Apeirogon and the power of talking and trying to understand

This afternoon I wish to talk to you about two gentlemen who have lots in common, but also lots of differences.

They were born on either side of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict and when I first read about them their story affected me greatly. It speaks of the power of hope and the power of talking, and continuing to talk and to try to understand each other.

I read about them in a book called “Apeirogon”, which nearly won the Booker Prize in 2020. It is an amazing book about their story. The name of the book is itself interesting. An Apeirogon is a shape with a countable but infinite number of sides. Like a polygon, but with a number of sides we could try to count, but is also endless in value. Now this is an exotic idea but it also fits well to this story.

There are so many angles and different sides to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict that it is pretty much impossible to understand all of the facets, let alone try to explain it. And being not even from that country or directly involved it is not my place to hope to try to understand it, or to try to explain it. My talk today is not about trying to understand this particular conflict or to explain it, but to think about conflict in general and how humanity can hope to overcome conflict, even when it seems impossible.

The story of two men, as told in this book, gives me hope. Bassam Aramin is one of the men. A Palestinian who was brought up to hate what Israeli people were doing to his people. And he believed strongly in his side – so much so that he got involved as a freedom fighter, as he would label what he did, or a terrorist as others would label what he did. As a teenage boy, along with friends, he threw bottles and rocks at Israeli soldiers and then worse – he got involved with explosives. At the age of 17, he was caught by Israeli police and received a seven-year prison sentence. During these seven years, he was beaten a number of times and treated inhumanely.

At one point during Bassam’s prison sentence, he watched a film about the holocaust and it moved him and upset him greatly. It also confused him because he was brought up to have a hatred for the Jewish people, and for Israelis in particular. However, he reflected and he found himself asking questions of one of his prison guards about it. Slowly, but surely the two had a dialogue over months and years and both began to understand some of each other’s history – but more importantly to understand that they were each people with feelings, and emotions – that they could both laugh and both cry and that they could talk to one another. And so they did.

Bassam left prison and continued to reflect on his experience as a changed man. He started to become part of a secret group of Palestinian former fighters who would meet with Israeli former fighters to talk and to try to understand each other. In 2005 this turned into a group called “Combatants for Peace” to try to encourage people to talk, to try to understand each other but most importantly to get to know each other – to even move away from tolerance and into comradeship – working together for reconciliation and understanding.

In 2007 darkness occurred in Bassam’s life. His ten-year-old daughter was killed, not by a bomb but by a rubber bullet at short range from a shot fired from an Israeli soldier in a street for seemingly no reason. It ripped him apart emotionally, as you might imagine.

Despite this tragedy, Bassam did not want to go back to his old ways. In fact, he redoubled his efforts that the violence must stop and he joined a group of parents from both sides that had lost children to the violence, “The Parents Circle” as the group is called.

Bassam became very good friends with an Israeli man, a chap called Rami Elhanan. Rami was brought up similarly – to hate Palestinians. His daughter had been killed by a Palestinian when 13 years old.

What I find incredible is that these two men, who were and are hurt and upset by some of the worst things that you can imagine, have found it in themselves to try to understand the other side, and to try to encourage conversations and friendships with each other and between their two people’s. They weren’t interested in revenge but they did want the violence to stop. I would like you to watch this video clip of them talking
about this.

It has been said a number of times that the problem of revenge is that violence leads to more violence, and a phrase often quoted is that “An eye for an eye leads to the whole world becoming blind”.

I pray that the violence can stop although I do not understand how peace will happen – but I pray that it does.

What I want to say to you is that we need to take the time to talk to one another when in disagreements, but more than that to listen and to think about why the other might have the view they do. The Palestinian in this story went to study History in order to try to complete his understanding of the story of Israel, and actually holds a Masters degree from the University of Bradford – with his specialist thesis being Holocaust Studies.

Now that is quite an effort to really grapple and to try to understand the point of view of the other side to the extent that you can begin to think about empathising with them.

Please never think that your arguments are so difficult that you cannot stand talking to the other person. Take the harder way and take time to talk and to understand and to think – they are a person too.

Thank you for listening.

Mr. Dixon
Houseparent of Pelican House and Physics Teacher