Ghassan Kanafani: Revolutionary Writer and Journalist
- 21 Jul 2017
Ghassan Kanafani in his PFLP office in Beirut, surrounded by revolutionary icons on the wall (Marx, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, George Habash). All the PFLP posters below were authored by Ghassan Kanafani.
July 8th marked the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Ghassan Kanafani. A multifaceted Palestinian revolutionary, he was a renowned writer and journalist as well as an artist, and he was a leading figure in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In this essay we look at Kanafani’s life and work, the impact of his writing as a chronicling of the Palestinian struggle and the relevance of his political thought to this day.
Kanafani was born on April 8, 1936, in Acre, Palestine. He lived with his family in Jaffa until they were forced to leave in the 1948 Nakba (“catastrophe”), finally settling in Damascus. Having lived in one pf them, he would later begin teaching at a UNRWA refugee camp to help support his family and continue his studies. His experience in the camps would later transpire in much of his writing.
During his Arabic Literature studies at Damascus University he started becoming interested in politics, and met George Habash, then leader of the Arab Nationalists’ Movement (ANM), with whom he began to work. After teaching for a few years in Kuwait, where he was diagnosed with severe diabetes, Kanafani would move to Beirut to join the editorial of al-Hurriyya (“Freedom”) magazine at Habash’s invitation.
In the 1961 he would marry Danish teacher Anni Hoover, who had come to Beirut to study the refugee situation and in 1962 publish his first major work, Men in the Sun, which was instantly acclaimed throughout the Arab world. Kanafani was very prolific during the 1960s, both in literary and journalistic output, as the Palestinian resistance and armed struggle ramped up (the PLO was founded in 1965).
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was founded in 1967, replacing the Arab Nationalists’ Movement, and Kanafani became the editor of al-Hadaf, the party’s organ. With a clear Marxist orientation, the PFLP was committed to resisting the occupation of Palestine and establishing a single state, with a new, secular society, based on social justice, in Palestine. The period of 1970-72 was laden with political and armed activity, with Kanafani being a member of the PFLP politburo and serving as its spokesman.
The PFLP saw the fight against Israeli occupation mainly as anti-colonial resistance. After the defeats of 1948 and especially 1967, the struggle in the sphere of culture was crucial in order to recapture an everyday Palestinian national identity, threatened by dispersion and ethnic/culture cleansing. This was the first step in order to regain their country.
He was killed along with his 17 year-old niece Lamees on July 8, 1972, in Beirut, by a car-bomb planted by Mossad, and with strong suggestions of collusion by Lebanese authorities. About this cold blooded murder, his sister wrote :
“On the morning of Saturday, July 8, 1972, at about 10:30 am, Lamees (Kanafani’s niece) and her uncle were going out together to Beirut. A minute after their departure, we heard the sound of a very loud explosion which shook the whole building. We were immediately afraid, but our fear was for Ghassan and not for Lamees because we had forgotten that Lamees was with him and we knew that Ghassan was the target of the explosion. We ran outside, all of us were calling for Ghassan and not one of us called for Lamees. Lamees was still a child of seventeen years. Her whole being was longing for life and was full of life. But we knew that Ghassan was the one who had chosen this road and who had walked along it. Just the previous day Lamees had asked her uncle to reduce his revolutionary activities and to concentrate more upon writing his stories. She had said to him, “Your stories are beautiful,” and he had answered, “Go back to writing stories? I write well because I believe in a cause, in principles. The day I leave these principles, my stories will become empty. If I were to leave behind my principles, you yourself would not respect me.’ He was able to convince the girl that the struggle and the defense of principles is what finally leads to success in everything.”
His funeral was a massive event that drew thousands of supporters and sympathisers who paid homage to one of the leading figures of the Palestinian movement, a true symbol of creative resistance.
In her book Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration, Laleh Khalili refers to Kanafani as the “archetypal martyr” of the Palestinian cause (1).
“Kanafani himself was chosen as the “factional martyr” because his sensitive literary treatment of the Palestinian Nakba, his production of many icons of the Palestinian struggle, his coining of phrases that entered the Palestinian revolutionary vernacular, and his position as PFLP spokesman all combined to project him as the ideal archetype of the nationalist intellectual, one who fought with a pen rather than a sword.”
