Kanafani: on childhood, literature, Marxism, the Front and Al-Hadaf
Marking the half-century anniversary since Kanafani’s assassination, we are publishing this English translation of his interview with Palestinian Affairs (issue 36) in July 1974. (Originally published in Arabic at Romman: https://www.rommanmag.com/view/posts/postDetails?id=6495). This English translation was produced by Samidoun Spain.
An interview published for the first time: With martyr Ghassan Kanafani.
Palestinian Affairs obtained the full text of an unpublished private conversation conducted by a Swiss writer, who was a specialist in Ghassan Kanafani’s literature. Conducted just a few weeks before the assassination of the Palestinian resistance martyr, this interview eventually formed part of the writer’s scholarly study on Ghassan Kanafani’s literary work.
Ghassan, can you tell me something about your personal experience?
I think my story reflects a very traditional Palestinian background. I left Palestine when I was eleven years old and I came from a middle-class family. My father was a lawyer and I was studying in a French missionary school. Suddenly, this middle-class family collapsed and we became refugees, and my father immediately stopped working because of his deep class roots. Continuing to work after we left Palestine no longer made sense to him. This would have forced him to abandon his social class and move to a lower class. This is not easy. As for us, we started working as children and teenagers to support the family. I was able to continue my education on my own through my job as a teacher in one of the primary schools in the village, which does not require high academic qualifications. It was a logical start, as it helped me continue studying and finish secondary school in the meantime. After that, I enrolled at university [Damascus University], in the Department of Arabic Literature, for three years, after which I was dismissed for political reasons. Then, I went to Kuwait, where I stayed for six years. There I started reading and writing.
My political career began in 1952, when I was fourteen or fifteen years old. In that same year, or in 1953, I met Dr. George Habash by chance in Damascus, for the first time. I was working as a proof reader in a printing house. I don’t remember who introduced me to Al-Hakim, but my relationship with him began at that time. I immediately joined the ranks of the Arab Nationalist Movement and thus began my political life. During my stay in Kuwait, I was politically active within the Arab Nationalist Movement, which is now represented by a significant minority in the Kuwaiti government. In 1960 I was asked to move to Lebanon to work on the party’s newspaper. In 1967 I was asked to work with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is the Palestinian branch of the Arab Nationalist Movement. In 1969 I started my work on the newspaper “Al-Hadaf”, where I continue to work.
Did you start writing as a result of your studies in Arabic literature?
No, I think my interest in Arabic literature started before my studies. I suspect that this interest of mine was the result of a complex, if memory serves me correctly. Before we left Palestine, I was studying in a French missionary school, as I mentioned before. Therefore, I did not possess the Arabic language as an Arab. This caused me a lot of problems. My friends always made fun of me because I was not good at Arabic. This perception was not clear when we were in Palestine because of my social class. But when we left Palestine, my friends were of a different social class and immediately noticed that my Arabic was poor and that I resorted to foreign expressions in my conversations, and so I concentrated on the Arabic language to handle my problem. This was probably in 1954. I think I broke my leg that year in an accident. I had to stay in bed for six months. It was then that I started reading Arabic in earnest.
I think we can cite many examples throughout history of people who have “lost” their language and are therefore trying to recover it. Do you think that this process develops a person politically?
I don’t know. That may be so. As for me personally, I was politicised in a different way. I got involved in politics at an early stage because we lived in the camp. And so, I was in direct contact with the Palestinians and their problems through that sad and emotional atmosphere that I experienced as a child. It was not difficult for me to discover the political roots of the environment I lived in.
When I started teaching, I faced great difficulties with the children I taught in the camp. I always got angry when I saw a child sleeping in class. Then I simply found out why: these kids were working at night, selling sweets or chewing gum or something like that in the cinemas and on the streets. Naturally, they would come to class very tired. Such a situation immediately brings the person to the root of the problem. It became clear to me that the child’s drowsiness was not the result of his disdain for me or his hatred of education, just as it had nothing to do with my dignity as a teacher, but was merely a reflection of a political problem.
So your teaching experience contributed to the development of your social and political awareness.
