The Story of an Unlikely Friendship
09 May 2007

As young Jews and Arabs in France become more and more violently aware of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one book, So Far Yet So Near, has a particular focus. Nathalie Chavanne meets the book's protagonists.

'I hate hearing you say you're Zionist. That word has too many connotations and sounds like an insult – an insult to Palestinians I mean. Do you know what I mean?' writes Mériam, a Muslim, in one of her regular emails to Fabrice, her Jewish friend.

'Every time I send you an email about anti-Zionist blunders, in your reply you talk about Palestinian suffering. It’s as though you’re always parading Jewish and Israeli mistakes under my nose. I’ve admitted the mistakes. I just want us to be more constructive,' replies Fabrice.

They are both young Parisians in their twenties. Mériam, a practising Muslim with a Tunisian father and French mother, is devoted to the Palestinian cause. Fabrice is committed to Israel and goes there each year. He refers to himself as Zionist. When they met, Mériam was doing a Masters degree in political science. Fabrice, who has a Masters in history and has been involved in the Scout movement since childhood, was working as a trainer for the organization Jewish Guides and Scouts of France (Eclaireuses et Eclaireurs Israélites de France – EEIF).

It all began in May 2003. Emile Shoufani, an Arab-Israeli priest, decided to take 500 Arabs and Jews from France and Israel to Auschwitz. Fabrice and Mériam both went on the journey. They met in Kraków in Poland on the last evening of their visit, in the hotel lobby as they waited to leave for the airport. Not knowing what gave her the nerve, Mériam went up to the 'guy who really looked nice and said to him: "I support the Palestinian cause, I consider the attacks in Israel to be legitimate acts of resistance against injustice. In my opinion, Zionism is a colonialist, racist ideology. Explain it to me, and take your time." ' When they got back to Paris, Mériam announced to Fabrice that she was never going to 'let him go', and that she wanted to get to know him better, to try to understand the point of view of her 'enemies' from the inside. She had found what she had been looking for: someone who was prepared to hear everything and to say everything.

An almost daily correspondence by email followed. Fascinated by this relationship, Natacha Samuel, a documentary director, compiled over 1,000 of their emails. Preserving the spontaneous style of the messages, which were written quickly and not reread, she has collected them into a book, Si loin, si proches (So Far Yet So Near). It reads like a novel: the story of a fragile link, made up of give-and-take and highs and lows. Fabrice and Mériam open up to each other and almost become accomplices in their respective quests for truth, continuing to remove the obstacles that remain.

We meet Fabrice in the Marais district of Paris, near the Shoah (holocaust) Memorial where he is currently working. 'I initially opened up to Mériam in response to the gesture she made in coming to Auschwitz,' he says. 'At first, I was in reply mode. I wondered how far I could go without dissociating myself from my community. I often wanted to add "yes, but…". Because I also need to hear that I am recognized. Now I realize that it is important to get to the point where I can condemn certain events unequivocally, without trying to justify them.'
The book is a tool that Fabrice often uses. 'Reactions among the Jewish community have been positive. Many Jews have agreed to read it. It had been discussed on the television, on the radio and in newspapers. There has been little reaction in the Arab community,' he adds regretfully. 'They needed Mériam’s encouragement to arouse their interest.' Fabrice is determined to develop contacts with Muslim associations. There would need to be twice as many hours in the day to satisfy this passionate entrepreneur, who in 2005, following a Scout jamboree in Thailand, founded an association named Passeurs de Mémoires, or Memory Keepers. He and his colleagues from diverse backgrounds (for example, Armenian and Burundian) develop teaching materials about genocides that have taken place throughout history. He is also making a film about griots – West African musicians and storytellers who play an important role in orally handing down ethnic culture and identity.

We meet Mériam in Paris’s student area. In a café in the Latin Quarter, she opens up a little more. Her eyes sparkling, she describes how she always pushes Fabrice to go further and further in his reasoning. 'It was really me discovering his world rather than the other way round,' she says. 'My link with him is precious because he knows his culture and his practice is well-considered. He comes from a more homogeneous family than I do. I’m from a multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-political, multi-philosophical background,' she says wryly. 'But I’m not as bothered now. I must say that it’s nice to speak to Fabrice: he is composed, whereas I’m a bit excitable!' She gives a detailed description of what she calls her 'multi-everything' heritage, as a result of which she has sometimes suffered from a lack of consistency, as well as rejection, in France and Tunisia: 'I was always from somewhere else'.

But Mériam is not the type to feel sorry for herself, despite her extraordinary sensitivity which one day drove her to write to Fabrice, after a lively exchange of views: 'I’m saying you have a heart of GOLD! That, and that only, makes me want to progress.' And Fabrice returned the compliment, expressing himself with the touching respect that features throughout their correspondence.

And they have continued to progress since the book was published. We are grateful to them for daring to reveal themselves as they were at the start of their relationship four years ago, and as they re-read it today, they are staggered by their own sincerity.

Their approach will help others, in the words of Natacha Samuel, 'to think about the processes that make people cling to their convictions, organize themselves into clans or tribes, withdraw into their communities and be scared of each other — or, on the other hand, search for a narrow window of reconciliation'.

Article first published in Changer. Translated from the French by Lyndsay Collinge


What a joy to be able to sit in on this conversation
between two honest young people who are sharing their personal views openly without apparent fear of being misunderstood and then condemmed. It is, for me, a true example of Honesty, Purety, and Unselfishness!
Three cheers for giving us an opportunity to be
recipients of this writing!
With great appreciation,
George Lemon, 11 May 2007

that's sound wonderful!! when will it be translated in English?
A. Willaert, 16 May 2007

What a big example I have received through these two young people. What a great lesson; am I so open and confident in the other that I can stop hiding behind my postures and willing to show myself as wgly as a see me, hoping the other one will continue with our friendship? How much do I care for his/her truth without comparing it with my ideas? What am I really looking for? Is it really TRUTH?
In Colombia where I ive we don't have ( yet ) these religion controverts, but in my heart I thik I'm better because I belong to "My faith". Do I know what I'll do when these things start to happen?
But we DO have crucial things we should be solving right now. What do I feel and think about a gueerillero after 6 people have been kidnapped an 4 killed in my country's strugle? Will I ever be able to recognize all the missdoings of the group I belong to and do something to change things? Will I ever sit with one of them to learn from him/her the story of my country as he /her has lved it? Will I ever be brave and humble enough to ask for forgiveness?
Thank you for the opportunity you gave me to give a deep look inside of my heart.

Helena von Arnim Colombia.
Helena von Arnim, 23 May 2007