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Emil Habibi, On the 'opsimist' and his sons and grandsons
By Ramzi Suleiman, from Haaretz




My acquaintance with Emil Habibi was mainly as an amateur fisherman. Amateur
fishing was, and continues to be, a grand passion for me, as it was for Habibi.
Despite the age gap between us, we would meet at beaches from Jisr al-Zarqa to
Rosh Hanikra, and later at sea, when we "moved up the ladder" and bought fishing
boats. We would take the boats out in the evening and return at dawn - he with his
partners, and me with mine - setting sail from the port of Acre as darkness fell, and
heading home at first light.

When I get started on these fish tales, I could go on and on. It goes back to when I
was a boy and I held the rod for my father, a peer of Emil Habibi who also came
from the same village. We were fishing at an inlet at Nahal Taninim, near Jisr
al-Zarqa, and Emil was on the other bank, fishing with his friends. I could amuse
you, and myself, with some pretty good anecdotes. However, the reason for
opening my remarks with fishing has nothing to do with fish or fish tales. It has to
do with the fact that after consultations with the organizers of this important cultural
event, I am delivering this lecture about Habibi, the big fish of classic Palestinian
literature, at the start of Arab Book and Culture Month [which took place in early
May - ed.] - in Hebrew!

The advantages of this choice are self-evident. In the absence of simultaneous
translation, it would not do to have so many honored guests sit politely and listen to
me talk without understanding a word I am saying. Yet this choice comes with a
price tag, which may be obvious in some respects, and less obvious in others. With
the help of two fish tales, one Emil Habibi's, and the other mine, I will try to
illuminate those aspects that are less obvious.

I will start with my story, which goes like this: One of my Jewish friends, after
hearing me talk so much about my adventures, pleaded to go along on one of my
fishing trips, and I agreed. That evening I was lucky, which isn't always the case,
and I caught a big fish in my net. At times like this, all the other fishermen drop their
nets and fishing rods and turn their attention to the lucky fellow, who in this case
was me. Everyone joins in, excitedly cheering him on: "Ala mahlak, sa'irha, Allah ...
Allah ... Allah" ("Slowly, careful now, easy does it"). If everything goes well and the
fish is hauled up on the deck, they shout "Sakha sakhten" ("Good for you"), along
with other good wishes.

Having my Jewish friend there, I started to feel that with all the excitement and
"togetherness," maybe he was being left out. So instead of saying "Wala shikilha
afia" ("So help me God, I've got me a whopper!") I switched over to Hebrew and
invented all kinds of poor substitutes. What happened was that instead of helping
my friend be part of the experience, I cut myself off from it. This embarrassing
incident made me understand in a very deep and personal way that people love
and hate and dream and feel emotion best in their mother tongue.

One of my reasons for telling this story is that if I happen to sound rational, it may
not attest to any "authentic rationality," and if I don't sound plugged in to the
lyricism that resounds in every sentence and every word written by Emil Habibi, it
doesn't mean that I am emotionally blocked. It's just that this is a game I find hard
to play on someone else's turf.

Fish tales

Emil's sea stories and fish tales are scattered throughout his work, and especially in
his two novels "Saraya, The Ogre's Daughter" and "The Opsimist," both translated
into Hebrew, by Anton Shamas, and also appearing in English. Out of all Emil's fish
stories, I have chosen to relate one that appears in Chapter 13 of "The Opsimist":
"The Story of the Fish Fluent in All Languages."

After Saeed's son Wala rebels against him and his strict, defeatist upbringing, he
grabs a gun and holes up in a cave on Tantura beach. Surrounded by the army, he
is joined by his mother and the two of them disappear into the sea. Saeed returns
to the beach from time to time. "I used to come here when the beach was full of
bathers," writes Emil, speaking for Saeed. "I would sit on a rock in the middle of
the water, like Wala used to do, and cast my net, calling out to him in my heart to
answer me."

One day, a little Jewish boy sat down nearby, without my noticing, and surprised
me with a question. "Hey, mister, what language are you speaking?"


"And who are you talking to?"

"The fish."

"The fish only understand Arabic?"

"Well, the big fish, the old ones, who were around when the Arabs were here."

"And the little fish - do they understand Arabic?"

"Hebrew and Arabic and all languages. The seas are vast and interconnected.
There are no borders between them, and there is room for all the fish."


In a metaphor borrowed from the world of the sea, the old fish represent the
founding fathers and their heritage. To use a metaphor from "dry land" - they are
the roots. The old fish in the sea speak Arabic, although in my humble opinion,
there are other old fish that speak Hebrew. Our rocky soil contains the roots of
Arabic language and culture, and the roots of Hebrew language and culture. The
young fish, according to Emil Habibi, live in a multicultural world. They mingle and
converse in many languages.

