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Emile Habiby: A Palestinian Writer in the Context of Israeli Culture
The work of Emile Habiby (1921-1996) is one of the decisive examples of a Palestinian literary oeuvre which has recently attained an important status within Hebrew culture. Translations of several of his works, among them stories from his volume Sextuplets of the Six-Day War, his famous novel The Opsimist, his book Ah'atia, and his tale Saraia, Daughter of the Evil Demon ¬the latter three in Anton Shammas's translation - have earned Habiby a central place in the cultural consciousness of Hebrew readers. The epitome of this process of acceptance was the awarding of the Israel Prize for Arabic Literature to Habiby on Independence Day, 1992. From the perspective of the Hebrew reader, his place in the canon of Israeli/Hebrew literature had been confirmed both through his public prestige as an Israeli intellectual and by the presence of his works in translation in the present-day Hebrew literature.
In his story "Rubabeka," which appeared in the volume Sextuplets of the Six-Day War written after the 1967 war, Emile Habiby describes a character, a second-hand-goods saleswoman, who insisted on remaining in the homeland in 1948 in Haifa's Wadi Nisnas district, and never left there since: Now, after 1967, she yearns to reunite with her people who are living as refugees. The narrator praises Rubabeka as someone who in her own special way has carried on the struggle of Palestinian nationalism, one who was ready to sacrifice the most important things in her life just to be part of the national struggle and remain close to the homeland.
Through the description of the impressive character of Rubabeka, the writer criticizes his fellow Palestinians who were not able to appreciate her and accused her falsely of living off of her countrymen's suffering by selling the goods that the refugees had left behind when they fled: ''When you were involved in political issues, she would get excited and was ready to fulfill any role given to her. And when one of you was arrested, she was at the jail to visit him even before his mother. She would bring you food and do your laundry." On the allegorical level the story is extremely critical of those who attacked the Palestinians who remained in the State of Israel after 1948 and saw them as traitors and collaborators. You, the author claims, were so involved in high politics, while she took upon herself the really important action, the act of survival.
Rubabeka's story is told from a universalistic perspective: her contribution to the Palestinian struggle is presented on the same level as the self-critique of the author against the weakness exhibited by his fellow countrymen. All is judged not only from a narrow, particularistic angle of national interests, but from a universal value system of morality and justice. The validity of these values is presented in the story as being beyond any specific historical, national context, even if by remaining loyal to them the author is forced to criticize his own people. On the one hand the Palestinians slander Rubabeka, their own countrywoman, and on the other hand they themselves do not behave very well. Through this device Habiby produces narrative patterns acceptable to the majority Hebrew-speaking culture. Habiby's text has a self-critical approach and a sympathetic presentation of women's issues. This theme is given at least as much weight if not more than the theme of the national struggle in the story, making it very suitable for the universalistic expectations of a majority culture that wields the power, and demands that all those under its control adhere to these universal, Western values.

The story of Rubabeka, the particular, individual woman, is no less important than her status as an allegorical representation of the struggle. Placing a woman as a central character alongside the self-critical approach that Habiby presents, made his writing appeal more strongly to the majority Jewish culture: The Opsimist and Ah'atia were well received by the Jewish critics when they appeared as novels and when the former was put on as a one-man show by the actor Muhammad Bakri. The reaction of the majority culture stressed the universal element common to Jews and Arabs in these works.

Many critics emphasized repeatedly that the character of the "opsimist," the Palestinian who survives under Israeli rule, is very similar to the character of the evasive Jew surviving through his wits in the gentile world - a character immortalized in the works of Mendele Mocher Sfarim and the stories of Sholom Aleikhem. Thus the majority culture's spokespeople have created a universal base common to Jew and Arab alike. The emphasis on the artistic achievement as a universal one obliterated and repressed the fact that in reality what was being shown was a power relationship between an oppressive majority and an oppressed minority, which was being vehemently attacked by the Palestinian author. The universalistic rhetoric was just a way of hiding this attack.
