Author Emile Habiby – two reviews

The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist
By Emile Habiby
Translated by Salma K. Jayyusi and Trevor LeGassick
Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter: A Palestinian Fairy Tale
By Emile Habiby
Translated by Peter Theroux
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

I imagined I’d left her in a monk’s cell on a mountaintop. Had it been Montfort, I’d have understood that I left only her apparition. But if it was al-Carmel, then it’s still waiting for me to finish what I have to do and set out searching for Saraya. And if I don’t manage to find her in this lifetime, I’ll wait for another. I do not think death will come to me before Saraya, because we haven’t yet set a time and place to meet in a future life, for a meeting that will be longer than our separation has been in this one.
–Emile Habiby, Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter: A Palestinian Fairy Tale

Emile Habiby is perhaps one of the hardest of great writers for Americans to read, in more ways than one. His writings are beautiful but determinedly inaccessible to the noninitiate into the Palestinian tragedy. This is so on more than one level. Naturally, he wrote all his life to a world that did not want to hear. But he is also atypical among Palestinians, having stayed in his birthplace of Haifa after the Israeli takeover and thus possessing a consciousness that retains the whole Palestinian territory and history. He writes from a perspective that is tortured with itself, realizing at once that he stands closer to a complete nation and reality than most Palestinians or Israelis, and yet that this stance is the nearest to madness of all. Habiby’s books read like lucid dreams, or hallucinations. Their lucidity makes them a torment to the creator who knows there is no way out of the hallucination. His genius is to transfer his sense of being trapped to the reader. In this he is not alone in the twentieth century, of course. It would be somewhat invidious to compare Habiby’s lucid nightmares to those of the “cousins,” as he calls the Jews, but the parallels are everywhere. One may think of Franz Kafka’s aphorism: “The arrows fit exactly into the wounds for which they were intended,” which in this context has a double meaning. Like Kafka and like another Central European Jew who did in fact move to Israel-Palestine, Aharon Appelfeld, Habiby communicates in fragments and parables balanced delicately around an overwhelming “presence of absence.” But the cousin of whom I am most inclined to think in reading him is the late Joanna Russ, who might have gone ignored as a science fiction author if her themes were such as to be taken politically in an international sense, from the outset, to the exclusion of anything else. Habiby’s two main books in translation, The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist and Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter: A Palestinian Fairy Tale, are essentially alike, consisting in vignettes linked intricately to each other, to the author’s life, and to reality, easy to quote and annotate and hard to describe. They wallow self-consciously in the fantastic while resisting reduction to fantasy elements.

However, both novels can definitely be read as sff, The Secret Life of Saeed more as science fiction and Saraya more as fantasy. And to read them as such, rather than searching self-consciously for political symbolism, may be to do them less of a disservice than otherwise. Habiby’s politics are difficult to separate from his sense of fantasy. He writes as a man aware that his chief project is entirely fantastic: to remember Palestine in every detail. It is a madman’s work not only because most of Palestine no longer exists in the mind of the world, but also because a human being lives only a few decades and the land lives forever. Habiby writes against time above all, aware of the narrow span of his years in comparison to the eternity he must commit to eternity.

The Secret Life of Saeed is the more famous of the two, a loosely plotted picaresque told from the point of view of the ne’er-do-well Saeed, who begins as an informer for the Israelis and ends as a limited man still, but a proud Arab. He is changed by the intervention of two beings from space, making Saeed a science fiction tale in the same way as The Female Man by Joanna Russ. The Female Man has a number of characteristics in common with The Secret Life of Saeed. The “signal from outer space” is announced by Habiby’s identification with the rational and scientific side of Arab history, even though his main two books in translation are in no way realistic. He distinguishes himself from his forebears who are always looking for coins to turn up at their feet, therefore went through life with their heads down. “As a child, I decided not to die with a bent back like my forebears and so have never searched for treasure at my feet. I began, instead, looking for treasure above, in the endless reaches of space, in this ‘shoreless sea,’ as the mystic poet Ibn Arabi described it.” A parallel is drawn between the servile posture and the belief in luck, even though Saeed believes the night he encounters the space beings to be “his own very special night of good fortune.” Science is invoked not as a Western invention nor as an alternative to “supernatural power,” but as another form of it, one that requires a different stance:

