The Secret Life of Saeed the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist

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The Secret Life of Saeed the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist

by Emile Habiby


A novel set in Israel from 1948 to c. 1972; published in Arabic (as al-Waqa’i al-gharibah fi ikhtifa Sa’id Abi al-Nahs al-Mutasha’il) in 1974, in English in 1982.


In a seriocomic novel, a Palestinian refugee-turned-informer recounts his experiences from the inception of Israel to his escape into outer space.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Emile Habiby (also spelled Imil Habibi) belonged to a Christian Arab family that traces its origins to the town of Shafa Amr in northern Palestine. Habiby himself was born August 29, 1921, in Haifa, a central coastal city in Palestine. He attended elementary school in Haifa and secondary school in Acre, a city across the bay. Habiby’s early maturity was scarred by tragedy; the young woman whom he hoped to marry was among the 91 British, Arab, and Jewish victims killed in Jerusalem on July 22, 1946, when the extremist Zionist group Irgun Tsevai Leumi bombed the King David Hotel, part of which was being used as British governmental and military offices. Habiby himself was in the hotel lobby at the time, waiting for his sweetheart to take a lunch break from her secretarial duties upstairs. He would later marry Nada Abd Allah Jubran (1922–2000), who worked with him in the Communist Party secretariat.

In 1956 Habiby moved to Nazareth, his chief place of residence for the rest of his life. He died there on May 2, 1996, but was buried in Haifa, a city close to his heart. On his tombstone is an epitaph coined by the writer himself—” He who remains in Haifa.” During his lifetime, Habiby’s Arabic-speaking homeland was from his point of view under occupation, first by the British, then by the Israelis. Under the British, Habiby worked from 1941–43 for the Palestine Broadcasting Service they had set up, serving as an announcer and as cultural director of its Arabic section. He left to help establish Palestine’s Communist Party, the only political party that would address Palestinian grievances under Israeli rule. Habiby served as a Communist Party deputy in the Israeli parliament from 1951–59 and 1961–72, and also edited the Arabic-language Communist Party journal al-Ittihad. In 1989 ideological and tactical differences with the party leadership resulted in his resigning from these responsibilities. Two years later he resigned from the party itself, though he remained a devoted communist all his life.

In his early career Habiby published short stories in Arabic that appeared in journals in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt. He later wrote several quasi-autobiographical novels, including three not yet available in English: Sudasiyat al-ayyam al-sittah (1967; Six-part Tale of the Six Days [War]), Ikhtiyah (1985), and Saraya bint al-ghul (1991; Saraya, Daughter of the Ghoul). All illustrate and comment upon aspects of the experiences of Arabs living in Israel, as does The Secret Life of Saeed the Ill-fated Pessoptimist. A slender yet searing and wide-sweeping novel with sardonic humor, it conveys the plight of Israeli Arabs from the inception of the state to the pivotal early 1970s.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Establishment of the State of Israel

Ever since the destruction of their second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans and their enforced dispersal from Palestine for the second time in 70 c.e., many Jews have, regardless of their places of domicile in the Diaspora, looked forward to the possibility of “returning” to live in the area. They point to its designation in the Old Testament of the Bible as their homeland, though some have viewed it as a God-given duty to live forever outside the Holy Land and provide an example for how humankind should live and worship.

Some 13 centuries passed with only minimal Jewish presence in Palestine before Zionism, a secular movement supporting the emigration of Jews to Palestine, gained practical momentum. In the late nineteenth century, with the help of financial backing from well-to-do European Jewish families, dozens of agricultural settlements were established in Palestine for Jewish immigrants largely from central and Eastern Europe. During the final years of World War I émigrés of East European Jewish extraction in London, led by Chaim Weizmann, a lecturer in chemistry at Manchester University, vigorously advanced the cause of Zionism. Following a trip to the United States by a fellow Zionist, Nahum Sokolow, to consult with President Woodrow Wilson and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Chairman of the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs, Weizmann persuaded the British government to lend support to Jewish immigration to Palestine. Motivated in part by the expectation that a large Jewish population in Palestine would ensure safe passage for the British through the Suez Canal, Britain’s foreign secretary Arthur Balfour wrote the following landmark letter in 1917 to Lord Rothschild, a prominent Jewish leader and financier in Britain:

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

(Balfour in Laqueur, p. 312)

Emerging victorious from World War I, Britain awarded itself control over Palestine and Iraq, and won approval for its mandate over Palestine from the League of Nations on July 24, 1922. Thereafter, the British government appointed a Jewish governor over Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel, who facilitated unlimited Jewish immigration to the area. In consequence, its Jewish population climbed from 108,000 in 1925 to 300,000 in 1930 and 720,000 in 1948. Most of these immigrants came from Eastern Europe, especially Poland.

Throughout this formative period, coincident with Habiby’s upbringing, the Arab communities of Palestine vigorously resisted the Zionist immigration policy, using every means open to them, from argumentation and agitation to street protests and strikes, to violence against both Jewish settlers and the British civil and military authorities. In a variety of “White Papers” from the 1920s-40s, the British government acknowledged the reasons for the continuing disorder and adjusted their policies by attempting to limit Jewish immigration, efforts that were countered by those of Zionist groups both within and outside Palestine.

