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Last update 09:36 23/06/2006
On the 'opsimist' and his sons and grandsons
By Ramzi Suleiman
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
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
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.
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 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
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
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