Wednesday, January 14, 2009

kanafani's 'letter from gaza'

The Palestinian writer and political activist Ghassan Kanafani, assassinated by Mossad in Beirut in 1972, wrote 'Letter from Gaza' more than half a century ago. It's shocking to think it could be a hymn for the children there today.
I first heard the story when a film of John Berger's reading of it was screened at the opening session of Poetry International at London's South Bank last October. The session was devoted to Palestinian poetry, and particularly that of Mahmoud Darwish who had died two months earlier. The All Time is Unredeemable blog has a 29 December statement from Berger on Gaza and a link to his reading of Kanafani's story on a Zapatistas website.

Letter from Gaza by Ghassan Kanafani
Dear Mustafa,
I have now received your letter, in which you tell me that you've done everything necessary to enable me to stay with you in Sacramento. I've also received news that I have been accepted in the department of Civil Engineering in the University of California. I must thank you for everything, my friend. But it'll strike you as rather odd when I proclaim this news to you -- and make no doubt about it, I feel no hesitation at all, in fact I am pretty well positive that I have never seen things so clearly as I do now. No, my friend, I have changed my mind. I won't follow you to "the land where there is greenery, water and lovely faces" as you wrote. No, I'll stay here, and I won't ever leave.
I am really upset that our lives won't continue to follow the same course, Mustafa. For I can almost hear you reminding me of our vow to go on together, and of the way we used to shout: "We'll get rich!" But there's nothing I can do, my friend. Yes, I still remember the day when I stood in the hall of Cairo airport, pressing your hand and staring at the frenzied motor. At that moment everything was rotating in time with the ear-splitting motor, and you stood in front of me, your round face silent.
Your face hadn't changed from the way it used to be when you were growing up in the Shajiya quarter of Gaza, apart from those slight wrinkes. We grew up together, understanding each other completely and we promised to go on together till the end. But...
"There's a quarter of an hour left before the plane takes off. Don't look into space like that. Listen! You'll go to Kuwait next year, and you'll save enough from your salary to uproot you from Gaza and transplant you to California. We started off together and we must carry on. . ."
At that moment I was watching your rapidly moving lips. That was always your manner of speaking, without commas or full stops. But in an obscure way I felt that you were not completely happy with your flight. You couldn't give three good reasons for it. I too suffered from this wrench, but the clearest thought was: why don't we abandon this Gaza and flee? Why don't we? Your situation had begun to improve, however. The ministry of Education in Kuwait had given you a contract though it hadn't given me one. In the trough of misery where I existed you sent me small sums of money. You wanted me to consider them as loans. because you feared that I would feel slighted. You knew my family circumstances in and out; you knew that my meagre salary in the UNRWA schools was inadequate to support my mother, my brother's widow and her four children.
"Listen carefully. Write to me every day... every hour... every minute! The plane's just leaving. Farewell! Or rather, till we meet again!"
Your cold lips brushed my cheek, you turned your face away from me towards the plane, and when you looked at me again I could see your tears.
Later the Ministry of Education in Kuwait gave me a contract. There's no need to repeat to you how my life there went in detail. I always wrote to you about everything. My life there had a gluey, vacuous quality as though I were a small oyster, lost in oppressive loneliness, slowly struggling with a future as dark as the beginning of the night, caught in a rotten routine, a spewed-out combat with time. Everything was hot and sticky. There was a slipperiness to my whole life, it was all a hankering for the end of the month.
In the middle of the year, that year, the Jews bombarded the central district of Sabha and attacked Gaza, our Gaza, with bombs and flame-throwers. That event might have made some change in my routine, but there was nothing for me to take much notice of; I was going to leave. this Gaza behind me and go to California where I would live for myself, my own self which had suffered so long. I hated Gaza and its inhabitants. Everything in the amputated town reminded me of failed pictures painted in grey by a sick man. Yes, I would send my mother and my brother's widow and her children a meagre sum to help them to live, but I would liberate myself from this last tie too, there in green California, far from the reek of defeat which for seven years had filled my nostrils. The sympathy which bound me to my brother's children, their mother and mine would never be enough to justify my tragedy in taking this perpendicular dive. It mustn't drag me any further down than it already had. I must flee!
You know these feelings, Mustafa, because you've really experienced them. What is this ill-defined tie we had with Gaza which blunted our enthusiasm for flight? Why didn't we analyse the matter in such away as to give it a clear meaning? Why didn't we leave this defeat with its wounds behind us and move on to a brighter future which would give us deeper consolation? Why? We didn't exactly know.
