Men in the sun

Emily Jacir, Memorial to the 418 Palestinian villages that were destroyed, depopulated and occupied by Israel in 1948, 2001.


Considerations about Ghassan Kanafani's book

In the month in which Nakba turns 76, we celebrate the work of Ghassan Kanafani, where the voices of those who were silenced find expression, keeping their memory and the fight for rights and dignity alive. Celebrating his legacy in this context is recognizing the importance of literature as a tool of resistance and of the written word as a space for the preservation of collective memory and inspiration for the continuous search for justice, freedom and peace.

The soap opera Men in the Sun (1963) is a poetic tragedy intertwined with the shackles of the history of the Palestinian people, and became, together with its author, Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972), one of the luminous pillars of Arabic literature, standing as an abundant source of inspiration for his generation and beyond her through her words that echo through time imbued with power and meaning.

The Palestinian writer, journalist and activist Ghassan Kanafani, born in 1936 in the city of Akka, now considered Israeli territory, in northern Palestine, grew up immersed in the political and cultural turmoil of the region, when at the age of 12, as a result of the catastrophe resulting from the creation of the State of Israel, in May 1848, he was forced to abandon Yafa, the city where he lived with his family, today annexed to the Israeli city of Tel-Aviv, and seek refuge in Lebanon and later in Syria, witnessing firsthand, the vicissitudes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until his premature death in 1972, caused by a bomb planted in his car by the Israeli intelligence service.

Transmuting all his activism into literary works that are, above all, an ode to the resistance of the Palestinian people, the novel Men in the sun, reveals the destinies of three souls thirsty for a dignified life who intertwine in the burning search for hope under the merciless desert sun. While reading, we are transported to a place where we can feel how the sun and heat are relentless and how, despite this, people are still willing to face them, as the suffering of remaining in their lands seems more aggressive to them. than trying to cross borders illegally.

It is because of this impetus for survival and this thread of hope that, resignedly, they launch themselves into the sun even in the face of imminent death. This observation reveals to us the meaning of the work’s title, Men in the sun and throughout the reading it raises a dramatic question: would it be better for them to remain in their place of origin, to live, perhaps in better conditions, but in exile, or, who knows, could they find an option in death?

Through references to land and landscape that permeate the entire book, Ghassan Kanafani evokes a deep connection between the characters and their homeland, using images not only as descriptions of natural elements, but as symbols of the resilience of the Palestinian people. The land becomes more than a setting. He is a living, pulsating character, who whispers memories and promises of a lost past, and can also represent loss and exile.

The characters' departure from their homelands represents not only the loss of material housing, but also the rupture of emotional and cultural ties with the land that saw them born. Forced exile separates them from their roots and goes against the Zionist narrative that treats the Arab world as a homogeneous whole, considering that anywhere in it the Palestinian people would be welcomed.

We immediately observe this attachment to the land, in the opening scene of the book, when we are introduced to the first character, Abu-Qays, and we see him lying with his chest glued to the ground, feeling the pulse of the heart of the land itself in his chest, like a reminder of the ancestral connection between the Palestinian people and their land, which when added to the dew and grains of sand create yet other dimensions, and the smell of the wet earth synaesthetically reminds the character of the smell of his wife's wet hair when leaving the bath. This transcendental connection is the guiding thread throughout the narrative, reminding us that the earth, more than simply a geographic location, is the foundation of a shared identity and history.

Divided into seven short chapters, but immersed in a narrative steeped in lament and nostalgia, the book tells the story of three men in search of refuge and better living conditions in another country, who survive among the memories of the past, the resistance of the present and the hope of, perhaps, having a future. And in this scenario of weakness, the protagonists Abu-Qays, Assaad and Marwan emerge as tragic figures as they see their destinies intertwined by a common objective: to leave Basra, in Iraq, which stands as a scene of oppression and misery, to cross the border , without legal authorization, and arrive in Kuwait, a country that shines in their imagination as an oasis of hope.

When we look at the vibrant historical context of Kuwait in the 1950s, it becomes clear why it was chosen as a destination country and the right path to a future of prosperity. The story, which takes place in 1958, reveals Kuwait as a fleeting paradise for those seeking refuge and clinging to the hope that the economic boom, driven by oil, will also reach them, making their arrival in the country, beyond of a livable destination, symbolizes the achievement of freedom and dignity. While Kuwait flourished with exponential economic growth, Palestine was marked by tragedy.

