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Come back, my friend! On reading Ghassan Kanafani’s “Letter from Gaza”

Written for Valentines4Palestine, a series of events held at independent bookshops across the UK to raise money for the PEN Emergency Fund for Palestinian writers at risk, Emily LaBarge reads Ghassan Kanafani’s poem "Letter from Gaza" against the current Israeli assault as a revolutionary love letter to his homeland.

Emily LaBarge14 February 2024

Come back, my friend! On reading Ghassan Kanafani’s “Letter from Gaza”

You can read more about theValentines4Palestine events, and donate to the fund, here All proceeds will be directed via English PEN to the PEN Emergency Fund.

In his address to the inaugural Palestine Festival of Literature in 2008, John Berger gave a reading of Ghassan Kanafani’s “Letter from Gaza,” written in 1956 when Kanafani was just 19 or 20, and 16 years before he would be assassinated in Beirut by Mossad. By way of very short introduction, Berger explained his choice: “because time passes,” he says, “but what makes sense of human lives stays the same.”

In the letter, Kanafani is writing to his friend Mustafa, who has moved to Sacramento for a teaching position. The two men had always hoped to leave Gaza together and seek life elsewhere, but after his most recent visit home—during which he finds his young niece Naida violently injured—Kanafani’s views have changed. Gaza was brand new, Mustafa! he says, You and I never saw it like this. What he means, I think, is that he sees a future in Gaza, the beginning of a long road of revolution that can lead nowhere else.

No, my friend, I won’t come to Sacramento, and I’ve not regrets, he writes. No, and nor will I finish what we began together in childhood. This obscure feeling that you had as you left Gaza, this small feeling must grow into a giant deep within you. It must expand, you must seek it in order to find yourself, here among the ugly debris of defeat.

I won’t come to you. But you, return to us! Come back, to learn from Nadia’s leg, amputated from the top of the thigh, what life is and what existence is worth.  

Come back, my friend! We are waiting for you.

There have always been letters from Gaza, voices writing to and from Palestine, to and from all over the world. Palestine happens on a global scale, a friend said to me a few weeks ago as we talked about the news—that inadequate phrase—and I nodded and thought about the chant, one of many, I had joined in on the subway and the streets: In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinian. Palestine happens on a global scale, I nodded, and wondered about how many voices any human form, including language, can make space for, hold, wear like a second skin, speak to or with or alongside in homage.

What doesn’t resemble me is more beautiful, Mahmoud Darwish wrote in “To a Young Poet.” He also wrote, in “A State of Siege,” that this siege will persist until we teach our enemies / models of our finest poetry.

And Empathy means / laying yourself down / in someone else’s chalk lines / and snapping a photo, writes Solmaz Sharif.

And there’s room in language for being without language, said Kaveh Akhbar, who also writes that art slows down our metabolization of language, emotional data.

And the same meaning changes with the words which express it, writes Pascal in his Penséesmeanings receive their dignity from words instead of giving it to them.

And I have just realised that the stakes are myself, writes Diane di Prima in “Revolutionary Letter #1.”

And in “Resolution #1,” June Jordan writes I must become a menace to my enemies / I will love who loves me / I will love as much as I am loved / I will hate who hates me / I will feel nothing for everyone oblivious to me.

And If I must die / let it bring hope / let it be a tale, writes Dr Refaat Alareer, who was killed on December 7th, 2023.

And What happens to a dream deferred? asks Langston Hughes in his poem, “Harlem.”

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

And It can be startling to see someone’s breath, writes Jenny Holzer, let alone the breathing of a crowd. You usually don’t believe that people extend that far

And every day I am looking for the crowd that is big enough, waiting to see just how far people might extend. 

When I started writing this, the IOF was bombing Khan Younis; the next day it was Hebron; and then al-Amal hospital; and then a kindergarten in Rafah; and then Jabaliah refugee camp; and then an area between Al-Ahli Arab Hospital and al-Shifa Hospital; and no doubt I am missing things, because we are always missing things in daily updates of numbers, which are people and infrastructure, but also cultural heritage, schools, libraries—demolished in what has been called “scholasticide.” All or parts of Gaza’s 12 universities have been destroyed; 378 schools have been destroyed; 4,327 students, 231 teachers, and 94 professors have been murdered. 

No doubt I am missing things, because we are always missing things, and the record is still, also, a record of joy and pleasure and life. We still receive letters from Gaza.

We have beauty and they have death, a speaker at the Palestinian Youth Movement vigil for Gaza’s martyrs said on November 29th in New York. We have beauty and they have death. We have justice and they have death. We have truth and they have death.

In the face of inhumanity, it can be difficult to feel as an artist that you have a function, but artists are many things, including conduits, communities, networks, revolutionaries, utopians, wise fools who sharpen their tools even if it’s just their tongues and their pens, which refuse to forget, as the writer Lana Bastašić wrote in response to the cancellation of her residency and event in Salzburg. I want to remind you that (fortunately for precarious writers like myself), she wrote, you are not Literature. S. Fischer is not Literature. Germany is not Literature. And we, the writers, will remember. 

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In 1973, in the wake of the coup in Chile, the writer and artist Cecilia Vicuña began a series of multi-media works under the title Palabrarmas, or “word weapons,” which she described as a means of opposing violence and lies. “To work [labrar] words as one works the soil is to arm oneself with the vision of words. Words are the only permissible weapon.” Palabrarmas appear as emblems, riddles, concrete poems, drawings, collage, props. Palabrarma reads a pen held by a giant hand, a winged shovel tilling the earth, a paper gun held to a man’s mouth. Poets in the service of liberation, artists in the service of liberation, reads one work in the series. In others, a different play on words and images: Sol y dar y dad (Solidarity: To Give and Give Sun) is repeated around glowing orbs with their rays shooting out into blue skies on posters, flags, hats, glasses. 

