Men in the Sun


Ghassan Kanafani, a Palestinian writer, uses the experiences he has lived through in the Middle East to inspire his literary work, Men in the Sun.  Kanafani explains the trauma that encompasses the life of a refugee through three different male characters from three different generations with the use of graphic metaphors.  They come together with a common goal in mind; escape the poverty and oppression in their homeland to seek work and opportunity in Kuwait.  The oldest of the three, Abu Qais, seeks a new life in order to support his wife, his son, and his newborn.  Marwan, the youngest of the three, seeks a new life to support his mother and siblings and to prove to his father that he could support himself and his family better than he did.  Assad, a strong man and a loner, represents the middle generation whose life cannot become any worse than it already is.  He has attempted several times to escape the hardships of his homeland life in the past, but each effort is futile, as the smugglers that are supposed to transport him to Kuwait leave him in the middle of nowhere to cook under a blistering desert sun.  The three men are connected through a character named Abul Khaizuran, a smuggler, who convinces the men that he will successfully transport them to Kuwait for the cheapest price.  The trip towards Kuwait is riveting and emotional as the characters bond in the short time they have.  Hilary Kilpatrick translates this novel from Arabic. 


Ghassan Kanafani was known in the west as the spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and as the editor of its weekly, Al-Hadaf.  But in the Arab world, he was also considered a leading novelist and one of the foremost Palestinian prose writers.  He was born in 1936 in Acre, northern Palestine, from which his family fled in 1948, settling finally in Damascus.  After completing his studies, he worked as a teacher and journalist, first in the Syrian capital and then in Kuwait.  Later he moved to Beirut, where he wrote for several newspapers before starting Al-Hadaf in 1969.  The magazine soon established itself and was widely quoted in the foreign press.  Kanafani was for a time and active member of the Arab Nationalist Movement, but as his political ideas developed he moved toward Marxism, and eventually he came to share George Habash’s belief that the solution to the Palestine problem could not be achieved without a social revolution throughout the Arab world. 

Kanafani and his niece were killed in the explosion of his booby-trapped car in July 1972. He left a widow and two children.  Kanafani said once, "Do not believe that man grows.  No: he is born suddenly—a word, in a moment, penetrates his heart to a new throb.  One scene can hurl him down from the ceiling of childhood on to the ruggedness of the road." (Kilpatrick and Kanafani, 9-10)

“Kanafani, who was assassinated in Beirut by an Israeli car bomb in 1972, did most of his writing - both as a journalist and as a writer of fiction - in the 1960s. His stories treat the often desperate situation of Palestinian refugees during the period bounded by the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars.” (Collins, 71)

"I never think you should judge a country by its politics.’  This line from a Hitchcock film is equally applicable to creative writers even when political activity occupies a major part of their attention, so long as the intention it evaluate them as writers and not as politician.  In the case of Ghassan Kanafani, the leading Palestinian prose writer of his generation, there has been an understandable tendency to study the political aspects of his fiction, and in particular its treatment of the Palestine problem.  One of the best examples of this approach is the article by Dr. Ihsan Abbas, and it seems to me that he has gone far towards explaining the place of politics in the novels and shirt stories.  But there is room for another treatment of Kanafani’s work, to reveal the elements which are not related to politics:  themes which are not political, an experimental approach to form, a concern with certain values which transcend the present Palestinian situation." (Kirpatrick, 53)


Literature can connect different ideas, beliefs, and opinions across different cultures, languages, and lifestyles.  By reading literature from all parts of the world, one can begin to relate the important themes of the literature to his or her life.  The themes that make strong impacts on an individual are the themes that can relate to life’s problems and the present world.  Integrating literature and personal emotions within a classroom or conversation can really create a solid learning atmosphere, which benefits all sides of the forum.     



In Men in the Sun by Kanafani, A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe, I, Rigoberta Menchu by Rigoberta Menchu, and in One Day of Life by Manlio Argueta, there are certain feelings of what home is and what it means to the characters in these novels and testimonies.  Each character develops a unique perspective of what it means be a piece of their community.  In the stories by Kanafani and Argueta and in Menchu’s testimonial, the communities the characters call their home are not under their rule.  Instead, they are under the rule of the colonizing country.  Countries influencing the colonization of these communities and homes include Spain, U.S.A., England, France, Germany, and Israel.  The novel Men in the Sun really describes the desperate measures some men will push themselves to, just to escape their home. 

