What you see and hear here is a man who refuses the narratives of the powerful, and throws them back at a confused and clearly unsettled journalist. You don’t have to agree with what Kanafani says, but that is not the point. The point is to notice how Kanafani refuses to allow the journalist to control the narrative, and to define the ethics of it. No matter how the journalists attempts to find a ‘balanced’ way to ask his biased questions, Kanafani refuses him shelter, or allows him a route out of his impasse. We may think of his reactions as unreasonable or rude or mere contrariness, but it is something far more–it is a result of Kanafani’s fundamental realisation that the very idea of Man–the one who is the subject of human rights, of laws of war, of deserving of justice and dignity–is an invention of a very specific time, place, ethnicity and class, and that he, a Palestinian, an Arab, a colonised person, does not fit this definition of Man unless he changes the socio-political context itself. Kanafani understands that Man–that post-Enlightenment subjectivity that many confuse as universal but is in fact a very specifically Europen, White-ethnic construction–has to be destroyed, and that the only way to do this is to tear apart the socio-political structures, ontologies and cultures, from within which it emerges.
Sylvia Wynter har argued that “…we can experience ourselves as human only through the mediation of the process of socialisation effect by the invented tekhne or cultural technology to which we give the name culture” [Sylvia Wynter, Towards The Sociogenic Principle: Fanon, Identity, the Puzzle of Conscious Experience, and What It Is Like to be Black” 2003]. Her point simply is that at any particular moment in history, our conception of Man, and even our own humanity and that of others, is shaped by social, political and cultural forces. It is an affective state, and as such, it becomes critical to setting the horizons of ethics, and politics. Here Wynter is explicitly connecting to Fanon’s concept of sociogeny, his term for how social fictions create concepts such as ‘race’, which then go on to affect subjectivities and shape bodies and sense of belonging [For more, see Julietta Singh, Unthinking Mastery, 2018;54-56]. Kanafani is a near perfect practitioner of Fanon’s argument that decolonisation…
…focuses on and fundamentally alters being, and transforms the spectator crushed to a nonessential state into a privileged actor, captured in a virtually grandiose fashion by the spotlight of History.
Kanafani understands this, and by refusing the words of the coloniser to frame the narrative of that particular historical moment, Kanafani is deliberately constructing a narrative within which he–Arab, Palestinian, dispossessed, discarded and denied–once again becomes the subject who is Man i.e one worthy of justice, of equality and of voice. Kanafani understands that in the framing of the coloniser–here represented by the unthinking and reactionary Australian journalist, one who has inherited the prejudices and presumptions of the very colonial settler history he is a product of–men like him are not-quite-human, and hence unworthy of equal consideration. He understands that to place himself, to describe himself, and to have himself seen as Man, it is the narratives, and the ontologies (categories such as civil war, conflict, etc.) that have to be refused. Kanafani also understands Derrida’s (from Signature, Event, Context) insistence that we not simply attempt to reverse binaries but work to displace them. Kanafani dismantles the questions that are posed to him, avoiding the trap where answering is submitting and imprisoning yourself to the terms of the oppressor, and challenges the categories used, undermines the ontologies of the political narrative offered.
But note, that Kanafani’s is not an individual project. He never speaks about me, or I but always for the community, for the Palestinian people. Most importantly, Kanafani understands that the struggle of Palestine is not an isolate struggle, but related to the broader struggles against colonialism, and for liberation. He knows that Palestinian, and the Israeli settler colonial projects, are European projects, and come as a result of deep seated epistemic, ontological, ethical, moral, juridical, economic and political presumptions and beliefs. He knows that he is not alone, or unique, but just the last of the victims of a form of European racism that may have been in retreat, but remained entrenched at the heart of the European cultural and intellectual project [See Joseph Massad, Islam in Liberalism, 2015; Amy Allen, The End of Progress, 2016; Domenico Lusardo, Liberalism: A Counter History, 2005; Robert C. Young, White Mythologies, 1990 for some further reading]. As Kanafani himself once argued, when speaking about his fiction;
At first I wrote about Palestine as a cause in and of itself…When I portray the Palestinian misery, I am really presenting the Palestinian as a symbol of misery in all the world [Ghassan Kanafani, Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and Other Stories, 2000:24].
It is because of his commitment to a community that words like sacrifice, struggle, liberation and justice even begin to make sense and come to define a cause that is beyond the moment, and beyond the immediate. It is also only when we remain connected to the community, seeing and valuing its collective liberation and struggle, that we begin to unravel the strategies of colonialism which, as Steven Salaita argued;
If the struggles of the Palestinians have resonated across the world, and across time, from Ferguson to Tahrir Square, from the pages of Berger to those of Gide, then it is because they have never lost sight of themselves of victims of historical, trans-national structures and repressive systems, and never allowed themselves to be isolated. In fact, one of the most debilitating intent and outcome of The Oslo Accords was precisely to amputate the broader Palestinian community not only from itself (by fragmenting and dividing the West Bank within itself, from Gaza), both in the Palestinians territories and in the diaspora. Kanafani, speaking at a time in the history of the Palestinian struggle, when their sense of connectedness, of being of one clear struggle was crystal clear, echoes this sense of connectedness, this commitment to being part of a community. These are terms–community, people–that we are told are anachronistic, and discouraged from feeling. Decolonisation can never be for just for an individual.
