We’re amidst a crisis of compassion. We have become addicted to impassiveness by media, political and economic influences. These influences make it difficult to see the perspective of those being oppressed. Too often, this impassiveness leads to satisfaction in blatantly unjust situations, and this starts at a domestic scale but can proliferate, as shown by some of the responses to the discrimination and murder of people of colour in the United States, such as George Floyd. Apeirogon by Colum McCann forces the reader to understand such impassiveness during struggles in the context of the Israel-Palestinian conflict in Gaza. It follows the riveting stories of two characters simultaneously: Rami Elhanan, a 67-year-old Israeli graphic designer and father to the late Abir, and Bassam Aramin, an Arab-Palestinian, ex-prisoner, and father to the late Smadar. It details the state of Israel and Palestine in 2016 with thought-provoking accuracy. Apeirogon allows readers to bear witness to struggles that are non-native to them and reflecting on that reaction has implications for the reader’s understanding, experience, and, oftentimes, their deficit of empathy.
Colum McCann’s novel highlights the increasing prevalence of the crisis of compassion through the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Apeirogon has profound parallels between Rami and Bassam’s lives and highlights the importance of empathy. The novel is unique in its composition; it’s split into 1001 short stories called cantos – an allusion to 1001 Arabian Nights – and has no rigidly defined start or finish. Diving into Apeirogon’s profound scenes of prejudice and oppression has allowed for introspection on my lack of perspective and compassion, and allowed me to reevaluate my level of understanding and empathy.
The cantos throughout Apeirogon made me feel as though I was a part of the story. The novel sprinkles so many elements of institutional injustices as a by-product of conflict; it depicts the emotional crisis underlying discrimination. McCann’s writing unpacks how the classical conception of two opposing sides becomes blurred as the emotions of both Israelis and Palestinians begin to wary from conflict. I remember my eyes darting across the pages of the novel as I read through Bassam’s experience in jail. Harshly imprisoned and objectified, Bassam was beaten so much that when “he woke he was in a cell, six feet by three[, and] his testicles were so swollen that he could hardly move his legs to swing himself out of bed” (Canto 204). The visceral description of Bassam’s painful torsion spoke to me. At this moment, he felt the sting of his beating. This represented an unjust, war-filled world bearing down on his spirit, stopping him from getting up.
My emotions were closeted as I read through Bassam’s experiences. The importance or meaning I derived from McCann’s writing was purely academic, but not a result of any emotional connection to the novel. I didn’t feel anything for Bassam when he couldn’t get out of bed. I understood the significance, of course, but couldn’t empathise with it. To me, Bassam’s suffering in the novel didn’t require my compassion because no semblance of my experiences could ever be comparable to his. I had never been “tied to a chair, hooded and beaten” (Canto 204) or visited any prison establishments, for that matter. The lack of direct similarity to my life internally validated my excuse that Bassam and I had nothing in common. Then, I learned that Bassam was only 17, just two years older than myself. Perhaps we weren’t so different, but his age still didn’t make his story any more relatable. Despite our similarities, I have been conditioned by society and popular media to withdraw my emotions when confronted with situations that are distant from mine, as per the aforementioned crisis of compassion. This made Apeirogon difficult to get through upon the first read and to extract personal meaning from it.
I was unable to connect with the various scenes of oppression in Apeirogon due to a lack of insight and understanding of the oppressive characters in the novel. At a superficial level, it seems odd to consider the oppressors in any situation. However, this mindset excludes the layers that underlie great written stories: the oppressor, the oppressed, and the reader. As I’ve learned as a facilitator of author McCann’s organisation N4, acknowledging a person’s viewpoint doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with it, but that you understand it. Without reflection on the oppressor, I wouldn’t have had such a powerful experience reading the book. At first, I never understood the soldiers in Apeirogon. They were portrayed as villains and enforcers, but how were they similar to me? Later into the novel, my eyes flicked across Bassam’s description of his oppressors: “[The soldiers] kept beating [me], but what struck me most was that these young soldiers, not much older than me, were doing it without hatred, without emotions even, because for them this was just a training exercise” (Canto 500*). After reading this Canto, I felt my emotions swirl for the first time in 450 pages of Apple Books. I remembered the adrenaline rush, the feeling of my blood vessels dilating, my cheeks reddening as I was thrust back into the moment that I watched the video of George Floyd being murdered. As I visualised Bassam’s brutalisation, similar images of Floyd’s head pressed against the pavement by a police officer as he pleaded for air flooded my brain.
