The Palestinian Israeli conflict has stubbornly defied any and all attempts at a solution. Both Palestinians and Israelis produce a self-perpetuating dialectic of blame and counter-blame over a political, ideological and territorial dispute, maintaining a status quo of hatred and a fatalistic sense of lost hope.
Countless books authored by Jewish and Arab intellectuals each possess a clearly defined perspective—compelling and exclusionary. The many voices of peace and reconciliation appear drowned out by the cacophony of sounds from those whose interest has always been a split reality: Us versus them.
A voice of peace, however, has just been injected. Absolution: A Palestinian Israeli Love Story represents those rare books that come along to challenge our preconceived notions about an enemy.
Absolution is not simply a love story, tragic and providential. It also offers a historical study of Jewish suffering and Palestinian dispossession … remarkably, with a genuine sense of love and warmth for both peoples. Egyptian author R.F. Georgy believes in redemptive possibilities. As a Jew, I never read anything from an Arab writer or intellectual before Absolution that conveys the profound sense of Jewish suffering. I don’t mind saying that the book simply left me in tears.
Think of Absolution as a non-fiction novel in the style of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, as Georgy grafts two fictional characters onto actual historical events. As with Capote’s great book, Absolution is a dense, intellectually rigorous work that demands a reader’s full attention.
The novel opens in 2018 when Avi Eban, Israel’s Prime Minister, travels to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. As he paces back and forth in his hotel room, Avi experiences a series of flashbacks that take him back to Columbia University in 1985. There he fell in love with a red-haired Palestinian girl.
The memory, in one very powerful scene, symbolizes how we perceive an enemy.
Avi walks the Columbia campus. He notices a strikingly beautiful red-haired girl standing behind a table. It happens to be activities week, and students pass out flyers for various organizations on campus. Not reading the banner in front of the table, the smitten Avi approaches, takes a flyer from her hands. He realizes she is Palestinian only after the emotional connection. His fate is sealed.
To make the narrative historically plausible, Georgy makes Avi Eban the great nephew of Abba Eban (perhaps Israel’s most celebrated diplomat). Alena Said (the red-haired girl) becomes the niece of Edward Said (perhaps the greatest Palestinian intellectual of the 20th century). In a powerful scene at one point in the novel, Georgy creates a fictional debate between Abba Eban and Edward Said. (In reality, these two intellectual giants never met.)
Georgy presents a Shakespearean love story where two idealistic youths confront a centuries-long conflict between two houses that have known nothing of one another except violence, hatred and human suffering. We also get a coming-of-age story where Avi and Alena find powerful transformative moments as a result of their enduring love. Through this love, which transcends the oceanic chasm separating the two sides, Palestinians and Israelis alike begin to see each other as human casualties of a conflict frozen and mired in permanent hatred.
Georgy weaves a potent theme, music, through the novel. He opens the book with a detailed description of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. As we meet Avi Eban, we quickly learn of his dramatic and disturbing reaction on hearing “O Fortuna,” the famous opening and closing movement of the work. As the music envelops him, he tilts his head at a 45-degree angle, his hands contort into some kind of claw, and he experiences an intensity that frightens people around him. The haunting sound of “O Fortuna” symbolizes the internal struggle that plagues Avi personally and politically.
Avi finds Israel and Zionism messy, filled with contradictions that need to be resolved. His redemption comes in acknowledging Palestinian suffering and contributing to a Palestinian state. For her part, before she met Avi, Alena found Jewish suffering, culminating in the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust, distant and removed from her world view. She used the Holocaust as a convenient syllogism in arguments against Israel. Her own transformation through her love of Avi brings a realization that Jewish suffering must be more than an argument. To embrace Avi as the love of her life, she must embrace Jewish suffering as her own. Georgy reminds us in the book’s epilogue of the famous Talmudic saying: To save one life is to save the world entire. Avi and Alena save each other. In doing so, they save their world.
Absolution achieves the exalted level of must-read books. “Peace,” as Georgy reminds us in the prologue, “is not determined by the signage of treaties or the wishes of leaders. Peace is not a discrete event; rather it is a renewable proposition, filled with affirmations designed to mitigate against the collective distrust of two people who knew little beyond hatred, suspicion, blame and counter blame, intellectual gamesmanship, fear, paranoia, historical necessity, retribution, and a host of other deeply engrained emotional projections that are constantly lurking beneath the surface.”
As a Jew, I felt deeply moved by the love and warmth of Georgy’s narrative. If an Arab writer can do this, then how many others, Jewish and Arab, harbor the same hopeful feelings?
David Bronstein is a retired professor of comparative literature (Cambridge University). He visited both Israel and the occupied territories in 2010 and lives in New York.