NOTE: The following is a paper written as an assignment for an NEH Summer Seminar on "The Arabic Novel in Translation" conducted by Professor Roger Allen at the University of Pennsylvania in July 1993.

in Some of the Work of DARWISH and KANAFANI

by Ronald Bleier

"... he remembered every leaf on every plant that grew alongside roads meandering out of Northern Palestine, never to return." -- Mahmoud Darwish


Even a casual reader need not look far in Kanafani and Darwish for a reflection of the catastrophic losses suffered by the writers themselves, their communities and their nation as a consequence of t he Israeli-Arab wars of 1948 and 1967. Using both direct and indirect literary strategies, Kanafani and Darwish express their tragic history, their inability to contend with Israeli power and their grim view of future prospects for their people.

Mahmoud Darwish was born in 1942 in the village of Berweh east of Acre in the Galilee in northern Israel. His village was among the more than 350 Palestinian villages depopulated and destroyed by the Israelis. Darwish is known as Palestine's foremost poet; he has been called the poet laureate of the Palestinian people.

In his memoir, a portion of which has been translated into English, Darwish openly and clearly gives vent to the pain that he suffers as an individual and as a representative of his people. In one anecdote, Darwish recalls an incident in Israel with a (Moroccan) Israeli taxi-driver who had been lulled by Darwish's excellent Hebrew into making racist remarks about Arabs. When the taxi-driver asserts that Arabs are filthy, Darwish has no compunction about challenging his interlocutor. Darwish insists, in the face of the cabbie's disbelief, that he is a Muslim and that he comes "from a backward village that Israel demolished -- simply razed out of existence."

In his poetry as well, when Darwish so desires, he can be just as forthright. In Habiby's novel, The Secret Life of Saeed, the author quotes Darwish because of the poet's insistence on naming names and saying things as they are.

I laud the executioner, victor over a dark-eyed maiden; Hurrah for the vanquisher of villages, hurrah for the butcher of infants (Saeed, p. 16)

In the same chapter, Habiby quotes another straightforward attack by Darwish on the Israelis where he refers to the latter as "devils."

We know best about those devils Who of children prophets make. (Saeed, p. 16)

In his memoir, Darwish talks of his predicament with his passport. He deserves to be quoted at length because his situation is indicative of Israel's intimidation and harassment of Palestinians. Darwish wants to travel to Greece so he asks for a passport and a laissez-passer.

"Suddenly, I realize that I am not a citizen, because either my father or one of my other relatives took me and fled during the 1948 war. At that time I was just a child. I now discover that any Arab who fled during the war and returned later forfeited his right to citizenship. I despair of ever obtaining a passport and I settle for a laissez-passer. Then I realize that I am not a resident of Israel since I do not have a residency card. I consult a lawyer:

"If I am neither a citizen nor a resident of the State, then where am I and who am I?"

The segment from his memoir ends with a moving account of his desire to visit his mother during the holidays. His parents live in a small village near him but he is not allowed to visit them because of Israeli restrictions. He leaves to spend a lonely day at the beach where he overhears Israelis "curs[ing his] people". He wonders why the Israelis cannot simply enjoy the beach and the fine weat her without always thinking about his people.

At the end of the day he returns to his apartment to find his mother waiting there because she "has refused to celebrate the feast without him." When she leaves he cannot take her across the street because the "State does not allow [him] to leave the house after sunset." After she leaves, he breaks down and cries. "For years, I have carried these tears and they have finally found an outlet.

*"Mother, I am still a child. I want to empty all my grief onto your bosom. I want to bridge the distance between us in order to cry in your lap." "My next door neighbor calls to tell me that my mother is still cleaving to the door. I run out to her and cry on her shoulders." ( "Memoirs of Everyday Sorrow" Translator: Adnan Haydar, in Mundus Artium (Special Arabic Issue) Volume X, Number 1, 1977, pp. 189-194.)

