Saraya, the ogre's daughter: a Palestinian fairy tale
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 it 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 Saraya and who is the ogre?" he asks himself, early on. Equal parts allegory, folk 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.
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Abbas Abdallah Acre Akhenaten al-Carmel al-Samak al-Zeeb Arab asked aunt Ayn Ghazal Ayn Saraya babbur barta'a began bird boulder brother Jawad called cane cave chest climb cousin dead Dennis Silk Dolorosa ears EMILE HABIBY eyes face Farasheh father fish Gabriel Levin gave Ghazal Gypsy girl Haifa hand Harold Schimmel head heard heart Hurfeish imagined infiltrator Ismaili Jabal Street Jerusalem land laughed living look loved Mandelbaum Gate Mariam of Haifa mother Mount Carmel mountain mouth never night ogre ogre's daughter Palestinian Pamporovo Rafah Ras al-Naqura ring rock Saraya searching secret Shefa'amr shore shouted smell sometimes statuette stood story Su'ad summer tale three-ringed told took trees turned Umm Badi Uncle Ibrahim vagabonds Valley village voice Wadi Wadi al-Nisnas waiting walked wandered whispered who'd Yaba young