In her spare and urgent third novel, ‘Minor Detail,’ Adania Shibli tackles the questions of history, authority, erasure and oppression
Adania Shibli, the Palestinian writer who shuttles between Berlin and Jerusalem, was due to receive a German award for her 2017 novel Minor Detail at the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 20, but the prize ceremony was postponed over Hamas’s attack on Israel. Sometime back, in one of her interviews, Shibli (49) recounted that in 2002, a challenging year for Palestine, the press often visited refugee camps, such as the one at Balata near Nablus in the West Bank, which had suffered significant damage from the Israeli military, including tremendous loss of life. Journalists were eager to understand the events and the broader political implications of the situation, but during that difficult period, there were moments that highlighted the limitations of language and communication. Amid the widespread destruction, there was a woman who only focused on burning a single sheet of paper in a manner that prevented her from talking or thinking about anything but the casualties.
The nameless narrator of Shibli’s third novel, Minor Detail (Fitzcarraldo Editions), sets out to uncover a seemingly inconspicuous event from the past. The novel begins during the Israeli military’s presence in Palestine in 1949, a year after nakba; a Bedouin girl is captured, raped and eventually murdered in the desert of Negev. Several years later, a Palestinian author embarks on a dangerous quest to delve deeper into the larger framework of a horrific tragedy. The narrator feels a profound connection with the woman who suffered a brutal death since they were born precisely 25 years apart.
Minor details and recreation of history
The first part, written in third person, is rife with ritualistic details of the Israeli officer going about his day: removing his beard suds with the razor, tending a wound, crushing spiders, ceremonious assault of the Bedouin girl, with an insistent howling of a dog in the background. “…And as soon as the soldier handed him the hose, he flew at the girl, stripping the black scarf from her head with his left hand, then he brought both hands to the collar of her dress and, still holding the hose in his right, pulled in opposite directions, releasing a sharp sound that cleaved the silence. He then circled around the girl, unwinding the torn dress from her body, and threw it as far as he could, along with the other scraps of clothing she was wearing. A mixture of odours had collected in their weave: the scent of manure, a sharp smell of urine and genital secretions, and the sour stench of old sweat overpowering new.”
The reader is given a step-by-step immersion in the choices taken by troops committing war crimes, a seemingly minor aspect. It illustrates how a sense of military obligation can erase, or at the very least temporarily set aside, personal moral judgment. The second part is more meandering. The narrator revels in terror of getting caught by continually trespassing borders. Her obsession is rooted in the fact that “it is inevitable for the past to be forgotten, especially if the present is no less horrific.” Nature takes part in revealing the condition of the oppressed: wind mercilessly pulls on the grass which doesn’t resist, rather surrenders in helplessness. Odours, mucous, sweat and rancid saliva from the bodies pervade the air.
In the penultimate scene, the narrator’s impending doom is foreshadowed by a hose, the spilling of gasoline on her hands, and a frantic dog. The narrator drives in circles for hours on end, unable to navigate through the alien landscape: “…I go back and open the map, which depicts Palestine until 1948, and let my eyes wander over it, moving between the names of the many Palestinian villages that were destroyed after the expulsion of their inhabitants that year. I recognize several of them; some of my colleagues and acquaintances originate from there, from the villages of Lifta, al-Qastal, Ein Karem, al-Mallha, al-Jura, Abu Shusha, Siris, Innaba, Jimzu, and Dair Tarif. But the majority of the names are unfamiliar to me, to the extent that they invoke a feeling of estrangement.”
The fragmented reality of the Palestinian experience can only be captured in language (one of seemingly insignificant details) that often doesn’t find a place in history owing to a grand narrative, and Shibli has always seen herself as betraying those expectations. The disquiet of Shibli’s language echo Fady Joudah, a Palestinian-American poet and physician: “I live Palestine in English. But in my heart Palestine is Arabic. And Palestine in Arabic does not need to explain itself. Despite setbacks, disasters, revolving conspiracies against it, Palestine in Arabic is self-possessed. It is exterior to English yet born internationalist and shall remain so — neither thinking it is the centre of the world nor surrendering to the imperial centre as the primary source of its future liberation. Palestine in Arabic is where the overwhelming sacrifice is made. Palestine in Arabic dreams, lives in and with more than 15 hundred years of literary, intellectual, and ecumenical traditions, belongs to 10 thousand years before that. History does not end for Palestine in Arabic.”
