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The miracle of Emile Habiby's Pessoptimist.


Jonathan Scott

The Miracle of Emile Habiby's Pessoptimist

This article argues that the ideological blockade in the U.S. academy against any assertion of pan-Arab nationalism is most transparent when it comes to Palestinian writers. A consequence of more than forty years of pro-Israel propaganda aimed at discrediting and silencing the Palestinian right of self-determination, the Palestinian abyss in American academic cultural studies and also its twentieth-century world literature curricula is best illustrated by the invisibility of Emile Habiby's internationally celebrated novel The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist. Written in Arabic and originally published in Haifa in 1974, Habiby's self-ironic and wickedly sarcastic postmodernist pastiche quickly became a classic in the modern Arabic literature tradition and, after translation into English, named by critics a Palestinian masterpiece. For the Palestinian people themselves, from the Diaspora and those living inside Israel to the millions still under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, Habiby's Pessoptimist signifies the beginnings of a distinctive Palestinian national literary form. The purpose of this critique is to appreciate Habiby's logic on its own terms, but it is also to liberate his masterpiece from the Zionist corral-- to project it outward into the world of other nations, peoples, and intellectual styles. In this task, a special emphasis is placed on the Arabic trickster figure, juha, who, while completely singular in origin and meaning in Arabic folklore, has several compelling counterparts in world literature, in particular the African American Signifyin' Monkey. From this double-critique--establishing at once the singularity of Habiby's trickster figure and opening it up to other worldly comparisons--a new concept is offered, what the author terms "the blues people of Palestine." The concept is used to illuminate Habiby's iconoclastic narrative style, and to understand the extremely complex multi-voicedness of the text itself.

  There is more of a concentration today on the affirmation of
  identity, the need for roots, the values of one's culture and one's
  sense of belonging. It's become quite rare to project one's self
  outward. (Edward Said)

During the late 70s and early 80s, the popular and still largely untamed American anti-war and civil rights mass movements began forcing major changes in the U.S. academy. A cursory look today at almost any U.S. college's list of course requirements for a baccalaureate degree, in which American college students are asked to appreciate and understand in order to graduate cultural traditions and philosophic ideas other than the ones with which they were raised, shows clear traces of this politically vibrant Vietnam-era generation. Terms such as "otherness," "diversity," "difference," and "multicultural" are of standard use in a wide variety of humanities curricula, as well as concepts such as "Eurocentric," "subaltern,""hegemony," and "dominant discourse." Needless to say, thirty years ago it was extremely rare to find courses on cultural imperialism, yet today they are offered regularly at universities across the country.

At the same time, this kind of inventory discloses a stunning absence, one familiar to any Arab graduate of the U.S. university system: the invisibility of Arabic literature and culture, in particular of the great Palestinian writers. In fact, not a single book-length study or collection of essays in English exists on the Palestinian literature tradition, whereas there are several excellent works in English focusing on Egyptian literature as well as the Arab epic tradition, known as the Sirat Bani Hilal. I'm thinking in specific of Bridget Connelly's fine book Arab Folk Epic and Identity, (1986) and also Matti Moosa's superb The Origins of Modem Arabic Fiction (1997) as well as Sabry Hafez's catholic The Genesis of Arabic Narrative Discourse (1993). Still, as authoritative and substantial is the work of Connelly, Moosa, and Hafez on Arabic belles-lettres, these three scholarly texts, when located within the fields of English cultural studies and U.S. "multiculturalism," are a sparkling oasis in a dusty desert of sameness.

The present essay's purpose is not to find the culprits for perpetuating this startling absence, since the search for responsibility in making the rich Arabic literature tradition completely invisible would likely produce a very short essay in which the usual suspects are made obvious, namely "the Israel Lobby," as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer have recently termed it. This well funded and expertly organized pro-Israeli political apparatus has exercised in the U.S. a systematically repressive effect on the assertion of any sort of pan-Arab nationalist sentiment to the extent that even a modern poetry course featuring some verse of Mahmoud Darwish could bring serious pain to the untenured professor who attempts it.

To my knowledge, no study has been published that documents this kind of political repression at the level of literature appreciation, yet in my own experience in the U.S. academy it has always been present. For instance, several senior faculty members in my former English department, at the biggest college within the City University of New York system, cautioned me about teaching "pro-Palestinian" texts in my courses, by which they meant the classic short stories of Ghassan Kanafani. I continued teaching Kanafani's texts and was denied tenure as promised. Eventually I earned tenure through a long, drawn out appeals process. In their excellent new article, "The Rise of the Israel Lobby," Kathleen and Bill Christison explain this kind of automatic political repression in terms of a U.S.-Israeli bond that they argue "has always had its grounding more in soft emotions than in the hard realities of geopolitical strategies "They write: "Scholars have always described the tie in almost spiritual terms never applied to ties with other nations" (2006, 4).

Their focus in the article is on what they term "a similar spiritual and cultural identity"--to wit:
  the U.S. identifies with Israel's "national style"; Israel is
  essential to the "ideological prospering" of the U.S.; each country
  has "grafted" the heritage of the other onto itself. This applies
  even to the worst aspects of each nation's heritage. Consciously
  or unconsciously, many Israelis even today see the U.S. conquest
  of the American Indians as something "good.' something to emulate
  and, which is worse, many Americans even today are happy to
  accept the "compliment" inherent in Israel's effort to copy
  us. (Christison and Christison 2006, 4)

As with anything made deliberately invisible, the rules for imposing and sustaining the invisibility need to be invisible also--that is, unspoken. Thus to speak the unspeakable in the case of the treatment by the U.S. academy of the world-historical Arabic literature tradition would make for a timely critical intervention. While this kind of study needs to be authored, there remain, I think, much more basic tasks and procedures to carry out such as a simple appreciation of a great Arab novel, and in particular a great Arab novel that has never been written about before in English or American studies. In this way, one of the cornerstones of the unspoken anti-Arab consensus obtaining in the pro-Israeli U.S. academy can be exposed and then kicked away, i.e. the presupposition, taken as axiomatic, that Arabs don't write canonical literature, or that the literature they do write is, with one or two exceptions, impossibly opaque, alien, and provincial and hence not worth the trouble to translate.