Fate had granted us, when we were in elementary school, one God-damned teacher who was mad about astronomy. He told us all about Abbas Ibn Firnas and Jules Verne and expressed a fanatical pride in all the old Arab astronomers; from Averroes, who first studied sun spots, to al-Batani al-Harrani, who first deduced that the time equation changes slowly over the generations and who first accurately computed the length of the solar year…This infernal teacher used to keep us in class after school, close the windows, and tell us proudly of the scientist al-Biruni, who had discovered that the earth was round and, some eight hundred years before Newton, that all bodies were attracted to it. He used to gabble constantly about al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, who was—and here the fellow would lower his voice to a conspiratorial whisper—the first to develop today’s scientific methodology which requires deductions based only on observation of concrete reality and reasoning by analogy. For the Arabs, so said this accursed teacher, would first act and then dream, not as they do now—first dream and then continue to dream.

I dreamed that history would remember me as it had our ancient astronomers…This same miserable man used to assure us that the Arabs were the first to use zero as we use it now. Then they divided one by zero and proved to us that outer space is limitless and that the universe in it, as Ibn Arabi wrote, “swims in a shoreless sea, in the jet black of eternity.”

There must certainly be worlds other than ours, and better too. No doubt they’ll find us before we find them. Well, the Turks left and the British came to us without that teacher wavering in his theories; so how can I doubt them—I, a young man whose life is still before him, the British having left and Israel having come in?

Yes, ever since that time I began looking upward and awaiting their arrival. Either they will transform my monotonous and boring life completely, or they can take me away with them.

Is there an alternative?

It is an upward trajectory of political integrity that is expressed in vignettes of increasing surrealism and depersonalization. Reading the two books together, it is almost as if Saeed is being groomed to become the narrator of Saraya, probably Habiby’s masterpiece, an exquisite poem of grief addressed to a lost, archetypical woman who might or might not be Palestine, or a particular woman, as the woman with whom Saeed is obsessed, Yuaad, is a particular woman, indeed two particular women: the first Yuaad, and then the second, the elder Yuaad’s daughter, who appears to Saeed looking exactly like her mother at twenty and foreshadowing the eternal Saraya in the later novel.

Women play an important role in Habiby’s work. Whereas his men are compromised, weak, self-divided, women for Habiby are voices of modernity and ancestral integrity at the same time. It would be going too far to call him a feminist. Yuaad and Saraya both exist mainly in relation to the significance they have for the protagonist. But there is no question that they get the best lines and interrogate business as usual both among the “cousins” and the Arabs. It is Yuaad who gives voice to Saeed’s growth beyond being something of a Pasqualino Settebelleze of Haifa, into a man a little more like John Yossarian: true to himself amid universal irrationality, if without illusions as to the significance of integrity, or the likelihood of his winning. Yuaad approaches the status of a real woman rather than an archetype in that she renders Saeed more aware of other people and multiple answers to his dilemma than anyone whom Yossarian encountered in Catch-22. And Yuaad does so facing other Arabs, rather than the more convenient bad guys, the Israelis; she does so facing down the ease of the conspiracy narrative in favor of realism and confrontation, including with the facile promises of Arabs outside Palestine:

“They say that our cordon moves the conscience of the world, which Zionism would totally enclose in a cordon if it weren’t for the Communists. Did you read about our cordon in the newspapers of the Arab countries, those which have not been cordoned off by Zionism?”

Yuaad, her eyes glittering in anger, commented, “The papers of the Arab world cordon us with ‘victories,’ like haloes over the heads of saints: there’s no space for reports of your cordons. They’ve kept on encircling us with the cordons of their victories, until there’s nothing but chaos and we can no longer differentiate between them and the wreaths of flowers set on graves.”

“And Zionism raises hell all over the world for so much as a scratch on a finger!”

Yuaad, her anger thoroughly aroused, positively roared, “Gentlemen, that’s enough from your viewpoint! You see utter calamity in what’s happened to you, whereas our lives are now one big cordon. You have a phrase: ‘from the cradle to the grave’; we have one that goes, ‘from cordon to cordon!’ Don’t expect those living their entire lives under cordons, under constant inspection, at the mercy of every kind of bloodhound, deprived of their very roots, to have much sympathy with your particular ‘calamity’ when it has become the life experience of a particular nation, from the Gulf to the Atlantic!”