When I went on holiday in June and assembled all my possessions, longing for the sweet departure, the start towards those little things which give life a nice, bright meaning, I found Gaza just as I had known it, closed like the introverted lining of a rusted snail-shell thrown up by the waves on the sticky, sandy shore by the slaughter-house. This Gaza was more cramped than the mind of a sleeper in the throes of a fearful nightmare, with its narrow streets which had their bulging balconies...this Gaza! But what are the obscure causes that draw a man to his family, his house, his memories, as a spring draws a small flock of mountain goats? I don't know. All I know is that I went to my mother in our house that morning. When I arrived my late brother's wife met me there and asked me,weeping, if I would do as her wounded daughter, Nadia, in Gaza hospital wished and visit her that evening. Do you know Nadia, my brother's beautiful thirteen-year-old daughter?
That evening I bought a pound of apples and set out for the hospital to visit Nadia. I knew that there was something about it that my mother and my sister-in-law were hiding from me, something which their tongues could not utter, something strange which I could not put my finger on. I loved Nadia from habit, the same habit that made me love all that generation which had been so brought up on defeat and displacement that it had come to think that a happy life was a kind of social deviation.
What happened at that moment? I don't know. I entered the white room very calm. Ill children have something of saintliness, and how much more so if the child is ill as result of cruel, painful wounds. Nadia was lying on her bed, her back propped up on a big pillow over which her hair was spread like a thick pelt. There was profound silence in her wide eyes and a tear always shining in the depths of her black pupils. Her face was calm and still but eloquent as the face of a tortured prophet might be. Nadia was still a child, but she seemed more than a child, much more, and older than a child, much older.
I've no idea whether I was the one who said it, or whether it was someone else behind me. But she raised her eyes to me and I felt them dissolve me like a piece of sugar that had fallen into a hot cup of tea. '
Together with her slight smile I heard her voice. "Uncle! Have you just come from Kuwait?"
Her voice broke in her throat, and she raised herself with the help of her hands and stretched out her neck towards me. I patted her back and sat down near her.
"Nadia! I've brought you presents from Kuwait, lots of presents. I'll wait till you can leave your bed, completely well and healed, and you'll come to my house and I'll give them to you. I've bought you the red trousers you wrote and asked me for. Yes, I've bought them."
It was a lie, born of the tense situation, but as I uttered it I felt that I was speaking the truth for the first time. Nadia trembled as though she had an electric shock and lowered her head in a terrible silence. I felt her tears wetting the back of my hand.
"Say something, Nadia! Don't you want the red trousers?" She lifted her gaze to me and made as if to speak, but then she stopped, gritted her teeth and I heard her voice again, coming from faraway.
She stretched out her hand, lifted the white coverlet with her fingers and pointed to her leg, amputated from the top of the thigh.
My friend ... Never shall I forget Nadia's leg, amputated from the top of the thigh. No! Nor shall I forget the grief which had moulded her face and merged into its traits for ever. I went out of the hospital in Gaza that day, my hand clutched in silent derision on the two pounds I had brought with me to give Nadia. The blazing sun filled the streets with the colour of blood. And Gaza was brand new, Mustafa! You and I never saw it like this. The stone piled up at the beginning of the Shajiya quarter where we lived had a meaning, and they seemed to have been put there for no other reason but to explain it. This Gaza in which we had lived and with whose good people we had spent seven years of defeat was something new. It seemed to me just a beginning. I don't know why I thought it was just a beginning. I imagined that the main street that I walked along on the way back home was only the beginning of a long, long road leading to Safad. Everything in this Gaza throbbed with sadness which was not confined to weeping. It was a challenge: more than that it was something like reclamation of the amputated leg!
I went out into the streets of Gaza, streets filled with blinding sunlight. They told me that Nadia had lost her leg when she threw herself on top of her little brothers and sisters to protect them from the bombs and flames that had fastened their claws into the house. Nadia could have saved herself, she could have run away, rescued her leg. But she didn't.
No, my friend, I won't come to Sacramento, and I've no regrets. No, and nor will I finish what we began together in childhood. This obscure feeling that you had as you left Gaza, this small feeling must grow into a giant deep within you. It must expand, you must seek it in order to find yourself, here among the ugly debris of defeat.
I won't come to you. But you, return to us! Come back, to learn from Nadia's leg, amputated from the top of the thigh, what life is and what existence is worth.
Come back, my friend! We are all waiting for you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not everything is as it looks...

