Apeirogon: Another colonialist misstep in commercial publishing

Colum McCann’s latest novel mystifies the colonisation of Palestine as a ‘complicated conflict’ between two equal sides.

Colum McCann
Irish writer Colum McCann's new book Apeirogon was published in February 2020 [File: AP/Tina Fineberg]

Hollywood director Steven Spielberg recently bought the film rights to a novel about “Israel Palestine” before it was published, something that may take us to a cultural moment of unfortunate deja vu.

In the mid-1950s, powerful Hollywood executives financed the writing of a novel by Leon Uris to sell a pro-Israel agenda to Western popular imagination.

The result was Exodus, a bestseller turned blockbuster film. It narrated a true event (a ship carrying Jewish refugees sailing to Palestine) as the seed of an elaborate myth – a land without a people for a people without a land – which functioned to obscure the indigenous stewards of the land.

It was the romantic happy ending Europe needed following the genocide of its own Jewish citizenry. People lapped it up by the millions and refused to accept that it was anything but absolute truth, with Biblical authority to boot.

But it was – as everyone now knows – a lie.

Palestine already had an ancient, extensive society, and when European Zionists descended on their country, committing well-documented massacres and pogroms to expel them, Palestinians pleaded to the world for help – to no avail. Only when we organised into armed guerillas and hijacked planes was the world finally forced to reckon with our existence.

No longer able to hold the claim that Palestine was ever without her people, Zionists shifted the narrative – through countless films, books, ads – to one that caricatured Palestinians as two-dimensional, irrational Arab terrorists, depictions that still persist in popular media.

Then came the internet, and social media made the world smaller. Suddenly, the masses had access to videos, photos, eyewitness accounts, independent media, human rights audits, and UN reports that laid bare Israel’s sadistic oppression of Palestinians.

‘It’s complicated’ and other shifting myths

Israel has floundered over the past two decades, trying to sort out a strategy to deal with this popular unveiling of its colonial rot. It has become harder to obscure Palestinian humanity.

Israel has signed an agreement with Facebook and collaborated with other major social media companies to censor Palestinian pages; it has smeared Israel’s critics as anti-Semites, destroying careers and worse; it has set up a “Lawfare Project” to drag students and activists through courts; and it has successfully pushed legislation around the world to criminalise criticism of Israel.

On the cultural front, Israel has been deploying public relations campaigns, as their supporters saturate public conversations with sound bites, like, “it’s complicated” – a “conflict” that “has been going on for thousands of years”.

Alas, we are fed the discourse of “two sides”, as if the destruction of a defenceless indigenous society is a matter of two equal parties who simply do not understand each other, but who just need a little nudging – some dialogue maybe – to love each other and viola! Kumbaya, my Lord.

And yet, none of these extensive efforts have dampened the swelling tide of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, a global popular resistance movement that has engaged millions of people around the world fed up with Israel’s extraordinary impunity and ongoing colonisation of Palestine.

In short, nothing has come close to duplicating the spectacular advertising feat of Exodus. Until, perhaps, now.


Enter Apeirogon.

Apeirogon is a geometric shape with an infinite number of countable sides. It is also the title of Colum McCann’s latest novel, a kind of infinite boost to Israel’s “two sides” discourse.

The novel is more of a biography than fiction. It is based on the real-life story of a friendship between a Palestinian and an Israeli – Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian whose daughter, Abir, was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier in 2007 and Rami Elhanan, an Israeli whose daughter, Smadar, was killed in a suicide bombing in 1997.

Its central message is about the power of empathy, and both men are fully supportive of the book. I spoke with Bassam Aramin, who informed me the three of them will go on tour together. But like Exodus, it tells a true story to sell a much bigger lie.

Colonisers and natives

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.

Along comes a novelist, who is so moved by this unusual friendship, the story behind it, and what he feels it represents of hope for the future of the nation that he decides to write a book about them. It is a kind of amplifying-the-voice-of-peace endeavour, born from the stubborn belief that anything can be solved by the benevolent enthusiasm of well-meaning folks.

The writer does not try to gloss over the horrors inflicted on Native bodies. In fact, he presents a true face of colonial gore and trauma. But here’s the trick: He presents the violence of a local native rebellion equally, and describes the insecurity and fear that white settlers must tragically endure as a result of Indigenous resistance to their settlements.

There is an implicit parity, you see? All fear is the same, all violence is the same, all insecurity is the same. The Oglala Sioux father tells the writer how he was able to see white humanity for the first time through this friendship. The white man tells him the same about Indigenous humanity.

And just like that, the genocidal engine of American colonialism, which, together with slavery, propelled its entire economy, becomes just a big misunderstanding, a problem to be solved by dialogue, empathy, and the simple understanding that, as McCann quotes his Palestinian protagonist’s epiphany: “They have families, too.”

Substitute Palestinian for Oglala Lakota, Palestine for Pine Ridge Reservation, and Israelis for white settlers (although that does not need changing), and you have, in a nutshell, Colum McCann’s much-touted, highly anticipated novel, which may well become a blockbuster film.

I want to be clear that I am not comparing or equating forms or instances of injustice. I am trying to make the point – using an understood (in hindsight) historic horror – that it is the height of mendacity to suggest that the stories of individual relationships in circumstances of enormous power disparities are anything but normalisation sideshows, and certainly not a challenge to the machinations undergirding structural oppression.

