Habibi, Emile (1921–1996)

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Habibi, Emile

Emile Habibi was noted Palestinian writer and politician from Israel. Unlike other Palestinian authors such as Rashid Husayn or mahmud darwish, he did not go into exile, either self imposed or otherwise, after the 1948

Arab-Israeli War and the creation of Israel. Instead, he remained all his life in the land of his birth until his death in May 1996.


Emile Shukri Habibi was born in August 1921 in Haifa, in mandatory Palestine. His family, Protestant Christian Arabs, was originally from the nearby village of Shafa Amr. In his early life he took many different jobs until he began seriously writing in the early 1960s. He worked in an oil refinery, and later as a radio announcer from 1941 until 1943, among other odd jobs.

Habibi was heavily involved in the resistance movement against the British mandatory government in Palestine. He became a member of the Palestine Communist Party (PCP) in 1940, as did numerous Palestinian and Arab writers. Habibi later was involved in the National Liberation League that grew out of the PCP in September 1943. He became the editor-in-chief of the PCP newspaper al-Ittihad (the Union) in 1944. After the Arab defeat in the 1948 War and the establishment of Israel, Habibi helped form the new Israeli Communist Party (ICP).

He began to be actively involved in Israeli politics when he was elected to the Knesset (Israeli parliament) and remained an outspoken Knesset member from the ICP (and, after it was formed in 1965, the New Communist List [Rakah]) for almost twenty years (1953–1972). He represented Rakah in the Knesset until he resigned from the party in 1991 over his disagreement with how the party should react to the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Habibi also established the Arabesque House Publishing Company in Haifa, and, in 1995, the literary journal al-Masharif.

Habibi died in Haifa on 3 May 1996, and was buried in the city of his birth. He had requested that his tombstone simply read, "Emile Habibi—Remained in Haifa."


After experimenting with short story writing and some plays, Habibi wrote his blockbuster novel, al-Waqa'i al-Ghariba fi Ikhtifa Sa'id Abi'l-Nahs al-Mutasha'il (The secret life of Saeed, the ill-fated pessoptimist), in 1974. It was an instant success not only in Israel but throughout the Arab world. Today it is considered one of the best novels written in Arabic. Saeed the Pessoptimist (a compression of pessimist and optimist) or the Ill-fated narrates the life, fortunes, and misfortunes of an Arab living within Israeli borders.

The Pessoptimist is an account that spans two Arab-Israeli wars (1948, 1967), documenting the life of the Arab Palestinian population who chose to remain within the State of Israel after the mass exodus following each war. Thus, the novel becomes a literary vehicle that describes the history of that period from a Palestinian perspective. Habibi details the hardships and overall struggles of the second-class citizens within the Israeli state. He brilliantly succeeds in weaving a tapestry of fictional and personal events in a historical framework. He uses his prerogative of being able to focus on aspects of the human condition, describing the effects on the characters in a fictional mode.


Name: Emile Habibi

Birth: 1921, Haifa, Palestine

Death: 1996, Haifa, Israel

Nationality: Palestinian from Israel

Education: Incomplete correspondence studies (petroleum engineering), University of London, 1939–1942


  • 1940: Joins Palestine Communist Party
  • 1941: Radio broadcaster
  • 1944: Begins editing al-Ittihad
  • 1948: Helps form Israeli Communist Party
  • 1952–1972: Serves in the Knesset
  • 1965: Joins New Communist List (Rakah)
  • 1974: Publishes al-Waqa'i al-Ghariba fi Ikhtifa Sa'id Abi'l-Nahs al-Mutasha'il (The secret life of Saeed, the ill-fated pessoptimist)
  • 1990: Awarded the al-Quds Medal from PLO
  • 1991: Resigns from Rakah; awarded the Israel Prize

As a writer of a historical novel, Habibi was writing from what he has experienced firsthand, the conditions under which the Palestinian Arabs were living inside the Jewish state. Habibi thus became known and admired through this unique work all over the Arab world. His collection of short stories, Sudasiyat al-Ayam al-Sitta: Riwaya min al-Ard al-Muhtalla (Stories of the six days: a story from the occupied land; 1969), also focuses on life within Israel after the 1967 War. The overwhelming welcome of these works within Arab circles did not only stem from the fact that his stories were eyewitness accounts of the life of the Arabs in Israel, but also came from the high artistic quality of his work. Habibi did highly original work cast in an ironic mode of comic fiction.

