The New Zealand Listener

The Infernal Chess Game

Literature has helped Samir El-Youssef make sense of the Middle East, and now his novels are doing the same for others.

Funny place, the Middle East. As veteran newspaperman Thomas Friedman once fulminated, newcomers too often approach the subject as if it were a one-dimensional game of checkers – only to be confronted with a reality more akin to a three-dimensional game of chess. “Or perhaps you could better say,” Samir El-Youssef half-jokingly muses over a long lunch with a visitor from New Zealand, “a three-dimensional game of chess played underwater in the dark.”

Certainly, you could say as much for this leading Middle Eastern writer and past recipient of the PEN Tucholsky Award, whose biographical details are as elliptical as his native region and as the literary work for which he has been gaining an increasingly appreciative international readership.

A Palestinian born in the Rashidia refugee camp south of Tyre in Lebanon, in 1965, El-Youssef is the son of a Sunni father and a mother from the area’s only Shi’ite Palestinian family. A Muslim by upbringing, he cheerfully describes himself as an atheist. More striking still, at least in some quarters, he counts many Israelis and Jews among his closest friends, even while saving some of his most trenchant public criticism for the policies of successive Israeli governments.

Need any further proof? Try El-Youssef’s latest novel, his second in English, A Treaty of Love, in which he conjures with an impossibly romantic whirl between a Palestinian and his Israeli girlfriend living together in London.

We meet on a ghost-grey afternoon in the same city, on a dark day in which the natural elements seem to reflect the economic desolation enveloping El-Youssef’s adopted homeland of the past 19 years. Nevertheless, he is notably upbeat during our time together, not at all the difficult customer of his advance publicity; a roly-poly character of unaffected intelligence, strong emotions and an easy conversational style.

The unlikely protagonists of his new novel would no doubt approve. A Treaty of Love was always intended to “reflect the fact that the years between 1993 and 2000 were amazing years in so many senses”, he explains softly, referring to the period between the signing of the initial Oslo Agreement and the start of the last Palestinian uprising. Among the novel’s many virtues, as others have already pointed out, it obliterates once and for all the pro forma prohibition on cultural, much less amorous, intersections between the Jewish and Muslim worlds,

Ibrahim and Ruth’s tale is one about “people who can’t make up their mind, not because they’re sceptical but because there are so many things they feel they can’t know about. So things become vague and complicated and ambiguous.”

The couple end up making do with the basics and trying to survive romantically in the real world, attempting as they do so to disentangle it from the “unreality of violence” – a big authorial theme – that mars their respective homelands. Or is that just the one respective homeland? Among the revelations the characters experience is the discovery that Ruth’s family home was built on land owned by an Arab and that Ibrahim was born in the Shatila camp, where Ariel Sharon infamously waltzed with Bashir Gemayel.

“It was difficult,” the author admits. “I mean, all novels are difficult, but this kind of theme is not one that’s easy to pull off.” Was that because of the nature of the Middle East? “No, because of the nature of imaginative writing. These are people with a lot of symbolism and metaphors in their life: people sleeping together in the bed of history, people searching for their own peace process, that kind of thing. But it also had to work as a story.”

Clarity is the key. El-Youssef has long looked to Saul Bellow for the last word on how to be a stickler for the fuss-free narrative style. He counts discovering Bellow’s fiction – the novel Herzog in particular – as being as great an artistic awakening as living through one of last century’s most miserable civil wars, in which more than 130,000 perished during a 16-year conflict, was a defining personal experience.

He speaks balefully about growing up “amid an atmosphere of continual violence, trying to figure out where so-called real life ended and fiction started”. Literature therefore offered a kind of balm, an organising principle that’s allowed him ever since to make sense of the infernal chess game. “If you try to rationalise it through essays and non-fiction, I think you run the risk of losing your mind,” he says, chuckling, “or at least losing your readers.”

But he stops short of praising his Jewish literary hero’s non-fictional musings on the Levant. “Here you have someone who goes to Jerusalem – and back – without meeting a single Arab character.” El-Youssef shakes his head in disbelief at the audacity of To Jerusalem and Back. “Sorry, but that kind of thing runs the risk of spoiling the image of someone I’ve really worshipped.”

It was another star Jewish writer, Etgar Keret, who first ushered El-Youssef’s work into a wider non-Arabic setting five years ago, after “this sweet, very easy-going guy” he met at a German conference suggested the two collaborate on a collection of short fiction that would eventually be titled Gaza Blues.

“When we first met, it wasn’t a question of us being people from, you know, two different sides,” says El-Youssef. “He was just someone my own age, someone I could get along with. On the Palestinian-Israeli issue, our attitude was like, ‘Okay, we have this problem in the region. Now, what can we do about it? And let’s be honest.’”

The resultant book was largely surrealistic. “New Zealand’s a very peaceful country, right?” he points out kindly when this is put to him. “So maybe you wouldn’t know so much about unreality.”

By the time Gaza Blues appeared in 2004, El-Youssef was settled in London, the city where he has enjoyed his greatest opportunities to ply the craft he decided was his for the taking “as far back as I can remember”, as well as completing a master’s degree in philosophy at the University of Bradford. In 2007, he produced his first novel in English, The Illusion of Return. “You can live in London without too much money, and still have a rich life in the sense of knowledge and experience,” he says today. “In the time I’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve ever been bored.”

Lebanon, of course, still offers its own lures, “or at least it does when the fanatics aren’t playing their games”. It still strikes him as infinitely sad that he was able to acquire British citizenship without too much bother in 2000, but will almost certainly never live to be counted as a full citizen of the land of his birth, scene of yet another fractious recent election, in which Palestinians were again barred from participating.

“Odious, right?” he says, reaching for his coat and a packet of cigarettes as we prepare to stroll out into the late afternoon. “We’re not allowed to vote. We’re not allowed in trade unions. We’re not allowed in government jobs. Three hundred thousand people in Lebanon – the Palestinians – lack the slightest human rights. I ask you, how would a New Zealand writer feel if, wherever they go in life and however much they succeeded, they knew they would always remain stateless?”

Like a human piece in a rather complicated game of chess, perhaps?


Reviewed by David Cohen
© The New Zealand Listener 2009