Ghassan Kanafani’s long story Men in the Sun (1962) is now regarded as a key fictional text in modern Middle Eastern writing. It’s also curiously contemporary, both in its setting – Iraq – and in its topic of economic migrants and people smugglers.
Men in the Sun tells the story of three Palestinian refugees who dream of reaching Kuwait in order to find lucrative employment there. With the money they earn they hope to help their impoverished families left behind in the refugee camps. But the route out of Jordan, across Iraq and into Kuwait is a hard one. The refugees require the assistance of people smugglers and there is the ever-present hazard of being ripped-off and fooled by dodgy middlemen and guides who take you to the wrong place and then run away.
The story dramatises a world infinitely remote from a comfortable middle class first world urban existence. Its continuing interest resides not simply in its mediation of a particular historical moment – the setting seems to be Iraq in 1958 or 1959 – or in its poetic realism, sensuously evoking a sweltering desert landscape, but in its narrative power as the expression of dispossession and abortive dreams and, more concretely, as a highly charged metaphor for Palestinian identity in the late 1950s.
It’s a story of human suffering and tragedy that climaxes in a different sort of suffering and tragedy. It’s also a narrative where not a lot happens; the action is as much internal as external. Dreaming and remembering preoccupy the four central characters; none of them can escape the burden of the past. In transition between the past and the future, their situation is one of stagnation, frustration and inertia. Men in the Sun is a narrative which, in its slow pacing, enacts the entrapment of its characters. When they do at last get on the road to Kuwait they are fated never to reach their destination. Action and movement lead only to entrapment and death. As it’s a story difficult to get hold of in Britain, I shall describe it in some detail.
The four central characters – strangers to each other but all Palestinians – meet up by accident in Basra, Iraq. Three of them hope to find someone to smuggle them over the border; the fourth turns out to be the person who will help them. Each refugee represents an aspect of Palestinian dispossession. Abu Qais has a wife and son. He also had an infant daughter who died of malnutrition in the refugee camp. He longs for his modest crop, now in Zionist hands: ‘Ten trees with twisted trunks that brought down olives and goodness every spring.’
His wife has lost patience with his dreams of the past and urged him to go off to Kuwait and make some money:
In the last ten years you have done nothing but wait. You have needed ten big hungry years to be convinced that you have lost your trees, your house, your youth, and your whole village. People have been making their own way during these long years, while you have been squatting like an old dog in a miserable hut. What do you think you were waiting for?
Abu Qais responds to his wife’s complaints and leaves for Kuwait. He dreams of being able to send his son to school, of buying one or two olive shoots, of being able to build a shack somewhere. In Basra he encounters Assad, who has been smuggled from Jordan to Iraq but abandoned out in the desert, by a pumping station on the oil pipeline from Kirkuk to the Mediterranean:
The sun was pouring flame down on his head, and as he climbed the yellow slopes, he felt he was alone in the wole world. He dragged his feet over the sand as though he were walking on the seashore after pulling up a heavy boat that had drained the firmness from his legs. He crossed hard patches of brown rocks like splinters, climbed low hills with flattened tops of soft yellow earth like flour. If they had taken me to the desert prison, Al-Jafra, at H4, I wonder if life would have been kinder than it is now. Pointless, pointless. The desert was everywhere.
Assad survives to make it to Basra. His uncle has given him fifty dinars, on the understanding that when he returns with money from Kuwait he’ll marry his daughter Nada. But Assad has no wish to marry his cousin. Nevertheless he takes the money.
The third refugee heading east is Marwan, for whom ‘the last threads of hope that had held together everything inside him for long years had been snapped’ He is 16 years old. His family has fallen apart in exile. His brother Zakaria left for Kuwait long ago, but got married there and no longer sends money home. His father, sick of his impoverished existence in a mud house, has divorced his wife and left his children in order to marry a friend’s daughter, Shafiqa. Marwan’s father’s ambition was simply to live under a concrete roof in his old age. Shafiqa is a woman no one wants to marry because her right leg was amputated after she was wounded when the Jews bombarded Jaffa. But she owns a three-roomed concrete house, making her a very desirable prospect. His father ‘thought about the matter; if he let two rooms and lived with his lame wife in the third, he would live out the rest of his life in security, untroubled by anything. And more important than that, under a concrete roof.’
