A legacy of learning

Reem Haddad’s neighbour has wrought magic out of personal tragedy.

Sarah John

She’s my neighbour and yet I never took the time to hear her story. I had heard a lot about the Danish woman and admired her. It was difficult not to admire Anni Kanafani, a foreigner who decided to live through Lebanon’s vicious 16-year civil war for one reason: to keep her husband’s memory alive and continue spreading his ideas in the Arab world.

Her husband was Ghassan Kanafani – considered one of the greatest Arab writers of his time. He had become a symbol of the Palestinian struggle in his lifetime. On 8 July 1972 he was killed in a car explosion. Anni was supposed to have been with him in the car that day but she decided to stay home with their two young children. Instead their young niece, Lamise, went with him.

A few minutes after the two of them had left the apartment there was the sound of a tremendous explosion. Anni ran outside. There she found Lamise’s body – and her husband’s leg. The car they had climbed into was completely destroyed. The blast had hurled the rest of Ghassan’s body into a valley beside the family’s home.

Six months later Israeli journalist Raphael Rothstein revealed in an article that Israeli agents had been responsible for the murder. Israel was implementing Operation: God’s Wrath, under the command of Prime Minister Golda Meir’s Special Adviser on Security Affairs, General Aharon Yariv. The operation’s aim was to eliminate Palestinians capable of providing leadership to the movement.

A grieving Anni knew what she had to do. ‘I wanted to show the Israelis that they might have killed Ghassan physically, but not spiritually,’ she said. ‘He was too important as a journalist, writer, artist and political analyst.’

She decided to remain in Lebanon and bring up their two children as Palestinians – as her husband would have wished them to be.

With the help of family and friends, she formed the Ghassan Kanafani Cultural Foundation. The aim was to collect and publish all of her husband’s literary work. Since his death, his novels, short stories, plays and essays have been collected and published in Arabic. His books have been translated into 18 languages and have appeared in 20 different countries. His best-known novel, Men in the Sun – the story of three Palestinian refugees trying to seek a better life in the Arab world – was made into a movie in 1972 and has won several prizes.

Born in 1936 in Acre, Ghassan fled with his family to Lebanon in 1948. News of the Deir Yassin massacre – where the Jewish militant organizations Irgun and Stern killed 254 villagers – had reached them. Ghassan turned 12 on 9 April, the day of the massacre. He never celebrated his birthday again.

Meanwhile in Denmark Anni’s family were happy to learn that a Jewish state had been created. In 1960 she attended a conference in Yugoslavia where she met some Palestinian students. The discussions that ensued shocked her. ‘We had no idea what had happened,’ she said. ‘It became clear to me that the world had buried the Palestinians.’

Intrigued by the Palestinian struggle, Anni travelled to Lebanon a year later. Here, she was given the telephone number of a newspaper editor – Ghassan Kanafani. She was told that he would be her best guide to the Palestinian cause.

A tall, thin 25-yearold man greeted her. Anni explained that she would like to visit some Palestinian camps. An adamant Ghassan replied that ‘my people are not animals in a zoo,’ recalls Anni. ‘You must have a good background about them before you go and visit.’ From there discussions ensued. Anni found herself drawn to Ghassan’s ideas – and two months later the couple were married.

Anni began teaching at a kindergarten and Ghassan continued with his writing. In 1969 he became a spokesperson for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the editor-in-chief of its weekly Al-Hadaf.

Two years after his death the Foundation opened kindergartens in refugee camps. ‘I knew I could not continue his work the way he was doing,’ says Anni, ‘but I could do it in another way.’ By 1999 the Foundation had opened eight kindergartens and two libraries in refugee camps across the country. Disabled children were integrated in 1986. Thousands of children have started their education in the Foundation’s kindergartens.

‘We are continuing Ghassan’s ideas,’ said Anni. ‘He believed in giving the children hope for the future. He always said that this is going to be a difficult struggle and that he himself will never be able to go back home but the children will. They are the future.’

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.