Watching George Floyd’s murder was one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve ever had. Of course, I wasn’t oblivious to the harsh dynamics between Black people in the United States and police officers, but seeing such conflict in its raw, unedited form exposed my mind to a world I had never directly encountered. My circle of competence had always been in the sciences and technology; it was largely saturated by innovation and optimism, so seeing such violence flashing on my screen completely altered my worldview. I was forced into a reality that I would someday have to live, and a reality that my parents and those before them had lived. This problem wasn’t relatable, it was a part of me and my history. Seeing that bodycam footage was the first time I’d ever felt hate. I hated the racist police system, I hated the fact that those who looked like me were being oppressed, and most of all I hated Derek Chauvin.
Since his murder, the memory of George Floyd has been permanently embedded in my mind. Even seeing graffiti of his face as I was exploring SoHo made me feel a twinge in my heart. George Floyd’s murder was disturbing as it was, but seeing more of these incidents occur and feeling as though only the melanated people in my lives understood how I felt is what made me angry. To me, not doing anything was not caring, not reacting to the video with shock was not fair, and trying to explain the officer’s behaviour was not excusable. As I looked through other instances of unlawful killings of Black people, such as Treyvon Martin (which especially riled me), the lack of empathy from others fuelled both my negative emotions and desire to make a difference. Perhaps you’ve felt something similar, where you’re trying so hard to convey and share your emotions, but you’re met with a crisis of compassion: a stale countenance, a blank stare, a dumbfounded look, no words.
Encountering the passage on Bassam’s description of the soldiers invoked my emotions because I began to realise that as I was reading the novel, I had the same dispositions as those who are not disturbed by the institutional racism across America. Much like many of the people around me and across the internet were undisturbed by George Floyd or Treyvon Martin or thought that justice had been properly served in these situations, I was emotionally disconnected from Bassam’s experiences. Gaining the perspective that I was exhibiting similar behaviour to those deep into the crisis of compassion – such as police officers who kill Black people without reason or those who attempt to excuse such behaviour – gave me a reason to want to feel for Bassam. In all honesty, his story still doesn’t equate in my mind to the murders of young, unarmed black men and women. However, Bassam’s experiences were, and still are, meaningful, painful, and representative of the larger issue happening in Gaza. The ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine is representative of a continued lack of empathy between the oppressors (the soldiers) and whom they are oppressing (Bassam, and other prisoners). Understanding this provided me with insight into my involvement in the crisis of compassion, and a desire to further explore the dynamics of oppression and conflict in Israel and Palestine introduced to me by Apeirogon.
Coming upon the realisation that I was much like the people whom I criticise was a harrowing experience. Apeirogon revealed to me that I, too, had fallen prey to becoming hardened to foreign struggles. Hearing someone else’s story has shown me that the crisis of compassion is not only dangerous because it hardens our hearts to others, but also because it is inconspicuous, and is often not self-detected. It is easy to advocate for the struggles and pains that are congeneric, but it’s hard to realise that you and I can become impassive to those that are not. So, we’re amidst a crisis of compassion, an epidemic of contemporary society. Emotionlessness has been normalised, and many of our influences support objective, stoic thinking. In the circumstance of the US, it has become a hallmark of institutionalised racism and white supremacy. In Gaza, it’s used to create government-serving soldiers who are detached from their abusive actions. In most places, the crisis of compassion serves those in power and is used to excuse their actions. How do we recover? We learn we gain perspective, and we internalise the stories of others. For me, Apeirogon was the start. Though I may have been able to forgive Derek Chavin, there’s still a long way for me to go.
For now, I say complemnents of the season!
Before you go…
My name’s Okezue, a developer and researcher obsessed with learning and building things, especially when it involves any form of STEM. I primarily operate in the spaces of diversity/equity, human-computer interfaces, and bio-digital AI research. Check out my socials below, or contact me: [email protected].
I write something new every week on Sundiata, so I hope to see you again soon! I sure enjoyed writing this piece, and hope you like it.