Post-World War II developments

From Turkish overlords under the Ottoman Empire, which held sway before the First World War, to British overlords, to the imminent possibility of Jewish overlords, Palestine’s Arab population balked at outside control. Once the Second World War ended, however, circumstances and the tide of global sentiment conspired against them and their protests were largely disregarded by those who held power in the area. As a result of the persecution and mass murder of European Jews by the Nazi regime, worldwide support for Zionism and for unlimited immigration of Jews into Palestine grew, despite the bitter opposition of the Arab and Muslim worlds. Examination of the issue by the United Nations resulted in a U.N. General Assembly Resolution (November 29, 1947) recommending the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, which would still, however, function together as an economic union; Jerusalem was to be placed under international control. According to U.S. Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, it took great effort for the resolution to pass: “By direct order of the White House, every form of pressure… was brought to bear by American officials upon those countries outside the Muslim world that were known to be either uncertain or opposed to partition” (Welles, p. 63).

While the Jews of Palestine and Zionist organizations abroad accepted the proposal, Palestine’s Arabic-speaking population and the surrounding Arab and Muslim countries rejected it. At the time, Palestine’s inhabitants included 1.3 million Arabs and 650,000 Jews (Morris, p. 192). Under the partition proposal, the Jewish portion would encompass 55 percent of the country, even though Arabs held much of the land in this sector. The sector, consisting in large part of the sparsely inhabited Negev Desert, was to be Jewish, but its initial population would consist of almost as many Arabs as Jews.

The British government, frustrated by its failure to find a solution and lacking support at home for further involvement in Palestine, made it clear in September 1947 that it would end its mandate on May 15, 1948, the date established by the League of Nations. Acting accordingly, the British withdrew their administrative and military presence, which left the country in the control of the dominant local administrations and terrorist organizations, whether Arab or Jewish. Conflict between these remaining parties intensified.

In December 1947 the Arab League sanctioned the formation of an army of 3,000 volunteers to oppose any Jewish rule in Palestine. The initial advances made in the north by these troops early the next year led to no solid gains for the Arabs. There began a large-scale emigration of Arab refugees from Palestine, totaling several hundred thousand persons. This mass exodus gained impetus from violence on the part of Jewish extremist paramilitary groups, most notably the Irgun and Stern organizations, that attacked Arab villages and towns. On May 14, 1948, as promised, the last British High Commissioner left Palestine. That same day David Ben-Gurion (born David Green in Poland), now leader of the Jewish Agency, proclaimed the creation of Israel as a Jewish state on the part of Palestine the Jews had been apportioned under the U.N. partition proposal. Again, this amounted to far more land than they actually held at the time. In the spring of 1948, Jews held 5.67 percent of Palestine’s land; Arabs, 47.79 percent; state lands comprised 46 percent, and other residents held the remainder.

Immediately after the proclamation, regular units of the armed forces of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Transjordan, entered into the violent conflict between the area’s Arabs and Jews. The total Arab force in Palestine grew to 45,000 by the end of the first week in July 1948; the Jewish force to 60,000 (Sachar, pp. 328, 330). Combat was fierce and widespread but inconclusive, and successive cease-fires arranged by the United Nations were disregarded by all sides. Not until January 1949 would the fighting cease, by which time only 21 percent of Palestine remained under Arab control. Israel now held nearly 80 percent instead of the 55 percent allotted to Israel by the U.N. partition. A U.N. commission proposed that Arab refugees be allowed a choice between return to their properties or compensation for their loss, but the proposal was rejected by Israel. Its counteroffer to take back 100,000 refugees was rejected by the Arab states as inadequate, and negotiations foundered. As Prime Minister Ben Gurion declared to the first American ambassador to his state, “What Israel has won on the battlefield, it is determined not to yield at the council table” (Ben Gurion in McDonald, p. 79).

A displaced people

Some 900,000 Palestinians lived in the areas occupied by Israel in 1947–48; in a matter of weeks, the vast majority was abruptly uprooted. Altogether more than 700,000 Palestinians became refugees while between 100,000 and 180,000 stayed in Israel. The protagonist of The Secret Life of Saeed the Ill-fated Pessoptimist opts to stay, first fleeing to Lebanon, then slipping back into Israel, as Habiby did in real life. Of the vast number who became refugees, some 100,000 fled to Lebanon; another 80,000 escaped to Syria, and 5,000 to 10,000 to Iraq. By far the largest groups took refuge in eastern Palestine; in the Gaza Strip (115-150,000), controlled by Egypt; and in the West Bank (250-325,000), adjacent to what was then Transjordan (Farsoun, p. 123).

The Palestinians named the 1948 fight and its consequences al-Nakbah (“the catastrophe”). Victims of war, they had evacuated their properties and towns in the heat or expectation of battle, fully intending to return for their possessions, if not for residence. In the end, there was little to return to; some 400 Palestinian villages were ultimately demolished; just 100 remained. Arab lands were freely appropriated by the Israelis for security and other reasons; Arab homes were razed or occupied by new immigrants from abroad. Meanwhile, thousands of Jews, afraid of or subjected to retaliatory violence, were encouraged by the Israeli government to leave Jewish communities that had existed in Arab countries for centuries. Some 400,000 Arabized Jews moved to Israel from 1948–53 (Sachar, p. 438). Roughly 121,000 Jews were airlifted into Israel from Iraq alone. Meanwhile, the only option for most Palestinians was to move in desperation to hastily established refugee camps. If Israel’s formative years were full of challenges laced with hope for Jewish immigrants from other lands, they were “dark with tragedy for Arab refugees” (McDonald, p. vii).