He is writing a minority national literature that is co-opting itself into the majority literature, gaining its acceptance, yet paying the political price for it. However, he also uses the universal representation to subvert the pillars of faith of that majority culture. He places universalism on the surface of his story and uses it to gain acceptance by the majority culture. But, in the final analysis, this is only the surface level of the narrative. In the background, behind the scenes, there is often a completely separate drama which aims its subversive action in a totally different direction. Thus the very same technique, the tale of the woman, while making the narrative universalistic, is at the same time, producing the subversion of that universalistic code, questioning it, dismantling it and violating it, through the device of an alternative story which refuses to accept the narrative framework suited to the universalistic demand of the majority culture.
The story of Rubabeka is, as already mentioned, the story of a woman who participates in the national struggle, but, at the same time, it is the story of someone who carries on the struggle in her own independent way and, as such, is scorned by Palestinian society. Rubabeka is a representation of the national mother figure who is exalted as an accepted national symbol which presents motherhood as a kind of national service. But in the final analysis, we discover through Habiby's narrator, she achieves her role as national mother symbol at the price of her family role as real mother: "When her husband emigrated and took the children, she insisted on staying with her paralyzed mother." In order to achieve her national role, Rubabeka is ready to pay the price of disconnection from the family framework. Furthermore, "After five years, when her mother had died, we heard that her husband refused to acknowledge her and wasn't interested in having her back. You never believed her when she said she had no interest in leaving her house. The rumor got around that she was having an affair, that's what you were saying. You claimed that it was impossible for her to remain in the Wadi for no apparent reason."
Palestinian society is presented in the story as unable to accept the possibility of the woman's story having a purely national motive, not connected to some private tale of love. The real story of Rubabeka is neither a national story nor a private love story. Rather it remains a riddle, a secret. This is the feminine secret which, here, is serving the purpose of presenting the option of a private tale which refuses to fit in simply with one of the narrative options, either the national one or the private one - or a combination of the two. Through this device the feminine story contributes to the undermining of the unity of the universalistic tendency. The feminine story of Rubabeka refuses to fit in with the demands made of it and, in so doing, it undermines and dislocates the stability of the universalistic generalization which sees a common ground between men and women and between Palestinian and Jew.

Saraia, Daughter of the Evil Demon, Habiby's last book to be translated into Hebrew, is in many ways a prime example of a minority literary work which infiltrates into the majority literature. Saraia is exposed in the story but, similarly to other women in Habiby's oeuvre, she also always remains a secret which refuses to be fully unraveled. The central thematic device of apportioning the female character a double role of both expressing the universal ethic and, at the same time undermining it, is brought here to its fullest development. Saraia, the woman, the demon's daughter, is given the central role in the khurafiya, the traditional folk tale, that Habiby relates.
However, from the beginning, she performs a dual function. On the particular level, Saraia is an essential element of the biography of Habiby, the author and the narrator, and she is also a partial allegory for the Palestinian nation. But she is also a universalistic symbol of utopian longings and dreams. On the one hand, she cries out allegorically: "The homeland has missed its sons, o Abdallah. Have you forgotten us so quickly?" On the other hand, using the language of personal biography, the narrator tells us that if his friend should return from his impossible quest to start his life with Saraia again from the beginning, then he will relate the continuation of this khurafiya to us. Yet, in the second ending, which is placed right next to the first one, the narrator signs off the story with the blessing to his readers: "See you in the next khurafiya."
The time: summer of 1983. The days of the Lebanon War offer the narrator, the fisherman/author (Habiby's alter-ego in the story), a chance to reassess his personal biography and the local Palestinian history. Among the hallucinatory images that appear to him as he sits and fishes on a reef off the coast of Akhziv, he attempts to bridge the gap of a generation and recreate the memory of his relationship on Mt. Carmel (Haifa) with Saraia, the daughter of the demon. Between him and Abdallah, his alter-ego, both as a partner in the story and as a co-narrator, there develops a familial and national web of memories, forgetfulness and repression, in which the longings for Saraia and the feelings of guilt for not having been there for her fill a central role.