In 1989 a literary miracle took place--the publication in a cheap paperback edition, in an excellent English translation, of Emile Habiby's iconoclastic masterpiece The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist: A Palestinian Who Became a Citizen of Israel (The Pessoptimist). Habiby's novel had been originally published in Arabic in Haifa in 1974. The Project for Translation from Arabic (PROTA), based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had contracted the illustrious Arab poet and literary critic Salma Khadra Jayyusi, along with Middle East scholar Trevor Le Gassick, to produce the translation, in cooperation with Zed Press in London, a project completed in 1985. The text was then published in North America four years later by Readers International. It remains easily accessible today, although the original cover which was based on a work by the uncompromising genius Naji al-Ali, the Palestinian political cartoonist has been unfortunately replaced. The 1989 cover features his famous "little man" Hanzala, a child of the refugee camps. Naji al-Ali had been assassinated in London two years prior; the murderers have never been found. At all events, the closest thing to this 1989 Habiby publishing phenomenon is perhaps the recent publication of Elias Khoury'sown masterpiece Gate of the Sun (2006), which also took fifteen years to reach an English-language reading public.

Habiby's novel in English translation was a major publishing event in several respects. First, the novel tells the story of the Palestinian Al Nakba (the catastrophe), which for most North Americans and Europeans would be their first exposure to the narrative in any artistic form. Second, it coincided with the momentous Palestinian Intifada, which was then in its second year. And third, it arrived on the scene just as the energies of the 1960s anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements were suddenly transforming literature departments across the U.S. Not only would it be impossible now for academics to say that they'd like to teach a Palestinian novel in their new Third World Literature course yet there aren't any available, but also the anti-apartheid student upsurges on college campuses had handed to them on a silver platter, as it were, a kind of organizing text for the process of politically restructuring the American university along anti-imperialist, anti-racist equalitarian lines. Indeed, within a year after the 1989 publication of Habiby's novel, a dynamic sister-city relationship was established between Ramallah and Ann Arbor, organized cooperatively by students and faculty at the University of Michigan and Birzeit University. Student and faculty delegations were promptly sent to Occupied Palestine, and so on. This initiative was emulated at other major U.S. universities. The point is not that Habiby's novel caused a political revolution on U.S. college campuses but rather that it symbolized, in far-reaching ways, everything important happening at the time in the academy and in American political culture as a whole. For instance, in 1988 Jesse Jackson won easily the Democratic Presidential Primary in Michigan on an explicitly anti-Israeli occupation platform--something unthinkable today.

Of course The Pessoptimist neither anticipated nor consciously contributed to the politicization of literature departments and the robust student and faculty activism in the U.S. during the 1980s. Habiby's novel was written in Haifa during the early 1970s and addressed specifically to Palestinians of Al Nakba, a reading public of astonishingly diasporic dimension and social character--more than five million people in far-flung places across the globe. Moreover, writing from inside the Green Line--i.e., Israel's 1948 borders, which include Habiby's place of birth, the Palestinian port city of Haifa (he was born in 1922)--made the novel that much more idiosyncratic in terms of its dialogical relationship to readers, particularly to readers of literary Arabic, for it was the very first Arab literary work of its kind. In fact, it could not have been predicted. The writer's audience is always a slippery issue, for reasons that need no elaboration here. Suffice it to say that Habiby's novel was written in a form of literary Arabic that could be read, almost exclusively, by Palestinians and other Arabs around the world who had been formally educated in the Arabic literary tradition, both linguistically and historically; and that it deals closely with specific Palestinian experiences following the Israeli Zionist conquest of Palestine during the late 1940s, namely the lives of those who managed somehow to survive whole the entire onslaught--who avoided mass expulsion by the Israel Defense Forces and thus remained, miraculously, in historical Palestine after its colonialist expropriation by the new Jewish State.

It is striking to the reader of the English translation, then, to discover that the form and structure of the novel is apparently free of any Arabic linguistic particularisms that might frustrate a non-literary Arabic reader's attempt to appreciate Habiby's main intentions with the text. This is not to say that all the Palestinian inside jokes are rendered lucidly and automatically in the English translation, or that without some effortful research on the Palestinian saga as well as the history of the Arab people and Islam the novel's brutally hilarious self-irony is essentially lost. Rather, the point is that Habiby's singular style, crystallized in his choice of form and structure, is always conscious of the translation issue. In the reflections that follow, I propose the thesis that what enabled The Pessoptimist's emergence, fortuitously, as the first great Palestinian nationalist novel at precisely the moment in which the Palestinian struggle for national independence and self-determination was gaining an international political constituency, especially in the U.S., is its political-minded literary self-consciousness. More to the point, the triumphant international success of Habiby's novel--the fact that it remains in print after twenty years despite the lack of any Arab literature and culture studies programs in the U.S. academy--is largely due to the fact that the author's technique did not subordinate itself to, or temporize, the political but instead internalized it completely for the sake of the work's overall construction and ultimate projection in the world.

