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The power of grief

Colum with Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan. Also pictured, to the left of Colum, are Narrative 4 Board Chair Greg Khalil, Narrative 4 Co-founder Lisa Consiglio. Picture: Kelly Amis.

Booker Prize-nominated author Colum McCann told David Hennessy why he was compelled to tell the story of two fathers from opposing sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict but united in grief after both lost their daughters to the violence.

One of Ireland’s best known authors, Colum McCann has been nominated for the Booker Prize and taken accolades like America’s National Book Award, Irish Novel of the Year, the Rooney Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award.

The Dublin author’s latest novel Apeirogon tells the story of the unlikely friendship between two real-life fathers on opposite sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict but united by their grief.

Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, have both lost daughters in the conflict over land, religion and finite resources. Rami’s daughter, Smadar, was killed in a suicide bombing attack in Jerusalem in 1997. A decade later, Bassam lost his ten-year-old daughter Abir when she was hit by an Israeli rubber bullet.

The two men found solace in each other and have travelled the world to spread a message of communication over violence. Colum was moved to write about them after meeting them while visiting the area with his non-profit organisation, Narrative 4.

Although some people may have preconceived ideas about the conflict, the book tells the story of the people caught in the crossfire and takes its name from a mathematical term for a shape with an infinite number of sides.

Colum told The Irish World about how moved he was when the first met the two men: “So deeply moved. It’s amazing to think that it was over five years ago when I first met them. I was on a trip with my non-profit, Narrative 4. There was a big group of us and on my second to last night we went to Beit Jala, just outside Jerusalem.

“We walked into this little office, up a rickety flight of stairs. These two men were sitting there and they introduced themselves as Rami and Bassam. Ordinary men in an ordinary place- or so it seemed.

“And then they began to tell me about their daughters, Smadar and Abir, both of them lost in the conflict. I have to tell you, they pinched every ounce of oxygen from the air. It seemed to me like it was the first time they had ever told the story.

“Of course it wasn’t. They had told it hundreds of times before. But I was deeply moved and forever changed. It’s a little embarrassing to admit but I cried my eyes out that day. They told me that I had to harness the power of my grief which is what I hope the book does.”

Colum would return to America and attempt to continue with other things only to be drawn back to their story.

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“I came back to New York and tried to write a completely different novel. It just didn’t work. It didn’t have the heart or soul. I was avoiding what had touched me the most – and that was the story of Rami and Bassam. I had to go to the elemental heart of things.

“I told them that I wanted to write a book and they were cool with it. But I said to them, ‘No, maybe you don’t understand, I want to write a NOVEL about you’.

“But they said, ‘You can write whatever you want, we trust you’.

“I don’t think they quite knew what I was going to do. But as I say, they trusted me. And I trusted them.

“At first I was terrified at the prospect of taking it on. I mean, what other current conflict is as divisive as this one?

“Of course I had learned a lot from being Irish and studying the Irish peace process, but how can a writer get in under the nature of all this and capture the madness of what’s going on in the Middle East?

“I wanted to tell a story that anyone who knew nothing about the conflict could understand, but at the same time write it for people who absolutely understood the nuts and bolts, the Areas A, B and C. So it was an all-embracing form that I tried to create. And I felt it had to be musical. I began to feel like the conductor of an orchestra.”

Some may say that Colum or no Irish writer has any right writing such a story about a conflict so removed from his own experience.

Does talk of cultural appropriation leave Colum feeling more inhibited now than he might have done a decade ago? “Honestly, yes. I am much more conscious of what it is I want to take on. I check myself. And that’s a good thing.

“Firstly, cultural appropriation is very real. Writers and artists and others – mea culpa – often go in places we shouldn’t go and quite often we condescend. We patronise. We steal. We mock. We take advantage. We don’t think. We don’t recognise. We don’t stretch. We don’t see past our own noses. We sometimes even pat ourselves on the back for our suppossed bravery which is really just a form of boasting.

“So all this is quite patently wrong. If our intention is to take away from another culture, then it is wrong, wrong, wrong, plain and simple, and we deserve to be called out on it. And god bless the people who are calling it out. It’s a good thing. It’s a good time. I don’t shrink from any of this stuff. I’m learning.

“At the same time we should also be talking about cultural celebration – where we go in to learn, to share, to deepen, to shed light. That’s a different story, or maybe part of the same story. This is when we go in with humility. We go in with grace. We go in saying, ‘I’m confused, please teach me’.

