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Samir El-Youssef : The Illusion of Return

This is definitely a book where the title tells what it is about though, as we shall see, there is a lot more to this book. Our unnamed narrator, like the author, was born in a refugee camp in Lebanon to Palestinian parents, grew up in that camp and then managed to leave, ending up in London. At the start of the novel, he is just coming up to his fifteenth anniversary of arriving in London. That’s fifteen years without ever going back, nor seeing any of the people that I used to know.

He also hears from Ali. Ali is an old friend who now lives in Michigan and left for the US two years before our narrator left for London. He had not heard from Ali during that time. Ali is now passing through Heathrow and they arrange to meet there. They have a lot to discuss as various key events in their respective lives happened the last time they and their two friends George and Maher, a foursome that regularly used to meet at a Beirut cafė. met.

But before we cover that story, we are dealing with the present and the title of this book. Our narrator is writing a dissertation which shows the Right of Return (i.e. the right of Palestinians to return to Palestine from which they were driven out, akin to the right of any Jew, even if they have never been there before, to emigrate to Israel) is not necessarily a good thing.. I wanted to show how, due purely to changes in social circumstances, Palestinians had managed to move from the state of an underclass, to which they as refugees had been doomed, to a state in which, socially, if not legally or politically, they were considered middle class.

He has been attacked – first verbally and then physically – by a group of Palestinian students in London who have formed a group with the unambiguous title Right of Return. He defends himself but does not finish his dissertation though he attacks the group in his own way.

As mentioned four friends used to meet at a Beirut café. He admits he had not much in common with George and Maher, except that they too were friends of Ali. George was obsessed with Heidegger while Maher was a keen Marxist. Ali and our narrator had no such interests and, to the disgust of their friends were into drugs. Indeed Maher supported the Resistance for not just focussing on the Zionist enemy but on social ills such as drugs and homosexuality (Ali’s brother was gay.). Bassem, a dealer the two friends use, has been killed, presumably by the Resistance. Maher feels it is his revolutionary duty to change the behaviour of the two friends so that they could be of some use to the Resistance. Indeed, he even attacks George. Tell me, how does Heidegger help us fight the Israeli occupation? Huh? Tell me!

There is a good reason why George is not interested in politics (and nor are his family). Theybelieved that if they stayed out of politics altogether, none of the rival political factions and groups, which dominated the area, could consider them as enemies George however, is happy to talk about Descartes and belief (or non-belief) in God.

All of them agree on one thing. They are not fond of their parents and wish to keep away from them as long as possible.

The key events take place on the last night all four get together. George and our narrator are walking home. It is after curfew so there is a certain danger and when they see an Israeli patrol vehicle, our narrator hides but George does not. Somehow he is not caught, George reveals a guilty secret about his family, which somewhat shocks our narrator and our narrator plans to reciprocate. He remains obsessed with the death of his sister, Amina. We only learn the details later. However, there is no time to tell George about the event. Two events do happen that colour their relationship and the relationship between the four, in that two people disappear. Ali and his family are arrested but Ali manages to escape to the US.

Naturally, out narrator has not forgotten these events and will discuss them with Ali at Heathrow. He also also starts examining the motives of his friends which, seen at a distance, take on a different hue.

And Palestine? An Israeli soldier comments: It’s a mess and it will never be right until everybody gives up!”“Everybody gives up. As for returning, we get the opinion of Bruno,a Jew and victim of the Holocaust whom Ali gets to know in Michigan: Bruno didn’t think that it was possible for people to return, Ali explained. He believed that people only moved on; even when they went back to the place of their birth and early life they were only moving on.

This novel is certainly somewhat different from other Palestinian novels I have read in that we see little interaction between Palestinians and Israelis (with one conspicuous exception) and also that none of the book is set in Palestine but only in London and Beirut. Moreover our narrator is not routinely attacking the Zionist enemy (though others are) but is trying to take a more detached view. Three key characters die in this book and only one is killed by the Israelis. The Palestinian resistance is there but generally as a shadowy figure in the background.

El-Youssef tells his story well and gives us an interesting and somewhat different perspective on the Palestinian situation.

Publishing history

First published in 2007 by Halban