Finding hope: ‘Rami and Bassam take an icepick to the frozen sea within us’

How can we find a foothold against despair? In this powerful article, award-winning author Colum McCann describes how meeting bereaved fathers and peacebuilders Rami and Bassam changed his life.

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How can we find a foothold against despair? Author COLUM McCANN found an answer when he met Rami and Bassam, the subjects of his book ‘Apeirogon’. In this powerful article, the award-winning author describes how meeting the bereaved fathers and peacebuilders changed his life.

In the autumn of 2015, I travelled to Israel and Palestine for two weeks with a group of close friends. We visited refugee camps. We went to the houses of settlers. We were invited into Palestinian homes.  We experienced Shabbat. We talked with politician in the Israeli parliament and met with members of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. We hung out with Palestinian rap artists and Israeli musicians and storytellers. We convened with tech entrepreneurs.

We met former soldiers who had broken the silence about their service. We walked the alleyways of south Tel Aviv. We strolled through the Old City. We visited the Holocaust museum and we walked along portions of the Wall in Bethlehem. It was an exhausting experience, exhilarating, confounding, heartrending.

A WB Yeats poem rattled around in my head: “All changed, changed, utterly changed …”

Among our group there were a couple of writers, a few musicians, activists, a philanthropist and a student. Towards the end we were all feeling a little ragged. I tried in vain to put all the pieces together. It seemed too much to handle. Yet I have always been fond of Walt Whitman’s idea that we are large, we contain multitudes, and it struck me that it might be possible to carry contradictions and still remain standing.

Nearly everyone in our group had experienced a difficult moment over the course of the previous ten days: a meltdown, a good cry, a point of extreme anger. I hadn’t broken. I had that cocky I-can-take-it arrogance about me. I had been to Northern Ireland. I had travelled around Mexico. I had walked through Sarajevo. Nothing was going to pry open my ribcage at this stage.

Our very last visit on the trip was to the town of Beit Jala, just outside Jerusalem, at the edge of Bethlehem, on the West Bank side of the Wall. It was late evening and the tiredness languished along my spine. Our bus laboured up and down steep streets. I was trying to make sense of the Area A, Area B, Area C conundrum. “What exactly is Area B anyway?” I asked. The answer floated beyond me.


The bus stopped along a row of apartment buildings. Nothing unusual. A dusty West Bank street. Late afternoon. November. Already dark. We piled out into the street. The air was sharp and chill. Three stars hung perilously in the distance. There were a few cars and a motorbike parked along the road.

My breath made a little argument of fog against the dark.  In the ground floor stairwell, the fluorescent lights flickered. We climbed a set of rickety stairs leading to what seemed like an apartment, but we were led instead to an office. Outside hung a sign: “Parents Circle”. We stepped inside. A buzz of machinery and the sharp tang of coffee. Cigarette smoke. Posters on the walls. Telephones ringing.

Inside, at the head of a long table, sat two middle-aged men. They were largely unremarkable.  One dark-skinned, one light-skinned. One thin, the other red-cheeked and robust. They sat close to each other, shoulders almost touching.

After a few moments of shuffling chairs, they introduced themselves as Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan. They passed around some coffee and then leaned forward to speak.

Some stories you just can’t shake. You become them. You inhabit them. They helix their way into your flesh and blood. As a writer, then, the only way forward is to share them. It is the job of literature to acknowledge the heartbreak of the world and then to share that heartbreak in the hope that somehow you can find a little light, just a little, no matter how damaged and bruised. This light, then, must necessarily acknowledge the darkness. At the same time it might just lift a portion of the dark, part the curtains, awaken us.

Kafka talked about reading only the kind of books that wound or stab. “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” he says.    

When I got home from Israel and Palestine – after my meeting with Rami and Bassam – I started thinking seriously about trying to write about that area of the world. I had already been drawn to the subject. I had written a novel called TransAtlantic, a large part of which examined the Northern Irish peace process. I had chatted with one of my heroes, Senator George Mitchell, who, after helping to bring peace to the North, had been asked to go as Special Envoy to the Middle East by the Obama administration.

“If you think Ireland was complicated,” said the Senator, “you should try a stint over there.”

I was wary but intrigued. Let’s face it: it’s hardly easy territory when you go in to try to understand what many deem to be one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

I thought I might try make it into the novel through a back door. I dreamed up a character from Ireland. That way, at least, I would have a kinship: she would at least share my nationality. An ophthalmologist, perhaps. Or a nurse. From Belfast. Her son travels to the West Bank to build water wells. He gets murdered in a terrible mistake of identity. She goes out there to figure out what happened to him. She knows nothing of the territory. She ends up in Nablus working as a nurse with a rich Palestinian businessman who owns a mansion in the hills. It becomes then a story about the search for a son and a love story all at once. The first line: “I have no idea why people say that stories are true.”


I began researching ophthalmology and the building of water wells in the West Bank. I trudged along.  I got a few pages done here and there. I stopped, I started, I stopped. But my heart wasn’t in it. It was a gut feeling. The music inside was off-key. It just didn’t feel true in any real sense. And in the end, I had to acknowledge that it didn’t thrill me. It felt like a chore and I didn’t want to spend a couple of years working on something that didn’t wake me up in the morning.

Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher, asked what might be the source of our first suffering? “It lies,” he said, “in the fact that we hesitated to speak…. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.”

I knew there was a story in there that I wanted to tell, but I just wasn’t sure what it might be, or how I might access it.

