Samir El-youssef: At home with the heretic

Samir El-youssef, raised in a refugee camp, grew up into a writer who challenges the myths of Palestinian politics. Matthew J Reisz meets a trouncer of taboos

Samir El-youssef's living room is full of books - Arabic on one side, English on the other. Asked how he defines himself, he hesitates, tries out ideas and then suggests that "It's a question of loyalty in two dimensions - I'm a citizen-exile or citizen-refugee." He was born a refugee, in a Palestinian camp in Lebanon, moved to London in 1990, acquired British citizenship in 2000 and has now made a successful life as writer and peace activist. His first English novel, The Illusion of Return (Halban, £12.99), explores many of the resulting issues of identity.

El-youssef has a Sunni father, but his mother comes from the only Shi'ite Palestinian family. This, he believes, "has contributed to the diversity of my understanding of things - from the beginning you are aware of yourself as someone different". Although he has contributed many articles to the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat, his criticisms of the second intifada and the Arab policy of "non-normalisation" in relation to Israel have sometimes proved too controversial to be published.

"We have to meet up with the Israelis and have a dialogue with them," he explains. "The idea of not meeting is simply childish and stupid. But it is not easy to express your views. You can be branded a 'Zionist' or a 'traitor' simply for not parroting the same old slogans."

His own social circle consists largely of liberal British Jews and Israelis. Asked about his outspoken opposition to the academic boycott of Israel, he responds cheerfully: "What hope do we have if we as writers don't speak to each other? Do we really think our idiotic leaders are going to sort things out?"

El-youssef is effusive and hospitable; we laugh a lot over cakes and Turkish coffee. But the story of his early life is bleak. The family left the camp for a Shi'ite village when they had scraped together enough money to buy property. They lived through the Israeli occupation, but the so-called "war of the camps" in 1986 saw the Shi'ite militia, Amal, targeting Palestinians. They soon had little choice but to move on to the Sunni city of Sidon.

Life was comparatively safe, but the whole country was collapsing and Palestinians were usually at the bottom of the heap: "Lebanon in the Eighties was awful, a state of nature with everybody at the throats of everybody else. To be a Palestinian at the end of the decade was hopeless, absolutely hopeless... There was a terrible anti-Palestinian attitude in the country. The PLO was shattered, there was a lot of corruption."

For those in the camps, there was an additional malaise. They had long been at the forefront of the Palestinian national "revolution", but the first intifada (1987-90) in the West Bank and Gaza shifted the centre of gravity. Despite the posturing and violence, "there had been a sense of doing something, of facing up to a challenge, but now things were happening somewhere else. Suddenly we were left with militias, armed factions and political organisations with ridiculous or bankrupt agendas in addition to poverty, lack of services, lack of everything."

It was at this ghastly moment that El-youssef got out and went to Cyprus. He then moved to England for possible work on a Kuwaiti-backed magazine - a project which fell through when Saddam Hussein carried out "an invasion against my interests". It is this moment he revisits in "The Day the Beast Got Thirsty", a novella published in Gaza Blues (David Paul) alongside 15 enigmatic stories by his friend, the Israeli writer Etgar Keret.

"The Beast" takes place in a refugee camp where the young narrator lives amid fighters, racketeers, sloganeers and "fixers who sold you visas that took you nowhere". Exhausted, numb, frequently stoned and bored with all the talk of "our just cause", he ends up wondering about life with Dalal, a woman he doesn't even like: "We will get married and have 10 children, but then they will die, and have their photos glued to the walls of the Camp, declaring them as heroic martyrs who have died while fighting the Zionist enemy... After that Israel could invade Lebanon again, destroy the Camp and fuck us all up, so we die and get the hell out of this fucking life."

