‘The Israeli Occupation is fundamentally and undeniably unjust’: Colum McCann

The Irish author, whose last novel, ‘Apeirogon’, has an Israeli and a Palestinian at its centre, talks of using “radical empathy” in conflict areas

Rockets and artillery shells may no longer be lighting up the skies over Israeli and Palestinian territories, but the announcement of a ceasefire last fortnight does nothing to arrest the bleeding from that gaping wound of history.

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Watching from afar, Irish writer Colum McCann harnesses an intimate understanding of that tortured history — his most recent novel, Apeirogon, is framed against the Israel-Palestine conflict — to provide a rare artistic perspective on events. As the founder of Narrative 4, a non-profit that uses storytelling as a vehicle to promote peace in conflict situations, McCann is deeply aware of the potential of stories to bring home the “complexity” of it all. Excerpts from an email interview:

The backdrop of the book Apeirogon, released last year, is the Israel-Palestine conflict, with its two central characters — one Israeli, the other Palestinian — both having experienced personal tragedy. The book was born of your experiences as the founder of Narrative 4, the non-profit that channels storytelling as a vehicle of peacemaking by infusing what you call ‘radical empathy’ among people in conflict situations. Could you elaborate on the concept?

‘Radical empathy’ was a term originally suggested by a teacher who worked on the south side of Chicago, quite a poor neighbourhood with a high incidence of violence. He knew that in order to understand what went on his neighbourhood, he would have to come up with a term that disrupted the conventional thinking. It would have to be radical. And it would have to embrace new ways of seeing and understanding. Radical empathy is about being open to every available doorway.

In the context of the current heightened tension in the area, and the deaths (on both sides, but disproportionately high on the Palestinian side), is the space for radical empathy perhaps getting abridged?

There is a line from the Mu‘allaqāt, a series of 6th century pre-Islamic poems, that asks: Is there any hope that this desolation can bring us solace?

The morning I heard about what was happening in Gaza, I wanted to ask myself the same question. And at that very moment, I thought: No, no, there is no hope that I can get any solace out of the desolation. But then I asked myself if that would be true tomorrow as well. And my answer was that there might be some solace to come from this — eventually. So even if something gets abridged, it does not mean it is destroyed. There is always the possibility of hope, even in the face of all available evidence. I like Gramsci’s construction that one can be a “pessimist of the intellect” while being an “optimist of the will.” In other words, the world is dark but that does not give us license to cancel the light.

What are the prospects of building the mechanisms for radical empathy in inflamed minds, given both the pro-Palestinian riots within Israel and the upsurge in anti-Semitic slurs?

This is such a great question, and so timely. How do we go into the places that are throbbing with fear and recrimination? Well, the answer is — slowly, deliberately, and with great care. Stories can heal, but they can be dangerous too. Even empathy can have severe repercussions. It’s not a pill. You start out locally, with small steps, tiny changes. People recover in increments. The work has to come from within a community, from the ground up, often from within schools. Schools are where so many of the sparks occur. Think of Greta Thunberg walking out of her school one Friday afternoon — she led that moment to a whole re-thinking of the climate crisis.

In Apeirogon, you make a brief allusion to Mahatma Gandhi’s salt march. In that context, you point to ‘satyagraha’ and say that “the civility of the disobedience was part of its power.” Does the Hamas’ resort to rocket attacks on Israel diminish its “moral” edge?

Who is to say where things begin? We know, however, where things end. I don’t think it’s helpful for any of us to sit around and play the blame game when it comes to death and destruction. That becomes a playground mentality. Of course, Gandhi knew this. And many others too down history. I think most people looking at Israel and Palestine know this too. There is an imbalance of power. There is an occupier and an occupied. There are certain fundamentals that are right and wrong, and there are some very clear injustices here. The Occupation is fundamentally and undeniably unjust. Of course, targeting civilians diminishes the moral edge — on all sides.

And, let’s face it, it’s wrong to keep referring to “both sides” here. There are more than two sides. It is polygonal. Hamas does not necessarily speak for Palestinians. And Netanyahu doesn’t speak for Israelis. It’s much more nuanced than that. That’s what we need to speak about. I would love to take all your readers to a café in the West Bank, for instance, to meet the incredible young people there — bright, creative, sometimes disillusioned and afraid, yet defiantly hopeful too. That’s the real Palestinian face as far as I’m concerned. It has nothing to do with rockets.

As a storyteller, how would you account for the fact that the Palestinian cause has not resonated well enough among opinion influencers, when, in fact, underdogs usually enjoy an emotional narrative advantage?