The camp was talking about an Arab businessman from Haifa. The day before he had taken his two sons from behind the tent, shot them through the head, and turned the gun on himself.… He was penniless and couldn’t stand watching his children’s bellies bloat.… The tent camp at Ramallah was even worse.… [There was a widow whose] husband, a Ramie carpenter, had been killed in the war.… Agonized, she asked me what happened to her home. I could have told her it was probably occupied by a family from Bulgaria or Poland, but I stalled with a don’t know answer.

(Bilby in Sachar, p. 436)

Israeli Arabs

The relative handful of Arab Palestinians, Emile Habiby among them, who remained in Israel after its inception included merchants, shopkeepers, restaurant owners, teachers, and civil servants, as well as peasants and small landowners. They occupied some 90 villages and parts of five mixed-population towns—Acre, Haifa, Jaffa, Ramlah, and Jerusalem. For nearly 20 years, the villages were governed by military rule, which kept them under strict surveillance. Villagers needed passes to travel outside their regions of residence. In 1966 these restrictions were partially lifted; two years later they were completely lifted. The restrictions had empowered the military administrators to use all force necessary to ensure security. Police and military personnel could search any home or business suspected of activity that threatened public safety. They could detain or search people, limit their movement, enact curfews, suspend mail, and deport people. The wide latitude troubled some Israelis, who called their compatriots to account, pointing to the discrepancy between reality and democratic claims of equality and justice for all Israelis. In the 20 years of military administration, only the regulation restricting the movement of Arabs between towns and villages was applied continuously. The other regulations were invoked or not as the years passed, and Israel’s Supreme Court often stepped into the act and reversed deportations.

Public opinion had little effect. The world at large mostly ignored the plight of the Israeli Arabs, those Palestinians who remained in Israel, its indifference rendering “a whole nation so utterly and completely forgotten” that Habiby felt compelled to write his novel to jar awake not only his Israeli compatriots but also non-Israeli Arabs (Habiby, The Secret Life of Saeed the Ill-fated Pessoptimist, pp. 16, 81).

Arab-Israeli wars and the Israeli Arabs

Over the past half century the Arab-Israeli dispute over Palestine has persisted, bringing death, displacement and despair to many on both sides. The 1956 crisis over Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal Company resulted in the so-called Tripartite Aggression, in which Britain and France encouraged Israel to overrun Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula in hopes of returning the canal to international control. Following the withdrawal of the three aggressors from the Canal Zone, it took Egypt ten years to once again become a potential military threat to Israel. In 1967 full-scale war erupted once more following a pre-emptive strike by the latter’s forces against Egypt and Syria after Arab “boast [s] that Israel was facing national liquidation” (Sachar, p. 638); Jordan was also drawn into the conflict. Israel’s victory enabled it to occupy the Sinai Desert, annex Jerusalem, control the entire West bank of the Jordan river, and occupy the Golan Heights region of Syria. Habiby wrote his novel several years after this cataclysmic event but prior to the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. In this “Yom Kippur War,” the Arabs would regain some footing when the Egyptian army dislodged the entrenched Israeli forces in Sinai.

The treatment of Israeli Arabs by Israel’s Jewish authorities shifted somewhat over this volatile time span. From the start, there was discrimination in society at large. Arab workers in Jewish businesses labored at the more difficult, less well-paid jobs; landlords showed a reluctance to rent to Arabs, and they were relegated to distinct neighborhoods. In Haifa, where the protagonist lives, a few-thousand-strong Arab minority was first congregated into two areas—the downtown Wadi Nisnas neighborhood and along Abbas Street. With the onset of statehood came the development of an Israeli secret service charged, among other tasks, with subjecting the Arab population to close scrutiny. There was perennial fear of armed rebellion on the part of the Arabs, which escalated with world events like Algeria’s war of liberation (1954–62), in which Frantz Fanon counseled the downtrodden to use violence in Les damnés de la terre (1961; The Wretched of the Earth, 1963).

Arab Palestinians raise their voices

As noted, 700,000 Arab refugees left the Israeli portion of Palestine in 1948. In 1949, to provide them with education, health relief, and social services, the U.N. established the United Nations Relief and Welfare Agency (UNRWA), which draws funding from both governments and individuals. Under its auspices, camps were set up for the refugees in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. After the 1967 war, in which these areas were lost to Israel, many residents of the West Bank moved over to the East Bank into Jordan. Those currently under UNRWA care represent four generations of registered Palestinian refugees and total roughly 4 million. Another unspecified number have left the area altogether and settled throughout the world. Meanwhile, the relative handful of Arab Palestinians, Habiby among them, who remained in Israel after its inception, would rise to about 300,000 by the 1967 war and then to 900,000, or 19 percent of the population today. They form a distinct minority, separate from the Jewish majority of Israel and from those Palestinians who live in exile today.

From 1948 to 1967 the Arab Palestinians endured physical and spiritual hardships borne not only of the discrimination they suffered in employment and housing but also of emotional isolation. In al-Nakbah, the catastrophe, family members were often separated and children lost. Some fragmentation came from a conscious choice by men who sent their loved ones out of harm’s way or found desperately needed jobs and settled apart from their families in towns like Haifa. “Cut off from home for long periods, they lacked an adequate social or recreational life. The results were especially painful for unmarried men,” such as the novel’s Saeed (Sachar, p. 534).

