A giant of Arabic literature.

AuthorHiro, Dilip
PositionIsraeli Arab author Emil Shukri Habibi - Mosaic

Emile Shukri Habibi is a chain smoking giant of Arabic literature. Dilip Hiro talked to the 1992 winner of the Israel Prize for Literature, the first Israeli Arab ever to receive the accolade, in his home town of Haifa recently.

That the award was made during the last few weeks of the Likud-led government of Yitzhak Shamir - obliging the rightwing leader to hand over the state's most prestigious prize to him, a life-long Marxist - still leaves Habibi bemused.

Sardonic humour is one of the hallmarks of Habibi's literary writing. It shines through his best known novel. The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-fated Pessotimist, the story of an Arab anti-hero who wants to cooperate with the Israelis. The book was translated into 15 languages, Including Hebrew and English. Adapted for stage, it has been performed in Arabic as well as Hebrew.

The writer's birthplace is Haifa, the capital city of Galilee, a region with a substantial Arab population.

Habibi's literary output dates back to the mid- 1940s. The first periodical which published his short stories was Al Ittihad (The Unity), established in 1943 as the organ of the Palestine Communist Party. Some 40 years later, under his editorship Al Ittihad weekly became a daily, now loyal to Rakah (the Hebrew acronym for the New Communist List).

Earlier, in 1972, at the age of 50, Habibi resigned his membership of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, to devote himself fully to editIng the party magazine, and pursuing his literary career. Within two years came the publication of The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-fated Pessotimist.

Like so many of his fellow Palestinians, Habibi has witnessed considerable personal tragedy. "I'm from a Christian family of nine children," he explained. "None of us remained in Israel after 1948 except me and my sister. Other members of our family were forced to leave - for Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. One becomes accustomed to such separation. Yet the drama or reunion, of coming together again, never dies. It's...

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