Gaza Blues

london | Best-selling Israeli author Etgar Keret is used to navigating political gaps — even in his own family.

His brother is an anarchist activist against Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; his sister is fervently Orthodox and lives in a settlement.

Now Keret has taken a step to bridge gaps beyond his siblings: He has just collaborated with London-based Palestinian author Samir El-Youssef on a book of stories, “Gaza Blues,” available through online sources.

Keret, a writer and filmmaker born in Tel Aviv in 1967, is one of Israel’s hottest young writers. El-Youssef, two years older, is a literary critic and regular contributor to the prestigious pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat.

The British literary world responded positively to their slim volume.

The book contains 15 short stories by Keret — some whimsical, some angry, some absurd — and a meandering, satirical novella by El-Youssef.

Set in the refugee camps of Lebanon where El-Youssef grew up, the novella “The Day the Beast Got Thirsty” was written in Arabic and translated into English by El-Youssef himself.

But despite the profoundly political backdrop of the piece, the disaffected narrator Bassem is more interested in scoring drugs and having sex than in his friend Ahmad’s nationalist propaganda.

The very first words of the story puncture Ahmad’s inflated rhetoric: “I liked listening to Ahmad. I liked listening to Ahmad especially after I had a couple of joints. But sometimes Ahmad used to say things that made me realize that unless I leave this country I shall go mad.”

Keret’s stories have a similarly skewed take on regional politics, avoiding simple messages. “I’m not pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. I understand there is a complex situation,” he says.

“I am against the occupation but for many things in Israeli society. I am against suicide bombing but for many things in Palestinian society.”

That quality is what persuaded El-Youssef to approach Keret after the Passover bombing in Netanya in 2002 (they had met two years before) to propose the joint book project.

He was seeking “a kind of creative collaboration, the highest form of peaceful collaboration,” he says.

He saw a critical similarity between his own writing and Keret’s — one that set them apart from other regional writers.

“If you read Palestinian or Israeli writers — Mahmoud Darwish, Ghassan Kanafani, Amos Oz, David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua — they are all asserting their identity,” El-Youssef says.

Keret’s characters do not do that, he adds, and neither does El-Youssef’s protagonist. “I’m not saying it’s wrong to fight for a just cause,” El-Youssef says to explain his narrator’s point of view. “I just don’t want to hear about it — let me just live as a person myself.”

He says there is a “yearning for the private, regardless of public discourse” in the highly politicized Palestinian society.

Keret says he feels the same need. “Samir’s interest in the world is much closer to my own than that of any Israeli writer,” he says. “It’s very difficult to be an individual in this society. My characters are.”

The characters are deeply anti-heroic, and Keret says that’s intentional.

“Most of the people in the region are giving courage and heroism a pretty bad name,” he says. “We are living in a factory for heroism and we are supposed to consume it,” he says of the Middle East.