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Ghassan Kanafani (غسان كنفاني, April 9, 1936 in Akka, Palestine – July 8, 1972 in Beirut, Lebanon) was a Palestinian writer and a leading member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He was assassinated by car bomb in Beirut, allegedly by the Mossad.
The family initially fled north to neighbouring Lebanon, less than 11 miles north, but soon moved on to Damascus, Syria, to live there as Palestinian refugees. Kanafani completed his secondary education in Damascus, receiving a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) teaching certificate in 1952.
Kanafani was a part of the mass movement of Palestinians and knew first hand the terror the people faced. He and his family lived in exile in most Arab countries where they never had official approval. The Palestinians were forced to carry passbooks with their identification information. Without the books they could not travel outside of their villages and towns. Kanafani’s families lack of official papers forced them to remain hidden for months at a time. Kanafani grew up in a world where he never felt accepted, and always feared for his life. He grew up constantly questioning his identity and longing to be a part of something. When he was older he became an active member in several organizations. He used his anger that had bottled inside of him when he felt alone to further his dedication in the Palestinian cause.
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The same year he enrolled in the Department of Arabic Literature at the University of Damascus and began teaching in UNRWA schools in the refugee camps. Before he could complete his degree, Kanafani was expelled from the university and exiled to Kuwait for his political affiliations -  a result of his involvement in the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM), a left-wing pan-Arab organization to which he had been recruited by Dr. George Habash when the two met in 1953. Some biographers, however, do not believe Kanafani was ever expelled, but simply moved to Kuwait, where he worked as a teacher and became more politically active. In Kuwait he edited al-Ra'i (The Opinion), which was an ANM-affiliated newspaper, and also became interested in Marxist philosophy and politics.
In 1960, he relocated once again to Beirut, where he began editing the ANM mouthpiece al-Hurriya. In 1961, he met Anni Høver, a Danish educationalist and children's rights activist, with whom he had two children. In 1962, Kanafani briefly had to go underground, since he, as a stateless person, lacked proper identification papers. He reappeared in Beirut later the same year, and took up editingship of the Nasserist newspaper al-Muharrir (The Liberator). He went on to become an editor of another Nasserist newspaper, al-Anwar (The Illumination), in 1967.
Ghassan’s most important contribution to society was his help with Palestinian movements and devotion to his political affiliations. When asked about the relation between his writings and politics he said, “My political position springs from my being a novelist. In so far as I am concerned, politics and the novel are an indivisible case and I can categorically state that I became politically committed because I am a novelist, not the opposite” (Kanafani). As his political ideas developed he moved toward Marxism.
As his way of thinking matured he eventually came to share George Habash’s belief that the only solution to the Palestine problem could not be achieved without a social revolution throughout the Arab world. George Habash was a nationalist born in Palestine (under the British mandate). He was the leader of the Arab Nationalist movement and created the National Front for the Liberation of Palestine within the ANM. In 1967 the defeat of Nasser (the Egyptian President) prompted him to dissolve the ANM and create the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, of which he became the secretary general (Rabbani 1). He was a leading Palestine activist and was a big influence in Ghassan Kanfani’s life. Habash shaped how Kanafani viewed the conflict and how he would choose to handle it. Ghassan Kanafani was an active member of the Palestine Liberation Movement, The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Arab Nationalist movement. As a member of the PFLP, Kanafani believed that national unity is the sharpest weapon in the battle for liberation.
His article on Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, published in the PLO's Research Centre Magazine, Shu'un Filistiniyya (Palestinian Affairs) was influential in diffusing the image of the former as a forerunner of the Palestinian armed struggle.
Involvement in PFLP
When Palestinian membership of the ANM evolved in 1967 into the PFLP, Kanafani became one of its spokesmen. In 1969, he drafted a PFLP program in which the movement officially took up Marxism-Leninism. He also edited the movements newspaper, al-Hadaf (The Target), which he had founded in 1969, and contributed to it until his death with political, cultural and historical essays and articles.
