Israel-Palestine has come to be defined by platitudes. Can fiction succeed where journalism has failed?by Daniella Peled / April 1, 2020 / Leave a comment
I really did not want to like this book. So much has been written on Israel-Palestine—histories, memoirs, essays, fiction and indeed peace plans—and so very little of it is original. So at first, I was not especially enthused by this much-hyped novel by the veteran Irish author Colum McCann, who has confessed that he knew next to nothing about the region before he began his latest project.
This interminable conflict causes real pain for those directly affected, but the way it is usually viewed by outsiders can be summed up in one simplistic image: a Palestinian woman in a hijab walking past an ultra-orthodox Jewish man, perhaps against the backdrop of the Temple Mount. You can amplify this cliché across millions of words in dozens of languages. Maybe it’s because it has become such an enduringly fashionable issue—the woke left is full of people who wear keffiyehs but couldn’t find Palestine on a map—but that is about as insightful as much of the coverage gets.
Israel-Palestine has come to be defined by platitudes: Biblical tribalism, modern-day colonialism, the shadow of the Holocaust, the sweep of history. The public demand them, and we in the media oblige. (Full disclosure: in two decades covering this story, I too have written the obligatory Christmas-in-Bethlehem story and introduced radio pieces with the haunting sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer in occupied East Jerusalem.)
If journalists struggle to push past these banalities can artists come up with anything more insightful? Aperiogon—the title means “a shape with a countably infinite number of sides”—takes a simple story as a way in. McCann’s book tracks the friendship between Rami Elhanan, an Israeli who lost his teenage daughter Smadar in a suicide bombing in 1997, and Bassam Aramin, whose daughter Abir died after being shot in the head with a rubber bullet by an Israeli Defence Force soldier 10 years later. Although the book’s cover clearly signposts that this is a novel, these men are real individuals whose peace campaigning is well known. McCann has talked extensively to both, and they are apparently happy for him to tell their stories.
I prepared myself for the usual tales of innocence shattered, fates intertwined…