The trials and tribulations of being Arab in Palestine began to surface in Arab Israeli literature


Shin Bet (otherwise known as the General Security Services), is the branch of the Israeli Intelligence Services devoted to domestic security. The branch has tong prized Jewish immigrants from the Middle East as useful field men for dealing with Arab affairs. In the novel, Saeed the informer has a field supervisor who is a Mizrachi or Oriental Jew-a Jew born in the Middle East (this group is often subsumed under the category of Sephardim, which strictly speaking refers to Jews from Spain), These men at first occupied lower-level, nonexecutive posts, themselves experiencing discrimination. The top positions were filled by Ashkenazim, Jews from northern and eastern Europe, Israel’s Shin Bet operatives were charged with ferreting out foreign spies and domestic subversives, with combing the Arab minority in Israel for infiltrators. In 1951 the Israeli government established the Mossad (equivalent to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency} to concentrate and coordinate Israel’s various intelligence and security services, including Shin Bet.

in the 1960s. Already in the 1950s young Arabs, frustrated by the ongoing inequities and prevailed upon by outside foes, escaped across the border, often attempting to return to Israel as spies. The outcome of the 1967 Six-Day War between Arab states (mainly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) and Israel radicalized many Palestinians. Guerrilla attacks by Palestinian rebels against the Israelis had already begun, progressing from thefts and sabotage to arson and murder. Taking their cue from the Vietnam War as well as Frantz Fanon, the rebels saw popular armed struggle as an answer to recapturing their homeland. Instead of conventional war, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) opted for a slow, incipient people’s war, resolving after the 1967 defeat to renew the fight. The PLO grew more radical, influenced in part by another, secret society, al-Fatah (“Victory”), whose members planted resistance cells in the West Bank and later, when this strategy failed, in nearby Jordan. Conflict mounted on the Israeli-Jordanian border, escalating from 97 incidents in 1967 to 916 in 1968 to 2,432 in 1969 (Farsoun, p. 182).

For many Arabs, the loss of the 1967 war by the Arab powers tipped the balance in favor of the fida’iyin (self-sacrificers), the guerrilla fighters. An Israeli punitive attack upon al-Karamah, a refugee camp and key guerrilla base inside Jordan, won them further credibility. Here, in March 1968, the fida’iyin fought with such brave determination that they were joined by regular Jordanian soldiers until the Israelis retreated to their own turf. The battle was pivotal:

The inspiring battle of al-Karameh… allowed the radical, revolutionary guerrilla organizations to move aboveground, take off politically, and redefine the nature and tactics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Tens of thousands of Palestinian and Arab volunteers joined the ranks of the feda‘iyyin [or fida’iyin] in the next few months. The new ideology of national liberation—people’s war and guerrilla tactics—spread like wildfire.

(Farsoun, p. 182)

Israel dealt severely with this turn of the tide. Its secret service, Shin Bet, took charge of law and order in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Residents suspected of aiding and abetting the guerrillas had their homes demolished, and many were exiled: “From the early weeks of running what Israel called ‘the administered territories,’ Arab residents believed to have ties with PLO terrorists were escorted across the bridges into Jordan” (Raviv and Melman, p. 169).

Meanwhile, in the heart of Israel, a few bold Arab-Israeli voices confronted the authorities and the public at large with injustices long inflicted upon Arabs in the state. Israel made attempts to address the injustices. A 1953 Land Acquisition Law mandated compensation to the dispossessed Palestinians for property coopted, but progress has been agonizingly slow. The issue of lands lost in the 1947–48 war—villages razed, towns left (Acre, Ramlah, Jaffa), fields appropriated—remains unresolved. The communists, says Habiby’s novel, came up with an ironic new name for the Custodian of Abandoned Properties—” the Custodian of Looted Properties” (The Secret Life, p. 45). Yet, in the 1970s, when Habiby’s novel appeared, the Israeli Arabs could practice their religion and traditions freely. They voted without restriction and, as always, a small contingent sat in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Arabic was the primary language of instruction in the Arab schools of Israel and its universities were open to Israeli Arabs. Some restrictions existed—service in the Israeli armed forces, for example, was limited to Jews or the Druze (a distinct religious community that broke with Islam in the eleventh century). Even so, notes one Arab Israeli, the picture was not altogether grim: “The refugees in Lebanon say Israel is a criminal state. But I am here. The police will not arrest me unless I have done something wrong. I am living in my homeland. It is true that the Israelis took my land, but I can see it” (Abu Amer in La Guardia, p. 184). The novel’s Saeed seems, to some extent, to be of like mind, though this optimistic attitude is countered by a series of demoralizing experiences that fill him with pessimism as well and result ultimately in his debilitating case of angst.

The Novel in Focus

Plot overview

The Secret Life of Saeed the Ill-fated Pessoptimist presents the consequence of real-life events in Israel from 1948–70s, using satire to convey the viewpoint of the Arab population of Palestine. Its central figure is the antithesis of the ideal hero. Saeed, whose name ironically means “happy,” is a gullible, amoral, self-engrossed, cowardly, but far-from-happy fool. As the reader witnesses his inevitable progression towards madness, it becomes clear that the issues he faces are so complex and his experience so excruciatingly painful that it would be unreasonable to expect anyone to respond more effectively. Saeed is in no sense extraordinary; rather he is the Palestinian “everyman”: “Those like me are everywhere—towns, villages, bars, everywhere. I am ‘the rest.’” (The Secret Life, p. 7). While usually identified as a novel, the text combines qualities associated with a variety of genres, including autobiography and social commentary. The plot follows the progression of events in the life of the protagonist-narrator, Saeed, which are divided into three “books” of extremely brief and fragmentary “chapters.” In the novel’s first line, an unidentified speaker introduces a framing tale: what follows is a letter from someone who calls himself “Saeed The Pessoptimist.” Each of the three “books” is Saeed’s separate message to an unidentified journalist. These messages, quoted verbatim, form the body of the novel.

