Judith Kazantzis reviews

Saraya, The Ogre’s Daughter, A Palestinian Fairy Tale

by Emile Habiby

First published 1991, first English edition translated by Peter Theroux

Ibis Editions, Jerusalem, 2006

ISBN 956-90124-5-4. See also www.ibiseditions.com

Nothing Is Simple Except His Sorrow

Habiby, one of the most famous Arab writers of the last century, was born in 1921 and lived all his life in Haifa. He stayed on in Israel after 1948, already an activist. An early Arab Knesset member, among the founders of the Israeli Communist Party, longtime editor of Haifa’s Al-Attihad, he was, as he writes, ‘kicked out’ of the Knesset after ‘67 and is best known for his subsequent novel, his withering satire of Zionism The Secret Life of Saeed The Pessoptimist.

His last book, ostensibly a fairy tale about a lost girl, is very different. It is 1983 and Israel’s war rumbles in Lebanon. On a suddenly menacing night fishing off Haifa’s rocky shore, the narrator sees a bittersweet apparition, a beautiful girl. Saraya, the love of his boyhood, forgotten down thirty-five busy years, calls out to him: “The homeland longs for its people, Abdallah. Have you forgotten us?”
The novel picks its delicate, labyrinthine way onward from this cry, which loses itself down the rocks. Habiby takes us first to the still wild glens of al-Carmel, the old neighbourhoods of Haifa, the funny, challenging, joyful events of his family and school life. Later, riven by Israel’s heartless new borders, the family splits. First goes Jawed the taciturn brother, who revisits only to see his daughter’s grave. Then Habiby’s widowed mother chooses to die in Syria, with her youngest son.

This is in fact a memoir, semi fictionalized, long nurtured, and published a few years before his death. It reads as a moving and beautiful valediction on life in the Haifa of his childhood and youth, before Israel tarmacked over Lover’s Lane. Always at the heart of it is the boy roving Mount Carmel with the gypsy girl Saraya. Her assurances and his endearments are heartbreaking”

‘Who am I to you?’ she asked.
‘You are al-Carmel, my Saraya.’
‘And the sea and the sand and the fish and its shells?’
‘And the sea and the sand and its fish and its shells.’
‘And the whale?’
‘And the whale that sheltered Jonah in its belly.’
‘Would I cast you out on dry land?’
‘When al-Carmel and the sea cast me out.’
‘I never will.’

Around these lost, perhaps imagined, promises, Habiby weaves half a love story, half a borderless meditation on the lost feelings of the heart, which remain as intangible causes of sorrow in his old age. He says in one of his vivid metaphors that the heart has two beats, the normal beat and the beating of “sorrow and remorse”. This is a gentle whirlpool of a tale (‘whirlpool’, from the sea and its rocky coast and from the threshing pines of al-Carmel, is one of his words). Its cue is an old tale in which Saraya, a village girl, is imprisoned by a ogre in a high tower. With her cousin’s help she escapes by climbing down her famously long braids. It seems that Habiby’s Saraya on the other hand is lost forever to the ogre. But the memoir uses all its family detail, its learning, its literary and political digressions, not to weaken but to strengthen the thread that leads to ‘my Saraya’, or whoever or whatever she may represent.
Is she Palestine? ‘How,’ he asks himself towards the end, ‘could I have let my people leave the garden without having given my life so that they might stay?’ Nothing is simple except his sorrow. Habiby, as he admits engagingly, has come nearly to the end of the tale and is still ‘hesitating on the last step’. At last he makes the discovery of all good seekers. In its end his quest, his wandering whirlpool, winds to its beginning. And he ruminates, ‘it’s amazing how closely the end resembles the beginning, as if it were simply the beginning of something else’. Earlier on the story has hinted that the boy’s Uncle Ibrahim may have been Saraya’s foster-father: more symbol than reality. In his memories the two disappear at the same time. Did Ibrahim ‘swallow’ Saraya, like the wolf? For Uncle Ibrahim, a figure of both intellectual mystery and liberation to the boy, may have had a connection with the gypsies; he bears a strange three ringed staff and tells the boy of the old Egyptian religion of Amon. Much later after the naqba, an elusive gypsy girl helps Habiby’s wife and child; at the time the young husband Habiby is convinced it was Saraya, returned.

But to find the truth of Saraya in his old age he looks not in Elijah’s cave on al-Carmel but to the Greek parable of Plato’s Cave and its shadow worshippers. Is he confronting some perceived life failure, confessing some felt betrayal? Of what? Of the people, and of their ordinary concerns, with which as a Leninist he had had too little tolerance? Yet he knows who the true enemies of his people have been. Still, this last book is not an polemic. It is the ruin brought on his land and its people he is describing, but against that ruination he is trying to pierce to his own precise failure, the failure that he feels has narrowed him. He is surrounded by fog. Entering again, Ibrahim, the “Christianised Ismaili”, holds out the mysteries of both life, and now death, for the elderly Habiby. Ibrahim holds up his radiant staff, crowned by ‘the key of knowledge’. Yet long ago Ibrahim showed the boy that, broken in two, the key was a question mark. As brother Jawed might have said: And so?

And so Part 1V is called The Ogre. And the Ogre of course is himself, who kept ‘my Saraya’ in a cage above ‘the clouds of neglect.’ What levels of meaning lie here? He has criticised his Communism as a contempt for the ordinary people, those many who stick in the swamp and won’t/can’t climb out. Against Lenin’s hard, idealistic vision, he sets the bravery of ‘Farasheh the Butterfly’. He tells how after 1948 Farasheh worked secretly to unite families divided so methodically by Israel. Besides her, the comparison hints, who is he, who could not keep his own family together? Yet he honours his ideals. In a dream he sees a line of male comrades who hold hands one after one to keep going; this is the comradely sharing he has lived by. But the ‘tolerance’ he sees symbolized by Ibrahim and Saraya, what of that?

Does he mean more deeply that Habiby the artist, the imaginative writer in touch with love and place, has somewhere sacrificed his heart, his art, to his head? Is his regret that of the artist who mourns the betrayal of his true, personal imagination. So that the shifting, shape-changing Saraya is finally his own self, his muse, his imagination, which he has in prison. If this was how he meant his fairytale, I hope the writing of it healed him, for it proves him wrong.

But if Habiby’s ‘sorrow and remorse’ for Saraya in the ogre’s prison, is for the lost Palestine, then what is his last word? That he failed the humblest Palestinians, and the outcasts too, like his girlfriend Saraya who disappeared, who reappeared to help him, Saraya the gypsy woman now helpless, without papers? He tells us how at Farasheh’s urging, he searched for her but not hard enough, not in their sacred places. Yet ‘what, in fact, has happened?’ Habiby teases us elsewhere, and so ‘what happened’ that long ago day remains deliberately, poetically, obscure.

Finally all is one. Even if he the ogre imprisoned Saraya in forgetfulness, suffered the survivor’s guilt and longing for the exiled – in remembering Saraya and her times with such love and honesty, her memory becomes his creativity, a chance to release her at least in language and him also in his old age from his own prison of ‘sorrow and remorse’. For ‘my Saraya’ is also the land and the people of Haifa, a Palestine not abstract and political but in its physical and local reality, and she is also himself and his devotion to the lost people of his boyhood, his now dead mountain, the now coralled sea.

From Banipal 28 - Spring 2007

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