Artwork by Farah Nada
The Vicious Cycle of Othering: The Futility of Resistance in Kanafani’s “Men in the Sun” and Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians
By Marziah Rashid
Both Ghassan Kanafani’s short story “Men in the Sun” (1999) and J. M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians (2004) involve a character who, by virtue of occupying a position that allocates him agency, has a moral responsibility to limit the oppression of the Other in the colonial system. In “Men in the Sun,” that character is Abul Khaizuran; in Waiting for the Barbarians he is the unnamed magistrate. Both characters attempt to carry out this responsibility while simultaneously maintaining the Self-Other dynamic, whereby the Self perceives the Other as secondary and as devoid of an identity, that is the foundation of the colonial system. However, as the events of both narratives demonstrate, resistance against the colonial system is unsuccessful if the language of the colonizer framed by the Self-Other dynamic persists. Resistance can only be achieved if the very system of signification of colonialism, which includes the terms "Self" and "Other," were changed.
The deviant lorry driver Abul Khaizuran and the magistrate both recognize that they have the power necessary to counter the treatment that the Other receives at the hands of the colonizer, but both also display a reluctance to act on the responsibility that accompanies this power. After Abu Qais, Assad, and Marwan die in the water tank of the lorry, the decision of how to dispose of their bodies is at Abul Khaizuran’s discretion: he has the agency to deliberate among the options of burying them, throwing them in the desert, or leaving them in the municipality rubbish heap (Kanafani 72, 73). But he shirks his responsibility to give the men a proper burial and chooses the lattermost option instead; moreover, he does this for his own sake: “he felt consumed with exhaustion…and he wouldn’t be capable of wielding a spade for long hours to dig three graves” (72). Also, when the task is done, he immediately thereafter feels the compulsion to “do…something,” which he is able to consider only because he possesses the agency to act. He thinks of shouting presumably in order to give himself up because he feels accountable for their deaths, but decides against it because he “realize[s] what a stupid idea that was” (74). Once again, he does not act, a decision which reflects his own interests.
On the other hand, at the beginning of Waiting for the Barbarians, the magistrate has the ability to make an attempt to free Colonel Joll’s prisoners. That he wields a degree of influence is evidenced not only by his post as magistrate, but also his high social position, which is made obvious by his educated and literary style of narration. The latter is exemplified in part by his frequent use of anaphora, instances of which include his repetition of the phrase “Easier to…” when proclaiming the futility of using words to defend the barbarians whom Joll and his men publicly humiliate and of the phrase “Empire has…” when describing Empire’s determination to prolong itself (Coetzee 118, 146). But he is unwilling to take advantage of this influence. While the boy and his father are being tortured in the granary, he conveniently hears nothing of their screams although his “ear is even turned to the pitch of human pain” (Coetzee 5). Like in the case of Abul Khaizuran, he neglects to use his power to make a change because it is in his own interests to do so. He admits that he would have preferred to have remained uninvolved in the prisoners’ affairs because he wants nothing more than a “quiet life in quiet times” consisting of carrying out his formal duties and his desires (8). He hopes that the fisherfolk escape from the barracks yard, but also that they will not be drawn back to the town by memories of it because he “do[es] not want a race of beggars on [his] hands” (20). Finally, he writes a letter of complaint to the Third Bureau about Joll’s incompetence but “wisely” tears it up: the move is wise because sending it would compromise him (21). He remains complacent too in the case of the barbarian girl, of whom he is himself the colonizer: he acknowledges that he has the power to “lie down beside her and fall asleep or fold her in a sheet and bury her in the snow” among other options, and thus that he is responsible for her body (21), but he continues to subject her to his own whims.
