The National

For Love or Country

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reads Samir el Youssef’s allegorical novel, which recollects the long and painful unravelling of an Israeli-Palestinian affair.

The host of a cocktail party in London introduces a Palestinian man to an Israeli woman. They are both in their late thirties and lonely. He is a cynical film critic and a lapsed documentarian. She is austere, dreamy and unemployed, translating Hebrew texts to English in her spare time. A few days have passed since Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn. “Isn’t it wonderful!” the host exclaims, elated by the prospect of arranging a romantic, cosmopolitan embodiment of the historic peace deal in an intimate social setting. Indeed, Ibrahim and Ruth start dating soon after, and for a time, their friends relish the relationship as love’s triumph over recalcitrant political tragedy. But in the end, Samir el Youssef’s highly allegorical new novel, A Treaty of Love, tumbles from its initial euphoric peak to scrape the depths of violence and despair.

A Treaty of Love is Youssef’s follow-up to The Illusion of Return, a novel published in 2007, and Gaza Blues, a viciously funny volume that paired a novella by Youssef with stories by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret in 2004. A Palestinian born in Lebanon’s Rashidiya refugee camp in 1965, and based in London since 1990, Youssef has also published a novel and two short story collections in Arabic. He contributes frequently to The Guardian, New Statesman, Jewish Quarterly and the Arabic daily Al Hayat.

In addition to its caustic humour, Youssef’s work is noteworthy for its brutal takedowns of feeble Arab intellectuals and insipid Israeli peaceniks alike. (At one point in The Day the Beast Got Thirsty, his contribution to Gaza Blues, a playwright prattles on about how the intifada is a work of art. “He stared at me, hoping that I would be impressed,” Youssef’s protagonist recalls. “But I was not. I actually looked at him in disgust as if he had just farted from him mouth.”) In the periodicals he writes for, the writing partnerships he pursues and the subjects he tackles (from the Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani to the Israeli writer Amos Oz), Youssef routinely obliterates the pro forma prohibition on cultural traffic between Israel and the Arab world. It comes as no surprise, then, that his latest effort embodies the Arab-Israeli conflict in two lovers on either side of the divide.

Youssef begins each chapter in the story of Ibrahim and Ruth with similarly structured sentences: “First we had peace,” Ibrahim recalls, “then I met Ruth and started to think about making a film.” “First we started going out together, then Rabin was assassinated and I asked Ruth to move in with me.” “First Netanyahu won the election and then Ruth decided to go home.” “First there were more suicide bombings then she stopped sleeping with me.” “First the Camp David talks failed then we discovered that ours was a doomed relationship.”

A Treaty of Love wallows in the mundane details of a romance fading from excitement to routine. Some of the most illuminating passages in the book follow the young couple through the streets of London at dawn, when Ibrahim and Ruth are still discovering one another and exploring unknown urban neighbourhoods. “London is so big,” says Ruth, “big enough to make us forget that we belong to hostile people.”

But they do not forget for long. Much as they try to conduct their affair outside of the ties that bind them to two territories at war, they never lose their residual mistrust of one another. That mistrust is based on the notion that each is inculcated with ideas and arguments about the other that are impossible to dislodge, despite the love they share as individuals. As the peace process unravels and the second intifada begins, their relationship falls apart and gives way to an unstable power dynamic that lurches between pathetic absurdity and intimations of violence.

The novel opens with Ibrahim ruminating on his relationship with Ruth while waiting for her to return from the post office, where she has apparently gone to mail a parcel. Their ups and down are conveyed in retrospect – the times when Ibrahim considered making a documentary about Ruth, when Ruth tried and failed to get a funding for her English translations of Hebrew poetry, when a television producer approached them to make a film called Living with the Enemy, when Ruth returned home to Israel and Ibrahim, in her absence, tried to sleep with his best friend’s wife. But Youssef is most cutting when he replicates the monumentally unproductive political rhetoric of Ibrahim’s friends – and when he describes Ruth’s fiendishly (if also predictably) unsuccessful attempt to form a peace group of Arab and Israeli expats.

Until it reaches its sudden and deeply unsettling conclusion, A Treaty of Love is a relatively light and sprightly portrait of two people struggling to escape the confinements and restrictions of the places they were born at a time when everyone around them wants to read their relationship in hopeful, symbolic terms. But when Ibrahim finally cracks open a traumatic family secret for Ruth to see, latent suspicions and presumptions surge forth and overwhelm them both, wrecking their relationship and with it their lives. To give away the ending would destroy the architecture of suspense on which Youssef builds his entire novel, but let’s say this: Ruth could not, in fact, have gone to the post office because she is, in the time of Ibrahim’s telling, quite dead. The unanticipated consequences of the Oslo Accords never looked so grim.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a staff writer at The Review.
© The National 2009