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The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  2,230 ratings  ·  299 reviews
This contemporary classic, the story of a Palestinian who becomes a citizen of Israel, combines fact and fantasy, tragedy and comedy. Saeed is the comic hero, the luckless fool, whose tale tells of aggression and resistance, terror and heroism, reason and loyalty that typify the hardships and struggles of Arabs in Israel. An informer for the Zionist state, his stupidity, c ...more
Paperback, 169 pages
Published January 1st 2001 by Interlink Books (first published 1974)
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Average rating 3.83  · 
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 ·  2,230 ratings  ·  299 reviews

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Mar 25, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: political, mieville50
The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist is a sobering and often depressing look at Israel's "conquering" and occupation of Palestine, wherein the roles of conqueror and conquered are clearly delineated and deeply entrenched.

Although something seems lost in this English translation, there are moments of absolute brilliance in Habiby's work that manage to break through. Saeed Pessoptimist's entire world is a prison: mental, physical, spatial and spiritual, but through his great gift of pessopt
Feb 03, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2011, kutub-bk-grp
A strange read.

I read this book for a Book Group who read books publised in both English and Arabic.
It was not an easy book to penetrate and I was not the only one who felt they would not have persevered if we hadn't been going to discuss it.
While a number of books have been written about the Israeli / Palestinian problems, this was a bit unusual in that it was written from the point of view of an Arab remaining in Israel after the occupation. It was also written thirty five years ago, without t
Jan 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
The elders of Zikhron Yaqub disagreed about the following problem: Is it lawful for a man to sleep with his wife on the Sabbath, or is it the act of a kind of work and therefore not lawful on that day? They went to the rabbi for a decision as to whether it was work or pleasure. The rabbi thought long and hard, and then he ruled that it was pleasure. They asked him for his reasoning. He replied: “If I had ruled it to be work, you would have given it to the Arabs of Fraydis to perform!”

This satiri
Dec 21, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nook, sci-fi-fantasy
I highly recommend this book! I found it mentioned in the book I recently read about the Nakba (the 1948 expulsion of the Palestinians). It did not disappoint! Interestingly, I had just finished Slaughterhouse Five when I picked this one up and there are some striking similarities in the tone of the two books. Both authors highlight the absurdity of their situations in a concise, matter-of-fact attitude. And both main characters are visited by aliens.

Saeed, eventually leaving the world with the
Kobe Bryant
Aug 22, 2019 rated it liked it
It is cool conceptually
Jaime Sánchez
Jan 15, 2021 rated it really liked it
I loved the story, but the writing is a bit heavy (maybe the translation? I’m not really enjoying English translations from Arabic). Just a crazy account of contemporary Israel through the eyes of a weird Arab.
May 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: palestinian
So, this is it folks, my all-time favorite novel. I don’t even know how many times I’ve reread it and every time it feels so fresh and I keep on learning new things. Emile Habibi published it in 1974, and it’s usually referred to in English translations as “The Secret Life of Saeed The Pessoptimist”, but a more accurate translation would be “The Strange Events Behind the Disappearance of Saeed The Pessoptimist”. In a way similar to Voltaire’s Candide, the novel chronicles the life and and downwa ...more
Mar 09, 2009 rated it really liked it
Absurd. Surreal. Unreliable narrator (I seem to be attracting books like this lately.) I think I will have to read this again before fully absorbing it. Saeed Pessoptimist is a bumbling fool who sells his soul to the devil. In this case, he is an Arab in the employ of the Israeli state, and informs on Communist doings before inadvertently landing himself in jail. We see the colonizing Israeli state through his eyes, as he traverses the two worlds he must inhabits simultaneously.

Some tastes:
Suad Shamma
Jan 12, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own, 2014
I was disappointed with this book. I had heard so much about Emile Habiby and this book in specific, and when I found it, I was quite excited to start reading it.

