May 2009 / 12 July 2009
The Palestinian town of Jaffa is famous for its delicious oranges. The peel is thick, and keeps the fruit fresh and juicy for a long time. Ghassan Kanafani used the orange symbol to reflect the features of the Palestinian personality in his outstanding collection of short stories, The Land of Sad Oranges, published for the first time in 1962.
We are here; we are dying
Kanafani, a Palestinian novelist, short-story writer, and dramatist used as his main themes exile, and national struggle. He often used the desert and its heat as a symbol for the plight of the Palestinian people.
His importance as a writer who registered the central modern Palestinian experience of violent dispossession, expulsion from the homeland, and a despairing, rootless refugee existence is generally acknowledged. Ghassan Kanafani’s life and career as a writer was closely connected to the situation of the Palestinians, and his intense involvement in Palestinian affairs gave him a unique vantage point.
Kanafani’s first novel Men in the Sun, which experimented with language and form, ranks among the most complex in all of Arabic fiction of that time. The book was adapted by the Egyptian director Tawfiq Salim into a film, al-Makhduu (The Deceived). The film was banned in some Arab countries for its criticism of Arab regimes. Men in the Sun is the story of three Palestinians, who attempt to escape to Kuwait in the tank of a water truck. In the gloomy ending, they perish in their journey across the desert, a reference to the end of the Palestinian people. While the refugees are dying under the heat of the sun, they knock continuously on the wall of the tank, crying, “We are here, we are dying, let us out, set us free.”
No more childhood innocence
The Land of Sad Oranges is the title of a story which reflects the theme of exile. After the Arab armies forced the Palestinians out of Acre, the orange trees shrivelled and died. Just as the oranges shrivelled, so would the family in exile as they were separated from their umbilical cord, Acre. After the enemy forced them out, the family suffers hardships of the worst form, moving from one unstable setting to the next.
The father of the boy to whom the story is being told, is forced “to sell the gold he had given to his wife”—his wedding gift to his bride—in order to make ends meet, but it was still not enough. He wouldn’t even hear of the family returning to Acre, or the land of sad oranges, even though it would have provided sustenance. The family problems allegedly began at that point and it is at that point that I argue that the children lost their innocence. After they were forced into a harsh lifestyle because of their exile, they were no longer children. Children don’t usually have real worries, but these did, even though they were too young to know what the story meant.
In the story the narrator mentions that women pick up oranges from a peasant’s basket and begin to weep uncontrollably. They weep because the oranges remind them of the homeland that had been taken from them. The oranges mean a lot in this story. They are used to let us know that the father is not the same person he was before exile. He suffers a breakdown in which he wishes to kill his whole family along with himself.
The father figure is used to demonstrate how well beyond desperate exiled Palestinians felt. To be so deep in the pit of despair that death is a mercy, is how it translates.
The father is a figure in torment. He sends his children to climb hills in the morning as a diversion from demanding a breakfast he cannot supply. He angrily empties a chest and scatters its contents. He shouts that he wants to kill his children and then himself.
The narrator recalls the moment when he saw his father lying on the floor, weeping, with a revolver next to him. Suddenly his childhood is over. A bullet in the head for each of them seems very real.
The elusive homeland
The Land of Sad Oranges is written in very plain style. Part of its power resides in what it leaves out: a vast burden of historical reality. Its humanitarian side shows in its ability to portray, briefly, a Jewish family who become the victims of angry, dispossessed Palestinians. And its enduring importance is in lucidly and economically representing both the original moment of Palestinian dispossession and its aftermath, obliquely represented through the story of a single family. The narrator’s family represent the entire Palestinian people, embittered, dispossessed, miserable, despairing—and with violence and death an ever-present solution to an intolerable reality.
In Far from the Border, Kanafani recounts the story of a young Palestinian in the police station who had the audacity to pour milk on the head of an Israeli officer and told him that he did not want to sell his country. “I am not a vote and I am not a citizen by any means. I am not coming from a country that asks every now and then about its civilians. I am bereft of my right to object and from my right to scream. What benefit would you gain from arresting me? Merely nothing,” he says.
Letter from Gaza
Letter from Gaza is darkly unnerving in how, the story was written when Kanafani was barely 20, the author foresees the tragedy that would years later befall him and his niece. The story is written in the voice of a Palestinian who returned to his ruined neighbourhood. All he has left in Gaza are his mother, sister-in-law and her four children: “But,” he tells his friend, the addressee, who is eagerly waiting in Sacramento, “I will liberate myself from this last tie too, there in green California, far from the reek of defeat which for seven years has filled my nostrils.” He had been accepted at the University of California to study for a degree in civil engineering. But first he buys a “pound of apples”’ for his wounded niece in hospital. The girl is inconsolable. Her wounds seem to reflect the new geography of occupation. The short stay entirely alters his plans and he decides instead to remain in Gaza “among the ugly debris”.
The mechanism by which the epistle leads its author (and the reader) to this conclusion reveals the intimate reality of a man whose breath had been quartered by defeat. The prose has an air of being told in spite of its teller. Like all good letters it is not intended for anyone other than its recipient. Writing a short story that turns the reader into a transgressor, a spy, is, of course, a literary trick and an indication of Kanafani’s exceptional talent. In fact, I am convinced that were this author’s short but prolific career allowed to run further, his talent would have shone brighter still.