Book tells story of Israeli, Palestinian men who lost daughters in war

The title, Apeirogon, refers to a geometric figure with an infinite number of sides reflecting the many aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict.

Children walk in front of a mural painted on part of Israel’s security barrier at the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Children walk in front of a mural painted on part of Israel’s security barrier at the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Published in February 2020, Apeirogon is a 480-page novel by Colum McCann, an acclaimed and bestselling Irish novelist, essayist and short story writer. It is about the experiences of two men, one Israeli and one Palestinian, each of whom lost a daughter in a conflict that has spanned much of the 20th century and has persisted into the 21st.
The title refers to a geometric figure with an infinite number of sides reflecting the many aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict, The novel, referred to as a hybrid novel by the author, consists of 1001 short (some only a sentence long) and longer chapters, numbered one to 500 then 1001, and finally from 500 down to one.
The central feature of the novel, repeated several times throughout, is not at all fictional. Rami Elhanan is an Israeli graphic designer, the son of a Holocaust survivor and a 7th generation Jerusalemite. His daughter Smadar, 14 years old, was one of five individuals, including three young girls, killed by Palestinian suicide bombers in Jerusalem in 1997.
Rami met Bassam Aramin in 2005 at meeting of Combatants for Peace, an Israeli-Palestinian NGO. Bassam, a Palestinian, spent seven years in an Israeli prison for attacking Israeli soldiers with a grenade when he was 17 years old. His prison experience included beatings, as well as acts of kindness from the Israeli guards. He became an exponent of non-violence after watching a TV documentary on the Holocaust in prison. After completing his prison sentence Bassam obtained an MA degree in Holocaust Studies from a British University
Two years after meeting Rami, Bassam’s daughter, Abir, ten years old, died after she was hit in the head by a rubber bullet fired near her school by a member of an Israeli border police patrol responding to reports of a disturbance.
Based on interviews by the author, the book describes the events surrounding each girls’ deaths several times, sometimes in graphic detail; we read about the effect on the suicide bomber’s body when a belt of explosives explodes around the waist, and the effect of a rubber bullet on the bones of the skull. We read about the frantic and anxious efforts made by Rami and his wife Nurit to find out if Smadar was one of the bombers’ victims, and we share Bassam’s agony and frustration at the delays caused by army checkpoints during the effort to transfer Abir by ambulance from the West Bank to a larger and better-equipped hospital in Israel.
Rami and Bassam, already friends, became even closer to each other. Over the past several years, they have told their stories together to Palestinian and Israeli high schools students, as well as to audiences around the world. Both men speak well and compellingly and it is impossible not to empathize and share their grief.
Among the tapestry of facts and events woven into the stories told by Rami and Bassam, are a number related to the migratory habits of the many species and millions of birds that use the Israel and the West Bank as a flyway on their way to and from Europe and Africa. There are other allusions to cross-boundary activity, including the secret use of a cable car to replenish supplies between Mount Zion and Western Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence, as well as a tightrope walk (and release of a white dove) along a parallel path by the famous artist Phillippe Petit in 1987. Additional factual descriptions include how to manufacture rubber bullets and other weapons, as well as the 1835 ill-fated exploration of the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea by the Irish priest, Christopher Costigan.
Apeirogon is largely a work of non-fiction. It is the skill with which McCann has collected and presented the information he writes about that makes it a novel. In doing so, the author chose the squares of information that resulted in the quilt that formed the book.
In spite of its title, Apeirogon does not present all aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By linking the creation of the Palestinian refugees to the Holocaust, a common practice by Westerners ( for example Barack Obama in his June 4, 2009 Cairo speech “A New Beginning”), McCann neglects to mention that the establishment of the State of Israel resulted in the creation of two refugee populations, an Arab one and a Jewish one. The Jewish refugees, larger in number than the Palestinian refugees, were forced to leave their homes and possessions in the Arab world, often after experiencing extremely brutal treatment. Most of these refugees ended up in Israel and they and their descendants now form more than half of the Jewish population of Israel. Their experience is comprehensively described in a recent book Uprooted; how 3000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight, by Lyn Julius. Julius writes “A majority of Israeli Jews have never left the Middle East: they merely moved from one area of the region to another…” and “They (Western liberals) see the creation of Israel as expiation for European guilt for the Holocaust.”
