One moonless night in the summer of 1983, on a boulder off the shore of what once was Al-Zeeb, a Palestinian village north of Acre, the narrator of Emile Habiby’s haunting last novel catches a glimpse of a mysterious female figure in the sea. “The episode,” he says, “was a kind of key, like the ancient Egyptian key of life … or a magic instrument, like Aladdin’s lamp. I took it up as I began to excavate the mountains of oblivion, trying, as best I could, to penetrate the caverns of memory.” In the remarkable tale that follows, Habiby’s alter-ego—novelist, politician, devoted fisherman—struggles to discover just who or what this apparition was. Saraya, as she is known, is a character in a Palestinian legend about a young girl captured and imprisoned by an ogre. But in Habiby’s subtle, dark, and often wryly comic telling, she takes on a fluid host of roles, sometimes shifting in the course of a single page from the flesh-and-blood beloved of the hero’s childhood to a whispery symbol of the wadis and ridges around Mount Carmel to a kind of laughing muse. “Who is Saraya and who is the ogre?” he asks himself, early on. The book—equal parts allegory, folk tale, memoir, political commentary, and ode to a ruined landscape—works as an extended attempt to discover the girl’s true identity and, in doing so, to reconcile the writer (and his fictional counterpart) with the painful past of his land and his people.
Weaving the voices of several narrators—as well as meditations (by turns serious and ironic) on sources as disparate as Maxim Gorky and al-Mutanabbi, Plato and Amenhotep—Habiby’s late masterpiece is a work of tremendous power and originality. Rendered for the first time ever in English by the accomplished translator and writer Peter Theroux, Saraya is essential reading for anyone interested in the imaginative life of the Middle East.
HABIBY, born in 1921, was one of the greatest Arabic novelists of
his time. Among the founders of the Israeli Communist party, a member
of Knesset, journalist, the long-time editor of the party newspaper
al-Ittihad, founder of the literary journal Masharef,
and an outspoken proponent of Arab-Jewish co-existence, Habiby was
strongly identified with the city of Haifa and its surroundings. His
books include the classic satirical novel The Pessoptimist
(1974), Ihtaya (1986), Saraya (1991), and a collection
of stories about the 1967 war. He was granted the highest honors accorded
by the two societies in which he lived: the al-Quds Award and the
Israel Prize, which he chose to accept, a decision that gave rise
to considerable controversy. He died in 1996.