On this note, equally striking for the English language reader of The Pessoptimist is a style of literary troping very similar to that preferred and perfected in the African American tradition. As one quickly learns, the structure of the novel is a riffing on Voltaire's Candide, which is evocative of many classic African American texts such as Ralph Ellison's troping of the Euro-American naturalist novel in Invisible Man, to Ishmael Reed's "neo-hoodoo aesthetics" m Mumbo Jumbo and Flight to Canada--the former a masterful play on the white American detective novel and the latter on Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Thus the analytic concept I'll be working with is double-sided. One side is the circumstantial politicization of everyday life (or civil society) under racial apartheid--in short, the blues impulse--and the other is the projection of a new kind of writing from this special artistic approach, in which the abstract politics of international solidarity are injected with a concrete and originary, and hence internationally recognizable, national content: a distinctive Palestinian national style.

Blues People of Palestine

Salma Khadra Jayyusi, in her elegant and informative Introduction to the 1989 English translation, calls the novel "a new genre in Arab literature" (1989, vii). She writes:
  Other genres such as the allegorical story ... and the
  picaresque ... which were fictional-comic representations
  revolving around the personality of the trickster ... were not
  revived by modern writers as a possible foundation for modern
  Arabic fiction. In fact, it took creative prose writers in this
  century many decades before they felt confident enough in their
  art to fall back on classical prose literature, one of the richest
  in the world, and take inspiration from its universal and timeless
  aspects. (Jayyusi 1989, viii)

The parallels here to the rejuvenation by twentieth-century African American writers of what Ralph Ellison termed "the blues impulse" are compelling. Take Ellison's definition of the literary blues. "The blues," he wrote,
  is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal
  experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its
  jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of
  philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic
  lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of
  personal catastrophe expressed lyrically. (Ellison 1953,78-79)

In the same vein, Langston Hughes was always fond of describing the blues as "laughing to keep from crying," as he called one of his volumes of verse, and "not without laughter," the title of his first novel.

To begin this kind of literary analysis, then, a strong emphasis needs to be placed on the folk--or, in Antonio Gramsci's concept, the "national-popular"--foundation of Habiby's new genre of Arab literature. Moreover, this folk foundation brings with it in the first instance a whole set of aesthetic preferences that are both anathema to bourgeois styles and forms such as anguishing tragedy and syrupy sentimentalism, and stubbornly, often self-ironically, openly resistant to them. Hence the misplaced notion that the African American blues is about soulful resignation, or that the blues is a deeply melancholic and sorrowful music, requires a similar type of correction when it comes to Habiby's new kind of writing with The Pessoptimist, in which side-splitting sarcasm and parody are the aesthetic preferences. That is, just as the blues impulse aims to animate lyrically the ordeal of white racial oppression in America, in order to reveal the total and peculiar scale of U.S. apartheid and African American resistance, the Palestinian national impulse is pessoptimistic "to uncover," in Jayyusi's precise formulation, "the various con-tradictions that crowd the distance between the extreme poles of Zionist colonialism and Palestinian resistance" (1989, xi). This compelling parallel between the African American national-popular and the Palestinian hinges on the trickster figure.

The Caribbean scholar Jan Carew has defined the West African trickster figure--the cosmological source for both the African American and West Indian modern tricksters (the Signifyin' Monkey and Anancy the Spider, respectively)--as the "archetypal middle-man," "part saint, part trickster," who "periodically renewed contact with communal wellsprings of rhythm, creation and life" (1988, 91). Likewise, synthesizing her exhaustive research on the Arab folk epic, the Sirat Bani Hilal, Bridget Connelly writes that, "Progression from concealment to revelation provides the basic narrative movements of the Hilaliyya. This same rhythm becomes the basis for knowing and understanding. The puns, double entendres, riddles, tricks, disguises, and dreams in which the rawi's [the storyteller's] very style abounds all progress from concealment to revelation, from confusion to understanding" (1986, 224). Moreover, Jayyusi has pointed out that the trickster figure "is not new in Arabic. One of the most beloved popular figures is Juha ... who is sometimes depicted as a small man cunningly donning the mask of the fool in order to protect his life" (1989, xiv). Each of these terms is essential for appreciating Habiby's Pessoptimist.

To put it differently, and also as a way of returning for a moment to the main thesis, the irruption of Habiby's novel onto international center stage of the Palestinian national independence struggle depended on its highly stylized folk character, in specific his choice of a trickster for the tale's first-person narrator. Not only was the cross-cultural, international appeal of such an archetypal figure obvious, especially from a late twentieth-century standpoint, but it was also consistent with Palestinian national-popular aesthetic preferences such as self-irony, that is, the narrator as wise fool: a person constantly embroiled in the exasperating details of chaotic everyday social life. In this aspect, Habiby's work can be perceived as a kind of blues novel, in Ellison's sense of it: transcending the "extreme poles" of oppressor and oppressed by fingering the jagged grain in-between.

