A Classic Arabic Novella

Most novellas are either lighthearted or extremely potent, like a shot of vodka swallowed in a gulp. I’ve just finished one of the hundred-proof variety and I’m knocked flat out.

My research tells me that Men in the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani is a classic of Arab literature and that its author is right up there in the Arabic literary canon, something like the Hemmingway of the Middle East. Kanafani was born in British-mandated Palestine in 1936. His novels, stories and plays were published in sixteen languages. He was active in the movement for a Palestinian homeland, but he lost his life during the civil war in Lebanon in 1972. For all his political engagement, it’s to Kanafani’s credit that it’s his art, rather than his political convictions that drives this story to its devastating conclusion.

Published in 1962, it’s told from four different points of view, all of them Palestinian men fleeing the Arab refugee camps to which they were consigned after the Israeli-Arab war of 1948. Although they’d lost their homes, they weren’t allowed to settle in Arab countries. Yet these men are determined to make it across the Iraqi desert and into Kuwait where there was work and a chance to start over. One of the men, Abu Khaizuran, is a smuggler, the victim of a war wound that’s ruined his life; for a fee, he’ll take the men through sweltering heat to their destination. Each of these men has a story to tell — Abu Quais, an older man, who’s sat around the camps for ten years, hoping to get his land back; Assad, whose uncle has given him the tidy sum of fifty dinars so that he could get a start in life and marry a daughter who doesn’t interest the young man at all; Marwan, a teenager who wants to support his abandoned mother. Off they go on their desert journey, but there’s a hitch: Whenever they pass border guards, the driver Abu Khaizuran has to conceal his three passengers for several minutes in an empty water tank at the back of his truck, its lid slammed shut as they roll along under the broiling sun. This happens twice on a heart-thumping journey, a story told with a sure command of plot and pacing, and punctuated by numerous flashbacks, and time-shifts that disorient the reader — much as the unfortunate men in the back of the truck would have felt in the scorching heat. Worse is a mean twist of the knife as a customs official’s smart-alec remarks to the driver dig right into  the suffering that the man embodies — and that so many Arab men felt at this moment in history. The novella’s only  fifty-three pages long, and if I say any more, I’ll spoil the impact of its dead-on insight and honesty. (Several short stories are included in this volume, most of them early work that lack the technical sophistication of this novella). Men in the Sun is a remarkable work, and an open door to a missing part of our world.

Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories by Ghassan Kanafani is translated from the Arabic by Hilary Kilpatrick. It was published in 1999 by Lynne Rienner Publishers in Boulder, Colorado and London, England.

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