Prophetic Arab Satire in English Translation


THE uprising in Israel's occupied territories, now entering its 22nd month, provides an opportunity to reread a landmark Palestinian novel from the mid-1970s that presaged this violence. First published in the United States in 1982 and quickly allowed to go out of print, ``The Secret Life of Saeed'' is now available in a paperback edition. The fact that it has gone through multiple printings in Haifa, Jerusalem, and Beirut, however, indicates that Palestinians and Israelis, the people who most need to hear its blunt message, are still reading it in their own languages.

It is nevertheless ironic that Habiby's fiction should now be superseded by front-page headlines telling the same story, only in a more depressing way. One can but wonder, if only more people had read the novel when it first appeared, maybe none of this would now be happening.

A founder of the Israeli Communist Party, Habiby has written about one Arab's encounter with his enemies in a way that resists the normal categories of modern Palestinian fiction. It is neither defiant nor defeatist, cynical nor sloganeering. Although about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ``The Secret Life of Saeed'' is a work of comic science fiction, a Bildungsroman of the fantastic with a nod to Voltaire's ``Candide,'' satirizing its hero and his relatives, friends, and foes alike.

The book is composed of 45 extremely short and disjointed chapters in the form of a letter Saeed has sent to an unnamed friend. Between discursive asides on Palestinian geography, medieval Arab astronomers, and irreverent family history - all spiced with jokes, puns, and news commentaries - Saeed discloses his secret life as informer, collaborator, and spy for the Israelis following the 1948 war.

He portrays himself both as clever servant and happy-go-lucky fool, but sufficiently ill-fated to lose his three loves in short succession. Now writing from outer space in the company of an extraterrestrial savior he first met in Acre's catacombs, he looks down to survey the damaged life he has left behind.

Whether from a quirky family trait or the inheritance imposed upon all Palestinians, Saeed carries on matter-of-factly, equally pessimistic and optimistic in the face of national tragedy. Abandoned homes are appropriated, families divided, villages cut in half by barbed wire, but Saeed makes do. And it is how he and his fellow Palestinians get by that makes the book's most powerful lesson.

Habiby sets out the alternatives, and the consequences of choosing among them, that faced Israeli Arabs before 1967, as well as Palestinians from the occupied territories before the uprising. This was the choice between silent resistance, guerrilla warfare, and self-abasing collaboration. And these are the respective decisions that Saeed's first love, Yuaad, his son, Walaa, and wife, Baqiyya, and he himself make in the course of the story.

Following in the footsteps of his father, who is killed by a stray Zionist bullet in the first chapter while Saeed metaphorically takes cover under a donkey, he chooses to collaborate. He rises to the top of the Union of Palestine Workers, created by the young Israeli state to keep an eye on Arab communist activities, but never gets what his handlers promise him and cannot understand why. At least he thinks he is being a good collaborator!

Instead, his bumbling naivet'e and knack for making enemies with high-ranking Ashkenazi officials, by making friends with low- ranking Sepharidim, always gets Saeed into trouble. Astraddle the invisible ``Green Line'' bisecting an absolute right to the land that both Israelis and Arabs claim as theirs alone, Saeed seems neither to notice where he is going nor care where he ends up.

It is only after he sees his wife and son take their own lives rather than submit to Israeli justice, while he shrinks in a corner, that Saeed finally begins to wake up. But it takes another of his backfiring miscues to place him definitively on the wrong side of the law.

Saeeds's well-intentioned mistake had been to fly the white flag of surrender from a Haifa rooftop in response to Israeli radio broadcasts aimed at the West Bank during the June war. A cowardly gesture by Saeed - but one the authorities find implicitly critical of their treatment of Israeli Arabs and therefore requiring punishment - puts him in jail and on the road to awareness.

Saeed shares a cell with a young Palestinian guerrilla of the same name, who unknowingly offers him the respect of a fellow freedom fighter. Later, when he learns the guerrilla was the son of his first love, Yuaad, this realization becomes a turning point, as his political consciousness finally catches up with his national predicament.

But consciousness does not easily translate into action, and in the end Saeed remains immobilized atop a nightmarish tower, with a perfect view, but out of touch with his fellow man. No one can coax him down, and he is only saved when the shadowy extraterrestrial savior takes him up to the sky, joining his fate with all men who can bear their misery no longer, yet lack the courage to change it.

The translation by Salma Jayyusi and Trevor Le Gassick, done under the auspices of the Project for Translation from Arabic in Cambridge, Mass., deftly catches the word plays and subtle shifts between comedy and tragedy. Jayyusi's introduction and annotations ensure the novel's accessibility.

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