Literary response to Refugee crisis

A study of Mohsin’s Hamid’s Exit West and Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun.

by Shabir Ahmad Mir

Student of English language and Literature
Pulwama - 192301, State: Jammu and Kashmir (India)
Contact: +91 985 877 7990


Refugee crisis is a very hot-button issue at present. Of late, we have seen how refugees from Syria, Myanmar, Vietnam etc. have callously suffered the slings and arrows of displacement and dislocation. As we are aware, refugee crisis gives birth when a dominant and hegemonic group overpowers and victimizes the marginalized and the subaltern. After the fatal and horrendous world wars, the internal and external political tensions, violence and human right violation has increased exponentially resulting in the increase of refugees. The recent fatal technology has further given birth to their escape from their homeland. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2017 65.6 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide because of persecution, severe conflict, violence or human rights violation alone. Refugee crises have become a concern of different quarters. Different organisations, NGOs and writers have voiced a concrete concern about refugees. The writers of the contemporary times have given a literary depiction of the pain and sufferings of those who are displaced and marginalized. The paper purports to highlight through comparative framework, how Mohsin Hamid and Gassan Kanafani project refugee crises through their respective works. Although these writers belong to different countries, but their analogous concern related to refugee problems brings them into the similar thematic arena. Mohsin Hamid is an emerging but promising novelist of the coeval times. He was born in Pakistan but bred in Britain. His novels are Moth Smoke (2000), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), and the recently published, Exit West (2017). The Reluctant Fundamentalist was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and has won him several awards including Airfield-Wolf Book Award and Asian American Literary Award and has been translated into 25 different languages. He describes himself a mongrel, a hybrid. ‘I wanted to show that everyone is a migrant, even those who never move geographically; moving through time, aging is itself a form of migration.’’ Ghassan Kanafani was a Palestinian author and a leading member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). On 8 July 1972, he was assassinated by Mossad. He has a very rich literary output to his credit. Kanafani was the first to deploy the notion of Resistance Literature with regard to Palestinian works. His novels include Men in Sun (1962), All that's Left for You (1966), Umm Sa'ad (1969), Return to Haifa (1970). The novel Men in the Sun reputed to be "one of the most admired and quoted works in modern Arabic fiction, " was published to great critical acclaim. Rashid Khalidi considers it "prescient". Men in the Sun has been lauded for humanizing the discordant Palestinian plight and criticizing the Arab leaders’ silence on the Palestinian issue. The novel gives a concreate and multidimensional representation of Palestinian refugees concern.

 Refugee crisis, dislocation and displacement, Mohsin Hamid, Ghassan Kanafani.