It started out interestingly enough, I actually found myself smiling and laughing. I was curious about this strange Saeed individual, and his journey. As the story progressed though, I felt like it had lost the plot. I was losing interest, and I was finding it hard to keep going. Saeed's journey was a bit surreal - but not in a good wa
Sep 13, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When it comes to Arabic literature, I have learned, that there isn't really style consistency. When reading great novels of the Western world, you are often able to see an overarching style and mood, but with Arabic lit, each and every one seems unique and unlike others I've read. The Secret Life of Saeed proves to be no exception. While the other three were more serious, Habibi adapted a more lighthearted, ironic type of tone compared to the more serious tone of the previous Arabic novels I've ...more
Dec 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
Interesting book to read as someone who knows relatively little about Middle Eastern politics, specifically Israel/Palestine. My edition had an introduction that was helpful to read *after* reading the book (otherwise the whole plot would be given away!). For such a critically acclaimed book in the Arab literature world, it's kind of surprising to me that I hadn't heard of this book before. It definitely reminds me of many Western "modern classics" that I've read, but it seems to be kind of a se ...more
Nov 03, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: personal
Loved this book! Absolutely fascinating narrator/protagonist, very tragi-comic. I love that it weaves in between reality and fantasy, doing so with some really powerful images (i.e. the stake). Read this!
Laila Taji
Apr 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a fabulous book (even as a translated one). I would guess it is one of only a few books, if not the only book, that accurately describes the hypocrisy of the Israeli government and the struggle of Israeli-Arabs in such a comedic way. This is a quintessential read!
Apr 01, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Michelle by: Laurie
This is one of the best books I can remember reading; sadly, it is almost impossible to find in bookstores or libraries. If you can get your hands on it, DO!!!
Aug 27, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literature
The writer describes very well the choices Israeli Arabs have faced since the founding of Israel in a style that is very subtle and nice to read.
Jan 21, 2016 rated it it was ok
I tried and tried and just couldn't get into it. ...more
Boris Micic
Not everyone can understand this book and I envy those who don't.... ...more
Jul 24, 2018 rated it it was ok
I wish I was able to read this book in Arabic as I think that a lot went lost in the translation.
James F
Dec 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
A black comedy modeled on Voltaire's Candide, set in the years after 1948, when the Palestinians were driven out of Palestine by the Zionists. Avoiding the Romantic or Naturalist style of much political fiction, instead of heroes and villains Habiby gives us an anti-hero, Saeed, as naive and unintelligent as Candide, though a "pessoptimist" rather than an optimist (instead of thinking everything happens for the best, he thinks it isn't as bad as it might have been). He believes whatever the auth ...more
Mar 14, 2021 rated it really liked it
In the world of Arabic committed literature post 1967, Emile Habibi's The Pessoptimist has been one of the most interesting, amusing, and sharp book I have encountered. Better grab some bandages before you start--Habibi's wit is so sharp that you will find yourself cut.

Saeed is a fool, a Palestinian who finds himself on the wrong side of the border. We are taken through his life in the new state of Israel and shown the suspicion that he unknowingly carries with him due to his background as a fo
A compact book with meaning that unfolds from each page.

Saeed recounts his experiences of Palestine's occupation of Israel as an Arab with a sheen of magic realism, and satire. The horrors and iniquities which he faces are softened by his trademark "pessoptimism". A sort of Palestinian everyman, he tries his best to lead a normal life despite the occupation of his land and his dehumanisation through a semi-fantastical reimagining of the world.

It has its humorous, satirical moments, but it is rea
Sep 20, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Emile Habibi writes of sad things in a funny, touching, and light-hearted way. His protagonist is no hero, nor an anti-hero. He is just a normal human being, someone who wants to survive, someone who wants to be happy. He is afraid at times, lonely at others, naively optimistic at other times, but always endearing. I definitely recommend the book for anyone who is interested in Palestinian life, and I would highly advise reading it in Arabic for those who speak it. The language is just beautiful ...more
Betty Asma
Dec 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
By having written this novel, its author Emile Habiby draws attention to the unfortunate plight of Palestinian Arabs, who became refugees to nearby Middle Eastern countries as a consequence of international agreements and religious fervor. Habiby's story tells a fictionalized account of what happened between the end of World War II to about 1972 when former lands and freedom were no longer theirs, especially as the military administration surveilled their whereabouts and considered potential ret ...more
Mar 11, 2017 rated it liked it
Some real great moments and shows real humour. Expresses the pain of living in a robotic and frightening environment constantly on the edge of tension. Absurd and poignant but somehow except at specific instances it didn't hold my attention. ...more
Aug 18, 2018 rated it liked it
Important book - with an informative introduction and helpful endnotes - but difficult to read. I wonder if the translation could have been a bit better with the idioms and figurative language. And this book is pretty dense on allegories.
Rae Stoltenkamp
Dec 25, 2018 rated it liked it
Chock full of allegory I feel totally ill equipped to understand. My lack of historical knowledge was a hindrance to fully getting this book. It will no doubt make a whole lot of sense to anyone who has a clearer idea of Israeli/Palestinian politics.
Kofi Adisa
Jul 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
Excellent story that is funny and sad. If you liked Confederacy of Dunces, then this book will remind of it.
Barbara Ab
Dec 24, 2017 rated it did not like it
Boring thoughts of a sex obsessed man.
Seth Harris
Jan 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
If you like Vonnegut, you'll like this book a lot! ...more
Dec 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Horribly perfect.
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Also Emile Habibi
(Arabic: إميل حبيبي)

Habibi (Habiby) was an Palestinian Christian writer and politician .

He was born in today's Israel, which at that time was part of the British Mandate of Palestine. Born in to a Protestant Palestinian Arab family (his family had originally been Arab Orthodox but converted to Protestantism due to disputes within the Orthodox church) In his early life he worked on

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