I knew Ghassan Kanafani

Washington Watch

Fifty years ago this July, Israel assassinated Ghassan Kanafani. They planted a bomb in his car killing him and his 17-year-old niece, Lamis. Over the years I’ve thought a lot about Ghassan, his significant contributions to Arab literature, my meetings with him, and the role he played in shaping my doctoral dissertation and my thinking about Palestine.

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During the summer of 1971, I was in Beirut on a grant from my university. I had come to Lebanon to conduct dissertation research on the emergence of Palestinian national identity. Ghassan was one of my first meetings. Having been captivated by his writings, I was excited to meet him. I’ll never forget his dedication to “Um Sa’ad,” the first of his works I read— “To my father and mother, the wings that flew me over the rocks of oblivion.”

Our first encounter almost didn’t go well. He was sitting at his desk conducting a heated phone conversation. As I waited for him to finish, I looked at the wall behind him—a collage of newspaper clippings, photos, and posters.

He finished his call and looked up at me rather dismissively suggesting that I was, as he put it, “another American of Arab descent who had come to Lebanon to find himself in the Palestinian cause.” He turned to the wall behind him and pointed at a picture of a mass mobilization to end the war in Vietnam arrogantly noting that if I wanted to find myself, I should go back to America and join that effort and the struggle for civil rights.

Instead of just leaving, I responded curtly telling him that I knew who I was, I was active in both the anti-war and civil rights movements, and I was in Lebanon not to find myself but to conduct research for my dissertation. I told him that I needed help making contact with Palestinians in the camps and he could either help me or not.

The Israelis assassinated him and his niece. This too was a horrific terrorist attack— although it was never seen as such by the West’s double standards. I can’t forget Ghassan and the brief and conflicted relationship I had with him. I was fortunate to have met him and to have had my thinking shaped by his remarkable intellect. He was a literary giant and proved to be generous in sharing his ideas. The impact he and his generation of Palestinians had is profound. I lament that loss today.

My directness apparently worked, and we got down to business. He and others with whom I met provided me with contacts who would take me to the camps so I could interview Palestinians who had been forced to flee in 1948. I spent time in Ein Al Hilweh meeting dozens of refugees, taking notes from their stories, seeing pictures of the homes they left behind, all the time querying about what being Palestinian meant to them.

When I returned to Beirut, I had a few more meetings with Ghassan. He listened to what I had heard and had questions of his own about my thesis, asking: “What exactly are you trying to find?” I told him about the notion of “revitalization movements” developed by one of my advisors— which described how groups of peoples traumatized by social, political, or economic dislocation often undergo a transformation of thought. Anthony F.C. Wallace, who had done his work studying revolutionary movements developed among Native Americans, called this transformation a “mazeway resynthesis,” in which old patterns of thought and identity were replaced by a new sense of communal understanding. Some of these movements look backward to an idealized past; others, while drawing on past experiences, project a forward-looking transformational future.

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After listening to me, Ghassan said, “In the camps you experienced the first kind.” Out of their devastating loss, he said, “The refugees have romanticized the past and want to recreate it.” This resonated with what I had found— the way the camps had been structured around their villages and village life or their stories of a dream-like pastoral bliss.

Ghassan then suggested, “If you want to understand forward-looking revolutionary thought, you need to go to the Palestinian citizens of Israel. In their poetry and politics, you will find the Palestinian future. It is their vision that will lead us.” He gave me books of poetry by Tawfiq Zayyed, Mahmoud Darwish, Sameh Al Qasim, and others. He also gave me a long interview (which I later published) laying out “The Role of Poetry in the Palestinian Struggle.”

I returned to the USA, began writing my dissertation, and periodically wrote to Ghassan. Months later, the world was shocked by a horrific terrorist attack committed by members of the Japanese Red Army. Twenty-nine innocent tourists were massacred at Israel’s Lod Airport. When I saw that the magazine Ghassan edited carried the story on its front page, heralding the terror attack as a heroic revolutionary action, I was sickened and wrote an angry note to Ghassan denouncing the massacre as a senseless, disgusting murder and condemning the magazine’s support for it.

I don’t know if he ever saw my letter, because shortly thereafter the Israelis assassinated him and his niece. This too was a horrific terrorist attack— although it was never seen as such by the West’s double standards.

I can’t forget Ghassan and the brief and conflicted relationship I had with him. I was fortunate to have met him and to have had my thinking shaped by his remarkable intellect. He was a literary giant and proved to be generous in sharing his ideas. The impact he and his generation of Palestinians had is profound. I lament that loss today.

I think often of what would have happened if the world heeded their call for justice for Palestine—what could have happened if the persistent traumas that have shaped Palestinian existence didn’t occur. How recent history could have been altered if all parties did not apply a conflicted sense of morality to the violence of the resistance and the violence of the Nakba and the ensuing horrors of the occupation. While we will never know, I sure wish we still had Ghassan with us to have this conversation.

Dr James J Zogby
The writer is President, Arab American Institute.

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