“The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist”

The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (Al-Waka’i al gharieba fi ikhtifa Said Abul Nahs al-Mutasha’il) by Emile Habiby

On Monday, February 7th we gathered to discuss The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (Al-Waka’i al gharieba fi ikhtifa  Said Abul Nahs al-Mutasha’il) by Emile Habiby

This contemporary classic by  Emile  Habibi (إميل حبيبي‎), tells the story of a Palestinian who becomes a citizen of Israel, combines fact and fantasy, tragedy and comedy. Saeed is the comic hero, the luckless fool, whose tale tells of aggression and resistance, terror and heroism, reason and loyalty that typify the hardships and struggles of Arabs in Israel. An informer for the Zionist state, his stupidity, candor, and cowardice make him more of a victim than a villain; but in a series of tragicomic episodes, he is gradually transformed from a disaster-haunted, gullible collaborator into a Palestinian — no hero still, but a simple man intent on survival and, perhaps, happiness.

Widely read throughout the Arab world and translated into more than a dozen languages, including Hebrew, Habibi’s novels and stories explored the conflicts of a people caught between their Arab identity and their Israeli citizenship. Habibi was a Palestinian writer and politician who, while asserting his Arab identity and heritage, was also an advocate of Jewish-Arab coexistence and mutual recognition.

About the Author

Habibi was born in Haifa on Aug. 29, 1922, which at that time was part of the British Mandate of Palestine. Born in to a Protestant Palestinian Arab family (his family had originally been Arab Orthodox but converted to Protestantism due to disputes within the Orthodox church) In his early life he worked on an oil refinery and later was a radio announcer. Under the Mandate he became one of the leaders of the Palestine communist party. When the 1948 Arab-Israeli War began in 1948 he stayed in Haifa while many others chose or were forced to leave the country. As a result he was granted Israeli citizenship. After the war he helped to create The Israeli communist party and established the Israeli communist paper Al-Ittihad. He stayed in Haifa his whole life. His gravestone reads (on Habibi’s own request): “Emile Habibi – Remained in Haifa.”

Habibi was one of the leaders of the Palestine Communist Party during the Mandate era. He supported the 1947 UN Partition Plan. When Israel became a state he helped form the Israeli communist party ICP. He served in the Knesset between 1951 and 1959, and again from 1961 until 1972, first as a member of Maki, before breaking away from the party with Tawfik Toubi to found Rakah. He broke with the party in 1991.

A 1997 documentary titled  “Emile Habibi – Niszarty B’Haifa (Emile Habibi, I stayed in Haifa)” and directed by Dalia Karpel chronicles the last few weeks in his life. This journey into Habiby’s past tells the story of personal identity vs. homeland. This is a moving portrait of a public figure drawn from his own point of view at the end of his life.


Habibi began writing short stories in the 1950s, and his first story, The Mandelbaum Gate” was published in 1954. In 1972 he resigned from the Knesset in order to write his first novel: The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, which became a classic in modern Arab literature. The book depicts the life of an Israeli Arab, employing black humour and satire. It was based on the traditional anti-hero Said in Arab Literature and reflects on how it is for Arabic people to live in the state of Israel. In rich Arabic prose embellished with original expressions that he coined, Mr. Habibi also wrote of the differences that emerged when Israel’s Arabs were reunited with their Palestinian brothers after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. He turned to writing fiction in the 1970′s and 80′s, publishing three novels, a play and two collections of short stories – and he continued to write political articles in Israeli Arab and Palestinian newspapers. His last novel, published in 1992, was Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter.

Literary prizes

In 1990 Habibi received the Al-Quds Prize from the PLO. Two years later (in 1992) he received the Israel Prize for Arabic literature. His willingness to accept both reflected his belief in coexistence. Though after accepting the Israel Prize a debate set off among the Arabic intellectual community. Habibi was accused of legitimating the Israel anti-Arabic policy. Habibi replied to the accusations: “A dialogue of prizes is better than a dialogue of stones and bullets,” he said. “It is indirect recognition of the Arabs in Israel as a nation. This is recognition of a national culture. It will help the Arab population in its struggle to strike roots in the land and win equal rights”.
For a coverage on this moment in Habibi’s life from the New York Times, May 7, 1992: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E0CEFDA1E3EF934A35756C0A964958260&scp=32&sq=Mahmoud%20Darwish&st=cse

Published works

1969: Sudasiyat al-ayyam al-sittah (short stories “Sextet of the Six Days“), Dar al-’Awday (Beirut, Lebanon)

1974: Al-Waka’i al gharieba fi ikhtifa Sa’ied Aboe an-Nash al-Moetasaja’il (“The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist”)

1976: Kafr Kassem (Qasim): fi al-dhikrá al-20 li-majzarat Kafr Qasim: al-majzarah, al-siyasah, Manshurat ‘Arabsak

1980: Luka’ ibn Luka’: thalath jalasat amama sunduq al-’ajab: hikaya masrahiyah, Dar al-Farabi (Beirut, Lebanon)

1991: Khurafeyyet Sarayet Bint el-Ghoul (translated as Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter)

About the book

Written in Arabic and originally published in Haifa in 1974, Habiby’s self-ironic and wickedly sarcastic postmodernist pastiche quickly became a classic in the modern Arabic literature tradition and, after translation into English, named by critics a Palestinian masterpiece. For the Palestinian people themselves, from the Diaspora and those living inside Israel to the millions still under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, Habiby’s Pessoptimist signifies the beginnings of a distinctive Palestinian national literary form.

