BEIRUT: Listless young men with too much time on their hands, too few meaningful employment opportunities and virtually no adequate outlets for their aggression find themselves blindsided by street violence fueled on empty rhetoric. It may sound like day-old news, when a sticks-and-stones scuffle at the Arab University spilled out into Beirut, upped its weaponry and threatened to press the play button on a rerun of Lebanon's Civil War. But it actually stems from an episode in Samir el-Youssef's novel, "The Illusion of Return," published this month by Halban. The seamlessness with which the main action of Youssef's narrative, set in the early 1980s, can be stitched into today is fitting for a book that ponders the tricky relationship between past and present.
A Palestinian of mixed Sunni and Shiite background, Youssef was born in Lebanon in 1965 and grew up in the Rashidiyyeh refugee camp outside of Tyre. He and his family left Rashidiyyeh when he was 10, first moving to a village in South Lebanon and then to the city of Sidon. In 1989, Youssef left Lebanon altogether, first for Cyprus and then for England, where he has lived ever since. If his fiction carries even a hint of autobiography, then he is unlikely to return to Lebanon anytime soon. That would be one part of the "illusion" in the title. The other, of course, would be Palestine.
Youssef has to his credit two short-story collections - "Domestic Affairs" and "Afternoon of Silence" - and one novel - "Pentonville Road." All were written in Arabic and published by the Arab Institue for Studies and Research in Beirut. "The Illusion of Return" is his first novel in English. In 2004, Youssef and bestselling Israeli writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret collaborated on a joint collection of short fiction entitled "Gaza Blues." A year later, Youssef landed the Swedish PEN Tucholsky Award for promoting peace and free speech in the Middle East.
A daring book by the standards of Arab intellectual life that adhere - often blindly and dumbly - to a policy of no cultural traffic with Israel, "Gaza Blues" doesn't bank on scandal but rather charges page after page with outrageously dark humor and damning cyni-
cism. It consists of 15 speedy short stories by Keret and one more meandering novella by Youssef, called "The Day the Beast Got Thirsty."
With the publication of "The Illusion of Return," Youssef's piece in "Gaza Blues" now reads like a practice run for the novel. While usually the reverse is true, Youssef may, in the end, be better suited to the short story form.
Bracketed by a "Prologue from the Present" and an "Epilogue from the Present" with the novel itself spanning a section called "The Past" in between, "The Illusion of Return" opens with a never-named, first-person narrator preparing to pass the 15-year mark since his departure from Lebanon. Two weeks before the date, however, he gets sideswiped by a telephone call from his old friend Ali, who left two years before he did and whom he hasn't seen or heard from since. Not only is Ali calling, he is imminently arriving - landing in London en route to Lebanon. He wants to catch up with his old friend during his layover at Heathrow Airport.
Such a blast from the past unsettles the narrator, throws off his anniversary plans and opens up a dimension - memory - he'd rather not enter. But he does, and so "The Illusion of Return" unfolds largely by way of flashback.
Rewind just a few years at first - the narrator is pursuing his doctoral degree in London and writing his dissertation of how the Palestinians' right of return is, in practical terms, impossible and should be swapped for symbolic value. Anyway, after so many years, the Palestinians' refugee status has in many cases shifted from that of an underclass to that of a middle class. When a group of campus Palestinian activists learn of his intent to write on such topics, they try to suss out his views in person. Unsatisfied with his explanations, they jump him one night and give him a more persuasive beat-down. The narrator, who admits he never finishes anything, eventually gives up on his doctorate degree. Perhaps, one suspects, he will one day complete that dissertation as a novel instead.
Now for the main event - the proper past and the last time the narrator, Ali and their friends Maher and George were all together. It is evening and the four young men are sitting around the Ramadan Cafe. George is spouting Heidegger and Maher is spouting Marx. Ali and the narrator have popped enough pills to find their blather infinitely amusing. For added comedy, the cafe owner periodically shouts "No politics!" in their direction.
Before the night is done, however, Maher is dead and Ali's brother Sameh is missing, snatched for no other reason than being a shy kid who happens to prefer men over women. Sameh's abduction ends with a bullet in his back and kicks Ali onto a course of enforced Israeli collaboration, furtive passage to Tel Aviv and a final flight to the United States from Ben Gurion Airport.
As the narrator watches the train wrecks that beset his friends, he can't quite focus. In general, he never has anything to say or do, but on this particular night, he is distracted even more by the sudden, busting memory of his sister Amina, who died 10 years earlier. As such, the reader tunnels back ever further into the past.
Amina killed herself with a single shot to the head, but as far as the narrator's family, friends and neighbors are concerned, she died for the resistance and for the cause, her face plastered all over the camp where they were living on posters praising her martyrdom. When the narrator meets Ali at the airport so many years later, he decides to rip the lid off this long buried lie.
At 154 pages, "The Illusion of Return" is like late Milan Kundera - thin on plot but heavy on talk. The narrator relates the aforementioned action through the filter of his own recollection. In the real time of the novel, however, he simply goes to the airport and returns home by tube. No details of character, place or time thicken the prose, and the novel, as a result, doesn't read smoothly. Youssef gives Heathrow a "hustle and bustle," for example, but offers no further elaboration. More cloyingly, Ali's character only punctuates the talkie bits of the book with throwaway exclama-tions: "He was weird, man!"
Youssef contributes regularly to such publications as Al-Hayat, The Guardian, The Jewish Quarterly and New Statesman. He has written extensively on Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani and Israeli writer Amos Oz. He is controversial not only for his support of normalization but also for his dismissal of the red lines demarcating the discourse about Palestinian nationalism.
In a recent interview with The Independent, which hailed him as "a trouncer of taboos," he asks, on point: "Why are we still refugees in Lebanon? What kind of country leaves people as refugees for 60 years, even people who were born there?" Those who are still agitating for the Palestinians' right of return, he adds: "Don't give a toss about the refugees, whether Palestinians live or die, they just want to continue the war with Israel."
What Youssef does best in his fiction and nonfiction is to illustrate the extent to which barren ideology and dated political rhetoric has corrupted the Palestinian cause and hardened it into a dogma that is ultimately used against the very people who pledge loyalty to it. "The Illusion of Return" - not in its quasi-philosophical observations or its distracted, nearly lame narration but in its anecdotes about Amina and Sameh and its digression about Maher's attempts to put Marxist theory to work in a small factory - goes further to expose how the bankruptcy of those old ideas actually engenders new surges of violence.
When Maher tries to convince the men at the factory that they are being exploited, one of the workers utterly fails to understand what he's talking about but grasps that he has a right to be angry. He blows up the factory, and the owner's son returns from who knows where to kill Maher for bringing ruin on his father. As a short story, it works brilliantly. As an episode in a not entirely coherent novel, it gets lost. But either way, it proves how cheap slogans and careless threats lead to bad news on the streets, both past and present.
Samir el-Youssef's "The Illusion of Return," published this month by Halban Publishers, is out in Beirut