Palestine's Children: Returning to Haifa and Other Stories

Palestine's Children: Returning to Haifa and Other Stories

by Ghassan Kanafani
     
 

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Ghassan Kanafani's meteoric literary and political career ended abruptly one morning in July 1972, when his booby-trapped car exploded, killing him and his niece. At the time, Kanafani was the spokesperson for the most militant wing of the Palestinian fedayeen. That militancy is reflected in these 14 stories. Beginning with a narrative disconcertingly entitled "The Child Borrows His Uncle's Gun and Goes East to Safad," Kanafani plunges into the 1948 conflict between the Jews and Palestinians, following a 17-year-old, Mansur, whose actions mirror the author's own experiences. In a series of stories, the reader follows Mansur as he carries his old Turkish gun into the thick of sharpshooting contests with "Zionists" (as Israelis are identified in this strongly pro-Arab text) in old Palestinian town centers. Later, Mansur's uncle, Abu Al-Hassan, uses the gun on the British forces. These stories end, inevitably, with the consequences of defeat for the Palestinians: "The Child Goes to the Camp," in which the narrator--a different child than Mansur--must survive the hunger sweeping through the refugee camps. He does so with a talisman, a five-pound note he finds in the street. In the novella for which Kanafani became famous, "Returning to Haifa," the year is 1967, but the events are prefigured by the Palestinian population's uprooting from Haifa in 1948. Said S. and his wife, Safiyya, return to Haifa to the apartment they were forced to abandon and the memories of their infant son, Khaldun, inadvertently left behind in the mass panic. Miraculously, the Jewish couple who took over the apartment found and adopted the child, who is now an Israeli soldier. This story, which ends with a renunciation of even blood ties in the sacred cause of revenge, foretells the terrible violence of the '70s. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780894108907
Publisher:
Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
08/01/2000
Edition description:
New Edition
Pages:
202
Sales rank:
603,261
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

Meet the Author

Read an Excerpt




Introduction


KAREN E. RILEY & BARBARA HARLOW


For nearly a century, politics, violence, and diplomacy have all failed to resolve the complex, mythified, and misunderstood clash that since 1948 has come to be known as the Arab-Israeli conflict. Certainly it is not for lack of study; books on the subject in English alone could fill a small-town library. Perhaps what has been missing—or ignored—throughout is the quotidian human reality underlying the vital history that continues to connect Palestinians everywhere to the land once called Palestine. Often, literature can provide the human dimension that the historian's work alone cannot. The literary works of the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani resonate with precisely that human dimension.


* * *


Ghassan Kanafani's activities as a writer were diverse, ranging from journalism and political essays to historical studies, theater, and literary criticism. As a journalist and critic, he played an important role in introducing new authors and their works to Arab readers. It was Kanafani as well who, in his study on the "Literature of Resistance in Occupied Palestine," first employed the term "resistance" (muqawamah) in speaking of Palestinian literature. His fiction, including short novels, stories, and children's literature—the stories and poems composed for his niece Lamees—represents a major contribution to modern Arabic literature. The stories, however, like Kanafani's other writings, address specifically the Palestinian situation. Kanafani describes the political, social, andhuman realities that characterize the lives of his people at a critical period in their history, when the traditional order and structure of their existence are being profoundly altered by events on both a regional and international scale. Kanafani's stories tell of mothers in the refugee camps who proudly send their sons to the fidayeen and who then visit them in the mountains with gifts of food from home, of fathers whose role of authority within the family is being threatened by the transformations in their social world, of children who learn early to fight for a place in that social order, of concern and love and fear and suspicion among neighbors who feel threatened by strangers in their land.

    The stories and novella translated in this volume are all set between 1936 and 1967. Many have as their temporal locus the year 1948. The dates mark significant moments in the twentieth-century history of the Palestinians, for in 1936 there began in Palestine a widespread popular revolt and 1967 saw a serious check, in the form of the June War, to Palestinian national aspirations. In 1948, the state of Israel was founded, an event accompanied by the massive displacement of Palestinians from their homeland and the beginning of the years and then decades of exile. Each of the stories here involves in some way a child, a child who, though victimized by the structures of authority that dominate the social and political world he lives in, nonetheless, by assuming new roles, participates personally in the struggle toward a new and different kind of future.