In the first chapter Saeed, Habibi’s comic anti-hero, claims to have been visited by men from outer space making the story from the start highly unbelievable-the true parts (such as the exile of the Palestinians) being perhaps even more shocking and unbelievable than the fictional aspects. As Saeed himself suggests, one of the most unbelievable events is also the most tragic: one’s own death-which no one truly, deep down, can fully believe in. One can’t help but find the character of Saeed endearing-perhaps because he fails at everything he attempts. He tries to be a Palestinian freedom fighter but fails. Then he tries his hand at the task of being a paid puppet of the Israeli government but fails at that too, with equally humorous results. Habibi could have chosen to write a story about a Palestinian hero, either a pacifist or a warrior, who somehow rises against the oppression under which his people suffer, but, instead, he presents a character riddled with incompetence and foolishness, leaving him open to ridicule by all sides. In Habibi’s story, there are no heroes, only a long list of characters lost in a tragic and confusing whirlwind of political events and everyone-Arabs and Israelis-become suitable targets for parody and criticism.

A review by D. Cloyce Smith:

As its subtitle implies, “The Secret Life of Saeed” blends optimism and pessimism, tragedy and comedy, horror and farce, cynicism and gullibility. A Palestinian in occupied territory, Saeed has lived through both wars (1948 and 1967); although he is an informer on the payroll of the Israeli government, he’s too stupid to be of any real threat to his own people, but he is equally unable to protect his own family. As Salma Khadra Jayyusi notes in the introduction, Saeed is caught between “the extreme poles of Zionist colonialism and Palestinian resistance.”

Saeed is able to relate his tale only when he is rescued by an extraterrestrial being (perhaps the Reaper himself) who removes him physically from the absurdities in which he is trapped. In each part of the subsequent autobiographical account, he relates a different loss–of his first love, of his wife and son, of the daughter of his first love–each under different circumstances that are identical in their irrationality. A coward himself, comically useless to his superiors, he is surrounded by rebels. But, once freed from earthly shackles, he can unsparingly ridicule his oppressors, and his tale mocks both Arab oligarchies and Israeli officials.

Habiby’s novel owes much to Voltaire, as he makes clear in both the book’s title and in a chapter called “The Amazing Similarity between Candide and Saeed.” When his extraterrestrial savior points out the resemblance, Saeed responds, “Don’t blame me for that. Blame our way of life that hasn’t changed since Voltaire’s day,” and he draws parallels between Pangloss and Israeli dignitaries and between Candide’s experiences and recent Palestinian history. The difference, of course, is that Candide always concluded that “All is well in the world,” while Saeed the pessoptimist is not so sure.

Habiby’s wit is most palatable when it is barbed, and his story is most powerful when it is tragic. The farce tends to silliness, however, occasionally threatening to undercut the satire. (To be frank, I have never been able to appreciate the slapstick follies in Voltaire’s novel, either.) There’s no doubt that much of the book’s wit and wordplay is lost in the translation between languages and cultures; without the translators’ pages of notes, I would have been lost. Nevertheless, the novel will surprise you with its most powerful scenes, especially when Saeed meets his battered namesake in prison and the ambiguous, tragic, climactic episode depicting the fate of his son and wife, an event that manages to be both melancholy and glorious. Such passages remind the reader that Saeed (as well as his fellow Palestinians) can hardly hope to be in control of the world in which he lives; although unchained, he remains “a prisoner unable to escape.”

Discussion themes:

Why is the choice made to have the whole book read from the position of Saeed having ‘escaped’ by aliens? How did you respond to this ‘surprise’?

Given the weight of the themes — Rebellion, defeat, death, rebirth, terror, heroism, aggression, resistance, individual treason and communal loyalty – was such intervention necessary?

What role does the author’s own life play in your understanding of the book?

What does “pessoptimist” mean to you in the context of the story? In the context of the Isreal/Palestine?

What does Yuaad (“to be returned”) symbolize? What does Baqiyya (“she who has remained”) symbolize? How are these two loves used as foils for Saeed and his life?

Why does the author name the children of Yuaad (Yuaad and Saeed, the heroic) after existing characters?

How does Walaa (Baqiyya’s son) change his father? His mother?

How do the explicit parallels between Saeed’s luckless/foolish/innocent character and Voltaire’s Candide serve the purpose of the story?