Samir El-Youssef is a London-based Palestinian novelist. He is the author of several books and novellas, including Illusion of Return and a collection of short-stories, Gaza Blues, co-authored with Israeli novelist Etgar Keret. An essayist and public intellectual, El-Youssef has contributed to various publications in Europe and the Middle East, and was recipient of the 2005 PEN Tucholsky Award in recognition of his commitment to the promotion of peace and freedom of speech in the Middle East. This essay is an adaptation of a November 2012 talk that El-Youssef delivered at Boston College, under the auspices of the Heinz Bluhm Memorial Lectures Series in European Literature.
Palestinian novelist Samir El-Youssef writes that the question in the title of this essay, “is the Levant a zone of conflict or culture?” is an ironic one indeed. Anyone with a token knowledge of the Levant, argues El-Youssef, knows that these lands are of both conflict and culture; the problem dwells in the fact that the people of the Levant need to be reminded that theirs is a land of great culture that deserves recognition and valorization as such. The author was born and brought up in Rashidiyyé—a Palestinian refugee camp in Southern Lebanon. Rashidiyyé, writes El-Youssef, was and still is as bad as a refugee camp could get. Yet, a mere fifteen minutes walk from the camp stood the ancient Phoenician port-city of Tyr; a harbour town housing the awesome vestiges of one of the greatest, most pacifist, most benevolent builders of civilization. El-Youssef concludes that "the refugee camp (in its indigence,) and the ancient city (in all its glory,) standing side by side, are a stark example of the Levant being both a land of conflict and culture."