    Kanafani's stories present a Palestinian perspective on a conflict that has anguished the Middle East and the Arab world for most of the twentieth century. It is a perspective that is vital to understand and to acknowledge, the product of the experience of decades of dispossession and struggle that, although not unique to the Palestinians, finds in them both a real and a symbolic expression. It is this experience that must be taken into account in considering the violence and brutal intensity of some of the stories in this volume, a violence that is at the same time rendered problematic in the internal conflicts of the characters themselves and in their literary and historical setting.

    The stories are told from the point of view of the children of Palestine by a writer who was long involved with their education and development. Kanafani, who attended the UNRWA schools for Palestinian refugees in Damascus after he left Palestine with his family in 1948, later became a teacher in those same schools. The years he spent as a student and teacher were to have a significant effect on his subsequent development as a writer.

    The tension between the political and historical events and their literary transformation distinguishes the writings of Ghassan Kanafani. Through narrative, historical necessities lose their implacableness as faits accomplis and become rich with possibility. According to Fawaz Turki, another Palestinian writer, "If the Palestinian revolution is armed with a philosophy at all, it is armed with the anti-determinist vision of the open-endedness of the future." It is the open-endedness of the future that Kanafani creates and that becomes visible in his literary exposition of the events of Palestinian history.

    Both "The Child Goes to the Camp" (1967) and "A Present for the Holiday" (1968) are set in the Palestinian refugee camps. These camps were first created in 1950 in order to provide temporary shelter and sustenance for those people who were obliged to flee their homes in Palestine in 1948. They were further populated by another generation of refugees in 1967, following the June War, when the areas now known as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were occupied by Israel. Life in the camps thus acquired a significance over time and a history that has become crucial to the Palestinian experience. The children who came in 1948 gave birth to children of their own, the awlad al-mukhayyamat or "children of the camps." This historical significance of the camp life is unavailable, however, to the child-narrator of "The Child Goes to the Camp." For him, it was a relentless present, a "time of hostilities," in which finding five pounds in the street while he and his cousin Isam were collecting leftover produce from the market for the family's meal was sufficient to mark a turning point in his day-to-day existence. "It was war-time," the story begins, only to qualify its terms. "Not war really, but hostilities, to be precise ... a continued struggle with the enemy. In war, the winds of peace gather the combatants to repose, truce, tranquility, the holiday of retreat. But this is not so with hostilities which are always never more than a gunshot away, where you are always walking miraculously between the shots. That's what it was, just as I was telling you, a time of hostilities." The conflicts exist within the society and inside the traditional order. "The whole thing is that there were eighteen people from different generations living in one house, which would have been more than enough at any time.... We fought for our food and then fought each other over how it would be distributed amongst us. Then we fought again." Historical time has collapsed into hostile disorder, and past, present, and future generations vie with each other for immediate control over the administration of five pounds.

    In "A Present for the Holiday," even commemorative time has lost its ritual significance and symbolic value. The narrator has been awakened by a telephone call from a friend who has plans for a project to distribute holiday presents to the children newly arrived in the refugee camps following the 1967 war. "I was half asleep. The camps. Those stains on the forehead of our weary morning, lacerations brandished like flags of defeat, billowing by chance above the plains of mud and dust and compassion." The story of the telephone call, interrupted by the narrator's recollections of his own childhood in the camps, is punctuated by the recurrent refrain: "But all that is beside the point." Its repetition suspends the movement from past to future in the meaninglessness of the present.

