Creating cracks in the Conflict
In Colum McCann’s novel Apeirogon he uses one thousand and one chapters which vary in length and structure to tell the extraordinary true story of Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan, two grieving fathers, one Israeli and one Palestinian. Bassam and Rami both tragically lost their daughters to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have channelled their grief and anguish into a shared vision of love and peace building.
The structure of Apeirogon seems to borrow from the classic Arabic tale A Thousand and One Nights, which sees the framing character Scheherezade staying her death through telling stories for one thousand and one nights before the king spares her and makes her his queen. Rami Elhanan explains that in repeatedly telling the stories of his daughter Smadar, who was killed in a Palestinian terrorist attack in 1997, and Bassam’s daughter Abir, who was killed by an Israeli soldier in 2007, Bassam and Rami, like Scheherezade, are also keeping their daughters’ memories alive.
The title “Apeirogon” refers to a mathematical term for a shape with an infinite number of sides and vertices. To the less-mathematically minded this can appear to be a circle. In this structure and title, McCann seems to explain that the conflict is infinitely complex. Yet in presenting Bassam and Rami’s personal stories, McCann shows that there exist alternatives to the endless cycles of violence, revenge, hatred and mistrust. He shows how these men prove that instead there can be a simple circle of connection, mutual respect and shared optimism. Indeed, the group that the two men work so hard for is called the Parents Circle. It is a group of more than 600 bereaved Israeli and Palestinian family members who are turning away from hatred and towards love.
This week our school was privileged to host these two remarkable men. In a presentation to our Year 11 and 12 students entitled “We Need to Talk”, Rami and Bassam shared their stories and their vision for peace.
Rami explained how in the midst of his darkness and anguish following the loss of his daughter he began to ask some uncomfortable questions. While he had an instinct for revenge he asked himself – “Will killing anyone bring her back?” and “Will causing the same pain to others improve anything?”. He said that this led to a more difficult journey of introspection in which he questioned what had caused another to do this to his family and finally to ask the question of himself “What can he do to prevent this pain from being given to others?” This ultimately led to his engagement with the Parents Circle. He said that his life mission is to convey this message: “We are not doomed! It is not our destiny to keep killing each other. It will not stop until we talk.” He said that “once you teach yourself to listen to the pain of the other, they can learn to hear your pain.” He said that this can lead to reconciliation and hopefully peace. He believes that “the other way cannot continue.”
He explained that there is enormous power in having pain on their side. He likened this to nuclear power. He said that this can be used to bring bombs, violence and hatred. He countered that it could also be used to “bring light, warmth and hope.”
Bassam told his moving story of growing up and how natural it was to learn to hate Israelis. His escalating opposition to the Israeli soldiers led him to be in an Israeli prison for seven years. Here, while his hatred deepened, he encountered the movie Schindler’s List which led him to gain an understanding of the Shoah. This led to further study and the development of empathy which allowed him to gradually unlearn this hatred.
Two days after losing his daughter, Bassam joined the Parents Circle. He did so because he is determined that his other children will not suffer the same fate. He said that Palestinians and Israelis “can learn to respect each other. We can be friends, brothers and family.”
Indeed, Bassam and Rami refer to each other as brothers. Rami said that “our blood is the same colour, our pain is the same and our tears are just as bitter.”. He also said that if they, who have lost daughters to the conflict, “can be brothers, anyone can.”
While our students have predominantly grown up feeling safe and know little of the sort of conflict and danger that Bassam and Rami spoke of, it is apparent that this should not be taken for granted. In recent years we have sadly seen increased anti Semitism, Islamophobia, and racism. Indeed in just the past month there have been neo-Nazis on the steps of parliament, First Nations AFL players confronted with horrific racial abuse and the prominent resignation of Stan Grant, a leading journalist, who was hounded by persistent racist attacks.
With this in mind, it is heartwarming that alongside Bassam and Rami, this week our school also hosted Islamic and Christian students in a Building Bridges session where our students were able to explain the fundamentals of growing up Jewish in Australia today and to forge genuine connections with those of different backgrounds. I am so proud of the organisers and participants in this valuable program because they, like Bassam and Rami, are striving to build the sort of world that we all should want to live in. This is characterised by a pride in one’s own unique identity which is nourished by a celebration of difference and an appreciation of our common humanity.
We read so much negativity about the status quo in relation to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict yet a different future often feels so far outside our grasp. However, seeing two men who have lost so much who still turn towards each other in humanity, leaves us feeling optimistic for the future. As Rami says “they bang their heads against walls of hatred to create cracks which sheds light upon the world.”