Darwish's account is important because it is indicative of the plight of the Palestinians: not merely strangers in their own land but enemies of the State. From the Palestinian perspective the reason they are enemies is because Israel was founded and remains a Jewish state, having no use for Arabs as equal citizens. The immutable logic of the way Israel has dealt with the Palestinians since 19 48 is the increasingly clear movement towards, as Edward Said puts it: the "depopulation of Palestinians through expulsion and emigration." Said writes that the ultimate goal [of the Israelis] is Zionization of historical Palestine, and, if possible, resettlement of Palestinians in Arab countries." (After the Last Sky, 1986, p. 111).

One place to view the way Darwish deals with his personal and national loss is in his "Poem of the Land". In the note to the poem, the poet (or the editor) reminds the reader that the poem was written to commemorate the death of five Palestinian girls who were killed by the Israelis in connection with a demonstration on March 30, 1976 to protest Israeli land confiscation of Arab land.

In this poem, Darwish adopts the heroic mode whereby the speaker is "proud, self-sacrificing, stoic, valiant, and undefeated even in death. ... The hero marches toward the noble goal of redemption by blood of both self and nation, and is regarded as immortal." (Salma Khadra Jayyusi, "Introduction" in Habiby, Saeed, p. xv.) For all their pride, however, the heroic mode implies the underlying the me of the powerlessness and the helplessness of the Palestinians in their existential contest with their settler supplanters.

A small evening
A neglected village
Thirty years
Five wars
I witness that time hides for me
an ear of wheat
The singer sings
Of fire and strangers
Evening was evening
The singer was singing
And they question him
Why do you sing?
He answers them as they seize him
Because I sing

And they have searched him:
In his breast only his heart
In his heart only his people
In his voice only his sorrow
In his sorrow only his prison
And they have searched his prison
To find only themselves in chains

Here we see the heroic mode par excellence. The speaker is victorious in his weakness because he has the strength of his moral certitude. From a certain point of view he is correct that the Israelis find themselves in chains in their own prisons; but this is true only in the sphere where justice wins out every time. In the real world, it is raw power which holds sway, as Darwish's poem acknowledges.

In another section from the same poem we see once again the heroic mode, together with the same implications.


I name the soil I call it
an extension of my soul
I name my hands I call them
the pavement of wounds
I name the pebbles
I name the birds
almonds and figs
I name my ribs
Gently I pull a branch
from the fig tree of my breast
I throw it like a stone
to blow up the conqueror's tank

Once again, the poet's weapon is the moral one: he finds himself equipped here with a branch from the fig tree of his breast which he will employ to blow up the conqueror's tank. Yes, and when that day arrives, there will be no need of tanks and no need to transform branches of fig trees into weapons. There will be no oppressor and no oppressed: there will be only fig trees full with figs.


Be barren O Land of Palestine
this foetus is horrible
Be barren now, O mother of martyrs...
There will be destruction

--Muzaffar al-Nawwab
Ghassan Kanafani was born 1936 in Acre in what has become the north of Israel. His family was among those forced to flee in the fighting of '48 to Lebanon. He later became a writer, a journalist and when he was killed in Beirut by an Israeli car-bomb in 1972, he was an official of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. At the time of his death, his work had already established his reputation as among the foremost Palestinian writers of his day.

Kanafani is noted for his indirect method of dealing with the Palestinian catastrophe. It suited Kanafani's style to abide by the political restriction not to even mention the word "Israel" or "Israeli." Nevertheless, the terrible military and political defeat suffered by his people is always more or less present in Kanafani's fiction.

In one of Kanafani's short stories, "The Little One Goes to the Camp", the author may actually be playing a joke with the reader over the issue of the fighting in '48. In this story the narrator begins by insisting that "It happened during the war ... the time of constant grappling with the enemy. ... This, as I said, happened during a time of continuous fighting."

