Emile Habiby’s absurd fictions offer a map for surviving impossible political conditions.
There is a word that has been hovering around me like a familiar since the morning after the U.S. presidential election. It comes from the title of the Palestinian novelist and politician Emile Habiby’s bizarre and wonderful 1974 book, The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (al-mutasha’il, a mashup of mutafa’il [optimism] and mutasha’im [pessimism]). Through the oxymoronic condition of pessoptimism, the novel—which Edward Said styled the national epic of Palestine—describes life for a fairly ordinary Arab on and across the borders of Israel, roughly from the Nakba in 1948 through the June War of 1967. The facts of this ordinary life for Saeed, whose first name means “happy,” include separation from his family, a politically expedient marriage arranged by a party boss, a stint in jail for overzealous loyalty to the Israeli state, the loss of his child and wife, multiple relocations, forced anti-communist spying, the constant threat of expulsion, the stripping of rights, and, most importantly, a radical, deranging solitude.
In one of the letters to an anonymous correspondent in which he chronicles his adventures, Saeed the Pessoptimist explains how he inhabits his name under such conditions: “I don’t differentiate between optimism and pessimism and am quite at a loss as to which of the two characterizes me. When I awake each morning I thank the Lord he did not take my soul during the night. If harm befalls me during the day, I thank Him that it was no worse.” A self-consciously quixotic type, Saeed compares his adventures to those of Cervantes’s antihero, as well as to Candide’s. Fellow Palestinian writer Salma Jayyusi situates the Pessoptimist in a genealogy of three archetypes of Arabic literature going back to the eighth century: the picaresque hero, the fool, and the traitor/informer.
Pessoptimism refers to the inseparability of hope and despair under untenable historical conditions.
Saeed inherits his family name from a long line of bumblers and compradors, known for reading the ground as they walk, “looking always for money that some passerby has dropped hoping always [to] discover some treasure that might transform the regular pattern of a monotonous life.” More often, however, they bump their heads, or get crushed by a millstone, or lose themselves—literally—in subterranean reverie, looking for a warp to some other dimension. Saeed’s Pessoptimist ancestors, scattered from Haifa in the Nakba, include a lieutenant colonel in Lebanon who died of a heart attack when his bank collapsed and the head of the Israeli Committee for Distribution of Dandelion and Watercress in Upper Galilee. Whether he was also in charge of the Lower Galilee is a point of some disagreement.
Pessoptimist is Saeed’s surname, but it is also his ethos. Saeed never hopes for too much, or forecasts too far in the future, but he goes to work, searches for his true love, and tries in vain to make his way back home. He considers rebellion, but finds he has no ground from which to rebel beyond a constant movement and tireless observation. Pessoptimism refers, in this way, to the inseparability of hope and despair, of desire and knowledge under untenable historical conditions. For Habiby, to even be able to name historical conditions as untenable is a performance of pessoptimism’s contradiction—a condensed or crystalline version of Beckett’s famous lament, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
In light of the recent resurgence of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-refugee sentiment in the West, and the consequences of the immigration ban, I have come to think of the Pessoptimist as an archetype of those who stay and survive in inhospitable places, by noble and ignoble means, and necessarily compromise themselves in the process of fighting for justice even within a state or system of states they wish to dismantle. Saeed’s letters give us no recommendation for party politics, no blueprint for reform. They recount a withdrawal from rights-based life and its uneven distribution. They inhabit a mode of non-futurity, of dispersal and fugitivity, an oscillation between ungovernable presence within the state and a total absence of being.
If we take the unlucky Saeed as a model, the tragic absurdity of autocracy and its capricious hypocrisies can only be survived in forms of life that are equally improvisatory and often nonsensical. In Saeed’s case, it is a kind of babbling toward justice—an insistence on being, and making a record of one’s being over time, letters sent to nowhere that declare the horror of each event with undiminished astonishment, embodying the kind of dummy Theodor Adorno accused Walter Benjamin of being, perhaps admiringly: an astonished presenter of mere fact.
The tragic absurdity of autocracy and its capricious hypocrisies can only be survived in forms of life that are equally improvisatory and often nonsensical.
Saeed undertakes an obsessive and circular accounting of locations, names, objects, and facts under the constantly shifting conditions of violence, disappearance, repression, and surveillance that are visited upon him. These recitations ensure his survival, though it is not a happy one. The errors and confusion created by changing names of people and cities—not just for Saeed but also for his abusers—is a leitmotif in the book; Habiby uses it to perform a diligent mapping of the erasure of Palestine in its most literal, terrestrial forms. Villages, trees, apartments, houses, people, mosques, beaches, and paths are all documented with the loving care of a proleptic dementia, a foreknowledge of their imminent erasure, settlement, and renaming.
