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.”
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.