The "joke" is that his readers might be expected to jump to the conclusion that the fighting referred to is the war of '48. But it turns out that the constant fighting is a reference to the personal conflicts of his characters. Here, the central character is a a small boy who must scrap and fight with the members of his immediate and his extended family for his fair share. The war of '48 does exist in the story, but only in the background. The alert reader is aware that times are hard because of the war.

Kafr Al-Manjam

Kanafani's symbolic story "Kafr al-Manjam" is a brilliant example of the author's focus on the national struggle of his people. Although the symbolic depiction of the tragic fate of the Palestinians is just as stark in its way as in Kanafani's other work, nevertheless an assiduous reader may be able to withdraw a ray of hope from among the hints that Kanafani leaves. A double reading of the symbolism of "Kafr Al-Manjam" may well serve as a thematic transition to a darker work, All That's Left to You.

"Kafr Al-Manjam" begins when a bored, dispirited narrator enters once again the cafe, he dislikes. As usual, the waiter pushes the coffee in front of him "carelessly spilling the contents into the saucer." Soon the narrator experiences a premonition that something is going to happen to him, and sure enough, in walks Ibrahim, a brilliant student who unaccountably failed his examinations fifteen years before and promptly disappeared at sea. The returned Ibrahim is fat, and possessed of a gold lighter, cufflinks and other evident signs of wealth.

Ibrahim explains that when he failed the examinations he decided to hire a boat so that he could commit suicide through exposure and starvation. However, In conversation with the boatman, Ibrahim learns of an alternative. It seems that when the owner inherited the boat and the boathouse he also inherited an "exhaustive dream" which has occupied him "for more than fifty years."

The boatman speaks of the "existence of a city built like a fortress in the middle of the sea ... which bore similarities to the fantastic cities of legend." Ibrahim agreed to undertake the journey and managed to find Kafr Al-Manjam, the fabulous city in the middle of the ocean. When he landed he filled sacks with the gold that he found there at "the stretch of a hand."

Finally in the last section, the jaded narrator gets up, pays for the two coffees, one that he has bought for Ibrahim, and he emerges into the street where it "was a normal day" with people jostling each other and where he hears "the curses of the cake seller." He prepares to return to his room where he expects that he will "fall asleep fully clothed, just as [he] always did." The story ends when the narrator experiences a moment of realization.

"Then it happened again. I had a sudden feeling of happiness. I put my hands in my pocket, and shook my head, smiling, as I quickened my pace. No, Ibrahim hasn't yet returned from Kafr Al-Manjam."

If we assume that Kanafani means Ibrahim to represent the Palestinian people, many of the details fall into place. The date for the story is given as 1963. Ibrahim disappeared fifteen years earlier, in 1948, the year of the devastating tragedy for the Palestinian people.

The examination Ibrahim failed in '48 may be seen as the failed effort on the part of the Palestinians to achieve independence and self-determination. The cafe that the narrator dislikes so much may be the symbol for their miserable existence in exile and in squalid refugee camps. "Our whole life was like that, with our actions spilling into a grimy residue," the narrator says to the waiter. The reference to the boatman's "exhaustive dream" of more than 50 years, would be the struggle for independence of the Palestinians, and the other Arab nations going back to before WWI.

By the end we see that Kafr Al-Manjam represents the pipe dream of an already achieved or readily achievable redemption and return to Palestine. The bored narrator smiles at the end be cause he recognizes that the mirage of Ibrahim's return doesn't mesh with his knowledge of the present. The narrator has not succumbed to the exhausting fantasy of a return not already attained.

However, on a second level, perhaps his smile and the new sense of purpose we notice at the end, is meant to imply that it is always possible that the real Ibrahim may one day return. The boatman had said that if someone really wanted to return he surely would.

Kafr Al-Manjam may represent then not only the debilitating fantasy of a personal and national return through hopeless escapism, but perhaps Kanafani had in mind a positive meaning as well. Perhaps on this second level, Kafr Al-Manjam represents the hope that if the Palestinian people bend all their efforts to address the stark realities of their lives -- as Kanafani himself did through his literary and political activity -- they will find a way in the real world to return to their land and somehow achieve their dreams for a national existence.