Marwan is an idealist, who finds himself staying in ‘a miserable hotel at the end of the world’. He wants to become a doctor and to repair the damage caused by his father’s abandonment of his family:
‘He would send every penny he earned to his mother, and overwhelm her and his brothers and sisters with gifts till he made the mud hut into a paradise on earth and his father bite his nails with regret.’
His father, in fact, still cares for his family but adopts a fatalistic attitude to life. He tells his son: ‘Marwan, you know that I have had no choice in the matter. It is something that has been decreed for us since the beginning of creation.’
Shafiqa invites the mother to come and live with them but she refuses. Marwan recalls visiting his father and his new wife:
She was sitting on a carpet of goatskin. The stick was lying beside her, and he thought: ‘I wonder where her thigh ends?’ Her face was beautiful, but hard-featured like the faces of all those who are incurably ill, and her lower lip was twisted as though she were about to cry.
Marwan brings Assad to a meeting with Abul Khaizuran, who is waiting with Abu Qais. Abul Khaizuran, a fellow Palestinian, is the dodgy guide who promises to get them to Kuwait. He’s a cynic, telling Marwan that in Kuwait, ‘The first thing you will learn is: money comes first, and then morals.’ In his own pragmatic way he’s a Muslim. He’s also symbolically impotent. What others don’t know is that his genitals were blown off when the Zionists fought the Palestinians in 1948.
Khaizuran explains to the other three he drives a water tanker that is licensed to cross the frontier from Iraq into Kuwait. It’s owned by a rich man Haj Rida and so isn’t kept waiting or searched. He says he has been with Haj Rida and his guests on a hunting trip but has been detained in Basra for two days because of a small fault with the lorry. He explains that the three Palestinians can hide inside the water tanker. They only have to get inside for five minutes at the two border crossings.
Marwan asks if there’s any water in the tanker. Abul Khaizuran laughs: ‘What are you thinking of? Am I a swimming teacher? Listen, my boy, the tank hasn’t seen any water for six months.’ Assad quietly points out that Khaizuran has just told them he was carrying water for a hunting expedition. In short, Khaizuran is a liar. The truth is he’s working for a smuggler, doing a little business of his own on the side.
Khaizuran warns them about the fat man who also promises to get refugees across the border into Kuwait. The fat man sent three men off with a guide who abandoned them and two of them died. The third is in prison. Khaizuran warns them of the risks if they go with smugglers. He describes the skeletons he has seen in the desert.
Like his clients, he dreams of a better life:
‘Shall I tell you the truth? I want more money, more money, much more. And I find it difficult to accumulate money honestly. Do you see this miserable being which is me? I have some money. In two years I’ll leave everything and settle down. I want to relax, to stretch out, to rest in the shade, thinking or not thinking. I don’t want to make a single movement. I’ve had more than enough exhaustion in my life. Yes indeed, more than enough.’
The others agree to Abul Khaizuran’s plan, which is to travel with him in his empty water tanker. At the two border crossings all they have to do is hide inside for no more than a few minutes while he goes through customs. They travel in silence:
None of the four wanted to talk anymore, not only because they were exhausted by their efforts but because each one was swallowed up in his own thoughts. The huge lorry was carrying them along the road, together with their dreams, their families, their hopes and ambitions, their misery and despair, their strength and weakness, their past and fuiture, as if it were pushing against the immense door to a new, unknown destiny, and all eyes were fixed on the door’s surface as though bound to it by invisible threads.
The dialogue, gently comic, is ominous: ‘Ha! The climate will be like the next world inside there.’
Hellish it turns out to be. They get through the first police post, at Safwan. But the heat inside the tanker is devastating. After just a few minutes of scalding heat the three Palestinians are so weak and exhausted they can barely climb out again. Assad, paradoxically, complains of the cold. But it’s the coldness of his imminent death. The rust makes his chest look as if he’s spattered with blood. The faces of all the men inside the tanker, when they emerge, are ‘yellow and mummified’. Khaizuran himself ‘seemed to have aged’.
