Longing for Haifa in Haifa: Exile in the Homeland? *



By Refqa Abu-Remaileh

“Is my trust to be shaken in our freedom to long for this land in this land – for Haifa in Haifa?” wrote Emile Habibi (1922-1996), the well-known Palestinian politician, journalist and writer, in the epilogue of his novel Ikhtayya (1985).

© Abed Abidi

Abed Abidi under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Why did Emile Habibi write these profoundly pained words, why does he long for Haifa when he is in Haifa, never having left? Can Habibi’s words, his longing for Haifa in Haifa, be a vision of “exile-in-the-homeland” as Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin suggested in a recent lecture he gave for the research program “Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe” (EUME) at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin?1

Krakotzkin mentioned Habibi’s words in the context of envisioning a future scenario where Jews can become “the children of the land” and Palestinians will be “able to hold on to a consciousness of exile, but at home and with a sense of belonging” as he writes in a booklet based on an earlier lecture he gave for EUME in Berlin (Krakotzkin 2012, 131).2

Was Habibi indeed searching for a future within exilic consciousness? Or were his words a lament for a present state of colonial oppression that has resulted in a placelessness in the homeland, suffering from a violent banishment from history and time, and ultimately unable to yield a vision for a future?

The question of whether a shared experience of exile – a past pre-state Jewish exile and an ongoing Palestinian state of exile – can provide a basis for a common future for Palestinians and Jews is a driving force behind the works of Krakotzkin and Judith Butler, among others. Both Krakotzkin and Butler see Edward Said’s and Mahmoud Darwish’s own engagement with Jewish thought, their reading of “Palestinian and Jewish history together”(Butler 2012a, 40), as a form of “alliance” in exile (ibid., 50) that has inspired them to explore different modes of belonging and sovereignty. Although stemming primarily from a Jewish theological and philosophical perspective, Krakotzkin’s and Butler’s work signals an interesting turn towards Palestinian literary and intellectual sources as initial triggers to understanding a contemporary notion of exile. “One cannot understand exile today without Mahmoud Darwish,” Krakotzkin remarked in his lecture.

Krakotzkin and Butler are in search of a language, a binational discourse that brings exilic consciousness – that is, living amongst others, living amongst non-Jews – as well as ethics and responsibility back to contemporary Jewish thought which they see as having been coopted by a Zionist state policy that ‘negates exile’ (Krakotzkin 2012, 101) in all its forms. In other words, their project is to re-inject a consciousness of exile into Jewish-Israeli thought, which, combined with Palestinians ‘holding on to a consciousness of exile but at home’ can potentially lead to a new postnational polity and ethos (Butler 2012b, 16).

Using Habibi’s question above – and the coincidence of Krakotzkin reference to it – I wish to follow two points of enquiry. The first is a closer look at how the quote sits within the broader context of Habibi’s work, and in light of that, the second, a reinvestigation of Krakotzkin’s and Butler’s frame. I would like to argue that Habibi takes us on another path, another journey through a more wretched vision of exile in the Palestinian experience in Israel that poses challenges to the outlook proposed by Krakotzkin and Butler.

His own positionality, his having stayed in the homeland, is a defining feature of Habibi’s life and works. This assertion of presence in the homeland is no more apparent than in his last words, etched on his tombstone: “baqin fi hayfa” (I remain in Haifa). These words, as if repeatedly uttered from beyond the grave in a kind of eternal present, can be read as a defiance of the notion of exile and the experience of estrangement and dispossession. What they signal is the possibility not only of the continuity of speech, of words, but also the continuity of presence and life after death. It is then Palestinian presence, not exile, in the homeland that is the basis of Habibi’s final retort. Not only does it counter Israeli claims that ‘Palestinians do not exist’, but it also highlights a multiplicity of Palestinian experience that defies gathering under the banner of exile. It is ultimately a response to Ghassan Kanafani, the well-known Palestinian short story writer, the refugee who spent his life in the diaspora. For Habibi, is not about a “Return to Haifa”3 as in the title of Kanafani’s famous novella (1970), but rather “I stayed, I remain, and will continue to remain, in Haifa”.