Yes, and I remember it happened one day directly. As you know, primary school teachers teach all subjects, including drawing, arithmetic, English, Arabic and other subjects. One day, I was trying to teach the children to draw an apple and a banana according to the syllabus approved by the Syrian government, as I was teaching there and so I had to stick to the book. And at that moment, when I was trying to draw these two pictures on the blackboard as best as I could, I felt a sense of alienation, of not belonging; and I remember well that I felt at that moment that I had to do something, because I realised, before even looking at the faces of the children sitting behind me, that they had never seen an apple or a banana. So these things were the last thing that interested them. There was no connection between them and these two pictures. In fact, the relationship between their feelings and these drawings was strained, not good. It was a decisive turning point, as I remember that very moment clearly among all the events of my life. As a result, I erased the drawings from the board and asked the children to draw the camp. A few days later, when the inspector came to the school, he said that I had deviated from the government-determined programme, which would prove that I was a failed teacher. Having to defend myself led me straight to the Palestinian cause. Accumulating small steps like these pushes people to make decisions that will mark their whole life.
Commenting on this point, I think when you engage in art, as a socialist anyway, you connect art directly to the social, political and economic spheres. You touched on this by drawing an apple and a banana. But as for your writings, are these works related to your reality and the present situation, or are they derived from [literary] heritage?
My first short story was published in 1956 and was called “A New Sun”. It revolves around a boy in Gaza. When I review all the stories I have written about Palestine so far, it is clear to me that each story is directly or indirectly linked, with a thin or solid thread, to my personal experiences in life. However, my style of writing fully developed during the period between 1956 and 1960 or, more specifically, in 1962. At first, I wrote about Palestine as a problem in its own right; as well as about Palestinian children, about the Palestinian as a human being, about Palestinian hopes, being themselves separate things from our independent and autonomous world; as inevitable Palestinian facts. Then it became clear to me that I saw in Palestine an integrated human symbol. When I write about a Palestinian family, I am actually writing about a human experience. There is no incident in the world that is not represented in the Palestinian tragedy. When I portray the misery of the Palestinians, I am in fact seeing the Palestinians as a symbol of misery all over the world. And you can say that Palestine represents the whole world in my stories. The [literary] critic can now notice that my stories are not only about the Palestinian [individual] and his problems, but also about the human condition of a man suffering from those problems. But perhaps those problems are more crystallised in the lives of Palestinians.
Did your literary development accompany your political development?
Yes. In fact, I don’t know which preceded the other. The day before yesterday, I was watching one of my stories that was produced as a film. I had written this story in 1961. I saw the film with a new perspective, as I suddenly discovered that the dialogue between the protagonists, their line of thinking, their [social] class, their aspirations and their roots at that time expressed advanced concepts of my political thinking. [So] I can say that my personality as a novelist was more developed than my personality as a political actor, not the other way around, and that is reflected in my analysis and understanding of society.
Does your writing reflect an analysis of your society, or do you also colour your analyses in an emotional way?
I suppose my stories were based on an emotional situation at the beginning. But you can say that my writing started to reflect reality from the early sixties. My observation of this reality and my writing about it led me to a proper analysis. My stories themselves lack analysis. However, they narrate the way the protagonists of the story act, the decisions they make, the reasons that motivate them to make those decisions, the possibility of crystallising those decisions, etc. In my novels I express reality, as I understand it, without analysis. As for what I meant by saying that my stories were more developed [than my political views], it was due to my sincere amazement when I followed the development of the characters in the story I was watching as a film, and which I had not read for the last few years. I was astonished when I listened [again] to the dialogue of my characters about their problems and was able to compare their dialogue with the political articles I had written in the same period of time and saw that the protagonists of the story were analysing things in a deeper and more correct way than my political articles.
You mentioned that you started your political work by joining the Arab Nationalist Movement the day you met Habash in 1953. When did you embrace socialist principles [then]? The Arab Nationalist Movement was not a socialist movement at the beginning.
No, it wasn’t. The Arab Nationalist Movement was [directed] against colonialism, imperialism and reactionary movements. It did not have an ideological line at that time. However, this movement adopted a socialist line of its own during the years it existed. 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. The Arab nationalists realised this fact in the late 1950s. They realised that they 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.
