Encounters With Emile Habibi’s Pessoptimist

Along with the remnants of his family, he travels to Lebanon only to sneak back into his occupied homeland. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Rebecca Whiting

Published Thursday, November 8, 2012

“I don’t differentiate between optimism and pessimism and am quite at a loss as to which of the two characterizes me. When I awake each morning I thank the Lord he did not take my soul during the night. If harm befalls me during the day, I thank him that it was no worse. So which am I, a pessimist or an optimist?” - The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, 1974

With the invention of a new word, a new perspective, Emile Habibi’s (1921-1996) satirical novel gave an original voice to the Palestinian people, in particular the population that remained in what had become the state of Israel.

Habibi’s created word “mutashael” in Arabic is a hybrid of mutashaem, meaning pessimist, and mutafael, meaning optimist. The term drew Lebanese artists Marwa Arsanios and Lawrence Abu Hamdan to use his novel as the platform for a transnational radio performance engaging in political thought through language and imagination.

As part of the Jerusalem Show, writers and artists in Beirut, Ramallah, and Jerusalem participated in a synchronized reading of the text broadcast live from Radio Beirut on Tuesday night. The reading was interspersed with reactions to the text from participants, who engaged in a dialogue with Habibi’s pessoptimist.

Cast in soft red light, Radio Beirut took on the atmosphere of an old library, with readers gathered around a table, orating Habibi’s seminal text. Through Skype, they were connected with their counterparts across borders, disseminating the story from the wooden DJ booth.

Arsanios and Abu Hamdan had been invited to Jerusalem to participate in the art festival, but Lebanese citizens are not permitted to travel to territories under Israeli occupation. Given this context, The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist became a point with which to readdress the ever-relevant narratives of politically-dictated borders, exclusion, and identity.

Habibi’s novel interlaces the fantastical and mystical with the tragic and true. The tale follows Saeed, a young man from Haifa, who escapes the 1948 Nakba. Along with the remnants of his family, he travels to Lebanon only to sneak back into his occupied homeland. There, he prostrates himself before those in power and haplessly becomes an informer for the Israelis after he is promised his cooperation can ensure the return of the woman he loves.

With childlike naiveté, Saeed stumbles through what he sees as his extraordinary good fortune at having been able to return to his hometown, regardless of it being under occupation and his position of subservience to the new state. Exasperating as his character may be, Saeed is impossible to cast judgment on. A far cry from the heroes that dominate Arabic literature, he is the comic fool, the helpless character that lacks agency and shows little ability to steer his own fate.

The story navigates an individual life within a wide-scale tragedy, a man trying to ensure his own survival. Saeed embodies a simple human, characterized by a desire to live a basic and pleasurable life. Without admonition, it is a tale of human behavior within a political landscape incomprehensible to the people whose lives it consumed.

Hope and individual strength in the tale are characterized by those around Saeed. His young son, horrified at his father’s submission to the state, decides to become a resistance fighter, and pays the heaviest price. Death, however, is intertwined with the concept of freedom; the freedom to make choices, to have a hand in one’s fate. As Abu Hamdan described the book, “The approach and the understanding are both depressing and relieving.”

Habibi used the novel to report on his own world. Through fiction, he humanized the stories that are often rendered sterile and incomprehensible through historical texts. The breadth of the tragedy is not described with histrionics nor dissected with analysis, but is simply observed through the self-centered eyes of Saeed, who unwittingly exemplifies this sorrow.

Habibi was incredibly active in the political realm. He was a founding member of the Israeli Communist Party and represented it in the Knesset for three terms, eventually retiring from politics to write. He was presented with several awards for his literary works, including the Israeli Prize for Literature in 1992. His accepting of the award caused much upset among Arab audiences, but Habibi contended that it was an indirect recognition of the Arab population inside the Green Line, who still live as second-class citizens.

For Arsanios and Abu Hamdan, Tuesday’s transnational performance was an opportunity to once more draw attention to the power of language and fiction as “a means to navigate the political scene around and beyond you.”

Those who responded to Habibi’s work saw it as a moment to recognize the present-day pessoptimist. One of the participants, Mounira al-Solh, created a video response to Saeed. She was goaded to action by her personal experience of applying for residency in Holland and “the incredibly alienating experience of trying to play a role in order to fit into a society.”

Another participant, Nesrine Khodr, was most struck by the thought that Habibi’s own pessoptimism can be seen through his references to the historic conflicts over the land of his forefathers, perhaps a hint that like those of the conquerors gone by, this occupation and domination will not last.

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