    "Guns in the Camp" (1969), still another story that has as its setting the Palestinian refugee camps, describes a transformation within the life of the camps, a transformation motivated by the emergence of a budding resistance movement. The story is one of a series of episodes that tell the history of Umm Saad, a Palestinian mother who, as her husband Abu Saad proudly says of her, "has borne sons who have grown up to become fidayeen. She provides the children for Palestine." The resistance movement becomes symbolic of a re-entry that would confer meaning on the past and create possibilities for the future. "`The grapevine is blooming, cousin! The grapevine is blooming!' I stepped towards the door where Umm Saad was bent over the dirt, where there grew—since a time which at that moment seemed to be infinitely remote—the strong firm stems which she had brought to me one morning. A green head sprouting through the dirt with a vigour that had a voice of its own." Here the rootedness of the plant in the soil stands as a symbolic counterweight to the historical forces of displacement and dispersion. The alienation of dispossession is made to acquire through the literary and poetic images a creative power of its own.

    Through the narrative, however, perhaps even more importantly than through the imagery, Kanafani's stories contend with chronology and its closures. In telling these stories, stories of the Palestinian people and their children, Kanafani is retelling their history and re-establishing its chronology. The epic flashback no less than the stream-of-consciousness serves to confute the sense of time and temporality. Historical dates become commemorative, "so that people would say," as in an early story by Kanafani, "`it happened a month after the day of the massacre'." Works of literature, stories and novels, are brought then to participate in the historiographic process. The political immediacy and historicity of these stories are, however, as much a part of a literary project as it is the case that literature will be used in the service of a given historical vision. Of his own relationship to literature and politics, Kanafani has said, "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. I started writing the story of my Palestinian life before I found a clear political position or joined any organization."

    Kanafani's stories and literary histories are located within a specific historical context. It is a context, however, whose very determinism the stories call into question through their narrative examination of interpretation and the parameters of storytelling. The questioning is undergone as well by the characters themselves in each of the stories. Four of these stories recount the coming of age of Mansur, a child from the Galilee village of Majd al-Kurum, who participates in a series of armed conflicts surrounding the establishment in 1948 of the state of Israel. Mansur's stories (1965) are: "The Child Borrows His Uncle's Gun and Goes East to Safad," "Doctor Qassim Talks to Eva About Mansur Who Has Arrived in Safad," "Abu al-Hassan Ambushes an English Car," and "The Child, His Father, and the Gun Go to the Citadel at Jaddin." Mansur must find someone from whom he can borrow a gun in order to join the battle being waged by the villagers at Safad. Guns, however, are the possessions of adults, his father, his uncle, the older men of the villages, and Mansur is subject to their authority. If his father is not interested in his ideals of resistance and patriotism, Mansur's uncle, Abu al-Hassan, tells him that he is too young, that he is just a child. And Hajj Abbas wants to negotiate a financial arrangement. Doctor Qassim, Mansur's older brother, meanwhile is having breakfast with Eva, a Jewish girl in Haifa.

    In telling the story of the child Mansur's role in the 1948 struggle, Kanafani narrates the larger political and social conflicts created within the Palestinian community from outside. According to Ann Lesch, a political historian of Palestine under the British Mandate, "the generational differences within the Arab political leadership played an important political role. The older politicians tended to be more conciliatory, more willing to work within legal channels than the young men, [but] the impact of the generational division was reduced by the Arabs' deferential culture. Respect for one's father and for an elder statesman who consulted the other leaders and expressed the general consensus remained powerful forces, drawing together the differing drives of young and old in a politically effective manner." At the same time, then, that the social order of Palestinian life is being attacked by foreign forces, the traditional structures of authority serve to sustain vital elements of the sense of community and solidarity. The authoritative structures, however, are being radically modified by the forces of circumstance and the political coming of age of the child. When Mansur at last reaches the citadel at Jaddin, his second expedition following upon the skirmish at Safad, he finds his father present there in the circle of armed men. In the moment of retreat, however, Abu Qassim is left behind. It is Mansur who returns for him, only to find him fatally wounded. "Mansur stood in the wet emptiness watching his father slowly dying, impotent and unmoving except for the deep throbbing which shook him. His veins were like taut wires bulging from his hands and extending around the torso of the gun. Finally they all began to blur together: the tree, the man and the gun, from behind the darkness of the angry rain, and through his tears. But to Mansur, they were not together. There was only the quiet corpse."