Several days after the Lod airport massacre, a picture of Kanafani together with one of the Japanese terrorists was published. On July 8, 1972, Kanafani was killed by a bomb planted in his car in Beirut; his seventeen-year-old niece Lamees Najim was also killed . The New York Times reported the following day, "Beirut Blast Kills Guerrilla Leader". The assassination is thought to be the work of the Israeli Mossad, and according to one source, later claimed responsibility for his death. One obituary wrote of him that he was 'the commando who never fired a gun'. He was 36 years old at the time. A collection of Palestinian Resistance poems, The Palestinian Wedding, which took its title from the eponymous poem by Mahmoud Darwish was published to honour his memory.
The assassination took place while Kanafani was headed for the al-Hadaf office. His Danish wife Anni, small son and daughter escaped unhurt. Kanafani’s successor, Bassam Abu Sharif, was also targeted by Israeli’s intelligence officers. He lost sight in one eye and several fingers when a letter bomb exploded in his Beirut office. Ghassan Kanafani’s memory was upheld through the creation of the Ghassan Kanafani Cultural Foundation, which has since established eight kindergartens for the children of Palestinian refugees. His legacy lives on among the Palestinians, and he is considered one of the greatest modern Arabic authors.
Ghassan Kanafani began writing short stories when he was working in the refugee camps. Often told as seen through the eyes of children, the stories manifested out of his political views and belief that his students' education had to relate to their immediate surroundings. While in Kuwait, he spent much time reading Russian literature and socialist theory, refining many of the short stories he wrote, winning a Kuwaiti prize.
Kanafani published his first novel, Men in the Sun in Beirut in 1962. He also wrote a number of scholarly works on literature and politics. His thesis, Race and Religion in Zionist Literature, formed the basis for his 1967 study On Zionist Literature.
Considered a major modernizing influence on Arab literature and still a major figure in Palestinian literature today, Kanafani was an early proponent of complex narrative structures, using flashback effects and a chorus of narrator voices for effect. His writings focused mainly on the themes of Palestinian liberation and struggle, and often touched upon his own experiences as a refugee. He was, as was the PFLP, a Marxist, and believed that the class struggle within Palestinian and Arab society was intrinsically linked to the struggle against Zionism and for a Palestinian state.
Also an active literary critic, Kanafani's seminal work, Palestinian Literature Under Occupation, 1948-1968, introduced Palestinian writers and poets to the Arab world. He also wrote a major critical work on Zionist and Israeli literature. In the spirit of Jean-Paul Sartre, he called for an engaged literature which would be committed to change.
Ghassan Kanfani had many achievements as a writer and political activist. He was considered to be a leading novelist of his era and regarded as one of the foremost Palestinian prose writers in the Arab World. Some would say that Kanafani’s greatest achievement lay in his portrayal of the Palestinian peasant (Kilpatrick 13). Kanafani’s affinity to the peasants was ironic because, “the nature of Zionist colonization, with its stress on acquiring land struck at the existence of the peasants, the largest section of Palestinian society,” (Jewish Virtual Library). He felt an affinity with the people who are the reason for his displacement. Although he had strong feelings against the Zionists he was not blinded from how similar many of their situations were to his. Many were living with no food to spare. Some couldn’t afford shelter and most were struggling to survive. Kanafani understood that the Palestinians and the Jews were more similar than they believed. Both Men in the Sun and Umm Saad were successful stories from the point of view of poverty stricken Palestinians. Kanafani felt an affinity with peasants that went far beyond the dictates of a political stand. The insight from which he portrayed them comes from his personal knowledge and experiences (Kilpatrick 13). Some would say that Kanafani’s greatest achievement lay in his portrayal of the Palestinian peasant, both before and after 1948 (Kilpatrick 13). His prolific writings testify to a brilliant and sensitive mind whose writings were and still are some of the best on issues of exile and the struggle for self-determination. He took his experiences and compiled them into a collection of stories that are hard to ignore. They exemplify the harsh realities for most Palestinians of his Era. His first two writings rank among the most complex in all of Arabic fiction at that time. The second novel, All That’s Left to You, is considered one of the earliest and most successful modernist experiments in Arabic Fiction. He used multiple narrators two of which were inanimate objects. It is the story of a young man who was separated from his mother after they both fled to different areas. The young man, Hamid, tries desperately to find his mother but he becomes lost in the desert, crossing paths with an Israeli soldier. He is compelled to desert his plan of finding his mother and instead look to confront his enemy. He dies before locating his mother, he is in death reunited with his lost land, and the very act of confronting his fears constitutes a symbolic victory. The thematic development reflects the change in political climate, and the initiation of the Palestinian armed struggle (Qumsiyeh: A Human Rights Web). The vivid descriptions symbolize the Palestinian attachment to land and family and the sorrow by the young man’s unremitting anger and shame. After he was killed Ghassan Kanafani was awarded the Lotus Prize for Literature by the Conference of Afro-Asian writers.