One can also analogise to Apartheid South Africa in a Bantustan, or Belgium in Congo, or Nazi Germany in the Warsaw ghetto, or the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. After all, members of those hideous institutions had families, too, didn’t they?

Exodus 2.0

Apeirogon is potentially Exodus 2.0 – retooled, rebooted, and adjusted for increasing public awareness of Palestinian suffering under the yoke of unrelenting Israeli terror.

I asked Bassam if he read it. “I tried, but it was too painful,” he said. I can see why, because McCann stretches the details of the killings of two little girls, spreading little bits here and there over hundreds of pages, adding a new detail with each repetition, until one is not so startled by what was agonising to read the first several times. It is an interesting way to convey the normalisation of violence, if that is what McCann intended.

Interspersed in the story are disparate bits of information stitched together – from bird migration patterns and ancient kings, to the Sistine Chapel and explosives – in a kind of forced profundity that aims to tie together all things everywhere and anytime, all of it, somehow, relating to “Israel Palestine”.

In other words, “it’s all so very, very complicated.”

Take, for example, the idea that the core of Fat Man, the nuclear bomb used by the US to exterminate everything that moved, swayed, hopped, flew, or breathed in the city of Nagasaki, was “the size of a throwable rock” (presumably in the hands of a Palestinian kid).

The compelling centre of every parent’s worst fear is threaded through this dizzying kaleidoscope of world trivia. I would have loved the latter, were it not functioning as linguistic smoke and mirrors, blurring what is truly the simplest, oldest story in human history: A powerful group of people stole a land, colonised it, and are going about obliterating its indigenous people.

The Hula wetlands

McCann devotes extensive space in the text to birds – their individual species, migration patterns, and ornithological audits. But nowhere does he mention that around the time Leon Uris was writing Exodus, Israel was draining the Hula wetlands, which they called a “malaria swamp”. The project was touted as Zionist ingenuity. Jewish Europeans declared they were “healing the land”, which, they said, had been left to fester by backward Arabs.

In reality, these new European settlers destroyed a vast regional biodiversity treasure, which had been a major feeding station for hundreds of millions of migrating birds. It is estimated that over 100 animal species disappeared from the area or became extinct.

This episode in Zionist history is probably the best analogy for McCann’s book: An ambitious project to “heal”, conceived by foreigners, ignorant of the local terrain, its history and ecology; eager to solve, civilise, and lay claim; well-intended; sure of their own glory; but in reality, profoundly harmful – irreparably so for the most vulnerable lives.

Reinforcing the notion of a “complicated conflict” of “two sides”, the book recounts a scene where a gun-wielding Israeli soldier zip-ties, curses at and beats an unarmed Bassam Aramin, whose hands are up in surrender, a pink stain on his palm. Hours later, after the soldier realises the pink stain was from Bassam’s murdered daughter’s candy bracelet, not from an explosive, she’s really sorry. Who can blame the plantation mistress if she’s rightfully a little fearful of dark people with stained palms? As if beating Palestinians at checkpoints isn’t routine, or as if Israeli snipers don’t murder us for sport, cheering when they get a good “clip.”

The reader is told several times that Rami Elhanan Gold is from an “old” family, a “seventh-generation Jerusalemite.” But we are not told what this means.

First, Rami is one of a tiny minority of Jewish Israelis who can actually trace their lineage in the land before World War II. Second, he is part of an even smaller minority whose ancestry in Palestine goes back before World War I. Third, Rami’s ancestors, like all “People of the Book” (those of monotheistic religions) had been welcomed in Palestine and protected under Muslim rule, which lasted over 1,200 years.

Fourth, none of that stopped Rami or his parents from taking up arms against their non-Jewish neighbours when Zionism promised to give them power and property. What treachery.

The stories McCann chooses not to tell are, well, telling.

For the record, I am at least a 22nd-generation Jerusalemite. Israel kicked me out of my homeland when I was 13. For being an “illegal”.

No measure of understanding that Israelis “have families too” will ever compel me to accept forced exile.

Such inconvenient truths, or inconvenient people, have no place in the reductionist colonial narratives of empathy and dialogue.

Who gets to narrate

For years, Spielberg and his family have fundraised for and supported Israel and its occupation of Palestine. That he plans to take this book to the big screen is wholly consistent with his declaration that he would die for Israel.

I do not understand why McCann sold the option to him. My fear is that, just as privileged white men used Exodus to sell a colonial fabrication in 1958, a new set of privileged white men in Hollywood will use Apeirogon to sell a contemporary cultural instalment of colonial mendacity.

I do not know McCann, though I suspect he wrote this book with a sense of solidarity and a desire to foster “dialogue”. But it is possible to do great harm with the noblest of intentions. The rhetoric of dialogue can be alluring – the idea that talking to find common humanity is all it takes to dismantle structural racism and notions of ethnocentric supremacy. It can make all kinds of people, even victims themselves, become purveyors of injustice.

Dialogue and negotiations – as Palestinians know well after nearly 30 years of doing exactly that – always works in favour of the powerful.

It is clear McCann did extensive research, including long conversations with the main personalities in this book, and perhaps by presenting a true story, he tried to navigate the ethical issues surrounding appropriation. But there is an overarching colonial message of parity that lends itself to Zionist propaganda. It’s like Jared Kushner reading 25 books and thinking that qualified him to make the “deal of the century,” a “solution” to please “all sides” of “the conflict”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.