a different side of Israel

Etgar Keret: Israel’s best-selling author

Etgar Keret (left) and Samir el-Youssef at a literary conference in Israel.

Etgar Keret, 38, is an Israeli author whose many collections of short stories have all been best sellers. His parents are Holocaust survivors; his sister is ultra-Orthodox, married, the mother of 11 and lives in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighbourhood; his brother is one of the leaders of the movement to legalize marijuana use in Israel.

Samir el-Youssef is a Palestinian author of satirical novels who grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Today he lives in London.

Keret and el-Youssef first met and became friends in 2000, at a meeting of Arab and Israeli writers in Switzerland. While everyone else at the event was busy flinging out the usual tired old political slogans and playing the blame game, Etgar and Samir discovered that they had a lot in common. They were both born in the 1960s and came of age during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon – an event that affected their lives profoundly. Neither identifies with a political leader: El-Youssef is critical of Yasser Arafat, and Keret of Ariel Sharon. And both believe that the human connection is more important than politics. Change, said Keret, will come from the bottom up – when people from both sides of the conflict transcend the political framework, leave aside conventional ideas and thus humanise each other.

During the height of the recent intifada, el-Youssef called Keret from London and suggested that they collaborate on a book of short stories. The result, Gaza Blues, became a best-seller in Europe. The two authors are now close friends. Last year el-Youssef made his first visit to Israel, to attend the Jerusalem Book Fair, and gave a joint presentation with Keret.

Keret’s stories are anything but conventional. He has a wild imagination, a fantastic sense of humor, and he takes his readers on crazy trips with totally unpredictable twists and unexpected endings. He writes about intimacy, love, death, grief, and friendship – all the things that are so much more important than the most recent speech given by a famous politician. And he makes you think.

In Surprise Egg, a pathologist performs an autopsy on a woman who was killed in a suicide bombing and discovers that her body is riddled with malignant tumors. If she hadn’t been killed in the bombing, she would have died in a week. Should the pathologist tell the woman’s husband? Would knowing that his wife was about to die anyway make the man feel better or worse?

Keret’s second book to be translated into English is The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God. The title story is about a man who wanted to be God, but settles for being a cranky bus driver who never, under any circumstances, opens the doors for people who are late -not even old ladies carrying bags of groceries. For the bus driver, this is a matter of ideology. But one day he takes mercy on shlumpy Eddie, who is late for a doomed date with the girl of his dreams. The date is supposed to be at the Dolphinarium. And no, you can’t guess the end of the story: It was written in 2000, more than a year before the infamous suicide bombing in the Dolphinarium parking lot.

All of Etgar Keret’s books have been bestsellers in Israel, and critics commonly count him as one of Israel’s most important writers. He has received the Prime Minister’s Prize for Literature, and the Ministry of Culture Film Prize (he has written scripts for and directed several prize-winning films, and teaches film-making at Tel Aviv University). He is often referred to as “the voice of Israel’s youth.”

To which Etgar responds, “Which youth? The ultra-Orthodox girl from Jerusalem? The Arab boy from Taibe? The Jewish girl who lives on a settlement in the West Bank?” He has received letters from them all.

Readers from diverse backgrounds identify with his stories, says Keret, because he does not pretend to know and understand the Other. He is unafraid of admitting that he doesn’t know the answer and not concerned about being ambivalent.

Listening to Etgar Keret tell a story is a fascinating experience. He has a knack for seeing the humour and absurdity in ostensibly banal events. At a literary conference in Israel, he told the following story:

Recently, he and Israeli-Arab writer Sayed Kashua appeared at a reading in France. While waiting to speak, they discovered that they were both worried about the event. Keret told Kashua, “The audience is sure to be full of anti-Israelis. There’s always someone who stands up and accuses me of being a baby killer.”

Kashua responded, “But there are so many right-wing Jews in France. There’s sure to be someone who will accuse me of being a terrorist, or supporting suicide bombers.”

Scanning the audience, Keret spotted a restless woman with an aggressive, pointy chin. “I said to myself, that’s the one who will stand up at the end and attack me.” But as soon as they were finished speaking the woman stood up and said, “I’ve been sitting here for an hour, listening to you both, and I’m confused: Which of you is the Arab, and which is the Jew?”

Keret’s stories have been translated into several foreign languages, including Arabic. Keret says that The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God sold out of Ramallah bookshops during the height of the second Intifada. Keret told some reporters that the book was a bestseller in Ramallah because the title led West Bank purchasers to believe it was about suicide bombers. I’m still not sure whether he was joking or not.

Keret’s third collection of stories translated into English, The Nimrod Flip-Out, was published by Chatto & Windus. And last year The Nimrod Flip Out was published by Farrar Strauss Giroux. Reviews of the books have been excellent – even from the venerable Times of London.

But reading these reviews, one has the impression that non-Israelis don’t really know what to make of Keret’s stories – that they are so accustomed to thinking of Israel in terms of its violent conflict with the Palestinians, they can’t quite wrap their minds around the idea of an Israeli author writing stories with non-political, universal themes.

Israeli commentators have also tried to pigeonhole Etgar Keret. Leftists have called him a fascist, and rightists an anti-Semite. “Everyone,” commented Keret, “Is looking to see what bumper stickers I have on my car. But the thing is, I don’t have a car.”

This is the edited version of an article by Lisa N. Goldman that was published last year in Haaretz newspaper’s culture supplement.


  1. Michael, London, UK

    February 24, 2006 at 1:16 pm

    What on earth is the point of being a friend to an Arab:
    1) a member of the very people who wants the destruction of Jews,
    2) who have killed many Jews on their ancient historical land and
    3) who have invaded the land of the Jewish people and now claim that it is their own land? (see Joan Peters’ book Time Immemorial).

    All the Arabs have ulterior motives to befriend a Jew.

    What is the point really of such friendship?!!

    It is a Jewish tradition back to the events narrated in the Tanach to separate from such evil people, no matter how good a few of them are or might be in appearance. One does not mix with the people who have waged (and still plan) a war of destruction on Israel.

    The children of Holocaust survivors usually have a psychological difficulty in rejecting their own enemies, the Arabs. A few of them went as far as becoming anti-Semite! One of them I think of especially but I will avoid advertising such a monster.

    Oh, yeh, the Utopian leftist of Israel keeps drumming the song of peace when the Hamas and company keeps drumming the song of hate, of anti-Semitism against Jews on their land and of the destruction of Israel!! What an ironic paradox!

    There is the dream of peace with the Arabs and there is reality. For a Jew, reality does not allow to befriend Arabs.

    And a peace process must be based on the historical rights of the Jewish people, not on the thirst of the Arab settlers of Israel to get another piece of lands that never belong to them historically and that is meant only as a stepping-stone toward the destruction of Israel!

    Sorry to be negative on this matter but reality forces me to have this point of view. No hate from me toward anybody, just an uncompromising assessment of the Arabs!

  2. Dear Michael

    What’s the point of living in England? Among gentiles?

    Under the guise of helping the Jewish people they conquered Palestine and almost immediately showed their true face and closed Palestine to immigration siding with the Arabs.

    The children of holocaust survivors who had to sneak their way to safety should not forget that.

    Sorry to be negative on this matter but reality forces me to have this point of view. No hate from me toward anybody, just an uncompromising assessment of the English!


    Stay there. Please.

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