Artwork by Israa Tariq



Traces of History: Writing History as Resistance in Emile Habiby’s The Pessoptimist and J.M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians”

By Farah Nada



     If history is to be understood as a series of recorded events rather than the events themselves, then the act of writing or recording history is of significant importance, particularly in the contexts of colonial domination and post-colonial independence. Through their novels, colonial and post-colonial writers, thus, are themselves participating in the act of writing and recording history.  In Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (The Pessoptimist) (1974), the narrator is writing a series of letters to an unknown recipient in which he records his experience as a Palestinian working as a spy for the Israelis.  Habiby speaks primarily from the perspective of the colonized subject, yet his affiliation with the Israelis suggests that he is a hybrid of both colonial and post-colonial identity. In J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), an unnamed magistrate working for an unnamed Empire in an unnamed outpost narrates his ambiguous relationship with both the Empire and the Barbarians. His moral dilemma, and later his torture, makes him, too, a hybrid identity who belongs to the Empire, but who sympathizes with the natives. In both novels, thus, the narrators are placed on the threshold between the colonizer and the colonized. Habiby’s The Pessoptimist and Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians present narrators with hybrid affiliations, emphasizing the subjective nature of recorded history; through this understanding of history, the act of writing itself becomes an act of resistance, for it allows the colonized subject to reclaim its identity by reclaiming its history.


      The hybrid identity of both narrators informs much of the interpretation of these two novels, particularly with regards to the figure of the witness. In Habiby’s The Pessoptimist, Saeed is a Palestinian with Israeli affiliations. Saeed’s hybrid identity is highlighted because he is participating in the act of recording the history of his people while also being the “informer” for the Israelis. The nature of the informer being rather similar to the “witness” makes his act of writing subjective, for he has one foot in and one foot out of the colonial mission. In Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, the hybrid identity of the magistrate is emphasized because he sympathizes with the natives, but also because he himself becomes the victim of colonial domination, and is physically and mentally abused by a system of colonial power. In his book The Location of Culture (1994), Homi Bhabha argues that hybridity is “the articulation of the ambivalent space where the rite of power is enacted on the site of desire” (Bhabha 112). This space is precisely that within which the narrators fall, both attempting to overcome the threshold of a static identity, an attempt through which it might be possible to undermine the authority of colonial discourse. It is important to note, however, that the notion of hybridity raises the question of whether history can ever truly be objective, or if one of the necessary qualities of colonial and post-colonial writing is an ambivalence of representation that is derived from the postcolonial and postmodern understanding of history as a record created by humans. Ultimately, it is through this understanding that the novels present writing as a form of resistance against colonial power.


      In Habiby’s The Pessoptimist, history appears to repeat itself, suggesting that, within the colonial experience, existence becomes cyclical, almost never ending. One of the first instances of this repetitive, cyclical narrative is depicted in the names of the characters; Yuaad and Saeed both have counterparts that carry the same name: the “second Yuaad” and the “second Saeed,” as Saeed refers to them in the novel (Habiby 115). There is an interesting parallel that occurs between these characters; the first and second Yuaad are mother and daughter, and they look so much alike that Saeed actually confuses the second Yuaad for his long lost love. Habiby creates a narratorial parallel between these two women by having them both get arrested and deported in the same manner: “Saeed, don’t worry! I will return!” is what both women tell Saeed as they are taken away.  The repetition of this scene suggests that colonial history is persistent, and that the tragedies of the older generations can be and often are inherited by the following generation, much like an inherited fate. This cyclical representation of history, as such, becomes a metaphorical prison: inescapable and unavoidable. However, with the second Saeed who, unlike the narrator, is a freedom fighter, a “fedaiy” for his country, Habiby presents a different alternative: a possibility or a potential for change that can occur through resistance. During their meeting in prison, Saeed says of the second Saeed, “He kept widening that single tiny window in the wall until it became a broad horizon that I had never seen before. Its netted bars became bridges to the moon, and between his bed and mine were hanging gardens” (Habiby 133).  This image of the “widening” window suggests that there is a degree of hope in resistance; it is almost as though resistance of the colonizer is a resistance of a doomed fate, an escape from the jail of cyclical history. 


