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“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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Filed under Emile Habiby, Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine

“Memories come back in bursts of images”: Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love

In 1939, Billie Holiday recorded and sang Strange Fruit. The song was about the lynching of Black Americans in the South, and with lyrics such as “Pastoral scene of the gallant south,/ The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,/ Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,/ Then the sudden smell of burning flesh…”, it was meant to conjure up familiar scenes of trees, with all their associations of peace, tranquility, shelter, cool breeze, and so on – and then brutally displace that vision by demonstrating how, for Black Americans, those very same trees symbolised the lynchings of blacks that were so prevalent in the South at the time.

Forty-seven years later, in Prisoner of Love, Jean Genet would write:

“The Panthers and I were to give a couple of lectures there [Stony-Brook University]… Just as I was getting into the car to leave [Black Panther] party headquarters in the Bronx, I asked David Hilliard if he was coming with us.

He smiled faintly and said he wasn’t, adding what seemed to me an enigmatic comment.

‘There are still too many trees.’

I left, together with Zaid and Nappier, but all through the journey I kept thinking of what he had said. “There are still too many trees.” So, for a Black only thirty years old, a tree still didn’t mean what it did to a White – a riot of green, with birds and nests and carvings of hearts and names intertwined. Instead it meant a gibbet. The sight of a tree revived a terror that was not quite a thing of the past, which left the mouth dry and the vocal cords impotent. A White sitting astride the beam holding the noose at the ready – that was the first thing that struck a negro about to be lynched? And what separates us from the Blacks today is not so much the colour of our skin or the type of our hair as the phantom-ridden psyche we never see except when a Black lets fall some joking and to us cryptic phrase.” 

That a French modernist writer in the 80s would arrive at precisely the same insight as a song written by a white man and performed by a black jazz singer in the heart of the deep South in the 30s – in almost so many words – is perhaps emblematic of what is so unique about Prisoner of Love. The book is primarily – although by no means exclusively – about Jean Genet’s two years (1970 – 71) spent in the Palestinian refugee camps during the interminably long Palestinian revolution, around the time of Black September; and perhaps it is because Genet himself was a perennial outcast, with neither roots nor a home, forever in rebellion against society, and never bound to a land, a territory or a culture – that empathy, understanding and awareness come so naturally to him, qualities that make Prisoner of Love above all else a searingly honest work. 

Prisoner of Love is neither a story, nor a work of history; it is not a travel memoir, and still less is it a piece of political reportage. If you approach it looking for the narrative coherence of a novel, or the dispassionate analysis of wartime journalism, you will be disappointed. It is, simply – as Genet stresses repeatedly – a series of images. Images of events, of battles, of massacres, of tragedies, of courage and cowardice – but above all else, images of human beings – the fedayeen, with whom Genet spent those two years (and to whom he would return in 1984), and with whom he fell entirely in love. Genet has no respect for the traditional categories of time and space: reminiscent of Elias Khoury’s Gate of the SunPrisoner of Love moves – seemingly arbitrarily – between the ’67 war, the First Intifada, the 1970-71 Jordanian conflict, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and the infamous War of the Camps, the Sabra and Shatila massacres, and the situation in 1984 – with occasional detours into prior history. It also moves between Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria – and the United States, where Genet was heavily involved with the Black Panthers movement. Yet there are two themes that unite this seeming epitome of disorder: Genet’s obsession with the power of words and images to construct reality, and his constant, ironising self-awareness. These lend the book its distinctive tone and character, and it is upon these that I shall primarily focus.

The role of images and words in building reality and in creating history is a theme Genet almost commences the book with, stating, in its early pages:

“The fame of heroes owes little to the extent of their conquests and all to the success of the tributes paid to them. The Iliad counts for more than Agamemnon’s war; the steeles of the Chaldes for more than the armies of Nineveh. Trajan’s Column, La Chanson de Roland, the murals depicting the Armada, the Vendome column – all the images of war have been created after the battles themselves thanks to looting or the energy of artists, and left standing on the part of oversight on the part of rain or rebellion. But what survives is the evidence, rarely accurate but always stirring, vouchsafed to the future by the victors.”    

