Khalil Gibran, Naguib Mahfouz, Ghassan Kanafani and Modern Literature in the Middle East

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Tawfik al-Hakim and Naguib Mahfouz

Modern Arab literature is dominated by Egyptians, Lebanese and to a lesser extent by Palestinians and Syrians. Popular writers include the Egyptian Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, an advisor to Nasser who writes about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Naguib Mahfouz’s classic novel “Palace Walk” is a about pleasure-seeking philander who roams the streets of Cairo at night while his submissive wife is locked up at home.

Nizar Qabbani (b. 1923) is well-regard Lebanese poet. Other Lebanese writers include Nasif al-Yaziji (1800-71), who wrote popular stories about a clever hero in colorful rhymed prose; Khalil Hawi (1919-82), a Lebanese poet and academic who became caught up in and gave a voice to the pan-Arab movement and committed suicide at the moment of the Israeli invasion in 1982. Liana Badr, fled to Beirut from Jericho. “The Eye of the Mirror” and the short story collection “A Balcony over the Fakihani” are available in English. Hanan al-Shaykh writes humorous but moving novels such as “Beirut Blues”, “The Story of Zahra”, “Women of the Sand” and “Myrrh”.

Famous Egyptian writers include Abbas Akkad (1889-1964); Tawfik al-Hakim (1898-1987), the left wing playwright;Youssef Idris (1927-1991), a talented short story writer; and Louis Awad (1915-1990), a noted literary critic. Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi (1920-1987) described the lives of rural poor in “al-Ard” (“The Earth”). Khalid Muhammad Khalid (1948-2001), who was educated at Pepperdine University and lived in the U.S., condemned Islam is in his writings.

Miral al-Tahawy (born 1970) is a female Egyptian writer know for tackling sensitive issues and writing about women. “Map of Love” by Ahdaf Souif (born 1950), another female Egyptian writer, made the short list for the Booker Prize in 1999. It is about parallel love affairs between Egyptians and Westerners, one in the 1900s and the other in the 1990s. Sonallah Ibrahim (born 1937) is a respected writer who works have been translated into English and French. His book “Warda” (2001) was well received. It a mix of true story and fiction set in rebellion in Oman in the 1970s by leftist who wanted to establish a utopian society in the Arab world.

Abdel Rahman Munif in 1975

Abdel Rahman Munif (1933-2004) is a highly regarded Syrian writer. He was raised in Saudi Arabia, educated in Baghdad, carried eight passports and spent much of his time outside Damascus. His “Cities of Salt” trilogy—“Cities of Salt,” “The Trench” and “Variations on Night and Day” —were translated by Peter Theroux. The Iraqi novelist Betool Khedaira lives in London. Her books include “A Sky So Close,” her reflections on the Iran-Iraq war and the first Persian Gulf war from the point of view of an outsider. The Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyad (1926-64) was inspired by Arab village life.

Paris-based Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun (born 1944) is a respected author with a small following in Morocco. He wrote “Racism as Explained to My Daughter.” The book somehow struck a chord in France, where it became a big bestseller, selling more than 250,000 copies in the first six months after it was published in 1998. His others books include The Sacred Night, which won the prestigious Goncourt prize in 1986, and “The Sand Child,” about a young girl whose father is disappointed she is not a boy.

The 2003 novel “Taqwacores” by Michael Muhammad Knight, a Muslim convert, is popular with American Muslim teenagers and inspired a number of American Muslim punk rock bands. It is about a typical American Muslim teenager whose father wants him to be an engineer and changes after he falls in with a group of Islamists. The Syrian female writer Ammar Abdulhamid wrote a controversial first novel called “Menstruation” about lesbian relations and adultery and was inspired by the writer’s personal struggle with conservative Islam. The novel was written in English and published in Britain. Thus far it has not been published in Syria.

Book: “The Dream Palace of the Arabs” by Fouad Ajami, a good book about influential late 20th century Arab intellectuals.


Websites and Resources: Islamic, Arabic and Persian Literature Islamic and Arabic Literature at Cornell University ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ;
Wikipedia article on Islamic Literature Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Arabic Literature Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Persian Literature Wikipedia ; Persian literature at Encyclopædia Britannica ; Persian Literature & Poetry at / ; Arabic Poetry ; Arabic Poetry from Princeton ; Thousand and One Nights ; 1001 Nights ; Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, Burton, ; Islamic Stories

Foreign Writers and the Middle East

Lawrence Durrell

García Márquez is one of the most popular writers in the Arab world. In his book “Orientalism” the Palestinian scholar Edward Said argued that Western writers have a tradition of trying to portray Arabs as mysterious and dangerous.