      In Habiby’s novel, there is a clear distinction between history as historical event, and history as a permanent record. In a conversation with his teacher, the teacher tells Saeed that “after every massacre there was no one left to tell the new generation about their origins” (Habiby., 24). Here, the reality of the historical event lies not in the event, or the massacre itself, but in the memory of it, the record that is or is not passed on to the following generation. Recording, as such, becomes something almost necessary to the colonized subject, if he or she is to have any history at all. In “On National Culture” (1967) Franz Fanon identifies the importance of reclaiming a past history as the second phase of decolonization. Fanon states that, in this phase, the native “decides to remember what he is” (Fanon 40) by identifying his own history, pre-colonialism.  For the colonized subject who has experienced this massacre, the event itself is a reality; however, for the colonizer, the understanding of history is different: history is not the experience, it is the record. Furthermore, when Walaa is surrounded, Saeed states, “I don’t know what their archives show as having happened that evening. But what I have recorded within myself, and shall never forget in any detail, is the following,” and then proceeds to detail the events of his wife and son’s death (Habiby 108). Here, this distinction between historical record and historical reality is highlighted. It appears that history does not even begin to exist for the colonized until it is written down. In this statement there lies one of the fundamental contributors to colonial ideology: the fact that only human records matter, as opposed to the human experience. By extension, erasing or rewriting human records and “archives” eradicates human experience and, in turn, human identity, highlighting the danger as well the necessity of writing and recording one’s own history (Habiby.).


      This notion of “erasing” human experience through writing and recording history demonstrates just how malleable history really is. It appears to be a misconception, according to The Pessoptimist, to think of history as a fixed and objective reality. As discussed above, there is distinction between historical record and historical reality. The grave disconnect between these two perspectives leads to the existence of a highly ‘subjective’ history: a history that belongs to the victor, or the record keeper. Saeed’s teacher tells him, “[C]onquerors, my son, consider as true history only what they have themselves fabricated” (Habiby 25). Perhaps the greatest commentary here is Habiby’s use of the word “fabricated,” indicating that historical record is malleable and flexible, and can be altered to suit the perspective of the writer or record keeper. History, as such, becomes a creation, far removed from its distinct reality, or the real experience of its victims. Furthermore, the use of the word “fabricated” suggests an intentional intrusion, a deliberate and planned colonization of history. As such, history is no longer fact, it is no longer experience, but rather a subjective interpretation of these facts that relies only on the perspective of those who can and do write it.


      If, as The Pessoptimist conveys, recording history is to be understood as an act of colonial subjectivity, then writing itself becomes an act of resistance, particularly in this novel through the land itself, highlighting the link between reclaiming one’s history and reclaiming one’s land. In The Pessoptimist the land becomes a surface upon which history is recorded. When Saeed is at the courtyard of the Jazzar Mosque, the families around him all tell him where they are originally from, but he tells the recipient of his letters, “[P]lease do not expect me, my dear sir, after all this time, to remember the names of all the villages laid waste…” (Habiby 22). This idea of “remembering” echoes what Fanon details in the second phase of decolonization and is tied to the idea of history, and, by extension, to the act of recording history (Fanon 40). Despite what Saeed says, however, it appears that he has recorded many of those cities names in his mind, for he lists several of them. Saeed quotes a poem by Tawfiq Zayyad in which Zayyad says, “I shall carve the name of every stolen plot…on an olive tree in the courtyard of my home” (Habiby 22). In this meta-textual moment, Saeed’s mention of recording the city’s names parallels what the novel itself is doing: recording the history of the Palestinian people. In fact, the very act of returning to the literature of his Palestinian tradition reinforces his attempt to reclaim his past. Here, however, the history is written on the land itself. Saeed asks, “When will the words carved on the olive tree be read? And are there any olives left in courtyards still” (Habiby 22) The olive tree, a tree native to the Eastern Mediterranean region, becomes the surface on which the history of the cities is recorded. Through this synecdoche, the olive tree becomes extended to symbolize the whole of Palestine, suggesting that the land itself must bear the history, almost like a scar, in order for the history to last. The carving of the history of this nation onto the trees becomes a declaration of both physical and literary independence; the act of writing, thus, no longer belongs to the colonizer, but to the colonized subject. The tree is his tree, on his land, and it carries his history.