Kanafani writes the novel from the perspectives of three Palestinians trying to escape the hardships of their homeland.  The harsh living conditions have escalated since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War in the early 20th century.  Zionist movements have put a large percentage of the Jewish population into an area too small for so many people to call home.  Zionist Jews claim they have a right to the land since they occupied the area thousands of years prior to the 1900’s.  The Palestinians argue that they own rights to the land since they have lived there the past 450 years under the same empire.  Both sides are calling this area, which is a small desert inferno, their homes.  Unlike the style of colonization in Latin America and the Caribbean where the Natives were exploited by the mother country to work on plantations for the sake of the mother country’s wealth, the Jews looked upon the Palestinians as an inferior race that needed to be pushed out of the area by force.  Much like the Native Americans who were pushed out of their homeland by the British Colonists. 

The people in I, Rigoberta Menchu, looked beyond the hardships that were forced upon them by the landowners called Ladinos, and worked together as a community to overcome the oppression they faced.  This same concept is very evident in Argueta’s novel, One Day of Life, as the oppressed Natives have to work together in order to live each day with food and shelter.  These books really portray the true meaning of the word home through the people living in these communities.  They are not ever worried about petty problems that affect many of us living in the present U.S.A.  The things they worry about are eating and supporting their children and avoiding the dangerous hands of the officials enforcing the law.  In Men in the Sun, the home is not really described in the detail of the latter novels, but the feeling generated by the home are vividly displayed by the characters who desperately seek new lives and opportunity.



The push-pull factors affecting the Palestinian characters in Men in the Sun derive from the vast and growing Jewish population.  These Jews are taking the opportunity for jobs and political leadership away from the Palestinian people.  This pushes the Palestinian people away from their homeland and causes them to seek new opportunity in order to survive in such a smoldering climate.  The factor pulling the Palestinians from their homeland is just that, opportunity.  In order for the characters to help their families, future generations, and themselves survive they need to leave their country and illegally travel to another country where the factors pulling them offer a new life with far better opportunities.  In this story Kuwait is the country that presents a healthier possibility of surviving and the three characters, Marwan, Abu Qais, and Assad, each have the same goal in mind; opportunity.

They seek a way to be smuggled across a hot and dangerous desert so that they may find what will keep them and their families alive.  Kanafani first introduces Abu Qais, the oldest of the three characters seeking opportunity.  He is married and he has a son named Qais in who is in grade school.  His wife has just given birth to their second child, thus creating a tougher environment to survive.  Abu has another human life to take care of and to feed and support.  This pushes Abu to seek a better work life that will result in more money to help support his family.  In the first lines of the story Kanafani uses powerful language to describe the type of person Abu is.  "Abu Qais rested on the damp ground, and the earth began to throb under him with tired heartbeats, which trembled through the grains of sand and penetrated the cells of his body.  Every time he threw himself down with his chest to the ground he sensed that throbbing, as though the heart of the earth had been pushing its difficult way towards the light from the utmost depths of hell ever since the first time he had lain there.  Once when he said that to his neighbor, with whom he shared the field in the land he left ten years ago, the man answered mockingly:  'It's the sound of your own heart.  You can hear it when you lay your chest to the ground”'" (Kanafani, 21)

Assad is a strong character who has no one but himself to support.  His character really portrays the desperateness in the Palestinian heart, as he cannot stand the life he lives in a land where he is looked down upon.  He is not being pulled to Kuwait to seek opportunity for his family; he is being pushed from his home by the meek opportunity left for survival.  Kuwait is a land where he would be accepted and given the opportunity to work as one of the people.  He would not be looked down upon in Kuwait as some inferior being who is worth nothing like he is in his homeland.  Assad, on several past occasions, fails to be smuggled to Kuwait by men who said they could transport him there safely.  He has been left for dead and luckily was picked up by an Arab couple traveling the road he had finally stumbled upon after spending hours struggling through the desert.  This makes him much more careful when he decides whom he will pay to smuggle him.

