by Zainab Cheema (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 2, Rabi' al-Thani, 1431)
Notwithstanding the Christian Arabians, the presence of Islam is what rendered the Arab-Israeli a truly horrifying nightmare to the Zionist mind.
Going by contemporary cultural practices, the extinction of a species merits some kind of memorial. Let me specify that by species, I mean in this case a social identity that has been banished to the past tense. After Israel’s April 2010 military order, which is poised to expel thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank and Jerusalem, that species is the Arab-Israeli.
The Arab-Israeli was a truly curious creation — he is the Arab that escaped the Zionist pogroms of 1948 and remained behind the line that became Israel’s forged national border. He represented two terrifying possibilities. The first is the one-state solution, where the Arabs and Jews would live together, but where the Arabs would numerically overwhelm the Jews and pit the terms “Jewish State” and “democracy” against one another. The second is the two-state solution that died after Israel’s post-Oslo terrorism, where the Arab-Israeli evoked fears of a domestic spy network for the neighboring Palestinian State.
Notwithstanding the Christian Arabians, the presence of Islam is what rendered the Arab-Israeli a truly horrifying nightmare to the Zionist mind. The prospect of giving the Abrahamic cousins who inherited God’s favor and Holy Word, equal political footing with the “Chosen People” went against every tenet of Ashkenazi nationalism. A good social Darwinist would say that it was simply not meant to be.
The Arab-Israeli’s inherent paradoxes have been the stuff of tragedy. Many Palestinian writers have taken the high road of epic tragedy: Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish and Elias Khouri have all told the heartbreaking tale and woven the sorrowing poem, using Arabic’s sonorous beauty to craft dirges that rivaled the Babylonian laments. But what kind of alchemy could turn the machinery of expulsion, exploitation, imprisonment and death — into laughter? One Palestinian at least, has possessed the skill to process sorrow into the blackest, most outrageous comedy.
In 1974, Emile Habibi published The Strange Facts in the Disappearance of Saeed the Ill-fated Pessoptimist (English translation of the original Arabic title). The hero, Saeed the Pessoptimist, is a petty-bureaucrat and informer in the Israeli government. Blessed with a below-average intelligence, Saeed has many adventures that expose the fictions and pretenses underlying Israeli “democracy” and the no-exit position that Palestinians found themselves in under the Israeli regime. An Arab-Israeli, Habibi struggled against Israeli dislocation of Palestinians through his political activism and journalistic work. The epitaph on his tombstone is an ironic testament to the grit and good fortune through which he was able to evade the purge of his native city, “Emile Habibi — Remained in Haifa.”
In The Question of Palestine, Edward Said remarked on the achievement of Saeed the Pessoptimist. He called it an “epistolary novel . . . unique in Arabic literature in that it is consistently ironic, exploiting a marvelously controlled energetic style” to depict the Palestinian’s “invisible condition”. In other words, it is a work of cultural resistance that proceeds through the stunning inversion of tragedy into comedy. Maybe Habibi is so effective because satire is a hodge-podge form, a creative stew where the images of resistance are crafted from the mixing of old with new, Islamic with Western, and the burlesque with the terrifying. Specifically, Saeed the Pessoptimist creates a kitchri out of influences from old poetry, modern tales, classical Arabic literature, and European writers like Voltaire.
“Pessoptimism” is a riff on Leibnitz’s philosophy that Voltaire rips to shreds in Candide. The Leibnizian optimism of “living in the best of all possible worlds,” that blithely takes human devastation in war and natural disaster as a manifestation of God’s will that men need to take like cosmic medicine, is adapted by Habibi to describe the fatalism that paralyzed Palestinian mobilization for so long. Above all, Habibi believed in action and if a bitterly mocking pen was the route to achieve it, so be it.
Saeed could never have been dreamed by a tragic mind. In Syria at the time of the Naqba, Saeed smuggles himself across the border and presents himself at the residence of the military governor riding an ass. The literary fool from Don Quixote onwards possesses magical powers to confuse, confound and throw into disarray the “reasonable” and “rational” man. This cues the reader to the author’s satiric intent; we are meant to see that the boundary between the fool and the rational man is not so clear after all.
In a few choice words, Ha-bibi is questioning the calm rationality and order of Israel, which was showcased as one of the virtues that resulted in its 1948 victory. “I entered [the military headquarters] still riding the donkey,” recounts Saeed. “It proudly mounted the three steps at the building’s entrance. Soldiers rushed towards me amazed.” If a fool mounted on a donkey can throw a military base into angered epilepsy, then what kind of fevered myth is Israeli invincibility?
Saeed finds himself working under Jacob the Mizrahi, who seems to occupy the same groveling position with respect to his own boss — the Ashkenazi “little man with the big stature — that Saeed has with respect to Jacob. Saeed falls in love with a beautiful Palestinian girl called Yuaad, who is promptly carted across the Syrian border because she doesn’t have the right papers. She is then used as bait to make Saeed spy on threatening elements in the Palestinian population. Yuaad, the absent figure of desire and longing, becomes the figure of a nostalgic Palestinian memory that Saeed will try to cling to as a refuge from his topsy-turvy world. Habibi uses her to criticize the pain and guilt in Palestinians’ relationship with the past, which must be overcome in order to act effectively and resist in the present.
