Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Resistance Literature Revisited: From Basra to Guantanamo

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Resistance Literature Revisited: From Basra to Guantanamo

Article excerpt

Taking the recent publication of memoirs by former Guantanamo detainees as an occasion for revisiting the question and possibility of resistance in literature, this article reads these memoirs against Ghassan Kanafani's 1962 novella Men in the Sun, remembering the call to action the novella's tragic ending embodied. The author asks whether or not the so-called "question of Palestine" and the enduring struggle of the Palestinian people can articulate a model for resistance that might be taken up against contemporary challenges and dominant forms of power; confronting the post-9/11 ideology of a "war on terror" that enables repeated and flagrant violations of human rights.

Introduction: Banging on the Walls of the Truck

The thought slipped from his mind and ran onto his tongue: "Why didn't they knock on the sides of the tank?" He turned right round once, but he was afraid he would fall, so he climbed into seat and leaned his head on the wheel.

"Why didn't you knock on the sides of the tank? Why didn't you say anything? Why?"

The desert suddenly began to send back the echo:

"Why didn't you knock on the sides of the tank?

Why didn't you bang the sides of the tank? Why? Why? Why? (Ghassan Kanafani, Men in the Sun 74)

The last lines of Ghassan Kanafani's novella, Men in the Sun, set in 1958 but first published in Arabic in 1962, provoked an initial furor of critical response: Why, its readers asked at the time, should Palestinians be represented as the passive victims, unwittingly suffocating to death inside the empty water tank of a truck on the Iraq/Kuwait border? Why should Palestinians be represented as the unwanted, unwarranted detritus of a dominant narrative, an international process that had fatally turned its Palestinian protagonists into hapless refugees and unfortunate economic migrants, seeking menial, hardly remunerated, labor in Kuwait?

Those same lines that concluded Kanafani's novella, echoing from the desert desolation, resound again, some forty-four years later, no less desolately but every bit as demandingly, in the memoir by former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, Enemy Combatant (2006), who recals one of his many transports to yet another interrogation during what the "British Muslim" describes as the "most profound and difficult period of my life to date" (xiv):

   Sweat was streaming down my face, and I could feel it
   lying inside the shackles. I said, "I really, really, need
   some water, please."

      "I can't open the door from inside. They won't
   open the door until we arrive." He could have banged on
   the door, or used his radio, but he decided to wait. The
   military rigidity, the inability to grasp a situation with
   common humane sense, the absolute lack of flexibility,
   was something that really ground me down, although I
   always tried to control my fury. Suddenly, I vomited right
   there inside the vehicle. As it was a medical van, there
   was a bucket in it, which the guard managed to place near
   me. Eventually he banged on the door hard enough to get
   attention. The truck stopped, and they gave me some
   water, and helped me out. (225)

Why didn't you knock on the sides of the truck? Why didn't you bang on the walls of the tank? He could have banged on the door, after all, or used his radio. "Why, why," Abul Khaizuran--the Men in the Sun's truck driver--appeals to the corpses he disposes of on a Kuwaiti rubbish heap, "couldn't you say anything?" (74) Kanafani's "men in the sun" had spoken at length, however, as they sought in vain to negotiate their fraught way from Basra to a rather dubious future in Kuwait. Moazzam Begg, for his part, was facing yet another interrogation with still another broker of the Bush-waged war on terror in Guantanamo Bay. What do their--Abu Qais, Assad, Marwan, Moazzam--respective stories have still and again to say to us--their readers and critics, partisans and bystanders, smugglers and traffickers, interrogators, likely or unlikely, one and all? …

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