        This process of physical scarring demonstrates how the process of writing in The Pessoptimist becomes necessarily an act of violence, or disfiguring of the land itself, which reinforces the idea of resistance, and highlights the need for a permanent record. The image of writing and recording on the land suggests an almost self-inflicted injury, or a sense of marking that is necessary in order for the history of the people to remain. In the same scene discussed above, the poem by Tawfiq Zayyad does not mention writing, but rather “carving,” a violent and rather brutal description of recording. The idea of “carving” suggests not only violence, but also resistance. In fact, it even suggests that the process of writing is perhaps it is being contested and challenged. Through this violent act of “carving,” there is a battle between two perspectives, two histories that are being written simultaneously: one from the point of the view of the colonizer, and the other from the point of view of the colonized. This language of violence is also exemplified when the second Yuaad refers to the death of Saeed’s brother, stating that he had died “as he carved his living from the rocks” (Habiby 154). The rocks here, much like the tree, are native to the land. The idea, thus, that life is being carved into these rocks further demonstrates the necessarily violent act of writing, for not only are they writing their history, they are also writing their life. It is perhaps interesting to note that the brother dies during this act of carving, which possibly suggests that it is impossible, in a colonized land, to be allowed to write one’s own history. This sense of hostility underlines the power of writing as a tool of resistance. Thus, violence becomes necessary in order to have any permanent record. The carved history cannot be rewritten or destroyed by the colonizer: it is etched into the very body of the land. Hence, by depicting writing as a necessarily violent act, the novel shows that writing, too, can be an act of resistance against a colonial power.  


      In J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, the persistent obsession with the notion of writing and recording history is also tied to the land through the metaphor of “digging” that exists throughout the novel. As a hobby, the magistrate spends time excavating the ruins around the outpost. The magistrate describes history as a series of layers, each laid over the other. He states, “[P]erhaps in my digging I have only scratched the surface. Perhaps ten feet below the floor lie the ruins of another fort…peopled with the bones of folk who thought they would find safety behind high walls” (Coetzee 17). This “surface” that Coetzee refers to here is both a reference to the layering of history, as well as to the surface of the land itself; by digging, the magistrate is physically and metaphorically scratching the surface in an attempt to uncover the history of another group of unnamed people in an unnamed city (Coetzee 17). The layering of history is an interesting image in the colonial context of this novel, for this is precisely what occurs in colonial discourse: the history of the colonizer overwrites the history of the colonized peoples. Their own history has not disappeared; it has merely been buried beneath an external perspective, a foreign agent that has altered and changed the reality of the colonial mission. As such, this unearthing of the past can be seen almost as a physical manifestation of Fanon’s second phase of decolonization: a reclaiming of the native past (Fanon 40). Hence, the metaphor of digging becomes of particular importance, as it seems, according to Coetzee’s novel, to uncover the history of a colonized people.


       In addition to the digging and unearthing of a past history, Coetzee’s novel undermines the relationship between historical events and historical records which reinforces the disconnect between the perspective of the colonizer and the colonized. When asked to read the scrolls that he has uncovered, the magistrate says:


They form an allegory. They can be read in many orders. Furthermore, each single slip can be read in many ways. Together they can be read as a domestic journal, or they can be read as a plan of war, or they can be turned on their sides and read as a history of the last years of the Empire. (Coetzee 129)


       By forcing the magistrate to decipher the scrolls, Colonel Joll parallels, on a narrative level, what colonial ideology does on the practical level: interpreting the history of the colonized nations in its own voice. Here, however, Coetzee undermines this relationship between the real history, and the recorded history by citing multiple and rather extreme interpretations of the same scrolls. The readers are told that the magistrate does not understand the language on the scrolls; thus, his interpretations are highly fictional. Moreover, the stark difference between the reading of a “domestic journal” and a “plan of war” shows the danger of misinterpretations, and the results of recording a history of a people without including their own voices (Coetzee 129). Furthermore, the fact that the scroll is “turned on its side” highlights that colonial history, too, is “turned on its side” to allow for an external interpretation (Coetzee 129). It is possible, then, that the novel is suggesting a sort of randomness that is associated with these interpretations; there is, after all, no one who can really decipher these records, but the obsession with understanding them and enforcing meaning onto them highlights the extent to which colonial history is subjective.


