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Summer 2020

The Only Language: Making New Worlds in Israel-Palestine

Two reviews, separately written, on Colum McCann's new novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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or a conflict in which each side insists force is the only language the other understands, literature has played a surprisingly significant role in the modern history of Jews and Palestinians. Theodor Herzl’s vision for a Jewish state was most precisely articulated in his novel Altneuland, and Edward Said often lamented that Palestinians had not, as he believed Israelis had, been given what he called ‘permission to narrate.’ In the years since Said’s death, in 2003, the story of Israel­––Palestine, or at least the story of how the conflict was supposed to be resolved, has settled into bleak stagnation, an endless repetition of the same motifs ––peace negotiations, war in Gaza, Bibi’s reelection––while nothing changes at all, as if a very violent version of Nietzschean eternal return.

The literary scholar Kfir Cohen Lustig has argued that the past decades have left Israeli and Palestinian literature bereft of agency, transforming its storytellers from makers of worlds into readers of signs. It’s interesting, then, that Colum McCann’s experimental novel Apeirogon begins with a sign, one that will be familiar to any frequent visitor to Israel––Palestine. The words, which appear in English, Hebrew and Arabic on the many steel red signs that dot the West Bank, read: ‘This Road Leads to Area A Under the Palestinian Authority The Entrance For Israeli Citizens Is Forbidden Dangerous To Your Lives and is Against the Israeli Law.’ Rami Elhanan is not a mere reader of signs, and he makes no exception for this one: he drives his motorbike past the steel red text, into Bethlehem.

There Rami meets Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian once imprisoned for a grenade attack on an IDF jeep, who in Israeli prison came to believe that, “The greatest jihad was the ability to talk.” Rami and Bassam have both lost preciously young daughters: Smadar, killed at fourteen by a Palestinian suicide bomber in west Jerusalem, and Abir, killed at ten by an Israeli border policeman in east Jerusalem. Through their grief Rami and Bassam have forged an unlikely friendship, and they believe the stories they have to tell can remake Israel–Palestine. Rami and Bassam are, as the novelist Moriel Rothman-Zecher once described himself, citizens of a nation that does not exist. Like Herzl and Said, they believe they can narrate their nation into being.

Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin are living activists, leading members of the well-known NGO Combatants for Peace, whose stories have been told many times, not least of all by themselves. So what are they doing as characters in McCann’s novel? An apeirogon is a shape with a countably infinite number of sides, and the novel is most compelling when its insights into the shape of Israel––Palestine intersect with its insights about the shape of the novel as a form. The book unfolds over 1001 chapters, written from Rami and Bassam’s third person perspective and from their first, between which a roving narrator tells us about birds, architecture, musicology, and religious iconography. These asides often point to the expansiveness of aesthetic possibility, from Phillip Glass’s experimental opera Einstein on the Beach to the minbar of Saladin, a wooden structure that stood for eight hundred years in the Al-Aqsa mosque, built from “sixteen thousand finely carved blocks joined together in interlocking pieces… the secret to the structure was that the thousands of parts were not hung on a framework at all, but were harmoniously integrated.” McCann’s real-life characters strive for such harmonious integration in a political reality intent on denying it. Nurit Peled–Elhanan, mother of the murdered Smadar, had as a young woman “dreamed she could be part of a vast Mosaic, Jew Christian Muslim Atheist Other Buddhist, call it what you will.” Now this is a future “for which she no longer held out much hope.” But human beings, like musical chords and words on a page, can arrange ourselves in a countably infinite number of ways, and McCann’s attention to form reminds us that the historical moment in which Israel––Palestine finds itself today is no more inevitable than that an opera must be linear or a novel written from a single point of view.

Quiet refusal is the medium by which McCann’s narrators remake their world. Every nation is a story, and the Elhanan and Aramin families want theirs to be one defined by more than the violence expected of them after Smadar and Abir are killed. “It’s all about action now,” Rami’s son, Elik, is told by his commanding officer after Smadar is murdered. “Something had to be done,” the officer insists. “Someone was going to pay for his sister’s death. He would feel better.” The officer’s is a familiar formula in the literature of war: the next act should consist of “counter-killings in rage and retribution” for the violence of the preceding act, as the Furies have it in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, that masterpiece of bloodlust and revenge. “Never were we freer than under the German occupation,” Sartre once famously observed, and Rami and Bassam each see they have never been more free than in their precarious grief, as each chooses how to respond to his daughter’s deaths. Neither denies the instinct for revenge. After suffering torture in Israeli prison, Bassam laughs at documentary footage of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Rami admits that after his daughter was killed, “You want to go out and kill an Arab, any Arabs, all Arabs.” It takes time for each man to see that “language is the sharpest weapon.”