Yet one soon discovers that any international parallels such as that between the South African apartheid regime, as well as the persistence of racial oppression in U.S. society today, and the Israeli kind in Palestine cannot serve very well as an entry into the novel, for the narrator Saeed undercuts this gesture in his opening paragraph. "The fact is," he says, "I've disappeared. But I'm not dead. I wasn't killed at the border, as some of you imagined. Nor did I join the guerrilla movement, as those who knew my virtue feared. Nor am I rotting long-forgotten in some jail, as your friends may sup-pose" (Habiby 1989, 3). Saeed's opening remarks bring to mind a profound passage from Edward Said's The Question of Palestine in which Said speaks directly to the equation of Zionism and racism. "For the Palestinian Arab who has lived through and who has now studied the procedures of Zionism toward him and his land," he wrote,
  the predicament is complicated, but not finally unclear. He knows
  that the Law of Return allowing a Jew immediate entry into Israel
  just as exactly prevents him from returning to his home; he also
  knows that Israeli raids killed thousands of civilians, all on the
  acceptable pretext of fighting terrorism, but in reality because
  Palestinians as a race have become synonymous with unregenerate,
  essentially unmotivated terrorism; he understands, without perhaps
  being able to master, the intellectual process by which his violated
  humanity has been transmuted, unheard and unseen, into praise for
  the ideology that has all but destroyed him. Racism is too vague a
  term: Zionism is Zionism. For the Arab Palestinian, this tautology
  has a sense that is perfectly congruent with, but exactly the
  opposite of, what it says to Jews. (Said 1979a, 112)

"No problem," continues Saeed the Pessoptimist. "What matters is that my disappearance, for all its weirdness, was something I'd been expecting all my life. Anyway, the miracle did occur, fine sir, and I did indeed meet with creatures from outer space. I'm in their company now. As I write to you of my fantastic mystery, I'm soaring with them high above you" (Habiby 1989, 3).

The logic of Habiby's form in the novel follows from this beginning premise. To be more precise, while there are many obvious historical parallels and useful analogies that help explain the objective condition of Palestinians under Zionist colonialism, such as the U.S. system of colonialist land confiscation, territorial expansion, and racial oppression against Native Americans and African Americans--there are in fact dozens to be found in The Pessoptimist--there remains, stubbornly, the question of how Palestinians have come to perceive subjectively their own situation. Further, the limits of the parallel-making appear the moment one considers the fact that Israeli Zionism does not behave towards those it continues to colonize and racially oppress in any standard colonialist way.

Take, for instance, Israel's "Officially Unrecognized Villages," of which in the Galilee there exist more than sixty (Sachar 1996, 842). Under the normal procedures of colonial occupation and administration, as under the Ottomans in Palestine and later the British, this current Palestinian "fact on the ground" is entirely anomalous--hence the State of Israel's surrealist term "Officially Unrecognized." In other words, rather than working systematically to totally disappear the native population, which is Israel's official state policy towards the Palestinians, the standard colonial occupying apparatus, in stark contrast, always depends heavily on the colonized for both regular tax revenues and essential labor power. Thus Habiby needs to set the tone for this discrepant Palestinian narrative within the first few pages, and from here a huge flood of anomalies will push the reader forward. As Saeed exclaims sarcastically to conclude the second chapter: "The rest--yes, that's me! The papers haven't ignored me. How can you claim not to have heard of me? I truly am remarkable. For no paper with wide coverage, having sources, resources, advertisements, celebrity writers, and a reputation, can ignore me. Those like me are everywhere--towns, villages, bars, everywhere. I am 'the rest.' I am remarkable indeed!" (1989, 7)

The enigmatic or blues tension between this "remarkable" condition of Palestinians, of being stateless refugees in the very place of their birth, and their total invisibility in Israel as a people with legitimate national rights to the land makes plotting and character development beside the point, or, better, farcical. In fact, this red-hot tension is itself the main character of the novel, hurtling everyone forward along with it, which becomes evident in the third chapter when Saeed discloses to the reader, without self-irony, that he comes from a family of Palestinian collaborators well known for their "extravagant loyalty to the state," and that he has been one himself. Saeed does not at all think of himself as a collaborator, and one realizes immediately that if charged with such an unpardonable offense he would either feign indifference or respond with the familiar story of his famous family the Pessoptimists, who "don't differentiate between optimism and pessimism" and are "quite at a loss" as to which of the two characterizes them (Habiby 1989, 12).

Then he might relate to the accuser, as he does in the fifth chapter, "Research on the Origins of the Pessoptimists," the account of his brother's death in Haifa where he was working construction. "One day a storm blew up and overturned the crane he was operating, throwing them both onto the rocks and down into the sea," the reader is told. "They collected his remains and brought them to us. Neither his head or his insides could be found" (Habiby 1989, 13). Saeed's brother had been married only a few weeks, leaving his new widow in agony. As Saeed punctuates his account, and Habiby ends the chapter, a storytelling pattern is established that will rhythmically structure the rest of the narrative. To wit, after narrating a terrible hardship and another insupportable loss, he drops, lugubriously, a "pessoptimistic" word of wisdom followed incongruously by a wickedly funny one-liner. In this case, Saeed recounts that his mother had become disturbed by her daughter-in-law's weeping at the news of her husband's death and promptly chastised her, saying, "It's best it happened like this and not some other way!" The daughter-in-law, "who was not from our family and therefore did not understand our kind of wisdom," is outraged at this pessoptimist approach to suffering and demands an explanation. Here Saeed sets up the parting shot with his mother's laconic reply: "For you to have run off during his life, my girl, to have run away with some other man." And then the one-liner: "My brother's widow did indeed run off with another man two years later, and he turned out to be sterile. When my mother heard that he was so, she repeated her favorite saying, 'And why should we not praise God?' So what are we then? Optimists or pessimists?" (13).