In the rest of the book, he applies this framework to analyse the Palestinian revolution. He quotes – repeatedly – Arafat’s statement to him that they – the Palestinians – exist thanks to the fact that in the West, they “take photographs of us, they film us, they write about us.” With great perspicuity – and one could almost say, with great prescience – he examines how vocabulary and the use of words have become weapons in the ongoing war:

“If you’re against Israel you’re not an enemy or an opponent – you’re a terrorist. Terrorism is suppose to deal death indiscriminately, and must be destroyed wherever it appears… very smart of Israel to carry the war right into the heart of vocabulary, and annex the words holocaust and genocide… the invasion of Lebanon didn’t make Israel an intruder or predator… the destruction and massacres in Beirut weren’t the work of terrorists armed by America and dropping tons of bombs day and night for three months on a capital with two million inhabitants… words are terrible and Israel is a terrifying manipulator of signs… sentence doesn’t necessarily precede an execution… if an execution has already been carried out, a sentence will gradually justify it.” 

Yet most of all, Genet understands how words and images fulfill a desperate – and essential – human need for a narrative, a narrative to believe in, to hold on to, and to fight for, a narrative that, because it is both beyond and larger than a single individual, can become the rallying point for a movement or a struggle. Here, he bears striking similarities, in his writing, to the remarkable Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, who also focuses on the power of myth in the building of nations, societies and communities. In Kadare’s The Siege, a story about the Ottoman Turks’ besieging of an Albanian Castle as a precursor to a wholesale invasion of Albania, the semi-mythical leader of the resistance, one Skanderberg, keeps up a seemingly futile opposition, doomed from the start, and destined to destruction. Yet, as the protagonists of The Siege realise, through this concerted act of resistance, Skanderberg is creating a myth of the Albanian nation that will outlast the Turkish conquest, and allow a return to the past once the time of the Turks is over. Skanderberg is building an Albania in the heavens, one that – unlike the Albania that is contained in castles, farms and homesteads – is indestructible.

What is remarkable is how the songs of the fedayeen, that Genet records, express an almost identical thought, through almost identical imagery:

” ‘And if Palestine never came down from the Empire of Heaven to dwell upon earth, would we be any less real?’ So sang one of the fedayeen, in Arabic.”

So the Palestinian Revolution, for Genet, is not simply about regaining lost land, but simultaneously rediscovering – or reconstructing, or constructing, or creating – whichever word you prefer – a Palestinian identity, a sense of peoplehood and nationhood. So:

“The Palestinians wanted to be an entity – wanted to leave an image of themselves as a single whole, historically, geographically, politically. Even when they were scattered to the four winds they wanted to form an indivisible and unchanging block in the midst of the Muslim universe and of the universe itself. ” 

Yet, Genet accepts none of this uncritically. His sense of self-awareness brings an ironic perspective both to the Revolution that he has committed himself to, and his own description of it. He worries repeatedly that words only end up “blotting out” reality; the quasi-Nietzschean view according to which language is a distorting mirror (words as “rainbow-bridges”, that is, carriers of illusion) – and so, his own account of the Revolution is nothing more than an exercise in obfuscation and omission:

“But what if it were true that writing is a lie? What if it merely enabled us to conceal what was, and any account is, only eyewash? Without actually saying the opposite of what was, writing presents only its visible, acceptable and, so to speak, silent face, because it is incapable of really showing the other one.”

As for the Revolution itself, Genet is dubious about the “fantasy” it seeks to protect; the internal fissures within the movement itself, and the doubtful motives of many for endorsing a movement that, from distance, “looked like Delacroiz’s Liberty on the Barricades”, because “distance, as often happens, lent a touch of divinity.” And he understands too, that “Palestine”, like any essentialising entity, hides beneath its still facade of uniformity, a boiling cauldron of difference and dissent:

“Like the word France, the word Palestine means different things to different people – peasants, aristocrats, financiers, the fedayeen, the leading families and the new bourgeoisie. None of these groups or individuals seems to suspect that these differences exist, and that they may eventually lead to conflicts. The word Palestine will one day no longer mean what it seems to do now, namely a common accord. Instead it could stand for a fierce class struggle.”

