Susan Abulhawa is right about ‘Apeirogon’

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In support of a straight shooter.

I hadn’t intended to read Colum McCann’s “Apeirogon: A Novel,” (Random House, 2020) at this time. Till I read Raja Shehadeh’s article in Mondoweiss. My admiration and trust in the judgement of the human rights lawyer and prize-winning Palestinian writer compelled me to read the book. But first I read Susan Abulhawa’s critical assessment of the same book in her Al Jazeera article. That made my self-assigned task doubly difficult: I equally admire the lead living Palestinian novelist and poet and have read and reviewed all of her published books except for her forthcoming “Against the Loveless World,” which is high on my current reading list.

In his novel, McCann does a great artistic and creative job of reaching far and wide across time and space, constantly borrowing from world literature, history, folklore and sacred texts to impact his reader with the depth of the personal tragedies that two families, one Palestinian and the other Israeli, had suffered with the loss of one lovely young daughter each in the ongoing violence of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Both of the fathers have committed to pursuing peace through joining the activist circle of bereaved families on both sides of the ‘conflict.’ And McCann’s tersely poetic writing style is a cross between dwelling at length on the suffering and inner struggles of the two sets of parents of the assassinated promising young girls, and straying far afield in unpredictable directions in literary and popular cultural accounts on both sides of ‘the conflict’.

“Apeirogon” is an appropriate name for a novel that seems to aspire to transcend definition in space and time, a tense poetic tangle with a stylistic mix of William Faulkner’s stream of consciousness and the repeatedly mentioned Thousand and One Nights. Yet, as I read it with the intent to judge its author’s partiality to one side or the other in the assumed Israel-Palestine “conflict,” or his lack thereof, I kept stumbling across reminders that Bassam Aramin, the bereaved Palestinian father (with the repeated but never substantiated Israeli accusations of terrorism and his time in jail under a military court system with a record of 99.8% of all accused being found guilty as charged, as mentioned by the author), his wife, Salwa, and I are all operating at a disadvantage vis-à-vis Rami Elhanan, Bassam’s Israeli counterpart, with his Israeli fighter’s heroic image  which the author visits repeatedly, and his wife, Nurit Peled-Elhanan, the daughter of a famed Israeli general turned peace activist in retirement. And Rami’s sympathetic image is further fortified with details of his Jewish underdog status as a “Holocaust graduate,” the European Nazi crime against humanity which the countrymen of its own perpetrators use as a curse to smear Palestinians. Witness, if you will, Germany’s (and other Western countries’) current criminalization of Palestinian peaceful civil activism against Israel.

Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan with copies of Colum McCann’s book “Apeirogon: A Novel.” (Photo: Parents Circle Forum)

Think about it: To start with, the capable Irish author is European aesthetically and in terms of his natural milieu, his elementary frame of reference and his acculturation. That automatically makes us oriental creatures, and especially the long-derided Palestinians whose main role in the successful Zionist portrayal across most Western media, going back to the earliest church Zionist teachings, has been their absence from the imagined Holy Land till after the unleashing of the Zionists’ settler colonial project when the Palestinians were needed to show up as terrorists. Then comes the novel, “Exodus,” and the most successful film based on it confirming our non-existence except as terrorists. No wonder I still remember demonstrating against it along with my fellow high school mates in Nazareth as it was being filmed. Now, the film rights to “Apeirogon” have been bought by Steven Spielberg before the book was published. The famed film director, even when some of his critics deride him as “no friend of Israel,” is sure to visualize and present the whole mystic blur of “Apeirogon” through Zionist-glinted 3-D glasses. He has famously expressed his willingness to die for Israel but is sure to land alive on the Israeli side of the equalized “conflict.”

Does no one but the Palestinian writer, Susan Abulhawa, find that alarming? On account of that film’s threat alone, I am compelled to join her in sounding the alarm. The most I can credit McCann with is to give him the benefit of the doubt as a misguided and honest bystander who is practicing his artistic gifts based on his lifelong inherent partiality.