Big things matter and small things matter and resistance matters and mobilising everything matters and taking courage in solidary matters and taking part in solidarity matters. The more of us there are, the more of us there are.

Solidarity is beautiful in deep, meaningful ways that can banish the flat darkness of nihilism. Solidarity is the boundless mess of the imagination put into actionit can feel frictionless and safe, but sometimes it also demands risk, writes Tai Shani in her essay, “Why the Art World Must Stand with Palestine.” The beauty of solidarity is that a group can come together and find safety and strength collectively, to effectively hold power to account.  

In her resignation letter as poetry editor for The New York Times, Anne Boyer writes about the power of refusal.  I won’t write about poetry alongside the “reasonable” tones of those who aim to acclimatize us to unreasonable suffering. No more ghoulish euphemisms. No more sanitized hell-words. No more warmongering lies.

If this resignation leaves a hole in the news the size of poetry, then that is the true shape of the present

Maybe that poetry-shaped hole is the negative space of solidarity expanding to surround all the terrible familiars of statehood and national identity and militant capitalism and corruption and the complicity of news outlets and the “its complicated” mask of racism and the lies, like the ones Vicuña tried to combat with her word weapons. Maybe the holes these words make when they shoot out are poetry shaped. Maybe they are like the arrow of Cupid, who hovers over this day with his cheeky bottom and his messenger bag of cards to be delivered to the beloveds who wait for a letter, a poem, a token of love. In truth, Cupid actually had two arrows—one with a sharp golden point, the other with a blunt tip of lead. A person wounded by the golden arrow is filled with uncontrollable desire, but the one struck by the lead desires only to flee. A poison pen, I suppose.

Although it was Chaucer in his poem “Parliament of Fowls” who first associated him with romance—For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate, he wrote—it is true that Saint Valentine was a martyr who, like all martyrs, refused to recant his faith. It is said he restored sight to a young blind girl, the daughter of his jailor, to whom he signed a loving note, “from your Valentine,” which I suppose was the first Valentine. Simple in its execution. But who knows, and today the book of martyrs is at least 28,000 names longer. 

Sarah Aziza and Bassem Saad both have delineated the link, in Arabic etymology, between martyrdom and witnessing. To witness is an act of faith, Aziza writes in “The Work of Witness.” It is an ethical and imaginative leap beyond what we can see. It is a sober reverence of, and a commitment to fight for, the always unknowable other. […] The witness is the one who holds the line of reality, identifying and refusing the lie of normalcy. Broken by what we see, we become rupture incarnate.  

Valentines and Palestine, people are ruptures and poem-shaped holes and martyrs and witnesses, and most words have at least two meanings. How not to die of rage? Etel Adnan asks in “To Live In a time of War,” which was published in 2005 but reads like it was written yesterday, today, tomorrow.

The first time I heard the word Intifada. How beautiful it sounded rolling off my tongue, writes Suheir Hammad, in “Drops of This Story.” Ain’t no word in English equivalent to this one. Intifada means fever. The type of fever which releases a long sickness.

Gathering prose and verse for this reading, which I wanted to be more than one or five or ten voices, because there are never enough, I searched Palestine in a poetry database. It pulled up 8 pages. Reading through then, I found that Palestine is a place—a home, an exile—but also a geography of the mind, a form of solidarity written by Black poets, Japanese poets, Irish poets, Communist poets, Queer poets, Lady poets, First Nations poets who cry in -40 Celsius Winnipeg as they chant Free Palestindians on the reserves with their children. Palestine crops up in Milton and Rossetti and Anne Bradstreet, but they don’t mean Palestine like we do, and neither do the poets writing of Palestine, Texas, named for Palestine, Illinois, named in 1678 by a French explorer who was reminded of Palestine, the Levant, although it seems to bear little resemblance. Palestine happens on a global scale, my friend said, and one of those is metaphor, which is not the same as abstraction so much as a demand to account better for our words, to learn new ways of speaking. 

Halfway through the second page of results, something shifted and after “National Security Advisory” by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, I couldn’t find Palestine in the poems anymore. As I read through poem after poem, I realised it had pulled up the next closest results to the word Palestine, which was, truly, Valentine, so that the titles of the poems read like a litany and I decided it would be easy enough to supplant the one for the other and repeat them like changeling love letters.

Palestine Afternoon
A Palestine for Marianne Moore
Three Palestines to the Wide World
A Blue Palestine
A Little Heart-to-Heart on Palestine’s Day

And maybe the patron saint of these pages could be the poet Jean Valentine, or Jean Palestine, who wrote:

I came to you
Lord, because of
the fucking reticence
of this world
no, not the world, not reticence.

Kanafani’s Letter from Gaza, written in 1956 and read countless times after, including in 2008 by John Berger, and in 2024 by me and now you, might not be a Valentine, but it is a love letter. This small feeling, Kanafani writes, must grow into a giant within you. […] Come back, my friend! We are all waiting for you.


Emily LaBarge is a Canadian writer based in London. Her first book, Dog Days, will be published by Peninsula Press. Her work has appeared in GrantaBookforumLondon Review of BooksFriezeTate Etc.The White Review, and The Paris Review, among other publications.

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