Emile Habiby: فاء سعيد أبي النحس (The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist)
On the whole, Arab writers do not do satire so this book, which is funny and satirical, is a treat. Our hero is Saeed. Saeed, in Arabic, means something like happy or fortunate. (Many of the names in this book have meanings, which may or may not be relevant.) At the start of the book, he tells us that he has been rescued by creatures from Outer Space and he is now writing a letter about his life to an unnamed narrator, who seems to be a journalist, telling us how and why he got into a situation whereby he needed rescuing.
1948 was a key year for the Palestinians. It was the year of the Nakba, the year when large numbers of Palestinians were either driven out of Palestine or forced to flee, under threats from the Israeli forces, and when Israel gained recognition by the United Nations. While it was a bad year for the other Palestinians, it was the year in which Saeed’s life was saved by a donkey. His family was shot at by the Israelis and his father killed. He would have been killed but for a donkey who walked into the line on fire and died instead of Saeed. As he died, his father told Saeed that he should go to Mr. Safarsheck, who would help him.
Saeed and his family escaped to Lebanon but Saeed eventually decides to flee to Israel and he is able to do this, as his sister’s (married) boyfriend volunteers to help do so, not least as he probably wants to get rid of him. He managed to ride into Israel on an ass and called for Mr. Safarsheck. Not surprisingly, Mr. Safarsheck was not there. However, he manages to get to Acre, where he goes to school and where he meets Yuaad, his first love. It does not work out.
He will retain his love for Yuaad and she will cross his path on more than one occasion during this book. However, the bulk of this story involves his job working for the Union of Palestine Workers, which seems to be some sort of branch of the Israeli government used to control the Palestinians. Saeed is a sort of cross between Schweik and Voltaire’s Candide. Indeed, he himself makes the comparison with Candide and gives us several Candide-like stories, such as the story of the village of Barta’a. The village was, before the 1967 War, divided, so that half of it was in Jordan and half in Israel. When the Jordanians came looking for rustled cattle, they beat up some of the inhabitants. Some of them, therefore, thought that it would be wise to cooperate. However, when the Israelis came later, those who had not been badly beaten up were clearly collaborators and were then beaten by the Israelis. There are lots of Catch-22 stories like this in this book.
There is also something of the picaresque in his story as he wanders from place to place. One place he wanders to is the catacombs where he meets a reverend who helps him and who turns out to be his Outer Space friend.
He does get married, though not to Yuaad (though she says that she is his wife) but his actual marriage to Baqiyya ends in a manner that in any other book might be considered tragic but in this book is perhaps more ambiguous. Above all, Saeed is the bumbling fool who always seem to be getting into trouble, not because of wilful bad behaviour but because of naivety and an innocence about the realities of life. Yet, somehow, he seems to more or less pull out of it and survive. We cannot help liking and feeling sorry for him, while, at the same time, marvelling at his bad luck and occasional stupidity.
Habiby tells the story very well, with lots of humour and with much of the satire directed at the Israelis (clearly they are not so bad, Saeed is told, as they did not kill as many Arabs as the Crusaders and, as an Israeli minister stated, the Israeli occupation has been the most compassionate since Paradise was liberated from its occupation by Adam and Eve). He is not averse to having a few digs at the Palestinians and other Arabs as well but the humour is generally delivered in a flippant manner rather than as hard-nosed satire. A lot has happened since this book was published and it is a pity that he is not around to give us his take on the current situation.
First published 1974 by Dar Al-Hilal
First published in English by Zed Books in 1985
Translated by Trevor Le Gassick