All That's Left to You

If in "Kafr Al-Manjam" Kanafani can afford his character a symbolic smile, no such sliver of hope is evident -- to this reader at least -- in his novella, All That's Left to You (1966). In this experimental work Kanafani, in an unusual "clarification," explains that in addition to the three main human characters, Hamid, Maryam, and Zakaria, Time and the Desert are also characters in this novella. For a non-Middle-Eastern audience, Kanafani might have added that the city of Jaffa is also ever present in the background if not also another character in this story. The setting of the story is primarily Gaza and in the nearby desert but the characters are there because they are refugees who were forced to flee from Jaffa in the '48 fighting.

Kanafani wrote in the first instance for his Arab audience and he took for granted the knowledge of the history of '48 and the events that led to the fall of Jaffa. Western audiences coming to Kanafani's work today are likely to miss the significance of the references to Jaffa in the novella unless they know its history.

In his book, The Palestinian Catastrophe (1987), Michael Palumbo, a writer sympathetic to the Palestinian position, devotes a chapter to the "Fall of Jaffa". Palumbo quotes a Jewish intelligence officer, Shmuel Toledano, who saw "the coffee cups that had been left on the kitchen tables by the civilians who had fled in terror" when he entered empty houses in abandoned streets after the city fel l. "'I just couldn't bear to see the tragedy,' he later recalled. 'I felt it in every building as we entered them one after another. I saw how families had left not knowing where to go'" (p. 82).

Palumbo explains that "the conflict between the populations of Jaffa and Tel Aviv [the neighboring city] was inevitable. Under the UN partition plan Jaffa would have been left as an Arab enclave surrounded by the territory of the Jewish state. It was clear that either forces from Jaffa would push out and conquer a corridor linking the city with Arab territory or Jaffa would be absorbed by the Jewish state" (p. 83).

Palumbo also gives the background to the fall of Jaffa and makes a reference to the Manshieh Quarter which is mentioned as going up in flames in Kanafani's novella.

"After the fall of Haifa on 22 April [1948], it was obvious that Jaffa would be the next major target of the Jewish forces. Haganah [regular Jewish military units commanded by Ben-Gurion] leaders were planning to implement Operation Chametz, which was aimed at surrounding and isolating Jaffa, thus avoiding a costly direct attack on the Arab positions. The Irgun [a splinter, right-wing para-military group headed by Menachem Begin], however, was anxious to win an impressive victory in sight of the people of Tel Aviv. The Irgun leaders decided to launch an assault before the Haganah . "Our plan was to attack Jaffa at the narrow bottleneck linking the main town with the Manshieh Quarter which thrust northward like a peninsula into Jewish Tel Aviv," noted Menachem Begin. The Irgun aimed at breaking the neck of the bottle and reaching the sea, thus cutting the Manshieh district off from the rest of Jaffa. At 8 a.m. on 26 April the Irgun mortars began shelling Jaffa, thus signalling the beginning of the assault." -- (p. 85-86)

Palumbo also communicates a sense of what it must have been like to be part of the terror-stricken thousands trying to flee Jaffa for their lives. He writes that since Jaffa is a port city many refugees attempted to escape by sea.

"Any type of craft was used, including rowing boats, sailing boats, motor boats as well as larger vessels. The Shammout family were among the thousands who jammed the piers at Jaffa port. Iris Shammout, who was only twelve years old at the time, remembered how the defenceless civilians were fired on by the Jews. "Those bullets went through the bodies of people standing by the seashore." ...

