Saturday, September 01, 2007

samir el-youssef's novel 'the illusion of return'

In 2004 the London-based Palestinian fiction writer, essayist and journalist Samir El-Youssef co-authored the story collection “Gaza Blues” with Etgar Keret, widely seen as one of Israel’s most important short story writers. The book, published in London by David Paul, consisted of 15 of Keret’s surreal short stories and El-Youssef’s novella “The Day the Beast got Hungry”.

This was an audacious move by a Palestinian writer, especially at a time when the political climate has led to a decline in Israeli-Arab interchanges. The book was well-reviewed and translated into several languages. Now the small independent London publisher Halban has published El-Youssef’s first novel written in English, “The Illusion of Return”. The title of the novel is provocative, referring to the “right of return”.

El-Youssef was born in 1965 and brought up in the Rashidia refugee camp in southern Lebanon. He has lived in London since 1990 and has a Masters Degree in Philosophy from Birkbeck College, University of London. He has had collections of short stories published in Arabic, and has written for many newspapers and journals.

At the beginning of “The Illusion of Return” the unnamed Palestinian narrator, who lives in London, says: “Since the start of this month I have been waiting for the day of the 27th. The closer it gets, the more I have become aware of the fact that it will soon be exactly fifteen years since I left Lebanon. I have been here for fifteen years, that’s fifteen years without ever going back, nor seeing any of the people that I used to know then, I kept telling myself with an unmistakable sense of achievement.”

The narrator admits that in the years since he left Lebanon he has achieved very little, “so little in fact that I was desperate enough to consider an achievement the mere completion of fifteen years without seeing anybody from the past.” And now this sense of achievement has proved premature, as an old friend from his days in Lebanon, Ali, has phoned to say he will be passing through Heathrow Airport for a couple of hours on the 24th on his way back from America to Lebanon. The two arrange to meet at Heathrow.

The novel takes the reader through recurring circles of time, gradually revealing the stories of the characters. Ali had left Lebanon seventeen years previously, two years before the narrator. The narrator is obsessed by the events of that time, in particular the evening he and Ali spent in late 1982 or early 1983, with their friends Maher and George in their customary haunt, Hajj Ramadan’s Café. They did not realize that this would be the last evening they would spend together. At the time of this last evening together, the narrator is haunted by the death of his sister Amina ten years earlier. The shocking circumstances of her death become clear in the course of the novel.

During his tube journey to Heathrow to meet Ali, the narrator thinks how important it is to him to be seen as someone who had “managed to leave”. He frets that Ali will realize how little he has achieved during his time in London. The narrator has always yearned for completeness, but from as far back as he can remember, he has only half-finished anything he started. He has had a “half relationship” with a woman, his jobs have been part-time, and he has abandoned his PhD thesis.

The thesis had been intended to show how a generation of Palestinians in Lebanon had managed to move from being an underclass to being socially (if not legally or politically) middle class. But some fellow Palestinian students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) oppose this choice of topic. In several comic scenes, three students from ‘The Campaign for the Right of Return’ argue with the narrator, saying that such a thesis will only benefit “our Zionist enemy”. The narrator derides their use of this phrase. He urges them to be realistic and forget about the right of return. “The only return we should think of is one of a more symbolic value.” The students’ response is to beat him up one night.

At this early stage of the novel, the narrator comes across as somewhat arrogant. He speaks to the students in highly patronizing tones and recognizes that their accent is that of those who remained in camps rather than those, like him and Ali, who got out. “It was the accent which made me feel that we came from two different societies and that what they were saying might have applied to them, but not to me.”
As the novel progresses the narrator becomes a more sympathetic character. He may have rejected the concept of return, but his life in London seems empty, and there is no mention of friends or of the texture of his day to day life. He appears to be embedded in his vivid past in Lebanon. He rarely speaks Arabic, and tells Ali he prefers to speak in English even to Arabs in London because he enjoys the feeling of anonymity and the freedom to completely cut himself off from assumptions and values that he no longer holds.

The novel is written in an unadorned prose. Much of the narrative is in direct or reported speech, and El-Youssef is adept at creating lively, authentic-sounding exchanges. At the time of the four friends’ last meeting in the café, George is deeply into the philosophy of Heidegger, and is trying unsuccessfully to explain the philosopher’s notion of “being-in-the-world”. Maher is a Marxist political activist, and the two often disagree. The narrator’s friendship with Ali goes back to school when they smoked cigarettes together and then joints, and took pills, habits that have continued up to the “last night”.

George’s family are Palestinian Christians with Lebanese nationality who live in an area dominated by Muslims. During a walk after the two leave the café together, George confides to the narrator that he lives in a “cold home” devoid of emotion. He reveals that his parents have been divorced for the past 27 years although they continue to live together.

The same evening Maher is abducted by Lebanese men in a car and shot dead by the son of the late owner of a factory where Maher had gone to mobilize the workers. After a worker burnt the factory down, the owner had died of grief, and his son holds Maher responsible.

In the narrator’s view, Maher had not really been concerned to stop exploitation of the workers, but “just wanted to examine in the real world the thoughts and claims which he had learned from those little red-covered Marxist pamphlets.” The narrator has a loathing of empty slogans and the corruption of ideology. Young men from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), to which the narrator’s brother Kamal belongs, are educated, respectful young men who visit the narrator’s home and tell his parents about liberation movements all over the world. And yet when Amina joins the DFLP’s Women’s Organization at the age of 17, domineering Kamal’s patriarchal instincts are aroused with ultimately tragic results. According to posters put up in the camp, Amina was a “heroine martyr who died while fighting the Zionist enemy.” The narrator only tells Ali the truth of Amina’s death when the two meet at Heathrow.

Not long after the last night in the café, Ali’s brother Sameh, a young man who is drawn to men rather than women, is arrested by the resistance. The resistance wants to use his father’s van with Sameh as the driver, to smuggle weapons to their comrades in the south. Sameh is shot in an incident at an Israeli checkpoint, and Ali and his father are subsequently arrested by the Israelis. It is then that Ali, terrified that he will be killed, agrees to become a collaborator.

Towards the end of the novel, Ali speaks to the narrator about Bruno, an old Polish Jew who had told him about his experiences in the Second World War and how he had survived only by doing things that caused him shame and guilt. Bruno had gone to the US rather than Israel, because he did not know if it was right for Jews to go to Palestine and because “he didn’t believe in the right to return anywhere.” Bruno believed it was not possible for people to return; they only moved on, and said Jews who went to Palestine had not returned but emigrated there. Ali says: “The idea of return is actually an attempt to escape the inhospitality of the present state of the world – the discrimination and persecution.”

The narrator wishes he had heard this before meeting the three students from the Campaign for the Right of Return. “I would have told them, the Arab countries are not the most hospitable places, especially for Palestinians.” But “they certainly would not have accepted the idea that there is no such thing as the right of return.”

Susannah Tarbush

Saudi Gazette August 27 2007

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