For the first few years after the bombing it worried Rami that he was repeating himself. He sometimes had to tell Smadar’s story two or three times a day. Once in the morning at a school. Once in the after- noon at the Parents Circle offices. Then again at night in a synagogue or a community hall or a mosque. To pastors. A’immah. Rabbis. Reporters. Cameramen. Schoolkids. Senators. Visitors from Sweden, Mexico, Azerbaijan. The bereaved from Venezuela, Mali, China, Indonesia, Rwanda, who had come to visit the holy places.
On occasion – early on, before he allowed himself to be comfortable in the repetition – he found himself pausing in mid-sentence, wondering if he had just said the same thing twice in the span of minutes, not just a general repetition, but the exact same words in a row, with the same intonation, the same facial expressions, as if somehow he had reduced the story to the mechanical, the rhythm of the everyday. It bothered him to think that the listeners might look at him as a broken- down reel, trapped by the sameness of his grief.
Afterwards he would realise he had left out whole chunks of what he truly wanted to say.
It flushed him with fear that he might appear fraudulent, theatrical, rehearsed. As if his story was a brand, a commercial, bound to repetition. He could feel the heat rise in his face. His palms grew sweaty. On the second or third telling in a day, he found himself pinching the skin on his forearms to jolt himself awake, to make sure he wasn’t retreading old territory. My name is Rami Elhanan. I am the father of Smadar. I am a seventh-generation Jerusalemite.
He wondered how actors did it. To say the same thing meaning- fully, performance after performance. What sort of discipline did it take? Once a day. Twice on matinee days. How could they, in that end- less repetition, continue to make it real? How could they keep it alive?
But the more he went on – the more the story took on a singular shape – the more he began to realise that it did not matter. There was, he knew, always an end to the run of an actor, but he had no such end. No final curtain call. No ovation. No grand finale for him. No walk out the stage door, overcoat on, collar turned up. No streetlit alleyway. No rain falling on the grey cobbled street. No morning review. No fawning adulation.
He began to understand that it wasn’t a performance. His was a beginning without an end. There was nothing theatrical about it at all. He could make of it whatever heaven or hell he wanted. He settled into the repetition: it was his blessing and his curse.
He spoke to academics, to artists, to schoolkids, to Israelis, to Palestinians, to Germans, to the Chinese, whoever would listen. Christian groups. Swedish scientists. South African police delegations. The country was, he told them, written on a tiny canvas. Israel could fit inside New Jersey. The West Bank was smaller than Delaware. Four Gazas could be shoehorned inside London. One hundred Israels could be placed inside Argentina and you’d still have some room for the pampas. Israel and Palestine together were one-fifth the size of Illinois. It was infinitesimal, yes, but something pulsed at its core, something spare, original, nuclear: he liked that word, nuclear. The atoms of his story pressed against one another. The force of what he wanted to say. There were times he felt he was standing outside himself, hovering, watching himself, but it didn’t matter: he connected with the words now, they were his, he owned them, they were spoken for a purpose. He wanted to waken the sleep in his listeners. To see a jolt in them. Just for a split second. To see an eye open. Or a lifted eyebrow. That was enough. A crack in the wall, he said. A crease of doubt. Anything.
When he spoke he saw Smadar again. Her oval face. Her brown eyes. Her turn-to-the-shoulder laughter. In a garden. In Jerusalem. With a white band in her hair.
Soon they were meeting virtually every single day. More than their jobs, this became their jobs: to tell the story of what had happened to their girls. Rami handed over the reins to his partner in his graphic design company. Bassam cut back on his working hours in the Sports Ministry and the Palestinian Archives. The two began working officially with the Parents Circle. They were paid a living wage. They travelled whenever they could. Met with philanthropists. Lectured at foundations. Had dinner with diplomats. Spoke at military schools. They carried their stories with them.
It didn’t matter that they were repeating the same words over and over again. They knew that the people they spoke to were hearing it for the first time: at the beginning of their own alphabets.
