Colum McCann gives voice to grieving fathers, one Israeli and one Palestinian

Chloe Cushman
A book review of Colum McCann’s novel about the complex Middle East conflict which gives insight into what seems to be an implacable problem.

By Julie Orringer |  The New York Times  |  Feb 24, 2020

‘Once I thought we could never solve our conflict, we would continue hating each other forever, but it is not written anywhere that we have to go on killing each other. The hero makes a friend of his enemy. … When they killed my daughter they killed my fear. I have no fear. I can do anything now.’
— Colum McCann, Apeirogon

By Colum McCann

On Sept. 4, 1997, 13-year-old Smadar Elhanan — dressed in a Blondie T-shirt, her hair cut short, her Walkman playing Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2U” — was walking down Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem when three young Palestinian men detonated suicide belts, killing themselves, Smadar and four others. A decade later, and less than three miles away, 10-year-old Abir Aramin, wearing her school uniform and holding a candy bracelet she’d just bought, was shot in the back of the head by an 18-year-old Israeli soldier as his jeep sped around a corner. The local Palestinian clinic where Abir was treated had little working equipment, so doctors decided to transfer her to a better-equipped hospital on the other side of the wall. Her ambulance was delayed for hours at a border checkpoint, and she died two days later at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, the same hospital where Smadar was born.

These real-life events form the seed of “Apeirogon,” Colum McCann’s powerful and prismatic new novel. An apeirogon is a polygon with an infinite yet countable number of sides. This novel, divided into 1,001 fragmentary chapters — a number alluding to “The Thousand and One Arabian Nights” — reflects the infinite complications that underlie the girls’ deaths, and the unending grief that follows. Its primary subject is the fraternal relationship between the girls’ fathers, Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian Muslim, and Rami Elhanan, an Israeli Jew. Aramin co-founded the activist group Combatants for Peace; Elhanan joined up after his son Elik brought him to a meeting, some seven years before Abir’s death. By the time Abir was shot, Elhanan and Aramin were close friends. The new loss made them brothers. Since 2007 they’ve traveled all over the world together, speaking about what they experienced and why they believe that a peaceful end to the occupation is not only possible, but necessary.

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