“It will not be over until we talk”.
In early April back in 2014, I found myself on a bus from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. I don’t remember much about the journey into Bethlehem a few days earlier, but the bus ride out is something that has and will stay with me forever. We got to a check point and every Palestinian was made to leave, forced to stand in the beating sun, have their papers checked and were questioned. The tourists got to stay seated on the air-conditioned bus while Israeli soldiers boarded, checked our passports and left. I have never felt more uncomfortable in my life. It felt like the people made to leave were being humiliated, it felt unfair to be sat on a bus as a visitor to the country while these people were questioned.
I’d spent two days in Bethlehem exploring, getting to know some of the locals, learning about the history and trying to understand the complexities of Israel and Palestine. I don’t claim to be an expert, who possibly could be an expert on a conflict that has been going on for more than seventy years? My one limited experience of travelling there doesn’t mean I understand what it’s like to live there, no one could know how it feels to live there without doing so. We can’t understand what it is like to live under occupation. This book goes a long way to giving us an understanding.
“It may sound strange but in Israel we don’t really know what the Occupation actually is. We sit in our coffee shops and we have a good time and we don’t have to deal with it. We have no idea what it’s like to walk through a checkpoint every day. Or to have our family land taken away. Or to wake up with a gun in our faces. We have two sets of laws, two sets of roads, two sets of values. To most Israelis this seems impossible, some sort of weird distortion of reality, but it is not. Because we just don’t know. Our lives are good. The cappuccino is tasty. The beach is open. The airport is right there. We have no access to what it’s like for people in the West Bank or Gaza. Nobody talks about it”. Rami Elhanan
At the heart of this novel are the real-life stories of Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian and Rami Elhanan, an Israeli.
They both live their lives negotiating the conflict. It touches every aspect of their day from the roads they’re allowed to drive on, to the schools their children attend and of course the checkpoints.
Rami is a Jew against the occupation, Bassam is a Palestinian studying the Holocaust. Both are desperate to find a way towards peace and to see a change where they live.
Both have built an unlikely friendship under the most tragic circumstances. In 1997 Rami’s 14-year-old daughter Smadar was killed by a suicide bomber on Ben Yehuda street in Jerusalem while shopping for schoolbooks. Ten years later Bassam’s 10-year-old daughter Abir died after being shot in the back of the head with rubber bullet by an Israeli soldier, she was buying a candy bracelet, she never got to eat it.
Both men are part of Combatants for Peace and Parents Circle, they share their grief and pain in the hope of bringing an end to the occupation, showing there can be another way.
“We must end the occupation and then sit down together to figure it out. One state, two states, it doesn’t matter at this stage – just end the Occupation, and then begin the process of rebuilding the possibility of dignity for us all. It’s as clear to me as the noonday sun.There are times sure, when I would like to be wrong. It would be so much easier. If I had found another path, I would have taken it – I don’t know, revenge, cynicism, hatred, murder. But I am a Jew. I have a great love for my culture and my people, and I know that ruling and oppressing and occupying is not Jewish. Being Jewish means that you respect justice and fairness. No people can rule another people and obtain security or peace for themselves. The Occupation is neither just or sustainable. And being against the Occupation is, in no way, a form of anti-Semitism”. Rami Elhanan
I remember being overwhelmed at the sight of the wall through Bethlehem. The security fence was built to prevent infiltration after a rise in suicide bombers during the 90s and second intifada. It’s easy to see why there were calls for protection, it’s a natural response, many of us would do the same.
Jewish settlers were opposed to the fence, they didn’t want to find themselves outside Israel’s borders. Palestinians have seen concrete barriers snake through villages and fields. In places Palestinians have been separated from their communities, businesses and schools, they call it ‘The Apratheid Wall’. Seeing an 8-metre-high wall covered in graffiti, in a place that we (myself raised as a Catholic) associate with the birth of Christ, Christmas, wise men, shepherds, angels and stables stunned me into silence, it’s huge and imposing, it makes you feel dwarfed. Surely if history has taught us anything it’s that walls and occupation do not work, they only serve to make people feel degraded, build a culture of fear while fostering feelings of anger and hatred:
“He didn’t hate Jews, he said, he didn’t hate Israel. What he hated was being occupied, the humiliation, the strangulation, the daily degradation the abasement. Nothing would be secure until it ended. Try a checkpoint just for one day. Try a wall down the middle of your schoolyard. Try your olive trees ripped up by a bulldozer. Try your food rotting in a truck at a checkpoint. Try the occupation of your imagination. Go ahead. Try it”. Bassam Aramin.
Aperiogon named for a shape with a countably infinite number of sides.
Colum McCann uses a thousand and one short paragraphs throughout this novel, a nod to 100,1 Arabian nights. Bassam and Rami’s stories are interspersed with facts and history, there’s the story of the man who found the Dead Sea Scrolls, tales of how skunk water is used, stories about birds and Darwish. Some at times seem completely unrelated to the two men; McCann uses art, music, culture and politics to tell a story about forgiveness, love, friendship and loss. It may at times feel like a difficult read but the seeming randomness of this novel adds to it’s beauty.
We read about Bassam’s epiphany in prison, his quest for peace began long before his daughter was murdered, we read about the Israeli soldiers who built a playground in Abir’s memory, Rami’s experience of military service, how he tried to talk his youngest son out of military service.
I have clear images of both girls. Of Smadar dancing around the family home with headphones on, of Abir writing her name in the dirt on her father’s car. Both had bright futures, both were beautiful, both had their lives tragically cut short and for what?
This book could have been in danger of becoming overly sentimental or an exploitation of grief, it isn’t. It’s incredibly powerful in how it simply observes these two men and their friendship, they see each other as brothers there is a real deep love between them and maybe that’s what could make a difference in the Middle East, something as simple as friendship.
This is one of the best books I’ve read, it challenged me, it’s emotive, it stirred up memories for me that I had guilty of burying (the feeling of staring up at a huge wall), it’s easy to ignore the plight of others when you aren’t faced with it day in day out. This novel will make you think, it’ll make you question, and it will make you see things through another person’s eyes and that is a gift we should never take for granted. It is quite simply stunning, go and read it, then find out more about Rami and Bassam.
Maybe this book will change the world, after all one thing is for sure, as the sticker on Rami’s motorbike says “It will not be over until we talk”.
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm