Arnon Grunberg

In Praise of Exhaustion

The short stories by Etgar Keret, and the long story "The Day the Beast Got Thirsty" by Samir El-youssef contained in the collection Gaza Blues have little in common. Their tone is matter-of-fact, that much is true. And the skepticism with which both authors approach their subject (the continued existence of Israel and the liberation of Palestine, respectively) is pleasing. Let that be affinity enough. The greatest catastrophe that can overcome an author is to have his work too strongly resemble that of another. Keret and El-Youssef would seem to have been spared that catastrophe.
Anyone dependent upon CNN for his news might come to the conclusion that the Middle East is a place where people are profoundly sure of their cause. Gaza Blues illustrates the very opposite. You can die for a cause, El-youssef shows us, without believing in it.
The justification for bringing together El-youssef and Keret in a single collection must therefore be sought outside the text. According to the strict criteria of literary criticism, that is indefensible. Yet the Middle East, where little is defensible, calls for exceptions to the rule.
Keret was born in Tel Aviv in 1967. El-youssef was born in 1965 in Lebanon, and grew up in a refugee camp in the south of that country.
Gaza Blues, in other words, is the literary equivalent of a mixed Israeli-Palestinian soccer team, or a symphony orchestra comprised of Palestinian and Israeli musicians. Well-meaning initiatives which, and one need not be a cynic to say this, ultimately add up to less than a hill of beans. And which usually result in bad soccer and middling music. Which is not to say that Gaza Blues leaves us with middling literature.
But when one brings together two authors for political reasons, one cannot expect the reader to sift through their texts with the aesthetic yardstick of pure literature in the back of his mind.
The title Gaza Blues alone generates a certain expectation: this, one senses, is going to be about the irresolvable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. About which everyone has an opinion, and which often summons up as much emotion as an important soccer match. Anyone wishing to liven up a literary evening need only breathe the word "Palestine", and the audience will awaken as though someone had segued into a porn film.
The surprise, the relief, for some perhaps the disappointment of this collection, therefore, is that the authors are not particularly concerned with the conflict. The Conflict - let us make use of the capital "C" for the time being, for it is some people's God - is dealt with only indirectly in these stories, and sometimes not even that.
At most, the Conflict slumbers away in the background, and is found mostly in the stereotype of the enemy that arises from the stories. Slumbers not as a volcano is thought to slumber, but the way old women are wont to do on warm summer afternoons.
In El-youssef's story, after the description of an internal conflict in a refugee camp, we read: "And, as usual, those who were killed had their photos in huge posters attached to the walls of the Camp, and under each photo was written the familiar brief obituary: the heroic martyr so and so was born in such and such a place. And he was martyred in a heroic confrontation with the Zionist enemy."
The Zionist enemy is a mythical enemy, useful for posters and revolutionary broadsheets. Logical really, for how often does one receive a visit from a Zionist in a refugee camp in Southern Lebanon? Even in Amsterdam they are a rarity these days.
And Keret writes: "'There are five cases,' he said. His name was Mas'oud or something. 'Two eye, two leg, one ball.' From the way Weisman had described it, it wouldn't take more than twenty minutes to get the forms signed for each case plus an interview, which meant that in an hour and a half tops we'd be heading back."
The Palestinian enemy transformed into a complaint filed against the Israeli army, a bureaucratic procedure in which even a shattered testicle leaves behind no other impression than a dossier that needs to be dealt with quickly. Paperwork.
Therein lies the harrowing feeling which this collection leaves with the reader. That the enemy may be present everywhere in the background, but at the same time remains invisible. Making him, in that way, the perfect stuff from which myths and other fairytales are made.
But I am doing the authors a slight injustice with this rather ponderous paragraph. I am politicizing their stories more than they could ever had intended.
Their work may keenly show that the enemy is invisible, and will probably remain invisible for the time being, but their stories show equally well that the myths concerning that enemy are not really believed in anymore. At least not by everyone.
And perhaps I should withdraw the words written at the start of this foreword, i.e., that the continuing existence of Israel is Kerets' subject matter and the liberation of Palestine that of El-youssef. For I believed, almost automatically, that no matter how subversive both writers might be in their approach to the subject, they would still be unable to free themselves of it.