Marwan is the youngest character of the three and is anxiously attempting to help support his mother and siblings.  Marwan’s father divorced his mother for a woman whose father had money and thus ceased supporting his family.  Marwan’s older brother Zakaria, who had escaped the homeland and found Kuwait, had been supporting them since their father left.  Once Zakaria becomes married, however, he can no longer support his mother and siblings and Marwan decides that he is going to be the man of the house.  He wants to prove to his mother that he can support them, but even more so, he wants to prove to his father that he can do a better job feeding his family than he did.  After being slapped by a big fat man, who sets up smuggling deals in his hometown, he finds himself alone in the busy street, sitting.  Kanafani writes about Marwan: 

“Crowds of people walked past without paying him any attention.  Perhaps it was the first time in his life that he had found himself alone and a stranger in a throng of people like this.  He wanted to know the reason for that remote sensation that gave him contentment and rest; a sensation like the one he used to have when he had finished watching a film, and felt like life was grand and vast, and that in the future he would be one of those men who spend every hour and day of their lives in exciting fulfillment and variety.  But what was the reason for his having such a feeling now, when he had not seen a film like that for a long time, and only a few minutes before the threads of hope that had woven fine dreams in his heart had been broken in the fat man’s shop?” (Kanafani, 37)   


The Road

The road one travels is the life one lives.  Dreams hover like fragile clouds over this road ready to burst.  Everything one's imagination can comprehend and invent is down this road waiting to be found.  Desperate men seek dreams that are patiently resting, buried in the ground and floating in the stars.  The road, so wide and traveled, yet sometimes so narrow and preserved, offers a new experience and a new adventure that can lead to rivers overflowing with water so cool and refreshing that the thirst of the world could be saturated with one drop.  Or, this water could be a mirage lined with the dead bones of dreamers who could not travel any farther, only to see their water turn to sand.  The only way to find out what is real and what is not is to travel this road with cautious ambition.  One has to keep a memory of the past to learn in the future.  In the novels, Men in the Sun, I, Rigoberta Menchu, One Day of Life, A Man of the People, Arrow of God, Nine Guardians, Women at Point Zero, The Day the Leader was Killed, and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the road is traveled and explored by characters with motives ranging from greed to a desperate urge to survive.   

In Kanafani's novel, the road is traveled by four men, three of which who are smuggled, and one named Abul Khaizuran, the smuggler, who is just doing his job to the best of his ability.  He is in charge of driving a lorry back and forth from the three men’s homeland to Kuwait for his boss.  Abul’s life is a tragic one, as he travels the road to serve his country and to serve the men living in his country.  He wants to give to the three men the opportunity they seek in Kuwait.  Abul knows that if they attempt to make it to Kuwait through another smuggler, chances are they will be left for dead.  He makes a deal with the three men that would allow them to wait until they safely reach Kuwait before they have to pay him for the operation.  This deal symbolizes the faith Abul has within himself to deliver the men to Kuwait while it also shows the trust Abul has for the men that they will pay him when they arrive.  This trust becomes mutual as the four men travel the long and hot desert road in search for their life and manhood.

While fighting for his country in the past Abul was captured by the enemy and was literally and physically stripped of his manhood.  This becomes evident when he is asked why he wasn’t married.  He suddenly has a flashback of the terrifying incident as he is driving and becomes petrified with the thought.  A pain throbs in his inner thigh region whenever this memory takes the wheel of his mind.  By doing the best he can to help his fellow Palestinians escape the harsh conditions of their home in order to seek an opportunity for themselves and their families, he is proving his manhood.  Since he lost his manhood while fighting for his country, for what he sees now as a lost cause, he feels by giving these men a new sense of manhood he can substitute the gratification for his forever lost dignity.

While traveling to Kuwait there is conversation, there are bumps in the road, and there is a blazing sun beating down on the men.  The sun brands these men with pain as it acts as a turbo booster implanted on time.  What I mean is that the sun, in these men's lives, can make a day seem like a year, and ironically, it shortens the time they have to survive.  In order for the men to be smuggled safely to Kuwait they have to sit inside the lorry tank where there would normally be water, and wait for Abul to pass the guards.  If they were to be caught in the act of escaping, they would most likely be killed or imprisoned as would Abul for smuggling them.  On the road, twice, they would have to literally bake inside this lorry for six or seven minutes while Abul, hurriedly, signed papers and exited the premises where the guards were standing by.  These three men demonstrate the sheer trust they have for Abul by silently sitting in this oven like water tank while he drives them closer to their dreams. 

These dreams represent everything they live for and everything their families mean to them.  Abu Qais, father of two, including a newborn baby, sat in an oven where water should have been sloshing around in order to seek his dream.  He could have stayed at his home with his wife and children watching them struggle to survive or he could travel a road that he imagines, dreams, and hopes will make his family smile.  Marwan, a young boy, growing up faster than ever, seeks a dream waiting at the end of the road that is like a question mark at the end of a novel.  He wants to help his family so desperately that he is willing to sit in this oven-like tank that is supposed to be full of water.  Assad, a man whose life is the road, can only travel in one direction, forward.  All these men are sitting in this oven-like lorry, under the sun, baking and burning and waiting, but are moving at the same time.  They were sitting in a stationary oven for so long; their hearts and dreams had to move.  This motion, driven by a man doing the best job he could do to help them, was the only way to reach the buried dreams at the end of the road.