The story shifts between a desire to face the historical and personal truths in a sane and balanced manner, and the systematic attempt to evade them. The fate of the refugees of 1948 is represented, for example, by the story of Brother Jawad and the breakdown of his mother who could not bear to see her family separated as a result of the war. The collapse of authority and of the spiritual and political tradition of Palestinian society and the longing for its reinstatement, are raised through the nostalgic evocation of Uncle Ibrahim and his mysterious cane.
The love story of the hero (heroes) with Saraia, the mysterious daughter of the demon, which apparently moves towards its linear end, disrupts the expectation that it generates in the reader for an ending to the khurafiya. But the real disruption that is generated here is the actual denial of the formal demand for (or convention of) an ending. The ending as the signifier of the formal boundaries of the plot is questioned, and, in its stead, the reader is offered two alternatives. As in the storytelling technique of Scheherezade, the narrative framework in this story is only a kernel for a broader framework, which in itself is a part of a larger structure. Thus Habiby plays with a series of conventions that direct the expectations of a Western reader: source vs. translation, reality vs. imagination, the story vs. its process of creation, the folk tale vs. its modernist adaptation. As against his earlier books, Habiby has suggested that, in Saraia, Daughter of the Evil Demon, the book was written with the Hebrew reader already in his thoughts. With this in mind, Habiby, with the assistance of Anton Shammas, the translator, applies techniques that undermine and reexamine the hierarchic division of labor between writer, translator and reader. Thus, for instance, the presence of the translator, Shammas, is thematized as in the body of the text, and in full view of the readers of the translation, Habiby discusses the abilities of the translator, Shammas. In so doing, Habiby extracts Shammas from his invisible status as translator, who normally remains behind the scenes, and reinstates him in the foreground of the text. Instead of the usual union between reader and translator as against the author, in this action, the author creates a pact with the readers over the head of the translator.
As before, in this story Habiby utilizes the ambivalence of the Israeli/Hebrew discourse. Once again, he struggles with the use of double meaning in Israeli discourse when he describes the current Israeli landscape alongside the repressed Palestinian memory landscape. He shows sensitivity in his awareness that the evidence of the memories of the repressed past in the Hebrew names upholds the act of repression as an ambivalent act. The repeated use of the double semantics which presents the Hebrew Akhziv in close proximity to the Arab El-Ziv, for example, or Tel Shikmona and Tal El-Shamakh, burst through this gap of double-meaning: it cancels the sense of normalcy and naturalness of the act of repression and turns it into a temporary, artificial decision which could be reconsidered. In so doing, he expropriates the "natural" authority and primacy of the national majority group (who hold the power), to allot names to the sites of its own home landscape.
This dual, subversive status of the language is strongly apparent in the book in the purposely artificial Hebrew devised by Shammas: the spiraling syntax, which at times gives a sense of being incorrect; the exaggerated and sly use of quotes from Hebrew literary works ("From one year to the next this," a quote from a poem by Nathan Zach is attributed, of all things, to a song about the refugees by Lebanese singer Fairuz); and in general a language which repeatedly jars with the assumed tolerance of the Hebrew reader. As it questions the limits of tolerance, the language produces a two-pronged effect. On the one hand, it is a heightened and artificial language which calls attention to itself as a conscious imitation of Hebrew, the language of the dominating power culture. On the other hand, it tries to enter into the linguistic network in order to undermine and subvert it and its political presuppositions. Once more, it creates for itself a special borderline existence, which is subversive and provocative, managing, at one and the same time, to be a part of the canon norm and outside of that norm.