Baqin fi hayfa’ can also be read as a response to the question Habibi poses in Darwish’s elegy to his childhood friend. In the poem “An appointment with Emile Habibi”4, Habibi’s voice asks about the “difference between ‘here’ and ‘there’” (Darwish 2009, 112). As a response, Darwish’s voice suggests that the distance between ‘here’ and ‘there’ can be metaphorical. However, the framing of the meeting between the two friends as “a battle between two roosters” (ibid., 112), and the choice of words on Habibi’s epitaph, signal that Habibi may not have agreed with Darwish, and that for Habibi, the ‘here’, the ‘being here’, was what mattered most. After all, it is to the exploration of this ‘here’ that Habibi devotes all of his literary attention.

Habibi goes to great lengths to document a disappearing Palestinian ‘here’ in the homeland. To do so, he does not try to mirror Palestinian experience in a Jewish legacy of exile, but rather he roots his work in his own rich Palestinian heritage and Arab turath. In a documentary pseudo-academic fashion, Habibi’s first novel The Secret Life of Saeed, The Pessoptimist (1974)5 pioneers a style that fuses between modern and medieval/classical genres to make extensive references through footnotes, asides, and quotations to Palestinian history, geography, folklore and folk takes, proverbs, anecdotes, and songs. Habibi brings back and makes alive a repressed past and present through a process of digging, as he calls it,  “fi butun al-kutub” (to the very insides of the books) of his ancestors “aslafuna” (Habibi 1996, 10).

Habibi is well aware of “the Israeli education programme to erase the modern and ancient history of this land and falsify it” (ibid., 23) and no doubt his textual excavations are a literary and aesthetic response to an insidious Israeli project of absenting Palestinians from their homeland, even if they have never left. Reflecting on The Pessoptimist and its luckless protagonist, Sa‘id who, towards the end of the novel, finds himself perched precariously on the tip of a sharp stake, Habibi writes in his memoirs, Siraj al-Ghula (The Ogress’ Lantern) (1996):

“It didn’t occur to me that our people, after all these years, would find no where in their homeland to be except ras al-khazuq (the tip of a stake). But if this is the case, then we prefer ras al-khazuq in the homeland to rihab al-ghurba (the spaciousness of exile), which we found to be full of spears, needles, and khawaziq, big and small. (ibid., 18)

This ‘longing for Haifa in Haifa’ from ras al-khazuq thus translates into a vision of being squeezed out, by a colonial project, to balancing precariously on the tip of a stake. In fact, the most pronounced state of exile Habibi sees is in right-wing Jewish-Israeli circles, which he calls a “bitter double exile” which makes their “only connection to this land is but their sorrow over the loss of their diasporic culture in the West” (ibid., 13).

Although Krakotzkin and Butler both highlight Zionism’s rejection and “total denial of Jewish exilic cultures” (Krakotzkin 2012, 101), and seek to re-inject exile back into Israeli consciousness, they overlook the way Israel views itself and behaves as a European enclave exiled in the Middle East. A present and paradoxical “bitter double exile” in Palestine problematizes a ‘return to exile’ in Jewish thought and needs unravelling in the broader context of ‘reading together’ past Jewish and current Palestinian histories of displacement.

Where Habibi finds glimmers of hope in is not in creating an alliance in traumatic exile(s) but rather in bringing to light a pre-existing togetherness in a shared heritage and turath. His point of departure is the two languages, Arabic and Hebrew, which he believes are “twins from the same mother” (Habibi 1996, 13). He relates in his memoir being a dedicated listener to a weekly Israeli radio programme that elaborates on the sources of Hebrew words. Listening to this programme, Habibi notices that the “Guardian of the Hebrew Language” consistently finds ancient Greek as opposed to Eastern roots as the source for Hebrew words or ideas (ibid., 14).  “And I say,” he writes, “to the benefit of those Jewish colleagues who insist on denying the real mother of their language that, fi turathuna (in our heritage) there is many a lantern that can light up the darkness around us” (ibid., 14). In this context, Habibi not only observes the present estranged condition of his Jewish colleagues but also “ghurbat al-lugha” (the estrangement of language) (ibid., 28) and a Hebrew language that is exiled from its original roots and sources.

He also recalls the Jews he grew up with in Haifa, and those of his native village, Shafa ‘Amr, and asks: “Did they tell their children those stories about Shafa ‘Amr and Haifa?” He answers the question mournfully, “I don’t think they did, because if they did carry on this history then Kahanism would not have appeared in this country” (ibid., 44). It was not too long ago that there was a history of living together on the land. So it is not only in language, the possibility of acknowledging a shared turath and therefore in the releasing of an oppressed history that Habibi finds hope but also in the power of narrative and the telling of stories of togetherness, not those of separation and exile.

