In memoriam: Ghassan Kanafani, Palestine's most famous novelist and political activist killed by Israel

In memoriam: Ghassan Kanafani, Palestine's most famous novelist and political activist killed by Israel
Culture: Ghassan Kanafani was a prolific writer and an activist. If his life hadn't been cut short in an Israeli assassination, he would have celebrated his 83rd birthday this year
4 min read
09 July, 2019
Ghassan Kanafani was a prolific writer and an activist assassinated by Mossad [Wikimedia]]
If Mossad hadn't assassinated Ghassan Kanafani on July 8, 1972, when he was just 36 years old, this year would have been his 83rd birthday.

Kanafani was a leading member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); he was also a famous journalist, committed to various political and social causes. But above all, he was a writer, one of the most important in modern Palestinian literature.

"I became politically committed because I am a novelist, not the opposite," he once stated. As a novelist he felt compelled to write about what he saw around him, more or less symbolically.

Ghassan Kanafani was born in 1936 in city of Acre, in Palestine. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the consequent creation of the state of Israel (known as the Nakba, "the catastrophe" to Palestinians), his family was forced into exile.

At first they stayed in Lebanon, hoping to be able to return soon to their homeland, but later they moved to Damascus, Syria, living there as refugees along with many other Palestinians.

During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the consequent creation of the state of Israel (known as the Nakba, "the catastrophe" to Palestinians), his family was forced into exile

Into exile

He studied in Damascus, concluding his secondary school and enrolling in the Arabic Literature faculty at university, and worked as a teacher in United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools for Palestinian refugees. This was a very important and formative period for him. It oriented his interests and solidified his commitments to the "Palestinian cause".

However, because of his affiliation with MAN (the Movement of Arab Nationalists), he was expelled from University before being able to graduate and experienced his second exile, this time moving to Kuwait. There he became interested in Marxism and began his career as a journalist.

In 1960 he moved to Beirut, becoming even more involved with MAN and editing its newspaper al-Hurriya. Two years later he took over the editorial responsibility of another newspaper, al-Muharrir (The Liberator).

Demonstrating not only that he was a journalist but also a talented writer, in 1963 he published his novel Men in the Sun to widespread praise. Along with A World that is Not Ours, published two years later, it is one of the most representative and famous works of his "first period", written symbolically and characterised by pessimism, when he could not see a solution for his people.

He was also the first to talk about the so-called "resistance literature", written by a group of Palestinian writers about a people expelled from their land, displaced by the Occidental colonialism. They wrote to awake Palestinians' consciences and to criticise the ruling class.

In 1964 the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) was founded, with the aim of liberating Palestine through armed struggle. This influenced Kanafani hugely, and he was an active member of this movement, along with many other Arab writers of the period.

Read more:

Palestinian Journeys: archiving the struggle and continuing the resistance

The Six-Day War

The 1967 War and Israel's victory against an Arab coalition including Egypt, Jordan, and Syria was a shock for the Palestinian people and disillusioned many. It also marked a turning point for Kanafani and his literary career.

In 1967 his "second period" began, and almost paradoxically, he left behind his pessimism for an optimism oriented toward change through active struggle, not waiting passively for change to happen. He became more politicised and paid more attention to history, starting to believe a social revolution in the Arab world was the only way to free Palestine. This new turn in Kanafani's political thought was influenced by George Habbash, founder of the PFLP.

In 1967, Kanafani became the PFLP's spokesman. In 1969 he started al-Hadaf (The Target), the movement's newspaper, working for it until his death.

On May 30, 1972, three members of the Japanese Red Army, recruited by a group inside the PFLP, attacked the airport, killing 26 people. Days later, a picture of Kanafani together with one of the attackers was published, and on the 8 July he was killed by a bomb in his car, along with his 17 year old niece. He left behind a wife and two children.

He had already written 18 books: four completed novels, three unfinished; four collections of short stories, a total of 57 stories; four plays; and three literary essays (like Resistance Literature in Occupied Palestine 1948-1966 and In Zionist Literature). He had published hundreds of articles about culture, politics and struggle of the Palestinian people.

His works were translated into as many as 17 languages, published in more than 20 countries.

As a leading novelist of his generation, considered one of the most important Palestinian writers of the Arab World, he was awarded with the Lotus Prize for Literature by the Conference of Afro-Asian writers.