Author Susan Abulhawa. (Photo: Goodreads)
Author Susan Abulhawa. (Photo: Goodreads)

Pointing this is the minimum I, as a Palestinian, can do. After all, most Westerners are just waking up to the suspicion that they may have been duped by the Zionists’ clever alignment of their own settler-colonial scheme with the God-ordained white man’s burden as colonialists. Given the success of the ploy, it is left up to the Palestinians to sound the alarm and call on their fellow-colonized dark skins to stand up socio-culturally if not politically to their further debasement through the guise of sharing the blame with their oppressors, their settler colonialists, as “equal partners” in a “conflict.” It is the acuity of their ongoing plight that lends urgency to the Palestinians’ ongoing Nakba and obligates their vocal objection to the continued blame as equal partners to a ‘historical conflict’ whether such blame is intentional or out of inbuilt sociocultural partisanship as is the case with McCann in “Apeirogon.” In her piece in Al Jazeera, Abulhawa shines the light on such standard equating of settler and colonized as follows:

“Imagine this (to borrow from McCann’s writing style): Somewhere on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a little girl from the Oglala Lakota Nation, whose head was shattered by a white settler’s petulant son, bleeds to death in her father’s helpless arms. Another white settler befriends the Native girl’s father (it has to be at the white man’s behest because the father can’t leave the reservation), and a friendship between the two men flourishes from their common anguish of having lost a child. The white man’s daughter had been killed by a group of young Braves who attacked an encroaching settlement. The friendship between the two men is real. The loss that haunts them for all their days is the same.”

There is much to quote in support of my contention of the inborn and life-long cultivated partiality to Western values and folkways of McCann, perhaps through no intended bias on his part. He simply is comfortable in his own Western skin. Such bias is nearly worldwide. But that is exactly the problem. Let me quote from a field with which I am more familiar: In his introduction to the current special issue of the International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies focused on Settler Colonialism: The Palestinian/Israeli Case, Martin Kemp concludes at one point:

Silence, going with the flow, avoiding controversy above all else—taking the role of the bystander—does not absolve us of responsibility. It is a choice in itself that can lead us into collusion with injustice and harm of a kind that could never be openly acknowledged. … Like viruses, the political threats to life and liberty have no respect of national boundaries. In a period in which the specters of fascism and militarism once again haunt the world, this places the Palestinian struggle in its proper context. To join with Palestinians on their path to self‐liberation might then be considered to take one’s place in the unending struggle for universal emancipation.”

The obligatory outcome of McCann’s “neutrality” is that the highly artistic product that he puts in our hands is more empathetic with the characters with European values and behavior, i.e. the Israelis, than otherwise. Let me illustrate by quoting from two engaging moments from the lives of the two bereaved mothers. Here is Salwa, the Palestinian mother:

“Once she was filmed carrying her youngest, Hiba, through the apartment. She had stopped to look at a photograph of [the murdered] Abir and the cameraman caught her crying. If they could have understood her anger, if they could somehow have captured it without making a spectacle of it, she would have talked with them, but she knew, she just knew: a Muslim woman, a Palestinian, the crime of her geography. She supported what Bassam did, Rami too, Nurit as well, but she wanted only to pursue the ordinary. She would find blessing there.”

Compare this, if you will, with the Jewish mother’s less inward directed demeanor: She, Nurit, is loud and clear in her crying out to the world, accusing Israel of killing her daughter by maintaining the occupation of Palestinian Territories, a laudatory and just outcry. Nurit’s scream reverberates across the international media to all regions of the world and over one full month of articles and quotes in the media in various world capitals, as the author documents. That is the manner in which the West understands a mother’s outcry and not in the classic pained reticence of the Palestinian mother. Nurit and Israelis generally are not satisfied “to pursue the ordinary.”

A similar conclusion can be reached even in studying the school report cards of the two lost bright girls, Abir’s abstract grades of A, B and C, compared with Smadar’s more “modern” discourse regarding her performance and interactions with classmates and teachers in each subject. Modern Westerners are automatically drawn to the latter’s lively depictions than to dry grades. And the text is rich with similar contrasts playing in favor of Israel’s more familiar patterns of Western acculturation.

