Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What literature can do: the case of Palestine

I worked late last night and am using comp time to start work late today so I have a few minutes to blog, finally. Finally to return to my intermittent effort at tackling some of the Big Questions that are the whole basis for this blog. Questions about literature and the class struggle, how the two intersect or don't or should or could or can't. Don't get too excited -- I do only have a few minutes so as usual I can take only a dip in the shallows of these very deep waters but that, also as usual, will have to do.

The question that rises most often in my own mind is what use literature is for the class struggle. I've been fiddling with a number of vague notions about possible answers. One reason I haven't fulfilled my repeated promises to address this issue here is that I haven't managed to sharpen those notions into something less vague. But this morning I think I can take a stab at it, and the reason is Palestine.

I just finished reading Palestine's Children by Ghassan Kanafani, the writer, journalist and leading figure in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who was assassinated by the Mossad in 1972. The book consists of a number of short stories and the longer story or novella "Returning to Haifa." While all the stories are deep, true and affecting, this last piece is devastatingly powerful and with its power points the way, I think, to at least part of the answer to these questions I've been asking.

The story tells of a middle-aged couple, Said and Saffiya, who go to Haifa in the days after the 1967 war when, for the first time since April 1948, the Israeli state permits its former inhabitants to enter the city. Said and Saffiya were among those who were driven out -- from their home and from their city, literally driven into the sea -- and while they have survived as refugees they have never stopped yearning for their home and the impossible loss they suffered when they were ousted from it and never till now allowed to go back. For their loss went beyond walls and possessions or even sentiment, tradition, memory. Their 6-month-old baby was left alone in their home that day in 1948, and they never knew what became of him.

Now they find out. A Jewish couple, survivors of the Nazi holocaust, were given Said and Saffiya's house in Haifa -- and with it, their infant son Khaldun. While the woman at first had qualms about the whole sordid business and tried to talk her husband into leaving "Israel" and going to Italy, ultimately they stayed. They raised the child as their own, renaming him Dov. By the time his real parents come back he is a young man, and a member of the Israeli army. Presented with the reality of his heritage but filled with the ideology of Zionism with which he has been inculcated, he rejects, even insults, his Palestinian parents. They leave, brokenhearted but with a renewed understanding of what was done to them and their people and a renewed, clear-eyed commitment to the armed struggle to reclaim their homeland.

With "Returning to Haifa" I think Kanafani shows how literature can serve the struggle. For one thing, it is a document that testifies to the perfidious crime of Zionism, the violent, murderous expulsion of the Palestinian people from their land, their homes. It tells a truth that was long suppressed. For Palestinians, it must have been when first published and must still be precious for telling this truth. For others, from whom the truth about the creation of the Israeli settler state has been withheld, all those good-hearted people who have been suckered into supporting Israel because it's supposedly somehow a guarantee against another anti-Jewish holocaust, this story is an opportunity to start hearing some reality. For Jews in Israel, those few who can bear to open their eyes to honesty, open their minds, open themselves to the fact that they have been lied to utterly, that they have been and continue to be used as cannon fodder in a racist project on behalf of Big Oil, reading "Returning to Haifa" must be a revelation. Or would be, for it's hard to imagine that any do.

And what of U.S. Jews? I thought about this as I read this book on the train and in the park over the last few days, wondered what any Jewish New Yorker might think when they saw the cover with its title Palestine's Children. For those who hew to the gospel of Zionism, the very word Palestine is inflammatory, implying as it does that, yes, there is a nation that, yes, holds claim to that land. But the happy fact is that the lock-step allegiance to Israel and its foundation the racist ideology of Zionism is no longer absolute among U.S. Jews. The suffering of the Palestinian people and the widespread worldwide support for their cause have, over these last 20 years or so, broken the chokehold Zionism once had. Still, it remains dominant here.

For people of any nationality or ethnicity, especially workers and the oppressed, whose bent is to feel sympathy and solidarity with those fighting for national liberation, against racism, for social justice, the natural instinct has to be to stand with the Palestinians. If only they have a chance to hear the Palestinians' story. In this country that's no small thing, for the Zionist version of the so-called Middle East conflict is standard. It's very hard for another narrative to break through. A narrative like Kanafani's in "Returning to Haifa," fictional to be sure, but deeply honest and true. What if one of those "one city one book" campaigns took up this book by this author? What if tens of thousands of people read this deeply affecting story about the expulsion of the Palestinians?