Habibi’s insights highlight the difficulty not in reading a past (pre-state) Jewish exile with a present Palestinian one, but also the necessity of juxtaposing the present with the present, and a la Habibi injecting repressed/denied modes of togetherness. Given the strides Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish have made, it now seems necessary to read and think Palestinian and Jewish intellectuals together. The work of Krakotzkin and Butler builds on that and this area of overlap certainly merits further research, especially also in relation to the legacy of Arab Jews. However, the greatest hurdle to reading the present with the present as histories of displacement is that one is still not acknowledged as history, while the other has turned bitter and twisted.

In her article, “What Shall We Do Without Exile? Said and Darwish Address the Future,” Butler rightly points to the constant threat of effacement of Palestinian presence and history as a time where “the Nakba continues to happen and is indistinguishable from the present” (Butler 2012a, 32). This time of “perpetual catastrophe” (ibid., 49) and “reiterated destruction” (ibid., 50), she argues, “never settles as history” (ibid., 47) and is thus stuck in a warp of timelessness and what she calls “the impossibility of being located and having one’s own language” (ibid., 43). Butler suggests that a break from catastrophe is needed. Guided by Darwish’s elegy to Said, “Edward Said: A Contrapuntal Reading,”6 Butler reads Said’s will for “the impossible,” which is “only a generation away,” as an aesthetic break with catastrophe, the turning of “scream to song” that can open up the possibility of a future. If one is to honor Said’s final wish, Butler suggests, the “poetry of pain” will be overcome by a “poetry that wills the impossible” (ibid., 49).

© Abed Abidi

Abed Abidi under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

However, the impossible, and by extension the future, cannot rest only on an aesthetic vision of freedom. In a catastrophic present, the only spaces for Palestinian freedom have been limited to the aesthetic. Darwish’s work is a testament to that, but so is Habibi’s, making aesthetic leaps in narrative not only to settle Palestinian time into history, but also to locate himself through language and the literary heritage it carries with it. Said’s will to “invent a hope for speech” in the poem can be read not only as addressing the Palestinian writer, but also in light of Habibi’s remarks on language, can be a shared responsibility to transpose a shared turath through Arabic and Hebrew to the present.

Like Said, Habibi also reflects on the impossible. Towards the end of his novel Saraya, The Ogre’s Daughter (1991)7, the narrator asks “What is impossible?” “It is impossible,” he responds to his own question, “to count the number of prophets, messengers, scholars, poets, writers, philosophers, musicians, painters, sculptures, dancers, dramatists, filmmakers, dreamers, each of whom was given his own saraya and didn’t neglect her, and did not imprison her, but freed her, asking nothing in return for that freedom!” (Habibi 1991, 209-210) Habibi’s will  – as in the subtitle of Siraj al-ghula “the Text, the Will”  – is not just willing the impossible for the future but acknowledging those who have willed the impossible and continue to do so on a daily basis in the creative and aesthetic domains. His will is also not to be ashamed of being a victim: “It pains me,” he writes, “that the Palestinian victim is ashamed of being a victim and ashamed of human weakness” (Habibi 1996, 63).

“I started believing that the main task of the writer, poet and artist,” Habibi affirms, “is to look for this jewel – human weakness – in the depths of the seas of humanity” (ibid., 64). Although this is not exactly the transformation of scream to song, what Habibi is after is the preservation of the” humanity of the Palestinian” from the grips of fundamentalist ideologies, Communism and Zionism among them, that promote inhumane doctrines and trap their subscribers in cage after cage. The “hope for speech” for Habibi lies not only in the continuous telling of stories, stories that never end, and stories that become other stories, but also a resistance to “being stripped of our humanity” (ibid., 60).

What does it mean to “address the future” and break from catastrophe, Butler asks (Butler 2012a, 40)? Butler and Krakotzkin insist that the right of the refugee as at the heart of a break from catastrophe. This is indeed extremely crucial to any ethical resolution of the conflict. But to do so, is it enough to call attention to the diasporic character of Palestinian and Jewish histories? Is it enough for Palestinians to strive for aesthetic freedom? Is it enough to stage a return to history and time by reaching aesthetic poise? Many a Palestinian writer, poet and even filmmaker have been able to make that aesthetic leap, but has that yielded a vision for the future? Palestinian literature remains entrapped, unable to narrate a future.