Habibi's work signaled a new maturity in modern Arabic writing. The well-known literary critic and one of the two translators of the novel (the other being another well-known critic, Salma al-Jayyusi) rightly stated that the work is that of a mature and informed mind and the result of many years of experience.

The protagonist of the novel, Saeed the luckless pessoptimist, is indeed a comic hero who narrates the secrets of his life in the State of Israel in the form of a letter to an unnamed friend. He does this from outer space in the company of an extraterrestrial being who had rescued him from his uncomfortable position sitting on a stake. After his rescue he tells his story, which is one of defeat and rebellion, terror and heroism, and resistance and aggression: a life always on the brink of crisis. Saeed is ultimately an informer for the Zionist state, but his gullibility, stupidity, and candor make of him not so much a villain, but more a victim.

One of the most poignant scenes in the novel is when the protagonist describes how his only child Wala becomes a freedom fighter (a fida'i; Arabic: one who sacrifices himself) even before 1967. He narrates how Israeli soldiers besiege an abandoned house he is hiding in, while the father sits on a rock totally helpless and the mother tries to talk her son into surrendering. The son is defiant and the mother ultimately joins him. They embrace and walk into the sea, presumably giving up their lives as martyrs.

They had been last seen going toward the sea, mother and son, she embracing him, and he supporting her, until they had disappeared into the water. The soldiers he said, had been taken by surprise, and the big man had forbidden them to shoot to keep the news from spreading. He was sure they would either be caught or drown. However the day and night search for them had not found them alive, nor had their bodies been discovered. Their fate remains a closely guarded state secret, too." (p. 113)

The language is straightforward and simple, incorporating colloquialisms from the Palestinian dialect. Habibi's wit, sarcasm, candor, and double entendres are extremely well delivered in that understated language.

The hero of Habibi is reminiscent of one of the most popular comic figures of Arabic folklore, Juha (the Arab counterpart of the Turkish Nasreddin Hoca), the popular fool who is, however, wise and wily. So Saeed, being a wise fool, saves his life by succumbing to the winning side, becoming an informer in the service of the state.

It was a unique opportunity, a window for the rest of the Arab world, to learn and gain insight into the social and political dilemmas for Arabs living within their land of Palestine, which had become part of a Jewish state, Israel. Habibi drew heavily on humor and satire to build his character.

Another intriguing story, "Wadi al Nisnass" (Arabic), was an equally important work that shed light on the plight of the Arab-Israelis.

I claim to be one of those people who cannot see the moon except for its luminous side. It is thus I justify those Jewish friends with sensitive souls who claim they do not believe it when we declare that we want a lasting peace based on a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli one. I find excuses for their mistrust, telling myself and my people that perhaps their suspicion of our intentions comes from their sense of guilt at everything they have committed against us, expressed once in [Israeli general and politician] Moshe Dayan's phrase "If we were in their place."

Habibi elaborates further:

There is no place for "if" in history. However, if one wants to argue using logic, then I would say that if we were in your place we would not have allowed our reactionary forces to do what to you what your forces of reaction have done to us. Furthermore, I would add that if you combined all the "ifs" in all the languages of the world you would be unable to justify a single harm—not even the minutest—that you have wreaked on what you call "the other."

