Reading the English version for "Men in the Sun" for Bonus DEADLINE is 14/04/2012
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By: Ghassan Kanaafani
Men In The Sun: Stories from Palestine
Men in the Sun is a slight volume of 7 short stories, the longest only 52 pages. Published in 1999 in an English translation byHilary Kilpatrick, from the original Palestinian Arabic, the original stories were all written before 1972 when the author, Ghassan Kanafani, was blown up along with his car, in Beirut, Lebanon on his way to work. So it took some 27 years to get this small part of his writing into the most widely read language in the world, and another 11 years for me to run across it as recommended reading from an Arabic on-line reading group, Kutub, in Dubai. Their October book was this one.
The situations described in the stories, as short as Umm Saad, 3 pages, as blackly comic as The Hand In The Grave, 9 pages, or as unforgettable as the title story, Men in the Sun, 52 pages, still exist. The excruciating poverty, as in Umm Saad:
…as in The Hand in The Grave. Nabil announces he is going out early in the morning to take a corpse from a grave. His father calls upon God to witness his shame at having sent his son to medical school. Are all the students going grave robbing this morning, he asks:
…as in The Men in the Sun. Three Palestinians, separately, bargain with “the fat man” to get themselves smuggled into Kuwait where they might find work and send it home to their families.
As deeply felt as the poverty — already in 1970– is the despair, the lack of hope.
In The Land of Sad Oranges, an extended family is hustled into the back of a truck as Israel (the Jews) attacks Acre, where the father had long and lovingly cultivated orange trees. They reach Sidon, and now are officially refugees. The narrator, a young boy, begins to doubt, against his religious schooling, that God wants people to be happy…
Or the totally sad sentence written by an unnamed young man to his friend Mustafa, in California:
What is most impressive about these slender stories though is that, whatever the author’s political commitments — and they were deep– they do not take over the telling. They are not “socialist realism” written to a formula to satisfy a party boss or perceived correct militancy. Poverty and defeat are the setting but they appear briefly in the stories, nosing up here and there, while the lives play out – in the conversation between Umm Saad and the narrator about her son Saad gone missing, in the discovery of a son why his father has said to him since he can remember, “If you were a horse I would kill you.”
The story you won’t be able to forget is Men in the Sun. It begins in three brief parts, each about one of the three men, each come to find a way to Kuwait; each with his own slender biography and reason for risking the savage heat of the desert. Each confronts the haggling “fat man” trying to balance how little they can pay against the risks they are taking, and the perceived honesty of the smugglers. They set out with a driver, outside the fat man’s network who charges them less and seems to be an honest man. He proposes to take them through two checkpoints inside an empty water tank truck. And then the desert begins. They get to the first stop, around the bend so they won’t be seen.
In some ways it is a familiar story. We have read of Mexican workers being smuggled through California, found in the back of refrigerator trucks. It is the story of Africans getting to Sweden. Now we know it is the story of Palestinians as well, desperately crossing the borders that divide the super wealthy from the super poor, trying to feed their families. Playing dice with the devil to do it.
This story is now regarded as a key fictional text in modern Middle Eastern writing.