This collection can be read as a plea on the part of both authors to be granted, from now on, the same privilege granted to any Dutch, French or Danish author. The privilege of being able to choose one's own cause, or to choose no cause whatsoever. And that it should no longer be your passport, or lacking that your place of birth, that chooses a cause for you and allows you to, at most, approach it in a highly idiosyncratic way.
The title of this book, and particularly the first half of that title, is therefore misleading. Even those who do not read the papers are bound to have certain, probably less-pleasant associations with Gaza. Gaza as the metaphor for a problem that reasonable people solved in theory years ago, but which in practice keeps squabbling away. The use of the word "squabbling" her may seem disrespectful when one thinks of the victims, yet it seem like an accurate description to me.
I find something along these same lines in a piece by Etgar Keret published in The New York Times on the eve of the Israeli elections in March 2006. In it he writes that one could see the tedium of those elections as a blessing. That the greatest hope lies in exhaustion.
Perhaps we should try imagining the solution to the conflict in the following way: as a couple who start off screwing like minks, but who one day grown weary of screwing and discover that they really have very little to say to each other. And who then ask themselves: what in the world were we so wound up about all the time?
It is precisely that feeling, that feeling of exhaustion after a sexual relationship that began so intensely and then guttered, that one finds in this collection.
Who would expect, in a book with the word "Gaza" in the title, to discover that people in a refugee camp speak of Arafat as "the walking disaster"? Who would expect to read such sentences by Keret: "A couple of orthodox kids, including the grandson of the rabbi of Ludvor, came to visit Nachum at his home, and wanted him to explain the meaning of life to them. Nachum was glad to oblige, and even served them some lemonade."? The simple fact that the reader, after finishing this book, will associate Gaza with walking disasters and lemonade is justification enough for its existence.
It is not particularly shocking news that the ideals of Zionism have undergone a certain erosion. The Zionist dream itself, wrongheaded as it may be, has been realized.
The Palestinian dream has not yet been realized, yet El-youssef's story makes clear that the dream finds itself in very much the same impasse as that of the post-Zionists in Israel. The belief has become institutionalized, yet no one really believes in it much anymore. What is left are the rituals: educational theater, the distribution of handbills, and perhaps - albeit a rather less innocent ritual - the carrying out of attacks, of retaliation.
I hope, no, I pray that, however many good reasons there may have been to perform the experiment comprising this collection, it will never be repeated. From this moment on I wish never again to see a collection containing the work of one Palestinian and one Israeli author, nor do I wish to see collections containing the work of one Dutch and one German author, or of one Japanese and one Chinese author. Or of five Japanese authors against five Chinese authors.
Literature is not a movement of liberation, at least not in the traditional, revolutionary sense of the term, and movements of liberation are also not what they used to be. That is what this book tells me.
The conclusion to be drawn from Gaza Blues - or, to be honest, at least one of the conclusions - I support wholeheartedly. The war will go one for many years to come. Hope in the Middle East, and perhaps in more places than that alone, is a matter of more skepticism. Less us. More disbelief. An overdose of exhaustion.
A secular Palestinian and a secular Israeli probably have more in common than do an ultra-orthodox and a secular Israeli. That is the irony of the matter. But myths are often more tenacious than the truth. In the absence of an external enemy, there is the possibility that internal conflicts would cause the collapse of both societies.
Today it remains a mirage on the horizon, but one day the exhaustion will be unanimous. And then you will be able for a song to take a charter flight to Gaza City and pollute the beach there with Ambre Solaire as well. Later in the afternoon a guide will pluck at your sleeve and ask: "Would you be interested in seeing the Museum of the Revolution and the Martyrs?"
Inside the museum the guide will sigh, with carefully apportioned nostalgia: "Back then we at least died for what we believed in." And then he will look at you and ask: "And you? What do you do for what you believe in, besides mate and bask in the sun?"

Arnon Grunberg New York, March 2006