Obituary: Emile Habibi

Sabry Hafez
Friday 03 May 1996 23:02 BST

The death of the eminent, controversial and highly accomplished Palestinian writer, Emile Habibi, could not have come at a worst moment, when anti-Israeli feeling in the Arab world is at its height following the ill-fated "grapes of wrath" military campaign. Irony, the main feature of Habibi's narrative and drama left its mark on his life and his death. As a writer who devoted the last 15 or so years of his life to the promotion of peace with Israel, and tirelessly campaigned for its acceptance among reluctant Arab readers and intellectuals, he died only one day after the mass funeral of the 102 Lebanese civilian victims of the Israeli massacre in Qana.

Habibi was the only Palestinian Arab to win the highest literary honours from both the PLO and Israel. Yasser Arafat bestowed on him the illustrious Al-Quds Prize, for his role in furthering the cause of Palestinian literature. In 1992, the Israeli Prime Minister, Itzhak Shamir, awarded him the Israel Prize for his role in promoting tolerance and mutual understanding through his writing. Habibi deserved both, but his award of the latter raised wide controversy both in the Arab world and in Israel. It was denounced by right-wing Israelis who were antagonistic to giving an Arab writer Israel's most prestigious literary prize. At the same time, Arab intellectuals, including the Palestinian writers in the Diaspora, castigated him for accepting a prize from a state whose hands were tainted with the blood of the Palestinian children. In the face of strong opposition and widespread criti-cism, Habibi accepted the prize, but donated its US$ 8000 to a charity working with the wounded child victims of the intifada.

Habibi was born in Haifa in 1922 to a Christian Orthodox middle-class family. After obtaining his baccalaureate in 1939, he worked in Haifa's oil refinery while studying by correspondence for a London University degree in petroleum engineering. In 1942 he abandoned his study to work as a news announcer for the Palestinian broadcasting station in Jerusalem.

From the outset of his public career, Habibi was a lone voice calling, in 1949, for the acceptance of the UN plan for the division of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, a plan that was unanimously rejected by all Arab governments. Soon after the creation of Israel, he became a political activist for the cause of Palestinians and the founder and leader of the League of Liberation of Palestine, which eventually became the Israeli Communist Party, Rakah. For a long time, Rakah was the only political party in Israel with a mixed membership of Arabs and Jews.

In 1952, Habibi, by far the most active Arab member in Rakah, was elected to the Knesset, a seat he held for 20 years. As a parliamentary politician, he devoted his energy to the political struggle of the Palestinian people who stayed behind after the creation of the state of Israel on their land. He defended their legal, political and human rights, and above all devoted most of his active life to the articulation of their cause.

In the 1950s, he became the chief editor of Rakah's Arabic language newspaper, al-Ittihad ("The Union"), which called for the unity of Arabs and Jews in a secular, democratic, multi-ethnic state in Palestine. Under his editorship, it promoted the cause of the Palestinian Arabs and encouraged them to express their identity and maintain their cultural tradition. It was in al-Ittihad and its literary monthly supplement, al-Jadid, that the new Palestinian poetry of resistance emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s, articulating a strong sense of hope and the quest for an Arab identity among Palestinians in Israel.

Unlike most Palestinian writers, Emile Habibi started writing late in life. He began almost as a challenge to a statement made, after the Arab defeat of 1967, by the late Yigal Allon, a leading Israel politician, who told him that the Palestinians did not exist any longer, for if they did they would have produced their own literature. Literature was seen as a proof of existence and a document of national identity. Habibi was then in his mid-forties and the denial of the existence of Palestinians, common at the time in Zionist circles, prompted him to document their survival.

Unlike the majority of contemporary Palestinian writers who emerged from the refugee camps and thus had little or no experience of Palestine before the establishment of the Jewish state, Habibi had spent his childhood in the Palestine of the British Mandate, and remained in his native city after the creation of Israel, thus sustaining the continuity of the Palestinian experience. This provided him with the unique position of representing the continuity of the Palestinian experience in modern Arabic literature.

