by Suh Kyungsik
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A QUASI-REFUGEE
I first became aware of the relevance of the idea of refugee to my own life when I read Ghassan Kanafani’s writing in the late 1970s. Kanafani (b. 1936), a Palestinian refugee, was a spokesman for the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In 1972 he was assassinated in Beirut by a car bomb. Kanafani’s work, which appeared first in Japanese and then in Korean translation, also played an important role in the South Korean pro-democracy movement during the 1970s. Korean movement leaders such as Paik Nak-Chung were inspired by Arab literatures of resistance, and called for South Koreans to define their own struggles as part of a global Third World liberation movement.
At the time, this claim resonated with me, a resident Korean in Japan, for several reasons. First, my elder brothers had been jailed and horribly brutalized by the despotic regime of South Korean leader Park Chung Hee for political crimes. And there was also the question of national identity.
I can name several of Kanafani’s works that have had a large impact on my thinking: his critical essay on the literature of resistance in Occupied Palestine and his fiction “Returning to Haifa” and Men in the Sun. It was through these writings that I realized that I came to understand the notions of “Third World identity” and “refugee self identity.” Indeed, through Kanafani’s works, I came to the realization that I myself am a refugee of sorts.
In “Returning to Haifa” (1969), Kanafani tells the story of a married Palestinian couple who, during the 1967 Six Day War, return to the home in Haifa that they had been forced to flee during the First Arab-Israeli War in 1948. They find immigrants from Eastern European living there. Not only has their former home been occupied, but the Israeli couple has also adopted their eldest son Khaldun, who they had inadvertently left behind when they fled Haifa twenty years earlier. As they leave, the Palestinian man says to his wife, “The homeland is where none of this can happen.” About their second son Khalid, who was born in a refugee camp, he says “For Kalid, the homeland is the future.” In other words, home is less a matter of territory, land, blood, or even a particular culture or tradition. Home is a conscious decision about the future made under specific political conditions.
These insights have helped me to resolve my long struggle over the idea of homeland. As a resident Korean born and raised in Japan, I came to conceive of a future homeland where certain things “are not supposed to happen.” I confess feeling a keen interest in the son in Kanafani’s story, a man who had been raised as an Israeli and thus was an enemy of his own Palestinian biological parents and brother. We Resident Koreans are constantly torn in our loyalty to two cultures, like the two brothers in Kanafani’s story.