One day, while chatting with Lisa Consiglio, the co-founder of my global non-profit story-exchange organisation, Narrative 4, I began lamenting the fact that I couldn’t write what I wanted to write. She turned and asked me very simply what story I recalled the most from the trip to the Holy Land.

“Rami and Bassam, of course,” I said.

I could still feel myself sitting in that room in Beit Jala where they told their stories. I had broken down completely. I recall stepping outside of my body and looking down at myself, at the table, berating myself for weeping so openly as they spoke. There were several green napkins in the centre of the table. I grabbed them. Afterwards Rami and Bassam signed a note for me on one of the napkins: “Harvest the power of your grief.”

“Well, there you go,” said Lisa. “There’s your story.”

“Well, it’s everyone’s story.”


Apeirogon is a novel. In other words, it’s a work of fiction. But it also dwells in a very obviously non-fiction world. As I say in my author’s note at the very beginning, “Rami and Bassam are real.”

I have, for many years, begun to doubt the words fiction and non-fiction.  I’m not sure they can be untangled from one another, especially in our contemporary “post-truth” era. The word “fiction” comes from the past participle stem of “fingere” which means “to shape, form, devise or feign.” All writing is of course shaped and formed and devised and feigned. It all comes down to a form of storytelling.

Some people claim that fiction (or that which is “invented or imagined in the mind”) gets to a deeper truth than non-fiction. Others feel that non-fiction always gets at the bare unadorned truth. I tend to think that they’re both correct. Facts are mercenary things. They can be manipulated and shipped off to whatever orphanage you want them to go to. Texture is a different sort of truth, a deeper truth if you will.  What it comes down to is good storytelling. As my old dear friend Frank McCourt used to say: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”


Embarking on this book, I knew that I would be tangling with these ideas. I visited Rami and Bassam a second time and asked them permission to tell their story. They agreed immediately.  Without conditions. They were happy to get the story out in the world. But I was an outsider attempting to get inside. I knew little about Islam. I had some vague notions about Judaism.  I didn’t have Arabic or Hebrew. I had a lot of reading and listening to do.

I visited again and again: three, four, five times. I walked around. I listened. I tried to get to the core of their story.

At the same time, I was interested in writing a novel that might try to reflect the current state of our minds in the Internet era. We are living in the Exponential Age — a sequence of rapidly punctuated evolutions, a sort of carousel of quickening, where everything is faster-smaller, faster-cheaper, faster-incomprehensibly reduced. The world is in a flux. We are tightening and tightening in the narrowing gyre. I wanted to write in a style that reflected that. But I also wanted to write in a style that said everyone is involved in this story, we are all complicit, not just in a financial sense, but in a moral sense too. We are more deeply entwined than we know.

I thought that Bassam and Rami’s stories could say as much about Newcastle or Belfast or London as they do about Jerusalem and Jericho. It was then that I stumbled upon the bird-ringing centre in Beit Jala and the novel began to take off for me. Here was the meeting point of four continents and three major religions. So many of the birds of the world arrived at this point.  Surely they were a confluence too? The birds took with them the places where they had already been, and they landed here. This, it seemed, was where we come together in stories and storytelling. I wanted to test Walt Whitman’s notion of every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you.

That’s where Rami and Bassam came in. They represented something heroic to me, especially in the way in which they could tell their stories over and over again, sometimes three times in a single day and yet they managed to maintain the freshness that could make a middle-aged novelist weep openly in front of his friends.

I came back to that room again and again in the course of writing the novel. It was so ordinary. Posters on the wall. Stale coffee. Those damned green napkins. And yet what happened within was an extraordinary unfolding of human emotions.

One child went out to buy schoolbooks. The other went out to buy candy.

Most stories eventually die by repetition, but not Rami and Bassam’s. Their stories are kept alive by the brutal reality that people are still suffering around them. The only way they know how to confront this is to share their experience– and so they do so over and over again. They have learned that the art of the story is getting others to listen: schoolchildren, dignitaries, teachers, army officers, fighters, politicians, you, me.

It is unthinkable to them that they could live without the ability to tell their stories. They are, in a way, learning how to re-store and re-story themselves at the same time. They braid in and out of each other, woven on a loom of possibility. They have found something beyond grief. And so they somehow go beyond death.  

My meeting with Rami and Bassam
has changed my life.  They visited Australia in 2023 and I am sure they changed many people’s lives there too. I see the world differently because of them.  I feel the world differently. I am a changed human being because I got a chance to listen to their stories.

In 1993 the Algerian poet, Tahar Dajout was gunned down because – in the language of his attackers – he wielded a fearsome pen.  Shortly before he was killed, he wrote: “If you keep quiet, you die. If you speak, you die. So, speak and die.”

Rami and Bassam know what all of us finally know: that stories can pry open our ribcages and twist our heart backwards a notch. They can aim a punch at the back of your brain. They can dolphin themselves up out of nowhere and connect us. They are a foothold against despair.  They can make the silence breathe.


Rami and Bassam have come to a point in their lives where they know that speaking up and telling stories – no matter how disturbing – can take an ice-pick to the frozen sea within us.  These stories make the world a wider place: we become alive in a body, a time, a feeling, a culture, an adventure that is not our own, but becomes our own. We get dragged out of our stupor. We speak of experience, however bitter or lacerating.

In telling our stories, we oppose the awful cruelties of the times and present to the world the profoundest evidence of being alive. At the same time most of us know that the suffering of the present and the evil of the past is unlikely to be redeemed by a future era of universal happiness, but that doesn’t take away the need to listen. And to be listened to.

No point, then, in keeping quiet: we speak and live.

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