In all the novels I have mentioned, the road represents the struggle of life the characters go through to reach their dreams.  The struggle of life is a redundant phrase for a majority of humans and especially some of the characters in these novels.  Seeking freedom from this struggle is the struggle in itself.  Kanafani really does a fantastic job portraying this theme in his novel.  His use of metaphors and symbolism invokes the human heart to beat right along with the men in traveling this road searching for their dream.   


The End

Kanafani creates an image and uses his language to produce an irresistible anticipation in the reader to find out what is going to happen in the end.  The three men, while inside the oven-like tank of the lorry for the second time, suffocate and die.  Abul was held up by a guard who joked with him about a girl he was rumored to have been with when in actuality this is impossible.  While reading this part of the novel, it is really hard to slow down, because Kanafani engulfs your whole body and mind with fear within these last few pages. 

Finally, after Abul escapes the guard’s questions, he runs like hell to drive the lorry out of sight.  Sadly, when he reaches the place to stop, he opens the burning hot lorry door to find his three new companions dead.  He has failed and he feels horrible.  It was not his fault, however, and it was the risk involved in the smuggling operation.  After he leaves the bodies on the road to be found and hopefully buried, the only thing he can think of is “why didn’t they knock?”  He asks this question over and over to himself and this question ends the novel.  This is a great question to ask your students if teaching about this novel. 

Why didn't they knock?  I think, had they have knocked in sheer panic, not only would they have been found by a guard, but they would have been killed.  Abul would have been killed and his operation would have ended.  By staying silent, these men proved the absolute trust and faith they had in Abul.  They understood that if they knocked, it would not only end the pursuit of their dream, it would end Abul’s pursuit and every other Palestinian person's pursuit of their dream; to escape the stationary oven in search of new opportunity.  These men trusted Abul with every ounce of their blood and by staying silent they proved this.  The metaphor Kanafani uses describes the ongoing struggle in Palestine between the Muslims and the Jews.  If the Palestinians knock, things are only going to become much worse.  The louder and harder they knock, the more blood they will shed.  I think Kanafani knocked pretty damn hard with his pen when he wrote this novel.  He did not use a bomb or a fist to knock, he used a pen.  And this knock, will echo much further and louder through the hearts of the people that read it than anything else imaginable.

This story epitomizes the true meaning of literature for a mass of people searching for a voice.  They need not only for this voice to be projected but to be heard and listened to as well.  Ghassan Kanafani does a wonderful job writing this short novel as it speaks for millions who are baking underneath the hot blistering sun, in a continually shrinking oven-like desert, waiting to be heard, and waiting for an opportunity.



Peace in the Middle East?

For Years the Middle East has been involved in war and turmoil.  Wars erupt from land and religious disputes that usually involve oil in some way or another.  Currently, the biggest problem is between the Palestinians and the Israelis.  The United States continues to back the Israelis and this is really putting the pressure on Palestinians, who are so desperate to regain their land, they are committing suicide and taking the lives of Israeli bystanders along with them.  The only way to solve this problem is for both sides to stop arguing over who the land righteously belongs to and begin to help one another live together as peacefully as possible.  This is a very tall order, however, as these two countries are not only fighting with land in mind, but also religion.

“Prior to the advent of the political-economic restructuring of the 1980’s, most Middle Eastern countries were largely dominated by either nationalist-populist regimes (such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Turkey) or pro-Western rentier states (Iran, Arab Gulf States).  Financed by oil or remittances, these largely authoritarian states pursued state-led development strategies, attaining remarkable (21% average annual) growth rates.  Income from oil offered the rentier states the possibility of providing social services to many of their citizens, and ideologically driven populist states dispensed significant benefits in education, employment, housing, and the like.  For these post-colonial regimes, such provision of social welfare was necessary to build popularity among the peasants, workers, and the middle strata at a time that these states were struggling against both the colonial powers and old internal ruling classes.  The state acted as the moving force of economic and social development on behalf of the populace.

