Real life can be even stranger than fiction

September 14, 2004 12:00 AM


Over 30 years ago, Ghassan Kanafani, the famous Palestinian writer, activist and ultimately martyr, wrote one of his most successful short stories, "Men Under The Sun." It is a tale of a group of Palestinian youth who, unable to make a life in Palestine, try to smuggle themselves into Kuwait in a desperate attempt to make a living. Kanafani skillfully tells us the stories of each one of them, like a merchant smoothly showing his fine pieces of silk one after the other with a different scene of the Crucifixion on each piece.


The group passes through Amman to Baghdad and then goes south toward Basra and the Iraq-Kuwait border. To cross the border the smuggler suggests that the men hide in an empty water container. When the container is open the temperature inside is unbearable, when it is closed, staying inside becomes lethal. The smuggler promises that passing through the border will only take five minutes, during which the container has to be closed and the men have to survive. The border officer cracks some jokes, the smuggler begs him to hurry up, the officer asks him why the rush, the smuggler finds no answer, and by the time the he gets his passport stamped, the men in the container fall dead. The story ends with the devastated smuggler screaming as he gets rid of the men's bodies: "Why didn't they (the men inside) shout and hit the container walls?"


Kanafani's story sums up a historical mood that dominated the Arab world in the second half of the 20th century when there was a choice between rebellion and death.


A couple of weeks ago I read in a number of Egyptian newspapers a similar story, only this one was real. A group of young Egyptians crushed by the economic crisis in their country, got themselves smuggled into Libya. It was not long before the Libyan authorities arrested them, put them in an air-conditioned bus and handed them back to Egypt. The youths were supposed to be transported from the Salloum border point, in the northwest corner of Egypt, back to Cairo through hundreds of kilometers of desert and under the burning sun of August. Seventy-eight fully grown men were fit in two police cars with the capacity of each only 10. Many Egyptian university students must know those cars quite well - they are referred to in Egypt by an English word borrowed into Arabic specifically for this usage: "al-box."


Prisoners are crammed into a metallic cube with narrow openings for ventilation. During the summer "al-box" becomes a moving oven. Without air or water, one of the youths fainted. When the car stopped at a gas station, the others started hitting the walls demanding that their friend be helped and that they be allowed a couple of minutes in the air. The guards opened the door, dragged the fainted prisoner, and instead of treating him, hit him so that the young man died. A tourist at the gas station threw the prisoners a bottle of water, but the guards threw the bottle away. At this point the prisoners started running in all directions, horrified. One of the accompanying officers started shooting at the prisoners, and killed another man. Eventually the rest were brought back to the cars.


Reading this, I remembered Kanafani's story; it was fiction and it caught the attention of the Arab world. This, on the other hand, was a true crime yet its effect was much weaker. While Kanafani's story was born out of a chapter in an imaginary book of Arab history whose title could be - albeit simplified - "Rebellion or Death," this story of the Egyptian men summarizes a chapter in that same book titled "Rebellion as Death." In this chapter, people have no choice.


The young men did what Kanafani wanted them to do; they literally hit the walls of the container only to be shot and beaten to death. In Kanafani's time, had his protagonists been living men, and had they hit the container walls, they would have been arrested, maybe ill-treated, but they would not have been killed. Or at the very least, Kanafani and his readers did not expect that that would have been their fate, and even if they expected it, they did not take it for granted. Today, the fate of the Egyptians was taken for granted by many.


Poets and writers have always warned their readers that life is even stranger than their wildest works of fiction. Such warnings usually fail in pre-empting people's shock from life's cruel surprises. But the usual and the unusual swap places in the Arab world. Such acts of police brutality have been so common in many Arab countries that very few are shocked by their recurrence. This incident is no exception; the exception is that it got to the press. I foolishly expected, along with everyone else who wrote about the incident, that such an exception might have exceptional consequences. Of course we were wrong. A week after the story was public knowledge, a proud box in a daily government-owned newspaper told the world that the good hearted governor of Monoufiyya, paid his condolences to the family of one of the victims, and, as humanitarian gesture gave one victim's father 3,000 Egyptian pounds to help him go on with his life after his son's death. At today's exchange rates and according to the generous governor, the young man's life was worth $483.87.


Tamim al-Barghouti is a Palestinian poet who writes a weekly article for The Daily Star


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