Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Secret Life of Saeed: the Pessoptimist

By Emile Habiby

Emile Habiby was an Israeli-Palestinian journalist —well respected by both Arabs and Israelis. He was also a member of the Israeli parliament for three terms. The Secret Life of Saeed was written in 1974; Habiby died in 1998.

Benny Morris, a noted Israeli historian, recently wrote a book, 1948 which gives a detailed history of the events leading up to the war. He also discusses how much of the land was acquired—it's an open look at the realities of the time. Some call it revisionist. He, like Habiby, uncovers some of the less than savory ways that land was obtained. Blame is meted out to a number of divergent parties.

The Secret Life of Saeed is a satire, a tale told in letters by a bumbling narrator. There's also an extraterrestrial being who removes Saeed physically from some rather incongruous situations.

Saeed, our protagonist, moves through different situations. At one point he is an improbable and incompetent informer for the Israeli police. He suffers many losses, his first love, his second wife, a son who becomes a rebel, and the daughter of his first love.

To me, perhaps because this is 2010, and so much in that small area has solidified into what appears to be an impasse, the book’s tragic episodes are it's strength.

The forced evacuations, loss of home and property, the culpability of the wealthy Arabs in the sale of land, the actions of the police, the second class status of those Palestinians who chose to stay and the long history of subjugation of that land—from the time of the crusades.

Habiby's "anti-hero" Saeed who continually fails or finds himself in unwieldy positions is a reminder of the impossibility of finding a comfortable place in an occupied land where you no longer really belong.

Throughout the book there are literary references to 1001 Nights and Shakespeare.

A telling feature of this book is the full title: TheSecret Life of Saeed-the Pessoptimist. Salma Khadra Jayyusi said in his introduction to the book: "The paradoxical view of the dynamics of the situations explains the meaning of the word "pessotimist," coined from the partial merger of "optimist" and "pessimist." " Habiby aims ...to uncover the various contradictions that crowd the distance between the extreme poles of Zionist colonialism and Palestinian resistance."

This book won Israel's Prize for Literature.

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