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Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist is a contemporary literary classic explicating the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Even though written in 1974, the book remains relevant to date as the protracted conflict rages on. One of the major themes explicated in the text is nationalism. The book traces characters’ nationalism struggles and transformation during the Israel formation period. This paper interrogates the theme of nationalism as explicated in The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist. Analysis indicates that the feeling of nationalism was prevalent at the time and was mainly appropriated to safeguard one’s own life and interests.
Nationalism is the deep sense of patriotism. It denotes the feelings or strong beliefs that a particular country’ or state’s interests supersedes those of other countries or states. In the texts, there are several instances where the characters, especially, Saeed the main character, engaged in activities that promotes the interest of one state or super-national groups instead of another’s. The major instance is when the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the Nabka, peaked in 1948 (Habiby, Le Gassick and Jayyusi 34). Saeed, filled with a sense of patriotism, deemed it unwise to leave Haifa, his place of birth. Informed by the belief that the Palestinians, sharing similar national origins and cultures, should remain independent and free of any form of foreign domination Saeed took arms to fight. Just like the thousands of other Palestinians, Saeed initially took to the streets to fight against Israeli’s policies of oppression (Mir 112). It is evident that the fight for the freedom of the Palestinians is informed by their devotion to their Palestinian nation. Saeed, and the other freedom fighters, are prompted by a sense of national consciousness to resist Israel’s occupation of Israel of land. However, the sense of Palestinian nationalism quickly deteriorates, cowardice gets the better of him and he proves to be less valuable to the Palestinian resistance (Habiby, Le Gassick and Jayyusi 53).
Another instance that demonstrates nationalism is the return of Saeed to his homeland even after the Israelis occupation (Scott 115). After fleeing to Lebanon, Saeed is overwhelmed by his Palestinian consciousness; he decides he would rather get back to his occupied land. Since they were not allowed to do so, Saeed takes the risks and sneaks back (Habiby, Le Gassick and Jayyusi 64). At the time of sneaking back, Saeed had not even envisaged how he will be treated by the Israeli authorities. He was determined to stay and even to die in the land he strongly believed belonged to the Palestinians. At the time of sneaking back to the occupied land, Saeed’s loyalty was pledged to his ancestral land. Evidently, Saeed had no strong sense of patriotism as soon he recanted his Palestinian and pledged his loyalty to the Israelis (Mir 120). He shifted his allegiance to Israel. With childlike naiveté, Saeed accepted to become an informant for the Israeli authorities (Habiby, Le Gassick and Jayyusi 78). The manner in which Saeed prostrates himself before the Zionist colonialists suggests that Saeed was implored by a strong conviction to advance the interests of the Israel state (Scott 118). It is evident that a part of his actions were informed by his desire to survive and live in Israel but the verve and vigor with which he performed his informant tasks portray him as a person who had shifted his nationalism allegiance from Palestine to Israel (Scott 119). Saeed’s feelings, principles and efforts were all geared towards advancing the interests of the Israel state.
Saeed also demonstrates and confirms his sense of nationalism towards the Israel state when he is questioned about the furniture he owned by the police. In that confrontation, the Israeli police had apprehended Saeed and implored him to prove that the furniture in his possession was actually his, and not stolen. Saeed demonstrates his nationalism by ascertaining that his furniture, just like himself, is a property of the state (Habiby, Le Gassick and Jayyusi 89). By saying so, Saeed portrays a person eager to paint a picture of good citizenry and loyalty to the Israeli state. By pledging his life to the state, Saeed demonstrates patriotism. Offering self to the state for its use is the highest demonstration of nationalism, it is the highest demonstration of unselfishness and devotion to the cause and interests of the nation (Mir 123). Unfortunately, Saeed’s apparent overzealousness to pledge his loyalty to the state raises suspicions that his sense of nationalism may not be sincere (Scott 125). Consequently, he is arrested by the police because his demonstration of nationalism was too conspicuous and phony. Saeed’s sense of nationalism was demonstrated through pledging his loyalty in words and deeds to the Israeli government; however, due to his foolishness he exaggerated and led himself into trouble. May be it was deserved since the form of nationalism he subscribed to, though advancing the interests of Israel, were not really sincere but rather informed by the need to survive and earn favors (Mir 124).
Another apt demonstration of nationalism in the story is evidenced when Saaed decides to raise a white flag to demonstrate that he is a Palestine even and wishes to surrender (Habiby, Le Gassick and Jayyusi 56). The sense of nationalism was demonstrated after he heard news reports instructing the Palestinians who had surrendered to hoist white flags on their houses. Even though living in Jerusalem, an area definitively not ‘occupied’ by the Israelis, Saeed too hoists a white flag (Scott 114). The act demonstrates his deep sense of loyalty to his mother nation. Even though he has been battered and dominated by the Israelis, Saeed still identifies himself with and pledges his loyalty to his Palestinian origin. His desperation to demonstrate Palestinian nationalism is further exhibited by his hoisting of the white flag on a broom stick.
Lastly, nationalism also manifests itself in Walaa’s actions to join the Palestinian resistance movement to fight against Israel’s oppressive policies (Habiby, Le Gassick and Jayyusi 111). Walaa is Saeed’s youngest son. He becomes a Palestinian freedom fighter, a fida’i. Unlike his father who had collaborated with the Israeli government, Walaa has pledges his allegiance to the Palestinian nation. Walaa sense of nationalism is rooted in the belief that the land occupied by Israel belongs to the Palestinians (Mir 126). Walaa despises his father, and is horrified too, that his father chose to submit to the Israelis (Scott 127). Unlike Saeed, his father, Walaa deems it worthwhile to die for the cause rather than to live in captivity and submission. His sense of national consciousness leads him to search for the family treasure which he then appropriates to procure weapons to use in the struggle for Palestinian freedom (Mir 127). Walaa’s sense of nationalism never waivers as did his father’s. Ultimately, he paid for his loyalty and nationalism with his life.
In conclusion, it is evident that nationalism is a major recurrent theme in Emily Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist. Nationalism is exhibited by the characters through their behaviors, beliefs and actions. Some of the most conspicuous actions included Saeed’s joining of the resistance movement and later sneaking back to Israel and spying for the Israeli government. Other acts that demonstrated a sense of nationalism included Saeed’s raising of a white flag to surrender and Walaa’s involvement in the freedom fight against the Zionist state. Through these actions, the author demonstrated the importance of developing a sense of nationalism and consciousness during the tumultuous time of forming the Israel state.
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