Such ferocious black humour gives a picture of life far more real - and hence more moving - than any images of noble suffering. "I wanted to write about the Palestinian community in Lebanon as a real community with problems and tensions and contradictions," El-youssef explains, "and not just as a heap of people waiting for the problem to be solved. What you read in 'The Beast' is what people said in the street all the time, the jokes about Arafat, the PLO and 'the revolution', the selfishness, the cynicism accompanied by frankness - but all this has failed to be reflected in literature."

The Illusion of Return continues this examination. The central section looks back to a Lebanese city under Israeli occupation in 1982 or 1983, on the last evening the listless narrator spent hanging out with his friends Ali, George and Maher. One takes refuge in philosophy, another boasts about his resistance work. It is a world full of hypocrisy, homophobia and despair, where moral compromise is unavoidable. It is also a world shot through with class divisions. The main characters may be legally refugees, but they come from families with enough money to have moved out of the camps and become "middle class". When an impoverished young man stuck in a camp takes Maher's Marxist posturing literally, the result soon proves tragic.

In 1948, El-youssef's parents were expelled from a village in Palestine which no longer exists - he visited the site last year. He has some sharp words about Palestinians' continuing refugee status within Lebanon, Jordan and Syria: "How can you be a refugee if you've been a teacher for 25 years earning a good salary? When they'd just arrived and were living in tents, they were obviously real refugees. But after 30 or 40 years, the term is ridiculous. Some of them had more money than many Lebanese... There again, why are we still refugees in Lebanon? What kind of country leaves people as refugees for 60 years, even people who were born there?"

If the issue of "refugees" is complex, even more intractable is the "right of return". The opening section of the novel treats this farcically. Around the year 2000, the narrator is half-heartedly working on a dissertation about Palestinian refugees when he is verbally and then physically assailed by hard-line students from a group called the Campaign for the Right of Return. El-youssef extracts a good deal of comedy from a narrator who seems inordinately proud of his phrase "We must look at the notion of return as a symbolic value". Yet the issue is utterly serious.

He is deeply pessimistic about the current Middle East, sceptical of two-state solutions which would create a weak Palestine alongside a powerful Israel, and seems to place his long-term hopes in a one-state solution, although he is well aware this sounds utopian - and has few takers among even the most liberal Jewish Israelis. As for now, he is committed to greater honesty, dialogue and willingness to address "the human issue of those living in refugee camps" without overlooking the question of why they are still refugees. He also thinks that we also need to look far more carefully at the whole notion of return: "To what can we return? A piece of land? To places we have never been or which have changed beyond recognition? Is 'return' just about escaping the inhospitality of the world?

"The idea that every single person whose parents came from Palestine should have an automatic right of return is ridiculous. People who make that claim don't give a toss about the refugees, whether Palestinians live or die, they just want to continue the war with Israel.

"I don't believe in the right of return," he says, "and don't want to return, but I do want an acknowledgement from the Israelis that I don't come from nowhere... It is a question of honour and dignity. For Palestinians leading relatively secure lives, I'm sure that is the consensus. Why would they want to 'return' to the Palestine their families left? It's not there any more. It doesn't exist."

Matthew J Reisz is editor of the 'Jewish Quarterly'; Samir El-youssef and Linda Grant will take part in a Jewish Book Week event on Monday 26 February: booking on 0870 060 1798, and www.jewishbookweek.com

Biography: Samir El-Youssef

Samir El-youssef was born in 1965 and lived in a Lebanese refugee camp until the age of 10, before moving to a village and then the city of Sidon. He emigrated to Cyprus in 1989 and London in 1990, where he studied political philosophy and contributed to many English and Arabic newspapers and magazines. He has published two collections of stories in Arabic, Domestic Affairs and Afternoon of Silence, and a novel called Pentonville Road. His English novella "The Day the Beast Got Thirsty" appears in Gaza Blues (2004) alongside stories by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret. In 2005, he was awarded the PEN Tucholsky award for promoting peace and freedom of speech in the Middle East. His first English novel, The Illusion of Return (Halban Publishers), appears this month.

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