They reach the second post, at Mutlaa. Khaizuran promises his three passengers that they will be inside the tanker for only seven minutes at the longest. But the officials at the border crossing detain him. One is obsessed by the notion that Khaizuran has a woman in Basra and wants confirmation of his erotic fantasy. By the time Khaizuran gets back to his tanker and is able to open the hatch 21 minutes have passed. There is no movement inside. The three men inside have died.
Khaizuran drives at night to a municpal rubbish tip and leaves the bodies there. “There was thick darkness everywhere, and he was relieved that he would be saved by it from seeing the faces.” He is driving away when he stops, goes back, and takes the money from their pockets, as well as a watch.
The story ends:
As he returned to the lorry and lifted one leg up, a sudden thought flashed into his mind. He stood rigid in his place, trying to do or say something. He thought of shouting, but immediately realised what a stupid idea that was. He tried to finish climbing into the lorry, but didn’t feel strong enough. He thought that his head would explode. All the exhaustion which he felt suddenly rose in his hands and began to pull his hair to expel the thought. But it was still there, huge and resounding, unshakeable and inescapable. He turned to look back to where he had left the corpses, but he could see nothing, and that glance simply set the thought ablaze so that it began to burn in his mind. All at once he could no longer keep it within his head, and he dropped his hands to his sides and stared into the darkness with his eyes wide open.
The thought slipped from his mind and ran onto his tongue: “Why didn’t they knock on the sides of the tank?” He turned right round once, but he was afraid he would fall, so he climbed into his seat and leaned his head on the wheel.
“Why didn’t you knock on the sides of the tank? Why didn’t you say anything? Why?”
The desert suddenly began to send back the echo:
“Why didn’t you knock on the sides of the tank? Why didn’t you bang the sides of the tank? Why? Why? Why?”
What Kanafani does in this story is dramatise the hopelessness and passivity of the mass of Palestinians in the late nineteen fifties. Ten years after being driven from their homes, their land and their country by armed Zionists, Palestinians are reduced to a miserable and impoverished existence in the refugee camps. There they long for their lost world and dream of material improvements. Their family units collapse. Marriages turn sour. Young men go off in search of a better life. But ultimately these are a people on the rubbish dump of history.
What is missing is politics. What is missing is resistance to Zionism. The characters all accept their fate. And historically the story seems accurately to catch the mood of the time. Israel’s smashing of Egypt in the 1956 Sinai war displayed once again the overwhelming military superiority of Zionism and the folly of hoping that any Arab state would liberate Palestine from its Zionist occupiers. And among the Palestinians themselves there was no coherent organisation or opposition to Israel. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was not founded until 1964.
When it was published, Men in the Sun caused uproar and outrage in some quarters of the Arab world. It was read as an attack on both Palestinians and the Arab states. In the words of the story’s translator, Hilary Kilpatrick:
On one level it can be read as an exposé of their weakness in preferring the search for material security over the fight to regain their land, and also as an attack on the corruption of the Arab regimes that allowed them to suffocate in an airless, marginal world of refugee camps.
In one sense, the situation of the Palestinian people has not changed since Men in the Sun was first published. They remain a suffering people, cruelly dispossessed and marginalised. But in another sense, everything has changed. They no longer passively accept their fate. They knock on the sides of the tanker. They shout. They no longer accept in silence what has been done to them. And the fiction of Ghassan Kanafani forms one part of that resistance, which is how he would have wanted it.
Ghassan Kanafani, ‘Men in the Sun’ and Other Palestinian Stories (Translated from the Arabic by Hilary Kilpatrick), Lynne Rienner Publishers (Boulder, Colorado/London, 1999)
The argument of this article continues as an attempt to prove that Silko’s Ceremony and Kanafani’s Men in the Sun both work to destroy nationhood while building personhood in an attempt to create a feeling of “place” in the world and in the societies of the main characters in these two works. The final claim in this work is that these two novels show that the “femaleness of the land” is evident, which leaves the male protagonists confused (255).
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