Now, the above mentioned internal conflict experienced by the magistrate and Abul Khaizarun between their interests and those of the colonized causes them to venture a compromise: they attempt resistance against the colonizer on behalf of the colonized despite allowing an ideology of Self and Other to endure. However, this attempt inevitably fails because it causes an interminable cycle of oppression in which invariably one party is Othered. In Waiting for the Barbarians, initially the magistrate tries to relieve the barbarian girl of being Othered at the hands of the town both by providing her with room and board and integrating her into the town’s society as one of the maids who then accept her (34), thereby rendering her no longer a “vagrant” (28). However, he then proceeds to Other her himself. First, he dehumanizes her in two ways. He reduces her to nothing more than flesh: he regards her in terms of the separate components of her body rather than as an individual comprising these components taken together. For example, when he performs the ritual of massaging her body for the first time, he is so engrossed in the parts of her legs—he moves from her feet to her knees to her calves—that he “lose[s] awareness of the girl herself” (30). Later, at the beginning of the period of his incarceration, he tries to remember the girl but finds that his memory of her is obscure except for “[his] oiled hands sliding over her knees, her calves, her ankles” (94). Also, he refuses to discern clearly her one feature that identifies her as human and defines her as an individual: her face, which is variously described as “blank,” “featureless,” “not a face,” “filming over with skin,” “like…an urn or a ball, something which is all surface,” and “opaque, impermeable, as though secreting a shell over itself” (40, 45, 47, 50, 52, 82).
The second way in which the magistrate Others the barbarian girl is by justifying his exploitation of her with the rhetoric that it is for her own benefit. When he first meets her, he exhibits indignation at the suffering her torturers have caused her and asks after her well-being (29, 30, 33-5). At the same time, however, he acknowledges that his protest of “This is not what you think it is” is hollow (29), or in other words that his concern for her is a deceptive means to gain access to her body. He then uses her body for his own ends; this is the third way in which he Others her. In his essay entitled “The Presence of Absence: Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians,” (2004) Lance Olsen describes the magistrate as “an archaeologist, anthropologist, a digger for ‘meaning,’ a detective, an explorer” (6); Olsen notes that he embodies this role by trying to interpret not only the language on the wood slips he has found in the desert but also the marks on the girl’s body: until they are “deciphered and understood [he] cannot let go of her” (as qtd. in Olsen 6). He also uses her body as a text, in a classical “woman-as-text” paradigm, for the purposes of self-discovery through recording and reading his own history. Her characteristic blankness in his eyes makes her a tabula rasa on which he is free to write; if he does not know what to write, as he notes while contemplating writing a history on one of the documents he intends to leave behind for the Third Bureau, it is because he “does not know what to do with the woman in his bed” (63). Also, he raises the possibility that it is not “she [he] want[s] [but] the traces of a history her body bears” (70). Thus because the magistrate retains the Self-Other dynamic, the girl merely shifts from the status as Other from which he frees her to a different status as Other.
When the magistrate realizes this, he attempts to alleviate his own oppression of the girl by undertaking an expedition to return her to her people. Once again, however, he fails in this endeavor. This is because in doing so he is causing her to re-cross the boundary between civilization in which he Othered her and wilderness in which the Empire Othered her as a barbarian; in other words, she is simply moving back from her new state of Otherness to her previous one. Also, as a consequence of the magistrate’s unauthorized expedition, the Bureau is left to allow “the black flower of civilization to bloom” (86). In other words, the magistrate’s decision to hand the girl back to the barbarians leads to the perpetuation of the cycle of Othering both directly and indirectly. First, the Bureau punishes him for his waywardness by torturing him so that it is he who is now being Othered. The Bureau’s torture of the magistrate can be called Othering because as a result of it he takes on several characteristics that the barbarian girl was described to have when he Othered her. For example, just as she was, he is constantly compared to an animal throughout his period of torture: he is variously referred to as a “bear” (127), a “crab,” a “dog” (128), and a “beast” (136) and he is also described as “trot[ting]” (127) and “bellow[ing]” (132). Just as she is at the beginning of the novel, towards the end he is rendered temporarily blind when he is hit in the face while trying to defend himself against the men beating him in the scene where the barbarians are being publicly tortured (117). Just as she was, he is described as nothing more than a lump of flesh and a faceless body during his torture: “My torturers…were interested only in demonstrating to me what it meant to live in a body, as a body…Its head is gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it till it coughs and retches and flails and voids itself” (126). At the end of Chapter IV, as he is being heckled by the crowd, someone calls him a barbarian and the role reversal is complete (133).