Cosmopolitan and bohemian Alexandria was immortalized by Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in the “Alexandria Quartet” and works by E.M. Forester. “Alexandria Quartet” is comprised of 1) “Justine” (1957), 2) “Balthazar” (1958), 3) “Mount Olive” (1958) and “Clea” (1960). Durrell writes about multi-cultural Alexandria with vivid often purple prose full of imagery of souks, hookahs, child brothels and Armenian, French and Syrian communities.

The great Greek poet C.P. Cavafy lived most if life in Alexandria and worked there for the Ministry of Irrigation. Known best for poems like “The City” and “The God Abandons,” he wrote about history ad eroticism in the context of urban squalor.

See Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E, Lawrence

Few Readers in the Arab World Except in Cairo?

Arabs traditionally have not been big readers. Their literature and stories have traditionally been kept alive orally by storytellers. An Egyptian publisher told Reuters, “People say no one reads anymore, but no one read in the first place.” People prefer television and chatting. In 1835, Britain's Lord Macaulay scoffed that "a single shelf of European books [is] worth the whole literature of India and Arabia."

Illiteracy is relatively high in some places. Many of those who do read, read only religious texts. There are shortages of new books and translations of foreign works. Publishers mainly produce religious texts and educational publications. According to a United Nations report fewer books that have been translated in the Arab world since the 9th century than the number of books published in Spain in a single year.

The market for novels is very small. A bestseller is a book that sells more than 5,000 copies. Writers rarely sell many books. Their only hope of making any money is from films or soap operas made from their works. Writers are censored by the government and intimidated by Muslim extremists. According to the United Nations report there “is a lack of hospitality to anyone of free spirit, anyone who is a dissident, anyone who is different.”

The people of Cairo are regarded as big readers. Books stalls and sidewalk book hawkers are a fixture of city streets. The selection includes paperback novels, religious texts and anti-Zionist polemics. Many books are bootlegs from which the writers receive no copyright fees. Sometimes even newspapers print an entire novel on its broadsheet pages with little or no money ending up in the hands of its author.

Censorship of Arab Literature

Nawal el Saadawi

There have been many efforts to censor works of literature, even the classic “One Thousand and One Nights” on the grounds that their content is too sexual or un-Islamic. Amro Hassan and Jeffrey Fleishman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Some attempts at censorship are reminiscent of the death threats Islamic radicals made against Salman Rushdie for his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses." Mohamed Salmawy, president of the Egyptian Writers Union, said he himself received threats from extremists over his play "The Chain," which criticized religion-inspired terrorism. [Source: Amro Hassan and Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times, July 11, 2010 /]

“Such tactics are common in Saudi Arabia, where last year a scholar issued death fatwas against racy-TV programmers. But they are unsettling in Egypt, traditionally more tolerant. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information said attempts to silence or censor writers through lawsuits, many of them religion-based, have been rising. The group said 1,500 civil and criminal complaints were filed in Egypt against authors, scholars and journalists in 2007 and '08. Most are dismissed or end in favor of the writer. /

“In 2009, writer and feminist Nawal Saadawi won a lawsuit that sought to revoke her Egyptian citizenship over her play "God Resigns at the Summit Meeting." The work centers on prophets interrogating God over his "unjust rulings" in all three "heavenly faiths." Critics denounced it as heresy. "Extremists and their media tools are against any form of creativity and cases like these are a backlash against creative people and opposition authors," Saadawi said. Her frequent criticism of President Hosni Mubarak's government, she said, served to tangle her case in the courts much longer than suits involving less politically active writers. /

“Attempts at censorship through the prism of religion have spread to works dealing with Christianity. Youssef Ziedan is facing a criminal complaint filed with the state by a group of Coptic lawyers accusing him of "defaming Christianity" in his 2009 "Arabic Booker Prize"-winning novel, "Azazeel," or "Beelzebub." The story is set in 5th century Egypt and Syria and deals with the early history of Christianity and sects that challenged the divine nature of Jesus. Insulting religion is illegal in Egypt, and if convicted, Ziedan could face up to five years in prison. /

Faraq Foda, gunned down by Muslim extremists

“Some intellectuals have a more cynical view of the lawsuits. Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said that often lawyers are seeking notoriety through false righteousness. "Many of those lawyers are not even religious," Eid said, "but the furor accompanying these cases put them in the media limelight, which eventually secures them more clients and higher fees."” /

Writers Killed and Attacked by Muslim Extremists

Egyptian journalist Farag Foda was gunned down by Islamic extremists in June 1992 for his critical articles about the Muslim brotherhood. He was a vocal critic of the government, arguing for more democracy and less corruption. The lawyer that defended the murders said that "secularists" are apostates who should be put to death by the government and if the government was unwilling to meet out punishment then it was the responsibility of devout individuals to take the law into their own hands.

