Last couple of weeks I’ve been rereading Ghassan Kanafani‘s Men in the Sun and Returning to Haifa. Both are great novellas, and like in most of Kanafani’s works – politics and literature remain inseperable in them. Kanafani 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.”
In both Men in the Sun and Returning to Haifa the story is a story of Palestine – story of memories and realities, leaving and returning (in both space and time), waiting and expecting. Constant internal state of chaos and confusion is inevitable. How does one return if he didn’t leave at all (in his mind and heart)? But he did leave physically, unwillingly, and everything changed in the meantime… How does one face that?
For Kanafani and his protagonists, Palestine is what defines them – their most important cause in life and an essential part of their identity. But what happens to them when the story of Palestine is so complicated? How do they act, what do they think, how do they shape their lives? Palestine is their homeland. But what is a homeland, after all?
Here are the excerpts from Returning to Haifa.
“When he reached the edge of Haifa, approaching by car along the Jerusalem road, Said S. had the sensation that something was binding his tongue, compelling him to keep silent, and he feIt grief well up inside of him. For one moment he was tempted to turn back, and without even looking at her he knew that his wife had begun to cry silently. Then suddenly came the sound of the sea, exactly the way it used to be. Oh no, the memory did not return to him little by little. Instead, it rained down inside his head the way a stone wall collapses, the stones piling up, one upon another.”
He turned toward his wife, but she wasn’t listening. She was turned away from him, absorbed in gazing at the road — now to the right, where the farmland stretched away as far as one could see, and now to the left, where to sea, which had remained so distant for more than twenty years, was raging near at hand. Suddenly she said:
“I never imagined that I would see Haifa again.”
“You’re not seeing it. They’re showing it to you.”
With that, Safiyya’s nerves failed her for the first time and she shouted:
“What’s all this ‘philosophy’ you’ve been spouting all day long? The gates and the sights and everything else. What happened to you?”
“You should not have left Haifa. If that wasn’t possible, then no matter what it took, you should not have left an infant in its crib. And if that was also impossible, then you should never have stopped trying to return. You say that too was impossible? Twenty years have passed, sir! Twenty years! What did you do during that time to reclaim your son? If I were you I would’ve borne arms for that. Is there any stronger motive? You’re all weak! Weak! You’re bound by heavy chains of backwardness and paralysis! Don’t tell me you spent twenty years crying! Tears won’t bring back the missing or the lost. Tears won’t work miracles! All the tears in the world won’t carry a small boat holding two parents searching for their lost child. So you spent twenty years crying. That’s what you tell me now? Is this your dull, worn-out weapon?”
“What is a homeland?”
She leaned forward, surprised, as though she didn’t believe what she heard. She asked with a delicacy that contained uncertainty:
“What did you say?”
“I said, what is a homeland? I was asking myself that question a moment ago. Naturally. What is a homeland? Is it these two chairs that remained in this room for twenty years? The table? Peacock feathers? The picture of Jerusalem on the wall? The copper lock? The oak tree? The balcony? What is a homeland? Khaldun? Our illusions of him? Fathers? Their sons? What is a homeland? Is it the picture of his brother hanging on the wall? I’m only asking.”
Once again, Safiyya began to weep. She dried her tears with a small white handkerchief. Looking at her, Said thought: “How this woman has aged. She squandered her youth waiting for this moment, not knowing what a terrible moment it would be.”