The Time of Friendship is a marked departure for Bowles, for instead of his usual bleak assessment of human nature, readers are given a glowing tale of mutual respect and love between two very different people. The story ends without betrayal, cruelty, or death. Yet death does hover just beyond the story’s horizon as the two main characters, Fraulein Windling and her platonic love, the young desert dweller, Slimane (Arabic for Solomon), enjoy time together.
One winter, this middle-aged Swiss woman and this Muslim youth form a mutual attachment. She enjoys his rapt attention to her stories, and he enjoys hearing her tell them. When she, a devout Christian, indirectly challenges his Muslim assumptions about Jesus Christ, he reacts without anger; instead, he tells her an apocryphal story about Jesus, a man he regards as a Muslim prophet. Sensing her young protégé’s religious nature and wanting to set him straight about Christ’s true identity, she lovingly creates a crèche scene, carving Mary and baby Jesus, wise men, and shepherds from native clay, creating a floor from chicken feathers, and decorating the scene with candies from Switzerland.
While Fraulein Windling’s back is turned, however, her friend inadvertently beheads the camels and other figures while trying to get at the candy. Deftly, subtly, Bowles uses the devastated manger scene as an omen of the future. War is coming: The French occupiers of the area are engaged in battle against local patriots, a lopsided conflict in which the heavily armed French are almost certain to prevail. When Fraulein Windling leaves her North African friend behind as a result of her forced repatriation home to Europe, she leaves with real grief in her heart, for she realizes that when she returns—if she ever will—he may be dead, a victim of the conflict. Thus, the last meeting is a sad one. Unspoken feelings speak the loudest as the two try to make conversation. As the train moves, she impulsively kisses Slimane’s forehead and, by so doing, offers him evidence of her love.
In this story, Bowles’s ability to convey stifled emotion and lost hopes with an astonishing economy of words is on full display; character and situation are carefully delineated. The Time of Friendship reverberates with loss but also with a kind of wild joy as two people share moments of intimacy and understanding.