Mas­ter­ful tale of love across the bar­rier

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Entertainment -

RE­VIEWED BY MADELEINE KINGS­LEY

FIRST, YOU HOPE that Is­raeli Ruth and Pales­tinian Ibrahim — the dis­placed lovers of Samir El-Youssef’s new novel — will work through their dif­fer­ences and tri­umph, that their “treaty of love” will sym­bol­ise the mak­ing of peace in the Mid­dle East. “Lon­don is so big,” says Ruth, “big enough to make us for­get that we be­long to hos­tile peo­ple.”

Then, chap­ter by sub­tly sewn chap­ter, you are re­minded that their cross­cul­tural chal­lenge is al­most su­per­hu­man. The hard facts are that Ruth’s fam­ily home was built on land owned by an Arab and that Ibrahim was born in Shatila camp.

The cou­ple, both in their late 30s, meet at a party in 1993, just af­ter Rabin and Arafat do the im­pos­si­ble and shake hands on the White House lawn. Op­ti­mism draws a brief breath.

Ruth is a trans­la­tor, with eyes that seem “washed with tears”, a fugi­tive from a failed mar­riage. She was 11 when she lost her war-hero fa­ther. Ibrahim is a film-maker man­qué who now re­views movies for a small-cir­cu­la­tion weekly. He con­ceals Ruth’s ex­is­tence from his more po­lit­i­cally ac­tive friends (or thinks he does) and for a while avoids them. How can he re­main close to her yet (all too soon) go out cel­e­brat­ing Rabin’s as­sas­si­na­tion with the boys?

El-Youssef’s writ­ing is gen­tle and nu- an­ced, yet it hits hard. He de­tails the ide­al­ism upon which Ruth and Ibrahim mean to base their re­la­tion­ship; to­gether, they can per­haps be vi­sion­ary in their creative fields, cre­ate their own peace group. Or even a baby…

United as peace scep­tics, he and she try hard to bend their op­pos­ing loy­al­ties into un­der­stand­ing. For a time, “each would blame their own lot” when Mid­dle East ten­sions ran high. But when the sui­cide bomb­ings be­gin, they are si­lenced by dif­fer­ence, and by dis­loyal de­sires — hers to re­visit Is­rael, his to se­duce the wife of a good friend.

Ev­ery cou­ple har­bours its own in­ter­nal strains and fis­sures but, for Ruth and Ibrahim, cur­rent events, his­tory and kin­ship merge into an ex­te­rior de­mo­li­tion squad.

She has a tart, dis­ap­prov­ing sis­ter, he has a fam­ily se­cret dark enough to blow the civilised façade off their brave, emo­tional ed­i­fice. It in­volves rape, dis­ap­pear­ance, and dis­hon­our be­yond any­thing Ruth fears.

Such tragedy, both per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal, leaks the con­tam­i­nat­ing shame that, El-Youssef sug­gests, un­der­pins ev­ery cruel act in the Mid­dle East.

Born in Rashidia refugee camp, south­ern Le­banon, this writer knows his ground and, com­pellingly, stands it. You can see why he holds the Swedish PEN-Tu­chol­sky Award for pro­mot­ing the cause of peace and free speech in the Mid­dle East. A Treaty of Peace is a mas­terly piece of filmic fic­tion, with much to say about the fragility — and force — of shared il­lu­sions.

Madeleine Kings­ley is a free­lance writer

PHOTO: JU­DAH PAS­SOW

Samir El-Youssef: hard-hit­ting nar­ra­tive in gen­tle and nu­anced prose

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