Rasheed, Harun Hashim. “Harun Hashim Rasheed.” Ed. Salma Khadra. Jayyusi. Anthology of  Modern Palestinian Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 1992. 267. Print.