Times Literary Supplement

Ibrahim and Ruth

For a short while in the 1990s, it was possible to believe that the people of Israel and the Palestinian Territories might somehow find a way to live with one another. It didn't happen, of course; the hopes and aspirations dwindled away, and by the start of the second intifada in the year 2000, all that was left from the period were recriminations and mutual distrust. In his new novel , A Treaty of Love, the Palestinian writer Samir El-Youssef explores, with brutal frankness, the hopes, frustrations and, ultimately, failures of this interlude through a love affair between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man living in London.

Ibrahim, the narrator, was once an aspiring filmmaker, a chronicler of the lives of the people in the refugee camps of south Lebanon; now, he reviews films for a small journal in London, and is vaguely dissatisfied with the stasis in his life. Ruth, from central Israel, makes a living as a freelance translator. She too is a refugee, albeit of a different kind; for her, London, with its anonymity offers a refuge from the perpeptual conflict that defines her homeland. They meet at a party, a few days after that famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in 1993 on the White House lawn. The attraction is mutual and immediate: it is also pragmatic, and contains an awareness that what brings them together is something more than romantic love.

They are both in their late thirties, and neither believes that the relationship could exist without reference to their painful political histories. "We were always eager to express criticism and impatience with our people", Ibrahim observes. But he tempers this idealism with his next thought. "I came to realise that adopting this posture was the only way we could live together." And, with time, it becomes hard to keep up this facade.

As the peace process lurches along, from hope to despair and back again, so does their relationship. Rabin's death and the Hebron massacre, the withdrawal from Lebanon and the optimism following Ehud Barak's election in 1999 take place; Ibrahim and Ruth are hardly immune to these external events, and their affair sways one way or the other, almost in step with the mood of the time. Ruth travels to Israel, on a rare visit to her family, and Ibrahim accuses her of seeking out past lovers. Later, he attempts, half-heartedly, to sleep with the wife of an acquaintance, then tells Ruth about it when she returns to London. One senses that he wants to bring their relationship to an end even if he doesn't understand this himself and lacks the conviction ned to finish it off himself.

Ibrahim, as a narrator, is often too self-absorbed to give a clear account of what is goin on around him, and this makes for frustrating reading at times. His introspectionis at the expense of Ruth, whom we rarely see in a clear, neutral light.One moment he idealizes her, the next he loathes her. Between the one and the other, the reader struggles to form a clear portrait of the woman.

A Treaty of Love may have weaknesses as a work of fiction but if one takes the story as a metaphor for the troubled realtionship between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it becomes a more provocative and challenging work; the very ordinariness ofthe couple's lives accentuating the tragedy they come to represent. "I've been having dark thoughts", Ibrahim writes in a letter to Ruth. "We must do something before these dark thoughts become frightful actions."

Akin Ajayi
© TLS 2008