But in our society and our movement [the Arab Nationalist Movement] we were very sensitive to Marxist-Leninist [principles], and this position was not the result of our hostility to socialism, but the result of the mistakes made by the communist parties in the Arab world. That is why it was very difficult for the Arab Nationalist Movement to adopt Marxism-Leninism before 1964. But in 1967, specifically in July, the Popular Front embraced the [principles] of Marxism-Leninism and was thus the only [front] within the Arab Nationalist Movement to take such a step. The Arab Nationalist Movement changed its name to the Socialist Labour Party. As for the Palestinian branch of it, it was called the “Popular Front”. Of course, this is a simplification of the problem. We had developed within the Arab nationalist movement. There was a constant struggle within the movement between the so-called right and the left. In each round, the left was the winner because our position on anti-imperialism and reactionary attitudes was better [than the position of the right]. This resulted in the adoption of Marxism-Leninism.
As for me, I don’t remember now whether my position on the conflicts that arose within the front was leaning to the right or to the left, because the border between right and left was not separated then as it is now, as occurs for example in the developed political parties. But I can say that the Arab Nationalist Movement included some young elements, including myself, who made fun of the old people’s sensitivity to communism. Of course, we were not communists at that time and we were not in favour of communism. However, our sensitivity towards communism was less than that of the elders. Consequently, the new generation played a leading role in the development of the Arab Nationalist Movement into a Marxist-Leninist movement. The main factor in this was the fact that the majority of the members of the Arab nationalist movement belonged to the poor class. As for the members belonging to the petty bourgeoisie or the big bourgeoisie, their number was limited. They did not continue with this movement either, they left it within two years of joining. New members [of these classes] also joined, who then left it in their turn [shortly afterwards]. As for the poor classes, they continued, and soon formed a pressing force within the Arab Nationalist Movement.
When did you start studying Marxism-Leninism? Do you remember?
I don’t think my own experience in this regard is traditional. First, I was and still am an admirer of Soviet writers. However, my admiration for them was absolute at the time, which helped me to break the ice between me and Marxism. This way, I was exposed to Marxism at an early stage through my readings and admiration for Soviet writers. Secondly, my sister’s husband was a prominent communist leader. My sister married in 1952 and her husband influenced my life at that early stage. Also, when I went to Kuwait, I stayed with another six young people in a house and, a few weeks after my arrival, I found out that they were forming a communist cell. So I started reading about Marxism at a very early stage. I don’t know how much I absorbed at that time and at that stage, being under the influence of those emotions with the Arab Nationalist Movement. I can’t measure my understanding or comprehension of the material I was reading. However, the content was not alien to me.
It may have been these early influences that moved your [early] stories forward [in relation to your political ideas at the time]. I think your readings of Soviet literature and your contacts with Marxists were reflected in your writing.
I don’t think these factors take precedence. I think the biggest influence on my writing is due to reality itself: what I see, my friends’ experiences, relatives, brothers and sisters, and students, my living in the camps with poverty and misery. These are the factors that affected me. Perhaps my fondness for Soviet literature was due to the fact that it expresses, analyses, deals with and describes what I was actually seeing. My admiration continues, of course. However, I don’t know whether Soviet literature had an influence on my writing. I don’t know the size of this effect. I instead prefer to say that the first effect is not due to it, but to reality itself. All the characters in my novels were inspired by reality, which gave me strength; and not by imagination. Nor did I choose my heroes for artistic [literary] reasons. They were all from the camp, not from outside. As for the artistic characters in my first stories, they were always evil. And that’s because of [my experience with] my subordinates at work. So life itself had the biggest influence [on my writing].
You belonged to the middle class, but joined the proletariat as a child.
Yes, of course, my background is related to the middle class because my father belonged to the middle class before we went to Syria as refugees. And my family’s attachment to its [class] roots was far from reality, which had no connection to those roots. And we kids had to pay the price for this contradiction [between the past and reality]. Therefore, my relationship [with members of my class] became aggressive instead of friendly. I won’t pretend to have joined the proletariat. I was not a real proletarian, but I joined what we call in our language the “lumpen proletariat”, whose members are not part of the productive apparatus, they [live] on the margins of the proletariat. But then it helped me, of course, to understand the ideology of the proletariat, but I can’t say that I was part of the proletariat at that time.
However, from the beginning you were able to see reality from the perspective of the oppressed.
Yes, you can say that. My concept, however, was not crystallised in a scientific, analytical way, but was [simply an expression of] an emotional state.
