Student Question

What are the symbols in "Letter from Gaza" by Ghassan Kanafani?

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The main symbols in "Letter from Gaza" are the "amputated town" and Nadia's "amputated leg." The "amputated town" symbolizes Gaza's isolation and disconnection from the rest of Palestine. Nadia's "amputated leg," resulting from Israeli bombs, symbolizes lost hope and suffering, but also ignites a renewed sense of belonging and nationalism in Kanafani, compelling him to stay in Gaza.

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Ghassan Kanafani’s Letter from Gaza is correspondence Kanafani has sent to his oldest and dearest friend, Mustafa, who is living in Sacramento, California after emigrating from the small section of Palestine called the Gaza Strip.  Kanafani’s letter clearly indicates that he had intended to follow his friend to the United States, following some time in Kuwait to earn enough money for trip.  The economic privation and constant threat of another conflict between Gaza’s rulers, the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, and Israeli casts a constant shadow over life in that isolated strip of land.  Kanafani and Mustafa had pledged earlier in life to follow each other wherever they might end up, and Kanafani had been mentally preparing himself to follow through on this informal agreement and leave Gaza for California.  The purpose of his letter, however, is explain to Mustafa why he, Ghassan, had changed his mind and would remain in Gaza. 

Kanafani had grown to loathe his life in Gaza.  In his letter to Mustafa, he expresses his sincere desire to leave the suffering of the region behind and begin a new life in California:

“I hated Gaza and its inhabitants. Everything in the amputated town reminded me of failed pictures painted in grey by a sick man. Yes, I would send my mother and my brother's widow and her children a meagre sum to help them to live, but I would liberate myself from this last tie too, there in green California, far from the reek of defeat which for seven years had filled my nostrils. The sympathy which bound me to my brother's children, their mother and mine would never be enough to justify my tragedy in taking this perpendicular dive. It mustn't drag me any further down than it already had. I must flee!”

There is something in this lamentation regarding Gaza that suggests the seeds of an emotional and intellectual transformation have been planted.  Kanafani’s use of the phrase “amputated town” to describe, possibly, Gaza City, or Khan Yunis, two of the larger concentrations of Palestinians in the strip, is clearly intended to convey a negative image of that strife-torn territory.  Gaza, as many know, is one of two parts of a divided Palestinian territory, the bulk of which constitutes what the Israelis, for historical reasons, call Judea and Samaria, and which the Palestinians refer to as Palestine proper (a name they also apply to all of Israel; this same territory is also commonly referred to as “the West Bank” of the Jordan River to denotes its historic connection to the region once known as Trans-Jordan).  Gaza is separated from the West Bank by Israel, and its tiny size and domination by the Islamist terrorist movement Hamas has left it, until very recently, psychologically and politically isolated in addition to its geographic isolation.  Kanafani is implying that Gaza has been “amputated” from the rest of Palestine.

The symbolism inherent in his use of that phrase becomes apparent when one gets to the part of Kanafani’s letter where he discusses the main reason for his change of heart about leaving Gaza.  His visit to his niece, Nadia, who is in the hospital for reasons of which we can only speculate.  Upon making this visit – however reluctantly – Kanafani dishonestly informs the young girl that he bought her the pair of red pants she had wanted.  Nadia’s response, however, is not what Kanafani anticipated.  Instead of joy, the girl reveals the extent of her wounds, which was caused by Israeli bombs:

“She stretched out her hand, lifted the white coverlet with her fingers and pointed to her leg, amputated from the top of the thigh.”

Kanafani’s sobering discovery of his niece’s amputated leg illuminates the extent to which the red pants symbolize lost hope, but the encounter in the hospital also reinstills in the author a sense of belonging with respect to his emotional attachment to Gaza:

“I went out of the hospital in Gaza that day, my hand clutched in silent derision on the two pounds I had brought with me to give Nadia. The blazing sun filled the streets with the colour of blood. And Gaza was brand new, Mustafa! You and I never saw it like this. The stone piled up at the beginning of the Shajiya quarter where we lived had a meaning, and they seemed to have been put there for no other reason but to explain it. This Gaza in which we had lived and with whose good people we had spent seven years of defeat was something new. It seemed to me just a beginning. I don't know why I thought it was just a beginning. I imagined that the main street that I walked along on the way back home was only the beginning of a long, long road leading to Safad. Everything in this Gaza throbbed with sadness which was not confined to weeping. It was a challenge: more than that it was something like reclamation of the amputated leg!”

The amputated leg and amputated town are symbolic of the isolation that is life in Gaza – a poverty-stricken region closely guarded by the Israeli and Egyptian Armies anxious to prevent the transfer of weapons from Iran to Hamas.  Kanafani’s new-found sense of nationalism with respect to Gaza is reflected in his determination to reclaim “the amputated leg.”

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