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Abir’s Garden

In his new book, Apeirogon, Colum McCann weaves together stories of Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin. Rami and Bassam are both members of the Parents Circle, an organization that brings together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost an immediate family member to the conflict. In Apeirogon, McCann builds a fictional universe that incorporates Rami and Bassam’s real-life stories and experiences. I was deeply moved by two aspects of the book: one that connects us all as human beings and one that shows the power of small groups of people who claim victories against seemingly impossible odds.

I have had the pleasure of meeting both Rami and Bassam and hearing their stories. You may also have met Rami when he was in Boston in 2018 with Mazen Faraj, another member of the Parents Circle. Rami and Bassam both lost their daughters to the conflict. Rami’s daughter, Smadar, was murdered by suicide bombers in downtown Jerusalem, and Bassam’s daughter Abir was shot in the back of the head by a rubber bullet outside of her school. Their stories are painful reminders of the cost of the ongoing conflict. In Apeirogon, the central chapters have Rami and Bassam presenting their stories in their own words, and these are the most powerful parts of the book.

An apeirogon is a shape with countably infinite sides. McCann says that, “As a whole, an apeirogon approaches the shape of a circle, but a magnified view of a small piece appears to be a straight line…Anywhere is reachable. Anything is possible, even the seemingly impossible.” The shape is mimicked in McCann’s novel, which covers Rami, Bassam, historical events, philosophy, religion, and other topics. I think the idea is that Rami and Bassam’s stories are one segment of a broader human story. Even as the future for Israelis and Palestinians stretches into an infinite complexity, there are finite moments and choices that we make that can impact the lives of people near and far. For Rami and Bassam, this means forgoing revenge for the sake of a shared, peaceful future. McCann uses Rami and Bassam’s stories to magnify this universal lesson.

At the same time, this book is primarily about Rami, Bassam, and their community. In one chapter, McCann describes the building of Abir’s garden. After Abir was killed, a group of people came together to build a garden in her honor at the school she attended in Anata, located in the West Bank just outside of Jerusalem. McCann describes the Jews and Palestinians who came together over three weekends to lay the foundation, erect the equipment, and attend the dedication ceremony. We even get to see a picture of the park, complete with playground equipment and basketball hoop.

Through the description of Abir’s playground we see the power of a small group of people coming together, working against the prevailing trends in their societies in order to transcend their circumstances for the good of the community around them. This is the power of organizations such as the Parents Circle and other peacebuilders. They fight an uphill battle, which makes their victories all the more significant.

As I finished Apeirogon, one more adage stood out to me. It comes from the Talmud, a collection of Jewish wisdom and commentary on Jewish law. In the Talmud, Rabbi Tarfon says that you are not required to complete the work, but nor are you free to desist from it. Even if a task appears to be infinite, we must spend our finite time working to improve the world around us, with partners both obvious and unlikely. I have had the privilege to hear from Rami, Bassam, and their colleagues, and I want others to have the same opportunity to be inspired by them. I invite you to join me this Wednesday at WBUR’s CitySpace to hear from Rami, Bassam, and author Colum McCann in conversation with Claire Messud.

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