Plot summary—“Book 1.”

In the first part of the novel, or “Book 1,” Saeed describes his curious present circumstances and his early life. Currently he is floating in outer space at the invitation of some unidentified extraterrestrial beings. This information leads the reader to question Saeed’s sanity hereafter. In the first chapters, Saeed reveals his confused sense of his ethnic origins, recounting the history of his family and of the Palestinian nation in a barbed manner. Through comments such as “The Pessoptimist family is truly noble and long established in our land,” as well as a variety of absurd tales stressing the ethnic purity of Saeed’s extended family, the novel ridicules the emphasis on ethnicity and genealogy in Arab culture and also implicitly calls into question Jewish claims to a historical right to Palestine (The Secret Life, p. 8).

A series of short, comical scenes recounts Saeed’s flight to Lebanon at the outbreak of the summer of the 1948 war between the newly declared state of Israel and the Arab states, and his surreptitious return months later once the conflict has subsided. His father, ironically killed by Israelis in crossfire, had been an agent and informer for the Zionists in Palestine, a role Saeed is eager now to emulate. In becoming an informer, he is motivated purely by financial and career considerations; he appears to experience no moral dilemma in working for the Israeli security services.

After witnessing Israeli maltreatment of Palestinian villagers, scenes he represses to maintain his sanity, Saeed ingratiates himself with the Israeli authorities. He uses his late father’s contacts to gain employment as an informer for the so-called Union of Palestinian Workers in Israel. The union is supposedly antagonistic to the Israeli Communist Party (to which many real-life Arabs in Israel belonged). It is the communists on whom Saeed will be informing. Since he learns Israeli Hebrew quickly and easily, Saeed soon feels superior to many Jewish immigrants, who are often limited to their birth languages. (The narration makes occasional ironic comments about discrimination by the Ashkenazi Jews against the Sephardic and Oriental Jews, who come largely from Iraq, Yemen, and North Africa.) His awareness of the language difficulties they are having convinces Saeed that he should also ingratiate himself with the remaining members of the ostensibly nationalist Arab elite of Israel, in case the new state should fail to establish itself firmly. However, his meetings with his chief Arab contact, a self-serving, hypocritical lawyer, are unproductive. Moreover, his new associations come to the attention, through the sophisticated surveillance to which he is subjected, of his Israeli boss and mentor, Jacob, an Oriental Jew who demeans and slaps him. Saeed now realizes that he must be an “ass” no more and act with greater circumspection (The Secret Life, p. 52). At this point, dated as December 11, 1948, Yuaad (whose name means “again” or “will be brought back”), a girl Saeed loved as a schoolboy, enters the story. In defiance of Israeli restrictions on travel for Palestinians, she sneaks into Haifa to tell her sister that their father has been jailed based on an informant’s testimony. The young woman accuses Saeed of being this informer but ultimately accepts his protestations of innocence. With nowhere else to stay, Yuaad takes refuge with him in his flat. In a hilarious scene Saeed spends a sleepless night paralyzed with fear at the prospect of making romantic advances toward Yuaad, despite her welcoming demeanor. As dawn breaks, he finally plucks up enough courage to enter her bedroom, but it is too late: Israeli soldiers force their way in and seize Yuaad as an illegal infiltrator. She resists arrest with great courage but is forcibly removed, shouting to Saeed that she will return. “Book 1” ends with Saeed’s receiving a pathetic note from Yuaad, who refers to herself as his wife and promises fidelity; he spends years thereafter hoping for contact with her but lacking the courage to discover her whereabouts (presumably she lives in exile as a refugee in Jordan). Though always hoping that Jacob, his Israeli boss, will fulfill a secret promise he has made to effect Yuaad’s return in exchange for Saeed’s total cooperation, he eventually marries a different woman, Baqiyya (“the girl who stayed”). She is a Palestinian from a small seaside village, and her marriage has been facilitated by Jacob as a reward for her role in ensuring that the elections in her area would result in only a tiny vote for the Communist Party.

“Book 2.”

Another epistle from Saeed to the journalist relays the circumstances of his marriage. Presently Saeed is taking refuge, along with one of his “friends from outer space,” in an ancient cave complex in Acre. The two go fishing, and we learn from their dialogue that the June 1967 war between Israel on one side and Egypt, Syria, and Jordan on the other has come and gone, as have Saeed’s wife and son. What follows describes his life in Israel over the 19 years that have passed since early Israeli statehood, the period covered in “Book 1.” The two friends discuss the impact of the publication of “Book 1” by Saeed’s journalist contact. The critics have likened the book’s bitter vision of the world and the gullibility of its narrator, Saeed, to the naiveté of Voltaire’s narrator Candide, who witnesses the bestiality of his eighteenth-century European world in the novel of the same name. The discussion alludes to specific instances of brutality and humiliation subjected on Palestinians while Israel was being established.