Saeed's officially ambiguous status as a Palestinian inside the Green line--as a Palestinian citizen of the new, exclusively Jewish State--is infused into Habiby's new form of storytelling: the chapters, like Saeed's position itself, are radically situational, seemingly arbitrary, episodic, and unpredictable in terms of length and subject matter, yet held together by the tightest of logics. For Habiby deliberately makes it seem as if Saeed has lost his mind. At one point Saeed believes he was reincarnated as a cat, and there is of course his ongoing dialogue with creatures from outer space. Moreover, the comic centerpiece of the novel--the image of Saeed, in June 1967, waving from the top of his house in Haifa a white sheet after having just heard an order on the Arabic-language broadcast of Radio Israel for the "defeated Arabs" to surrender to Israel--begs the question of Saeed's mental stability. At the same time, the perspicacious self-irony that always accompanies any evidence for Saeed's ostensible mental problems makes it impossible to draw the conclusion he is crazy or a jaded fool. This is especially the case with the story of his waving the white sheet, which he immediately qualifies by saying, "This order somewhat confused me: to which 'defeated Arabs' was the announcer referring? Those defeated in this war or those defeated by the treaty of Rhodes?" (Habiby 1989, 120).

Saeed's craziness is a crucial part of his tricksterism, since he is simply trying, after all, to return home after having been momentarily displaced--what any sane person would do. His craziness is his ironic refusal to accept that he is now, by Jewish law in Palestine, an illegal human being on his own soil. This seems to take care of the awkward situation of having to emotionally identify with a notorious Palestinian collaborator, but Habiby never lets the reader off so easily. As the narrative unfolds, the reader is forced to endure Saeed's grueling ordeal right along with him, and likewise face the same agonizing moral dilemmas, each a direct consequence of Al Nakba.

Real and Fake Controversy

In other words, Saeed's self-disclosed role as a Palestinian collaborator is rendered ironically by Habiby as a fake controversy, and it plays a central part in the novel's hilarious parody. The real controversy is how Saeed and the Palestinians have been ethnically cleansed from their own land while the whole world was, and still is, watching. Thus after first establishing very efficiently Saeed's cunning tricksterism, Habiby is able to shift the satire onto those responsible for the Palestinians' national invisibility As this turn in the novel is made, the reader sees clearly that it could never have been achieved without Saeed's position as "inside man"--or, in the trickster sense of it, "middle-man."

Being a vehicle for the full lyrical expression of Saeed's self-ironic national Palestinian style, the novel's plot can be summarized in a single sentence. After having been rescued from the tip of a perilous stake by a company of extraterrestrials and then taken to outer space, Saeed is finally free for the first time to tell his life story, which is done in the form of a letter to an unnamed friend. If there is a conflict driving the plot, it is the question of whether Saeed will reveal at some point his real location and perhaps the actual truth of his disappearance. Yet this speculative question is soon swept aside in a tide of folk tales, anecdotes, first-hand accounts, jokes, riddles, and disguises that Saeed relates from his new sanctuary. Dwelling on a few of them can help substantiate some of the main points already advanced.

As far as Saeed's anecdotes go, however fragmented they might appear in terms of logical order and placement in the novel, they serve nevertheless an epic narrative function: each contributes to the telling of a collective Palestinian story in which the hundreds of thousands of exiled, dispossessed, and forgotten villagers are called back into existence. Thus in each anecdote three things happen simultaneously: a specific Palestinian village is named and located; particular Palestinian family names and lineages are registered; and standard Zionist apologetics are exposed and sliced apart through direct recourse to the historical record. In this sense, Habiby's literary procedure in the anecdotes can be called, using the terminology of Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu (based on her work on state-sponsored genocide in Guatemala), the recuperation of memory.

Exemplary of this procedure is Habiby's twenty-ninth chapter, "The Story of Thurayya, Who Was Reduced to Eating Mud." Here Habiby begins by having Saeed reflect on an article he just read in the leading Arab periodical inside Israel, the bi-weekly Al-Ittihad, "quoting Maariv [an Israeli periodical], which in turn quoted Haaretz [Israel's major daily], which got its information from police headquarters" (1989, 93). (Note: Habiby was for several decades editor in chief of Al-Ittihad, or Unity.) The article is about a seventy year-old Palestinian woman named Thurayya Abdel Qadir Maqbul, who after living twenty-three years in exile as a refugee, returned from Jordan to the village of her birth, Lydda, to retrieve jewelry she had buried, in the midst of Al Nakba, on her property. Saeed explains that Thurayya's journey was prompted by Black September of 1970--the massacre of thousands of Palestinians and the destruction of their homes by Jordanian authorities. Her family's house bulldozed and in total ruins, her two sons living and working in Kuwait, and her husband recently deceased, Thurayya's only choice is to attempt a retrieval of her buried jewelry in Lydda. After having the door of her old house slammed in her face by the Jewish woman now inhabiting it, Thurayya goes to Arab relatives in the area, then the local Israeli police, tells them her story, and returns with them along with an official, "a Custodian of Enemy Property," to the house. Thurayya points them in the direction of the buried treasure and the police make a dig and find it. This sets up Saeed's familiar pessoptimism:
  The Arabs and the Jews hugged one another and shared tears of joy,
  gratitude, and a shared humanity. Then they contacted journalists
  who published the news, and a radio station to broadcast it. During
  those unforgettable days, kindergarten teachers told their children
  how the Israeli police search for treasures hidden by lonely Arab
  mothers bereaved of their sons, just as they look for lost Jewish
  children, and are so vigilant that they never sleep.
  (Habiby 1989, 94)

Being already thoroughly acquainted with Saeed's approach to the Zionist state, the reader is ready for that familiar dark cloud to now overwhelm the wispy silver lining that just preceded it. "When, however, that unfortunate lady, Thurayya, stretched out her hand to take her wedding jewels," continues Saeed, "the Custodian of Enemy Property gave her a receipt for the gold, took it himself, and left. Thurayya took the receipt for the gold and left, across the 'open bridges,' to eat mud in the Widhat refugee camp and to ask God to give long life to her kinsmen and their cousins" (94-95).