According to Iris Shammout, "Women and children were weeping and screaming" as they filed into small boats in an effort to reach a Greek steamship that they hoped would take them to safety. But many people were drowned because the tiny fishing vessels could not hold the multitude. Babies fell overboard as mothers had to choose which offspring to save....[M]any of those who attempted to sail to Gaza or Beirut in small boats were lost at sea. Their bodies were washed up along the coast of Palestine. -- (pp. 89-90)

All That's Left to You is unusual not only in that there are explicit references to attacks on Palestinians by Israelis -- in this case to the fall of Jaffa and to the fighting which preceded it when Hamid and Maryam's father was killed -- but also in that Kanafani makes explicit his theme. Typically he is much more indirect in his writing, but in this experimental work his purpose apparently was to make his point less subtly.

The phrase, "all that's left to you" is repeated three times in the novella and referred to by implication throughout. The first time it is explicitly stated is during one of Hamid's monologues while he is in the desert. Hamid has fled his refugee home in Gaza because he can no longer deal with the family crisis of his 35 year old, four-month pregnant sister who has just married her lover, Zakaria. Her new husband, in turn, is married to another woman with whom he has four children. Partly out of shame for his sister and partly because of his hatred for her new husband, Hamid decides to risk an illegal and extremely risky trip through the desert to try to join his mother whom he believes is in Jordan.

In this particular monologue, Hamid conflates the associated ideas of the death of his father and his unknown gravesite -- perhaps his mother in Jordan knows the location; the death of Salim -- a Palestinian activist killed by the Israelis after Zakaria betrayed him; the grief of Salim's mother and her ignorance of the whereabouts of his corpse; and the details of his escape from his hometown Jaffa, while it is in flames. He recalls, in his monologue, that Salim's mother came to him and explained that the night of her son's death she went to where he was killed but she couldn't find his body because the Israelis buried him in secret.

"`Do you have any idea where? My son, my reason for living, all that was left to me.' A half-capsized boat began battling on the surface of a black, flaming world. Where did they bury him? My mother had taken that secret with her and left us. It was all that was left to her. All that was left to all of you. All that was left to me. ... It's all that's left to me in the world -- a passage of black sand, a ferry between two lost worlds; a tunnel blocked at both ends." -- p. 39

Hamid's last comment is an acknowledgement and a foreshadowing of his own upcoming death in the desert and the impossibility of reaching his goal either in Jordan or back in Gaza. He has no passage forward and no retreat.

The phrase next appears at the end of Maryam's monologue which follows immediately. In the course of her monologue which takes place as she waits up all night while her brother Hamid is making the risky journey in the desert, she recalls that her husband Zakaria doesn't want the child "and that he was still hoping that I'd get rid of it in some way." At the end of her monologue she recalls a bitter scene with her brother Hamid who had told her:

"`It doesn't matter what I say, you'll marry him [Zakaria] in a few hours. But even if you're prepared to destroy yourself and lose your husband, at least try not to lose the child ... The only way for you not to lose it is to get rid of it now.' He left me, slipped down the stairs and slammed the door angrily. All that's left. All that's finally left to all of you." (p. 41 -- ellipsis in original)

The idea, stated by both husband and brother that all that is left for Maryam is to abort her pregnancy, may be seen as Kanafani's comment on the political future for the Palestinian people. If there are no children, there is no future.

The third and final reference to the title comes a few pages later and not long before the end of the novel. Once again, Maryam is the speaker and she has been trying to shut her ears against her frustrated and angry husband who, in an explosive scene at dawn, demands once again that she terminate her pregnancy.

"... all that was left to me was to spend the rest of my days with my hands blocking my ears and my teeth biting my lips." (p. 44)

Here the phrase is just as ominous as it has been before and in fact refers to the upcoming denouement which involves the violent death of her husband and perhaps her death which seems to be implied in the story.

At the end of the novella we count the corpses and we find that all the human characters, Maryam, Hamid and Zakaria either die or are left, like Maryam, to an impossible fate. In Kanafani's landscape only Time and the Desert remain. Is it possible for Kanafani -- or any author for that matter -- to make a statement more grim?