The Art and Politics of Emile Habiby II

By Mir, Salam | Arab Studies Quarterly, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

The Art and Politics of Emile Habiby II


Mir, Salam, Arab Studies Quarterly


The Secret Life of Saeed, the Pessoptimist1 by Emile Habiby (1922-1996) is acclaimed as the Palestinian national epic. Since its publication in 1974, The Pessoptimist has had three printings in three years, has been translated into twelve languages, including Hebrew, and has been staged in both Hebrew and Arabic.2 Emile Habiby was awarded the Israel's Prize for Literature in May 1992, and he was the first Arab writer to be awarded Israel's highest award for literature.3 In this most highly recognized of Habiby's creative fiction,4 The Pessoptimist reconstructs the personal biography and the communal story to tell the silenced history of Palestine. A non-linear narrative in three books, each of which is divided into short fragmentary epistles, relates the memoir of the life of the main character Saeed, under Israeli rule, and the collective history of the Palestinian people, in the aftermath of 1948 through 1967. According to Salma Khadra Jayyusi, this masterpiece of Palestinian fiction is a "heart-rending tale of defeat and rebellion, death and regeneration, terror and heroism, aggression and resistance, [and] individual treason and communal loyalty ..."5 By injecting comedy into social realism and historical events, The Pessoptimist voices the tragedy of the Palestinian people in an aesthetically innovative form that collapses the temporal and spatial. It demystifies the official version of Israeli history of what is referred to as "The War for Independence," as it reveals the complex diversity of Palestinian history from the Palestinian perspective. This article will shed light on Emile Habiby's concerns with Palestinian historiography, a realm that has occupied Palestinian creative writers since the emergence of the Poetry of Resistance.6 The Pessoptimist was published serially in Al-Ittihad, the Arabic newspaper of the Israeli Communist Party, as a response to the 1967 June War. It narrates a history that interrogates the official Israeli version, as Habiby explores the complex psychological and moral impacts of Al-Nakba/The Catastrophe. The concept of history that emerges in the narrative is not one that is bogged down by both present and past. But it is a vision that carries away the events, history proper, beyond defeat into the metaphysical sphere, the realm of legend and myth. First, a note about Palestinian historiography is in order.

Palestinian Historiography

In "Palestinian Historiography: 1900-1948," Tarif Khalidi7 surveys the historical scholarship about Palestine from the late nineteenth century through the end of the British Mandate in 1948. He says that during this Arab Nahda/renaissance, the writing and teaching of Palestinian history were undergoing a "passionate intensity" by teachers, journalists, and other intellectuals (59-60). Trying to adapt to the tensions of the increasing Jewish migration and the imposed Mandate system, intellectuals across the disciplines turned to history to assert Palestinian "nationhood and self-determination, communal reform and justice among others," to project a Palestinian self-image and to highlight their Arab cultural identity (61-62). While the published books about the histories of major cities tapped into family archives, Khalidi adds, personal diaries, and folklore, journalists addressed Palestinian historical rights in the newly established newspapers at the time. Palestinian journalists joined the heated debate between the Arabs and the Zionists regarding the historical rights of Palestinians.

In addition, Palestinian teachers sought to reinstate Arab history into school textbooks, which were heavily censored by the Mandate government (64-69). "No amount of censorship could prevent history teachers from infusing their pupils with a heightened sense of nationhood" (69). Khalidi concludes that during the Mandate, history was an obsession for Palestinians, "something of a national pastime": "Perhaps no other Arab people of that period were as obsessed by the past, as eager to document their existence, as determinedly pan-Arabist in sentiment," all to forge a Palestinian image, to unite their community, and to assert their right to freedom (76). …

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