         The subjectivity of history is further highlighted through the novel’s depictions of historical records, much like in The Pessoptimist, as something malleable, which can be controlled.  When the magistrate is demanding a trial so he can have the opportunity to defend himself, Colonel Joll tells him “[y]ou seem to want to make a name for yourself as the One Just Man” (Coetzee 131). This idea of making a name of one’s self, or creating a record shows that history is not something that is, but something that is made. This creation, by extension, involves a creator: the victor, the colonizer, and the writer. Colonel Jolls tells the magistrate, “[Y]ou want to go down in history as a martyr, I suspect. But who is going to put you in the history books?” (Coetzee 131). This is perhaps the most honest moment in the book at which point the relationship between historical record and historical fact is most highlighted. Much like in Habiby’s The Pessoptimist, the victors are the ones who write the history of colonialism. The Colonel, form his position of power, can choose to record the life of the magistrate, or to eradicate it completely. “There will be no history,” he tells the magistrate; the Colonel, thus, as a grand symbol of “The Empire of Pain,” becomes the gatekeeper of the Empire’s permanent records (Coetzee 131, 25). What he chooses to write will go down in history, and what he deems as too “trivial” is eliminated (Coetzee 131). This echoes what the magistrate himself has said earlier in the novel, when he states that “this obscure chapter in the history of the world” should be “terminated” (Coetzee 27). The image of the “chapter” reinforces the idea that history is something created and fabricated. It is, in fact, only through the hybridity of the magistrate that readers even get access to the suppressed history of the colonized peoples. Hence, much like in Habiby’s novel, Coetzee appears to be highlighting the malleable nature of history, emphasizing that for history to be real, it must be recorded, or else it is diminished or overwritten by another story.


       This process of recording, however, is accomplished through a perpetuated violence against the natives, symbolized by the Barbarian woman in Coetzee’s novel. The woman in Waiting for the Barbarians becomes a surface, or a text that is marked, read, and deciphered by the colonizer. The magistrate refers to her body as bearing “the traces of a history” (Coetzee 73). What the land is to Habiby’s Pessoptimist, the native woman is to Coetzee’s magistrate, a surface to record on and to interpret. The woman is, as the magistrate describes “a body maimed, scarred, [and] harmed” in the name of her land and her people, for she is tortured by the colonizer (Coetzee 64). It is possible, in fact, to interpret her character as an act of resistance against the colonizer, for her body bears the history, the true historical facts of what has been done to her. As such, the act of oiling and rubbing can be seen as an effort for the colonizer to erase the marks of fact from the body of the colonized subject, or, as the magistrate states, “to obliterate the girl” (Coetzee 53). However, despite her willing and “passive” surrender to the physical desires of the magistrate, the woman is evidently a figure of resistance; this is exemplified in her rejection of the magistrate when he wants to take her back with him (Coetzee 75). This refusal is a moment of agency for the woman, for the land, and for the colonized people. Much like Habiby conveys in The Pessoptimist, there is a necessary violence in the act of recording and resistance that can be understood as a need for a permanent record. As such, the woman becomes the site of this resistance; the marks on her body emphasize the need for the colonized to write their own history, rather than have it marked on them by the colonized.


      Emile Habiby’s The Pessoptimist and J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians are two novels that examine the subjectivity of the written record. Although they are written from different points of view, that of the colonizer and that of the colonized, the hybrid characters of Saeed and the magistrate make their testimonies much more complex, in that they can perceive the idea of “history” from alternative perspectives. The novels demonstrate a clear distinction between the idea of historical reality and historical record, forcing readers to acknowledge that, in a colonial and post-colonial setting, the written record is often a biased testimonial, rather than a historic presentation of truth. This treatment of history, however, becomes a site of resistance, whereby writing itself becomes an act of resistance of colonial power, a way of reclaiming a past that existed long before colonialism.  



Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K., The location of culture. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Coetzee, J. M., Waiting for the barbarians. 1980. Reprint. London: Penguin Books, 2010. Print.

Fanon, Frantz. "On National Culture." The wretched of the earth. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1965. Print.

Habiby, Emile. The secret life of Saeed: the Pessoptimist. 1974. Reprint. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Interlink Books, 2003. Print.


Farah Nada is a senior student at the American University of Sharjah. She is undertaking a double major in English Literature and Journalism. She wishes to pursue graduate studies in modernist literature, a career in publishing, and a grand adventure of teaching English in Italy. Her bookcase is her prized possession.

Contact us

  • Instagram