art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict

Emile Habibi: The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist.

The following is an excerpt from Emile Habibi’s satirical novel The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist (first published in 1974). It is a story of a Palestinian who becomes a citizen of Israel (very much like Habibi himself), and in many ways – a prisoner of Israel. It’s a story about a looney man, atypical hero, a luckless fool, a man looking for survival – and maybe, just maybe – even a little bit more from life.

992837792/Emile Habibi, photo via Haaretz/

I found that we were then at a crossroad between Nazareth and Nahlal, passing the plain of Ibn Amir. The big man signalled to the policemen through the glass window separating him from ‘the dogs.’ They led me out and stuffed me in between the big man and the driver. I made myself comfortable and sighed, breathed the fresh air deep, and remarked, ‘Oh, I see we’re in the plain of Ibn Amir.’ Obviously annoyed, he corrected me: ‘No, it’s the Yizrael plain.’

‘What’s in a name?’, as Shakespeare put it, I soothed him. I spoke the line in English, causing him to murmur, ‘Oh, sou you quote Shakespeare, do you?’

As we descended further down into the plain toward its city of Affulah, with the hills of Nazareth to our left, the big man began reciting to me the principles governing my new life in prison, the etiquette of behavior toward the jailers who were my superiors and the other inmates who were my inferiors. He promised, moreover, to get me promoted to a liaison position. While he was going through these lessons, I became ever more certain that what is required of us inside prison is no different from what is required from us on the outside. My delight at this discovery was so great that I exclaimed joyfully, ‘Why, God bless you, sir!’

He went on: ‘If a jailer should call you, your first response must be: Yes, sir! And if he should tell you off, you must reply: At your command, sir! And if you should hear from your fellow inmates engaging in any conversation that threatens the security of the prison, even by implication, you must inform the warden. Now, if he should give you a beating, then say -‘

I interrupted him with a proper response, ‘That’s your right, sir!’

‘How did you know that? Were you ever imprisoned before?’

‘Oh, no. God forbid, sir, that anyone should have beaten you to this favor! I have merely noticed according to your account of prison rules of etiquette and behavior that your prison treats inmates with great humanitarianism and compassion – just as you treat us on the outside. And we behave the same, too. But how do you punish Arabs who are criminals, sir?’

‘This bothers us considerably. That’s why our minister general has said that our occupation has been the most compassionate on Earth ever since Paradise was liberated from its Occupation of Adam and Eve. Among our leadership there are some who believe that we treat Arabs inside prisons even better than we treat them outside, though this latter treatment is, as you know, excellent. These same leaders are convinced that we this encourage them to continue to resist our civilizational mission in the new territories, just like those ungrateful African cannibals who eat their benefactors.’

‘How do you mean, sir?’

‘Well, take for example our policy of punishing people with exile. This we award them without their going to jail. If they once entered jail, they would become as firmly established there as British occupation once was. ‘

‘Yes, God bless you indeed, sir!’

‘And we demolish their homes when they’re outside, but when they’re inside prison we let them occupy themselves building.’

‘That’s really great! God bless you! But what do they build?’

‘New prisons and new cells in old jails: and they plant shade trees around them too.’

‘God bless you again! But why do you demolish their homes outside the prison?’

‘To exterminate the rats that build their nests in them. This way we save them from the plague.’

By now the police car was leaving the city of Affulah on the Bisan road, which led to my new residence. On both sides refreshing water was being sprayed on the green vegetation, fresh in the very heat of summer. Suddenly the big man, cramped there with me and the driver in the front seat of that dogcart, was transformed into a poet. 

While I sat there being my usual Pessoptimistic self, he was estatic: ‘Verdant fields! Green on your right and on your left: green everywhere! We have given life to what was dead. This is why we have named the borders of Israel the Green Belt. For beyond them lie barren mountains and desert reaches, a wilderness calling out to us, ‘Come ye hither, tractors of civilization!’

I looked before me and saw a huge building towering like an ugly demon of the desert ; its walls were yellow, and around it there was a high, white outer wall. There were guards posted on each of the four sides of the roof, and they could be seen standing with their guns at the ready. We were awestruck by the spectacle of this yellow castle, so exposed and naked of any vegetation, protruding like a cancerous lump on the breast of a land itself sick with cancer. The big man was unable to control himself and exclaimed, ‘There! The terrible Shatta prison! How fantastic!’

I stretched my neck forward in alarm and whispered, ‘God bless us all!’

This led him to comment, ‘It is the prison warden who will bless you. Come on down. I’ll ask him to look after you.'”


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