Let’s go back now to 1967, when the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine” was born. What were the beliefs of this organisation and what were the reasons for creating a new organisation?
As you know, the Popular Front was not a new organisation. It is essentially the Palestinian branch of the Arab Nationalist Movement of which I was a member. It developed at first through members of the movement in 1967. We created the “Popular Front” because the Arab world [took] centre stage [in the political space]. The size of the Palestinian branch of the Arab Nationalist Movement has also expanded a lot and there have been changes in its leadership and in the mentality of its members. So we joined the Popular Front. Of course, I personally joined the Front because I believe that the Front as a party represents a relatively advanced stage of the other [political] organisations in the field of Palestinian work. I believe that I can realise my future visions through this organisation. This is the main reason why I joined the Popular Front.
How do you see your role as editor-in-chief of the newspaper “Al-Hadaf” in this organisation, and can you tell me something about its method of mass mobilisation?
I am a member of this organisation, which in fact constitutes a party that has its own internal system and political strategy. It also has an organisational and leadership strategy based on core democratic principles. Therefore, when the leadership assigns me this particular position, I have to complete a specific programme. I am a member of the Central Information Committee of the Popular Front. Al Hadaf is part of the media structure of the Front, according to our understanding of the media, which is not limited to propaganda, but goes beyond education, etc. I am not responsible for Al Hadaf. The task is entrusted to the Central Media Committee, and I represent this committee in the newspaper. In practical terms, I have to deal with the organisational aspect of this institution (Al Hadaf), but we have a committee that reads and evaluates the Al Hadaf, writes articles and discusses editorials. Within the Front, there are ten similar institutions and departments. Our institution may be smaller than the rest. However, there are circles within the Popular Front that practice social and political activities inside the camps. We also have those who work in the military struggle and other camps. Each of us is an integral part of the other. Of course, those who work in the organisational field, i.e. in organising conferences, educational programme, meetings and contacts with the masses, benefit from our newspaper to express the point of view of the Popular Front. They also consult us regarding the masses. Therefore, as a result of these dynamic relations between them, all circles carry out a mass mobilisation campaign together.
Can you tell me something about the newspaper itself?
Working [on the paper] is very stressful. That’s how I feel now that I’ve finished this week’s issue. I feel exhausted and it’s horrible for someone to work for a paper like this. By the time you finish the last sentence of another issue, you’re suddenly faced with twenty blank pages to fill. Also, every line, title and picture in the paper is discussed by the [members] at the Front, and the slightest mistake is monitored. The newspaper is then subject to criticism and working on it is not like working on an ordinary newspaper. In the ordinary newspaper you just have to do your work, but in our newspaper the smallest details are discussed by the [different circles within the Front] who read them carefully. So it is very difficult for a person to do an integrated work in front of this big court, which is made up of [other] members of the Front. So, the person feels that he has to work harder.
Also, now we live in a developing country. In the resistance movement, and in an organisation like ours, every department tries to attract “people” with talents and competencies, however minor they may be, to fulfil the work involved, since the completion of the work and the implementation of the programmes assigned to one are essential things for the individual. We, at Al Hadaf have a small number of employees, and when we ask the Front to assign us more workers, the answer we hear is: “Give us two or three of your employees to teach the grassroots, because working at the grassroots is more important than working at the newspaper.” So we remain silent, lest they take employees away from us. It is hard for others to believe that only three people edit Al Hadaf. This situation has existed for three years. Sometimes we get [extra] help from a fourth person, but then this person leaves us, and we get another one, and the story repeats itself.
Then you have to work day and night.
Yes. I don’t think any of the colleagues work less than 13-14 hours a day. And that’s non-stop, without holidays and without mercy from criticism. People in our organisation, in the government and in other newspapers have criticised us.
Do you consider Al-Hadaf to be a progressive newspaper, and do you think it reads like a progressive newspaper from a theoretical political angle?
Yes, and I also think that causes a problem. I’m not trying to praise the paper, but it is very difficult to express deep political and theoretical ideas in a simple way. Few people have this ability. In the Popular Front we have two people who can express deep thoughts in an easy way that anyone who reads them can understand. One of them is George Habash. The other is one of the military leaders who wrote wonderful pieces. As for the rest, it is difficult, especially if they have not practised before. We always face criticism from the grassroots that it is very difficult to understand what our newspaper writes, and that we have to simplify things and write in an easy way.