When the author comes to negative portrayal of killers on the two sides, the prominence is in reverse proportions, the Palestinians given the lion’s share. We are presented with the cruel portraits of the three Palestinian suicide bombers, Abulhawa’s “braves,” with considerable details of their horrid refugee camp lives and environment. The author goes on to explain the details of the explosive belts that they wore and the angle at which the explosives must have torn their bodies. He even details how the eye of one of them was found later hanging by its nerve over the edge of a shop’s awning in Jerusalem; utter disgust! When the author comes to the soldier who murdered the Palestinian girl with a rubber bullet to the back of her head just outside her school gate, the murderer’s identity is not known and he never really materializes in the account; the reader never meets or him or her. Little cruelty or gore is flung at the reader in association with the Israeli killer. In fact, the one character who shines most in that account is the Israeli woman judge who insists on visiting the site and ends up ruling in favor of a monetary compensation to the Palestinian family for the loss of their little daughter, a rare outcome for Palestinians in Israeli courts.

To be fair, a surprising exception has to be mentioned here: few people, whether Palestinian or Israeli, are featured in the book with recognizable presence outside of the members of the two victims’ immediate families.

Yet, two Palestinian young women gain entry into the poetic milieu of the book, both unrelated by blood or circumstance to the victims at the center of the book. One is the well-known Palestinian artist, Emily Jacir, who is featured pursuing a project with a connection to Thousand and One Nights. The other is Dalia el-Fahum who, presumably, dies while pursuing her musical ambition of recording bird songs in nature. Yet those most sympathetic sketches of young Palestinian artists fail to balance the account, especially since they both are only tangentially-related to the book’s central theme.

To be honest, reading “Apeirogon,” I could sense Orwell’s presence at the edges tampering with its central premise and carefully balancing its weight and impact. “A swan can be as fatal to the pilot as a rocket-propelled grenade,” is an illustrative casual assertion in the book. It stands alone as one of its thousand chapters of varying length. The author has a fascination with migratory birds that fill many pages all through the novel. This brief statement, I feel, sums up the essence of his “balanced” political stand. Might he, for example, be equating the impact of the peaceful Great March of Return in Gaza with Israel’s frequently fatal and disabling reaction to it? At the end, I find myself in full sympathy with Susan Abulhawa’s stand especially because of the novel’s artistic refinement and inventiveness and the expected worldwide impact of the film based on it, quietly concealing the Palestinians’ ongoing Nakba and denied rights, collective as well as individual ones, witness, for example, Israel’s recently passed apartheid constitutional Nation-State Law.

To use a local Palestinian expression, Susan Abulhawa’s pronouncements “never hit the ground”; her aim is perfect and her fire power is deadly. I find her powerful discourse, centering on refuting the standard Western-style equivalency between the Zionist settler colonialists and their native Palestinian victims, flawless. Confirming and celebrating such unfair equivalency between victim and perpetrator must be decried, challenged and corrected by whoever has the conscience to fathom the depth of its disservice and the media outreach to attempt correcting it. Seeing the current success of the Netflix travesty, Fauda, for example, it is clear that Israel and its hired contractors, especially in the film industry, are retooling their old attack fleets. Raising the alarm, at the earliest possible time and with the loudest possible means at our disposal is the least that all of us, Palestinians and colonized and ethnically-cleansed natives everywhere, must do. Susan Abulhawa did that in her most eloquent style and I humbly second her opinion.

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If you haven’t yet read the review of this unfortunate book/disaster by Dwight Garner in the NYTimes, you’re in for a treat. It’s entitled “Colum McCann’s New Novel Makes a Good-Intentioned Collage Out of Real Tragedy”. Google it! You’ll be glad you did.

This is ridiculous. The Palestinians are Arabs. The Arabs were the ones who colonized the Middle East and many other parts of the world. They were the imperialists, not to mention imposed Islam on the populations of these regions. Later the Turks took over the land and now the Jews have regained a small area of land. This whole “colonizer” narrative does not fool any objective person. Just be honest and say “Arab Muslims would… Read more »