Israeli-Palestinian conflict explored in Colum McCann’s new novel
BooksPittsburgh Arts & Lectures' New & Noted Series

Israeli-Palestinian conflict explored in Colum McCann’s new novel

Author visited Pittsburgh along with the Arab father and Jewish father who inspired his book. The fathers both lost daughters as a result of the conflict and are now good friends.

From left: Colum McCann, Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan
(Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
From left: Colum McCann, Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

Neither Rami Elhanan nor Bassam Aramin have been able to finish Colum McCann’s new novel, “Apeirogon,” despite the fact that it is based on their life stories.

That’s because it’s too painful.

Aramin is Palestinian. Elhanan is Israeli. The two forged a deep bond based on their shared experiences of grief: Each man is the father of a daughter killed as a result of the conflict between their people. Ten-year-old Abir was killed by a rubber bullet fired by an Israeli soldier. Thirteen-year-old Smadar was murdered by a Palestinian suicide bomber.

Elhanan and Aramin joined McCann as featured speakers on Feb. 26 at the Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland as part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ New & Noted series.

Although Elhanan has tried to read “Apeirogon,” which was released last week to much critical acclaim, “it was quite difficult for me,” he said. “I was skipping the juicy parts. I couldn’t read it. But I was overwhelmed. I think it is a masterpiece. I couldn’t take it out of my hands.”

The parts of the novel Elhanan has read, though, have made him “proud.”

“I think it contains my vision and the feeling that my daughter is standing behind my back and says, ‘Go on. This is what you should do.’”

Elhanan and Aramin are co-directors of the Parents Circle, an organization made up of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families. They have become close friends, referring to each other as “brother,” and together visit Palestinian and Israeli high schools to inspire teens to see the humanity of those whom they consider to be other.

The profundity of their stories moved McCann, the National Book Award-winning Irish author of “Let the Great World Spin,” to turn them into a novel.

He chose to call his book “Apeirgon” as it refers to a shape with an infinite number of sides, an apt metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Israel and Palestine confused the holy living bejesus out of me,” McCann said in reference to his visits to the region during which he spent time with his two protagonists. “I think it does to most people. Even if you live there it confuses you.”

He took on the challenge, he said, to write a novel that could be appreciated both by those who know nothing about the region as well as those who are better versed in the nuances of the conflict. He acknowledged that he deliberately chose to “engender confusion” at the book’s beginning, but urged his audience to persevere and embrace the confusion.

“If you surrender yourself to the confusion, you can find what is truly important, which is the human story behind it,” McCann said.

The author hopes the book will move readers to “get into the beating pulse of the story that Rami and Bassam told me and to understand that we are all there — we are all complicit in it and we all suffer it. And when they talk about using the power of grief to change the world, there is something really important going on.”

Although Aramin has not yet been able to finish reading “Apeirogon,” he is grateful that the book will help keep his daughter’s memory alive.

“It’s a dream to reach many people around the world to read about Abir’s murder,” Aramin said. “Because I wrote on her grave that ‘You will live longer than your killer.’ No one will talk about him, no one knows his name, but I promised that everyone around the world would know the name Abir.”

The stories of Abir, Smadar and their fathers may be further perpetuated in film; the rights to the novel have been acquired by Steven Spielberg’s film production company, Amblin Partners.

“Can stories change the world?” queried McCann. “It may seem to somebody that it is sentimental to say so, or silly to say so. But things happen. Miracles happen. Tiny things happen.”

Change often begins with “creating a crack in the wall,” he said. “Then the wall eventually falls.”

Elhanan and Aramin are working to create those cracks.

“We go together, an Israeli and a Palestinian, and we step into a high school class, Israeli or Palestinian, and they are not as polite and receptive as you are,” Elhanan told the audience. “In most cases, it’s like walking into the open mouth of an active volcano. There is a sea of blood between these two nations.

Emotions, anger. And for most of them it is the first time ever they see an Israeli and Palestinian like each other, calling each other ‘brother.’

“This encounter creates the crack in the wall that we are looking for. A little question mark. And the crack in the wall allows a little light to come in. A little light can drive away a lot of darkness. No one can listen to us and remain the same. This is the essence of our work.” pjc

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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