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World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
Max Brooks

Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories

Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories - Ghassan Kanafani, Hilary Kilpatrick A good (if short) collection. Apart from the title novella, I probably most enjoyed "Letter from Gaza" - an elegy that attempts to put forward, in a very visceral way, why Arabs (still?) care about Palestine, and why they should care, even in the face of hopelessness or adversity. But although Kanafani is clearly a Palestinian writer, his writing is not in any way overdetermined or limited by this - although most of his characters are Palestinian, their hopes, fears, and experiences chime with those of people elsewhere in the world. What underlies it all is a very specific, very strange fascination with the intertwining of life and death, or death constantly "eating away" at life, quashing any hopes of fulfillment, always hanging somewhere at the margins.

The title novella ("Men in the Sun") is great. It tells of three Palestinian men, of three different generations, that seek to get smuggled across from Basra to Kuwait. After facing derision and high fees on visiting a professional smuggler, they get a more palatable offer from a different man - a Palestinian like them - who works for a local strongman driving a water cistern to and fro across the border. He hides them in the empty cistern, and then gets delayed at the border - only for about 10 minutes or so, and for an extremely silly reason; but once on the other side, he discovers the three men had died inside the tank. He disposes of their bodies at night, ashamed, throwing them on a rubbish heap, but they do not cease hunting him.

There is a strong symbolic and political aspect to the story, but I particularly enjoyed the style - flipping around the current and past experiences of the three men and the driver, a mesmerizing play of "free association" that jumps from the desert sun reflecting in the windshield to a bright hospital light during a painful post-operation experience. Again, it shows the interrelation of hope and despair, of humanity's "ingenuity" to pick at life and continue to find chances even in the face of clearly unbearable odds, of disasters that destroy them more and more. The journey of hope - possibly giving employment in Kuwait to the three men, and profit for the erstwhile smuggler - has been brought about by histories of pain, both physical and emotional, many following from the Palestinian tragedy, but certainly not of a type specific to it.

The desert sun that boils the men in their tank thus takes on the role of not only the cruelty of the world for Palestinians specifically, but also a broader symbolic scope: that of the life-giving force that also kills, the destructive aspect that always hides, however well-hidden, in the core of human existence. The Palestinians "take the risk" of being smuggled across because they want to provide a good life to themselves or their families, to extricate feelings of complete hopelessness from their lives; but the only way to do so is to plunge into a liminal space, where they have to have a brush with death in order to try pushing it away. They need to step up for a direct confrontation of what ails them; they need to admit to themselves the cruelty of the world, and pass through "Hell" (the tank) in order to get to "Paradise" (Kuwait). In a sense, little remains to them but death; and the ending is decidedly ambiguous, leaving us wondering whether a "true" death is in fact all that much worse from a life at which death is constantly nibbling.

So, despite the political symbolism, Kanafani is a good writer for it not to overtake his characters, and lets them develop in a specific world animated by a philosophy that goes beyond the confines of the Palestinian knot. Definitely a book I want to read in the original Arabic if I get my hands on it!