“The moon is closer to us now than are the fig trees of our departed village”: Laughter and tragedy in Emile Habiby’s “Saeed the Pessoptimist”

The big man sent his own men to surprise me at my stall one noon. They led me off to prison after charging me publicly with having disobeyed the compulsory stay order. My going to Shafa Amr to buy melons, they said, had threatened the integrity of the state. Whoever, as they put it, transported red melons in secret could also carry radishes secretly and there was, after all, only a difference in colour between red radishes and hand grenades! And red was not, under any circumstances, the same as blue and white. With a watermelon, moreover, one could blow up a whole regiment if grenades were hidden inside it. “Don’t you see that, you mule?”

     “But I cut the melons open with a knife so the buyer can see,” the “mule” responded.

    “Oh! Knives too, eh?” they exclaimed. 

Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist brings Rabelais and Swift to Israel and Palestine. You cannot forbear to laugh, but the moment you pause to reflect, the laughter dissolves into the underlying darkness.  Innocence hangs like a thin film of translucent dew upon the surface, barely masking a savage indictment of the human condition just beneath (think of Voltaire’s Candide). The story follows the adventures of Saeed the Pessoptimist, a Palestinian who stays behind after the creation of the state of Israel, becomes an Israeli informer, and finds himself getting into one scrape after another with the authorities, while becoming more and more estranged from his sometime-countrymen. Filled with supernatural happenings, twisted chronologies and unbelievable denouements, the narrative tries to paint reality even while unmooring itself from reality; almost as though the only way to capture the bizarre actuality that is Israel/Palestine (labels are political) is by breaking with traditional narrative realism.

Saeed has been called an anti-hero by critics, but what truly strikes one about him is his passivity. Whether it is failing to kiss his lover goodbye as she is dragged away by the police for deportation, failing to stop his son from becoming a fedayeen, or failing to carve out any kind of independent existence for himself (a la Candide, before the end), Saeed never does anything. Things are done to him. In this way, he becomes a synecdoche for the larger Palestinian condition, as reflected in the works of so many other Palestinian writers. In Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, Palestinian inaction is symbolized by the passivity of three men as they roast to death in a truck; in Saeed, it is symbolized by Saeed’s overriding inability to act in any circumstance, especially when contrasted with the people in his life, lovers, sons and friends. Habiby makes a witty observation about this right at the beginning, before providing us an extended demonstration through Saeed’s character:

“The Arabs, that miserable teacher of ours concluded, always did thing quicker then – they thought faster than the earth moved around the sun – whereas they have now surrendered their power of thought to others … for the Arabs, so said this accursed teacher, would first act and then dream, not as they do now – first dream and then continue to dream.” 

Ghassan Kanafani once compared the Palestinian condition to people waiting on the shore for a boat that would never come. Saeed is a story – albeit hilariously told – of missed chances, delays, incompleteness, unfulfillment and disappointment. Saeed as a person is, of course, the greatest disappointment of the story, but it is also individual events that perennially fail to come to resolution. Consider, for instance, how the theme of the return to the homeland – something crucial to Palestinian writing – is dealt with by Kanafani, and by Habiby. In Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa, the return is accompanies by a confrontation, a tragedy (of sorts), and definite closure. In Habiby’s account, however, what happens is that… nothing happens.

“What about our house?” I asked at last.

“They are occupying it.”

“Do you know who they are?”

You can see, my child, how dim my eyes are. And Europeans all look the same anyway. No one goes fishing anymore.”

    “Would they let me in if I visited our house?” I asked.

    “How should I know, my son?”

    She crossed herself. I said goodbye, feeling very uneasy that she had made that sign of the cross.

    When I reached the front of our house and saw laundry hanging out, my courage deserted me and I pretended to be taking a stroll along the seashore. I kept passing back and forth in front of our house. Each time I almost knocked on the door my courage left me.

    Eventually evening arrived. A woman emerged and began collecting the laundry. She stared at me and shouted something. I hurried away but saw a man of about her age come out of the house and help her collect the wash. I thought to myself: This must be a trick. Why else would a man bring in the family laundry? This was never done by my father, God have mercy on him, although my mother was always sickly and overworked.

Contra Kanafani, there will be no moment of epiphany, no discovery of meaning or truth, even though it is a tragic truth. And contra Khoury, even meaningful love is impossible for Saeed, because even that is defined by its interruptions and its incompleteness, at all times.

    Yuaad shook hands with me and bade me farewell. Then she brought her face close to mine and asked, “Did you kiss my mother before she left?”

    “No. They were standing between us.”

   “In that case you have missed the second kiss too.”

    Then she was gone. 

But if Saeed, even in his delay, is not Prince Hamlet and is never meant to be, ironically enough, the people he is closest to – lover, wife, son, friends – are his mirror images. Where Saeed turns informer, they join the revolution; where Saeed vacillates, they are constant; where he delays, they are decisive. And the contrast between characters is reflected in the contrast of styles. Saeed’s own experiences are portrayed with a savage, almost mocking (Swiftian?) humor, as he finds that being an informer is no guarantee of safety, ending up seeing the inside of a jail cell thrice, each time for absurd reasons. But it is when his supporting cast comes on stage, that the tone changes into something deadly serious. So, in one of the funniest scenes in the book, Saeed is arrested (for the first time) for following orders a bit too scrupulously, and putting up a white flag of surrender outside his Haifa home in the immediate aftermath of ’67. This is taken as a declaration that Haifa is an occupied city, and consequently, an act of rebellion. In prison, Saeed makes the mistake of quoting Shakespeare, and is soundly beaten for his pains. All grotesquely funny so far; and then, in his cell, he meets a Palestinian revolutionary, who considers him – wrongly, but by default – to be a comrade.

