Emile Habibi: The ‘pessoptimist’ who worked for coexistence – Israel in Translation


Born in Haifa in 1922, Emile Habibi worked in the city’s oil refinery before moving to the Palestinian broadcasting station in Jerusalem. Habibi was a lone voice calling for the acceptance of the UN plan for the division of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. Soon after the creation of Israel, he became a political activist, serving in the Knesset for 20 years.

After the shock of the six-day war of 1967, Habibi’s writing turned to satire and bitter humor. In 1974 he published The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist. Acknowledging a debt to Lawrence Sterne and Voltaire, the heavily-footnoted novel tells the story of Palestinians in Israel to date. Marcela reads a passage in which the protagonist describes a ‘pessoptimist.’

In 1990, Habibi received the Al-Quds Prize from the PLO. In 1992, he received the Israel Prize for Arabic literature. His willingness to accept both prizes reflected his belief in coexistence; he said, “A dialogue of prizes is better than a dialogue of stones and bullets.”

Emile Habibi died in 1996. Buried in Haifa, his tombstone reads, at his request, “Emile Habibi, Stayed in Haifa.”

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The Secret Life of Saeed The Pessoptimist, Emile Habibi. Transl. Trevor Le Gassick (Interlink World Fiction Series)

Saraya, The Ogre’s Daughter. A Palestinian Fairy Tale, Emile Habibi. Transl. Peter Theroux. (Ibis Editions).



Photo by Al-Akhbar.

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