An Impossible Friendship and the Possibilities of Friendship in Israel/Palestine

Sonja Mejcher-Atassi

Image includes the book cover of An Impossible Friendship and the title of the blog post. It indicates that this post is an author post.

Against the background of current events, An Impossible Friendship reads like science fiction. A group of young men and women, aspiring artists, writers, and intellectuals, come together in the bar of the King David Hotel, across religious lines—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—in a city open to all. They meet for drinks and small talk, and occasionally more serious talk about the future of Palestine. On a Jerusalem’s summer night, they read aloud T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, or perhaps “If I Must Die” by the Palestinian poet Refaat Alareer.

This unlikely story dates back more than seventy-six years, to a time before 1948, the year of the establishment of the State of Israel and the Palestinian Nakba. I felt there was an urgency to telling the story of An Impossible Friendship. The individual lives depicted in my group portrait are being lost—literally disappearing from visibility against the background of current developments in the Middle East, where diversity is dealt with as a threat and ideologies of one religion, one people, and one language dominate the politics of the day. This feeling of urgency has increased since Hamas’s unprecedented terrorist attack on October 7 and Israel’s assault of unfathomable scale on Gaza, downplayed by international media as the Israel-Hamas war but ruled by the International Court of Justice as plausible of violating the Genocide Convention. How can stories of everyday life and intimacies past, which we can access only in fragments in archives as dispersed as the Palestinian people in exile, help us to imagine better futures? Futures in which historical reconciliation and genuine friendship are possible along with justice, freedom, and peace? How can we dream, and find words to put into language and make thinkable, peaceful coexistence in Israel/Palestine today?

How can we dream, and find words to put into language and make thinkable, peaceful coexistence in Israel/Palestine today?

An Impossible Friendship invites us to glimpse alternative possibilities within and alongside the fraught history of Israel/Palestine. In telling the story of a “small ecumenical circle” of friends in Jerusalem, I set out to take my readers on a journey across borders, time, and space, as I sketch experiences and expectations past of its principal subjects: Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Sally Kassab, Walid Khalidi, and Rasha Salam. Following their life trajectories allowed me to read together what is not usually read together but delegated to either Jewish/Israeli or Arab/Palestinian history. But representations of Arabs and Jews as disparate, and opposed communities are not carved in stone; rather, they are recent developments, generated first and foremost by European colonialism, and in particular by British imperial policy in the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Arabs and Jews have just as likely been aligned with each other as they have been with other common if complex identities such as Egyptian, Iraqi, Israeli, Syrian, or Palestinian, with all of these categories in a dynamic process of transformation.

Wolfgang Hildesheimer was the only Jewish member of the group. In Jerusalem, he and Sally Kassab were known as a couple, but he returned to Europe after World War II. He worked as an interpreter in the Nuremberg Trials, where he came face to face with the Holocaust, before gaining recognition in postwar German literature as a playwright, novelist, biographer of Mozart, and a member of the influential literary circle Gruppe 47. Walid Khalidi hails from an old and distinguished Jerusalemite Muslim family. He would go on to become a towering figure in Palestinian historiography, diplomacy, and institution building from his exile in Beirut, Oxford, and Cambridge in the Unites States. Jabra Ibrahim Jabra was born into a Syriac Christian family that fled to Palestine during the Franco-Turkish War. He experienced significant social mobility through education, but the Cambridge graduate left Palestine “almost as a refugee” in 1948, as he relates in a letter to Wolfgang. He would play a major role in Baghdad’s cultural life as a literary writer, art critic, and translator of Shakespeare, Beckett, and Faulkner. Rasha Salam was from one of the main political families of Lebanon and championed Arab nationalism and women’s emancipation. She married Walid. Similar to Sally and so many other women of their generation the world over, she did not step into the public spotlight. But forty years after they met in Jerusalem—against the background of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut in 1982—she would start a correspondence with Wolfgang and write her memoirs in which she describes herself as a “nonconformist Muslim Arab woman.”

Maybe fiction and poetry can provide a stepping stone, and with it a shimmer of hope, to break free from the impasse of identity politics, past, present, and future.

An Impossible Friendship opens with the King David Hotel bombing on July 22, 1946, a momentous terrorist attack carried out by the Irgun, a militant offshoot of the Haganah. The small “ecumenical circle” came together in the King David for the last time the day before the bombing. Symbolically speaking, it is the bombing of the King David that made their friendship impossible. In part 1, I reconstruct in fragments a world forever lost, reimagining what brought the friends together in Palestine under the British Mandate. I showcase their diverse social background yet common infatuation with Romantic literature, poetic modernism, and artistic expression in a time of profound political change, as Palestine was turned into a battlefield of conflicting national struggles, political Zionism and Palestinian Arab nationalism. In part 2, I trace the afterlives of their friendship, attempts at reconnecting in different geographical and temporal settings and under new historical circumstances after 1948, and the many other wars raged in the Middle East since. Foregrounding the power and beauty of friendship in the midst of political upheaval and war, I do not brush aside the messy contradictions that all biographies entail but instead open new and compelling perspectives on the complexities of real-life stories.

I base these stories on archival research, unpublished photographs, letters, and other original material, respecting gaps and silences in the archive that urge us not to rush to a closure where there is none. In using a group portrait as the starting point of my book, I bridge literary studies and the social sciences, more specifically life writing and microhistory. Stories matter. Because stories connect us as human beings, put names and faces to a history that all too often has been reduced to numbers, and because stories move us by shifting our perspectives and stirring our emotions, setting free feelings of empathy and practices of solidarity in a world we share. While An Impossible Friendship may read like science fiction, its title alludes to the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and his love for a Jewish woman known as Rita. As Tamar Ben-Ami, the real-life Rita, says, “There’s something about that impossible love that is . . . beyond wars and perhaps because of them at times.” An Impossible Friendship argues that what brought the ecumenical circle together in Jerusalem was more than mere historical coincidence; it was beyond wars but, paradoxically, also because of them.

An Impossible Friendship finds the small “ecumenical circle” of friends in worlds apart after 1948—and even more so after the 1967 war—but it contends that inscribed in the impossibility of that impossible friendship is the possibility of friendship. Maybe fiction and poetry can provide a stepping stone, and with it a shimmer of hope, to break free from the impasse of identity politics, past, present, and future. Maybe. Then let us join our friends in reading aloud, “If I must die / you must live / to tell my story.”

Sonja Mejcher-Atassi is a professor of Arabic and comparative literature at the American University of Beirut. She is the author of An Impossible Friendship: Group Portrait, Jerusalem Before and After 1948.

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