“The Pessoptimist” by Emile Habibi

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“The Pessoptimist” by Emile Habibi is a novel which, through a lot of satire, magical realism and irony, tells very well what those Palestinians experienced who decided to remain in their land even after the birth of Israel

The Pessoptimist

Set in Haifa, the novel tells us about the extraordinary adventures of Felice, an Arab in the State of Israel. Emile Habibi with his sardonic, picaresque, brilliant style spares no one: Arabs, Israelis, progressives, reactionaries, hawks and doves; making extensive use of allegory and parody he does not lose the pleasure of saying what he wants.

Being Arab-Israeli

Published in its entirety in 1974, “The Pessoptimist” by Emile Habibi is rightly considered one of the most important books in the entire history of the Arab novel and this both for Habibi’s ironic and sharp style and for its setting, truly rare in inside the Arab literary panorama. As we have already seen in the author’s biography, the latter, then 26 years old, decided not to flee his homeland, thus forming the Israeli communist party which, also thanks to its anti-Zionist nature, became a beacon for all Arab-Israelis, including the great Mahmoud Darwish, which is also mentioned in “The Pessoptimist”.

Emile Habibi

The entire book is de facto a playful reflection full of black humor regarding what it means to be Arab in Israel, highlighting the thousands of paradoxical situations that the latter are forced to live and endure, not being able to be considered either “real Palestinians” nor “real Israelis”. A little gem which, despite having a plot that is not always linear and not always easy to understand, is rightly considered one of the best Arab novels of the 20th century, representing a unique stage of its kind for those who really want to discover the nuances of the Palestinian catastrophe.


“”I will engrave the number of each particle
of our stolen land
and the borders of my village
and its houses pulverized
and my trees uprooted
and every flower crushed
not to forget.

I will continue to record
all the seasons of my tragedy
all stages of the catastrophe
from the grain
to the dome
on the trunk of an olive tree
in the backyard.”

How long will the poet have to make an impact while the years of oblivion continue to flow, erasing everything? When will it be possible to read what is written on the trunk of the olive tree? And then there was an olive tree left in the backyard?”

Emile Habibi
Emile Habibi

“[…]- May God forbid me, Lord. No one can precede you in this privilege. Indeed, I find that in your prisons, according to what you have explained to me about the principles of right behavior, a high degree of humanity is enjoyed and mercy in your treatment, to the point that, towards us, there is no difference between how you treat us inside and how you treat us outside. There is no difference at all. But then how do you punish those Arabs who are criminals, Sir?

– This is what embarrasses us. And that is why our “allof”, that is, our general, and minister, said that our occupation is the most merciful on the face of the earth since the earthly paradise was liberated from the occupation of Adam and Eve. Furthermore, according to some of our bigwigs, we treat Arabs inside prisons better than we treat them outside, and the treatment outside is excellent as you well know! These big shots are convinced that in this way we encourage them to continue the resistance to our civilizing mission in the new territories, exactly like those African cannibals who have denied well-being.

– What do you mean, Great Master?

– Look, for example, at the punishment of deportation across the river. We assign this to them when they are out of prison, but if they enter prison, they take root here as the English occupation did.

– Splendid!

– Outside the prison we tear down their houses and inside, instead, they build and build.

– Splendid! But what do they build?

– New prisons, new ones in old prisons, and they plant trees around them to give shade.

– Splendid! But why are you knocking down houses outside the prisons?

– To exterminate once and for all the mice that have made their nests in us, so we can save people from epidemics.”

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