Breaking Down Walls In Ghassan Kanafani’s All That’s Left to You

Recent publications, such as On Zionist Literature, have pointed to and helped to redress the neglect of Ghassan Kanafani’s non-fiction writings in the Anglophonic world. However, it should be added that Kanafani’s fiction, while traditionally receiving more attention than much of his non-fiction writings, is often itself neglected or else relegated only to highly specialized scholarly circles that too often fail to acknowledge Kanafani’s significant artistic contributions to modern literature. While Kanafani is rarely if ever named among other modern literary giants of his time, his fiction should be regarded as an immeasurable contribution to modern literature. His stories are both deeply moving and groundbreaking from a technical standpoint.

Kanafani’s 1966 novella All That’s Left to You is a masterly crafted story in which the Palestinian organic intellectual and revolutionary martyr displays a narrative genius equal to that of Flann O’Brien, both authors breaking with traditional narrative conventions as a means of storytelling.1Kanafani breaks down the traditional barriers between not just time and space but between the protagonists by juxtaposing their indistinguishable actions. O’Brien is also known for breaking with conventions as a means of storytelling. His novel At Swim-Two-Birds breaks down the distinction between fictional and real within the novel while The Third Policeman uses footnotes as a mechanism of storytelling. Achieving a great deal in a small number pages, Kanafani’s novella reflects the urgency which characterized Kanafani’s own life as a Palestinian revolutionary.2Louis Allday, “A Race Against Time”: The Life and Death of Ghassan Kanafani Mondoweiss, September 2023.

The story revolves around a brother and sister, Hamid and Maryam, living in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Seemingly fragmentary, the interwoven narratives of Hamid and Maryam become increasingly unified. As Kanafani clarifies at the outset,

… the five characters in this novel, Hamid, Maryam, Zakaria, Time and the Desert, do not move along parallel or conflicting lines. In this work we find instead a series of disconnected lines which occasionally come together in such a way that they seem to be making just two strands and no more. This process of fusion also involves the elements of time and place, so that there appears to be no clear distinction between places and times which are far removed from each other, or indeed between places and times at a single moment.3Ghassan Kanafani, All That’s Left to You: A Novella and Other Stories, Interlink Books, 2023. xxi.

The breaking down of the barriers of time and space counters the sense of indefinite isolation and alienation that pervades much of the story.

While the deeply personal manner of storytelling might suggest at first glance that the Zionist colonial project is the backdrop for unraveling familial drama, it is in fact what drives the story and pervades the lives of the Palestinian protagonists. It is also therefore the source of the story’s overarching theme of living with loss—a theme captured in the novella’s title and reinforced by another motif: “If only [mother, Hamid, the kid] were here.” This common longing for lost loved ones invites readers to reflect on the human toll paid by the colonized. A core component of this loss are the barriers of time and space which are erected like walls between loved ones. The family to which Hamid and Maryam are simultaneously a part of and kept from is “surrounded by loss from all sides”:4Ibid, 36. the death of their father at the hands of the Zionists, the separation of their mother who flees to Jordan, and the eventual separation of brother and sister. Another form of loss is not addressed explicitly but is no less present throughout the story—alienation or the loss of self under structures of oppression.

Maryam is reduced to an object for men to trade and own solely on the basis of her being a woman. Throughout the story she experiences and talks about herself as being fragmented and other than herself: “The girl, the girl… she was always wearing my clothes, in my burning body, in my bed. That girl was stranger than death.”5Ibid, 10. And shortly after, “There wasn’t a single large mirror in the house in which I could look at all my body at once. All I could see was my face. When I moved the mirror, the images of my breasts, my belly, my thighs, would appear as a series of disconnected parts belonging to the disembodied figure of a girl being paid the last rites by the merciless mocking beat of the clock’s pendulum against the wall.”6Ibid, 11-12. Readers are confronted with the extreme sense of alienation that Maryam experiences: a sort of perpetual death of the self, observed as if by a separate or external bystander. Not only is she robbed of her loved ones, she is robbed of herself.

Like Maryam’s loss of self under the oppression of patriarchy, Hamid is reduced to a potential victim of colonial violence solely on the basis of being Palestinian. Readers are briefly introduced to the character of Salim—a guerrilla who gives himself up to be executed by the Zionists so as to save others in the camp from indiscriminate violence. While Hamid does not take up arms, he is acutely aware of the fact that he could be the next person killed after witnessing Salim’s execution. He expresses this fear to Maryam, who appears not to understand: “They killed Salim because he’s… well you don’t need me to spell it out… but why should they kill you?”7Ibid, 29. Unlike his sister, Hamid is well aware that the goal of Zionism is—despite claims that persist to this day—not defensive but genocidal in nature. Such genocidal intent is apparent in current Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for Israeli soldiers to “remember what Amalek has done to you.” This reference to the systematic extermination of the Amalekites in the Bible is one of many open calls for systematic extermination of Palestinians in Gaza.8The East is a Podcast: South Africa presents its case against Israel at the ICJ During Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza thousands of ‘Hamids’ have been murdered as retaliation for their mere existence. Kanafani reflects the consciousness of the colonized with Hamid’s well-founded fear. Faced with the horrific likelihood of being a victim of indiscriminate colonial violence, Hamid resolves to follow his mother’s footsteps in seeking refuge in Jordan—a journey that entails the increased threat of colonial violence.

Both Hamid and Maryam later assert their humanity by confronting their oppressors who are embodied in an unnamed Israeli soldier and Maryam’s husband, Zakaria, respectively.9Representing patriarchal oppression, Zakaria also personifies cowardice and treachery among the colonized, thus making the character a perfect foil for the revolutionary ideals of Kanafani and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Nowhere is Kanafani’s narrative inventiveness and subversive creativity more apparent than in this juxtaposition of Hamid and Maryam, whose narratives build off of and echo one another in a climax of struggle that cuts through and breaks down dual barriers of time and space. Although readers are never presented with a definitive moment of final victory, the breaking down of these barriers provides a glimpse of hope in a continued struggle which both unites and extends far beyond the personal experiences of brother and sister.

Read in the context of Israel’s ongoing genocide of Palestinians in Gaza, All That’s Left to You reflects the psychological torment of colonial occupation as well as the potentially liberating agency of the oppressed which leaves the future open to further struggle and therefore liberation. As the Lebanese writer and critic Elias Khoury states in their reflection on Kanafani’s fiction and its relation to the reality of the Palestinian struggle, “He who writes the losses also writes the dreams… turning dark despair into the ferment of hope.”10 Elias Khoury, “Remembering Ghassan Kanafani, or How a Nation Was Born of Story Telling”, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol XLII, No. 3 (Spring 2013), 88.

In depicting the hope of liberation that emerges from within the context of extreme, and seemingly inescapable oppression, Kanafani’s short novella encapsulates a “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will,” which refuses to either turn away from the brutal reality of colonial occupation or resign the oppressed to the violence of structural determinism. Kanafani does not shy away from depicting the often-suffocating reality of colonialism. At the same time, he refuses to give into hopeless despair. The source of hope, which flickers like candlelight against border walls, is the drive to not only exist in defiance but to physically assert oneself and people. This is the underlying message of the novella. It is through armed struggle that the colonized find power and therefore hope in a world beyond the colonial walls.

Christian Noakes is a worker, writer, and editor at Iskra Books. His work has been featured in publications such as Monthly Review, Peace Land and Bread, An Spréach, and Industrial Worker.

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Ghassan Kanafani