Cultural appropriation has recently become a hot topic in the publishing industry, and it has dovetailed with wider controversies about race relations and the right of any one individual or group to speak on behalf of another. “Apeirogon: A Novel”, which was written by an Irish author, Colum McCann, and which engages with the experience of bereaved parents on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, could possibly be viewed as a further chapter and extension of this controversy.
I must confess that I did not come to this novel with high expectations. I had always been of the view that the colonial experience had been so deeply engraved on Palestinians that any attempt by an outsider to depict this ‘lived experience’ would be artificial, contrived and even futile. The proposition that an outsider could understand, rather than experience, this colonial reality appeared to me to be as redundant as the notion of an ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ account of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
“Apeirogon” forced me to reconsider. McCann visited Palestine and Israel in 2015 where he heard the stories of two fathers, one Israeli and one Palestinian, who had lost their daughters to the conflict. I was impressed from the start by how McCann did not impose himself on their narratives, or seek to impose or sustain an artificial ‘balance’.
In 1997, Rami Elhanan’s 13-year-old daughter, Smadar, was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber while out shopping with her friend. Ten years later, Bassam Aramin’s 10-year-old daughter Abir was shot dead by an Israeli soldier when she went out to buy sweets. In depicting their agony and pain, McCann does not appoint himself as judge or arbiter; rather, he is quite clear that the deaths of Abir and Smadar, and the ensuing agonies of their parents, are products of colonialism.
Bassam cofounded Combatants for Peace, an organisation that works with Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territory. However, he is quite clear that he does not seek ‘reconciliation’ with Israel or Israelis. The seven years that he served in an Israeli prison only intensified his desire to fight the occupation and injustice. He fought the army in the civil courts for four years to prove that his daughter had been shot dead, and was eventually victorious. In direct opposition to the rationale and guiding spirit of reconciliation-based activities, he is quite clear that his intention is to “forgive but not excuse”.
McCann does not therefore presume that their deaths should be used to justify a false equivalence and/or further the (entirely false) pretence that settler and colonised are equally responsible; rather, he instead proceeds from their deaths to issue a stark indictment of colonization, land fragmentation, restriction of movement and checkpoints, while painstakingly setting out their human consequences.
I was struck by the authenticity of Bassam and Rami’s friendship, and by the fact that such relations are increasingly inconceivable, given the extent and depth of the divisions that have been forcibly inserted between Israelis and Palestinians: in the current environment, Palestinians and Israelis are more likely to encounter each other through their mutual prejudices and misunderstandings. Indeed, it was only Smadar’s death that enabled Rami to engage with Palestinians and his own colonial responsibility. In his words: “I didn’t care, I didn’t think about them, I just wanted a normal quiet life.”
I first came across Smadar’s story when reading a separate book by her mother, Nurit Peled-Elhanan on Israeli textbooks. I often recommend her book to my students, and cite her as an example of somebody who has the courage to think beyond her own immediate experience and engage with the root causes of violence, which include the distortions and misrepresentations of official Israeli discourse. While I identified with her claim that ‘no real mother would want this to happen to another mother’, I also understood that few people, including most mothers, would manage to attain her level of humanity and self-consciousness.
In engaging with the experiences and perspectives of both Rami and Nurit I saw the possibility of a genuine reconciliation and an end to the conflict. This has not always been the case in my encounters with well-meaning Israelis, as the persistence of their colonial assumptions and influences invariably distorted our interactions and made it near-impossible for us to genuinely engage.
Rami’s and Nurit’s descriptions of the struggles that they had to overcome reminded me of “Beyond Tribal Loyalties“, a collection of personal stories from Israeli activists edited by Avigail Abarbanel. Of those who set off on this road, few will reach the end. Albert Memmi renders the deeply conflicted state of the ‘coloniser who refuses’:
[E]ither he no longer recognizes the colonized, or he no longer recognizes himself. However, being unable to bring himself to select one of these paths, he stays at the crossroads and loses contact with reality.
This conflict also requires an intense scrutiny of former beliefs and a complete stripping away of what the coloniser previously believed to be him/herself. In this respect, Rami shows an honesty rare among progressive Israelis when he acknowledges how he previously viewed Palestinians.
I didn’t see them as anything real or tangible. They weren’t even visible. I didn’t think about them, they were not really part of my life, good or bad. The Palestinians in Jerusalem, well, they mowed the lawns, they collected the garbage, they built the houses, cleared the plates from the table.
And yet this colonial ‘reality’ was not in any sense ‘real’ and was only sustained through a collective willingness to pretend that the ‘fabricated’ was ‘real’ and ‘lies’ were ‘truth’. In Rami’s words:
Like every Israeli, I knew they were there, and I pretended I knew them, even pretended I liked some of them, the safe ones – we talked about them like that, the safe ones, the dangerous ones …And if they were ever anything other than objects, they were objects to be feared, because, if you didn’t fear them then they would become real.
This colonial ‘reality’ is a fabricated illusion that is made to function through the lies and distortions that Zionism inflicts on both its adherents and its victims. To speak of this as a ‘reality’ that must be experienced is entirely false. By implication, the belief that insight can be obtained though experience is also without basis.
Indeed, the solution that needs to be comprehended and implemented is quite clear and accessible to anybody who is willing to critically disassemble colonial edifice. In Rami’s words: “One state, two states, it doesn’t matter at this stage – just end the Occupation, and then begin the process of rebuilding the possibility of dignity for all of us.”
The colonial experience is not a precondition for understanding and nor should Palestinians defensively claim any specific privilege in understanding and engaging colonialism. Rather, it is only necessary to see through the lie and appreciate it in its full significance. Once others follow where McCann, Rami, Bassam and Nurit have led, then peace will surely follow.