Emile Habibi’s novel The Pessoptimist (1974) – to give it its full title, The Strange Events Surrounding the Dissapearance of Said the Unfortunate the Pessoptimist – depicts the life of a Palestinian in Israel, employing black humor and satire to deal with what it means for Arabs to live in the state of Israel.
The novel begins with a poem from Samih al Qasim‘s The Quran of Death and Jasmine.
You sheiks and rabbis and cardinals!
And, you, nurses and textile workers!
You have waited so long
And the postman has not knocked on your door
Bringing you the letters you desire
Do not wait. Do not wait!
Take off your sleeping clothes
And write to yourselves
The letters you desire
(The Quran of Death and Jasmine)
I have recently been thinking about the lack of the futuristic in Arab novels, and the scant amount of science fiction in Arab literature, but in a way, it is true as this article suggests that this is a science ficiton novel, as the anti-hero Said begins his narrative with telling us that he has been removed from the earth by an extra-terresterial saviour, suggesting that he has died, and is now looking back on the “strange events” in his life. This in a chapter called “Said Claims to Have Met Creatures from Outer Space.”
This device of being removed from the land aliens from outer space is a fantastical parallel to the events of 48, and the exile of the Palestinians. Said is among those who flee, but then returns to his hometown, assured of his safety by the fact that his father was a collaborator.
Said is a comic fool, an anti-hero struggling to adjust to fast-changing political events that he grapples to understand. Much has been said about the echoes of Candide in this book, see here for example.
But Said is not the only anti-hero in Palestinian fiction – one only has to think of Abu Khaizoran, the driver in Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, whose name is Father of the Bamboo for his height and strength, but actually proves to be weak and hollow.
The prologue repeats the idea that history repeats itself as farce, but asks which is history and which is farce – an appropriate question because in this book, everything is farce and sardonic self-criticism, as is suggested in the chapter “An Odd bit of Research on the Many Uses of the Oriental Imagination.”
How about the Arab who hit another car with his own on Lillinblum Street in Tel Aviv? Wasn’t it his Oriental imagination that saved him? By getting out of his car and pointing at the other man and screaming “He’s an Arab – an Arab!” he so engaged everyone in attacking his victim that he himself was able to escape.
In the first book, Said attempts to be a resistance fighter but fails in catastrophic fashion, handing himself over because he doesn’t know what else to do. He then decides to follow his father’s footstops as collaborator and informant, falling over himself in his eagerness to be a puppet even as it dawns on him that he can never to enough to win approval, to an extent that leaves him the target of ridicule from his handlers.
For example, at one point, an Israeli soldier assures him thar after the war they will set up a kibbutz for Arabs to be populated by civilised Arabs such as himself, liberated people who speak a language of humanity.
He said: shalom! So I replied with the English word “peace” confirming my humanity. He laughed at me and said salam, salam in Arabic.
The Israeli agent who controls him is referred to as “the big man of small stature.”
He meets Yuad, who at first accuses him of being the raas al-kheesh (Man with his head in a sack) who pointed out the resistance fighters to the Israelis. Yuad (whose name means Will return) is then herself arrested as a returner, someone who has slipped “illegally” back into her country.
In the second book, Said marries a woman who remained behind when her family fled – Baqiya, which literally means “remaining.”
(Emile Habibi’s gravestone reads: “Emile Habibi – Remaining in Haifa.”)
Said and Baqiya’s son, Wala (loyalty) eventually joins the resistance, disgusted by his father’s collaboration. One of the most tragi-comic parts of the novel is the conversation between Baqiya and her son as she attempts to get him to surrender, and then herself joins him while Said is told to go wait while they are retreived – in fact, they are shot, though Said pretends not to know. His handler tells him they got out of the hiding place, ran away and disappeared.
After the death/disappearance of Baqiya and Wala, he sits at the beach in Tantouria talking to himself and an Israeli child asks him what language his is speaking, and he answers Arabic.
With the fish.
Do they only understand Arabic?
The elderly fish, who were here when there were Arabs here.
And the young fish, do they understand Hebrew?
Arabic and Hebrew and all languages. The seas are wide and connected. There are no borders there and it is big enough for all the fish.
In the third book, during the upheaval of the 1967 June war he makes a grotesquely funny blunder, in a chapter with the title “how the surrender flag on a broomstick became the flag of revolt agains the nation.”
Said learns that the “defeated Arabs” should hang a white flag from their roofs, meaning that they accept the occupation of the West Bank. Said, in Haifa, decides to be on the safe side and hangs a white flag from a broomstick. This is seen as an act of subversion, as though Said is saying Haifa, which is part of the Israeli state, is occupied. So he falls under suspicion.
His handler Yacob tells him “the boss suspects your idiocy is a pretence. Why did you not love anyone other than Yuad, and married Baqiya, and had a son called Wala?”
Said, in a rare moment of non-craveness, asks: “did the boss also ask why I was not born other than Arab and why I didn’t choose a homeland other than this one?”