    Mansur, on his way to participate in the events of Palestine's history, has traversed the Galilean countryside, visiting its villages, skirting its fields, and making his way across the junctions of its thoroughfares. Like other of Kanafani's stories, including "Paper from Ramleh" (1956) and "He Was a Child That Day" (1969), the fictional narratives provide not only a historical account of Palestine, but a topographical record as well. Much of the area and its villages no longer exist as they once did; they have been not only obliterated by the passage of time, but destroyed, rebuilt, and renamed by political events. What James Joyce did for Dublin or William Faulkner for the U.S. South, Kanafani in his stories has provided for Palestine. The intimate connection between history and the land is essential to Palestinian political and cultural ideology, its poetry, its processes, and its praxis. Despite the transformations and reinterpretations to which it has been subjected, the stories' record is there.

    Returning to Haifa has two historical settings, roughly twenty years apart: 1948 and 1967. The primary action takes place a few weeks after the end of the June 1967 war in which Israel captured the West Bank, Sinai, Gaza, and the Golan. For the first time since 1948, the borders between pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank and Gaza are opened by the Israelis for passage by Palestinians. As the novella's protagonists, Said S. and his wife Safiyya, make their way from their West Bank home in Ramallah back to Haifa, their former home, their thoughts are interwoven with memories of the events of April 21, 1948, when they, along with thousands of Haifa's Palestinian residents, left the city in a panicked exodus as it changed overnight from British to Jewish control. The dramatic flight of Palestinians during the battle for Haifa forms the central image of Returning to Haifa's opening chapter and also the axis around which the protagonists' lives develop and much of the novella's later dialogue revolves.

    In February 1947, Great Britain, the mandatory power governing Palestine since the aftermath of World War I, announced that the mandate had become unworkable due to the increasingly violent and uncontrollable conflict between the native Palestinians and Zionists intent on their goal of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Britain's decision to relinquish Palestine upon expiration of the mandate pushed the matter into the hands of the United Nations, which recommended partition into Arab and Jewish states.

    From that point on, fierce struggles ensued for control as the British began to evacuate city after city and the Jewish forces sought to secure not only the territory allotted for a Jewish state but also territory allotted for an Arab state by the United Nations partition plan. By May 14, 1948, the day on which Israel declared its statehood, at least 200,000 Palestinians had fled Palestine; by the end of the war that ensued, some 700,000 had become refugees. Many settled in West Bank towns, and approximately 150,000 Palestinians remained within the borders of what became the state of Israel. In the aftermath of the war, Jordan annexed the West Bank, and the Palestinians living there came under Jordanian rule. The situation remained thus for nearly twenty years until, in June 1967, the borders between the original state of Israel and the territories captured in the Six Day War were opened to Palestinians for passage. Refugees who had settled in the West Bank or Gaza could now return to see their old homes. Children too young to remember 1948, and children born in exile, were now able to see for the first time the homes they knew of only from their parents' reminiscences.

    The opening of the border between Israel and the newly occupied territories in 1967 allowed the exiled Palestinians to confront physically their past lives, and at the same time forced a psychological confrontation with the reasons for that exile. It is not surprising, therefore, that Ghassan Kanafani should explore this collision within the framework of a novella, since all of his fiction is intimately tied to the emotional heart of the Palestinian community, not just reflecting it but actually constituting a vital part of that community's psychological evolution.

