Ghassan Kanafani‘s novella, Returning to Haifa (1969), tells the story of Said and Safeyya, who fled their home in Haifa during the 1948 Nakba. In the chaos and violence of their escape, their five-month old son Khaldun is left behind. Twenty years later when the Mandelbaum Gate is opened they return to Haifa, “to see” as they tell themselves. They find their home occupied by Miriam, a widow whose husband died in the war eleven years earlier, and Dov, their son Khaldun, an officer dressed in an Israeli military uniform.
The narrative thrust of the story follows their visit and the conversation that goes on between Said, Safeyya, Miriam and Dov/Khaldun, with flashbacks into their pasts and a retelling of the events of 1948, twenty years earlier.
This is Haifa, then, twenty years later.
Noon, June 30, 1967. The car, a gray Fiat bearing white Jordanian license plates, was traveling north, across the plain which was called Ibn Amr twenty years ago. It ascended the coastal road toward the southern entrance to Haifa. When the car crossed the road and entered the main street, all the walls came down and the road dissolved behind a film of tears. He heard himself say to his wife, “This is Haifa, Safiyya!”
The steering wheel felt heavy between his palms, which had begun to sweat more profusely than they ever had before. It occurred to him to say to his wife, “I know this Haifa, but it refuses to acknowledge me.”
A little later, his wife says “I never imagined that I would see Haifa again.” He replies bitterly, “You’re not seeing it. They’re showing it to you.” He goes on:
“They opened the border as soon as they completed the occupation, suddenly and immediately. That has never happened in any war in history. You know the terrible thing that happened in April 1948, so now, why this? Just for our sakes alone? No! This is part of the war. They’re saying to us, ‘Help yourselves, look and see how much better we are than you, how much more developed. You should accept being our servants. You should admire us.”
Recent adaptations of the play has revived some interest in this novella. Like almost all of Ghassan Kanafani’s work, politics and literature, the cause and the story of Palestine, are inseperable here. For this reason, the novella has been called agitprop, which might be fair, but I would say that like Kanafani’s previous novella, Men in the Sun there is something beyond the black and white of right and wrong. For one thing, Miriam is not unsympathetic. In the review of an adaption of the novella, Return to Haifa: Whose Narrative Is It Anyway? Leon T. Hadar claims that the play adaptation added a son lost in Aushwitz, and that in the original the Jewish couple was less sympathetic and there was no such son. This is true. However, in Kanafani’s narrative, Miriam lost her father in Aushwitz and saw her ten year old brother killed in front of her. When her husband Iphrat glories in seeing a “proper Saturday” without cars on the road, Miriam replies, but there will be no proper Friday or Sunday. Importantly, she is represented as shocked and horrified over seeing a dead Arab child slung by soldiers into a truck like a piece of wood, and it is her reaction to this chilling sight that encourages Iphrat to beleive that adopting a child might help. On the other hand, Said, hearing her tell the story of the dead Arab child and wounded by Dov’s negative reaction to him, clutches desperately at the idea that Khaldun might have died rather than become his enemy. These are human characters, not entirely caricatures.
Or at least, Boaz Gaon apparently sees it that way:
“Kanafani, killed by a car bomb in 1972, was one of the leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine but also with Return to Haifa a rare Palestinian author who treated Jewish characters humanely. That’s how the Israeli playwright Boaz Gaon saw it in 2008 when he penned a Hebrew-language adaptation authorized by the Kanafani estate and staged it at Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre.”
There is more information about play adapations of Returning to Haifa here.
In Kanafani’s story, Said S. whose vision frames the narrative, ends up finally questioning the meaning of belonging to a homeland that has disappeared:
“What is a homeland?”
She leaned forward, surprised, as though she didn’t believe what she heard. She asked with a delicacy that contained uncertainty:
“What did you say?”
“I said, what is a homeland? I was asking myself that question a moment ago. Naturally. What is a homeland? Is it these two chairs that remained in this room for twenty years? The table? Peacock feathers? The picture of Jerusalem on the wall? The copper lock? The oak tree? The balcony? What is a homeland? Khaldun? Our illusions of him? Fathers? Their sons? What is a homeland?”
When Dov accusingly berates them, ascribing the original sin to their leaving Haifa, his words are closer to self-accusation, like Kanafani berating the reader:
“You should not have left Haifa. If that wasn’t possible, then no matter what it took, you should not have left an infant in its crib. And if that was also impossible, then you should have never stopped trying to return. You say that too was impossible? Twenty years have passed, sir! Twenty years! What did you do during that time to reclaim your son? If I were you I would’ve borne arms for that. Is there any stronger motive? You’re all weak! Weak! You’re bound by heavy chains of backwardness and paralysis! Don’t tell me you spent twenty years crying! Tears won’t bring back the missing or the lost. Tears won’t work miracles! All the tears in the world won’t carry a small boat holding two parents searching for their lost child. So you spent twenty years crying. That’s what you tell me now? Is this your dull, worn-out weapon?”
The title is often translated as Return to Haifa but that would be العودة إلى حيفا in Arabic. The actual title promises and describes the action of returning, and at the end Said tells Dov and Miriam they can keep the house for now, and admits or asserts that returning to it would mean war.
Read more excerpts.