Habiby, Emile 1919(?)–1996
Habiby, Emile 1919(?)–1996
(Emile Habibi, Imil Habibi)
PERSONAL: First name sometimes transliterated Imil or Hamil; born 1919 (some sources say 1921 or 1922), in Haifa, Palestine (now Israel); died 1996, in Haifa, Israel.
CAREER: Politician, writer, and editor. Israeli Communist Party, founding member; elected to Israeli Knesset three times; Al-Ittihad ("Unity," bi-weekly periodical), editor-in-chief.
AWARDS, HONORS: Israeli Literary Prize, 1992, for Al-Waqa'I al-gharibah fi ikhtifa Sa'id abi al-nahs al-Mutasha'il ("The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist"); State of Palestine Certificate of Merit; Medal of Jerusalem for Culture, Literature, and Art.
Sudasiyat al-ayyam al-sittah (short stories; title means "Sextet of the Six Days"), Dar al-'Awday (Beirut, Lebanon), 1969.
Kafr Qasim: fi al-dhikrá al-20 li-majzarat Kafr Qasim: al-majzarah, al-siyasah, Manshurat 'Arabsak (Haifa, Israel), 1976.
Luka' ibn Luka': thalath jalasat amama sunduq al-'ajab: hikaya masrahiyah, Dar al-Farabi (Beirut, Lebanon), 1980.
Al-Waqa'I al-gharibah fi ikhtifa Sa'id abi al-nahs al-Mutasha'il (fiction), 1974, translated from the Arabic by Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Trevor Le Gassick as The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist: A Palestinian Who Became a Citizen of Israel, Vantage Press (New York, NY), 1982, reprinted, Interlink Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Ikhtiyah (novel), Mu'assasat Bisan Bris (Nicosia, Cypress), 1985.
Khurafiyat saraya bint al-ghul (novel), Dar 'Arabisk (Haifa, Israel), 1991.
Nahwa 'alam bi-la aqfas (title means "Toward a World without Ages"), Maktab wa-Maktabat Kull Shay' (Haifa, Israel), 1993.
Writings have been translated into several languages, including French and English.
SIDELIGHTS: When Israel was created in 1948 and took over Haifa many Palestinians emigrated, but Emile Habiby decided to stay. He began writing fiction in 1967 in response to a comment by an Israeli education minister who said that Palestinians would have produced a national literature if they truly existed as a people. Habiby answered this challenge with Sudasiyat al-ayyam al-sittah, which means "Sextet of the Six Days." The book is a collection of short stories describing the impact of the Six-Day War on Palestinians. "Unlike most short-story cycles which are linked through a character, place, or event, the link generating the structural unity of the Sextet is that of impact, shock, and irony," wrote Sabry Hafez in Contemporary World Writers.
Habiby followed up with his most famous work, Al-Waqa'I al-gharibah fi ikhtifa Sa'id abi al-nahs al-Mutasha'il, which has been published in English as The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist: A Palestinian Who Became a Citizen of Israel. Like Habiby, the protagonist, Saeed, is a Palestinian who decides to stay in Israel in 1948. Saeed, however, becomes an informer for the new Israeli state. After an affair with a woman named Yuaad (meaning "Return"), he marries Baqiya ("Staying"). Their son grows up to join the Palestinian resistance, while Saeed soon finds himself imprisoned by the Israeli government. In addition to these political themes the novel also introduces mystical elements when Saeed contacts extra-terrestrials in tunnels first dug by Crusaders.
In a review of The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist, Times Literary Supplement contributor Robert Irwin noted, "Much of the novel … is wild farce, and it is full of irony, slapstick, proverbs, puns and alliteration, historical, literary and mystical allusions." Beth Warrell, writing in Booklist, commented that "even readers who disagree with him will find this strange novel to be thought-provoking on a number of levels. Helpful translators' notes serve as a primer on Middle Eastern history and culture." In a review of a 2002 English edition of the book, Fred Rhodes commented in Middle East that the book "achieves the impossible: A comic novel on the crisis in Palestine … yet remains hilarious throughout." A Kirkus Reviews contributor noted the author's "incisive satiric characterizations of true believers and extremists of all persuasions."
When the novel was first published in 1974, it created a sensation in the Arab world, as well as in Israeli society in its Hebrew translation. Habiby's decision to accept the Israeli Prize for Literature for his novel set off a firestorm of protest among Arab intellectuals, many of whom condemned his acceptance as an act of treachery to the Palestinian cause. For Habiby, however, survival in the face of Israeli oppression and a determination to foster a Palestinian literary tradition in the face of these obstacles was true loyalty. "The merit, he tells his detractors—among whom, incidentally, there are many Palestinians who left Israel—does not lie in running away, but in staying and coping with the situation," noted Israel Studies contributor Rachel Felday Brenner.
In 1996, Habiby secured permission for one of those Palestinian émigrés, famed poet Mahmoud Darwish, to visit him in Haifa. News cameras were set to record the historic meeting between the two literary giants, but Habiby died the night before Darwish's arrival. According to an article in the New York Times, Darwish gave a eulogy for Habiby and noted: "Emile is leaving the stage and cracking his last joke."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary World Writers, edited by Tracy Chevalier, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1993.
American Book Review, March, 1985, review of The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist: A Palestinian Who Became a Citizen of Israel, p. 4.
Booklist, January 1, 2002, Beth Warrell, review of The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist, p. 806.
Books & Bookmen, August, 1985, review of The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist, p. 31.
Christian Science Monitor, September 14, 1989, review of The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist, p. 13.
Guardian (London, England), August 16, 2003, David Jays and Isobel Montgomery, review of The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist, p. 24.
Israel Studies, fall, 2001, Rachel Felday Brenner, "The Search for Identity in Israeli Arab Fiction: Atallah Mansour, Emile Habiby, and Anton Shammas," p. 91.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2002, review of The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist, p. 73.
Listener, July 4, 1985, review of The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist, p. 31.
Middle East, October, 2003, Fred Rhodes, review of The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist, p. 65.
Nation, September 17, 1990, review of The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist, p. 280.
New Statesman, May 24, 1985, review of The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist, p. 29.
New York Times, December 30, 2001, "A Poet's Palestine as a Metaphor."
Spectator, December 6, 1986, review of The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist, p. 33.
Times Literary Supplement, July 18, 1986, Robert Irwin, "Stay or Return," p. 793.
World Press Review, December, 1991, Tahar Ben Jelloun, "Palestinians Turn to Lethal Humor," pp. 27-28.
Levantine Center Web site, http://www.levantinecenter.org/ (May 8, 2002), review of The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist.
Middle East News Online, http://www.middleeastwire.com/ (November 9, 2001), Hada Sarhan "The Intertwined World of Occupation and the Knesset."