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Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter (Emile Habibi)

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 06.09.2006:


By Emile Habiby

By Emile Habiby

Translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux

Ibis Editions, Jerusalem, 2006, 210 pages, $16.95

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 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 this Saraya and who is the ogre?” he asks himself, early on. Equal parts allegory, fairy tale, memoir, political commentary, and ode to a ruined landscape, the book 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.

Emile Habiby, born in 1921, was one of the greatest Arab novelists of his time. Among the founders if the Israeli Communist party, a member of Knesset, the long-time editor of the party newspaper Al-Ittihad, he was strongly identified with the city of Haifa and its surroundings. His books include the classic satirical novel the Pessoptimist and many other works. He was granted the highest honours accorded by the two societies in which he lived: the Al-Quds Award (1990) and the Israel Prize (1992). He died in 1996.

Peter Theroux is widely acknowledged as one of the leading English-language translators from Arabic. He has translated numerous novels, including Children of the Alley by Naguib Mahfouz and the Cities of Salt trilogy by Abdelrahman Munif. He is the author of The Strange Disappearance of Imam Moussa Sadr, Sandstorms: Days and Nights in Arabia, and Translating LA: A Tour of the Rainbow City and has written for Vanity Fair and National Geographic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

The book is available at the Educational Bookshop on Salah Eddin Street and the American Colony Bookstore. It is also available by direct order on the press’s website,


This Week in Palestine

September 2006

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