This entry seeks to serve as a guide to advanced Arabic students on how to read one of the most critically acclaimed and prominent modern novels in Arabic critically–“Rijal fi al-Shams”/ “رجال في الشمس” /”Men in the Sun.” I hope this entry can serve as both a persuasive argument to read the book and as a way for students without access to formal Arabic literature classes to guide their reading and structure their critiques. It bears note that most Arabic literature classes will assign this book for good reason–so students who reach the advanced-mid/advanced-high level would do well to familiarize themselves with the text. This entry seeks to serve as a guide that is intellectually provocative but minimizes “spoilers.”
The novel is by Ghassan Kanafani, one of the most revered 20th century Arab novelists and perhaps the greatest modern Palestinian novelist of all time. His incisive critique of the Palestinian plight in this novel grapples with complex feeling of loss and betrayal. More importantly, it tackles notions of inter-generational and inter-class conflict as motors of division that serve to encumber the Palestinian cause. It bears particular note that while Kanafani was a militant (who was murdered) for the Palestinian Liberation Struggle and rarely held back on his critiques of the occupation, he appears to deliberately elide explicit mention of occupation forces in this novel.
Learners interested in diving deeply into this text should familiarize themselves with the works of William Faulkner. To many, this will seem a counter-intuitive suggestion. What bearing would a white and racist American author who many have described as edifying the racial hierarchies of the American south have to do with Palestinian liberation? While we should not excuse Faulkner for the political content of his work–his style indeed had bearing on how Arab pioneers of the novel genre structured their writing in the mid-20th century. The “stream of consciousness” style, truncated along different characters, would inspire and give authors like Kanafani the tools to inject Marxist class metaphors into various characters and perspectives.
As such, Kanafani’s work in its literary context asks the reader the following provocative questions:
- How does the author use shifts in perspective and streams of consciousness to illustrate the plight of the Palestinian Liberation Struggle?
- What core conflicts guide the plot of the text and how do these conflicts serve as political metaphors?
- Whose perspective is missing from these metaphors and why? Can these exclusions be excused? (Hint: think about how women are portrayed, or are not, in the novel).
These are very big questions–one’s that might require more political context for reader’s less familiar with the nitty-gritty of Arab politics in 1962. This brings us to our next section.
The novel’s main plot describes a group of various characters trying to smuggle themselves from Iraq into Kuwait amidst an oil price boom in the early 1960s. After the invasion, occupation, and illegal seizure of Palestinian lands in 1948, many educated middle-class Palestinians eventually migrated to places like Kuwait. Gulf states (though particularly Kuwait for a variety of reasons) were in desperate need of a cadre of technicians and bureaucrats to nurture their burgeoning oil industries, administrative corps, and public services. Readers would do well to explore this Palestinian-Kuwaiti connection as a matter of both curiosity and important political context.
Readers should also think carefully about the trajectory of Palestinian resistance in the early 1960s. It bears note that at this time, the Palestinian Liberation Struggle still existed as a regional issue–Pan-Arabist leaders such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser had risen to power rejecting the accommodationist stances and military failures of colonially-backed regimes on the issue. However, leaders like Nasser were starting to flag in their overt support for Palestinian Liberation–constrained by a number of domestic factors and other regional political projects.
As such, readers should ask themselves the following questions:
- How does the author metaphorically depict the agency of Palestinians in their own struggle?
- How do themes such as displacement, loss, and longing for homeland feature in the text?
- What inferences can we draw about the state of Palestinian resistance during this time from the text?
Yet these questions can only be understood through a careful reading that leverages analysis of the characters–specifically on questions of masculinity, sex, gender, and family.
Masculinity as a Metaphor
It is difficult to write about this subject without revealing spoilers–but a few suggestions can be provided. First, readers should think critically about the symbolic role (and name) of Abu Khaizuran. Second, readers should think about the various gender/family dynamics each character finds themselves in as a useful lens to elucidate other political meanings of the text. Third, students familiar with the political economy the Middle East in the post-independence era may draw interesting inferences on what it means for families to be separated in the hopes of seeking remittances–and how this evokes meaning comparisons and specificities of the Palestinian condition.
Conclusion/Bonus: Watch the Film
Readers who want to retroactively appreciate the full symbolism of the text would do well to watch the 1972 film by Egyptian director Tawfik Saleh. While this used to be available on youtube, I unfortunately can no longer find it. Those who can though should pay special attention to a huge discrepancy in the final scene between the book and the movie. Why does this discrepancy exist? What does it say about how politics in Palestine changed between 1962 and 1972?