The Jewish Quarterly
In an opinion piece published in the Guardian (14th May) to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the declaration of the state of Israel, the Palestinian writer Samir El-Youssef, articulated what he called ‘a mad dream’. El-Youssef, born in Lebanon’s Rashidia refugee camp, posited the idea of Israeli ‘acknowledgement’ that the creation of Israel stifled the natural birth of a Palestinian state, and Palestinian ‘forgiveness’ for the irreversible damage done to the idea of this state being established in the whole of historic Palestine. The risks for both sides would be huge: Israeli acknowledgement would raise the fearful prospect of the undoing of Israel and the inevitability of living in a Palestinian state; Palestinian forgiveness would mean the end of attempts to undo Israel, could be seen as surrender and could lead to more land seizure and the total suffocation of Palestinian life. On the other hand, if this ‘courage of the mad’ was to prevail, a state of calm might ensue, with some return to normal daily life. ‘This is probably a mad dream’. El-Youssef concluded: ‘The alternative, however, is the greater madness of a conflict that would go on for the next 60 years.’
These questions of courage, fear, the endless and possibly futile struggle to escape the damage of the past and its resulting madness, are at the forefront of his second novel A Treaty of Love. It explores in graphic, compelling and finally excruciating detail, all the stages of a relationship between Ibrahim, a Lebanese-born Palestinian refugee journalist and aspiring film-maker, and Ruth, an Israeli freelance translator. The couple, in their late 30s, living in London, meet at a party held just after the Oslo accords, in the glow of Arafat and Rabin’s historic handshake. Ruth is hopeful, Ibrahim a sceptic. The novel ends amid the calamity of Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Haram-al-Sharif and the start of the second intifada.
Each chapter is prefaced by a summary of the state of Palestinian- Israeli relations and of the couple’s relationship. Their happiest period is spent living separately, anonymously wandering the lesser known streets of London, enjoying ‘a make-believe youthful life … playing at young strangers acting out our own private film’. Ibrahim characterises their getting together as ‘an act of solidarity between two people brought together by a mutual sense of lost youth.’
He takes the fateful step of asking Ruth to move in with him after the shock of Rabin’s assassination. ‘First we lived together, then the suicide bombings started and peace seemed no more than a short honeymoon. So was our honeymoon, short.’ Their film has ended.
El-Youssef makes no bones about the shadows cast over their affair by the wider political situation. They at first enjoy being a ‘Palestinian- Israeli couple’, becoming ‘the centre of attention’. But it is their lack of adherence to the entrenched positions on either side of the conflict, and their mutual scorn for the rhetoric used to express them, that has drawn them together. They refuse to succumb to the state of symbolism which others, including a documentary film-maker (whose interest in their relationship could advance Ibrahim’s faltering career) seem to want for them.
Nevertheless, the conflict has deeply damaged them, severing them from their roots, and this damage infects their relationship. A turning point comes when Ibrahim’s longestranged father dies and he will not go home for his funeral. Ruth, whose father was killed in the 1967 war, his obsequies overwhelmed by the surrounding elation, was never able properly to mourn a man who died a ‘war hero’. She finds Ibrahim’s cold detachment from his family inexplicable. But Ibrahim too has been scarred by death and loss: the senseless killing of his brother and the haunting ‘disappearance’ of his cousin Maryam, behind which is a shameful secret, too terrible for Ibrahim to acknowledge, that threatens to overwhelm his relationship with Ruth — and his very sanity.
Both struggle with their conflicting need to be, and fear of being, alone; with the boredom and sudden silences in their relationship; and with the deep alienation, readiness to run away and simultaneous terror of loneliness, which Ibrahim — literally a refugee, and Ruth, an ideological refugee — seek to stifle by being together. ‘It’s funny but … people who don’t belong anywhere tend to cling to the place where they happen to be living. They are frightened to leave because they know that if they left they probably would have no right to come back,’ Ruth says when they first meet, echoing Ibrahim’s own thoughts.
Despite the evident political symbolism, it would be a mistake to view this fictional relationship as a mere metaphor for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. El-Youssef ’s detailed anatomy of a doomed union is too compelling, and his characters too vividly drawn, so to reduce the sympathy and horror their predicament evokes. This is his best work yet.
© The Jewish Quarterly 2008