    In Returning to Haifa, that psychological evolution is reflected by Kanafani's juxtaposition of the events of 1948 and 1967. Radwa Ashur points out that Said's and Safiyya's journey back to Haifa is representative of the Palestinian people as a whole at that stage facing up to its responsibility for losing, or "abandoning," Palestine and the fruitlessness of having spent twenty years doing little more than crying over the loss. Kanafani recreates that sense of loss and fruitlessness by paralleling the political events of 1967 with the "abandonment" of the infant Khaldun in 1948. By layering the two settings, he captures the fundamental influence that the loss continued to exert on the Palestinians' existence, remaining with them "in every bite of food" they took throughout the intervening twenty years. This duality of psychological and political exile is also projected by Kanafani's narrative style. Referring to Men in the Sun, Edward Said writes:


Kanafani's very sentences express instability and fluctuation—the present tense is subject to echoes from the past, verbs of sight give way to verbs of sound or smell, and one sense interweaves with another—in an effort to defend against the harsh present and to protect some particularly cherished fragment of the past.


His commentary is particularly applicable to Returning to Haifa, since the novella's very structure is based on reliving in the present a past event at the site where it first took place. Transitions from past to present and vice-versa occur seemingly arbitrarily, in the same way that memory and reality intermingle, giving the novella a sense of temporal ambiguity.

    The present itself is experienced as if it were already a memory, already lost, such as when Safiyya, in the midst of her desperate flight through Haifa, realizes that she has left her infant son behind. She feels she will never again be able to face her husband, and is frightened that she is "about to lose them both—Said and Khaldun." She becomes aware that the memory of the present moment will have bitter repercussions on the future. It is a poignant portrayal of the sense of loss, brilliantly fashioned by Kanafani.

    The imagery in Returning to Haifa is also marked by this relationship between time and space, between loss and memory, concretizing the pivotal role played by memory in the emotional and physical condition endured by the Palestinian exile as a result of the cataclysmic loss suffered in 1948. When, for example, Said first catches sight of his former house in Haifa, he sees it not as it is, but as he remembers it, and instantaneously he imagines that his wife, "young again with her hair in a long braid," will step out onto the balcony. Immediately upon the heels of this interplay of memory inside Said's mind, Kanafani inserts a statement describing something new and different about what Said is looking at, skillfully looping past, present, and future together: past, because of Said's memories; present because he is pulled back from recollection; and future, because the vivid detail heightens the expectation that something "new and different" may happen to Said. This congruence of imagery and temporal interaction simultaneously evokes the loss of Safiyya's youth as well as the loss of the home in which they once lived and, by extension, the loss of Palestine. At the same time, it foreshadows the change in Said, his ultimate recognition that man is indeed a cause and his discovery of "the true Palestine, the Palestine that's more than memories, more than peacock feathers, more than a son, more than scars written by bullets on the stairs."

    Such images are implicit, in that they convey a multidimensional unit of time triggered by the sight of the house. Other images are explicit, such as when, near the novella's conclusion, Said reflects that his memories of his child are nothing more than "a handful of snow" melted by the sun. Forced to confront the reality of the past—the old/new house, the old/new inhabitants, the old/new son—Said recognizes that the past has "melted" and been replaced by a new reality. He has made, in effect, a judgment, and with it, a new commitment.

    There is, in addition, a certain dissonance in Kanafani's imagery that serves to highlight not only the violence of 1948, but also its brutal abruptness and the powerlessness felt by the Palestinians in the face of it. There is little sense of the normal passage of time, for example: events occur "suddenly" or characters "suddenly" become aware of something—such as the sound of the ocean—or of events or feelings that normally one would perceive gradually. There are images of violence and destruction: "walls collapse" in conveying the recall of a memory; people are "hurled down" or struck by an "electric shock" as a result of verbal exchanges that cause mental rather than physical confrontation. Frequently, these images are internalized, as when names "rain down inside" a protagonist's head.

    All of these aspects of Kanafani's style make translation especially difficult because an exact rendering can result in unconventional or even awkward English. Yet it is critical to accentuate such ambiguities of tense or image in order to maintain the integrity of the original as an expression of the Palestinians' emotional, psychological, and political conflict and frustration.