The devastating shock of the 1967 war turned Habibi's left-wing optimism into bitter sarcasm and biting humour which he channelled into his first literary work, Sudasiyyat al-Ayyam al-Sittah ("The Sextet of the Six-Days War", 1968). In this work, Habiby rejects the outcome of the war and posits an alternative to the official account, using narrative as a means of subverting the prevalent order and warding off the nightmare of reality. The Sextet is a unique work of narrative using the form of the short-story cycle to present a panoramic view of the contradictions of the war and its ironic impact on the Palestinians. Each piece is structurally autonomous and can be read as an independent short story, but the subtle link between the pieces offers the work its unity, internal cohesion and dynamism. Unlike most short-story cycles which are linked through a character, a place or an event, the link generating the structural unity of the Sextet is that of identity, impact, shock and irony. The Palestinian dream of "return" is accomplished, but only ironically when the rest of the Palestinian land falls under Israeli occupation.

Structural irony is also at the core of his second and most famous novel, Al-Waqa'i' al-Gharibah fi Ikhtifa' Sa'id Abi-l-Nahs al- Mutasha'il (known in English under its short title, The Pess-Optimist, 1974). In this novel which was translated into 16 languages, the theme of the immediate shock of the 1967 war recedes into the background and the survival of Palestinians in the face of Zionist attempts to eradicate their identity comes to the fore. The Pess-Optimist uses a fine mixture of Sterne's ironic and reflexive narrative in Tristram Shandy and the humorous Arabic anecdotal narrative in telling the story of the Palestinians of Habibi's generation. It consists of three parts, each devoted to a major phase in the recent history of Palestine and entitled with the name of a woman who is both the beloved of the hero and a symbol of Palestine. The first "Yu'ad" represents the early period before the loss of Palestine in 1948; the second "Baqiyah" embodies the spirit of the Palestinian resistance to the eradication of their national identity after the creation of the state of Israel; and the third, "Yu'ad al-Thaniyah", signifies the new stage of the Palestinian consciousness which emerged after 1967 and the armed Palestinian resistance.

The inevitability of resistance is the main theme of the novel which articulates the impossibility of collaboration, for no matter how subservient and accepting the Palestinian becomes the only fate for him in Israel is oppression and annihilation. Resistance is used in the novel in its widest sense; it is not confined to overt acts of defiance, for every measure that preserves the Palestinian presence, identity and culture is an act of resistance, even if it appears as a form of submission and capitulation. In this respect the novel foreshadowed the Palestinian intifada long before it took place.

Unlike most novels, The Pess-Optimist is full of footnotes creating a secondary text which serves as the cultural context of the novel and roots every aspect of the narrative in the historical and geographical reality of Palestine. The detailed information provided in these notes generates an elaborate internal memory which serve as a counter argument against any denial of the existence of Palestine and its identity.

The consolidation of this identity and the preservation of its cultural and oral history seems to be at the heart of Habiby's literary project. It permeates his plays, Luka' Ibn Luka' ("Luka the son of Luka", 1979) and Umm al-Rubabikia ("The Pedlar Woman", 1992), and novels, Ikhtiyyah (1985) and Saraya Bint al-Ghul ("Saraya the Ogre's Daughter", 1992). In these two novels the textual space becomes an arena for the inscription of what one may call the infrastructure of Palestinian identity; its history, geography, oral tradition, folk culture, popular lore concerning agriculture and weather, anecdotes, pro-verbs and even fragments of its written literature. The collective culture is inscribed as much in the realistic account of daily events as in the flight into fantasy and imagination. Beneath the deformed narrative space of present-day Israel the author invokes through a powerful nostalgia the sacrosanct Palestine around every corner and behind every street-name.

The writing of Habibi never failed to generate interest and controversy both in the Arab world and among Palestinians and Israelis alike. He was one of the major forces in the development of the Arabic novel and provided it with some of its most interesting experimental work. The strength of controversy raised by his work and political views throughout his career and the heated discussion it generated is a testimony to Habibi's lasting importance as a prominent literary figure and a symbol of Palestinian identity. Through these debates he succeeded in putting the Palestinian question firmly on the literary agenda.

Sabry Hafez

Emile Habibi, writer: born Haifa 29 August 1922; married (two sons); died Nazareth 2 May 1996.

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