He healed my wounds by talking about his own. He kept widening that single tiny window in the wall until it became a broad horizon that I had never seen before. Its netted bars became bridges to the moon, and between his bed and mine were hanging gardens. I told him of myself, what I had always aspired to for myself. I did not want to lie, but I did not want to soil the majesty of the moment by speaking of personal details: these the jailers had stripped from me when they stripped off my clothes. Here we were, one naked man facing another. Would Adam ever have left Paradise of his own free will?”

The mask has dropped, and for all the time that it was on, the revelation hits home harder than it ever cold otherwise. The stylistic shifts – from Voltaire to Darwish, in an instant – are found again when his son Walaa is holed up inside an underground shelter, and speaks of speaking freely, longing, for once, “to be careless about what I say, because all my life you’ve told me to be careful“, insisting that he cannot wait any longer, that it is his generation that must resolve the issue, because “it is my generation.” The clarity and urgency of Walaa’s words and thoughts – again – put Saeed’s own dithering into sharper perspective than could otherwise be possible. Or again, consider this deliberate shift:

These settles, then, laughed good-naturedly when the following story about them spread. The elders of Zikhron Yaqub disagreed about the following problem: is it lawful for a man to sleep with his wife on the Sabbath or is the act a kind of work and therefore not lawful on that day? They went to the rabbi for a decision as to whether it was work or it was pleasure. The rabbi thought long and hard and then he ruled that it was pleasure. They asked him for his reasoning. He replied: “If I had ruled it to be work you would have give it to the Arabs of Fraydis to perform.”

    My, how we laughed at this story – Jacob because he hates the Ashkenazi Jews and I because he laughed.

    And who would be so unfair as to blame the people of Fraydis for owing their preservation to vintage wine? Who, after all, erected the tall buildings of this country, cut and paved its broad streets, dug the trenches and fortified the shelters? Who planted, plucked, and ginned the cotton, then wove it into clothes for the lords of Raghdan and Basman, palaces in the Amman, to wear so proudly. 

Like most other Palestinian writing, Saeed is a story of exile and about a lost homeland. Yet unlike the stories of Kanafani or Khoury, or the poetry of Darwish or Barghouti or Tawfiq Zayyad, there is one crucial difference: Saeed is an exile in his own home, and not on the outside looking in. The ambiguity, the doubt – the agony, even – is thus complex and often undefinable. As the book progresses, we see – we feel – Saeed’s growing estrangement both with his Israeli employers (and masters) and with the nascent Palestinian revolutionary movement. He is of both worlds, and of neither; understanding and understood by neither, liminal and homeless. Once again, then, he is simply caught up in the events, responding to them as they happen with the simple aim of survival. We cannot pity him because he has little moral fibre; and yet, we cannot condemn because we see ourselves in him, or what we would be like we we to face a situation of the sort – because who would be bold enough to predict their own heroism in the face of adversity? Habiby has painted a complex, ambiguous character, neither hero nor really anti-hero, someone who resists judgment and classification, but seeks – actively – our empathy. And more than that, perhaps, we are in no position to give.

I’ll end with an excerpt that once again reflects – fascinatingly – how very different Palestinian works are nonetheless – at bottom – concerned with very similar basic themes. The nakba, as we know, when it happened, was considered only  temporary situation by those who fled their homes in Mandatory Palestine. Of course, that temporary situation became permanent. That, however, did not stop many of the refugees from dreaming of a -now impossible – return to status quo ante. This conflict – between a generation that wants to restore a destroyed past, and one that wants to build a new future on its ruins – is explored repeatedly in Palestinian literature. It is the (implicit) debate between Said and Khaldun in Returning to Haifa. It is Younes, in Gate of the Sun, throwing away the oranges brought from old Palestine and exclaiming furiously, “The homeland is not oranges – the homeland is us!” And it is explored here as well, in one of the most moving passages of the book, with which I’ll close:

    “How can your brother believe that things will return to where they began?”

   “He got that idea from his elders; of his beginning an old man remembers only the prime of youth and so thinks fondly of it. Do you really know how the beginning was, uncle? The beginning was not merely sweet memories of pines over Mount Carmel, or orange groves, or the songs of Jaffa’s sailors. And did they really sing anyway? Do you really want to return to the beginning, to mourn your brother torn to pieces by the crane as he carved his living from the rocks. You want to do it all again, from the beginning?”

    “But your brother, Saeed, said they had learned from the mistakes of their predecessors and commit would not them again.”

    “If they had really learned, they wouldn’t have spoken at all of returning to the beginning.” 

    “You’re so young for so much wisdom, Yaad; wherever did you acquire it?”

    “From my long life that is still before me.”

    “Will you be leaving me?”

    “Water cannot truly ever leave the sea, uncle. It evaporates, then returns in winter in the springs and rivers. It will always return.”

This is widely regarded to be a classic of Arab literature, and deservedly so. Highly recommended.

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3 Comments

Filed under Emile Habiby, Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine

3 responses to ““The moon is closer to us now than are the fig trees of our departed village”: Laughter and tragedy in Emile Habiby’s “Saeed the Pessoptimist”

  1. Brian Joseph

    This seems to be a really strong character study. That is kind of surprising in light of the satire as I would not initially expect the two to go hand on hand. Either way it sounds like a book that I would really like.

  2. That is an interesting point. I’m not sure if satire and character studies are necessarily antagonistic – admittedly, Gulliver’s Travels isn’t exactly character-driven, but I was thinking, in opposition, of Voltaire’s Candide.

  3. Pingback: 2013: The Year in Books | anenduringromantic

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