by: A. Carroll on August 11th, 2012 | 2 Comments »
“If the first occurrence were tragedy, the second would be a farce.”
– Saeed, The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist
Lauded as one of the most influential authors within contemporary Arab literature, Emile Habiby consistently presents his readers with thoughtful, provocative, and entertaining material that challenges understandings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a Christian Arab born in Haifa, Habiby often examines what it means to be Palestinian within Israeli society. The author led an active civic life, helping to found the Israeli communist party (ICP) and serving multiple terms in the Knesset throughout the 50s, 60s, and early 70s. In 1972, Habiby stepped down from his post in order to focus more heavily on his writing, and in 1974 he published what became his most renowned novel, The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist.
A highly satirical read, this novel presents the story of an Arab man who gains Israeli citizenship and attempts to navigate life within the newly formed state. Saeed is a gullible, seemingly foolish character, eager to collaborate with Israeli powers in order to survive. The extremity of Saeed’s cowardice and his initial lack of a strong ‘Palestinian’ identity make the anti-hero seem more pitiable than evil. Introduced as an “ill-fated pessoptimist,” Saeed takes on the position of an Israeli-Palestinian everyman, whose role in society is as confusing as the idea of pessoptimism – explained by Saeed as the combination of pessimism and optimism, “blended perfectly” so that the character can thank God for his life while still expecting things to get much worse. Saeed’s Candide-like nature, as well as a series of fantastical events (from treasure hunts to visits from a “man from outer space”), give the novel its farcical feel, drawing out both the cyclical nature and sheer absurdity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The passage of time is somewhat difficult to calculate within the book, and often years go by undocumented. The theme of constant expulsion and return adds to this feeling of timelessness, and gives way to a picture of the cycle of conflict. With Saeed’s wives symbolizing the different periods of Israeli-Palestinian history, the story begins with his first love, Yuaad (Arabic for “will return” or colloquially, “once more”), who is eventually lost. Next, his second love, Baqiyya (“the one who stays”), is found. Finally, after events of turbulence and resistance, Saeed ends his tale with the discovery of “The Second Yuaad.”
Despite the fact that Saeed’s story is somewhat cyclical, his constant struggles and subtle changes of character add true depth to what could seem to be a purposeless existence. Though his end is strangely hopeless, and Saeed finds himself more vulnerable than ever before, his self-discovery and the emergence of his Palestinian identity demonstrate undeniable growth and strength – a beautiful metaphor for Habiby’s own view of the Palestinian struggle and journey within the developing Israeli state.
The reader’s acute awareness of the conflict that develops over the course of the book is set in stark contrast to the often unbelievable and hilarious mode of story telling that Habiby employs. As with any farce, the absurdity of the story does not detract from the seriousness of the author’s purpose – in this case, shedding light on the terrors of life within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A prime example of this tragicomic absurdity comes with Saeed’s arrest and internment, a serious turning point in his story which occurs due to misunderstanding and personal foolishness. Saeed, after hearing a radio broadcast asking Arabs to hang white flags on their houses as signs of surrender to Israeli occupation, hangs a white sheet above his house in Haifa as an eager demonstration of his continued cooperation with the state. However, because the radio broadcast was obviously speaking to Palestinians within the West Bank and not to those within Israel, Saeed’s act is seen as rebellion – “an indication that [he regards] Haifa as an occupied city.” His naiveté continues, and through his innocent eyes the reader is able to gain a harrowing vision of the reality of the Israeli prison system.
It is moments like these, when Habiby is able to produce images of extreme clarity and insight in a seemingly senseless world, that give his novel its depth and intensity. Through Saeed the reader is able to develop a better awareness of one man’s earnest attempt to grapple with his identity and his purpose within the conflict, and Habiby’s biting humor makes this satirical Palestinian classic a joy to read.