Literature of Emergency: Kanafani’s ‘Palestine’s Children’

Kim Jensen
Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and Other Stories
By Ghassan Kanafani, Translated by Barbara Harlow and Karen  E. Riley
Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2000
In the wake of Oslo, the ongoing Palestinian tragedy has been reduced in public discourse to an assemblage of meager phrases such as “land for peace,” “final status,” “phased withdrawal,” and “right of return.” And yet there is urgent need, now more than ever, for the Palestinian narrative to be asserted and re-asserted in all of its detail and description.
The recent appearance of a new edition of Ghassan Kanafani’s “Palestine’s Children” makes for a small but timely remedy to this unfortunate linguistic and political devolution. First published in 1984 by Three Continents Press, these translations will help to revitalize the public wordscape with their evocative imagery and language of resistance.
This collection, which includes a new translation of “Returning to Haifa,” as well as a new biographical essay and a new introduction,  captures  the pain and anxiety of dispossession. Palestine comes back to us in its original form, as a landscape, a concrete geography inhabited by ordinary people, unprepared for the evil that will befall them.
Kanafani’s stories, which are psychological portraits of a people “in a time of hostilities,” are haunting and thoroughly concerned with the exigencies of  time and place. In the stories which take place just prior to 1948, we feel all the shadowy foreboding of the characters who desperately, and against all odds, try to undo history’s coming pronouncement. In post-’48 refugee stories, particularly in “A Present for the Holiday,” the suffering of hungry, displaced children comes into sharp focus.
The book culminates in the novella “Returning to Haifa,” which takes place after the ’67 war. After two decades of yearning and mourning for the past, the main character finally comes to the realization that the homeland is not the past, “the homeland is the future.” And this future, he realizes, is worth dying for.
What is devastating about these stories is the way we see the struggle for Palestine as a generational conflict. The tensions and miscommunications between fathers and sons are seen as being very much at the heart of the defeat. We read, again and again, about fathers who do not want to lose or trust or believe in their sons; sons who cannot communicate their anger with fathers; generations caught between tradition and revolution who watch as Palestine slips out of their grasp. (This inter-generational blame is echoed as well in Darwish’s “Father, Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?”)
For anyone with a personal stake in this issue, these are dreadful thoughts. But nevertheless, important ones to confront as we head into the next millennium.  “Palestine’s Children” is very raw stuff, the world as seen by an artist who perceived the absolute necessity of his work. “Man is a cause,” Kanafani says again and again in “Returning to Haifa.” These stories, written by a man who himself died as a martyr, and brought to us by two very skilled translators,  make an important contribution to the cause of an engaged literature, a literature of emergency which ever heeds the call of life.
This review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 32, Summer 2000.
Copyright © 2000 AL JADID MAGAZINE