A response to Susan Abulhawa’s review of Colum McCann’s novel, ‘Apeirogon’

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Susan Abulhawa, one of the most celebrated contemporary Palestinian novelists, has written a devastating review of Colum McCann’s new novel “Apeirogon.” As an appreciative reader of McCann’s new novel, I find her review unfair. It ascribes to the novel motives that are simply absent from the text. While she makes valid general points about prevailing narratives in Western representations of Palestinians, McCann’s novel does not fall into that disreputable tradition.

McCann is a writer who has written about gypsies and other oppressed people and is talented at entering worlds that are new to him. He doesn’t write about what he knows but what he wants to learn about through his writing. In this novel he writes about the shared experiences of two individuals, an Israeli and a Palestinian. His book arose from two stories he heard in 2015 about the killing of 10-year-old Abir, daughter of Bassam Aramin, in 2007 by an Israeli soldier and the killing of 13-year-old Smadar, daughter of Rami Elhanan, in 1997 by a Palestinian suicide bomber. McCann has described his work as “a hybrid novel with invention at its core, a work of story-telling which…weaves together elements of speculation, memory, fact and imagination.”

To compare this novel with Leon Uris’s propagandist 1958 book, “Exodus”, which presents Zionism as liberation movement, is patently unfair. While “Exodus” arose out of a desire to present a false and misleading picture of pre 1948 Palestine, “Apeirogon” is a sensitive exploration of the lives of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
We cannot as Palestinians take umbrage at anyone trying to portray Israelis and Palestinians as human. Abulhawa seems to do that. We can and do take offence at reducing the conflict to a misunderstanding or at calls for dialogue as the solution of the conflict. This novel does neither.

Susan Abulhawa (Photo: Dorthe Karlsen)
Susan Abulhawa (Photo: Dorthe Karlsen)

McCann has enchanting descriptions of migratory birds weaving in and out of his narrative and functioning as symbols of freedom that humans in Palestine do not have. But Abulhawa faults him for mentioning birds while failing to mention the draining of the Hula wetlands in the Galilee in the early fifties. Contrary to Israeli propaganda this project had nothing to do with getting rid of the malaria-carrying mosquitoes as this problem had already been resolved before Israel was established through the use of DDT. It proved to be a major ecological disaster and human tragedy for the Palestinians expelled from these marches and losing their homes and lands there. But even a 500 page novel such as “Apeirogon” cannot address each and every catastrophe that has been visited upon the land and people of historic Palestine.

It is not news that Israel is a settler colonial state that was built on the ruins of another people, the Palestinians. Nor should it be news that this project has led to the rise of an Israeli people who now live and share Palestine unequally and oppressively with the Palestinian nation. Naturally, official Israel refuses to admit this. But the answer should not be that we, Palestinians, in turn refuse to admit the existence of Israelis or their humanity, otherwise we would be calling for an all-out perpetual war that is more bloody than any we’ve witnessed.

But then none of this is McCann’s issue. He is the author of a highly accomplished novel which makes no claims as to how the conflict is to be resolved. Nor is it the business of a good novel to provide political solutions of the conflict. His sin, if it is to be called that, is that he highlights in an artistic fashion that is highly moving, the humanity of two individuals, the Israeli father who has lost a child just as he does the Palestinian father’s loss. How can we take offence about this?

Abulhawa makes valid points about the effect of propaganda on the world’s understanding of the Palestinian tragedy which again do not apply to “Apeirogon.”
McCann is also taken to task because the film maker Steven Spielberg has chosen to turn his novel into a film. The film has not yet been made. We have not seen it to judge it. To compare the project to that propagandist film, Exodus, an embarrassing and at best, third rate production (which Paul Newman later regretted taking part in), is unfair. Yes, Hollywood films have done Palestinians immense harm in their negative portrayal of Palestinians. I cannot predict the Spielberg movie based on McCann’s novel but I can hope that it turns out to be a nuanced film that just might make a significant difference in how the Palestinians are perceived in a Hollywood major production.

The gallery of writers who over the years have distorted the image of the Palestinian in service of the Zionist cause is infuriatingly long but McCann has no place in it. Abulhawa has every right to her opinion of this novel. My own is that this is an important novel authored by a man who is very far from being a colonialist as the review suggests.
I very much hope that Abulhawa’s review does not dissuade Arab and Palestinian audiences from reading this novel and arriving at their own opinion of it. And let the discussion continue.

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It’s hard to disagree with the brilliant Shehadeh, but I’m afraid Abulhawa makes very valid points. She may go about it a bit harshly, but who can blame her? I shudder to think what Spielberg will unleash upon us now, thanks to this well-meaning but unfortunate book. Lord have mercy.

You can write a book which humanizes both sides by telling the story of two families, one Israeli and one Palestinian. Sandy Tolan did that in his Non-Fiction book The Lemon Tree. ( Stupid spellcheck insists on Non-Fiction being capitalized.) As I recall, ( it’s been years since I read it), he didn’t pull any punches about the Nakba. I don’t think any hasbarist would have liked that book. i haven’t read this one,so I… Read more »

Okay, again, maybe the book is good, but this sort of liberal mawkishness makes it sound like a pile of crap.

I will keep an open mind despite this type of praise. I might even read the damn thing.

“Abulhawa makes valid points about the effect of propaganda on the world’s understanding of the Palestinian tragedy which again do not apply to “Apeirogon.” ” Sure it does. Let’s please try not to sound like the clueless types who defend a physicist making a new bomb in the employ of a weapon-maker under the pretext that he couldn’t know the bomb woud be used… duh.  “McCann is also taken to task because the film maker… Read more »

Bravo to Susan Abulhawa for her nuanced review of Colum McCann’s Apeirogon book and to Raja Shehade for his articulate counterpoint. We need more of this.