In Habiby's thirty-first chapter, "An Odd Piece of Research on the Many Virtues of the Oriental Imagination," he employs each of his literary stratagems at once. Prompted by mention of the loss of his son Walaa (whose name means "loyal"), a full account of which the reader is anticipating, Saeed holds forth on the Palestinian uses of "the Oriental imagination"--in specific, the ways in which Palestinians inside Israel have managed to stay alive by exploiting the myth of it. Reading this chapter in the English translation, ten years after the publication of Edward Said's magisterial Orientalism, is a much richer experience, of course, than without it. Yet this linguistic distance of fifteen years--from the original publication in Arabic in 1974 to the English translation in 1989, with Said's Orientalism squarely in-between--is an issue germane only to the non-Arabic reading audience of The Pessoptimist. That is, for the Arab reader of the novel during the 1970s, Habiby's alacritous critique in this chapter of Western Orientalism functions as a certain kind of knowingness--as yet another inside joke to be shared within the whole dias-poric Palestinian community. In this way, Habiby's self-conscious politicization of the literary text can be seen in a fuller light.

As is always the case, Habiby's chapter begins episodically, picking up on the unresolved events of the last chapter. In the previous chapter, the reader is informed once again of one of Saeed's most significant secrets: his knowledge, imparted to him by his new wife Baqiyya (whose name means "she who has remained") of an iron chest, full of gold and other family treasure, that is said to be buried in the Mediterranean Sea directly off the shore of a Palestinian village called Tanturah, Baqiyya's birthplace. The first mention of this buried treasure comes m the twenty-seventh chapter, "Saeed Becomes Possessed ofTwo Secrets"; in the thirtieth chapter, "The Story of the Golden Fish," we are made aware that Saeed has been taking his young son Walaa with him to the shore off Tanturah to dive for the buried treasure. Walaa begins asking his father, persistently, what he is searching for, and Saeed tells him "the golden fish." Then he would tell Walaa "all the Arabian Nights tales I recalled. And I also gave free rein to my imagination, searching busily for some treasure of gold ever since the days of our ancient ancestor, Abjar son of Abjar" (1989, 98). Thus in the thirty-first chapter the reader is well prepared for what Saeed has to say about "the Oriental Imagination."

What Saeed proceeds to say is important in terms of Habiby's unifying thematic in the novel, yet his special style of presentation in the chapter, although not necessarily more skillful, or funnier, than his other episodic chapter presentations, is intended clearly as a straight-up virtuoso performance, since it involves many complex literary movements and changes, in particular between disparate discourses. The discourses can be identified as such: folk wisdom; current events; the political riddle and popular joke; anecdotal "street" knowledge; rumor and gossip; national-popular legend; the literary-textual; and memoir. Enabling Habiby to conduct this virtuoso performance, which takes place, breathtakingly, in the brief space of four pages, is what I have called the author's self-conscious internalization of the political--for the sake of the literary text's successful projection outward, into the world.

The first discourse commanded by Saeed is the folk tale. It is a story of an Arab peasant who carries his wife in a box on his back while plowing the fields. When asked by the landowner, Prince Badr al-Zaman, why he is doing it, the peasant says it is to protect his bride from gossip, which provokes the prince to demand that the peasant immediately open it. The peasant lowers the box off his back and opens it, "only to find his wife lying there inside with that rascal Aladdin! Right there, in a box on her husband's back, mind you!" (Habiby 1989, 100). The next movement is to the political riddle and popular joke. Saeed sets it up tersely by asking a riddle: Why, when Israel Independence Day comes each year, do you see the Arabs joyfully bearing the flags of the state a week before the festivities and another week after? Saeed continues: "The same goes for cars on Independence Day; you can tell the national identity of their owners by the flags they display," meaning that if the car isn't sporting an Israeli flag it must be a Jewish owner driving it. Then comes the punch line: "When I asked one of my Arab compatriots what all this showed, he answered, 'Imagination, brother, imagination! Those people are Europeans, with weak imaginations. We fly the flag so they can actually see them with their own eyes'" (101).The third movement is very short: it is a current events reference to a new Israeli surveillance system deployed against Palestinians. Saeed queries his reader: "And didn't the late Prime Minister Eshkol try to transform the so-called military government into something that observes without itself being seen? But we could still discern it, in the orders for house arrest and in the furrows deep in our checks. Now that's what I call imagination!" (101).The fourth movement is to the discourse of "street knowledge," which is equally short. Here Saeed repeats the story of a Palestinian youth in Tel Aviv who, after crashing his car into another car, got out and started cursing at the other driver, yelling: "He's an Arab--an Arab!" Instantly a Jewish crowd materialized in the street and began violently attacking the crash victim of the Palestinian youth, enabling the youth to safely escape (101).The fifth movement is also short--it is a slight shift into the adjacent popular discourse of rumor and gossip. In this movement, Saeed goes down a list of local Palestinians who have taken on Hebrew names at their places of work. "And don't forget Shlomo in one of Tel Aviv's very best hotels," says Saeed. "Isn't he really Sulaiman, son of Munirah, from our own quarter?" After listing two other Palestinians from Haifa, Saeed asks, "How could they earn a living in a hotel, restaurant, or filling station without the help of their Oriental imagination?" (101).The sixth and seventh movements of the chapter are the longest, and are verbally enacted contrapuntally: a playing of the popular legend against the literary-textual and the memoir, the latter of which returns the reader back to Saeed's main narrative form yet still tightly inside this single chapter storytelling performance.