A break from a present of catastrophe towards a future needs to break from a “wretched” Palestinian present, to borrow Butler’s description of an already existing “wretched” binationalism (ibid., 36) as well as a bitter Jewish double exile, to borrow Habibi’s phrase. By extension, the wretched present ‘exile-in-the-homeland’ of Palestinians in Israel, which has translated into utter invisibility, an exile from presence, from memory and history, from time and temporality, and ultimately an exile from the notion of exile, cannot form the basis of a vision for the future. Therefore, to address the future, how we do address the present? More too needs to be done in reading a Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli present to search for glimmers of a future scenario of togetherness.

*Based on a longer piece, and on a presentation given on 18 June 2014 in the Berliner Seminar of “Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe” (EUME) at the Forum Transregionale Studien Berlin.

Refqa Abu-Remaileh received her DPhil and MSt in modern Middle Eastern Studies, with a focus on Arabic Literature and Film, from the University of Oxford (2010, 2004) and her BA in English Literature from the University of British Columbia (2002). After completing her PhD, Abu-Remaileh worked with the Oxford Research Group’s Middle East Programme, a conflict-resolution organization focusing on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. She created a new strategic thinking group involving Palestinian citizens of Israel. In 2012-13 she was a EUME fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin and will continue her work with a project on “Resistance and Subversion in Palestinian Literature and Film” as a EUME Fellow in 2014-2015 with a scholarship of the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. 2012a. “’What Shall We Do Without Exile?’ Said and Darwish Address the Future”. Alif Journal of Comparative Poetics (32): 30-54.

2012b. “Introduction”. In Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1-27.

Darwish, Mahmoud. 2004. “Edward Said: A Contrapuntal Reading”. English translation by Mona Anis. Al-Ahram Weekly Online, September 30-October 6. http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2004/710/cu4.htm

2009. “Maw‘id ma‘ Imil Habibi”. In I Don’t Want This Poem to End: The Last Collection of Poems. Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes Books, 112-114. [Arabic]

Habibi, Emile. 1974. Al-waqa’i‘ al-ghariba  fi ikhtifa’ sa‘id abi al-nahs al-mutasha’il (The Pessoptimist). 2006 ed. Amman: Dar al-Shuruq. [Arabic]

1985. Ikhtayya. 2006 ed. Amman: Dar al-Shuruq. [Arabic]

1991. Saraya bint al-ghul: Khurrafiyya. 2006 ed. Amman: Dar al-Shuruq. [Arabic]

1996. Siraj al-ghula: al-nass/al-wassiya. 2006 ed. Amman: Dar al-Shuruq. [Arabic]

Raz-Krakotzkin, Amnon. 2012. “Exile and Binationalism: From Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt to Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish.” (English version). Berlin: Carl Heinrich Becker Lecture der Fritz Thyssen Stiftung 2011, published by Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe (EUME), Berlin 2012 : 85-132. Also available online: http://www.eume-berlin.de/fileadmin/eume/pdf/carl_heinrich_becker_lecture/CHB_Lecture_2011_Web.pdf

2014. “Netanyahu’s Challenge: Can Palestinians Accept Israel as a Jewish State?” EUME Lecture at the Forum Transregionale Studien, February 20. http://www.eume-berlin.de/en/eume-lectures/general-information.html


Citation: Refqa Abu-Remaileh, Longing for Haifa in Haifa: Exile in the Homeland? *, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.12.2014 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/1400.

  1. Link: Netanyahu’s Challenge: Can Palestinians Accept Israel as a Jewish State? EUME Lecture, 20 February 2014: http://www.eume-berlin.de/en/eume-lectures/general-information.html []
  2. Link: http://www.eume-berlin.de/fileadmin/eume/pdf/carl_heinrich_becker_lecture/CHB_Lecture_2011_Web.pdf []
  3. Link to book on publisher’s site: https://www.rienner.com/title/Palestine_s_Children_Returning_to_Haifa_and_Other_Stories []
  4. Link to Youtube recitation of poem by Mahmud Darwish: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NTbwVi8PQRk []
  5. Link to book on publisher’s site: http://www.interlinkbooks.com/product_info.php?products_id=269 []
  6. Link to the poem in English translation: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2004/710/cu4.htm []
  7. Link to book on publisher’s site: http://ibiseditions.com/recent/emile-habiby/ []

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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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