It is like speaking about the mountains. Every person who tells us what the mountains mean to him, “speaks for himself.”

It is this combination – of image-obsession and a keen, ironic awareness – that is at play, again, in Genet’s writing of the Palestine itself – the lost homeland. This, of course, is a theme that no book on Palestine can ever avoid – and we have discussed before, on this blog, the works of Ghassan Kanafani, Elias Khoury and Ibrahim Nasrallah that treat this theme in their own way. At the beginning of the book, Genet comes upon two fedayeen circumventing the ban on card-playing in the camp by playing a card game – with a set of imaginary, non-existent cards. In a beautiful paragraph, Genet describes how this scene comes to symbolise, for him, the Palestinian movement:

The game of cards, which only existed because of the shockingly realistic gestures of the fedayeen – they’d played at playing without any cards, without aces or knaves, clubs or spades, kings or queens – reminded me that all the Palestinians’ activities were like the Obon feast, where the only thing that was absent, that could not appear, was what the ceremony, however lacking in solemnity, was in aid of.

This idea of the lost homeland that exists as a crystallised, unchanging – yet absent – vision is something we see in the works of Kanafani and Khoury, where in fact this becomes a point of contention: the generation of the nakba, for whom the Palestine of 1948 remains an unchangeable, eternal absent reality comes into conflict with the generation of the First Intifada and the PLO, for whom Palestine is the future that must be built from scratch (remember the passionate declamation of the revolutionary leader in Khoury’s Gate of the Sun: the homeland isn’t oranges (from the destroyed Palestinian village); the homeland is us!” Genet’s description here speaks volumes:

“Every district in a camp tried to reproduce a village left behind in Palestine and probably destroyed to make way for a power station. But the old people of the village, who still talked together, had brought their own accent with them when they fled, and sometimes local disputes or even lawsuits too. Nazareth was in one district, and a few narrow streets away Nablus and Haifa. Then the brass tap, and to the right Hebron, to the left a quarter of old El Kods (Jerusalem). Especially around the tap, waiting for their buckets to fill, the women exchanged their greetings in their own dialects and accents, like so many banners proclaiming where each patois came from.”

For a book that is, self-proclaimedly, nothing more than a succession of images, Genet’s sense of imagery is sharp and beautiful. I conclude with two of my favourite:

“There are the trees again – I haven’t really conveyed how fragile they were. The yellow leaves were attached to the branches by a fine yet real stalk, but the forest itself looked as frail to me as a scaffolding that vanishes when a building’s finished. It was insubstantial, more like a sketch of a forest, a makeshift forest with any old leaves, but sheltering soldiers so beautiful to look at they filled it with peace.”

And:

“It was the Palestinian phenomenon that made me write this book, but why did I stick so closely to the obviously crazy logic of that war? I can only explain it by remembering what I value: one or another of my prisons, a patch of moss, a few bits of hay, perhaps some wild flowers pushing up a slab of concrete or granite paving stone. Or, the only luxury I’ll allow myself, two or three dog roses growing on a gaunt and thorny bush.

Moss, lichen, grass, a few dog roses capable of pushing up through red granite were an image of the Palestinian people breaking out everywhere through the cracks.”

By turns tranquil and savage, calm and brooding, detached and passionate, filled with biting political commentary, vivid descriptions of historical events, and above all, the most deeply personal of memories and individual interactions, poignant and never failing to move deeply, I add Prisoner of Love to that list of books, such as Returning to HaifaGate of the Sun and A Time of White Horses, that have taught me more about Palestine than any work of history or journalism. Because, as Genet says himself:

“Historians’ discovery of new sources and new interpretations make no difference. They try to replace so called archetypal images with others. But are they truer? Neither truer nor less true, since they’re all images from the past. Historians may demolish a legendary hero whose image, accurate or not, fascinates us still. But they’ll only be able to replace it if they provide facts and explanations that we can sympathise with and assimilate, if they create new images that give us something we can talk about.”

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Filed under Jean Genet, Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine