A tale of murdered children on two sides of a bitter war


A tale of murdered children on two sides of a bitter war

Colum McCann's ‘Apeirogon' shows the impossibility of choosing sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict. There are so many narratives, writes MARELI STOLP, and maybe they're what will eventually bring peace.


IT IS January 2024. The International Court of Justice heard arguments in the case brought by South Africa alleging genocidal intent in Palestine. It ordered Israel to prevent acts of genocide as it wages war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip but stopped short of calling for an immediate ceasefire.

I won’t attempt any further thoughts on this topic. It is too complex for me, too impenetrable. Too many twists and turns, too much political posturing, historical hubris. With every new bit of information from Gaza I feel another gut punch. So much suffering and pain. So much with no solution. 

I do what I always do: I turn to words, books, the thoughts of others. There are writers who have given powerful language to the horror, the darkness. Foremost in my mind is Apeirogon, a masterful work by Colum McCann published in 2020 and focusing on events from decades ago. Echoes of those events are playing out again today, in the same place, with the same violence and darkness. I retrieve the book from my shelf.

Rami Elhanan — Israeli — had a daughter. She was blown to pieces by Palestinian suicide bombers in 1997. They turned a busy shopping street in Jerusalem into a graveyard. She was 13 when she died. Bassam Aramin — Palestinian — had a daughter. An Israeli soldier fired a rubber bullet into the back of her head. She was on her way to school. She was nine when she was murdered in 2007.

Israeli and Palestinian. Two men. Two fathers. Two fathers of murdered children. One country. No solution.

Rami and Bassam are friends and this extraordinary relationship is not fiction. They met at a support group for parents of children stolen away by the Israel-Palestine conflict. Since meeting, they have been working without pause, travelling the world to spread a message of forgiveness and redemption, of mutual understanding — trying to find ways to cross the chasm that has split their shared country for so many bloodied decades.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

The story of these two incredible humans is the foundation of Apeirogon. Literally, because McCann’s book is structurally connected to 1,001 Nights. Structure plays an important role in how McCann conveys meaning in this book. Its 499 “chapters" lead to two sections numbered “500": Rami and Bassam’s own words, interviews conducted with them since their daughters’ deaths.

In the middle of the book we find chapter 1001, a single sentence describing a gathering of the Parents Circle (the group where Rami and Bassam met) in Beit Jala. From there, the chapters recede again from 499 to 1. Fragment 1, at the beginning of the book: “The Hills of Jerusalem are a bath of fog." Fragment 1, at the end: “The hills of Jericho are a bath of dark." It’s a palindrome. From one to 499 and back again to number one. As it reads from left to right, so it manifests in the opposite direction. The passage of time is withdrawn from the narrative. Able was I ere I saw Elba, and you are always simultaneously in the middle and at the end; you end up where you began and you can’t move forward, can’t return, can’t escape. The complexities of this land and this time are woven into the structure of Apeirogon.

It seems logical, but it isn’t. It seems linear, but don’t be fooled.   

The title further underscores the notion of complexity. “Apeirogon" refers to a geometrical shape with an infinite number of sides. The Greek roots of the term connect to “infinite, boundless". McCann uses the title to comment on the notion that the Israel-Palestine conflict can be reduced to a duality — you have to pick a side. But there are an infinite number of sides. The reality is so much more complex than “right" or “wrong". 

Some chapters are mere fragments, a single sentence, and some span several pages. A chapter can be a photograph or an empty block. At times the author oozes poetry: flocks of birds glide effortlessly across the borders between Palestine and Israel, peacefully soaring above the conflict; a tightrope walker prances across a tightly spun wire, crossing a military checkpoint dividing the two countries. At other moments the poetry becomes a brutal means to pummel the horrific realities of the world into the reader's consciousness: Bassam has his wounded child in the car, they must get to a hospital, she lives, still, but for how long? They are stopped at a checkpoint, please, we have to pass, this child has been shot, but the Israeli soldier says no. You will not pass.

A few chapters further: the soldier who murdered his child was only 18 years old. 

100 fragments further: our daughters loved to play the same game.

Nothing is ever just a single thing

The 1,001 narratives that constitute Apeirogon expose what many too often forget. There is never only a single narrative. No single point of view is privileged above another in Apeirogon. It is a book you feel first of all. Just when you think, “yes, now it’s clear, I know which side to choose", McCann pours another sentence into you and your heart is ripped open once again; your brain has to start from zero and nowhere.

This book is malleable, fluid and constantly in motion, and as a reader you never know exactly where you are. Ultimately, though, Apeirogon imprints a distinct awareness: there is redemption and release to be found in friendship, such as that between Rami and Bassam. There is always hope.

That is why the words at the centre of the book — at the centre of the palindrome, in the middle of the apeirogon — are the most significant:

“…[we have] come from as far apart as Belfast and Kyushu, Paris and North Carolina, Santiago and Brooklyn,Copenhagen and Terezín, on an ordinary day at the end of October, foggy, tinged with cold, to listen to the stories of Bassam and Rami, and to find within their stories another story, a song of songs … remembering, while listening, all of those stories that are yet to be told."

Will it be the stories we share that ultimately heal our broken world?

Is this where hope remains?

Apeirogon by Colum McCann was published by Bloomsbury and costs R305 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.