The popular legend is about a Palestinian region known as the "Little Triangle," a land between Israel and Jordan, in which an Israeli government action designed to stir up a bloody feud in one of the villages called Salakah--between a newly formed communist organization there and the local villagers--is cleverly foiled by the villagers. Saeed, as he tells it, had been dispatched to the village by his Israeli political boss, Jacob, to hasten along the Israeli military scheme, which is to threaten the villagers with immediate mass expulsion to Jordan if they don't drive out the communist organizers themselves. Saeed finds the village empty of people, evoking for him a relevant pas-sage from the Arabian Nights tale "The City of Brass." Saeed eventually finds one villager left, an old blind man who reveals to Saeed the villagers' counter-plan after Saeed tells him he is one of the communist organizers. The villagers had decided to simply abandon the village for the whole day. Saeed considers this good news and reports it as such to Jacob. "But he screamed in my face, 'Ass! They outwit us and you think it is good news? We wanted there to be bad blood between us, not mere distance, not just a hill!'" Saeed explains to the reader that at this point he eased back into a reverie about "The City of Brass" tale. He then quotes two passages from the story. The last sentence of the second passage reads: "Nothing of all they had built, all they had established, availed them. None of what they had collected and hoarded saved them" (Habiby 1989, 103). But unlike the protagonist of the Arabian Nights tale, Prince Musa, Saeed is not reduced to tears but left instead "somewhat dazed, as I once did when on an errand at the military court in Nazareth." This sudden discursive shift from the popular legend and the literary-textual into the memoir is by now a familiar tactic of the narrator, whose total immersion in the details of everyday life, rather than dulling his senses, has made him a much more perspicuous observer and critic of his times.

Saeed's memory of his experience at the military court in Nazareth concludes "An Odd Piece of Research on the Many Virtues of the Oriental Imagination." A ten year-old boy had come rushing at Saeed in fear and confusion, guided there by several people in the courthouse. The boy tells Saeed that the judge wants to see him immediately. So Saeed enters the courtroom and approaches the bench. The boy tells the judge that Saeed is one of his relatives, which prompts the judge to sentence not the boy but rather Saeed to three months in prison or the payment of fifty pounds. "Why?' he asks the reader. "Because the child who claimed to be a relative of mine traveled to Haifa without a military permit; and, since the rules of democracy prohibit imprisonment of a child, they decided to imprison me instead. This actually happened, on November 3, 1952" (Habiby 1989, 103). Contained in the final three paragraphs is a crystallization of Habiby's main intentions with the novel:
  When I denied that he was related to me, the judge delivered a
  lecture to those in court expressing the hope that its Arab
  citizens gain a sense of moral courage. He also emphasized that
  the state respects most those who do not deny their blood ties.
  When I produced my card of membership in the Union of Palestine
  Workers, he berated me and said, 'I shall refer this matter to
  your superiors and have them teach you some courage!'

  So I paid the fifty pounds and left, a courageous man. On the way
  out I looked for the boy, my "relative," and found him among some
  other men, acting quite as though he were one of them. They
  laughed at me and said, 'Imagination, my dear sir! That's
  imagination for you!'

  The imagination of my only son, Walaa, however, found a quite
  different outlet. (Habiby 1989, 104)

The Transformation

Not only does Habiby's thirty-first chapter contain within it several sharp contrasts and sudden shifts in narrative discourse, but it also marks a major turning point in the novel as Saeed's son Walaa joins the Palestinian resistance movement--he becomes a fida'i--and uses the secret family treasure to help finance its armed struggle against further Zionist colonization of Palestine. Saeed also undergoes at the same time a transformation similar to his son's, as a result of meeting in prison another Saeed, a freedom fighter imprisoned and tortured by Israel for his role in the resistance movement, as well as the rebellious "second Yuaad," who is the daughter of" the first Yuaad," the enduring love of Saeed's life (Yuaad means "to be returned"). Saeed had been imprisoned, and also tortured, not because of any political activism but instead for when he went about waving his white bed sheet on the roof of his house that day in Haifa, immediately after Israel's military and political destruction of Egypt's Nasser in 1967. Walaa soon dies a martyr (he vanishes in the waters of the Mediterranean) and Saeed is imprisoned several more times after refusing to continue in his role as a collaborator with Israeli oppression. Yet by the logic of the novel it is not so much a character transformation as a transformation in the character of the novel--whose protagonist is national self-consciousness not individual personality. The evidence for this claim is that Saeed never joins the resistance movement or changes his character, rather he finds himself sitting on the top of an impaling stake in anticipation of Judgment Day. But before that day is able to come, Saeed is taken off the stake by a visitor from outer space, who admonishes Saeed before releasing him from the stake: "I just wanted to say to you: this is the way you always are. When you can bear the misery of your reality no longer but will not pay the price necessary to change it, only then will you come to me" (Habiby 1989, 159).

The main change in the novel, as Saeed's narrative heads towards completion, signaled by the start of Book Three, "The Second Yuaad," is that the remaining chapters consist mainly of dialogue. Prior to Saeed's rejection of his collaborator role, there had been dialogue sequences, but they are truncated and utilitarian--to move along Saeed's monological narrative form. However, in the last part of the novel dialogue becomes central and dominant. For the first time Saeed talks back to Israeli police and high officials, and begins to engage in serious political conversation with other Palestinians, including his wife and son right before Walaa is ambushed by Israeli soldiers. This narrative swing to dialogue, then, serves a dual purpose: to symbolize a national coming to consciousness and to create within the narrative a new, uncrowded space in which the reader is able to participate in the storytelling, simply by listening intently to the conversations.

