A Palestinian-Israeli “Treaty of Love”
The Palestinian author Samir El-Youssef’s new novel “A Treaty of Love” traces the course of a relationship between a Palestinian man and Israeli woman living in London. Such a theme of passion across the Israeli-Palestinian divide could lend itself to a sentimental treatment, a tale of love eventually conquering all and of a common humanity overcoming political differences and ancient hatreds.
But “A Treaty of Love” is much darker and more disturbing than such a scenario. El-Youssef skillfully describes the potent mixture of motivation and emotions in the relationship of Ruth and Ibrahim over seven years. When the couple first get together, the love affair is full of promise. “We felt both remote from and familiar to one another. There was enough distance between us to make us curious about each other and, at the same time, there was our long common history that enabled us to easily understand one another,” Ibrahim recalls. But over time the stresses and contradictions become obvious, and threaten to drive the couple apart forever.
This is Samir El-Youssef’s second novel and like his first, “The Illusion of Return” (2007), is issued by the small independent London publisher Halban. His first published book of fiction in English, “Gaza Blues” (2004) was a collection of short stories, some written by El-Youssef, others by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret.
El-Youssef [pictured, credit Judah Passow] born in 1965, was and brought up in the Rashidia Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon. Since 1900 he has lived in London where he works as a journalist and fiction writer. In 2005 he was awarded the PEN-Tucholsky Award for promoting the cause of peace and freedom of speech in the Middle East.
“A Treaty of Love” is narrated in the first person by Ibrahim. Born in El-Bass Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, Ibrahim went into hiding in Beirut for three years after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He escaped in 1995 and reached Britain for years of exile “surviving on state hand-outs”.
When Ibrahim and Ruth first meet, it is at a party a few days after the signing of the Oslo Agreement on the White House lawn by PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. A new era seems to be dawning. Ruth is full of hope following the signing, but Ibrahim is deeply skeptical
She tells him how when news of the Sabra and Shatila massacre was broadcast in Israel in 1982, “People in Tel Aviv looked stunned; everybody was ashamed of themselves.” Ibrahim, partly to relive her sense of guilt, tells her he remembers the way in which 400,000 Israelis demonstrated against the killings. She says it was after the massacre that she thought it would be immoral to continue to live in Israel, and came to live in London.
The pasts of both Ibrahim and Ruth are deeply marked by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and by tragedies within their families. Ibrahim’s brother, a member of the Palestinian resistance, was killed not in fighting with Israelis but in skirmishes between Palestinian factions. His cousin Maryam was killed in Lebanon in circumstances involving a male relative that haunt Ibrahim and which are only gradually disclosed in the course of the novel. Maryam’s death casts a shadow over Ibrahim’s love affair with Ruth, but he cannot for a long time face telling her what really happened to his cousin.
Ruth’s father was killed in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war when she was 11. Her family was not allowed to grieve properly; he was decorated as a war hero and given a public funeral. The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 triggers a revival of the emotions that Ruth experienced around the loss of her father. She is appalled when after Ibrahim’s father dies in Lebanon he makes it clear he has no intention of going to the funeral of the “self-pitying loser”.
Ibrahim is an engaging narrator, but he reveals some unpleasant traits: he is prone to opportunism, double standards, self-delusion and occasionally to violence against his girlfriend. His version of events becomes increasingly open to doubt.
Ibrahim casts a jaundiced eye over Palestinian society and politics. One reason for his seizing the opportunity of being with Ruth is the realization that if he does not do so “I would end up like one of my small circle of Palestinian friends in London”. He and his four friends habitually drink together in a pub in Hammersmith, West London, after work and talk about the “same old things with the same degree of conviction, not realizing that our views were getting staler while our life was going nowhere.” He believes that Ruth has given him the chance to transform his life, although he conceals from his Palestinian friends the fact that he has an Israeli girlfriend.
One instance of Ibrahim’s contradictory behavior is that when Ruth leaves for a visit to Israel he loses little time in trying to seduce Nada, the wife of one in his circle of Palestinian friends. She has flirted with him on a few occasions. And yet he is consumed by jealousy over what he imagines Ruth might be up to in Israel, perhaps with an old boyfriend, and telephones her there obsessively. After she returns and they have had a loving reunion, he tells her of his pursuit of Nada, precipitating her leaving him for a few days.
Ibrahim says that what attracted him to Ruth was her vulnerability. He especially likes her “lovely brown eyes” and is fascinated by the fact that they “looked as if they were washed with tears, as if she’d just been crying.” He is glad that when they first meet he is employed while she is not, thinking this gives him an advantage over her. He works at an Arabic magazine reviewing films. Back in Lebanon he had made two short black and white documentary films for the Palestine Film Institute, which were never screened, and he still aspires to become a filmmaker.
The opening of the novel strikes an ominous note. It is 30 September 2000, and Ibrahim is alone in his flat; Ruth has gone to the post office to send a parcel to her sister, he tells us. He is eating a breakfast of fried eggs, pitta bread, tomato and spring onions. “Ruth never liked onions, and now, absurdly enough, eating them after so long, the strong taste and smell make me feel free again. It’s also a sign that she’s not coming back, and I hope she’ll never come back.”
And yet Ibrahim says later that Ruth will, unfortunately, not disappear. “She will come back soon, sooner than I expect. I know her too well, she’s incapable of leaving.” He has even thought of killing her he admits, through employing a hit man, but he then dismisses this as a joke.
During the remainder of the novel, Ibrahim looks back over their seven-year relationship, culminating in the events of two nights earlier. El-Youssef’s writing is compact and lively, much of it in the form of dialogue. There is not much sensory description, and the vocabulary is generally plain, but this straightforward approach suits Ibrahim’s telling of the story. The tension builds steadily towards the climax.
The progress and decline of the love affair is interwoven with Palestinian-Israeli political events between 1993 and 2000. The first few lines of each of the book’s 20 chapters is a summary of political and personal events. Thus the seventh chapter begins: “First we lived together, then the suicide bombings started and peace seemed no more than a short honeymoon. So was our honeymoon, short.” This recurring narrative device is effective. Although there are resonances between Ibrahim and Ruth’s relationship and the deterioration on the wider Palestinian-Israeli arena, there is no slick drawing of parallels.
In “A Treaty of Love” El-Youssef makes the relationship between Ibrahim and Ruth believable, and provides some fresh perspectives on the Palestine-Israel conflict. In Ibrahim he has created a memorable character and provided some unsettling insights into a certain kind of male psyche. With his three loosely interlinked published works of fiction El-Youssef has created a distinctive universe; “A Treaty of Love” is his most accomplished book to date.
Saudi Gazette 25 August 2008