In this autobiographical narrative, Habibi goes on to speak of the experience of his mother, Umm Wadi, who did not seem to overcome the shock of the 1948 War that culminated in the establishment of the State of Israel. Consequently, similar to thousands of Palestinians, her life was shattered and she stood helpless when her own children and grandchildren scattered and became part of the Palestinian refugees in the diaspora. She mourned this reality to the end of her days; she was known to go to a public garden near their home called the Abbas Garden and cry silently about her dispersed children, especially her youngest son, Na'im. Unable to overcome her sorrow at this separation, Umm Wadi is said to have crossed the Mandelbaum Gate in Jerusalem—the only checkpoint along the Israeli-Jordanian cease-fire line through which persons could cross—into Jordanian-controlled territory in an attempt to rejoin some of her children who had taken refuge in Damascus, Syria. It is there, and not in her native Haifa, that she died. This affected Habibi for the rest of his life: that his mother, whom he revered and loved deeply, had died far away from him and her native land.

Some literary critics have written about the Habibian style of writing. A well-balanced mixture of politics, history, and storytelling, all infused with activism and a refined style of writing.

It is to Habibi's credit that he managed to impress both Arab and Israeli audiences, and succeeded in becoming a popular writer for both groups. His writing and success are a testimony to how he negotiated both his life and work within the most contentious of political debacles in modern history. The intractable Palestinian question, to this day unsolved, was handled with subtlety and artistic dexterity in most of his writings.

As a so-called insider Palestinian, one who willingly chose to remain within Israel, Habibi enjoyed a unique perspective and license to speak of and for those beleaguered insiders. He therefore wrote with authority of the existence, the dreams, and the difficulties of those Palestinians who in a sense live as second-class citizens within Israel. He opened a window to the outside Arab world to peep through and assess the plight of their brethren. A secular writer, Habibi contributed to Palestinian nationalism.

Habibi's greatest contribution is his poignant attempt at debunking the Zionist dream from the point of view of a Palestinian living within the Zionist state. Years before the American activist Rachel Corrie defied an Israeli bulldozer that was destroying Palestinian homes in Gaza by standing in front of it, dying in the process, Habibi faced bulldozers in a similar attempt to take his land. His heroic stance has become part of the oral legends by which Palestinian citizens in Israel remember him: as one who was ready to sacrifice his life to save his olive trees. At the same time, Habibi did not hesitate to expose Palestinian shortcomings, either.

His sustained sarcasm and humor won him a lasting place among the great and prominent Palestinian writers and poets, such as mahmud darwish, Ghassan Kanafani, Samih al-Qasim, and Tawfiq Zayyad. The secular writings and humanism of these writers—most of whom chose to leave and live in self imposed exile—made their life goal a sustained search for and celebration of Palestinian identity.


Habibi won many accolades during his lifetime. He received the Jerusalem Medal from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1990, and in 1992 was awarded Israel's top cultural award, the Israel Prize, for his writings. When criticized by some Palestinians for accepting the Israel Prize, he emphasized that his willingness to accept both prizes should be interpreted as an indicator of his strong belief in the coexistence of both states, side by side, a dream that is elusive to this day.


Habibi's writings are credited with provoking serious debate among Palestinians within Israel, Palestinians living in the diaspora, and the average Arab reader. This came to a head when mistrust set in after Habibi won the Israel Prize. He brought the matter to a head when he forced such questions as whether Arabs within Israel could be participants in the decisions that would determine the creation of the state of Palestine and the destiny of the Palestinians. It became obvious that the crucial role played by the writers from within should be credited for keeping the bridges open between the Palestinians who had remained and those dispersed in an ever widening diaspora.


"Emile Habibi." Arab World Books. Available from http://www.arabworldbooks.com.

Habibi, Emile. "Haifa: Wadi Al-Nisnass & Abbas Street by Emile Habibi." Translated by Mona A. and Hala Halim. Palestine Remembered. Available from http://www.palestineremembered.com.

                                             Mona Mikhail