by Colum McCann
480 pp. Random House $28
How do you know when Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians is being normalized? That’s not exactly the question posed by Colum McCann’s new non-fiction novel, “Apeirogon,” but it comes down to that for readers who believe that forcing a Zionist state into Palestine is the root of all the hatred, violence, and suffering the book’s heroes decry. The heroes are two living men, actually – one a Palestinian and the other an Israeli Jew – who together are struggling to change their far-from-normal world.
The Irish novelist says that he was “cracked wide open” when he met West Bank Palestinian Bassam Aramin and his Israeli Jewish colleague Rami Elhanan one evening in Bethlehem. They told of the killings of their daughters by armed elements of each other’s side. Each told of his grief: Rami was hit when his 13-year-old, Smadar, was killed by suicide bombers in 1997; Bassam was hit when his 10-year-old, Abir, was shot in the head at close range by an Israeli soldier in 2007. They told of the friendship they formed and their belief that the group they co-lead, the Parents Circle – Families Forum, is helping dig a grave to bury “the Occupation.”
McCann is a gifted writer with a big reputation. He spent much of the past several years shuttling from his home in New York City to Israel-Palestine, trying to follow Rami and Bassam’s suggestion that he harness his emotional reaction in a book. Widely anticipated, “Apeirogon” was published in February. The movie rights were snapped up by Steven Spielberg. The fathers’ stories are beginning to be heard around the world, offering readers a way to understand the fear, rage, and despair that plague Israel-Palestine.
Where will the book leave readers politically (and perhaps many more film viewers)? What will be their takeaway?
Neither the author, nor his heroes, will say much more than that they are sure those who hear the stories do not go away unchanged by them. They refuse to be more specific about their purpose than to say they seek to end the Occupation. In its literature and website, their group, Parents Circle, scarcely mentions that goal. The two men’s work, and McCann’s book, might boil down to little more than soulful hopes that everyone can just learn to get along. In a word: Normalization.
That was Susan Abulhawa’s verdict in a review in Al Jazeera, which condemned “Apeirogon” as, at best, a “normalization sideshow.” Still, most reviews have not addressed the book’s political impact. They simply present the book as about boundless grief and a boundary-breaking friendship, and discuss McCann’s literary innovation in dividing the novel into 1,001 “cantos,” many of which seem to have little or nothing to do with the men’s stories or even with Israel-Palestine. Yet his approach generates surprising force and freshness and somehow helps one cope as McCann tells in great detail the fate of the girls and their families.
What’s certain is that the two fathers are fueled by excruciating grief. It’s a particular kind of grief that belongs to their peculiar world, where killings and killers are honored and where massacres are always a possibility, with just a slip in the house of cards built on mutual fear. Moreover, in effect, it’s a grief they refuse to let heal, as long as what killed their daughters still defines life in Israel-Palestine, where the next grief haunts every heart, ever ready to strike again. In building their lives around their grief, they expanded it, making it political, not just personal.
“It is not Jewish to oppress another people and not antisemitic for anyone to say so,” Rami emphasizes in his talks. In a Zoom interview I had with him and Bassam, Rami elaborated: “All Jews have fears as a long-persecuted people, even rage. But it’s a matter of decision: you don’t use your victimhood to oppress others.” This seems to signal that the culprit behind the Occupation is weaponized Jewish exceptionalism – and the ideology of Jewish nationalism, Zionism. But they won’t say so.
What do their lives tell us? Bassam, the Palestinian, of course understands Zionism. He spent the years from age 17 to 24 in prison for throwing a grenade under an IDF Jeep, where it failed to explode. His fellow prisoners elected the young man to be commander of their prison section. After prison, he came to “realize that violence is exactly what our opponents want us to use.” He went on in 2005 to help found Combatants for Peace, along with Elik Elhanan, Rami’s son. After his daughter was killed two years later, he joined the Parents Circle.
Bassam seems to have acquired an iron will in prison, where he endured many savage beatings, long solitary confinements, and hunger strikes. As commander, he punished fellow prisoners who collaborated with the prison authorities. But he also learned Hebrew and about the Holocaust, later getting a Master’s Degree in Holocaust Studies from an English University. His interest began when he eagerly tuned in a documentary about the Nazi horrors on his little prison-cell TV, looking forward to seeing his tormentors’ people tormented and killed. But after a few minutes of watching, he began to feel for the victims. It was life-changing, he says. Now, he is able to disarm Israelis who brandish the Holocaust to justify the Occupation.
While Bassam was building himself up, Rami had successfully detached: “We lived what seemed to be a perfect, sheltered life in Jerusalem.” Nurit, his wife, was a professor of philology and education at the Hebrew University. His graphic design company catered to “the right wing, the left wing, whoever paid money. I was a sort of anarchist, not really an anarchist even. I just wasn’t interested at all, the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, Timbuktu, I didn’t care. I just wanted a normal life.” His nihilism was a reaction, he says, to the horror of serving in a unit in the October 1973 war that started with eleven tanks and finished with three.
When his daughter was killed, Rami says in the book, “this incredible bubble of ours burst in midair into a million pieces. It was the beginning of a long cold dark night that is still long and cold and dark and will always be long and cold and dark, until the end when it will still be cold and dark.”