Is that so? For Hebrew language and culture in this country, the past is guaranteed.
So is the future. But what about our culture and our language? Are they destined to
be shunted to the sidelines in the Jewish state? Will they have to fight for their place
under the sun, in the face of attempts to downplay and rub them out? About the
official and semi-official efforts to erase our existence and weaken or eliminate our
culture, quite a bit has been written. Allow me to remind you of the rare case -
actually, the only one of its kind I've ever encountered: a no-confidence motion in
the Knesset following the inclusion of a poem by Mahmoud Darwish in the Hebrew

On Saeed's pillar

So much for fish and fishing. But to return to the title of this lecture, "On the
Opsimist and His Sons and Grandsons," I would like to say that my first reaction to
the "The Opsimist" when it came out in 1974 was one of horror. I was appalled by
the protagonist's weakness and obsequiousness toward his boss, Yaakov, and the
"little big man." I was horrified by Saeed's hypocritical behavior, by how he
changes his oldest son's name to Wala to curry favor, and then secretly hugs the
radio when he hears news of a fedayeen unit named Tantura. In short, I had a
problem with the character of Saeed the "opsimist," and all the cleverness and
poisonous sarcasm behind his bosses' back didn't help. It didn't matter that he had
compassion for his people, uprooted and dumped on the other side of the border,
or that he sincerely missed the family that went off and left him, never to return.

In the next to last chapter of "The Opsimist," Saeed, sitting on a high pillar, begs an
"alien chief" to deliver him from his sufferings. He can no longer abide his miserable
existence. The alien takes him on his back and flies off to heaven. Saeed looks
down and sees Yoad and Abu Mahmoud. He sees the laborer from Wadi al-Jamal
carrying his lunch bag on the way to work. The neighbor women look up and cluck
their tongues. And Saeed says: "I saw Yoad raise her eyes skyward, point at us,
and say: When that cloud goes away, the sun will shine!"

It took me 20 years and more of private and collective sorrows, of confronting
"Yaakovs" and "little big bosses," for my heart to open and be able to look into
myself and see what Emil Habibi was trying to tell his people and me in the last
sentence of the book. To those who are searching for Abi al-Nakhs, the opsimist,
and cannot find him, he writes: "And how could you find him, my esteemed
colleagues, if you've never met him?"

I had to sit for a long time on my pillar to see Saeed's pillar, to see the truth in the
words of Mahmoud Darwish at Emil's funeral: "There is some of you in all of us,
and all of us are inside of you." In all of us, in all Israeli Palestinians, lives an
opsimist, to some degree or other, trying to survive, trying to make a living for
himself and his family, trying to preserve what is left of his dignity, trying to rebuild a
home that has been destroyed, trying to redraw fragments of memory that have
been erased. We are all opsimists battling forces greater than ourselves, trying to
reproduce the opsimist within.

And what is it that nourishes the opsimist and keeps him alive inside of us and
inside our parents and children? I can tell you in one word: Fear! Many years ago,
I read an interview with Habibi in which he said that every time he heard the sound
of a motor outside his house he would be gripped by fear, imagining that the trucks
had come to take him - that soon he and his neighbors would be loaded on them
and dropped across the border.

Have we reached the point where we can finally feel like other people, safe and
secure in our homeland? Attempts to expropriate Arab land and demolish Arab
homes continue, and support for these actions is stronger than ever. Our very lives
in this country, even as Israeli citizens, is far from assured. In the eyes of
government committees and high-ranking politicians - in the eyes of most of the
Jewish public, in fact - we are perceived as a demographic problem. Not long ago,
Avigdor Lieberman stood on the Knesset podium and said that Arab Knesset
members should be executed. There was some protest - some of it rather limp -
but Lieberman was, and remains, within the legitimate borders of Israel, whereas
we and our representatives are beyond the pale, and that appears to be how things
will stay.

Black clouds - clouds of discrimination and oppression and tyranny - cover the sky
and cast a heavy pall over us all. A powerful gust of wind is needed to bring us
recognition and acknowledge us as full and equal citizens. An even stronger gust is
needed to sweep away the occupation that tramples our people and corrupts the
occupiers. Only then will the opsimist's cloud disperse and let the sun shine through.

Prof. Ramzi Suleiman teaches at the psychology department of the University of
Haifa. These remarks were delivered at the opening ceremony of Arab Book and
Culture Month at Beit Hagefen in Haifa. This article has been published courtesy of
the Arabic literary journal Masharef, founded by Habibi and edited by Siham

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