After my trip to Lebanon in the spring of 2007, I traveled to London to interview the Lebanese-Palestinian author Samir El-Youssef. El-Youssef has a beautiful and contagious laugh. That was the first thing I noticed over lunch in a Lebanese restaurant. The second thing that became clear was that El-Youssef had the ability to put things in perspective.
On top of that I liked his work, so I suggested that I interview him during one of the many literary festivals that take place in Europe. Usually in these venues the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is being discussed with bitterness and dogmatism, and I thought a little humor would not hurt the debate.
For various seasons the public interview kept being postponed, but a few weeks ago, the idea finally materialized.
I interviewed him in the Belgian city of Antwerp during a festival titled íThe Nights.ë The event was part of a series called íSolving World Problems in 25 Minutes.ë
A few months before, El-Youssef had published his second novel, A Treaty of Love. It is about the relationship between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman, set against the background of the Oslo peace process.
Before our event El-Youssef, was being interviewed by a Belgian journalist. I saw him in the dressing room of the theater where the festival took place.
He seemed annoyed. íWhat's going on, Samir?ë I asked.
íThis man had no sense of humor at all,ë Samir said. íWhat is the purpose of doing an interview when the interviewer is humorless? The only thing you can do is take the interviewer outside and shoot him.ë
And again there was this hard laugh.
During my interview with him, Samir told two jokes about the Syrian secret service, the Mukhabarat, known for its belief in brute force. The first joke goes like this:
The Mukhabarat is holding an exercise together with the KGB. The two secret services have to find each one rabbit.
After two hours the Russians are back with a rabbit.
After two evenings the Syrian are back with a camel, beaten almost to death. íConfess,ë the Syrians shout. íConfess, you are a rabbit.ë
El-Youssef managed to laugh harder than the audience.
In his novel A Treaty of Love he wrote, íNow we were trying to return to political activity to escape boredom rather than out of hope.ë
I asked him his opinion on resistance. íThe old forms of resistance are often immoral and ineffective,ë he said.
Since we had to solve a world problem in twenty-five minutes, he suggested a solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: íMixed marriages.ë
íAnd the religious people?ë
íBribe them. The rabbi's and imams are corrupt anyhow.ë
And there was his laugh again.
Published Nov 23, 2008 Copyright 2008 Arnon Grunberg