Secondly, as a result of the magistrate’s undertaking of the expedition, the Bureau declares a state of emergency whereby “the administration of justice is out of the hands of the civilians and in the hands of the Bureau” as Joll tells him (124). The Bureau is given free reign, which the magistrate might have once limited before he thus lost his agency, to worsen the Empire’s Othering of the barbarians through torture (113-6). The cycle of Othering remains unbroken.
Similarly, in “Men of the Sun,” in attempting to smuggle the men across the border to Kuwait in the water tank of his lorry, Abul Khaizuran tries to alleviate the men’s subjugation to unjust treatment by the Lebanese authorities, who restrict their movement across countries. He too fails because despite his good intentions, in placing the men in the tank, he is Othering them himself, like the magistrate does the girl, so that they are still the Other and the cycle of Othering thus continues. When the men are in the tank, a distance is created between Abul Khaizuran and them because they and their suffering are doubly relegated out of sight in the closed water container behind him. Because of this distance, he imposes a judgment on them in that he fails to conceive of them complexly by discounting the extent of their pain: when they emerge from the tank for the first time, harrowed, he insists that they were inside for only six minutes, disregarding that in these six minutes lies an eternity (Kanafani 61-2).
Also, he can be compared to the magistrate in that he frames his transportation of them in the tank as being for their own benefit: according to him, the other smugglers would “leave [the men] in the middle of the road and melt away like a lump of salt” (50). The reality, however, is that his reason for helping them lies in his lust for money, which is evidenced by his open admission to it on numerous occasions (42, 56, 64) and by the fact that he steals the money from the men’s pockets after they are dead (74). This perpetuation of Othering by placing the smuggled men in the tank leads to their deaths in the extreme heat inside it, and thus his effort to free them of oppression proves to be in vain.
Furthermore, Abul Khaizarun continues to Other them even after they are dead. Once again like the magistrate sees the girl, Abul Khaizarun views them as mere bodies without a genuine claim to humanity. He perceives each of them as a collection of parts of a body: separately he becomes aware of a “chest,” “head,” “shoulders,” and “mouth” (71). To him they are pieces of flesh when he unceremoniously throws them to the ground from the lorry and thinks of them as “the first corpse,” “the other corpse,” and “the third corpse” rather than as Abu Qais, Assad, and Marwan (73). Finally, he refuses to acknowledge their faces: he desperately tries to get rid of the image of Marwan’s face from his mind (71) and feels relieved when owing to the darkness, he is unable to see the men’s faces (73). Abul Khaizarun does not take into account the fact that he was similarly Othered when he lost his member in an explosion ten years ago; he was told that it was “better than dying” as though his member was only a piece of flesh whereas to him it signified his manhood (53). In this way, the Self becomes the Other and the cycle of oppression continues to roll on.
Thus both the novel and the short story show that the insurgent with authority in a colonial system cannot carry out his moral responsibility to defend the colonized that accompanies this authority if he keeps in place the Self-Other divide that is the very basis of colonialism, for the reason that the divide perpetuates itself in a cycle of oppression. If the system is to be overthrown, Coetzee and Kanafani suggest, it must be done in such a way that the Self-Other divide is broken down so that the two entities coalesce into one.
Coetzee, J. M. Waiting for the Barbarians. London: Vintage, 2004. Print.
Kanafani, Ghassan. Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc, 1999. Print.
Olsen, Lance. “The Presence of Absence: Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 16.2 (1985): 47-56. Web. 29 December 2013.
Marziah Rashid is a 20-year-old Pakistani student in her junior year majoring in English Literature at the American University of Sharjah. In the future, she hopes to attend graduate school in the United States and then pursue a career as an educator, because she never wants to leave the classroom. She intends to eventually return to AUS to teach in the English department, and do live singing shows in cafes on the side. She is a keen enthusiast of all things tea-related.