The feminist writer Nawal Saadawi was declared an apostate by top religious officials because she was quoted in an article as saying that the hajj was “a remnant of paganism” and that the Qur’an makes no mention of wearing head scarfs. An Islamic lawyer filed a suit demanding that she divorce her husband on the grounds that an apostate can not be married to a Muslim. The apostasy case was ultimately thrown out of court. Saadawi has campaigned against female circumcision and misogyny and called for “the implementation of the international treaty against all kinds of discrimination against women.” She is a respected feminist writer with an international reputation. Her books include “Fall of the Imam,” “Death of an Ex-Minister” and “Memoirs From a Woman's Prison.”

Kahlil Gibran

Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), a Lebanese poet, is thought to be the third most widely read poet in the world after Shakespeare and La Tzu. He was mystic and a symbolist painter who died in 1931. He spent his early years in Lebanon and his later years in the United States. [Source: Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, January 7, 2008]

Kahlil Gibran

“The Prophet” is the most famous of his books. Since its publication un 1923, the American edition alone has sold more than 9 million copies. Joan Acocella wrote in The New Yorker, “‘The Prophet’ has been recited at countless weddings and funerals. It is quoted in books and articles on training art teachers, determining criminal responsibility, and enduring ectopic pregnancy, sleep disorders and the news that your son is gay, His words turn up in advertisements for marriage counselors, chiropractors, learning-disabilities specialists, and face cream...Reportedly, the book is popular in prisons.”

Little is known about Gibran’s life, apparently because the poet it wanted that way. He was only five foot three, once said he wasn’t “sexually-minded,” and hardly mentioned by anyone in the literary circles that were active in his lifetime. He often lied to journalists, telling them things like was he was brought up in a palace with pet tigers, his mother was from the richest family in Lebanon and he came up with the theory of relativity for Einstein he just didn’t write it down. On a number of occasions he said he had been sucked into the air as dew and “risen into the clouds, then fallen as rain...I’ve been a rock too, but I’m more of an air person.”

Gibran’s family and fans have long complained the poet was never taken seriously by critics and scholars. When the founder of the book’s publisher, Alfred F. Knopf, was asked who the audience for the book was he replied rather dismissively, he had no idea: “It seems to be a cult.”

Books: “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran; “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World” (1974) is a biography by the poets cousin also named Kahlil Gibran, and his wife Joan; “Prophet: the Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran “ (1998) by Robin Waterfield, a translator of Greek literature.

Kahlil Gibran’s Early Life

Khalil Gibran’s family

Gibran was born in 1883 in the village of Bsharri at the head of the Qasisha Valley in Lebanon. At that time Lebanon was part of Syria, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. By his own account Gibran said he was moody, introspective child whose passions were drawing (he tried to be a painter before taking up writing) and ripping off his clothes and running naked in rain storms. His mother found his behavior embarrassing and often hid him when her friends came to visit. [Source: Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, January 7, 2008]

Gibran and his family were Maronites, a Christian sect allied with Rome but found mostly in Lebanon. They was not very well off. His father owned a walnut grove, but drank and gambled much of the profits away. After taking a job as a tax collector he was arrested for embezzlement. In 1895, when Gibran was 12, his mother Kamileh and brother Bhutros and two sisters Marianna and Sultana moved to the United States and settled in a poor area of South Boston, where his mother sold linens and lace door to door, his sisters worked as seamstresses and Bhutros ran a dry goods store.

Gibran went to school and took art classes at a school run by a Theosophy cult that conducted seances, experimented with drugs, took pictures of nude young boys and introduced Gibran to the Romantic and Symbolist poets. At this art school Gibran was treated like a handsome Middle Eastern prince and mystic and Gibran began to look at himself in that way. After that he was sent to a Maronite college in Beirut. When he returned do Boston three years later his sister Sultana was dead and his brother and mother died within a couple years, His remaining sibling, Mirianna adored him and worked hard to support and help him pursue his ambitions, first as an artist then as a writer.