    Politics imposes itself on Kanafani's style in yet another, but more indirect manner. He wrote extensively—indeed, daily in later years—for newspapers and political and news magazines or journals. His commitment both to the Palestinian cause and to the craft of writing was so strong that he felt compelled to capture each moment of Palestinian experience by expressing himself in every genre available to him, despite advice from friends and critics that he put aside journalism and concentrate on literature. The year in which Returning to Haifa was published, 1969, was one of intense journalistic activity for him, as he founded and became editor-in-chief of al-Hadaf. In Returning to Haifa certain repetitive expressions appear frequently, paralleling journalistic Arabic, which tends to employ formulaic expressions that are recognizable as the accepted way of making certain statements. As such, notably in a late work like Returning to Haifa, these recurrences constitute an element of Kanafani's style that is directly related to the circumstances of his own life as well as his political position.

    At the time Kanafani wrote Returning to Haifa, he was formulating a sense of the Palestinian struggle as one of social and political justice. In an interview he once stated:


At first I wrote about Palestine as a cause in and of itself.... Then I came to see Palestine as a symbol of humanity.... When I portray the Palestinian misery, I am really presenting the Palestinian as a symbol of misery in all the world.


As noted earlier, in 1969 he became the official spokesman of the Marxist PFLP, and his other fictional work of that year, Umm Saad, explores the issues of oppression and class struggle that lead to political action and social revolution.

    In Returning to Haifa, he approaches these philosophical explorations differently. The two Jewish characters, Iphrat Koshen and his wife Miriam, far from being Zionist zealots, are portrayed instead as ordinary Jews fleeing Nazi Poland, misled by idealized Zionist literature into expecting something quite different from the reality they found upon reaching Palestine. Ashur credits Kanafani with the first attempt in Arabic literature to portray Jewish characters as sensitive human beings rather than as caricatures of the enemy. When Miriam sees a dead Arab child being tossed into the garbage by a Jewish soldier, she identifies the child with her own young brother, killed before her eyes by the Nazis, and she wants to leave Palestine immediately. Of Miriam, Ashur notes:


Ghassan Kanafani relates, by means of this character and her history, for the first time in Arabic literature, the agony of oppressed peoples in all places, the agony of Palestinians at the hands of the Zionists and the agony of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis.


    Miriam and Iphrat, however, do not leave Palestine, despite their initial moral misgivings. The justifications for their remaining, along with the reasons for the Palestinians' departure, are explored by Kanafani through the device of a conversation among the Arab and Jewish protagonists, set in what had once been Said's and Safiyya's house. According to critic F. Mansur, the dialogue between these characters represents


the first time the Palestinian and the Jew meet each other, not on the battlefield but in a normal room, where each of them puts forth his point of view and discusses it with the other.


The discussion is as thought-provoking to the reader today as it was to the Palestinian community at the time it was written.

    Kanafani was a highly successful journalist, widely published and read. Yet, he continued to write stories. If his only aim had been the expression of political ideology and analysis, he would have had ample opportunity to do so without undertaking the additional task of creating an artistic framework for his ideas. To concentrate, therefore, exclusively on the symbolism or the political or ideological posture of Returning to Haifa is to lose sight of an important aspect of its value and impact. Like all of Kanafani's works, Returning to Haifa is realistic, filled with the physical details and vital turns of emotion of both everyday life and momentous historical events. According to Ashur, it is this "piercing grasp of reality" that distinguishes Kanafani's works from the greater part of Palestinian fiction which, up to that point, tended to rely on the sympathy it might arouse in the reader but which inevitably presented a false or flat picture that "ignored the full dimensions and complications" making up the reality of the situation.

    Kanafani himself on numerous occasions expressed the importance of realism: "In my novels I express reality, as I understand it, without analysis." In an interview given shortly before his death and published posthumously, several of his comments shed light on the importance he gave to this aspect of his writing:


I think the greatest influence on my writing goes back to reality itself, what I witnessed, the experiences of my friends and family and brothers and students, my life in the camps with poverty and misery.


I didn't choose my characters for artistic literary reasons. All of them came from the camp, not from outside of it.


When I review all the stories I have written about Palestine up to now, it seems to me that every story is tied, directly or indirectly, by a thin or strong thread, to my personal experiences in life.