For many in the United States, Habiby’s archipelago of statist abuse and dissolution of fact and of history may seem distant in both time and particulars. Indeed, just a few weeks ago, it would have been alarmist and self-aggrandizing to imagine that anything like the Israel Defense Forces’ flagrant displays of power would waylay the majority of us—citizens at least—in mandatory checkpoints, prisons, house arrests, and insane asylums. But it now feels as if we are living in and through the unthinkable.
What fills the void when thinking seems to fail us—or feels like it is failing us? What makes us hyperinvest in the state—call senators, sign petitions, hope for legal remedies—at just the moment when many of us feel a redoubled urgency to divest from the state-as-such? More simply, how do we, or will we, live under the threat of autocracy? These last weeks, pessoptimism has gone from a persistent companion in my thoughts to a more urgent question. It expresses the strong pull of political participation and the simultaneous necessity of retreating from the state and the circus of electoral cycles, of refusing the way they co-opt our time and our affect. What does it mean to hope for a great cataclysm right now? What did pessoptimism offer Habiby?
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Born to Arab Christian parents in 1922 in Haifa, Habiby studied petroleum engineering and worked at an oil refinery when he was young, then shifted into radio news at the Palestine Broadcasting Service in Jerusalem. He would later become editor of Israel’s first Arabic newspaper, Al Ittihad, owned by the Israeli Communist Party of which Habiby was also a founder and three-time representative to the Knesset. He was still a public servant when he wrote The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, but by the time he published his last novel Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter in 1991, he had given up politics, turning himself entirely to writing. The enormous controversy over his acceptance in 1992 of the Israel Prize, just two years after the Palestine Liberation Organization awarded him the Jerusalem Medal, was emblematic of the contradictions in which he insisted on dwelling, as well as his singular way of handling them. He accepted the prize, citing its importance in enshrining not just the Arabic language but the plight of Palestinians in the highest tiers of Israeli culture, but donated the money to a children’s medical service in the West Bank. He asked that his tombstone bear the epitaph, Emile Habiby—remained in Haifa.
Just two years after the PLO awarded Habiby the Jerusalem Medal, he controversially accepted the Israel Prize.
Saeed, Habiby’s most famous literary hero, shares some of these traits but stretches them to an absurd limit. His service to the public is pointless, a front for statecraft, for controlling communism and managing workers’ unions. His staying seems to be a matter of accident, and his homegoing is thwarted by a constant terror about the risks of going back or excavating the past too deeply. Given the less than desirable fates of his forbears in their own quests for fortune and security, Saeed makes the brave decision to look for treasure, not on the ground, but up above, “in the endless reaches of space, in this ‘shoreless sea’ as the mystic poet Ibn Arabi described it.” This is how he comes to meet with creatures from outer space when he is only trying to find his way back home.
Anyone who has spent time talking or reading about the displacement of Palestinians will be familiar with the incessant obstacles to homegoing, the way each story nestles into the one before and the innumerable after in a puzzle of cartographic horror in which most of the pieces have been lost. One of the dispatches in Amira Hass’s extraordinary reporting for Ha’aretz captures the particularly uncanny quality of such scenes, the way homelessness, groundlessness, and uprooting blur into one another. In the village of ‘Anata, on June 9, 1998, a demolition contractor clears a Palestinian home. “Astride his bulldozer, the man sailed into the house attacking it wall by wall. Afterward . . . he leveled the fruit trees in the backyard. The bulldozer also hit three water tanks positioned in the garden,” she writes. One’s house is knocked down. One’s fruit trees are bulldozed. The busted water tank rains on the unearthed roots. Under such conditions, what difference does it make whether one stays or goes? In what space or spaces can life continue?