I want to end by making one last point, which is the one that David Scott has eloquently made in his work Refashioning Futures. That is, that we cannot turn to people like Ghassan Kanafani for answers, but more to help us understand the questions that we face today. The questions that confronted Kanafani in the 1970s, the ones for which he offered his answers, strategies and critical engagements, are not the same questions that we face today in our post-Berlin wall, post-Cold War, neo-liberal, neo-imperial, and neofascist present. It is impossible to ignore Scott’s observation that:
Our postcolonial present is not only defined by the legacy of colonialism. A generation into political sovereignty, what also defines this present is the collapse of the great experiments with socialism that characterised what Samir Amin has called the Bandung Era .…It seems to me that our post-colonial criticism needs a different account of our political modernity, a different account of the political dead ends at which we have unquestioningly arrived [David Scott, Refashioning Futures, 1999:154].
If you listen to Kanafani, you hear a man offering answers to the challenges of his time. His struggles, his answers were in response to an eradication and delegitimisation of the existence and struggle for Palestinian rights. He has won this battle; today, there is near universal acknowledgement of the right of Palestinian nationalism, the recognition of the Palestinian people, the legitimacy and just nature of their demands for liberation from under the yoke of Israeli military occupation. Today, we do not face the same questions, nor even the same historical context, that Kanafani was working in. Today, we have to ask whether the questions posed to Kanafani have any relevance to our current moment, and instead ask what questions should we be asking ourselves in our difficult present. Decolonial projects cannot be a rehashing of nostalgia, nor can it be an easy despondency. Least of all, it cannot be a mere desire for inclusion or belonging in academic, state, artistic, cultural and other institutions that historically benefitted from the prize of colonialism and are in fact deeply entrenched in the colonial settler project itself. I do not offer Kanafani here as a form of nostalgia, or a despondent, romantic longing for a past that never was. I offer him as an example of how to engage with the challenges of the present, and how to keep your eye on the many clever, insidious, and sophisticated ways the powerful have of veiling their interests behind discourses of modernity, democracy, human rights, development and progress. I offer him here as an example of a practice of listening, and a method of narrating.
Kanafani reminds us that one of our most critical responsibilities is question the ontologies of colonial knowledge, and to refuse its narratives, its constructed categories and structures, its underlying dichotomies (man/nature, rationality/superstition, modern/tradition, human/non-human etc.) that continue to justify the pillage of life and nature. Narratives make the man, to paraphrase Fanon and Wynter, and it is the narratives that we have to disentangle from colonial histories of pillage, conquest, enslavement, exploitation and destruction. Kanafani was murdered, but his legacy remains because it reminds us that we are compelled, if we are to liberate ourselves from chains of our own making, to understand the present, so that we can formulate the questions that matter to our present. Men like Kanafani cannot be trapped in a nostalgic memory space, but have to be understood as men of their time, who answered the questions that faced with the best answers at their disposal. Today we face new questions, but must have the courage to formulate them with the clarity and insightfulness of a Kanafani. Our decolonialising struggles and projects must be pursued “…in relation to the political horizon of debates about postcolonial futures” [David Scott, Refashioning Futures, 1999:142].
I will write more about Ghassan Kanafani, his political and fiction writing, his views and his imaginations for a different world. His works will be a key part of the Rebel City project, as Beirut, in the 1970s, offered sanctuary to a number of left and socialist activists and thinkers from around the world. It was to Beirut in the 1970s that Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Eqbal Ahmed, Edward Said and Marmoud Darwish and many others went to find a modicum of safety, and imaginative freedom. As Sumayya Kassamali reminds us:
At the time, Beirut was a centre of modern Arabic culture, brimming with intellectual fervour and anti-colonial thought. During his stay, Faiz took up the editorship of Lotus, a trilingual magazine of international literature jointly funded by the Soviet Union, Egypt, East Germany and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, the umbrella organisation for the factions that formed the Palestinian national movement. Faiz and his wife, Alys, quickly acquired an address by the Mediterranean Sea, spending smoke-filled evenings with Palestinian revolutionaries and fellow exiles. Less than four years later, in 1982, the two were forced to flee Beirut to escape a full-fledged Israeli invasion and siege. But even in the brief time Faiz spent there, the city left its imprint on him. In a poem published in homage after Faiz’s death, the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali—who first obtained permission to translate Faiz’s work into English in a letter he received from Beirut—recalled, “Twenty days before your death you finally/ wrote, this time from Lahore, that after the sack/ of Beirut you had no address.” –– Sumayya Kasamalli, You Had No Address, Caravan Magazine, June 2016.
The Dictator/Self-declared President/General Zia-ul-Haq, a man who led Jordanian forces against PLO fighters during Black September, pushing men like Ghassan Kanafani towards Beirut, was the same man Faiz Ahmed Faiz was fleeing as he sought sanctuary in Beirut. These entangled, messy histories, these ugly, bloody coincidences are hard to miss. But it is impossible not to see that it is criticism, critique, dissent and refusal of the bouquets of unchecked power, that created urban spaces of tremendous imaginative and creative possibilities. Decolonisation, in the end, despite the many forms it may take, is a desire to once again live and breath in world that can imagine justice, and experience equality. It was what Kanafani was fighting for, it was what Faiz Ahmed Faiz sought, and it remains at the heart of all decolonisation projects, regardless of effectively or ineffectively they are attempted.