Further chapters detail Saeed’s meeting of and marriage to Baqiyya, whose seaside village of Tanturah has been demolished, a fate shared by many Palestinian villages, some of which are named in the text. Baqiyya, who personifies the stoic determination of the Arabs in Israel to persist and resist, reveals to Saeed the secret whereabouts of a family “treasure,” a chest which symbolizes Palestinian solidarity. Buried in an undersea cave near her village, the chest contains weapons. Knowledge of this “treasure” weighs heavily upon Saeed, who suspects that if his Israeli bosses learn of its existence they will seize it and declare it to be property of the state, since its authorities have seized private property owned by Palestinians before. Saeed tries to transmit his own heightened sense of insecurity to his son, Walaa. But Walaa rejects his father’s timidity and devotes himself to the Palestinian resistance as a guerrilla fighter, concealing his activities from his parents.

Saeed and Baqiyya are therefore dumbfounded when, in the autumn of 1966, they are informed by Israeli security forces that their son, a guerrilla, is trapped and under fire in a defensive position on the beach where he has taken refuge. Now under suspicion of complicity in anti-Israeli activities, they are asked by the security forces to persuade Walaa to surrender. At this point, the novel’s longest chapter features a moving dialogue between Baqiyya and her son in which she argues that he should surrender, choosing life over certain death. He responds persuasively that death is preferable to the fear and subservience endured by his parents. When his mother asserts that she and Saeed are committed to a search for freedom, despite their apparent collusion and compliance with the authorities, Walaa asks how, and the following dialogue ensues:

“As nature seeks its freedom. Dawn rises only after night has completed its term. The lily buds only when its bulb is ripe. Nature is averse to abortion, my son. And the people aren’t ready to face what you are about to do.”

“I shall bear the burden for them until they are ready.”

“My son! My son! Oh, let me hug you close to me!”

Silence again. Then I heard him moan: “Mother, mother, how long must we wait for the lilies to bud?”

(The Secret Life, pp. 110-11)

The scene ends with Baqiyya’s racing to join Walaa, and their joint disappearance in the sea, where they presumably die or take refuge in the cave with the “family treasure,” the chest filled with weapons. While this unfolds, Saeed remains immobilized by fear, as always; the disappearance of his family leaves him grief-stricken. “Book 2” ends with a reference to the start of the Israeli-Arab war of June 1967.

“Book 3.”

The final part of the novel opens with Saeed’s realization that being an Arab living in Israel is akin to sitting atop a flat-surfaced pole, unable to descend. His dilemma is briefly resolved by his meeting with a second woman named Yuaad as he is released from jail. He was imprisoned because, at the outbreak of the 1967 war, he offended his bosses by displaying a white sheet above the roof of his house in Haifa, deep within Israel, when a radio broadcast had asked Palestinians on the West Bank to display a flag of surrender. Saeed reflects on his time in jail, recounting the brutality he suffered in the Israeli prison with an inspiring resistance fighter, a guerrilla who bears the same name, Saeed. Overwhelmed by hero-worship for his cellmate, the protagonist pretends that he too has been jailed for his activism. Ultimately released, Saeed hitchhikes a ride from a passing car and discovers that its occupants, a young man and a woman named Yuaad, have been visiting their relative, his own cellmate, in jail. His mind in utter confusion, Saeed somehow thinks that this Yuaad is the very same one he loved but lost so many years ago. In his delirious joy he opens the door of the moving car, still gripping the girl’s hand, and they fall out by the roadside. People from a nearby Palestinian village, inside Israel, who assume that he and Yuaad are father and daughter, nurse him to recovery from injuries suffered in the fall. The villagers believe that Saeed and Yuaad are both visitors from Arab lands and communists, the allies of a political party the villagers support, so the two guests are feted accordingly. The villagers speak of the cordon frequently placed around their village and describe the constant surveillance they suffer, as well as the random searches and imprisonment. Hearing of their stoic silence, Saeed suddenly realizes he has never been able to inform on anyone who remained silent, so he determines henceforth to embrace silence himself.

Saeed and Yuaad leave the village and proceed towards Haifa. On the way, Yuaad tries to explain to the still confused Saeed that it was her own mother who had been the first Yuaad, the object of his affections. Returning his love, she has named her children by another man after Saeed and herself. Strangely, Saeed is unable to accept this and hopes that when he takes Yuaad to his old apartment in Haifa she will recall their night there prior to her arrest. As they sit in his apartment, they know that history will repeat itself, that Yuaad will be seized and evicted. Saeed suggests that she hide until the guerrillas succeed; she asks sarcastically whether the guerrillas, when successful, will “donate freedom to those who hide” and argues that their lives will be wasted as they wait (The Secret Life, p. 154). In her view, only a new beginning based on fundamentally different attitudes can restore their freedom. As expected, the soldiers arrive. They inform Yuaad that her entry permit has been cancelled, but treat her with far more respect than they had shown her mother.

In the final chapter we learn that once Yuaad left, Saeed, depressed and confused, returned to his old ways, too indecisive and afraid to participate, despite the pleas of all those he has known, who, he imagines, visit him. Finally he sees a strange, floating apparition whom he recognizes as the leader in outer space. Accepting his offer of refuge, Saeed mounts his back and they fly off. His former acquaintances celebrate his departure. From Yuaad, the daughter, comes the comment, “When this cloud passes, the sun will shine once more” (The Secret Life, p. 160).

The work ends with an epilogue in which the journalist recounts his search for the author of these letters. He discovers references to a man of similar name who recently died in a mental hospital in Acre and had been visited by a “daughter” from Beirut. But the identification is tentative, and his account concludes that all should search for Saeed, though none are likely to find him, except by chance.