But that is a small blip in the scene. As he is going to prison, the boss teaches him how he should act: “if the jailer calls you, reply yes sir, if he commands you, you say yes sir, if you hear any talk relating to the security of the prison even if is only wishful thinking, rat them out to the director. And if he hits you…”
Said interrupts with a cry: “I say: That’s your right, sir!”
The boss asks, “How do you know? Have you been a prisoner before?”
Said says, “I have found that your prisons are such in their humanity and mercy in their treatment of prisoners that they do not differ from your treatment of us outside the prison. So how do you punish guilty Arabs sir?”
The boss answers: “This is what puzzles us, and that is why our occupation is the most merciful occupation on the face of the earth since the earth was liberated from the occupation of Adam and Eve.”
He then points out that they treat prisoners better than those outside, since outside they get their homes destroyed because there are rats there and the authorities want to save them from plague, while in the prisons they are free to remain in their cells as long as the British Occupation remained.
So Said is put into prison with another man named Said, who turns out to be Yuad’s son and his namesake, who mistakes him for a resistance fighter like himself.
Yuad’s son explains that he is “a resistance fighter and a refugee.” Said wonders if he should respond “a lamb and a resident.”
In Arabic, the contrast between resistance fighter (fedaye) and sheep (kabsh) is bound up in the words “kabsk fida,” a sacrifical lamb. Here it has been split: Said is the biddable lamb, and his son is the sacrifice.
Said Yuad’s son has a sister, who is named Yuad. After his release, Said meets her, and when she like her mother is about to be arrested Said says they should hide or she would be taken to exile. She asks: “And how long should we hide?”
“Until the situation changes.”
“And who changes it?”
“Your brother, the people.”
“While they are hiding?”
You and me hide, but your brother Said will fight.”
“And grant the country to those who hid?”
Yuad laughs and tells him, “if you live you will be seventy when you meet the third Yuad and you will not know her and she will not know you.”
After this, Said no longer collaborates with the Israelis but cannot do anything else. At the end, he is depicted as impaled on a stake, unable to move, until his alien rescuer appears. In the epilogue, the narrator confides that the whole story was written by a madman in an insane asylum thought that madman has disappeared.
The task of looking for Said, the narrator explains, is like that of the lawyer who believed the word of a madman about a treasure under the carob tree and dug all around it until he removed the tree. When he returned he found the madman painting his wall with a bottomless pail, and the madman asked if he had removed the tree, when the lawyer said yes, he answered, then come bring your bottomless pail and paint with me.
So how could you find Said, without being entangled with him?
Edward Said in the foreword to Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain talks about The Pessoptimist:
Habibi’s Pessoptimist (1974) is a carnivalesque explosion of parody and theatrical farce, continuously unsurprising, shocking, unpredictable. It makes no concessions at all to any of the stanfard fictional conventions. It main character (whose name jams together Pessimism and Optinism) is an amalgam of something out of Aesop, al-Hariri, Kafka, Dumas, and Walt Disney, its action a combination of low political farce, science fiction, adventure, and Biblical prophecy, all of it anchored in the restless dialectic of Habibi’s semi-colloquial, semi-classical prose…Habibi’s world is Rabelais and even Joyce to the Egyptian’s (Mahfouz) Balzac and Galsworthy. It is as if the Palestinian situation now in its fifth decade without resolution produces a wildly erratic and free-wheeling version of the picaresque novel, which in its flaunting of its carelessness and spite is in Arabic prose fiction about as far as one can get from Mahfouz’s stateliness.
Another poem quoted in the Pessoptimist is Tawfik Ziad’s On the Branch of an Olive, or a truncated version of it, interrupted by Said asking “Until when will he keep on carving words which forgetfulness passes over and erases? And when will he read out to us what is written on the olive tree?”
I will carve each inch
of our stolen land
and the site of my village and its borders
and the homes that were uprooted
and each wild flower that was crushed
To remember I will remain
all the chapters of my cause
all the stages of the nakba
from beginning to end
on the olive tree in the courtyard
There was a transnational performance of this book in Radio Beirut:
As part of the Jerusalem Show, writers and artists in Beirut, Ramallah, and Jerusalem participated in a synchronized reading of the text broadcast live from Radio Beirut on Tuesday night. The reading was interspersed with reactions to the text from participants, who engaged in a dialogue with Habibi’s pessoptimist.
And speaking of what is written on Emile Habibi’s headstone: here is a clip from Ella Habiba Shohat and curator Rasha Salti discussing Palestinian Cinema, including talking about Emile Habibi and The Pessoptimist (37:00) in the context of talking about the film Min Yaum Ma Ruht (Since You Left) which is Muhammad Bakri’s film that is a tribute to Emile Habibi.
- Peter Heath Creativity in the novels of Emile Habibi, with special reference to Said the Pessoptimist in Tradition, Modernity and Post-Modernity in Arabic Literature.
- Maher Jarrar, A nation of deterritorialization: Imil Habibi’s The Pessoptimist, Middle Eastern Literatures 5 (1) January 2002, 15-28
- Rula Jurdi Abisaab, Breaching the state’s dawa in a fated narrative of secrets, Edebiyat 13 (1) (May 2002) 1-10