The Malta Independent 18 May 2021, Tuesday

Fathers in anguish

Noel Grima Tuesday, 13 April 2021, 10:18 Last update: about 2 months ago

‘Apeirogon’. Author: Colum McCann. Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing / 2020. Pages: 463pp

Apart from its very unusual title, this is a very strange book, at least on the formal side of things. With over 1,000 chapters, some of less than a page, and converging towards the centre, rather than moving towards the end, this book rewards leisurely reading.

Apeirogon, the title of the book, means a shape with a countably infinite number of sides.

Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin live near one another - yet they exist worlds apart. Rami is Israeli, Bassam is Palestinian. Rami's license plate is yellow. Bassam's license plate is green. It takes Rami 15 minutes to drive to the West Bank. The same journey for Bassam takes an hour-and-a-half.


Both men have lost their daughters. Rami's 13-year-old girl, Smadar, was killed by a suicide bomber while out shopping with her friends. Bassam's 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot and killed by a member of the border police outside her school. There was a candy bracelet in her pocket; she hadn't yet had time to eat.

The two men, brought together by their respective tragedies, have become firm friends and campaign together for peace and understanding in the Middle East. None of them has renounced his background.

There are some interesting asides, such as Francois Mitterand's last meal before he died - a veritable orgy of tiny songbirds drowned in Armagnac, or a high-wire acrobat walking from Palestine to Israel.

But mainly the book describes graphically Israel and the West Bank during the Intifada and later, the way people have to live confronted with the wall, the smouldering hatred, the intractable arguments.

The focus widens, to the past when Rami was a soldier, when Bassam was a prisoner in an Israeli prison. To the suicide bombing at Yehuda Street in West Jerusalem which killed Smadar, to the callous delays obstructing the removal of wounded Abir to hospital. And the incredible fake news to cover up the simple event that an innocent girl had been shot by a panicked soldier.

The action shifts back in time to the first Intifada, even beyond that to the Six Days war and even to the first days of the Jewish State and beyond that to the Holocaust. It shifts to Northern Ireland and then loops around to present day times.

Abir's grandfather was a hero of the War of Independence who became a peacenik later. His daughter, Abir's mother, was a classmate of Benjamin Netanyahu but she stopped him from attending her daughter's funeral.

Bassam, the Palestinian, was already involved with peace groups when his daughter was killed.

The book describes very graphically the present-day situation with the Wall, the constant searches and the mutual suspicion coming from hatred. At the same time, the book ends on a note of hope. At times, the situation seems blocked but people on either side of the wall are meeting and getting to know people from the other side and even coming together to create a small playground, the very first one in the town.

Malta too gets its footnote - a young Maltese sailor, who centuries back accompanied a mad British explorer around the Dead Sea. The Maltese man remains unnamed.

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