Can Muslims engineer coexistence instead of inventing "resistance?"
by Farid Ghadry

One cannot but wonder, watching the demise of Hamas, if the outcome of this war is more of a lesson for Arabs or Israelis. What experiences can we draw from a war against a supposed enemy whose power and knowledge are incontestably superior to ours? Not many if the Assad regime, responsible for the havoc over the last 40 years, remains in power.

The real opportunity of this war is that it may spark an Arab Renaissance if, and only if, the Assad regime is removed and replaced by Syrians intent on building a nation instead of destroying other countries, by moderate Muslims ready to crush extremists instead of amplifying their miserable existence, and by Arabs able to embrace nationalism in order to engineer coexistence instead of inventing "resistance."

Assad and the Ba'ath Party will sacrifice every Palestinian, Syrian, Israeli, Lebanese, and Iraqi soul to stay in power, much like Iraq's Hussein did until brought down by force. For those of us who know the regime intimately, terror is its tool of choice and it houses terrorists just as Hollywood houses celebrities.

While Hamas commits Hamacide, a term my son Samer recently coined to define the group's self-destruction, Hizbullah is watching the events unfold with fear pounding the temples of its leadership and knowing full well that they must re-invent themselves for the next round of hostilities. Testing Iran's military field tactics or Assad's guerrilla warfare, and using the undeniably stupid leadership of Hamas, are but a distraction dwarfing the nuclear ambitions both Syria and Iran are racing towards.

Where is the West's "Task Force" developing surgical knowhow to eradicate both regimes? For those wishful thinkers who believe in a dialogue with Assad, be aware that Hamas, Hizbullah, Fatah al-Islam, and many other terror groups are critical balance sheet entries without which Assad is bankrupt and his actions ultimately inconsequential.

Whereas Hamas is intent on testing the been-there-done-that Israeli Army who is determined, this time around, to uproot the terror on its door step, Assad and Ahmadinejad play the West like a harp and the Arabs like a disposable tissue. Notwithstanding the fact Hamas today endangers the lives of its own children and women to show-off what it learned from the Iranian Hizbullah, their cacophony, mirrored by their meager existence, reflects the failure of the West to recognize what Michael Ledeen has dubbed the "Terror Masters in Damascus and Tehran" pulling, like Marionettes, the strings of today's war.

Empty assurances of cooperation
Even if the IDF memory bank is getting an upgrade with the latest the Syrian and Iranian regimes have to offer from their arsenal of terror, both regimes will engineer a comeback that will kill more Israelis, more Palestinians, more Lebanese, and more Iraqis. It is a certainty that Damascus' next plans of terror are blossoming and waiting to be harvested even before the expected implosion of Hamas, while Assad is selling the West empty assurances of cooperation.

Assad's extremism, hiding behind a smoke screen of secularism, is infinitely more dangerous than the exposed extremism of Hamas which, not unlike Saddam Hussein, always tells you exactly what its intentions are. The Assad regime grows stealthily Islamic terrorism in all its forms and, by all accounts, is the ultimate enemy of both moderate Muslims and western countries. By letting Assad off the hook, we, Syrians, are endangering the spark of our own Renaissance which, if history is right, can be precipitated from a free and enlightened Damascus experiencing today the darkest days of its perseverance as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.

For Arabs to save themselves from the doom of ignorance and ineptitude, we must fight for the freedom of our masses to liberate them from extremism. Saving Iraq from Saddam while keeping her sandwiched between Assad and Ahmadinejad is an irony of gargantuan proportions. Undeniably, oppression is the conduit through which extremism flourishes. Unless we resolve this oxymoronic doctrine in which stability comes with dictatorial rule yet the dictators themselves deliberately foster extremism, the Arab civilization is doomed.

Unfortunately, along the way, Assad's collage of terrorists will continue delivering damaging blows to Israel and the West while pretending he wants peace and propitious relations.

Farid Ghadry is the president of the Reform Party of Syria, a US-based leading Assad opposition political group