Exit West is an unbiased projection of the refugee crisis and purports to highlight its gruesomeness. The novel is fraught with wormholes and rips. The consequences of the political turmoil that ultimately leads to the refugee crisis are shown through the two lovers Nadia and Saeed. The novel is about a young couple, Saeed and Nadia, who live in an anonymous city enduring civil war. The couple evanesces through the chimerical doors, which leads to different locations of the world. Omar El Akkad in The Globe and Mail calls the novel "a masterpiece of humanity and restraint". Sarah Begley of Time Magazine praised its relation to the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis and making a love story of refugees nevertheless feel that it is universal. Sindu Sukhdev in The Guardian defined it as a "magical vision of the refugee crisis’’
The readers first encounter Nadia and Saeed at an evening class on corporate identity and product branding. Saeed is very demure and unassuming, the son of a university professor, and works in an odd agency. Nadia, who wears a full black robe is employed by an insurance company, lives alone, rides a motorbike, enjoys vinyl and psychedelic mushrooms. She doesn’t pray. We think we know what will happen next; a boy-girl love story, opposites attracting, secular individuals struggling with the shackles of a theological state. Now, though this unnamed city is filling with refugees, militants are creating unrest. The old world was neither paradise nor hell – one of its parks tolerates ‘early morning junkies and gay lovers who had departed their houses with more time than they needed for the errands they had said they were heading out to accomplish’’-but its terrors are driving out those with ambition and connections. Saeed and Nadia embark on a journey that, like the dream logic of a medieval odyssey, takes them to Mykonos, London, San Francisco.
Exit West shifts between forms, wriggles free of the straitjackets of social realism and eye witness rapportage, and evokes contemporary refugeedom as a narrative hybrid; a fable about civil society that echoes two films - Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here, and peter Watkins’s The War Game’’
The turn that things are going to take is forecasted judiciously in the first sentence of the novel itself, ‘…in a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and didn’t speak to her.” (Hamid, 2017:209) The couple eventually become refugees when the city becomes live and move-in becomes severely tantalizing as if a famished tiger pouncing on a lamb. In order to rebuilt their lost treasury (their lost life’s glories) they set out for an odyssey to Greece, London and U.S.A.
Nadia and Saeed are the representatives of every refugee in the modern world. They reveal through their vexed moves the agitation that every refugee in the modern world encounters. How wisely the narrator in the novel puts it, “We are migrants through time”. He further spouts judiciously in the novel, “The summer it seemed to Saeed and Nadia that the whole planet was on the move, much of the global south headed to the global north, but also southerners moving to other southern places and northerners moving to other northern places” This gestures towards the agitation of every refugee and their myriad will to gain repose from such a vexed state is self-vindicating.
However, there are some vital questions that arise in the readers’ mind regarding the crisis emerge out of the migration. What is it that cajoles a refugee to budge and move? Migration is not a child’s task. It is a very uphill task; everyone contains within himself/herself a precious treasury of past that never wafts away despite being in any turmoil and agitation, one always tries to acquire repose and stability in life. Normality becomes a total ambition, thus a cynosure of everyone’s eye. The omniscient narrator tells us; “it might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of abyss young people still go to class….” next we are told that our “eternally impending ending doesn’t put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does”. The ‘door’ is one of the most vital symbols employed by the novelist. It isn’t a banal symbol that overtures towards the instant transportation of refugees, but also a very grandiloquent image influencing the lives of the millions of people
Ghassan Kanafani was a very prominent writer from Palestine in 1936 and was forced to flee with his family in May 1948, first to Lebanon and then to Syria. His early profession passed as a teacher and later a journalist, moving to Kuwait and later to Beirut, sometimes as an undocumented migrant, and was callously assassinated by Israeli intelligence agents in a car bombing in Beirut in 1972. In his lifetime, Kanafani published eighteen books, including four short novels, many short stories and hundreds of articles. Translated into over a dozen languages, Kanafani’s key works have also been turned into plays and films. Kanafani’s most famous work ‘Men in the Sun’ a short novel published in 1963 –an allegorical tale of three undocumented Palestinian refugees’ failed attempt to travel clandestinely from Basra, Iraq, to Kuwait, in search of work and a better life for their families living in refugee camps, encountering people smugglers and exploitation. It is the story of thousands of people who have died crossing over the past few year the Mediterranean Seas, the Rohingya refugees who have died fleeing by sea to Bangladesh and who suffocated in the back of hot lorries like the protagonists of this tale.
The title is quite ironic: the men would not have suffocated had they been in the sun and able to travel openly, not as undocumented migrants. Similarly today, while thousands undertake perilous land and sea journeys at extortionate cost to themselves, the cost of an airline ticket is far cheaper, but the ridiculousness of this situation, and the desperate refugees’ determination to try it again, is demonstrated in the story of Assad, who had previously smuggled himself into Iraq from Jordan. Tricked by a smuggler and left in the desert, he is found by a foreign tourist who offers him a ride. During the journey, the man tells him how he has travelled all over the region in the space of a few weeks and has even visited Assad’s home town, something Assad, as a Palestinian, cannot do.
The novel candidly purports to shed light on other issues allegedly raised only now by the “refugee crisis”, such as the distinction between a “refugee” and an “economic migrant”. Why do these men choose to travel so far to Kuwait? Expelled from Palestine at the end of the British Mandate and the creation of the state of Israel, the men and their families find themselves living in the squalor of refugee camps. Edward Said in particular has written on this situating of the characters in the ‘present.’ In his analysis of Men in the Sun, Said writes that the conflict in the book turns about the “contest in the present; impelled by exile and dislocation, the Palestinian must carve a path for himself in existence. Though this statement might look futuristically upon the role of the Palestinian, it also shows how the future is dependent upon the present situation, which is in constant contestation with its own stability and struggle against dissolution. Hence, the present (or rather the present situation) becomes continuous in light of the volatility of the Palestinian political reality and the political action or lack thereof of the Palestinians who occupy its core. For instance, the attention to time in the novella is attached to the dangerous position the characters find themselves in. They must pass two checkpoints in the heart of the smuggler’s container, Abu Khaizuran; the time spent at each checkpoint is meticulously calculated and appraised, so that each minute is counted either towards the characters’ survival or demise. When the characters emerge safely the first time, they discuss the period of their submergence in the air-tight container with much anxiety. Abu Qais says, “It was six minutes. I was counting the whole time. From one to sixty, a minute…I counted six times….” Passing the time, it takes to go past two checkpoints while being holed up in a tank, the characters’ overbearing experience of time extends to and is in fact determinant of their death. By the time Abu Khaizuran reaches the second checkpoint and is delayed, the characters, who have taken refuge in the container, are dead. The subliminal political message that Abu Khaizuran puts forth is: “Why didn’t you knock on the sides of the tank?” Therefore, the time to act becomes important, the opportunity for which is missed in the novella, causing Palestinian resistance to revert back to its ‘present stage’ where the present continues to represent instability, the possibility of demise, and even apathy. The world which Kanafani writes about is one of Palestinian political disenchantment; Arab leaders have either turned their backs on Palestine or enabled policies repressive of Palestinians within their own countries. By 1970, Palestinians severely suffered from isolation and dislocation in Lebanon, were swiftly driven out of Jordan beginning with the events of Black September, and were marginalized under two post-coup administrations in Iraq and Syria. This goes to show how allegory cannot presently be grounded in a conception of the Palestinian situation as stable, especially when connotations of temporality and nature of struggle might change with the ability to resist the occupation and dispossession.

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Men in the Sun and the Modern Allegory, Nadeem Shakir, March11, 2015.

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