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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 June, 2004, 06:51 GMT 07:51 UK
Mid-East writers reach across divide
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News Online

It is difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to find common ground - so difficult, in fact, that two prominent writers have retreated from the real world into the pages of a book to achieve it.

The book, Gaza Blues, is a collaboration between Samir el-Youssef, a Palestinian, and Israel's Etgar Keret.

El-Youssef came up with the idea just over two years ago, during some of the worst violence of the current Palestinian intifada.

Etgar Keret
Keret's stories are sharp and violent but grimly funny
He called Keret, who said he liked the idea immediately.

"I wanted to do something, but 'something' is usually to sign a petition that you have already signed 500 times before. We wanted to make our own country, in a book if not on land," Keret told BBC News Online.

The result is a disconcerting blend of razor-sharp short stories from Keret - one of Israel's best-selling writers - and a meandering novella by el-Youssef, a writer and literary critic living in London.

Perhaps most startling, given the nature of the project, is that their work is not overtly political.

Rejecting identity politics

That is exactly the quality that drew the Palestinian writer to the Israeli.

"This collaboration would not have worked with any other Israeli writer. Etgar's stories are not about asserting identity," el-Youssef said. "His characters know who they are - they are just there."

You don't write about taking drugs, you don't talk about it, you don't do it - but of course everyone is doing it
Samir el-Youssef
The Palestinian writer says the aimless protagonist of his novella, The Day the Beast Got Thirsty, is the same way.

"My narrator does not want to act out his life according to the fact that he is a Palestinian - so what that he is?" el-Youssef said.

Keret echoed the sentiment.

"If there is some kind of initiation process for society, my characters failed it," he said.

Fierce humour

His stories are sometimes free-wheeling to the point of absurdity, at other times painfully simple and direct.

Some deal glancingly with the Israel-Palestinian conflict: Surprise Egg traces the unexpected aftermath of a suicide bombing, while Vacuum Seal unpicks a tactic for surviving army duty.

Being anti-heroic in such a society is pretty brave when the engine of society is heroic images
Etgar Keret
Others look at broader questions affecting Israel and Jews, such as Shoes, which undercuts the role of the Holocaust in determining contemporary Israeli identity.

And many are shockingly violent - but always a knife in the ribs, never a club over the head.

Keret retains a fierce sense of humour that manages to leave the reader with a twisted smile, even in response to a story like My Brother's Depressed, where a dog mauls a child.

Michael Handelzalts, the books editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz, praised Keret as one of Israel's major young writers.

"He's looking at reality as something personal - he has a very different, absurdist point of view," Handelzalts said.

Unpopular truths

El-Youssef's novella, by contrast, is a realistic meander through several weeks in the life of a Palestinian drug user living in a refugee camp in Lebanon in the 1980s.

It has so far been published only in English, and the author doubts it would be well received in contemporary Palestinian society.

"You don't write about taking drugs, you don't talk about it, you don't do it - but of course everyone is doing it," he said.

Samir El-Youssef
El-Youssef's meandering anti-hero refuses to be bound by identity
Despite the difference in style between the two writers, they share a sympathy for anti-heroes.

El-Youssef's protagonist Bassem hatches plans that come to nothing - even when a friend's life is at stake - and shows little enthusiasm for politics.

In conversation with Keret, he emphasised that his story was fiction, but then the Israeli cut him off.

"It is a mirror of my society," Keret said, drawing a laugh from el-Youssef.

"There are many things that are the same - politics degenerating into cliches that are meaningless. Being anti-heroic in such a society is pretty brave when the engine of society is heroic images," the Israeli continued.

El-Youssef floated the notion of an "oppressive collectivity", at which Keret nodded.

"There is a tyranny of public life, of politics. Even simple engagements, we have to measure according to being a Palestinian engaged in a struggle," el-Youssef said.

"Whenever 'Israel' or 'Palestine' are mentioned, it takes us directly to the struggle. But there have been collaborations," he said.

"We have to start focusing on peaceful collaborations. Handshakes between leaders are not going to do anything."

Gaza Blues by Etgar Keret and Samir el-Youssef is published in the UK by David Paul Books.

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