Therefore, when growing up in a place where language is guarded, the notion of minor detail also brings out things that are linguistically inaccessible. Tools of history deployed by the oppressor delete the narratives of the oppressed, replacing them with a universal history of the Empire. The African slaves, drowned without a trace in the sea, will only have a marginal bearing on mainstream history. A certain ‘microhistory’, therefore, can be a point of agreement. It takes one back to Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg's theory that history may be recreated using seemingly inconsequential (minor) elements.
In Palestine, the worst is precise
Although the second part of the book is told in first person, the narrator remains nameless. The act of naming is endowing someone with a unique capability and authority. Imagine a child examining maps, wherein there is a notable absence of information regarding one’s own place of origin. The significant issue of national identity takes a backseat as Palestinian children carefully study maps that omit any reference to their homeland. Nobody knows what Palestine is and their relatives take great care not to mention it. This silence can be traced back to the pervasive sense of fear and insecurity.
Palestine is intertwined with the existence of Israel, yet the precise nature of this Israel remains shrouded in uncertainty. It’s as if there’s an unspoken understanding about Palestine, and there are aspects of it that are best left unsaid. Palestinian parents often attempt to shield their children from these matters out of both concern for their well-being and their own experiences of displacement and adversity. Growing up, Palestinian children become immersed in the linguistic milieu surrounding them, yet simultaneously, they encounter the allure of literature from 6th-century Arabic history. This dynamic allows them to navigate through a narrative of erasure while preserving a distinctive presence owing to their private knowledge of Arabic traditions and literature. There exists a rich language, juxtaposed with a more reserved and discrete form of communication, particularly when expressing oneself in Arabic.
In Shibli’s previous novels, Touch (2010) and We Are All Equally Far From Love (2012), the tiniest emotions are given precedence, while the grand sweep of historical events often remains in the background. But Minor Detail confronts the territorial question head-on while addressing the woman’s issues all the same. American writer and critic John Freeman once wrote: “Shibli has created a powerful set of dual heroines, women wracked with disquiet and violence, resisting the frames that have first, been chosen for them, then denied to have ever existed.” And to achieve this, Shibli uses language as a means of resistance. During one of her interviews, she acknowledges that Minor Detail initially emerged from a linguistic unease, delving into the ways in which the complacency of language can both cause and redirect suffering. The novel subtly alludes to the silence surrounding a history of oppression, captured deftly in the translation by Elisabeth Jaquette, implying that it isn’t solely imposed upon the Palestinians but is also employed as a form of defiance. This silence extends beyond mere wordlessness, evolving into a state of linguistic unreachability.
Shibli admits that she never writes ‘about’, but ‘from’, which profoundly informs her Palestinian condition. Who decides what would remain marginal and what would take centre stage? From which vantage point do we choose to tell stories? In an ironic exposition, Shibli inverts the oppressor and the oppressed: “Man, not the tank, shall prevail.” J.M. Coetzee applauded Minor Detail, stating that Shibli “takes a gamble in entrusting our access to the key event in her novel — the rape and murder of a young Bedouin woman — to two profoundly self-absorbed narrators, an Israeli psychopath and a Palestinian amateur sleuth high on the autism scale, but her method of indirection justifies itself fully as the book reaches its heart-stopping conclusion.” One wonders as to who decides the criteria of sanity in case of the officer. His actions cannot be a result of a psychological disorder as it would render the judgement evasive, a way to escape legal matters.
Minor Detail has a somewhat skeletal quality that renders the work even more urgent and precise. It impinges on questions of history, authority, erasure and oppression. There is a final admission that a return to justice and the normal is unfeasible. Details of a horrifying past will not be found in museums, territory and history of the oppressor.