An earlier statement about his aims sums up the relationship between realism and symbolism or ideology in his fictional works: "I want my stories to be one hundred percent realistic while at the same time presenting something unseen."

    In Returning to Haifa it is the realistic details that lead to the "something unseen." The portrayal of the mass exodus from Haifa is gripping and vivid not only because it is grounded in historical fact, but because Kanafani renders it with acute sensitivity. The minute details of Said's and Safiyya's house in Haifa, and their "rediscovery" of those details, vibrate with feeling and reveal their relationship to the house now and in their memories. The atmosphere is emotionally charged and builds up as the novella unfolds with quiet intensity, preparing the reader for the climactic dialogue that explodes into the "something unseen": the human and emotional dimension underlying the political dilemma of the Palestinian question for more than forty years.

    Mansur states that Returning to Haifa is Kanafani's "masterpiece ... his most mature work," and goes on to postulate that "after Returning to Haifa, there was no room to doubt that when the definitive Palestinian novel was written, its author would be Ghassan Kanafani." These statements have validity precisely because this work is more than a "historical political document." The political dynamics have changed in the intervening years since it was written, but the social dynamics that characterize the Palestinian conflict have not. Two generations after 1948, people's lives continue to be disrupted at the most elemental levels as a result of what happened in 1948. The human dimension is what Ghassan Kanafani succeeds in expressing through the images, the narrative style, and the compelling realism of Returning to Haifa, and it is what continues to make his work so compelling today.


Chapter One


The Slope


Muhsin walked with slow hesitating steps along the corridor leading to his classroom. This was to be his first experience in the world of teaching and he did not see why he had to go in just then. He was doing his utmost to postpone the moment as long as possible.

    He had spent the night before tossing and turning in his bed until morning thinking about one thing: how hard it was for someone to stand up in front of people ... and for what? To teach them! Who do you think you are? he asked himself. You've spent your miserable life without anyone teaching you anything useful. Do you really think you have anything to teach others? You, of all people, who have always believed that school was the last place where a man learns about life? And now you're going to be a schoolteacher?

    In the morning he dragged himself off to the principal's office where he sat listening to the other teachers discussing much the same question, only it was from another point of view ...

    "What are we supposed to do in this class when the children have no books?"

    The principal's reply was short and even disdainful: "A qualified teacher knows how to conduct his class without books!" Then he added nastily: "Just ask one of the children to take care of the class for you if you can't do it yourself."

    Muhsin thought to himself: "It seems this principal wants to give his teachers a lesson in discipline and obedience right from the start. He's had our salaries for a week and now he wants to get our souls as well." He gulped down his tea and stood up ...

    The long corridor was filled with the shouts and clamor of children. It seemed to Muhsin, with his heavy steps, that he was moving through an eddying whirlpool leading him into a meaningless future, a future of nothing but more noise and more nonsense.

    "I have a good story, teacher! ..." This was shouted out by a child slumped in one of the last seats who saw the confusion as a likely opportunity to tell his story. And before Muhsin could even object to the suggestion the child had left his seat and was facing his comrades. He was wearing short pants that were far too large for him and a shirt made out of old material, the kind women wear. His thick black hair hung down to his eyebrows.

    "My father was a good man. His hair was white and he had only one eye. His other eye he had poked out himself one day when he was stitching the thick sole of a heavy man's shoe. He was trying hard to get the big needle into the leather, but the sole was very tough. He pushed on the needle with everything he had in him, but no luck. He pushed harder and still it didn't go. Then he put the shoe to his chest and pushed with all his might. All of a sudden the needle went through one side and out the other straight into his eye.

    "My father was a good man. He didn't have a long beard, but then it wasn't so short either. He worked very hard and he was good at his work. He always had a lot of shoes to repair and make like new.

    "But my father didn't own his own repair shop and there was no one to help him in his work. His shop was really not much more than a box made out of wood and sheet metal and cardboard. There was hardly even enough room for him, some nails, and the shoes and the anvil. Any more and there wouldn't even be room for a fly. If a customer wants his shoes repaired he has to wait outside the shop ...