In Basra, soon the oasis of hope begins to transform into a mirage, a shimmering illusion in the scorching desert, as they are faced with insurmountable obstacles and harrowing choices. Without money to pay the amount charged by the smuggler who promises safe passage, the men are overcome by exasperation.

When the enigmatic figure of Beanpole, driver of a tank truck who, authorized to cross the border, appears, as a dark guide or as a miraculous crossing solution, appears, offering a fragile bridge between despair and the promise of a better life, proposing clandestinely crossing them through surveillance points in the heat of the morning, taking advantage of the guards' negligence under the burning desert sun. The offer, although apparently liberating, is, above all, dangerous, as it confines them in a metal tank, where the scorching heat would become an unbearable burden and turn the structure into a burning greenhouse as the hours pass.

With the only, and unacceptable, option to remain in Iraq, the men accept the offer.

In the thin thread that separates truth from illusion and choice from obligation, we are led to question whether the possession of the power of choice is real for these men and whether the decision they make is an irreproachable expression of their free will. What agreement is possible given the fate imposed on them by time and history? Is freedom of choice genuine and unquestionable? Such questions reverberate incessantly in our minds and take on even more substance when we come across the insistent speech of the smuggler who charged more than they could pay – “I'm not forcing anyone to do anything” – as if only physical and explicit violence were a capable tool. impose itself on the legitimate will, taking us back to the metaphor constructed by the author himself in one of his interviews, “Is there a dialogue between the neck and the sword?”.

It is in this scenario contained between the possible and the improbable that the four leave for Kuwait, leaving the protagonists at the mercy of a cruelly uncertain destiny while we learn a little more about the story of Beanpole, a man who tries to appear hardened and indifferent to the conditions of the men he carries in his truck, and who struggles between the harshness of his fate and the compassion that unites him to a common fraternity, pierced by the tragedy of exile.

From that moment on we find ourselves inserted into a harrowing narrative, in the midst of a race against time that leads to the characters' tragic outcome. Where we share the heat, the despair, the suffocating atmosphere and the feeling of complete powerlessness in the face of events. Where the silence of the desert swallows dreams and hopes transcending borders and times, leaving only the echo of the challenges faced by those who dare to dream of a better life, leaving us with only one unanswered question: “Why didn't they hit the sides of the tank? ? Why? Why?".

In the author's words, the entire desert echoed this question along with Beanpole.

As we follow Ghassan Kanafani's novel, we feel the winds of historical change and see how Abu-Qays, Assaad and Marwan represent not only individuals, but symbolize a nation that sees its destiny traced to its complete disregard. This impression becomes even more evident when we notice the generation difference between the characters. Abu-Qays; an older man, connected to the land and a nostalgic past. Assaad; a young man who aims to transcend the constraints of tradition and achieve full freedom and Marwan who, at just 16 years old, sees his dreams shattered and feels forced to face an uncertain future.

The overlapping of temporalities causes the past, present and future to become confused in the same thread of despair and leads us to see the exile of the Palestinian people as a condition that perpetuates itself, suspending space-time and freezing the history of a people in a moment of anguish, where the story of one becomes the story of all.

Ghassan Kanafani constructs his prose not only by sequencing facts, but by capturing and helping to build the identity of a people who for decades have resisted a process of disidentification directly aggravated by the repeated need to abandon their lands, and who claim their territory so that they can have return to your nation. His politically charged writing also sheds light on the complexities of colonialism, imperialism and economic exploitation in the region and, amid the piercing echo of emptiness in the final scene, we are invited to reflect and confront the complexity of the human condition beyond of the author's words.

The soap opera Men in the sun is just one of the author's diverse works, which are divided between collections of short stories, novels, books and articles that show us his roots deep in the heart of Arab and Palestinian culture. We feel its pulse through its penetrating narratives and incisive positions that break away from parochial reductionism and extend the Palestinian cause to all the exploited and oppressed masses of our era, introducing it as a cause for all revolutionaries, wherever they are.

*Joyce Cipriano Victurino is gstudent in Science and Humanities and International Relations at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC).


Ghassan Kanafani. Men in the sun. Translation: Safa Jubran. São Paulo, Editora Tabla, 2023, 104 pages. []

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