This article explores the operation of humor in Palestinian author Emile Habiby’s novel The Pessoptimist (1974) and compares it to Voltaire’s humor in Candide, which it explicitly cites. The differences between the two authors’ modes of humor are read as an index of their different relations to the law, and specifically, to international law as the guarantor of human rights. Voltaire’s humorous critique is limited to the current content of the law, reflecting his confidence in universalist ideals and rights attainable by legal reform. Habiby’s humor, however, protests the law as such, exposing universalist ideals as not merely unhelpful for the Palestinians’ struggle but also as complicit in the oppression and fragmentation of Palestinian society. Habiby therefore redirects the emphasis toward interpersonal manners and intimacies that are external to the realm of the law yet underwrite it. Against Voltaire’s cosmopolitanism and Enlightenment-era ideals, Habiby’s humor thus offers a differential and conflictual community that prioritizes a practice of decolonization over ideal solutions and their dichotomous logic.

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