    "The shop was on the side of a hill, and at the top of the hill was the palace of a rich man. No one who looked for the shop from the balcony of this rich man's palace would be able to see that it was there, because there were plants growing all along the ground. And so my father was not afraid that the owner of the palace would discover his hiding place and make him leave. The rich man never left his palace. His servants took care of bringing everything he wanted to the palace. They all agreed that they would keep my father's secret from their master on the condition that he would repair their shoes in return.

    "So my father went on about his work and wasn't afraid. People found out that he could repair shoes so well that they came out looking like new. More and more shoes were brought to him every day. He worked without stopping all day and half the night. And then he said to my mother: `Tomorrow the children are going to go to school.' To which my mother answered: `Then you'll rest a little from all this work.'"

    When the child went back to his seat, his comrades sat absolutely still, so Muhsin asked: "Why don't you clap for your friend? Didn't you like his story?"

    "We want to hear the rest of it ..."

    "Is there any more to your story?"

    "A month ago or maybe more it got to be that my father had so much work piled up that he couldn't even come home any more. My mother told us that he was working night and day and couldn't leave his shop. He had no time to go out. Meanwhile the rich man sat on his balcony all day long and all night eating bananas and oranges and almonds and walnuts and throwing away the peels and shells. He threw them over the rails of the balcony of his palace and onto the side of the hill. One morning the hillside was so covered with all these peels and shells that the servants couldn't even find my father's box in the middle of all of them. My mother says that he was so absorbed in his work that he never even noticed all the stuff that was thrown on top of his box. He worked just as he always did. Probably he is still sitting in his box, working away at repairing all the shoes he has so that he can finish them on time and go home. But what I think is that he died there."

    The pupils all clapped when the child returned to his seat, where he sat quietly. Sixty staring eyes, a twinkle, but Muhsin ...

    Muhsin took the child to the principal's office, and on the way there he asked him: "Do you really think your father is dead?"

    "My father didn't die. I only said that so that the story would end. If I didn't, it would never end. Summer is coming in a couple of months and the sun will dry up all the piles of peels and shells, so they won't be so heavy and then my father can move them away from on top of him and go back to the house."

    When Muhsin reached the principal's office he said to him: "I have a genius in my class. He's incredible. Ask him to tell you the story of his father ..."

    "What's your father's story?"

    "His shop is very small and he is very skillful. One day his fame reached the owner of the palace that looks out over his little shop, and the rich man sent my father all the old shoes he had and told my father to repair them and make them like new again. All the servants set to work carrying the shoes to the little shop. They worked for two whole days, and when they had finished bringing all the shoes, my father was completely smothered under the huge pile and there was not enough room in the shop for all the shoes ..."

    The principal put his thumbs in his vest pockets, reflected a moment, and said: "This child is crazy. We had better send him to another school."

    The child said: "But I'm not crazy. Just go to the rich man's palace and look at his shoes and you'll find little pieces of my father's flesh on them. Maybe you'll even find his eyes and his nose in the sole of one of the shoes ... Just go there ..."

    The principal interrupted: "In my opinion this child is crazy."

    Muhsin answered him: "He's not crazy. I myself used to bring my shoes to his father's to be repaired. The last time I went, they told me he was dead."

    "How did he die?"

    "He was pounding the sole of an old shoe. One day he pounded a great many nails into an old shoe to make it absolutely firm. When he had finished he found that he had nailed his fingers between the shoe and the anvil. Just imagine! He was so strong that he could pound a nail through an anvil. But when he tried to get up, he couldn't. He was stuck right to the anvil. The passers-by refused to help him and he remained there until he died."

    The principal looked again at Muhsin, who was standing beside the child, one next to the other as if they were one. He shook his head several times without saying anything. Then he went back and sat down in his soft leather chair and began to leaf through his papers, looking from time to time out of the corner of his eye at Muhsin and the child.

translated by Barbara Harlow

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