There might be a reflex to describe Kanafani as a “revolutionary, writer and journalist”, but the omission of the comma is not accidental. He once stated
“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…”
There was also no distinction in his mind about his literary and journalistic work. But in the background of everything was Palestine and its cause, and Kanafani coined the term “resistance literature”, understanding that literature, and art in general, was a form of resistance. He once stated that Palestinian writers “write for Palestine with blood”, a statement that was distorted to suggest a call for violence.
Nevertheless, Kanafani’s stories do not read like political pamphlets. They are real stories, with human characters and not Hollywoodesque heroes. They tell the (tragic) tale of ordinary Palestinians, be it the life under occupation or, more often, in exile and in the refugee camps. Kanafani’s own experience growing up in the camps is reflected in several stories which have a Palestinian child (2) as the central character, growing up surrounded by misery and nostalgia to find his identity as a Palestinian. Many short stories and novels are centred on young men joining the fidayeen. These were written at a time when the younger generation, the so-called “children of the camps”, was mobilising to resist the occupation directly, after almost 20 years of relying on the promises of weak-willed Arab states.
Kanafani’s best-known work is his first novel, Men in the Sun (1962). It tells the tale of three Palestinians in exile, being smuggled into Kuwait on the back of an empty water tanker. But with their driver, also a Palestinian in exile, being delayed at a checkpoint, they end up suffocating to death, unable to even call for help. Regarding its importance, Edward Said wrote that (3)
“[…] impelled by exile and dislocation, the Palestinian must carve a path for himself in existence, which is by no means a “given” or stable reality for him, even among fraternal Arabs.”
While mostly known for his literary output, Kanafani was also an accomplished artist, having produced numerous drawings and paintings. He also wrote essays about Palestinian resistance literature, Zionist literature, and documented the 1936-39 revolt in Palestine against British colonial authorities, as the Zionist project and British collusion became ever more apparent.
For him, the education of the masses was crucial for the triumph of the social struggles of liberation. This was the natural motivation behind Kanafani’s works: to put his writings and drawings at the service of the education and building of conscience of the masses, and thus of their class interests. One time, in a school, he told a bunch of students:
“The goal of education is to correct the march of history. For this reason we need to study history and to apprehend its dialectics in order to build a new historical era, in which the oppressed will live, after their liberation by revolutionary violence, from the contradiction that captivated them.”
A cause for every revolutionary
Like George Habash, Ghassan Kanafani’s politics evolved from a “Nasserist” pan-Arabism towards the Marxism-Leninism of the PFLP. This transition to can be explained by the shortcomings of pan-Arabism strategy and ideology. First of all, the attempt of unification between Egypt and Syria (under a unified United Arab Republic) definitively failed in 1961. This fact already influenced the first ANM pronouncements in favour of socialism and Marxism.
Moreover, after the defeats of the 1948 and 1967 wars, but also of the first armed uprisings in the 1920s and 30s under British rule, the idea of entrusting liberation to the Arab countries, and in a way to the pan-Arabist ideology, was discarded, facilitating the transition towards Marxism. The ANM began to identify the Palestinian problem as central for the Middle East as a whole. The analysis of society switched from an ethnic and nationalistic perspective, in which Palestinian society was seen as homogeneous and equally oppressed by Zionism, to a class perspective, in which the Palestinian bourgeoisie (and the Arab one more widely) was seen as part of the problem. In this regard, for the PFLP the anti-colonial struggle for national independence and the struggle for social and economic rights are seen as inextricably linked. This vision is precisely what differentiated the PFLP from Fatah, and still does to this day.
In 1969, in the document “Strategy for the Liberation of Palestine”, the adoption of a Marxist perspective by the PFLP is clear :
“In a real liberation battle waged by the masses to destroy imperialist influence in our homeland, Arab reaction cannot but be on the side of its own interests, the continuation of which depends on the persistence of imperialism, and consequently cannot side with the masses.”
“The classification of Arab reaction as one of the forces of the enemy is of the utmost importance, because failure to recognise this fact means failure to have a clear view before us. In actual practice it means failure to take account of real bases and forces for the enemy camp which are living among us and are capable of playing a diversionary role which disguises the facts of the battle before the masses and which, when the opportunity arises, will take the revolution unawares and deal it a blow leading to defeat.”