“The authoritarian nature of these states restricted meaningful political participation and the development of effective civil-society organizations.  The regimes’ etatist ideology and patrimonial tendencies rendered the states the main, if not the sole, provider of livelihoods for many citizens, in exchange for their loyalty.  In etatist models, the state controls the bulk of the economic, political, and social domains, leaving little space for society to develop itself and for interest groups to surface, compete, and act autonomously.  In the Middle East, such ideology often led to the demobilization—or, at best, controlled mobilization—of certain segments of the population.” (Bayat,1)

Having peace in the Middle East is essential if the humans in the world plan on surviving as long as possible.  The ultimate provable goal of human life should be to survive as long as possible without becoming extinct due to human action.  If we as humans are to become extinct one day, it should be through the forces of nature and the solar system.  In order for people to last until the inevitable is reality i.e., the sun burning out or crashing, we are going to have to work together for the well being of humanity.  This means not fighting over land, and gas, and especially religion.  Fighting for the well being of humanity should include peaceful resolutions and reasonable discussions.



***                                                            Excellent site on Kanafani and some of his literary works.  This site has some good info about Men in the Sun and a little history of Kanafani’s life leading up to him writing.


Excellent site on the history of the Zionist movement and what led to the fight in Israel and Palestine.  The Peel Report is explained and it gives insight from Kanafani.


Nice cite, gives a brief history of Kanafani's life and his importance for the Palestinian people. 


Good site that gives great links to the history of the Ottoman Empire, and literature and texts that deal with the Middle-East.


This is a history class's syllabus from Stanford University that has some really good recommendation for reading and literature in the Middle East.


Men in the Sun is a perfect piece of literature to introduce to students the troubles occurring in the Middle East.  Kanafani uses a poetic style of language to express his feelings toward what is happening in the Middle East.  This style leaves it up to the person's imagination when deciding what Kanafani is really trying to say.  By reading and discussing this novel, researching the Middle East is very necessary.  This novel opens up the mind to a new area of the world that most young adults from the U.S. have not been introduced to yet, as far as literature goes.  In order to understand what happening in the Middle East, a good philosophy to follow is to read the literature from that area and dig deep into the emotions and feelings generated by the authors who are attempting to speak for the people.  Here are some discussion questions to think about while teaching Kanafani's Men in the Sun.

Compare and contrast each of the three men who are attempting to escape their homeland in search of a better life.  What are their motives, and how are they similar or different? 

Think about and then explain how Abul Khaizuran plays a key character role in this novel.  How does he move the plot along and what are his motives for smuggling these men to Kuwait?

Did Abul try his best to deliver these men to Kuwait or do you think this was part of a scam that went along with his sketchy story at the beginning of the novel to make money? Explain.

How did trust play a key role in this novel?  What finally makes the men trust Abul? Does this tell you anything about people who are in desperate situations and people who want to help desperate people?

What does the road symbolize and how does this road relate to other texts you've read in your life?

How do you feel about the metaphors used in this novel to symbolize themes on a literal, spiritual, and allegorical level?  In your eyes did Kanafani do the best job he could to express the feelings he had about this struggle?  Was the story one-sided?  Did the story speak for itself in terms of what its themes were or did Kanafani speak for the story?

Why didn’t the men knock?  What did this prove? Why?  What would have happened in the future if they had knocked?  Do you think Kanafani is knocking for these men, with this novel?

Do research on the Middle East and find out why the fighting continues and where it stemmed from.  Relate Kanafani's novel to the present day struggle in Palestine and the rest of the Middle East.  Does the U.S. play a role in any of these fights?  How?  What can the U.S. do to help stop the fighting?  What does the word peace mean to people in the Middle East compared to people in the U.S.?


Bayat, Asef.  Activism and Social Development in The Middle East.  International Journal of Middle East Studies, 34 (2002), p1-28.

Kilpatrick, Hilary.  Tradition and Innovation in the Fiction of Ghassan Kanafani.  Journal of Arabic Literature, 7 (1976), p53-64.

Farred, Grant.  "Active Lives:  Legacies of Revolutionary Writing, by Barbara Harlow."  Book Review, Research in African Literature, v30n3 (1999 fall), p229-32.

Collins, John.  Exploring Children’s Territory:  Ghassan Kanafani, Njabulo Ndebele and the ‘Generation’ of Politics in Palestine and South Africa. Arab Studies, (1996 fall), p65-85.


Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

Home -- Themes -- Texts -- Links -- Search -- About Us

Page Created by: Geoff Ferris

Last Updated: 4/22/02