“We go somewhere because we know we are not full enough, or big enough, or bright enough. And we get kicked around a little by the truth. And we somehow come out the far end a little wiser and a little bruised hopefully.

“That’s what I felt I did with Apeirogon. And the fact that Rami and Bassam are travelling and supporting the book is an amazing thing.”

Colum has visited Israel and Palestine to work with Narrative 4. Narrative 4 is an organisation he co-founded that works through story exchange between disparate, sometimes antagonistic groups. Telling each other’s stories in the first person, it teaches empathy. Based in New York, Narrative 4 also has an office in Limerick.

It was in 2012 that Colum co-founded the organisation.

“I can’t believe it’s that long. I’m really proud of the work that we do. Narrative 4 is a global non-profit story exchange which is, in my view, one of the most necessary organisations for our divided times.

“We bring young people together to tell one another’s stories. We encourage radical empathy. We ask you to walk in somebody else’s shoes and then to turn that empathy into action on the ground. We ask you to refuse the cynicism. We ask you to look across the room, or the city, or the country, and see yourself.

“We are fronted by writers, powered by teachers and embraced by young people all over the world. In fact we’re now in 12 countries and exchanging hundreds of thousands of stories. We have a headquarters in Limerick.

“It has been amazing. For example we did an exchange between kids from Limerick and kids from Birmingham.

“And we did another exchange between students from Kentucky and the South Bronx. Their lives were altered from the simple fact of telling – and dwelling inside – somebody else’s story.

“We’re doing hundreds of thousands of exchanges now these days, all over the world.”

Colm Mac Con Iomaire of the Frames spoke to us about his trip to Israel and Palestine earlier this year. Colum saw on this trip how music could have a profound effect in such an extreme world.

“Colm is one of the greatest musicians in the world. He brought his fiddle with him into every room. And he transformed every room we walked into.

“In fact his album “And Now the Weather” formed the soundtrack to my writing. I listened to it every day for five years. His music got into my language. And I did feel that when I was writing the book, I was writing it with him.

“Also, I wanted to achieve a sound that would disrupt the normal rhythm or expectation. To knock the listeners off balance. To get them thinking differently about this area of the world. Tonal and atonal at the same time. To work contrapuntally. To put all the shards together in a musical mosaic. And yet I wanted it to sound beautiful, which is what Colm does: He transforms us. We’re good friends. I call him Colm Óg. He calls me Colum eile.”

Colm and Colum. Picture: Kelly Amis.

It was on a trip to Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem that Colum saw Colm bring life back to a violin that had not offered much promise. Colum used a metaphor when writing in the Guardian comparing a broken instrument to a refugee: A poignant comparison considering Colm repaired the instrument just by taking a little time and care.

“When he did that, he was operating on a metaphorical level as well as a real one. Colm’s intuitive genius is always a gesture towards repair. We sat in that room and he fixed up that old violin and then he played it and repaired our hearts at the same time. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life.”

Colum has said that Apeirogon could be an Irish story.

“I think that having spent a lot of time in Northern Ireland was very important to me. Also, having seen the Irish peace process in close-up was helpful in my understanding of what was going on in the Middle East.

“I wrote about the Irish peace process in TransAtlantic. And so when I went to Palestine, I could recognise the grief. And I could recognise the force of language as a weapon. And I’ve always been a listener.

“Being Irish helped in all this. I know the Irish peace process is tentative at times. But it’s one of our great stories. Maybe even one of the great stories of the 20th century. After 800 years, we achieved peace.”

Steve Traver, survivor of the Miami Showband masscare is also in another way harnessing the power of people’s stories with his Truth and Reconciliation Platform.

“You know, I remember the Miami Showband massacre so well. I was nine years old I think. And if affected me deeply. I have carried it with me my whole life: that grief, that confusion. I remember thinking, ‘Why were those musicians killed? Why did that happen?’

“It haunted me. And now to see the work that Steve is doing is extraordinary. Despite so much evidence to the contrary, the world is still a profoundly beautiful place. I am heartened that there are people like Steve in the world.”

Having lived outside of Ireland for many years, Colum has been pleased to see the changes has gone through with the peace process and also social changes like the the legalising of same-sex marriage and abortion.

“I am buoyed by the changes. I am proud to be Irish. When I think of some of the political insanity on display in the U.S and the U.K, I am even prouder to think that there is at least some measure of nuance and calm in the Irish landscape.”

Apeirogon by Colum McCann is out now on Bloomsbury.

For more information on Narrative 4, go to narrative4.com.

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