“Brutus is no big deal now, no subject worth writing about,” says Saeed in an ironic statement that refers to his role as an informer and turncoat (The Secret Life, p. 4). In fact, the novel is consumed with a self-scrutiny borne of accusations that the Palestinians who remained in their homeland when it became Israel were cowardly and treacherous. Saeed’s shame at submitting passively to his status as a second-class citizen in his own homeland surfaces in jail when he meets the guerrilla prisoner, also named Saeed: “Should I tell him I was a mere ‘sheep,’ one who had stayed on in the country, or should I confess that it was through crawling [not bold defiance] that I entered his court [of resistance]” (The Secret Life, p. 132). The main character struggles with the terrifying reality that defiance could easily cost him his life. Early in the novel, he fortifies himself with lines from the ancient poet Imru al-Qays about a time that called for no less courage, when his road ahead led to a fearsome Byzantine foe. In the ancient poem, a speaker emboldens


Abba Eban, Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, 1950, on whether Palestinian refugees should return or settle in other Arab lands: “[Israel is] the object of an official proclaimed state of war and the target of a monstrous rearmament campaign…. Can the mind conceive anything more fantastic than the idea that we can add to these perils by the influx from hostile territory, of people steeped in the hatred of our very statehood?”

(Eban in Sachar p. 440)

Safoh-Ta‘mari, Palestinian refugee, after the Arabs lost the fast vestiges of Palestine in 1967: “Our world was turned upside down. I dropped out of Cairo University in my final year and picked up a gun. I became a full-timer in al-Asifah, the military wing of Fatah…. I wanted to become a teacher, a writer maybe. Most of us who picked up a gun were more an intelligentsia in khaki than primitive people who did not know any better”

(Salah Ta‘mari in La Guardia p. 139)

boldens a friend: “Allow not your eyes to weep, for we / Our kingdom back must get or die and pardoned be” (The Secret Life, p. 36). A few pages later Saeed is confronted by a savior who lobs back to him an appeal for help: “Is any one of you lacking a life he can offer?” (The Secret Life, p. 39). Embedded in Habiby’s fiction are responses to the challenge. In one of his later stories, “Rubabikiyah,” a saleswoman of secondhand goods lives, like Saeed, in Haifa, tending to her people’s needs in vital if less patently visible ways than a militant refugee. The Secret Life comes to the defense of the Israeli Arabs by making much the same point: “Who erected the buildings, paved the roads, dug and planted the earth of Israel, other than the Arabs who remained there? Yet those Arabs who stayed, stoically, in land occupied by our state received never so much as a mention in… Ahmad Shuqayri’s [first leader of the PLO] ringing speeches” (The Secret Life, p. 81). Unsparingly, the text chastises Israeli society, larger Palestinian and Arab society, and the author himself.

If there are multiple views about how to solve the problem of the displaced Palestinians, there is also blame enough for everyone to share in relation to their plight. The surrounding Arab countries gave only qualified welcome, at best, to the refugees from Palestine. As McDonald notes, “The Arab refugees pouring into Lebanon—whose population is delicately balanced between Christians and Moslems—threatened to upset that balance because the majority of the refugees were Moslem. Consequently, the Lebanese Government was openly hostile to them in the hope they would move on to neighbouring Syria” (McDonald, p. 93). Likewise, the novel records the unwelcome reception accorded the Palestinian refugees by Jordanian soldiers, who “met them with curses, and they are still swearing at them today” (The Secret Life, p. 63). By the early 1970s, violence in the Arab host countries had surged to deathly heights. In Jordan, in September 1970, thousands died when King Hussein’s regular Jordanian troops attacked the newly self-assertive and armed refugee camps to suppress the guerrillas and regain control in and around the capital of Amman. The Palestinians remember it as “Black September,” a fitting name for an incident in which so many died (The Secret Life, p. 94). Such incidents heightened the insecurity of the exiled Palestinians, infusing many of them with “a constant angst,” that left them in a condition similar to that of Saeed, the Palestinian who stayed (Farsoun, p. 159).

Habiby also satirizes the leadership class of pre-1948 Arab Palestine. One day Saeed’s path takes him past “the villas that had belonged to the Arab officials of Haifa. They had built these before moving to Lebanon to build other villas, only to leave them too” (The Secret Life, p. 48). In fact, the Arab refugees “fled from Jewish-controlled Palestine as the result of a mass panic when the wealthy Arabs, almost to a man, began running away in November, 1947, after the U.N. voted partition” (McDonald, pp. 159–60).

Finally the novel satirizes the hypocrisy of the Arab nationalist lawyer in Israel who

recognized neither the state nor its newspapers and adamantly refused to meet any but foreign journalists. His declarations therefore appeared only in the two Times, that of London and that of New York, as well as in the major newspapers in the Arab world. As for us, leaders in the Union of Palestine Workers, we whistled in amazement, our lips pursed, at his patriotic impudence when we heard he had refused to educate his son at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But when he sent him to Cambridge—Cambridge, no less—we whistled in even greater astonishment.