The flexible position of the story and its unclear boundaries allow Habiby, via the translator Anton Shamrnas, to enter into a tense and provocative dialogue with the Hebrew reader. As in his earlier books that had been translated from Arabic into Hebrew, and some of his short stories, in Saraia, Daughter of the Evil Demon, Habiby challenges the Hebrew reader in the format of a dialogue between two narrators who describe their personal story as against the Palestinian history, but also as a part of it. On the one hand, this is a story written by an author from a national minority culture, whose clear political commitment and typical use of national allegory do not appeal to the Western aesthetic norms that dominate the majority Israeli culture. Yet, on the other hand, this is also a story that is meant to arouse sympathy in the Hebrew readers and, perhaps, even solidarity based on universalistic truths. Habiby primarily is telling an internal, autobiographic story in which he once more defines the suffering of his people through a distancing irony, mixed with a deep pain. Yet the critique of the Israeli actions during the War of Independence - the destruction of Arab villages, the horrors of the expulsions and turning the Palestinians into refugees ¬all these do not deter him, at times they even encourage him, to develop in his story a wholesome dose of universalistic self-criticism against his own people - the collaborators, etc. Thus, once more, from a universalistic position of distance, he observes the Eastern folk tale as a Western aesthetic, literary possibility.
This dualism exposes the Hebrew reader to a text which is very difficult to categorize. Habiby can be read by the Hebrew reader both internally and externally, both as part of the Israeli canon and as external to it. Whether consciously or not, Habiby's writing is designed to attack the shifting boundaries of the Israeli canon, a boundary that Habiby's writing in translation has been instrumental in opening up. The way Habiby infiltrates the majority culture and literature as a minority author is through his activity in the linguistic/ cultural heart of the majority culture.
The question of the political presence of the book in the gray zone between the dominant Jewish-Israeli culture and the Israeli-Palestinian culture is often foregrounded throughout the book. The possibility of infiltrating into the majority culture via this duality of particularism and universalism is presented, from the start of the book, as a dilemma which Habiby had already dealt with several times in the past: that of the minority author, who is forced to carry two watermelons in his arms, the watermelon of politics and the watermelon of literature.
In this book, Habiby turns this dilemma into the central axis of his writing. This is a book about the limits and possibilities of the political and cultural action of the Palestinian national minority that survived in Israel after the War of Independence as second-class citizens and as objects of official persecution. The tension between the two watermelons is maintained, and his universalistic self-critique doesn't lead him to deny his responsibility as a committed writer towards bettering the fate of his people. His self-criticism of his political path, especially in the Israeli Communist Party, does not lead him to deny the necessity for political commitment in his writing, but rather to a redefinition of his political commitment as an author and of the political role of the author.

The actual narrative plot line, with its reversals and contradictions, gives rise to the possibility of taking a political stand and finding a path of action by walking a tightrope. As already mentioned, the ending is also the basis for the ongoing story. The act of writing is often likened to digging a tunnel which constantly runs into dead-ends and thus "I have no other choice if I want to save myself, but to go on digging." This is a fluid position which attempts to hold on both to a clear and unequivocal political and moral commitment, as well as a space for individual liberty. The story is thus an obstinate striving along the unpaved route to the dual solution. On the one hand, it is an expression of the effort to supply answers to the suffering of the wars. Yet, on the other hand, it is a suggested solution which once more breaks the direct and immediate commitment to the suffering. One wonders whether "we have already become so accustomed to the sounds of war, and we can differentiate between one war cry and another. Have we become addicted to the war cries, from one war to the next ( ...) to such an extent that we cannot hear the other music? Can we not decipher the other wavelength?"
Habiby is both a strong opponent of the policies of the Israeli establishment, and yet, one who accepted the Israel Prize for Arabic Literature (for which he was widely condemned in the Arab world). Thus his stories are characterized by his duality which is faithful to the special suffering of his people, while it is being simultaneously undermined by his commitment to a universalistic value system.

This article is an abridged version of a chapter in Minority Discourse in Modem Hebrew Fiction. New York University Press, forthcoming.

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