For the PFLP, the Arab bourgeoisie is in the enemy camp and as such needs to be confronted in the liberation struggle of Palestine. Also patent in the above statement is a clear positioning against Western imperialism. Kanafani’s lucid analysis tackles Western imperialism as the natural output of the development of the capitalistic system, at a certain point incapable of further maximising the profits of the capital, thus in the need to expand and to gain new spaces and markets through colonialism and/or imperialism. In this regard, he sees the anti-imperialist struggles throughout the world as being connected, as little outbreaks that shall build solidarity and bridges because the imperialist system “wherever you strike it, you damage it, and you serve the World Revolution.”
The PFLP thus adopted an internationalist outlook, openly supporting revolutionary movements such as the one in Vietnam, applying this thinking to the Palestinian cause as well. Kanafani said on this issue that:
“The Palestinian cause is not a cause for Palestinians only, but a cause for every revolutionary, wherever he is, as a cause of the exploited and oppressed masses in our era.”
The PFLP’s open criticism of backward regimes such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, as well as its unwillingness to take part in talks that would just amount to capitulation to the Israel occupier, would often contrast it to other PLO factions, notably Arafat’s Fatah. For his part, Kanafani was arrested in 1971 for “defamation” of the Jordan and Saudi kings in al-Hadaf.
Kanafani’s and the PFLP’s views are quite evident in a recently-surfaced interview with an Australian journalist. Kanafani points out how the framing of the Palestinian cause by western reporters is wrong from the start, and while in the specific case it is the conflict with Jordan (“Black September” of 1970), the same argument holds true in the case of the Israeli occupation.
Also quite patent is his rejection of talks between a liberation movement and a colonial occupier, or a “conversation between the sword and the neck” as he puts it. And when pressed whether capitulating is worth it to stop the death and misery, Kanafani is quite clear
“To us [Palestinians], to liberate our country, to have dignity, to have respect, to have our mere human rights, is something as essential as life itself.”
In a letter addressed to his son, he explained the meaning of being a Palestinian :
“I heard you in the other room asking your mother, ‘Mama, am I a Palestinian?’ When she answered ‘Yes’ a heavy silence fell on the whole house. It was as if something hanging over our heads had fallen, its noise exploding, then – silence. Afterwards… I heard you crying. I could not move. There was something bigger than my awareness being born in the other room through your bewildered sobbing. It was as if a blessed scalpel was cutting up your chest and putting there the heart that belongs to you… I was unable to move to see what was happening in the other room. I knew, however, that a distant homeland was being born again: hills, olive groves, dead people, torn banners and folded ones, all cutting their way into a future of flesh and blood and being born in the heart of another child… Do you believe that man grows? No, he is born suddenly – a word, a moment, penetrates his heart to a new throb. One scene can hurl him down from the ceiling of childhood onto the ruggedness of the road.”
Martyrs never die
Though his life was cut awfully short, Ghassan Kanafani (4) had a clear understanding of the meaning of self-sacrifice for a revolutionary cause
“Of course death means a lot. The important thing is to know why. Self-sacrifice, within the context of revolutionary action, is an expression of the very highest understanding of life, and of the struggle to make life worthy of a human being. The love of life for a person becomes a love for the life of his people’s masses, and his rejection that their life persists in being full of continuous misery, suffering and hardship. Hence, his understanding of life becomes a social virtue, capable of convincing the militant fighter that self-sacrifice is a redemption of his people’s life. This is a maximum expression of attachment to life.”
Kanafani’s obituary stated that he was “a commando who never fired a gun”, whose “weapon was a ballpoint pen and his arena newspaper pages. And he hurt the enemy more than a column of commandos.”. What is clear is that Kanafani’s writings and thought remain current to this day, an inspiration for all progressive and revolutionary movements around the world, and a reference in the struggle for the most just cause of our time, the liberation of Palestine.
“Everything in this world can be robbed and stolen, except one thing; this one thing is the love that emanates from a human being towards a solid commitment to a conviction or cause.”
(1) Laleh Khalili, Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration (2007), p. 133.
(2) One short story is called The Child Goes to the Camp, and the young narrator describes the harsh life in the camp as a “time of hostilities”, even though it was not a time of direct confrontation with the Israel occupier or any other aggressor.
(3) Edward Said, The Question of Palestine, p. 152. Edward Said was a Palestinian intellectual and the author of Orientalism.
(4) As’ad Abukhalil, professor of Political Science at CSU Stanislaus and author of the Angry Arab news blog, recently wrote a very interesting article about Ghassan Kanafani for the Electronic Intifada.
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