In a sharp and beautiful reading of Habiby’s novel, Lital Levy, a scholar of modern Arabic and Hebrew literature, identifies the underground or the cave in works of Palestinian literature as one such viable space. For her, the subterranean is a crucial figure for survival and resistance, a literalization of the political underground. Putting Habiby’s work next to Anton Shammas’s and Elias Khoury’s, she argues that the cave in contemporary Palestinian writing telegraphs “otherworldliness,” a space that is “freer than the outside world,” “the Palestine-that-no-longer-is and the Palestine-that-is-not-yet,” an “underground homeland,” “territory and memory . . . hideout, and domicile . . . the spatial expression of refugee subjectivity.” When Antonio Gramsci wrote his brother Carlo the famous 1929 letter in which he distinguished the pessimism of the intellect from the optimism of the will, he was also speaking, literally, about life underground:
Your letter and what you write me about Nannaro interested me very much, but it also surprised me. The two of you were in the war, Nannaro in particular fought in the war under exceptional circumstances, as an underground mine-layer, hearing through the thin wall that separated his tunnel from the Austrian tunnel the enemies’ work that was intended to hasten the explosion of his mine and so blow him up. It seems to me that under such conditions prolonged for years, and with such psychological experiences, a man should have reached the loftiest stage of stoic serenity and should have acquired such a profound conviction that man bears within himself the source of his own moral strength, that everything depends on him, on his energy, on his will, on the iron coherence of the aims that he sets for himself and the means he adopts to realize them, that he will never again despair and lapse into those vulgar, banal states of mind that are called pessimism and optimism. My state of mind synthesizes these two emotions and overcomes them: I’m a pessimist because of intellect, but an optimist because of will. In all circumstances I think first of the worst possibility in order to set in motion all the reserves of my will and be in a position to knock down the obstacle. I have never entertained any illusions and I have never suffered disappointments. I have always taken care to arm myself with an unlimited patience, not passive, inert, but animated by perseverance.
Six lines following this extract were blacked out by prison censors. Gramsci offers his brother a deeply Hegelian vision of political being: optimism and pessimism are not stirred together in a slurry of non-action but rather feed each other through their synthesis, as do the intellect and the will, each term cancelling out its “vulgar, banal” opposite in a kind of noble perfection, a certainty of vision, an “iron coherence.” Gramsci’s dialectical certitude—spurred, perhaps, by the extremity of his condition (he was ill as well as in prison, and his wife was constantly mad at him) and the ways in which it matched the extremity of the exterior world (a fascism far more developed and universally intolerable than the one that has been allowed to mature over the last few weeks)—attempts to describe what he imagines would or should have happened to Nannaro, the mine layer, whose months underground ought to have brought him to “the loftiest stage of stoic serenity.” This vision is inspiring, and I am enormously sympathetic to Gramsci’s broader political project. But Habiby’s insistence on the co-presence of the two positions (pessimism and optimism) and the two faculties (intellect and will), rather than their double erasure, has the virtue of being livable. It describes a multitactical, if manic, approach to opposing and resisting cascading horrors, while also remaining alive inside the parameters of a state in crisis.
The novel’s spatialization of pessoptimism is a meditation on the “where” of Palestine.
Saeed, like Nannaro, spends a good deal of time underground and also spends many months diving to an undersea cave where his wife’s family has hidden their family treasure. Eventually, his son Walaa will retrieve the treasure and use it to finance the fedaiyeen resistance. When he is caught, he will disappear with his mother into the same waves that guarded their secret. There is a moral clarity to Walaa’s actions—something like what Gramsci speaks of—that is utterly absent, perhaps even beyond the grasp of his fidgeting, cloudy-headed father. But Walaa’s is also, within the narrative scope of the novel, an aborted enterprise, a temporary respite in the form of an imaginable politics of nationalism that ends in death. For Saeed, a dumber, more complicated character, the great beyond, the freedom of the sky, of non-space, of deterritorialization or extraterrestrialization, is as important in his picaresque adventures as the cave. Where the cave offers a kind of revolutionary fugitive natality—a point underscored by Levy’s association of the cave with the womb—the sky and the sea offer something not-yet-known, less practical, more anti-gravitational. Their promise constitutes a more radical break with politics-as-such, a heterotopia disburdened from the broken machinery of the present, which the novel represents as an increasingly unbearable series of interior spaces including the subterranean catacombs and caves but also party offices, military vehicles, prison, interrogation chambers, an insane asylum. These are the spaces, I want to suggest, of a narrow and moribund politics, the type that were becoming increasingly unbearable for Habiby himself, indicated by his withdrawal from political life.
In Saeed’s grief-addled mind, the fantasy of being raised aloft—above the occupied zones of Haifa, Acre, the bridges to the West Bank and Jordan, the Union of Palestinian Workers headquarters—manifests as a nightmare. As he sleeps, clutching his transistor radio, Saeed is lifted onto a great stake plunged into the heart of Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory. “I found myself sitting on a flat surface, cold and round, not more than a yard across . . . there was a pit behind me like the one in front . . . [i]f I moved, I would be certain to fall.” He compares his predicament to the trick performed by Indian magicians who cast ropes into the air but quickly scolds himself for his folly: “I was no Indian magician, just an Arab who has remained, by some magic, in Israel. I felt like shouting ‘I am having a nightmare!’ then jumping.”