The peculiar genius of having a stupid protagonist is that the story is able to create a sort of contest between his nonsensical actions, and the even greater nonsensicality of the Israeli State. During the 1967 War, the Israeli military broadcasts an order over radio to the West Bank Palestinians to raise the white flag on their houses in order to signal their surrender. The befuddled Saeed hears the broadcast and wonders whether “Palestinians” refers only to the West Bank inhabitants, or whether it also applies to Arab-Israelis living in Israel itself. Rationalizing that “you can’t have too much of a good thing!” he happily raises a white flag on the roof of his house, in his desire to signal his extravagant loyalty to the state. Jacob the Mizrahi boss bursts into his house.
“What did you think you were up to, [raising a white flag] in the very heart of the state of Israel, in Haifa, which no one regards as a city under occupation?” Jacob screams. When Saeed explains his rationale, he bursts out, “No, it’s an indication that you do regard Haifa as an occupied city and are therefore advocating its separation from the state.” When Saeed protests his innocence, Jacob explains, “We don’t punish you for what crosses your minds but for what crosses the big man’s mind.” Jacob then bursts into tears over the knowledge that he will also hang for Saeed’s misinterpretations, while the reader wonders over the lunacy of a government that would interpret a white flag on its own territory as a national security threat, and then proceed to fry its own citizens for not second-guessing its orders appropriately.
Habibi had mastered the art of titles. In a chapter titled “How Saeed Finds Himself in the Midst of an Arabian-Shakespearean Poetry Circle,” we see that Saeed really has run afoul of his Zionist masters over the white flag technicality. While being carted off to prison, he quotes Shakespeare to the Ashkenazi “little man with big stature,” correcting him on a particular line of dialogue. Ever the fool, he misses the man’s discomfort and imagines that he is ingratiating himself by this display of culture. Unfortunately, he forgets that civilization and culture are not properties that Zionism wants to share with Palestinians. After all, isn’t Zionism based on the old-time fantasy of European civilization achieving a “New World” by clearing out the natives? Then too, only European culture counts as “culture” for Ashkenazi Israel, something to be jealously guarded at all costs as the passport of its superiority in the Middle East.
The Arabian-Shakespeare poetry circle is a ring of guards beating the stuffing out of Saeed for knowing more than is good for him, shouting all the while, “Here, take this, Caesar!” or “Quote some more Shakespeare for us, you son of a bitch!” After all, it’s important to remind the native that he is uncivilized lest he forgets and begins to quote poetry — or write black satire.
Saeed the Pessoptimist is a double narrative, where the direct sarcasm of Habibi’s own voice occasionally cuts through Saeed’s comic tomfoolery. In a number of places, he describes how Zionist kibbutzim and farms flourish through the grueling labor of Palestin-ians, who become an exploited underclass after 1948 through their persistent desire to stay close to their land on any terms, and a desperate need to survive. Of course, this predates their imprisonment on bantustans after the intifadas.
“How often in Ajami Square in Jaffa, I have seen those fresh faced young men from Gaza, Jabaliyya and so on, swaying in the backs of contractors’ trucks, like the tombstones of those martyred brothers that have been seen moving in a Gaza graveyard,” writes Habibi. “I have come to believe that the living too can indeed remain in their own land.” The point is precisely that there is not much difference between living and dying for a Palestinian in Israel’s shadow.
This is overshadowed by an even ghostlier scene of the Naqba’s aftermath. The hapless Saeed visits the Jazzar Masjid in Jaffa, where refugee populations are hiding out after the Zionists have razed their villages and thrown them off the land. After ascertaining that Saeed is not an Israeli soldier, the masjid’s imam signals that all is well and the refugees stream out of the shadows and darkened corners like ghosts. They begin to name the villages they have come from, villages that have been erased off the map and whose only record will be in the pain-twisted men and women’s memories. “Please do not expect me, my dear sir, after all this time, to remember the names of all the villages laid waste to which these figures made claim that evening of the courtyard of the Jazzar Masjid,” the narrator tells us plaintively.
This underlies Saeed’s puny memory as much as it does the sheer scale of the human and social destruction entailed in uprooting the people from their habitations and communities. A woman’s daughter dies during the night; the eruption of grief gives way to a stoic morning. The mother tells Saeed, “I shall bury her here in Acre and then go on my way.” We see that Palestinian refugees in Syria and Jordan have left more than their material possessions in Israel — their journeys have taken them away from gravesites of their beloved. Even Saeed the fool doesn’t escape this scene of devastation — shortly after witnessing this scene, he begins to lose his reason and tip into madness.
No wonder that Habibi felt standing his ground in Haifa to be an achievement worthy of inscribing on this tombstone. Black comedy is the Siamese twin of tragedy — perhaps the more daring, rebellious one of the pair. The Arab-Israeli may now be extinct as a social possibility, but it has left us with a peculiarly insider critique of the State of Israel and its absurdities. Truly, laugher can be revolutionary. As Habibi wrote in another play,
“Laugh! For laughter unleashes the tongue and cures muteness
“Oh! You generations of silence, it is time to laugh
“Speak! And if you don’t speak, then laugh!
. . . if they stifle your moans, then explode with laughter.”
Laugher is a very sharp weapon with one edge.