On the day that Emile Habiby died, it was hot as is usual at this
time of the year. On the morrow, the day when his coffin was
lowered into the grave, contrary to all the forecasts, it was cool
and gray and a little rain fell. After the funeral, the spring
weather returned. To put it briefly, one can understand from this
what God had to say about the death of Emile Habiby.
There were many people who loved him at the funeral, but there also
were many who, in recent years, had embittered his life, leaving
him almost alone on the path to which he was one of the last to
keep faith: the path of compromise founded on the fact that life is
not just, that politics is not built on justice, and that two
states will arise in this land, without barriers between them, with
both peoples living in mutual contact and with undivided Jerusalem
as the capital of both.
In life as in death, Emile was free, romantic, brave, but also
At one and the same time, he was winner of the Israel Prize and the
Al-Quds Prize. For both he paid a price and he continued to adhere
to both. He had a rare ability not to write stories, but to let
them write themselves, letting his "optimism" describe himself
simultaneously as coward and hero.
Emile was a communist because that was the way to be simultaneously
an Israeli and a proud Arab. The USSR recognized Israel, the Arab
world did not. What he thought within himself, he confided to the
fish in the sea. After having seen Budapest and miserable East
Berlin, I asked him: "How did you always say it was so great
there?" He smiled. He had a childish and naive smile which tended
to ridicule, and, at the end of every argument, he would pretend to
be stupid so as to beat you with his bastardly Eastern
His stories, apart from their fantastic Oriental beauty, combine
the rich Arabic literary tradition with the realistic English
literature which he loved. In his fable-like stories there is an
un-fable like pain on the fate of his people and their hardships,
wrapped in humor rather than with the whip of remonstration.
Instead of being a prophet, he was the innocent who declares that
"the emperor is naked." His technique was to present humanity in
general through the individual. His stories are not slender, they
weave together unashamed innocence, sobriety and the mystery of the
connection between them. Emile Habiby was thoroughly familiar with
the loneliness of the eternal stranger: he was born an
Episcopalian, among Israeli Christians, among Israeli Arabs. Like a
Russian doll, one doll within another, within another.
In 1947, he fought for the partition plan and was forced to hide in
order to save his life. In recent years, too, his life was no
festival replete with the love of mankind, as one might think from
his funeral. When he finally resolved not to conceal the political
truth, which he knew and had locked in his heart, he was thrown out
of his place of work as editor of AI-Ittihad, left with no work and
No, Emile was not a moderate. He was extreme in his understanding
of the tragedies inherent in the political truth - just or unjust,
depending on which side was the observer - the truth of
understanding the essential compromise. As an Arab, he knew that
there are Jews here. As a person, he knew that the Jews must
recognize his rights. He sat in his study in Haifa on what, in his
youth, was called "The Sea Way," and which had been changed to "The
Boulevard of Zionism." Did he weep? No, he laughed.
He was a realist, a dreamer, a believer and a skeptic. Unlike many
writers who are characterized by a shallow brilliance, one
understands his noble, painful and lonely depth in reading him, not
in learned comparative research.
Emile Habiby, a declared atheist, was buried as a Christian.
Contrary to the wishes of many people, but loyal to his own will,
he was buried in the city which he loved, in Haifa, which is almost
a joint Jewish-Arab city, where he lived his real life.
At once optimist and pessimist, a noble hero.