(The Secret Life, pp. 50–51)

Sources and literary context

Habiby’s novel intends, in part, to redress the standard version of history that has depicted the creation of Israel and the treatment of the Palestinians as benign. He was not the first Arab Israeli novelist to do so. Already in the 1960s, Atallah Mansour, writing in Hebrew, had produced In a New Light (1966), a tale of an Arab seeking membership in a kibbutz that sits on the ruins of an Arab village. Mansour was part of a larger group of Israeli Arab writers whose works began to convey “hostility toward the state” (Sachar, p. 582). In protest poetry, Mahmud Darwish, Michel Haddad and others also preoccupied themselves with issues particular to the Israeli Arabs (displacement, discrimination, identity crisis). Habiby produced a novel that stood at the crest of this protest poetry and fiction, capturing the attention and acclaim of the larger Arab world as well as that of the Israelis.

In interviews filmed shortly before his death, Habiby revealed that many of the scenes depicted in the novel closely reflect his own personal experiences. Along with these firsthand experiences are a host of literary works on which he drew. Habiby and others have identified sources as diverse as the Maqamat of medieval Arabic literature (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times), the fluent yet concise style of the Egyptian writer Taha Husayn, and the witty texts and commentaries of Marun Abbud. Non-Arabic influences include Voltaire’s novel Candide (1759) and Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek’s Good Soldier Schweik (1931), whose protagonist shares many personal traits with Saeed.

Writing in Arabic, not Hebrew, Habiby is said to have inserted a “consciousness” of the existence of a Palestinian or Arab Israeli strand of literature into the general Israeli literary culture. His novel jarred the majority culture by confronting it with an incriminating version of its history, shattering “the idealized version” so many Israelis “had taken for granted” (Brenner, pp. 91, 96). Meanwhile, in Arabic letters, Saeed distinguished himself as “the epitome of the anti-hero, perhaps the most finely drawn in modern Arabic literature, complex to the point of inconsistency (and therefore very human)” (LeGassick, p. 220).


The Secret Life of Saeed the Ill-fated Pessoptimist was well-received by Arab and Jewish critics alike. Jewish critics lauded the irony, the compassion, and the humor. Habiby was celebrated as a first-rate artist, commendable above


I 1992 Habiby’s works woo him the foremost Israeli literary I honor—the Israeli Prize. (Two years earlier he had been awarded the State of Palestine Certificate of Merit and the Medal of Jerusalem for Culture, Literature, and Art by Yasir Arafat) His acceptance of the Israeli award ignited heated controversy in the Arab world. Some intellectuals declared him a traitor to the Palestinian cause, protesting that he should have demanded the release of jailed Palestinian writers in Israel or refused the award (Brenner, p. 92), in a London daily (al-Hayat), 25 Arab scholars demanded he give it back. He retained it, but donated the accompanying money to the Red Crescent, the Arab equivalent of the international Red Cross.

all for his literary strategies, “so that the book is funny and irresistible and the ‘message’ gets in through the back door” (Sasson Somekh in Brenner, p. 93). In the late 1980s the novel was adapted into a one-man play for the Israeli stage, performed by Muhammad Bakri. Audience reactions showed a split reaction to the story that drives both the novel and the play. “No doubt,” says Hava Novak, “we witness true and real events, and it does not help me that I know the other truth [the Jewish point of view].… These facts do not ease the awakening sense of guilt” (Novak in Brenner, p. 96). Novak predicted correctly that some would walk away from the work full of resentment and protest, others deeply troubled. But many applauded it, comparing the Palestinian under Israeli rule to a Jew surviving by his wits in a gentile-dominated world. By fixing their gaze on universals, concludes one Israeli scholar, they averted their eyes from the unmasking of and attack on the power relationship between the oppressive Jewish majority and the oppressed Arab minority in Israel (Hever, p. 164). The picture the novel draws of the past and present experience of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel is not a pretty one. “And the outlook, Habibi suggests, does not bode well,” a prediction tragically borne out by recent history (LeGassick, p. 223).

—Trevor LeGassick

For More Information

Boulatta, Issa J. “Symbol and Reality in the Writings of Emile Habibi.” Islamic Culture: An English Quarterly 62, nos. 2–3 (April-July 1988): 9–21.

Brenner, Rachel Feldhay. “‘Hidden Transcripts’ Made Public: Israeli Arab Fiction and Its Reception.” Critical Inquiry 26, no. 1 (autumn 1999): 85–108.

Farsoun, Samah K., and Christina E. Zacharia. Palestine and the Palestinians. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1997.

Habiby, Emile. “The Odds and Ends Woman.” Trans. Roger Allen and Christopher Tingley. In An Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

_____. The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist Trans. S. K. Jayyusi and T. LeGassick. New York: Interlink, 2002.

Hever, Hannan. “Emile Habiby: A Palestinian Writer in the Context of Israeli Culture.” Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture 3, nos. 3/4 (summer/autumn 1996): 167–69.

Jayyusi, Salma Khadra. Introduction to The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, by Emile Habiby. New York: Interlink, 2002.

La Guardia, Anton. War without End: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for a Promised Land. New York: St. Martin’s, 2001.

Laqueur, Walter. A History of Zionism. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1972.

LeGassick, Trevor. “The Luckless Palestinian.” The Middle East Journal 34, no. 2 (spring 1980): 215–23.

McDonald, James G. My Mission in Israel 1948–1951. London: Gollancz, 1951.

Morris, Benny. Righteous Victims: A History of Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881–2001. New York: Vintage, 2001.

Raviv, Dan, and Yossi Melman. Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel’s Intelligence Community. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

Sachar, Howard M. A History of Israel from the Rise of Zionism to Our Time. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Welles, Sumner. We Need Not Fail. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1948.

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The Secret Life of Saeed the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist

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