It sometimes surprised Rami that he could reach so far inside he could discover new ways of saying the same thing. He was, he knew, making Smadar continually present. It slid something sharp and burning into his ribcage, prised him even further open.
Once or twice, at the lectures, he looked across to see the surprise on Bassam’s face, as if the new phrase had just sliced him open too.
The force of the blast on Ben Yehuda Street knocked her high in the air.
There are times I think she might have been hitching a lift to heaven.
I can still hear the slide of the rollers on that cold metal tray.
Physics stole her soar.
Bassam kept different pieces afloat in his mind, tried them out for size, rearranged them, jumped around, juggled them, shattered their linearity.
He liked to put the groups at ease. I spent seven years in prison, and then I got married. You want to know about occupation? Try six kids in two bedrooms. Hey, who in their right mind gives the job of lookout to the guy with the limp?
The groups weren’t sure how to take his quips at first. They fidgeted, glanced away. But there was something magnetic about him and slowly he drew them back again. I’m the only man who ever went to England, he said, and liked the weather.
His accent was thick. He rolled the words around in his mouth. But he spoke softly, musically. He could quote poetry: Rumi, Yeats, Darwish. It didn’t matter if he fractured the story here and there: it was more like a song than story to him, he wanted to get to the deep rhythm of it.
A bony structure at the bottom of the trachea – the syrinx – is integral to the voice box of birds. With its surrounding air sac, the syrinx resonates to sound waves created by membranes along which the bird forces air. The pitch of the song is created when the bird shifts the tension on the membranes. The volume is controlled by the force of exhalation.
The bird can control two sides of the trachea independently so that some species can produce two distinct notes at once.
At night Rami read Smadar a children’s version of One Thousand and One Nights in Hebrew.
Her eyes fluttered as she listened. Sinbad the Sailor. Julnar the Sea-Born. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp.
Smadar always seemed to wake about three-quarters of the way through each story.
Certain birds are said to sleep in mid-flight. They do so in short ten-second bursts, usually after nightfall. The bird is able to switch off one side of its brain in order to rest, while the other side continues its rhythmic vigilance to avoid crashing into a fellow flier and to watch out for predators.
A frigate bird can stay aloft for two whole months without touching down on either land or water.
One afternoon, in a souk on Al-Zahra Street, Borges said to his listeners that One Thousand and One Nights could be compared to the creation of a cathedral or a beautiful mosque, and perhaps it was even more splendid than that since, unlike a cathedral or a mosque, none of its authors, or creators – the actual builders – were aware that they were contributing to the construction of a book. Their stories had been gathered at different times, in myriad places, Baghdad, Damascus, Egypt, the Balkans, India, Tibet, and from different sources too, the Jataka Tales and the Katha Sarit Sagara, and then were repeated, refined, translated, first in French, then in English, changed once again and passed on, entering yet another lore.
The stories existed on their own at first, said Borges, and were then joined together, strengthening one another, an endless cathedral, a widening mosque, a random everywhere.
It was what Borges called a creative infidelity. Time appeared inside time, inside yet another time.
The book was, he said, so vast and inexhaustible that it was not even necessary to have read it since it was already an intricate part of hu- mankind’s unconscious memory.
They were so close that, after a while, Rami felt that they could finish each other’s stories.
My name is Bassam Aramin. My name is Rami Elhanan. I am the father of Abir. I am the father of Smadar. I am a seventh-generation Jerusalemite. I was born in a cave near Hebron.
Word for word, pause for pause, breath for breath.
Arrangements for Smadar’s funeral were made immediately. Phone calls. Emails. Telegrams.
Jewish law requires that a body be buried as soon as possible, complete with all its limbs and organs: the soul is considered to be in turmoil until it is in the ground.
Muslim law too, though at first the police didn’t return the bodies of the three bombers to their families.
For years afterwards they were stored in blue plastic bags in a locked refrigerator vault in the morgue in Jerusalem.
Excerpted with permission from Apeirogon, A Novel, Colum McCann, Bloomsbury.