I called my mother and whenever she said something about Gaza I changed the subject. It was during one such conversation that my eye fell on a name on my shelf: Ghassan Kanafani. I had not read him since boyhood. I flicked through the collection of short stories until I came upon one called ‘Letter From Gaza’. I read it, photocopied it and took it with me to a reading I was giving at the University of Cambridge. I did not read it but seemed to need it there in my pocket.
It is darkly unnerving how in that story, written when Kanafani was barely twenty, the author foresees the tragedy that would years later befall him and his niece. ‘Letter From Gaza’ is written in the voice of a Palestinian who has returned to his destroyed neighbourhood. All he has left in Gaza after the assault are his mother, sister-in-law and her four children: ‘… but,’ he tells his friend, the addressee, who is eagerly waiting in Sacramento, ‘I would liberate myself from this last tie too, there in green California, far from the reek of defeat which for seven years had filled my nostrils.’ He has been accepted at the University of California, for a degree in Civil Engineering. He buys a ‘pound of apples’ for his wounded niece in hospital. The girl is inconsolable. Her wounds seem to reflect the new geography of occupation. The short stay entirely alters his plans and he decides to remain instead in Gaza, ‘among the ugly debris’.
The mechanism by which the epistle leads its author (and the reader) to this conclusion reveals, with the inevitability of a natural process, the intimate reality of a man whose breath had been quartered by defeat. The prose has an air of being told in spite of its teller. Like all good letters it is not intended for anyone other than its recipient. Writing a short story that turns the reader into a transgressor, a spy, is, of course, a literary trick and an indication of Kanafani’s exceptional talent. In fact, I am convinced that were this author’s short but prolific career allowed to run further, his luminous talent would have shone more brightly still.
He was born in Acra, Palestine, in 1936. By 1948 he and his family had to flee to Lebanon. In a short life – Kanafani died at the age of thirty-six – he wrote nearly twenty volumes of short stories, novels, essays, a study on Zionist literature and another on Palestinian literature under occupation. His work marks one of the most significant developments in modern Arab prose fiction. In 1967 he became a member of the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist political movement. And in 1972, sixteen years after ‘Letter From Gaza’, Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, without trial decided that Ghassan Kanafani was implicated in an attack on Lod Airport. He was by then settled in Beirut with his wife, a Danish children’s rights campaigner, and their two children. Mossad installed a bomb in his car. Kanafani’s favourite niece, Lamis Najem, to whom he had dedicated his first book, was sitting beside him. Both died in the blast.
It is difficult not to see the assassination of Ghassan Kanafani as yet another attempt to obliterate the Palestinian narrative, to make true the claim, made by the Israeli politician Yigal Allon after 1967, that Palestinians no longer exist, for if they did they would have produced a literature.
On January 29, 2009, eleven days after the latest and near continuous bombardment of Gaza stopped, a new ‘literature’ appeared. The Israeli National News published an article written by an Israeli soldier, calling it ‘Letter To Gaza’. The author had chosen to withhold his last name; all we have is ‘Yishai (Reserve Soldier)’. In an Orwellian maneuver, Yishai addresses the Palestinians whose house he had recently ransacked and occupied with a simple and solitary: ‘Hello’. At one point he explains that ‘despite the immense disorder you found in your house … we did our best to treat your possessions with respect… I even covered the computer from dust with a piece of cloth’. Yishai wants his nameless victims to know: ‘I am 100% at peace with what my country did, what my army did, and what I did. However, I feel your pain.’
The soldier’s letter is there only to serve the soldier. In it he tries to brush away his crimes under a feigned humanity, but in doing so exposes the narcissistic jealousy every oppressor feels: one of the most disturbing qualities of the subjugator is that he is rarely content with dispossessing his victims of their rights and property, but desires to also undermine the private nature of their grief.
In Kanafani’s story we learn about the solitude of grief, of how slow and dark the initiation is. And here we come to how the augury embedded in the text transcends the life and death of Ghassan Kanafani and Lamis Najem and even their assassin – let us call him Yishai – who could neither undermine nor console their grief, and points more poignantly perhaps to the life and incarceration of Gaza, the true protagonist of the story, which, back in 1956, when Kanafani had authored his story, was less amputated (a word that haunts the text) than the one Israel’s latest assault has left behind.
Photograph taken of Ghassan Kanafani