Another recent book, Spies of no Country (2019), by Matti Friedman makes the same point. He writes “If the State of Israel is a problem for the Arab world, then it is to some extent a problem created by the Arab world by victimizing and finally expelling the Jews who were native to that world. It’s better to play on European guilt, and to expunge your own, by calling Israelis ‘colonialists.’”
Apeirogon has received widespread attention and the reviews are generally very positive. Many refer to the book as a novel of conciliation and one that will advance peace.  For example, Hamilton Cain’s review in The Oprah Magazine is titled “Colum McCann’s New Novel Apeirogon Illuminates Both Sides of the Israel-Palestine Divide.”
While the novel is certainly about reconciliation, it focuses on just two men, Rami and Bassam. The sign on Rami’s motorbike reads “It won’t be over until we talk”, but there is no daylight between Rami’s and Bassam’s views; both advocate for an end to the occupation. Which occupation? The West Bank? What will replace it? Hamas?
Ironically, Bassam seems to understand the Israeli position better than Rami. While we read that Rami’s wife Nurit, an Israeli academic and peace activist considers the policies of the Israeli Government to be responsible for the Palestinian suicide bombers, Bassam is quoted as saying (about the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords) “Another chance gone. And then the bombing started - these were the biggest political, strategic and moral mistake that we (he means the Palestinians) ever made…”
McCann devotes several pages of the book to The Wall, including a full page listing the painted slogans that it has attracted and a paragraph listing the many names it has acquired, including Separation Wall and Apartheid Wall. Yet no mention is made of that fact that no wall existed in 1997 when the bombers who killed Smadar travelled from the West Bank to Jerusalem. Suicide bombers, representing all major Palestinian political factions, began their attacks in 1989. In all, 171 attacks resulted in 1769 casualties (805 deaths and 964 injured). In 2002, just before the wall was constructed, there were 47 attacks, an average of almost one per week. The erection of the wall resulted in a precipitous drop in attacks. The absence of some of these details in a book that is otherwise full of such bits of information, including the little known saga of the cable car used in the 1948 war, again highlights the fact that the author chose which medley of bits to include to create the balance he wanted.
Two reviews, one by an Israeli and one by a Palestinian, are noteworthy for criticising the book.  In March 2020, Al Jazeera published an opinion piece by Susan Abulhawa, an American Palestinian writer, in which she deplores McCann’s portrayal of a two-sided conflict. The Israeli’s are nothing but European colonists, just like the colonists who displaced the Indigenous Americans. She finds Rami’s point about being a descendent of seven generations of Jerusalemites to be particularly annoying. To her, there is no connection between the Jewish people and Israel before the onset of the modern Zionist program.
The other review was published in the October 2020 issue of Mosaic Magazine and was written by an Israeli, Naftali Moses, who lost his 16 year old son to terrorists. Moses has an empathy and understanding of Rami and Bassam’s grief that few readers can have, especially those not living in Israel. While respecting McCann’s as a writer, Moses takes issue with several aspects of the novel. He questions, for example, whether the death of Abir, which he describes as an unintentional act by a young border police officer, is morally equivalent to the premeditated murder of civilians by suicide bombers, He refers to the book as an empathy machine, a point well taken.
Moses also takes issue with McCann’s portrayal of the West Bank settlements as choking off Palestinian life, although I think McCann’s view is hardly unreasonable, especially from a Palestinian perspective. He goes on to suggest that the novel, which includes a graphic description of Christ’s crucifixion, perpetuates what he refers to as recycled insinuations rooted in the age-old prejudice of Christian-motivated anti-Semitism. Perhaps. Many will find his evidence too circumstantial to make a case.
If the intention of the novel was to act as a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians, I think it is a failure. Perhaps because it is not a novel, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor (2018) by Yossi Klein Halevy is a better effort when it comes to encouraging dialogue. Nevertheless, I was struck by the similarity in what Halevy says “We can continue fighting for another hundred years, in the hope that one side or the other will prevail. Or we can… divide the land between us.” and Bassam saying “…we could go on hating each other forever, but it is not written anywhere that we have to go on killing each other.”■