The Illusion of Return

By Arnon Grunberg

Last Monday, I had lunch in London with the Lebanese-Palestinian author Samir El-Youssef. We were supposed to go to a Lebanese restaurant called Beirut Express, but since it was too crowded there, he took me to another Lebanese restaurant nearby.Next to our table there was a small artificial lake with a few orange fish in it. It was probably made for guests who have run out of conversation.

The main reason I wanted to meet with El-Youssef was my trip to Lebanon in April. As I reported earlier in this blog, I had written a preface for the Dutch edition of the book Gaza Blues, which El-Youssef wrote together with the Israeli author Etgar Keret.

The fact that he’d decided to collaborate with an Israeli and the fact that he speaks openly to Israelis makes El-Youssef a traitor to some.

Next to the orange fish, he gave me his latest novel, The Illusion of Return, which he wrote in English.

El-Youssef was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, his mother is illiterate, one of his sisters is a Hamas-supporter, and it is too dangerous for him to go back to the refugee camps. He told me, “I’m not famous, and that’s helpful in my case. But one crazy guy with a gun is all you need.”

His wife lives in a village in the southern part of Lebanon. He goes there a few times a year.

As we both enjoyed the delicious Lebanese food, El-Youssef spoke without bitterness and without naive hope for the future as well.

“Maybe another war is going to change things in Lebanon, maybe outside pressure, but it’s not clear if clear means change for good.”

Then he pointed to the falafel and whispered, “Another dispute in the Middle East: some claim falafel is Lebanese, the Israelis say it’s their culinary contribution. I’m afraid it’s Egyptian.”

Before we ordered dessert El-Youssef said, “Other Arabs speak with Israelis but they do it in secret. That’s a useless exercise, in my opinion. And who are others to tell me that I, as a Palestinian, cannot speak with Israelis? My position is lonely, but that’s something you gradually accept.”

Late that night, I read The Illusion of Return—a good novel although sometimes maybe more an essay than a novel.

I’m sure I’ll have lunch with El-Youssef with more often.


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