Novelist Ghassan Kanafani was assassinated by Mossad agents this week over 50 years ago. Exiled as a child during the Nakba, he would never return to Palestine — except in his fiction.

Ghassan Kanafani speaks alongside other writers at an event in Beirut, Lebanon, 1971. (AFP via Getty Images)

On July 8, 1972, Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani walked out of his apartment in a Beirut suburb, got into his Austin 1100, and turned the ignition. A grenade containing a three-kilo plastic bomb, planted behind the bumper by Mossad agents, detonated, shaking the entire neighborhood. Kanafani was incinerated instantly, together with his seventeen-year-old niece, Lamis Najim. He was only thirty-six.

It was a tragic irony that Kanafani should be assassinated in his car. His Men in the Sun, a refugee odyssey recounting the exile of Palestinians in the wake of the Nakba, ends with the death of Palestinian refugees in the back of a truck in the heart of the Arabian desert, culminating in Abu al-Khaizuran’s memorable cry: “Why didn’t you knock on the walls of the truck?!” The allure of Kanafani’s story has proven so durable that one can hardly watch the horrifying images unfolding from Gaza today, featuring over one million displaced Palestinians sheltering in sun-beaten tents with nowhere to go, without harking back to the final scene of Men in the Sun.

For the exiled Kanafani, death was the final leg of the journey of Palestinian displacement. It haunted him, both in fiction and real life. His death was orchestrated by the very forces that had dispossessed him.

Kanafani’s own personal odyssey commenced during the Nakba, when he and his family were forced to flee their Palestinian hometown Akka (Acre) and become lifetime refugees. Embarking on a long, tortuous journey, the twelve-year-old refugee would wander from Damascus to Kuwait to Beirut, rarely pausing to fathom the depth of his loss. He never returned to Palestine, except in his fiction.

Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa recounts the story of a Palestinian couple, Said and Safiyya, who return to their occupied home in the fallen city in search of their lost son, Khaldun — only to be confronted by its new Israeli owners, setting the stage for a riveting family drama that leaves its Palestinian protagonist utterly disenchanted. Ultimately, Kanafani never truly returned to Palestine, not even fully in fiction. Indeed, when Safiyya ponders, “I never imagined that I would see Haifa again,” Said retorts bitterly, “You’re not seeing it; they’re showing it to you.” His final reckoning: “I know this Haifa, but it refuses to acknowledge me.”

In Kanafani’s later stories, Palestine becomes a distant mirage, “The Land of Sad Oranges,” as one of his stories is titled, and all that is left to Palestinians is to roam between borders and deserts, where nothing but death breathes. In All That’s Left to You, which replicates the desert allegory in Men in the Sun, the desert between Gaza and Jordan becomes “a place where but the glint of death survives — the silent meeting ground of the Palestinian protagonist and the Israeli soldier,” to cite Palestinian writer Elias Khoury, author of Gate of the Sun.

But it wasn’t all gloom. While Kanafani’s men perish in the desert, the revolutionary Palestinian mother Umm Saad, the title heroine of Umm Saad, resumes the mantle of resistance. The heroine’s final cry is one of hope and renewal: “A green head sprouting through the dirt with vigor that had a voice of its own. The grapevine is blooming, the grapevine is blooming!”

Kanafani fought with his pen, both as a writer and a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He was, as one obituary put it, “a commando who never fired a gun.” A revolutionary writer who was born on the eve of the Great Palestinian Revolt, Kanafani championed Palestinian resistance and liberation. This ultimately put him in the crosshairs of Mossad agents, who tolerated no resistance.

But he never relented. When, on the eve of his assassination, his niece Lamis pleaded with him to tone down his resistance politics and go back to writing stories, he retorted that resistance was his story. In his reckoning, revolution — the unending quest for justice and freedom — was not only his destiny but that of humanity at large: “The Palestinian cause is not a cause for Palestinians only, but a cause for every revolutionary, wherever he is, as a cause of the exploited and oppressed masses in our era.”

This revolutionary humanism has become a rallying cry in the global solidarity movement with Gaza today. Kanafani foresaw the tragedy of Gaza. His first work was a poetic story titled Letter from Gaza, a revolutionary love letter to the homeland written by a young Kanafani during Israel’s first invasion of Gaza in 1956. In the story, the younger writer weeps over his niece Nadia, who lies wounded in a hospital bed in the wake of an Israeli assault: “Never shall I forget Nadia’s leg, amputated from the top of the thigh. No! Nor shall I forget the grief which had molded her face and merged into its traits forever.”

The Palestinian cause is not a cause for Palestinians only, but a cause for every revolutionary, wherever he is, as a cause of the exploited and oppressed masses in our era.

From the perspective of war-torn Gaza, where Palestinians are viewed as mere numbers, Nadia is a lucky victim, having escaped the fate of thousands of Palestinians who live and die as faceless numbers, and whom Kanafani laments in his seminal story “The Death of Bed Number 12.”

But Kanafani was also a socialist visionary who believed that socialism was indispensable to the liberation of Palestine. In an interview he gave shortly before his death, he contended that the Palestinian national movement “could not win the war against imperialism unless they relied on certain [social] classes: those classes who fight against imperialism not only for their dignity, but for their livelihood. And it was this [road] that would lead directly to socialism.”

Kanafani espoused socialism as the ultimate goal of the Palestinian national liberation:

Anti-imperialism gives impetus to socialism if it does not stop fighting in the middle of the battle and if it does not come to an agreement with imperialism. If this is the case, that movement will not be able to become a socialist movement. But if one continues to struggle [it is natural] that the [anti-imperialist] movement will develop into a socialist position.

In the end, Kanafani was not merely murdered but silenced to death, just like Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was silenced to death by Israel fifty years later. That was also the fate of Refaat Al-Areer and hundreds of Palestinian writers and journalists in Gaza — all brutally murdered by a state that dreads words, tolerates no resistance, and refuses to accept defiance in any form. Yet Kanafani’s legacy will endure, because words live on, and because, for Kanafani, silence is the ultimate expression of deeper truths.

As he once put it in a letter to his son: “I heard you in the other room asking your mother: ‘Mama, am I a Palestinian?’ When she answered ‘Yes,’ a heavy silence fell on the whole house. It was as if something hanging over our heads had fallen, its noise exploding, and then — silence.”

It was a good silence, powerful and creative, for “I knew, however, that a distant homeland was being born again: hills, olive groves, dead people, torn banners and folded ones, all cutting their way into a future of flesh and blood and being born in the heart of another child.”

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