Israeli, Palestinian partner on a book of fiction

Samir El-Youssef, left, talks to Etgar Keret about their book ´Gaza Blues,´ in London on May 27. (Adrian Weston)

Samir El-Youssef, left, talks to Etgar Keret about their book ´Gaza Blues,´ in London on May 27. (Adrian Weston)

LONDON, June 13 (JTA) — Best-selling Israeli author Etgar Keret is used to navigating political gaps — even in his own family. His brother is an anarchist activist against Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; his sister is fervently Orthodox and lives in a settlement. Now Keret has taken a step to bridge gaps beyond his siblings: He has just collaborated with London-based Palestinian author Samir El-Youssef on a book of stories, “Gaza Blues.” Keret, a writer and filmmaker born in Tel Aviv in 1967, is one of Israel’s hottest young writers; El-Youssef, two years older, is a literary critic and regular contributor to the prestigious pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat. The British literary world has responded positively to their slim volume. The book contains 15 short stories by Keret — some whimsical, some angry, some absurd — and a meandering, satirical novella by El-Youssef. Set in the refugee camps of Lebanon where El-Youssef grew up, the novella, “The Day the Beast Got Thirsty,” was written in Arabic and translated into English by El-Youssef himself. But despite the profoundly political backdrop of the piece, the disaffected narrator Bassem is more interested in scoring drugs and having sex than in his friend Ahmad’s nationalist propaganda. The very first words of the story puncture Ahmad’s inflated rhetoric: “I liked listening to Ahmad. I liked listening to Ahmad especially after I had a couple of joints. But sometimes Ahmad used to say things that made me realize that unless I leave this country I shall go mad.” Keret’s stories have a similarly skewed take on regional politics, avoiding simple messages. “I’m not pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. I understand there is a complex situation,” he says. “I am against the occupation but for many things in Israeli society. I am against suicide bombing but for many things in Palestinian society.” That quality is what persuaded El-Youssef to approach Keret after the Passover bombing in Netanya in 2002 — they had met two years before — to propose the joint book project. He was seeking “a kind of creative collaboration, the highest form of peaceful collaboration,” he says. He saw a critical similarity between his own writing and Keret’s — one that set them apart from other regional writers. “If you read Palestinian or Israeli writers — Mahmoud Darwish, Ghassan Kanafani, Amos Oz, David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua — they are all asserting their identity,” El-Youssef says. Keret’s characters do not do that, he adds, and neither does El-Youssef’s protagonist. “I’m not saying it’s wrong to fight for a just cause,” El-Youssef says to explain his narrator’s point of view. “I just don’t want to hear about it — let me just live as a person myself.” He says there is a “yearning for the private, regardless of public discourse” in the highly politicized Palestinian society. Keret says he feels the same need. “Samir’s interest in the world is much closer to my own than that of any Israeli writer,” he says. “It’s very difficult to be an individual in this society. My characters are,” he adds. Their individualism goes beyond refusing to conform to simple stereotypes; they don’t even respect basic laws of physics or biology. In the charming “Crazy Glue,” a woman who suspects her husband is cheating on her glues everything in the house down — and herself to the ceiling. The metalworking hero of “Pipes” builds a portal out of the world and into heaven, but delivers a mordant punch line that drags the story away from sentimentality. Some stories do deal overtly with violence — including “Shooting Clint,” about a father’s effort to dispose of his son’s bad-tempered dog, and “My Brother’s Depressed,” in which a dog mauls a child. But the same grim humor that keeps “Pipes” from being cloying makes the brutality of the violent tales bearable, eliciting a twisted smile rather than a grimace of disgust. Even the pieces that incorporate elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — such as the post-suicide bombing tale “Surprise Egg” or “The Son of the Head of the Mossad,” a coming-of-age story — approach their subjects from an unusual perspective. The characters are deeply anti-heroic, and Keret says that’s intentional. “Most of the people in the region are giving courage and heroism a pretty bad name,” he says. “We are living in a factory for heroism and we are supposed to consume it,” he says of the Middle East. But while he has a clear analysis of the situation, Keret does not claim to be proposing solutions. “I don’t want this book to convince anyone of anything, but to confuse them,” he says. He illustrate this point by relating how he was mistaken for El-Youssef by the book’s proofreader: “He came up to me and hugged me and said, ‘Samir, I’m so glad to see you.’ That’s what I want to do with this book.”

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