Works in English
- Kanafani, Ghassan (Translated by Hilary Kilpatrick): Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories [ISBN 0-89410-857-3] 1998.
- Kanafani, Ghassan and Barbara Harlow, Karen E. Riley: Palestine's Children: Returning to Haifa & Other Stories. [ISBN 0-89410-890-5] 2000.
- Kanafani, Ghassan, with Roger Allen, May Jayyusi, Jeremy Reed: All That's Left to You [ISBN 1-56656-548-0] Interlink World Fiction, 2004.
- Kanafani, Ghassan, (Interviewed by Fred Halliday) "On the PFLP and the September Crisis", New Left Review I/67, May–June 1971.
Works in Arabic
- Note: Some Names are roughly Translated
- mawt sarir raqam 12, 1961 (موت سرير رقم 12, A Death in Bed No. 12)
- ard al-burtuqal al-hazin, 1963 (أرض البرتقال الحزين, The Land of Sad Oranges)
- rijal fi-sh-shams, 1963 (رجال في الشمس, Men in the Sun)
- al-bab, 1964 (الباب, The Door)
- 'aalam laysa lana, 1965 (عالمٌ ليس لنا, A World that is Not Ours)
- 'adab al-muqawamah fi filastin al-muhtalla 1948-1966, 1966 (أدب المقاومة في فلسطين المحتلة 1948-1966, Literature of Resistance in Occupied Palestine)
- ma tabaqqa lakum, 1966 (ما تبقّى لكم, All That's Left to You)
- fi al-adab al-sahyuni, 1967 (في الأدب الصهيوني, On Zionist Literature)
- al-adab al-filastini al-muqawim that al-ihtilal: 1948-1968, 1968 (الأدب الفلسطيني المقاوم تحت الاحتلال 1948-1968, Palestinian Resistance Literature under the Occupation 1948-1968)
- 'an ar-rijal wa-l-banadiq, 1968 (عن الرجال والبنادق, On Men and Rifles)
- umm sa'd, 1969 (أم سعد, Umm Sa'd)
- a'id ila Hayfa, 1970 (عائد إلى حيفا, Return to Haifa)
- al-a'ma wa-al-atrash, 1972 (الأعمى والأطرش, The Blind and the Deaf)
- Barquq Naysan, 1972 (برقوق نيسان, The Apricots of April)
- al-qubba'ah wa-l-nabi, 1973 (القبعة والنبي, The Hat and the Prophet) incomplete
- thawra 1936-39 fi filastin, 1974 (ثورة 1936-39 في فلسطين, The Revolution of 1936-39 in Palestine))
- jisr ila-al-abad, 1978 (جسر إلى الأبد, A Bridge to Eternity)
- al-qamis al-masruq wa-qisas ukhra, 1982 (القميص المسروق وقصص أخرى, The Stolen Shirt and Other Stories)
- 'The Slave Fort' in Arabic Short Stories, 1983 (transl. by Denys Johnson-Davies)
- faris faris, 1996 (فارس فارس, Knight Knight)
2013 New edition of Ghassan Kanafani's complete works (Arabic Edition), published by Rimal Publications (Cyprus):
- Men in the Sun | رجال في الشمس (ISBN 9789963610853, Rimal Publications, 2013)
- All That’s Left to You | ماتبقى لكم (ISBN 9789963610945, Rimal Publications, 2013)
- Umm Saad | أم سعد (ISBN 9789963610938, Rimal Publications, 2013)
- The Lover | العاشق (ISBN 9789963610860, Rimal Publications, 2013)
- Returning to Haifa | عائد الى حيفا (ISBN 9789963610914, Rimal Publications, 2013)
- The Other Thing (Who Killed Laila Hayek?) | الشيء الآخر (ISBN 9789963610884, Rimal Publications, 2013)