One of the virtues of McCann’s novel is its careful attention to the tradition in which Rami and Bassam narrate, the long attempt to tell a story other than “counter-killings in rage and retribution.” Nurit is at the center of this tradition. A philologist at Hebrew University, her work focuses on dehumanizing portrayals of Palestinians in Israeli textbooks. She has a keen sense for the way seemingly innocuous details are churned into pernicious nationalist narrative. No, she tells Prime Minister Netanyahu after her daughter is killed, do not dare sit shiva in my home when you refuse to accept that your occupation is responsible for her death. Nurit is the daughter of Matti Peled, a decorated general who after the 1967 war became one of Israel’s most infamous dissidents, with time metamorphosing into a professor of Palestinian poetry at Hebrew University (Peled’s story is told in his son’s moving memoir, The General’s Son). Peled seeks truth in the language of his former enemies, much as Bassam comes to believe “the language of the oppressor, too, had to be taken apart.” But McCann also observes how language is as fertile with cruelty as with possibility: it is on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda street–named for the early Zionist who derived much of modern Hebrew grammar from Arabic roots, seeing the two as “sister languages, which, like the people, could live with and alongside one another”–– that Smadar is killed by suicide bombers.

Benedict Anderson famously argued that the novel is the most potent site of national imagination, a gathering place that transforms disparate people and events into a collective public. Critics might wonder how an Irish novelist resident in New York can reshape the Israel-Palestinian imaginary. But McCann is hardly alone in his literary idealism. One of the most compelling recent novels to emerge from the region was written by Moriel Rothman-Zecher, the Israeli-American novelist whose original translations of Darwish appear in his 2018 novel Sadness is a White Bird. This title is taken from a Darwish poem in which an Israeli soldier says he cannot permit himself to feel sorrow after killing because “sadness is a white bird that does not come near a battlefield / soldiers commit a sin when they feel sad.” Rothman-Zecher asks his reader to feel sorrow for a remarkable range of characters: young Palestinian men killed in the Nakba, in the 1956 Kafr Qasim massacre, and in nonviolent civil disobedience in today’s West Bank; a gay Jewish man from Salonica killed in Auschwitz, his brother who arrives in Haifa ready to fight for a homeland, and their descendant, who experiences anti-Semitism in both rural Pennsylvania and cosmopolitan Europe. The novel’s crescendo is its narrator’s refusal to continue serving as a soldier in the occupied Palestinian territories. Jonathan feels sadness for the Palestinians whose lives he rules, and refuses to consider it a sin. The novel’s expansiveness is never an excuse for laissez-faire detachment but rather a meaningful imagination of the Israel––Palestine that could be, the “vast Mosaic, Jew Christian Muslim Atheist Other Buddhist” of which Nurit Peled–Elhanan dreams. This is the nation Rothman-Zecher says he is a citizen of, the one that exists in his novel and Rami and Bassam’s life, if not yet in the legal and political architecture of Israel––Palestine.

At the end of the Oresteia, after nearly everyone has been killed, Athena descends from on high and offers the reasonable insight that violent revenge is no way to structure a city: perhaps Athenians should try constitutional democracy. At a historical moment of profound impasse, when prospects of a two state solution seem dim and one binational state even more remote, those who believe in a more just Israel––Palestine need both new national narratives and political forms: federation, confederation, or interlinked states, as the Palestinian political theorist Bashir Bashir and Israeli historian Amos Goldberg have co-written. The gift of Rami and Bassam, McCann and Rothman-Zecher, is the language to imagine how we can each be not merely readers of signs but makers of these new worlds.

*Colum McCann, Apeirogon,Bloomsbury, pp. 465


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Sam Sussman

Sam Sussman has won the BAFTA New Writing Award and Oxford Review of Books Short Fiction Prize. He is the director of Extend.

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