Kahlil Gibran’s Writing Career

young Kahlil Gibran

Gibran published his first works when he was in his early 20s. Inspired by the suffering he saw at the hands of the Turks in Lebanon, they including collections of poems, stories, parables and aphorisms, Around this time he met Mary Haskell, the headmistress of a liberal girl’s school, who was nine years older than him. She offered herself sexually to Gibran but was rejected, but nevertheless remained steadfastly by his side and edited much of his work. In the early years of his career she paid his rent, gave him money, cooked for him and sent him to Paris for a year to study painting. In return Gibran wouldn’t even introduce her to his friends and moved to New York to get away from her. In New York he lived in a one room apartment that he lit with candles. [Source: Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, January 7, 2008]

Gibran wrote 17 books, nine in Arabic and eight in English. Among the memorable lines by Gibran are: 1) “The earth breathes, we live; it pauses in breath. We die.” 2) “The dogs bark but the caravan moves on.” 3) "In their fear your forefathers gathered you too near together. Would that I could gather your houses into my hand, and like a sower scatter them in forest and meadow." The line “Half of what I say is meaningless but I say it so the other half may reach you” was adapted for the John Lennon song “Julia” in the Beatles “White Album”.

Gibran’s second most popular book, “Jesus, the Son of Man”, was written five years after the “The Prophet”. Critics say it is a better book. It is not an advice book like “The Prophet” but rather a novel about Jesus comprised of 79 statements of people remembering Christ. Some of the people are well known—Mary Magdalene and Pontius Pilate—but others are made up—a Lebanese sheep herder, a Greek apothecary—all of them talking like they are being interviewed. Gibran was obsessed with Jesus, he used to say that he appeared in his dreams.

Kahlil Gibran is still widely read by students. He wrote a famous poem about a violet that wanted to be a rose and be tall and proud in the sun.

The Prophet

“The Prophet” is a collection of 26 prose poems, delivered as sermons by a fictional wise man. It was an instant success. Its first printing sold out in a month. It sold well in the Depression and generated a nice income for Gibran and those who inherited his estate and produced handsome profits for its publisher, Alfred F. Knopf. In the 1960s it was the right book for the right time, with sales reaching 5,000 per week. [Source: Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, January 7, 2008]

Gibran published “The Prophet” when he was 30. It begins with the wise man—Almustafa—saying that he must return to the island of his birth. Saddened by his departure his followers ask him if they can ask him questions about life, love and wisdom and get his final words on these matters. The wise man obliges and his answers make up the bulk of the book. Among his observations are that love involves suffering and children should be given their independence. There is a famous series statements that freedom is slavery, joy is pain and belief is doubt.

Why has “The Prophet” been so successful for so many years? 1) It is very short, 96 pages with large margins, and easy-to-flip-through words of advise. 2) Gibran’s combination of vagueness and his use of the possessive pronoun “your” make the narrative very personal, as if the answers are directed directly at the reader. And 3) its message is both spiritually sweet, like candy for the soul, and uplifting. Some have even called “The Prophet” the world’s first modern piece of “inspirational literature” and a the book that helped pave the way for New Age spiritualism.

Kahlil Gibran’s Death and Afterwards

Kahlil Gibran illustration from "The Prophet"

Gibran spent his last years holed up in his New York apartment, drinking arak, a Syrian liquor, that his sister reportedly sent to him by the gallon. He didn’t seem to like the attention the fame he sought much of his lifetime brought him. He died at the age of 48 of “cirrhosis of the liver with incipient tuberculosis.” Large crowds showed up at his burial services in New York and Boston. After that Gibran was taken to Beirut, where the casket was opened by the Lebanese minister of culture, who placed a medal on Gibran’s chest, and then carried on foot to Bsharri, accompanied by a 300-person honor guard. [Source: Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, January 7, 2008]

Gibran’s books sold much better after he died than they did in his lifetime. Almost as an afterthought he left the royalties from the books published in the United States in his will to his home town of Bsharri. After “The Prophet” became an all-time bestseller the village earned over $1 million a year from book sales. Fighting over the money bitterly divided the village. It was not until the national government took over management of the estate that money was used for things like clinics, schools and scholarships.

