Analysis of Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun

The novel Men in the Sun is the first and perhaps best-known novel by Ghassan Kanafani (1936–72). Kanafani is widely considered today as one of the most influential Palestinian writers of the 20th century. Before being killed by a car bomb in 1972, he was a prolifi c writer. His works include novels, short stories, plays, children’s stories, literary criticism, and political writings. During the three years before his death, Kanafani was the spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and edited its weekly newspaper, al-Hadaf (The Goal). In much of his fiction, Kanafani employs modernist narrative technique to focus on themes of alienation, exile, and national resistance. What distinguishes Kanafani’s work from many of his contemporaries, however, is his ability to transcend these themes from the Middle Eastern context and make them universal.

Kanafani / Assafir

Men in the Sun, set during the late 1950s, tells the story of three Palestinians, each from different generations, who attempt to immigrate illegally into Kuwait from southern Iraq. The narrative begins after the three arrive independently in Basra and begin looking for a smuggler to take them across the border. The first three chapters introduce the Palestinian characters from oldest to youngest, and detail how they all fail to come to terms with the same smuggler. Through a series of fl ashbacks and stream-of-consciousness narratives, the text shows that even though all three imagine Kuwait to be a paradise of riches, they each fl ee the refugee camps of Palestine for different reasons.

Abu Qais is the oldest of the three and, despite his frailty, has been pushed to attempt the dangerous crossing by his friend, a former immigrant to Kuwait, and his wife. The two berate Abu Qais for his inability to provide for his family and his fear of dying on the way to Kuwait. For 10 years after the loss of his village, Abu Qais has remained inactive, hoping to return to his land and olive trees, both of which were lost during the war of 1948. A highly symbolic figure, Abu Qais represents the hesitance and paralysis of the Palestinian leadership at the time, whom many believed had simply waited and done little to help their people.

Assad, on the other hand, represents the middle generation of Palestinians who are enthusiastic and politically engaged, yet naive and ineffective at bringing about change. Assad fl ed the refugee camps because the police are looking to arrest him for his political activities. As he negotiates with the smuggler in the second chapter, Assad remembers how he was cheated during his first attempt at crossing into Kuwait. He also recounts how his uncle gave him the money to pay the smuggler, but only so he can return to the refugee camps rich and marry his cousin.

Finally, the teenage Marwan symbolizes the utter abandonment experienced by the youngest generation of Palestinians. Zakaria, Marwan’s older brother, immigrated to Kuwait but stopped sending back money and cut ties with the family after he got married. Left with no other way out of the refugee camps, Marwan’s father decided to marry a woman who already owns a house and to abandon his family. This leaves young Marwan the sole person left to provide for his mother and siblings. During his stream-of-conscious narratives, Marwan repeatedly pledges to himself that he will pamper his family with the riches of Kuwait. Nonetheless, it is clear that Marwan, like others before him, is doomed to fl ee his past life and family as soon as he can support himself on his own.

After he leaves the smuggler’s office, Marwan is approached by Abul Khaizuran, a Palestinian who drove a truck for the British during the 1948 war. Abul Khaizuran says he is driving a wealthy man’s water truck back to Kuwait and proposes to sneak Marwan through the border posts in the truck’s tank. Marwan brings Abu Qais and Assad to meet Abul Khaizuran and, despite their initial misgivings, the three decide to head to Kuwait with Abul Khaizuran.

Driving quickly toward the border posts in the truck, the four men suffer in the scorching heat of the desert. This bleak terrain, which symbolizes the ordeals that Palestinians must pass through in the diaspora, provides the context for the stream-of-consciousness narratives that depict each of the character’s fantasies about Kuwait. For Abu Qais, Assad, and Marwan, Kuwait is a paradise, a magic land of wealth and perfection where work is plentiful. Such images are familiar from Moroccan and Mexican literature of illegal immigration, but Kanafani employs them well before they gained currency in literature of the 1990s.

As the truck approaches the first border post, the three men descend into the tank and Abul Khaizuran manages to get past the guards quickly. Tragically, Abul Khaizuran gets delayed at the second post, as a border guard pesters him about a prostitute named Kawkab. After he rushes back to the truck and drives away from the post into Kuwait, Abul Khaizuran discovers that all three men in the tank have died from the extreme desert heat. Abu Qais, Assad, and Marwan, therefore, arrive in the paradise land of Kuwait only after they have died. The novel ends when Abul Khaizuran tosses the bodies of the three men into a trash heap. He pauses to take Marwan’s watch and then leaves, distraught that the three didn’t bang on the sides of the tank to call for help.

Many have sharply criticized this ending, accusing Kanafani of tossing helpless Palestinians into the trash. A more convincing reading, however, would take account of the position of Arab nationalism at the time of the novel’s composition and publication. In the early 1960s, Arab nationalism—the political and philosophical belief that all Arabs would join together to form one nation—dominated the discourse of politicians and activists. Yet if Arab nationalism were anything more than ideology, why did Palestinians have to risk their lives to enter a fellow Arab country? If the Arabs were all one people, why were the Palestinians still living in refugee camps? Seen from this angle, the ending of Men in the Sun shows that perhaps it was the leaders of Arab nationalism—and not Kanafani—who were tossing Palestinians into the garbage.

Akaichi, Mourida. Un théâtre de voyage: dix romans de Mohammed Dibet de Gass an Kanaf. Paris: Harmattan, 2005.
Harlow, Barbara. After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing. London and New York: Verso, 1996

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis, Palestinian Literature

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