Saeed’s predicament hyperbolizes a number of contradictory feelings, including the sense of isolation and terror that comes from materializing at some great height and then realizing that the contingencies that delivered you there cannot deliver you back, that survival may not be worth the price of remaining. Such contradictions are mirrored narratively in the foolish pantomime he undertakes by mounting a white flag of surrender on top of his house in Haifa. As the city is already-requisitioned territory, surrendering is tantamount to a declaration of war. This, finally, is what lands him in prison. If the caves, catacombs, and prison cells of the novel’s first and second sections invoke the possibility of an organized resistance, then Saeed’s nightmare tower and its sense of performative irony—you are up here! the watcher not the watched!—warn of the dire outcomes of docility and collaboration while also expressing an increasingly jaundiced view of the projects of statehood and national belonging altogether. In this sense, the stake is impossible to think apart from Saeed’s status as informant, from the watchtowers that scar the shifting borders and checkpoints along the Israeli frontier, from the planting of triumphalist flags.
A fable of just this kind opens Hollow Land, Eyal Weizman’s remarkable book on the architecture of Israeli occupation. It recounts the story of the installation of a cell phone tower as a prelude to full-blown occupation in the northern West Bank. The story is fairly straightforward: a couple of people call to complain of poor cell reception on the road from Jerusalem, the Israeli military frames the network weakness as a security issue, cell tower construction begins at the site, which is soon fenced off and supplied with power and electricity, settlers declare it the buried site of the biblical town of Migron, and soon dozens of families take up residence there. Eventually the largest settlement in the West Bank, Migron was dismantled and its residents relocated in 2012, following an Israeli Supreme Court order. While this outcome demonstrates at least some small measure of commitment to justice for Palestinian residents of the West Bank, Weizman reminds us that “Migron is not the only outpost established around a cellphone antenna.” The cell tower is more than symbolic, or it is a symbol transformed into the material precondition for occupation, “a focus of territorial intensity” whose infrastructure made settlement possible. “The energy field of the antenna was not only electromagnetic,” Weizman observes, “but also political, serving as a center for the mobilizing, channeling, coalescing and organizing of political forces and processes of various kinds.”
It is not a very grand vision: to stay, as Habiby stayed in Haifa, as Saeed stays, beyond his disappearance, in epistolary form.
Saeed’s nightmarish stake begins to come into focus as an unhappy double of the cell tower as a harbinger of settlement. Marooned in an Israel governed by Mandate-era emergency laws, Saeed mounts, in his mind, an antenna that broadcasts to no one, coalesces nothing, organizes nothing, mobilizes nothing. Habiby’s novel unfolds the condition of Arab life in the Israeli state between these two poles—underground survival with the possibility of solidarity and the radical untethering of solitary exposure, the shoreless feeling of being in the sky or at sea.
The novel’s spatialization of pessoptimism, which could be read as a meditation on the “where” of Palestine, concludes with Saeed’s return to the blunt stake, to which he is now clinging in terror. A small parade of people walks by below to offer him solace. His old friend Jacob says that he too sits on a stake, “Each of us is alone, on his own stake. That is the stake we share.” The Big Man—an indeterminate figure of authority—tells Saeed he is mistaken, that he is not sitting on a stake but on a “television antenna,” then adds, “Each and every one of you acts as if he were in a submarine; the deeper you go, the higher its periscope rises.” A newspaper man says “come down into the streets, with us. There is no third choice.” He soon returns and begins chopping at the base of the stake. As Saeed gets more and more desperate, the creature from outer space reappears “like a stray cloud,” his face “only wrinkles, as on the surface of the sea.” He invites Saeed to escape with him, only “when [he] can bear the misery of [his] reality no longer, but will not pay the price necessary to change it.” The Pessoptimist immediately jumps on the space man’s back and the two ascend to the sound of joyous ululation below.
The epilogue (subtitled “For the Sake of Truth and History”) clarifies that Saeed’s letters were sent from a mental hospital on the seashore in Acre, but when the letters’ recipient goes in search of him, there is no record of his existence. It is not a very grand vision: to stay, as Habiby stayed in Haifa, as Saeed stays, beyond his disappearance, in epistolary form. The kind of staying I am talking about stems from a position of defeat, a wish for no one to triumph until or unless we all can, which almost certainly means not at all. What this looks like, for Saeed, and maybe for us, is an unfettered commitment to the necessarily limited joys of being noncompliant—but also the joys of railing against the state in incessant speech acts, even failed ones, letters written and sent, phone calls recorded and counted, private acts of solidarity and public acts of care. It is not an overcoming of pessimism and optimism—positions that are neither banal nor vulgar—but rather a deep devotion to both, foolishly, endlessly, willingly.