Gibran was buried in Bsharri in the small monastery of Mar Sarkis, which also serves a museum devoted his life and work. On display are his manuscripts, paintings and drawings. A room cut into rock contains his coffin, bed, some personal items and a 12th century tapestry of Christ, which Gibran liked because Jesus is smiling.

Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) is the only Arab to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature (he won it in 1988). Sometimes described as the Charles Dickens or the Émile Zola of Egypt, he writes novels with richly-detailed prose about everyday life in the working-class neighborhoods of Cairo. His books are more widely read in the West than they are in Egypt or the Islamic world.

Naguib Mahfouz

Paul Theroux described Mahfouz as a "realist...who possessed sympathy and alarming humor." Upon meeting him in the hospital after an attempt on his life, Theroux wrote, "His expression was serene, his eyes clear...He welcomed his visitors with animated conversation. He was modest, he teased, he even laughed even though it hurt him to do so...Mahfouz's intelligence, and his sweetness, shone in his face."

Mahfouz was born and in 1911 in Cairo. He grew up in the Islamic district of Cairo and spent his summers in Alexandria. He graduated from Cairo University with a degree in philosophy. He was particularly interested in the French philosopher Berguson, who wrote a theory on humor. Mahfouz began writing when he was 17 and lived most of his adult life in an apartment on Sharia Nil in Cairo with his wife and daughter. He had a passion for writing and music. Despite threats from Islamic militants he lived openly, was often spotted on the streets and had no bodyguards.

Mahfouz only left Egypt twice. After returning from his second trip, to Sweden, where he collected his Nobel Prize, he vowed never to travel abroad again. In 1994, he was the target of an assassination attempt (See Below). In his last years he suffered from diabetes, poor eyesight and was deaf. He didn't leave his house much in Cairo, except to hang out with friends, mostly a group that called themselves the Vagabonds.

Mahfouz's Books

Mahfouz and his family

Mahfouz published 34 novels and a dozen collections of stories in more than a half century of writing. He published his first collection of short stories in 1938. His most famous work, “The Cairo Trilogy,” follows the And-el Gawad family over a 27 year period that includes both world wars. Other Mahfouz's books include “Miramar,” a haunting book set in Alexandria, and “Children of the Alley.”

Mahfouz’s “Arabian Night and Days” takes off where the Middle Eastern classic “Arabian Nights” left off. According to the New York Times it is a "collection of magical tales with a political edge and spiritual depth."

Mahfouz wrote with animated imagery. Describing a section of Alexandria in his novel “Miramar”, he wrote, "A great blue mass, heaving, locked in as far as the Fort of Sultan Qaitbay by the Corinche wall and the giant stone jetty arm thrusting into the seas. Frustrated. Caged. These waves slopping dully landwards have a sullen blue black look that continually promised fury. The sea. It guts churn with flotsam an secret death."

In the late 1990s, there was renewed interest in Mahfouz’s works. Works that were banned had their bans rescinded. Stories were made into films and television shows. Documentaries were made about his life.

Mahfouz, Islamic Extremists and the Assassination Attempt

Mahfouz's 1959 novel “The Children of Gebelawi” was banned in 1959 in Egypt, and later in almost every Arab country, as heretical because its was structured like the Qur’an (both texts have 114 chapters, for example) and contained characters who resembled Adam, Eve, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Mafouz’s book was about a group of Cairo slum dwellers and their relationship with God. Mahfouz insisted the ban was because his books were misinterpreted. “If someone has a preconception that I have written a book against religion, this preconception will influence how they interpret the book.”

Mahfouz at a cafe in Cairo

Mahfouz was condemned by Muslim extremist for supporting the 1979 peace accord with Israel. He also angered Muslim extremists when he spoke out against the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind cleric who some say helped inspire the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, issued a “fatwa”, like the one against Rushdie, against Mahfouz in 1989,

In October 1994, at the age of 83, Mahfouz, was stabbed in the neck outside his apartment on Sharia Nil in Cairo by an Islamic militant. His carotid artery and radial nerve were slashed. Fortunately he lived a block away from a hospital and was taken there before he lost too much blood. As he entered the hospital, Mahfouz said, "There's some blood here. I think you should look at it." He was then give two pints of blood immediately and eight more during surgery. He survived but the damage to his nerve paralyzed his writing hand. While in the hospital he was dragged into court to defend “The Children of Gebelawi”.

The assassin was later captured by police. He said his mission was not successful because he forgot to utter "Allah-u-akhbar!" He was convicted and hanged in Cairo. His friends regarded him as a martyr.

