Literature live from three cities

Writer and politician Emile Habiby.

BEIRUT: Culturally and geographically speaking, Ramallah and occupied East Jerusalem are closer to Lebanon than most any other city in the world.

Yet these towns in historic Palestine are more remote to Beirut than Paris or Rome. There’s a paradox for you. So “The Pessoptimist Marathon” is a testament to the ingenuity of Lebanese artists Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Marwa Arsanios, who plan to transcend distance to coordinate a live, six-hour-long public reading, set to take place among these three cities Tuesday night.

It’s fitting that the subject of this marathon reading session is “The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist,” the political satire of Palestinian novelist and communist party co-founder Emile Habiby (1923-1996). In addition to coining his own paradoxical viewpoint, Habiby’s book is concerned in part with the issue of borders and boundaries in the aftermath of the Nakba, aka the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.

Abu Hamdan and Arsanios, who have collaborated on literary readings before, conceived of “The Pessoptimist Marathon” when they were obliged to turn down an invitation to the Jerusalem Show – an annual East Jerusalem contemporary art festival. Since Lebanon is in a state of war with Israel, its citizens are prohibited from traveling to the Zionist state.

In what Abu Hamdan describes as “kind of a utopian gesture” they decided to coordinate readings across the three cities.

First published in 1974, Habiby’s novel quickly presented itself to Arsanios and Abu Hamdan as an ideal subject. The eponymous Saeed is a Palestinian who escapes Haifa for Lebanon in 1948 only to sneak back across the border into Israel and continue his life under occupation. Marveling at his own good fortune – in contrast to that of his fellow Palestinians who have been forbidden to return to their country – Saeed all the while unwittingly serves as an informant for the occupier.

So it is that pessoptimism – the combination of pessimism and optimism – comes to manifest itself in the person of Saeed.

The book, Arsanios says, shows “how the relation of this combination of words can create a new character.”

Abu Hamdan describes Habiby’s work as “a different interpretation of what it meant to be in Palestine in those early days.”

Yet, having recently reread it, he’s also found contemporary relevance in the novel.

“Returning to it, it’s also very much to do with the idea of, you know, ‘The more things change the more they stay the same,’” Abu Hamdan says. “So [it is relevant] in the context of some of the things going on in Palestine and also [in] the ... [Arab Spring] uprisings ... Maybe this Egyptian revolution is a very pessoptimistic revolution.”

Listeners will be able to fathom Habiby’s work themselves Tuesday evening, when over the course of six hours, nine voices – three in each city – will read the novel aloud.

Reading at Mar Mikhael’s Radio Beirut, an independent online radio station with a live performance space, and working in coordination with Beit Aneeseh in Ramallah and the Educational Bookshop in occupied Jerusalem, the reading will also be streamed live online.

Project organizers have also commissioned assorted writers and artists to compose poems, songs and commentaries inspired by Habiby’s book, which will be performed to punctuate the reading.

There are also pessoptimistic songs. A pessoptimistic song, Abu Hamdan explains, is one “with an optimistic melody, or a melody often associated with love songs, but actually, lyrically it is very much the antithesis.”

Organizers have selected an assortment of such songs – Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” among them – to provide further interludes to the reading.

Despite the myriad of technical glitches that might crop up, both Arsanios and Abu Hamdan feel confident the reading will run smoothly – though Arsanios sensibly anticipates that, with Lebanon’s unreliable Internet, the live stream may occasionally be interrupted.

In any event, neither artist expects that listeners will tune in for the entire six-hour reading. “It’s made for a more transient [audience],” Abu Hamdan says. “We don’t imagine anyone is really going to sit and listen to the whole.”

Those who would like to hear the full reading, but not in one sitting, will be pleased to learn that plans for an audio book are in the works.

The artists also hope to compile and publish a book comprised of the newly commissioned responses to Habiby’s work.

The Pessoptimist Marathon takes places Tuesday, Nov. 6 from 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. at Radio Beirut, Mar Mikhael. It will also be streamed live at The text will be read in Arabic.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 06, 2012, on page 16.




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