Emile Habibi

Emile Habibi (1922- 1996) was born in Haifa. He was Palestinian writer who became one of the most popular authors in the Middle East as a result of works depicting the Emile Habibiconflicts in loyalties experienced by Palestinians living as an Arab minority in the illegal Jewish state of Israel.

After obtaining his baccalaureate in 1939, he worked in Haifa’s oil refinery while studying by correspondence for a London University degree in petroleum engineering. In 1942 he abandoned his study to work as a news announcer for the Palestinian broadcasting station in Jerusalem.

Under the British Mandate he became one of the leaders of the Palestine Communist Party. When the 1948 Arab-Israeli War began, he stayed in Haifa while many were forced to leave the country by the Israeli Army. Having stayed in Haifa, however, Habibi was eventually granted Israeli citizenship. After the war, he helped to create the Israeli Communist Party and established the communist paper Al-Ittihad.

Habibi began writing short stories in the 1950s, and his first story, The Mandelbaum Gate” was published in 1954. In 1972 he resigned from the Knesset in order to write his first novel: The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, which became a classic in modern Arab literature. The book depicts the life of an Israeli Arab, employing black humour and satire. It was based on the traditional antihero Said in Arab Literature. On a playful way it deals on how it is for Arabic people to live in the illegal state of Israel. And how one who has nothing to do with politics is drawn in to it. He followed this by other books, short stories and a play. His last novel, published in 1992, was Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter.

In 1990 Habibi received the Al-Quds Prize from the PLO. Two years later (in 1992) he received the Israel Prize for Arabic literature. His willingness to accept both reflected his belief in coexistence. Though after accepting the Israel Prize a debate set off among the Arabic intellectual community. Habibi was accused of legitimating the Israel anti-Arabic policy. Habibi replied to the accusations: “A dialogue of prizes is better than a dialogue of stones and bullets,” he said. “It is indirect recognition of the Arabs in Israel as a nation. This is recognition of a national culture. It will help the Arab population in its struggle to strike roots in the land and win equal rights”.

A selection of his works are : 

* 1969 : ” Sudaseyyat el-ayyam el-setta ”

* 1974: ” el-Mutashael ”

*1976: “Kafr Kassem ”

* 1980: a play  ” Lak’ bin Lak’

*1991: ” Khurafeyyet Sarayet Bint el-Ghoul ”

His famous novel is “The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist” published in 1974. In this novel which was translated into 16 languages, the theme of the immediate shock of the 1967 war recedes into the background and the survival of Palestinians in the face of Zionist attempts to eradicate their identity comes to the fore. The Pessoptimist uses a fine mixture of Sterne’s ironic and reflexive narrative in Tristram Shandy and the humorous Arabic anecdotal narrative in telling the story of the Palestinians of Habibi’s generation. It consists of three parts, each devoted to a major phase in the recent history of Palestine and entitled with the name of a woman who is both the beloved of the hero and a symbol of Palestine. The first “Yu’ad” represents the early period before the loss of Palestine in 1948; the second “Baqiyah” embodies the spirit of the Palestinian resistance to the eradication of their national identity after the creation of the state of Israel; and the third, “Yu’ad al-Thaniyah”, signifies the new stage of the Palestinian consciousness which emerged after 1967 and the armed Palestinian resistance.

The main theme of his novel is the inevitability of resistance which articulates the impossibility of collaboration, for no matter how subservient and accepting the Palestinian becomes the only fate for him in Israel is oppression and annihilation. Resistance is used in the novel in its widest sense; it is not confined to overt acts of defiance, for every measure that preserves the Palestinian presence, identity and culture is an act of resistance, even if it appears as a form of submission and capitulation. In this respect the novel foreshadowed the Palestinian intifada long before it took place.

Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter Habibi´s last novel is an impressionistic semi autobiography in which an aging writer and political activist mulls over a half-century of conflict and disappointment, while still summoning moments of nostalgia and tender humor. The book emerges as a patchwork of memories and an array of digressive references—from philosopher Ibn Tufayl to Wuthering Heights to Albert Einstein, and above all to the fairy-tale heroine Saraya, a girl held captive by an ogre—in which Habiby’s alter ego sees a girl’s ghost while fishing and then becomes obsessed with discovering who the girl was. His quest takes him into Arab myth, his own past, and the causes and outcomes of the violence that has plagued the Middle East. Habiby writes passionately of the predicament of Arabs in Israel and the Palestinian diaspora, recounting the struggles of the narrator’s close friends and family members as they “become used to the rumble of war.” Theroux’s expert translation makes accessible to English readers the author’s delight in the Arabic language and its possibilities for wordplay.







Further reading

-Obituary: Emile Habibi


-Encounters With Emile Habibi’s Pessoptimist



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