Ghassan Kanafani

Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972), a Palestinian novelist, short-story writer, and dramatist assassinated by a car bomb, often wrote about the suffering of Palestinian refugees. The son of a lawyer, he was born in Acre, a historical port town facing the Mediterranean, in what is now Israel. "He was mature for his age, and thoughtful. He was confident, and seemed to be sure that he would become someone of significance," his cousin Mahmoud Salem said. [Source: Hiromi Uechi, Yomiuri Shimbun, April 2014]

Just before the founding of Israel in 1948, Kanafani and his family fled Acre, which had been conquered by Alexander the Great and the Crusaders but resisted Napoleon’s attacks. The writer was 12 years old when he left. He said he would come back in two weeks but never returned. Shortly after Kanafani's family left, the Israeli military launched a full-scale attack on Acre with a barrage of mortars. About 70 percent of the 15,000 Palestinians who had remained in Acre fled. In his 1963 novel "The Land of the Sad Orange," Kanafani depicted a Palestinian boy who escaped from Acre just as he had.

Ghassan Kanafani

Kanafani and his family first fled to Ghazie, a small Lebanese villlage, and then to Syria, settling there as Palestinian refugees. According to “After finishing his secondary education, Kanafani began teaching in a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UMRWA) schools. In 1952, he entered the University of Damascus, where he studied Arabic literature. Before receiving a degree, Kanafani was expelled from the university due to his political activities. He moved to Kuwait, where he worked as a teacher and journalist, and then Beirut, where he was amongst other things the editor of the pro-Nasser paper al-Muharrir. During these years Kanafani's political activities increased. In 1967 he began to work for the newspaper Al Anwar. Kanafani's Adab al-Muqawama fi Filastin al-Muhtalla 1948-1966 (1966), which included a crical study and poems by Palestinian writers, introduced Palestinian resistance poetry to the Arab readers outside Israel. [Source: ~~]

“The Palestine Liberation Organization was founded in 1964. Kanafani was a member of the Movement of the Arab Nationalists (Harakat al-Qawmiyin al-Arab), a left-wing organization headed by Dr. George Habash. While studying in Damascus he had joined the Arab Nationalist Party. In 1969 he became spokesperson for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a branch of the Movement of the Arab Nationalists, and the editor-in-chief of its weekly Al-Hadaf. The PFLP specialized in small-scale operations. ~~

“Kanafani was assassinated in Beirut on July 8, 1972, by a car bomb planted allegedly by Israeli agents. The explosion also killed his seventeen-year-old niece Lamees. At first it was considered a possibility that Jordanian agents had hot-wired his Austin 1100. Kanafani had been selected as a target after an attack in May 1972 at Tel Aviv's Lod Airport, which left twenty-four dead. The massacre was carried out by the Japanese Red Army. Photographs of Kanafani with Japanese terrorists were sent to newspapers. Moreover, on behalf of the PFLP, Kanafani had apparently defended the Lod massacre. The Daily Star wrote (July 9, 1972): "Ghassan was the commando who never fired a gun. His weapon was a ballpoint pen and his arena newspaper pages." When the Palestinian political leader and writer Kamal Nasir read Mahmoud Darwish's elegy to Kanafani he said: "What more can a poet write after this? What is there left for you to say when my time comes?" On the 19th July, 1972, a letter bomb came close to killing Kanafani's second-in-command. Kanafani was posthumously awarded the Lotus Prize for Literature by the Conference of Afro-Asian Writers.” ~~

Ghassan Kanafani’s Writing

According to “ Main themes in Kanafani's writings are uprootedness, exile, and national struggle. He often used in his stories the desert and its heat as a symbol for the plight of the Palestinian people. Kuwait provides the background for his short story 'The Slave Fort,' an adaptation of King Lear. The narrator visits his friend, a half-mad old man. He is the father of four sons who have become the richest people in the desert. The sons quarrel about who should provide a home for him. The old man settles in a humble hut of wood and earns his living by selling oyster shells. The narrator and his friend give the man two loaves and start to open the shells to find pearls. They find nothing, but the old man says: "All thinking must set forth from the point of death, whether it be, as you say, that of a man who dies contemplating the charms of the body of a wonderfully beautiful girl, or whether he dies staring into a newly shaven face which frightens him because of an old wooden box tied round with string. The unsolved question remains that of the end; the question of non-existence, of eternal life – or what? Or what, my dear Ahmed?" (from 'The Death of Bed Number 12', 1961) [Source: ~~]