That is why preparing the paper takes a lot of time, as I have to revise the paper and simplify some of the points it raises after writing it. I think that the creation of other internal newspapers on the Front would facilitate our task and the continuation of our work in this line. The internal newspaper can express easy things and simple ideas. As for a central public newspaper like ours, it is difficult for us to imitate the internal newspapers because we have to take a serious line. To do so, we are trying [now] to limit the amount of articles that deal with complex political ideas, so that these articles take up a small amount of pages and focus on direct political campaigns.
Do you publish literary works, like poetry and other works, in your newspaper?
We dedicate two pages to literature, film criticism, theatre, art, painting and more. I think the journalists mentioned earlier are the most popular ones because many of the members of the Front understand the left wing line of thought through these pages.
Have you personally published short stories?
I haven’t had time to write since I started working at Al-Hadaf. In fact, I only [recently] published two stories about an old woman I always write about [Umm Saad]. I don’t have time for literary writing and this is very annoying.
Would you like to write more?
Usually when I get out of work at the office and go home I feel so tired that I can’t write. So I read instead. And, of course, I have to read for two hours a day because I can’t go on without it. But after I finish reading I feel better going to sleep or watching a silly movie [for me], because I can’t write [after finishing my work].
Do you think that recent developments within the Front are reflected in the fact that it has become a collective where debates abound, rather than a collective that engages in military activities?
No, I don’t agree with you. In fact, in the Front we have always insisted on a certain strategic line whose motto is that every politician is also a fighter and every fighter is a politician. As for the phenomenon you are witnessing now, it is not limited to us [at the Front]. This phenomenon is due to the fact that the Palestinian resistance movement is now in a state of decline due to objective circumstances that are trying to destroy us in this period of time. We have been living in this state of decline since September 1970, which prevents us from increasing our military activities. But that does not mean that we are going to stop military action. This is for the resistance movement in general. As for the Popular Front in particular, our military operations in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel itself have intensified over the last two years. But Israel is trying to hide these operations. But we remain active. We also have bases in southern Lebanon and we are preparing for a secret people’s war against the reactionaries in Jordan. However, the state of decay in which we live and the general repressive atmosphere imposed by the Arab governments affects public opinion, and people think that we have stopped military activities. But this conclusion is incorrect.
How did the state of decay, in your opinion, affect the Palestinian individual without referring to a specific political line?
Political movements are like human beings. When a person is healthy, famous and rich, friends gather around him and everyone supports him. But when he gets old, sick and loses his money, the friends around him disperse. Now we are [as a resistance movement] going through this stage, the stage of apathy, so to speak. The Palestinian individual feels that the dreams he built up over the last few years have been undermined. This is a painful feeling, you know, and I think many comrades share my opinion: that this stage is temporary. When the Palestinian individual discovers that we are fighting a great enemy that we cannot defeat in a few years, that our war is long term and that we will be defeated repeatedly, then the loyalty of the Palestinian individual to the Palestinian revolution will not be as fragile and emotional as it is now. I believe that we can mobilise the crowd again when we win our first new victory. I am confident that this victory will come. We are not afraid of this ‘down time’, as I like to call it. This is normal since Arab leaders and Arab media spokesmen made many promises to the masses, praising an easily achievable victory. Now, many Arabs have discovered that these promises were misleading. Therefore, I do not believe that this phenomenon [i.e. the apathy of the Palestinian individual] is an inherent and continuous phenomenon. We know that we will overcome this stage in the future and that the loyalty of the masses to the revolution will be stronger than before.
Were you or the Front leadership too optimistic in 1967, 1968 or 1969? Did you make too many promises? Did you see this conflict as an easy struggle?
No. In fact the Popular Front was warning the masses through its written documents that the problem was not easy. It also warned them that they would be defeated repeatedly and would face bloodbaths and many tragedies, and massacres. We mentioned it many times, but in general, the leadership of the Palestinian revolution promised before the masses an easy victory. As for optimism, we are very optimistic, and I can say that our situation now, despite being at the lowest point of our difficult struggle, is better than in 1967, 1968 or 1969 – from a scientific point of view and as a resistance movement, through which it evaluates its historical movement, and not through its superficial appearances.