Well, I think the Palestinian cause has not been properly showcased. There could be a lot of reasons for this: cultural, political, sociological. But what’s interesting about the present moment is that the narrative does seem to be shifting. Even The New York Times is beginning to be more nuanced about what is going on. The story has to be told over and over again. One of the reasons I wrote Apeirogon is that I wanted to shift the paradigm, even if just a little bit. Bassam doesn’t conform to our preconceived ideas of a Palestinian, and Rami is different from your imagined Israeli, if there is even such a thing. We have to tell our stories — our personal stories — in order to put a more human face on the world. The Israeli government wants one particular narrative and one only. It is our job — as artists and students and activists — to help swerve the narrative in a different direction.

What other “stories” need to emerge from the Palestinian side for the narrative imbalance to be fixed?

We need to tell the story of the young people listening to music at Singer Café in Beit Sahour. The story of the young woman developing a farming programme with ancient seeds in Bethlehem. The young philosopher breaking new ground in Ramallah. We need to be aware that there are children writing poetry in Gaza. We need to see the complexity at stake here. The world is kaleidoscopic. It doesn’t just come down to a keffiyeh and a sling and a kitchen-made rocket. There is so much more to Palestine than what is being told.

Could you expand on how storytelling works as a catalyst for peace, and the success that Narrative 4 has had? More generally, has your real-world experience invalidated the scepticism (in some quarters) about the capacity of storytelling to ‘change the world’?

My real-world experience has invalidated the scepticism, yes. This stuff works. The idea of stepping into someone else’s narrative has very definite consequences.

Take the exchange we did between high-schoolers in the Bronx and Kentucky, for instance. Since running the story exchange programme both schools have had higher levels of attendance, lower amounts of conflict, better test results and a soaring level of empathetic engagement.

When they began telling stories to one another — and then telling those stories back to their partners — the fear faded, their imaginations expanded, and they began to see the world in an altogether different way. Those from the Bronx got a glimpse into what it might be like to be from a coal-mining family in the south. The students from Kentucky could understand the northerners’ fear of stepping into a grocery store where the Confederate flag hung over the cash register. They talked about the opioid crisis. They talked about the epidemic of suicide. They were not talking about facts and figures. They were talking about the deep texture of their lives: stories of their fathers, mothers, grandfathers, sisters, brothers, teachers.

The exchange highlighted what stories can do: the world gets nuanced, complicated, muddied even. And because stories never really end anywhere — in fact, it is hard to find their beginnings too — the young people were then tasked with turning their new-found empathy into action, which they did by embarking on projects involving the opioid crisis and issues of mental health.

Given the work that Narrative 4 has done in conflict situations in various geographies, what are your thoughts on the prospects of generating radical empathy in the cause of peace between India and Pakistan?

I would have to ask you that. Or ask some young people in the classrooms there. They’ll have the answer. But I suspect that if they were to do a story exchange with Narrative 4, they will say that they have discovered part of the groundwork for a new way of understanding one another.

There are many inspirational stories from the subcontinent (for instance, the story of Arun Khetarpal). There have also been many Bollywood movies romancing Pakistan. But these popular narratives invariably lose out to realpolitik. As a storyteller who founded Narrative 4, where are these efforts failing?

I think these efforts have to become an integral part of the realpolitik. I’m not naïve. I know how difficult all of this is. But young people in schools are not naïve either. There is a possibility for what I call an “emergent peace” based on the principles of storytelling. What needs to shift is our ability to listen to and engage with the stories of those we don’t necessarily know, or even like. It begins in our own backyards and then spreads outwards, and it gains an intelligence that is greater than the sum of its parts.

We live in an age where social media influencers have been known to wade into issues far beyond their ken with at best a superficial understanding of history. As a storyteller, what risks do you see in ‘pop narratives’ overwhelming real historical narratives?

Great question. What it takes is a sort of humility and bravery combined. Cultural appropriation is very real. It’s true that writers and artists and others often go in places we shouldn’t go and quite often we condescend. We patronise. We steal. We simplify. We mock. It has happened for decades, centuries even. If our intention is to take away from another culture — to appropriate — we deserve to be called out on it. But at the same time, we should 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 somehow come out the far end a little wiser. Or at least that’s what we hope.

Culture critic Edward Said said that no one can deny the continuities of long traditions, languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness. He suggests that it is more rewarding, and more difficult, to think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about “us”. But this also means not trying to rule others, not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies.

Open the doors up. Go in and go out. And then return again. That’s what it’s all about.

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