That this speech is put in a woman’s voice may be read as a respectful gesture on the one hand or as a distancing one on the other. Habiby represented several unpopular positions in Palestinian politics. He was not uprooted; he remained in Haifa all his life. He never changed his belief in a one-state solution or in coexistence with the Jewish population of Israel-Palestine. As double-edged as his reference to the Jews as “cousins” may be, the longing it represents is real. Yet Habiby’s longing for a condition of shared humanity with Israeli Jews is inseparable from his longing for the Palestine that was. The two things cannot be undone even as they represent each other’s undoing. Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter resurrects a figure from Palestinian folklore: that much is apparent to a non-Arabic reader; but a symbolic or allegorical reading risks misprision, and too much homage to the painful beauty of this prose poem risks sentimentality if unearned in the reader’s experience. Sentimentality is condescending, but reading and rereading ought not to be. To do this begins to take up the burden that Habiby has assumed for himself in inscribing every feature of the world around him with meaning, however futilely. Futilely, and unwillingly, one thinks again of the “cousins”: of those Jewish writers, too numerous and here inappropriate to list, for whom the former significance of Lviv or Bolekhiv or Zhytomir or Ternopil or Sighet or Mukacheve or Hrodna or Vitebsk exists only in their memories, and now perhaps only in memories known at second- or third-hand, with the potential of being transferred illegitimately to Israel even if it was once understandable for this to be seen as a brave move. Once upon a time, it was precisely with the intent of not making a circus out of mourning that Jewish writers turned from horror-film details to the lyricism of memory; now that lyricism justifies its own circus, of chauvinism, in effect if not in intention. It will remain to be seen whether Habiby’s lyricism remains radical or is also distorted by the passage of time as virtually everything must be; perhaps his answer to that would be in the hope represented by women whom the calamity’s development might yet release from the need to be Saraya, though it might scarcely be a lighter burden to be Yuaad. Habiby’s perspective is unrelentingly male, but his female characters transcend the representation of hopelessness that Lawrence L. Langer found, perhaps correctly, in the literature of the European disaster. Habiby had enough sympathy with feminism to admire Andrea Dworkin’s radical feminist (and deeply Jewish) novel Mercy.

Emile Habiby is very little known in America. In earlier times one could blame the eclipse of Palestinian culture in the Western mind to the extent that the latter was ever aware of it, but that is no longer an excuse. The poet Mahmoud Darwish, Habiby’s friend and contemporary, has been translated and is read. Habiby stands for a similar political position to that of Darwish, liberal but not assimilationist; Darwish’s popularity makes it seem likely that if Habiby is not as well known, it is because he is not as easy to get to know. Like Joanna Russ, he can be an exasperating stylist. The non-Arabic reader will not always know if the teasing quality of his stories with their fits and starts, their indirections masked as picaresque twists, is due to things lost in translation, though there clearly are some. The translation of Saeed by Jayyasi and LeGassick is adequate; that by Theroux of Saraya is often inspired, making Habiby’s allusiveness shimmer rather than dither, but in each case the reader may lose the thread. But though his work is difficult, at times resembling the soliloquies of a Palestinian Hamlet, the halting quality of his narratives reflects Habiby’s refusal to hate: the forward-driving narrative of justified resentment is always choked off just as it gathers steam. This has the most subversive consequence of all, in making the land his heroine: the people on it, Arabs, Jews, Muslims, Christians, are all ghosts. In a part of the world about which some are over-rich in certainty, Habiby is brave to hold back from it, to turn toward mortality and other universals in a way that relativizes politics even as it does also radicalize them. It puts to shame the fantasies of some far-right racists among those of European descent, who have hijacked the Palestinian tragedy to their own ends in a manner far less understandable than the Arab politicos disposed of by Habiby’s Yuaad. But anyone who would write him off as a sentimental humanist does not understand the implications of the inscription on his gravestone: “Emile Habiby, stayed in Haifa.” Still, his work is dated now in some ways; though a one-state solution remains the most attractive in idealistic terms, the ethical and perhaps the ethnic terms have been redrawn by all that has happened since Habiby died in 1996. A more contemporary perspective on Palestinian goals may be found in an anonymous website put up by a British sympathizer, at But while the hope that this site represents, at an appalling price, is real, the world will never be without its Habibys, the men and women who must be content that courage is giving them their only victory, measured in the right to quote Hamlet’s words: “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,/Absent thee from felicity awhile/And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain/To tell my story.”

(NOTE: Habiby’s surname is transliterated in several different ways. The most common is Habibi, though there is also Habeeby, etc., just as his first name can appear as Emile, Emil, or Imil. I have used the form that appears on the most easily available editions of these two books.)