“Apeirogon” by Colum McCann


Review by Marc Murr

“End the Occupation.”

“End the Preoccupation.”


At last, award-winning author Colum McCann blasts through the American media blackout Wall with this revealing masterpiece about the tragedy of the illegal Israeli Occupation of Palestine. It is “Occupation, humiliation, murder, torture.” Like the two birds depicted on its cover, this nonfiction account relies on an extended metaphor of two’s – twin nations, two doves of peace, two narrators, two murdered daughters, two nations – to decry the utter depravity of an Occupation that makes a “victim of the victim.” In its extraordinary breadth, McCann successfully links myriad worldwide connections to the war crimes being committed in Palestine. And, as in other tragedies (Native American massacres, Japan, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Africa), the United States’ fingerprints prove its complicity and responsibility.

McCann uses the literary element of Point of View to power this plot, as one hears every imaginable (surely obvious) reason to end “The Occupation,“ but not from the biased words of politicians or media, but from those who live the nightmare and so speak a living truth. The narrators are Bassam, a former Palestinian independence fighter, and Rami, a former Israeli army soldier. Joined by the murders of their daughters – Bassam’s ten-year-old daughter Abir shot in the brain from behind by a young Israeli soldier, and Rami’s fourteen-year-old daughter Smadar blown up by Palestinian fighters on a city street with her friends – they embark on a mission to “End the Occupation.”

Through their organization “Combatants for Peace,” each finds redemption not only for themselves, but symbolically for the two nations they represent. Across the world, they are in demand, confronting and converting Zionist fanatics and Palestinian radicals, even being invited to address the annual conference of AIPAC, the huge Israel-American lobby group. Over and again, they repeat the harrowing details of Abir’s murder (“The bullet that killed [her] traveled 15 meters through the air before it smashed into the back of her head, crushing the bones in her skull like those of a tiny ortolan [bird]”), and Smadar’s murder (“The shrapnel obliterated the back of the Blondie T-shirt that Smadar wore.”). Through them, the reader relives repeatedly the terror that these two brave men and their families experience, and their heroic quest to rid the area of alien influences so that the twin nations can live in peace.

Peace from the ground up:   a monumental task, but one that works. Why? While the politicians have failed, Rami states “I can say now, I could never even think it then – it was the first time that I’d met Palestinians as human beings…yes, human beings…it was a revelation—yes, human beings who carry the same burden that I carry, people who suffer exactly as I suffer. An equality of pain.” And, nobody to fear, because Israel’s security really is not at risk. The two protagonists are twins in their suffering, just as the twin nations, founded at the same time in 1919 by the colonial powers’ drawing on a map of the Middle East, suffer also. So, together, these brothers of peace confront head on the hateful attitudes and agree that “ruling and oppressing and occupying is not Jewish.” Nor Christian, nor Muslim, nor American.

So, what drives the lunacy of the “Occupation?” McCann argues that it is a “Preoccupation” with an irrational “fear,” one fed to a duped public by corrupt politicians, media, and other elites. They feed this “fear” by threatening their own public’s “security.” “We use fear to silence others,” Rami admits. Has the ruse spun out of control? An “industry of fear,” by which politicians, corporate, and media interests profit, imposes generational tragedy to individuals and families.

It is part of the Israeli (and its U.S. colluders’) Kool Aid: “Fear makes money, and it makes laws, and it takes land, and it builds settlements, and fear likes to keep everyone silent. And, let’s face it, in Israel we’re very good at fear, it occupies us.” And, it killed Amir and Smadar and thousands like them.

McCann’s use of an omniscient Point of View packs the book with an amazing amount of factual history and detail. In its broad historical sweep, “Apeirogon” ties together ingeniously the facets contributing to or involved in this mess. He references the twelfth-century Roman Catholic Crusaders, who tied their naked Jewish, Muslim, and Turk prisoners “to mountaintop rocks and then released trained eagles with sharpened talons upon them;”. Menachim Begin’s (later Israel’s prime minister) Irgun gang, which bombed the King David Hotel in 1946, murdering 90 civilians, the first terror organization in the Middle East; to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, with whom Bassam met to deliver a picture of the young Amir and to charge him, “You murdered my daughter.” The picture remains on Secretary Kerry’s wall.

Are these grass-root collaborations a way to strip the “fear” mongers of their power and so to end the “Occupation?” Is Netanyahu’s Wall of Separation a better way to establish peace, or will it confirm a policy of Israeli apartheid, again based on a trumped-up “fear” of “them?” “Apeirogon” means a shape with a countably infinite number of sides, and that symbolizes the intricacy of these twin nations’ struggle for independence. By eliminating some or all of the complex foreign connections that perpetuate the “Occupation,” whether scare tactics or military weapons, McCann argues that these two nations might be able to see in each other their own human reflection: “[i]f you didn’t fear them, then they would become real people.” And, real people relate to each other with respect and empathy and sympathy. Like Bassam and Rami.

Nazi Germany irrationally feared the European Jews and did not treat them as real people, and so the Holocaust. From Hillel the Elder: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” From the point of view of Bassam and Rami, this overarching truth is one that everyone can realize, when given the freedom of hearing it. Their lives’ work prove it over and over, just as they repeat their tragic stories repeatedly as a sacrifice to create the foundation for peace. To all other foreign influences that perpetuate the “Occupation,” President Yassir Arafat confronted and charged them in his famous UN speech: “Let not the olive branch fall from my hand.”