“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 two first novels, which experimented with language and form, rank among the most complex in all of Arabic fiction of that time. He wrote in Arabic, for an Arab audience, but the translation of his novellas Rijal fi-al-shams (1963) and Ma tabaqqa lakum (1966) into English have made his work available to a wider audience. ~~

Ghassan Kanafani in the form of Palestinian graffiti

“Kanafani's first novel, Men in the Sun, came out in 1963. The book was adapted for the screen by the Egyptian director Tawfiq Salim under the title al-Makhduun. 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. The characters represent three different generations. In the gloomy ending, they perish in their journey across the desert, referring 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, let us free." ~~

“Kanafani's ambitious and experimental novel, All That's Left to You (1966) is considered one of the earliest and most successful modernist experiments in Arabic fiction. Kanafani used multiple narrators – two of them, the clock and the desert, were inanimate. The protagonist of the story is a young man named Hamid. He dreams of being reunited with his mother from whom he was separated in 1948. Hamid had fled to Gaza while his mother left for the West Bank. He tries to find her but becomes lost in the desert, crossing paths with an Israeli soldier. He is forced to eschew his original plan and turn to confront his enemy. Although he dies before locating his mother, he is in death reunited with his lost land. The thematic development reflects the change in political climate, and the initiation of the Palestinian armed struggle. ~~

“Umm Sad (1969) reflects the situation of the Palestinians following the defeat of the Arab armies in 1967 and the rise of the Palestinian Resistance Movement. One of the central characters is a woman, Umm Sad, whose son joins the resistance. Kanafani's last published novella, A'id ila Hayfa (1969, Return to Haifa), had also a direct political message. In these books Kanafani abandoned interior monologues, flashbacks, and other complex techniques, and used straightforward narrative and dialogue. The works marked the shift from nationalist ideals to a more pronounced Marxist ideology. Return to Haifa concludes with a call for action. The novella was published in Hebrew in 2001. ~~

“By the time of his death, Kanafani had published eighteen books, and left fragments of three novels that came out posthumously. Beside novels, Kanafani wrote four collections of short stories, literary criticism, plays, and historical expositions. He also tried his hand as a painter. Kanafani was married to Anni Høver, a Danish children's right activist, whom he met in 1961. They had two children. Kanafani's daughter Laila has developed children's art projects at the Ghassan Kanafani Cultural Center in Lebanon established to honor the memory of her father.” ~~

Islamic Comics

Naif al-Mutawa, an American-educated Kuwaiti, developed a comic series with Islamic superheroes that he hopes will get Westernized and non-Westernized Islamic youth interested in their own culture. The comic series is named “The 99" after the qualities such as generosity and wisdom Muslims believe that God embodies. The characters included Jabbar the Enforcer, a muscle-bound figure from Saudi Arabia; Mumita the Destroyer, a buxom, super-flexible woman from Portugal; and Noora the Light, a long-haired beauty from the United Arab Emirates that has the power to read the truth in what people say and help them understand the truth in themselves. [Source: Hassan Fattah, New York Times, January 2006]

Set in 13th century Baghdad on the eve of the Mongol invasion, the main story revolves around a quest to obtain 99 gems encoded with the 99 virtues of Islam. The gems are not only a source of wisdom they are also a source of power. They are scattered around the world and are sought by the superheroes during battles with the Mongols.

Unlike Judeo-Christian archetypes that stress individual strengths and Japanese archetypes that emphasize groups working together towards a common goal, Muslims stress individual virtues that are collectively expressed and are ultimately seen as expressions of the divine. The superheros bring food to starving Afghans, fight elephant poachers in Africa and fight the evil Righal.

The first comics appeared in 2006, Mutawa has his work cut out for him not to anger Islamic conservatives who oppose any depictions of animate objects, especially women in sexy outfits, and reject the attempts to personify the powers of God or combine the word of God in the Qur’an with new myths and Westernized cultural forms. To placate conservatives the women in Mutawa’s comics wear head scarves and abide by Muslim customs of female modesty. Mock ups have been approved by Kuwaiti censors. Fabian Nicieza, who wrote X-Men and Power Rangers, has been involved in some of the stories and dramas.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons except Ghassan Kanafani picture from the Institute of Palestine Studies

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; "A History of the Arab Peoples" by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures" edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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