“Every Arab you see, you want him dead,” he says in the book about that time. “The Arabs were just a thing to me, remote and abstract and meaningless.” After many months, he was persuaded to check out a Parents Circle meeting. He was “completely cleaved open. It was like a nuclear event.”
He joined the Parents Circle and learned to use his grief to explode tiny bombs in people to cause “cracks in the wall” of their acceptance of the Occupation. McCann writes that both men “gradually came to understand that they would use the force of their grief as a weapon.” Rami says in the book, “[W]e have to try to smash the forces that have an interest in keeping us silent.”
Many Israelis get it. “I get called an insect, an Arab lover, a self-hating Jew,” Rami says. “They say they wish I had been blown up with my daughter on Ben Yehuda Street.” Meanwhile, Bassam hasn’t lost any of his Palestinian friends, he says, even the fighters. Maybe they see him as still in the fight.
The two men are fast friends. “Bassam is the closest person on Earth to me,” Rami says. “We know each other to the bottom of our souls.” It’s an odd couple: a thoroughly secular Ashkenazi Jew, who loves to argue, and a quiet Arab man, hard to read, given to deep pronouncements, a devout Muslim. But their work is “not about friendship, not even brotherhood,” Rami insists. “There will be no Kumbaya revolution. The Occupation will only end when the price of not having peace exceeds the price of peace.”
The men are not seeking to inflict new costs on Zionists, but to make them feel pain that, at some level, they already carry within. So, Bassam informed his daughter’s killer, when he saw him in court, “You are the victim, not me … I want to wish you a long life because I hope your conscience will wake you up.”
Bassam “was prepared to tell the story anywhere,” McCann writes. He even spoke to the Israel lobby group AIPAC. “It was, he said, the force of his grief.” He would tell how he sat in the back of the ambulance with his unconscious child on life-support for over two hours, just waiting for a mysteriously blocked checkpoint to open up. “I still sit in that ambulance every day. I keep waiting for it to move, please move, please, please, please just go…”
What Bassam and Rami want Palestinians to consider is that, in the face of overwhelming enemy power, soft resistance can dissolve the psychological armor Israelis need to keep beating and killing Palestinians – and Americans need to keep viewing those policies as normal when they’re anything but.
They have a hard time convincing some Palestinians. Fayrouz Sharqawi, for one, is not persuaded. In a Zoom interview, the Global Mobilization Coordinator for Grassroots Al-Quds was blunt: “We definitely see the Parents Circle as a normalization initiative, which we oppose.” The demoralizing effects of normalization make “joint work with any kind of Zionists impossible,” she said. In these programs, “Palestinians feel as though they are in an equal and friendly relationship.” But after the “artificial peace” is over, the Palestinians get to go back to being deprived and humiliated, while the Israeli Jews return to freedom and prosperity – and feel absolved of guilt for their privileges.
A bedrock principle, she said, is that “reconciliation can only come after the status quo has changed, not the other way around.”
This principle, indeed, seems opposite to the Parents Circle approach. Rami often says there needs first to be a desire for reconciliation, a willingness to respect and try to reach the other, only then will peace fall into place.
When I asked the men why they risk being seen as normalizers, Rami got annoyed. “I don’t think you understand what we’re doing. If you really want to talk with someone, you don’t start by poking a finger in his eye. You have to show people peace; you can’t just yell at them. When I started on this work, 20 years ago, I would tell students that it was the settlers and settlements that cause terrorists to attack us. And I would simply lose my audience. The minute we say Zionism is wrong, we lose.”
Bassam added, “It’s up to the people to make the politicians pick this up. We are not a political organization, but we are very political. We talk to many people, including important politicians. But I don’t just want to make Israelis feel guilt; I want them to feel responsible.”
Guilt seeks absolution, responsibility takes action. That seemed to be his message.
As for normalization, Rami told a story from embattled Walajeh, a village outside Bethlehem. At a Parents Circle conference in 2017, a representative of the village spoke of its desperate struggle to protect its water sources from settlers. A group then marched from the conference to Walajeh “to express support and solidarity.” Despite earlier coordination, they were stopped by some anti-normalization activists from the village. Mazen Faraj, the Palestinian co-director at the time, and other Palestinians among the marchers “had a huge argument with the anti-normalizers,” Rami said. In the end, Faraj decided the situation was too unsettled, and the marchers all went home, disappointed. Some were deeply insulted.
Rami responded by posting on the Parents Circle website an explanation of why anti-normalization is “a cornerstone today in the Palestinian political culture.” Joint Israeli-Palestinian actions smack of Oslo’s deception and are “immediately suspected of tatbia,” (Arabic for normalization), he wrote.
“We aren’t normalizers, but it’s not for me to teach Palestinians how to fight the Occupation,” he concluded.
So, what should readers take away? McCann’s title, “Apeirogon,” denotes “a polygon with a countably infinite number of sides.” Meaning what? If it’s a suggestion that Israel-Palestine is just too complicated to deal with politically, then the book and its heroes may in the end be normalizers. But that seems too simple. In this case, perhaps apeirogon signifies that labels like normalizer – or antisemitic – may obscure more than they define and may be stuck on people out of impatience, fear, or malice.
Bassam seemed to be getting at something like that when he said in the book, “people are afraid of talking to the enemy because they are terrified that their lives might get diluted, that they might lose themselves in the tangle of knowing each other.”
Or they might find themselves and find some allies.