In closing these reflections on Habiby's Pessoptimist, it occurs to the reader and the literary critic alike that the novel itself asks to be always understood historically: as both a crucial document of its times and a major work of Palestinian literature in whatever conjuncture it happens to be appreciated and studied. In my view, this is the significance of Habiby's work and why "miracle" is the most accurate description of it. For by the logic of Zionism, The Pessoptimist is a treasonous act requiring immediate suppression. Those doubting this assertion need only review the political suppression in New-York in 2006 by pro-Israeli groups of the play My Name is Rachel Corrie, depriving thousands of Americans of the opportunity to experience, for one night at least, what life is like under Israeli occupation (Goodman and Gonzalez 2006).

Yet what Habiby shows through Saeed's narrative is that--and this is the essence of his self-ironic style--the Palestinians are not a special people existing outside the laws of history and society, despite the avowedly massive forces of anomalous oppression they face every day and the seemingly impossible odds against their liberation from Israeli colonial rule. To put it differently, when Habiby wrote The Pessoptimist there was still the realistic hope of securing at least an independent Palestinian state in what remains of historical Palestine, that is, the West Bank and Gaza--a pessoptimistic solution, to be sure. Yet today the situation could not be worse in terms of this solution's realization politically. For example, in 2006 the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert informed a joint session of the U.S. Congress, to thunderous applause from both parties, that Israel will be pursuing, based on its already established exclusion wall through the heart of East Jerusalem, a "unilateral" solution to the conflict, which is intended, explicitly, to permanently foreclose a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, cutting off consciously and deliberately as the wall does all trade and travel between Palestinian East Jerusalem and the occupied territories. Thus, has The Pessoptimist been made, by the aggressively expansionist and increasingly apartheid state policies of Israel over the past decade, a relic of the past? If so, would this not undermine Habiby's thesis in the novel--that it is none other than the folk's steadfastly pessoptimistic approach, best expressed in the parting words of Yuadd to Saeed ("When this cloud passes, the sun will shine once more!") that will finally enable the Palestinians to survive whole, in their own land, the ordeal of Zionism?

This kind of question is rarely if ever faced by the literary critic when assessing a classic work of literature. I would like to think that raising it here is far from being an unwelcome ideological imposition on the text, for The Pessoptimist's literary grandeur derives precisely from the understanding, and internalization, of the concept of history as always a work in progress--as made by human beings in conditions not of their own choosing. And if this sounds like an imputed "political" or "communist" reading of the novel, Habiby's notable place in Palestinian as well as Israeli history as a founding member of the Israeli Communist Party (Habiby was elected three times to the Israeli Knesset) provides its own solid objection to the charge. In fact, Habiby is the only person to have won both the Israel Prize and the Jerusalem Prize simultaneously, the former Israel's highest cultural award and the latter the Palestinian Liberation Organization's top literary honor. Habiby received both awards at the end of his writing career and several years before his death in May 1996. In his will, Habiby instructed that his tombstone read: "Emile Habibi--Remained in Haifa."

Perhaps, then, it can be said simply that the staying power of Habiby's masterpiece, like the Palestinian people themselves, lies in its miraculous existence and that the world's failure to recognize the miracle as such, particularly Americans, will continue to come at their own political, spiritual and cultural peril.

Works Cited

Carew, Jan. 1988. Fulcrums of Change: Origins of Racism in the Americas and Other Essays. Trenton: Africa World Press.

Christison, Kathleen, and Bill Christison. 2006. "The Rise of the Israel Lobby: A Measure of It Power." CounterPunch 16 (31 May): 1-8.

Connelly. Bridget. 1986. Arab Folk Epic and Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Corrie, Rachel, Alan Rickman, and Katherine Viner. 2005. My Name is Rachel Carrie. London: Nick Hern Books.

Goodman, Amy, and Juan Gonzalez. 2006. "My Name is Rachel Corrie--A Debate Over Why the Play is Not Opening in New York." Democracy Now!, 22 March.

Ellison, Ralph. 1953. Shadow and Act. New York: Random House.

Habiby, Emile. 1989. The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist: A Palestinian Who Became a Citizen of Israel. Trans. Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Trevor Le

Gassick. Columbia, Louisiana: Readers International.

Hafez, Sabry. 1993. The Genesis of Arabic Narrative Discourse: A Study in the Sociology of Modern Arabic Literature. London: Safiq Books.

Jayyusi, Salma Khadra. 1989. "Introduction." In The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist: A Palestinian Who Became a Citizen of Israel, by Emile Habiby. Trans. Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Trevor Le Gassick. Columbia, Louisiana: Readers International.

Moosa, Matti. 1997. The Origins of Modern Arabic Fiction. Boulder, Colorado: Three Continents Press.

Sachar, Howard M. 1996. A History of Israel. New York: Knopf.

Said, Edward. 1979a. The Question of Palestine. New York: Vintage.

--.1979b. Orientalism. New York: Vintage.

Walt, Stephen, and John Mearsheimer. 2006. "The Israel Lobby." The Loudon Review of Books 23 March.

Jonathan Scott is currently teaching writing and literature at Bronx Community College. In 2006-07 he was associate professor of English and American studies at Al-Quds University, in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. He is the author of Socialist Joy in the Writing of Langston Hughes (2006).
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Title Annotation:The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist
Author:Scott, Jonathan
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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