- Death of Bed No. 12 | موت سرير رقم ١٢ (ISBN 9789963610822, Rimal Publications, 2013)
- Land of Sad Oranges | ارض البرتقال الحزين (ISBN 9789963610808, Rimal Publications, 2013)
- A World Not Our Own | عالم ليس لنا (ISBN 9789963610952, Rimal Publications, 2013)
- Of Men and Rifles | الرجال والبنادق (ISBN 9789963610877, Rimal Publications, 2013)
- The Stolen Shirt | القميص المسروق (ISBN 9789963610921, Rimal Publications, 2013)
- A Bridge to Eternity | جسر إلى الأبد (ISBN 9789963610815, Rimal Publications, 2013)
- The Door | الباب (ISBN 9789963610839, Rimal Publications, 2013)
- The Hat and the Prophet | القبعه والنبي (ISBN 9789963610846, Rimal Publications, 2013)
- Resistance Literature in Occupied Palestine 1948 -1966 | أدب المقاومة في فلسطين المحتلة ١٩٤٨-١٩٦٦ (ISBN 9789963610907, Rimal Publications, 2013)
- Palestinian Literature of Resistance Under Occupation 1948 - 1968 | الأدب الفلسطيني المقاوم تحت الإحتلال ١٩٤٨ - ١٩٦٨ (ISBN 9789963610891, Rimal Publications, 2013)
- In Zionist Literature | في الأدب الصهيوني (ISBN 9789963610983, Rimal Publications, 2013)
- Farsoun, 2004, p. 97.
- Barbara Harlow (Winter - Spring, 1986), "Return to Haifa: "Opening the Borders" in Palestinian Literature", Social Text, No. 13/14: 3–23
- Rashid Khalidi,Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness, Columbia University Press, 2009 p.195.
- "Liberation Graphics: Antonym/Synonim: Ninth Commemoration of Comrade Ghassan’s Martyrdom". Liberation Graphics. Retrieved 26 August 2012.
- Barbara Harlow, 'Writers and Assassinations,' in Sidney J. Lemelle, Robin D G Kelley (eds.) Imagining Home: Class, Culture, and Nationalism in the African Diaspora, Verso 1994, pp.167-184, p.181
- Stuart Reigeluth, 'The Poetic Prose of Mahmoud Darwish and Mourid Barghouti,' in Hala Khamis Nassar, Najat Rahman (eds.), Mahmoud Darwish, Exile's Poet: Critical Essays, Olive Branch Press, 2008 pp.293-318, p.308.
- Mary Bentley Abu Saba, 'Profiles of Foreign Women in Lebanon during the Civil War,' in Lamia Rustum Shehadeh, (ed.) Women and War in Lebanon, University of Florida Press, pp.229-258, p.250.
- O'Neil, 2004, pp. 684-692.
- Farsoun, Samih K. (2004), Culture and Customs of the Palestinians, Greenwood Publishing Group, ISBN 0-313-32051-9, 9780313320514 Check
- Harlow, Barbara (1987), Resistance Literature, Routledge, ISBN 0-416-39950-9, 9780416399509 Check
- O'Neil, Patrick M. (2004), Great World Writers: Twentieth Century, Marshall Cavendish, ISBN 0-7614-7473-0, 9780761474739 Check
- Jaffa, Land of Oranges Kanafani on becoming a refugee.
- New Jersey Solidarity - page on Kanafani with translated writings
- Ghassan Kanafani The Founder of the Modern Palestinian Novel.