Emile Habibi, The Pessoptimist Who Went Global

Omar Zane
Two web-based photographs of Emile Habibi.

Emile Habibi died in early May, 1996 in his home in Nazareth. In addition to being a great Palestinian writer he was an exceptional character as well. His presence, his tongue and his written words added a certain lightness to the otherwise unbearably sad Palestinian and blighted Arab experience of the last seven decades. He witnessed events unfold, and for many years recorded the stories of an area which had acquired a much bigger foot print than its geographic size.

Initially he wrote essays as an activist, describing and rallying for the daily struggle against Zionism. He was a writer who used metaphor and characters in tales to describe the present and explain the past, often using the Marxist lexicon of scientific revolution.

Later, he found his own unique "Habibian" style, a renaissance mix of activism, politics, fine letters, story telling, and history. His life was a fabulous ride through the treacherous terrain of religious mandates such as Zionism which almost annihilated all of Habibi's geography, family, and neighbors. But he, with others, painstakingly put the fabric back together thread by thread, adding to the creation of a larger Palestinian quilt.

They were the "inside Palestinians or Arabs," those who remained in Israel after it's creation. These "insiders'" contributions are among the most precious and daring, both artistically as well as existentially. They told of the existence of the inside Palestinians and of their dreams and toils. Most of this literature was poetry and, along with the poets, Habibi's contributed to Palestinian secular nationalism and to the modern Arab literary movement. He published a number of books and novels in addition to numerous essays. The most famous of his works remains Said the Pessoptimist.

The greatness of Habibi's life seemed to function like a bridge between border of both time and geography. He was relentless and sarcastic in his observations on the nature of things and events, mixing facts, fatalism, historicism and simple acts of daily heroism in one breath. Habibi was very poignant in his comments on the undoing and failures of "state policies." Often his works resonated among other Palestinian writers, such as Mahmoud Darwish, Toufick Ziad, Samih al-Qasim and Ghassan Kanafani, who, in simple and disarming humanism, displayed the futility of the Zionist project while highliting its stupidity and meanness as well. Their universal secular humanism and their celebration of Palestinian identity whether tending an olive grove or collecting the thyme of the land is a far cry from the tribalistic religious call to arms brought to Palestine by the modern messianic enterprise.

Habibi would recall a story of an animal king, a knight, or a peasant in his essays, but he also created the example of the proto-Palestinian when he wrote the chronicles of Said the Pessoptimist's frightful encounter with the colonialists in Tel Aviv. The hero who came down from the hills of the Galilee would tell us his pessoptimist evaluation of the disaster that ended in occupation. The provincial had gone global.

His life was the stuff of legends. He stood one morning, unquivering, in front of an Israeli bulldozer, his youthful body prepared to be mangled and ground into the land he defended against incessant Judaization. There was no camera then. But the act lives among the olive trees he saved. It lives in the stories repeated by the people who remained rooted on that parcel; from that patchwork they resisted. He celebrated these small acts of resistance by simple people; like those in the folktales, they ate olive oil and thyme in the hills, fished in the Mediterranean sea of Akka, and felt rich and satisfied.

But Habibi did it "his way," provoking anxiety in many Palestinians by exposing his and the Palestinian contradictions to the world. Sometimes he was impatient and at other times hurtful. He endured, however, because he was often right. He provoked anger, as well, among the "leadership" and their storefront minions of the Palestinian body politic. But he remained the elder among us, the patina of age, improving his wise observations like an aging barrel of wine.

He was accused of treason by some Palestinians, such as when he surprised us and decided to receive the Israeli prize for literature in person from the Israeli prime minister. In this case the argument was not split into two camps but into many different ones, providing a healthy escape from the binarism of Arab politics. With his continuous controversies he provoked us to think and mature. Habibi did it in his own way again, provoking loud shouts and divisions among the Jews of Israel before, during and after the ceremony, smiling indifferently but rejoicing in the spectacle and still speaking with his deep raucous Palestinian voice during his acceptance speech.

The diaspora was hesitant for many years to embrace the insider. Even the early efforts by Kanafani in the seventies to incorporate the inside poets as part and parcel, by calling them the poets of the Resistance, did not completely untangle the misconceptions. The inside Palestinian, from the diaspora's perspective, remained an obscure figue due to the long separation. Mistrust prevailed, and was fanned by Arab regimes. It was an either/or environment. What do they want? the diaspora asked. How can they vote in Israel? Can they be members of the Palestinian body, and be citizens of the state of Israel at the same time? Will they? Can they? Should we allow them to contribute, from their vantage point, to the destiny of the Palestinians?

We could have become strangers to one another if it were not for the writers, the activists, and above all the poets of the inside. They smiled at our fanciful questions. They taught us chapters of the Palestinian bible. They sang the poems for us; they enriched us. They were relatively free in Israel and took advantage of it. Emile Habibi was, at times, biting towards our ignorance and our slow realization that the Arab Galilee is just an extension, another rib in the Palestinian body, imbued with the fragrances of Nazarene herbs and sea salt of Acca. A potpourri to be added to the rest of the fragrances that makes us Palestinians: the hills of Jerusalem and Nablus, the ancient sea at Gaza, the hill of thyme and Ein el-Hilweh in Lebanon, the maquis of the Ajloun mountain in Jordan, the deserts of Kuwait, the cities of salt in Arabia, the campus of Columbia University in New York, the textile stores of Central America, and so on. Good-bye elder writer. The tales of our existence shall continue to be told and written.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid (Vol. 2, No. 7, May 1996).

Copyright (c) 1996, 2019 by Al Jadid

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