BOOK REVIEW: FICTION

In the aftermath of the Palestinian catastrophe—'Minor Detail' by Adania Shibli (trans. Elisabeth Jaquette)

This book is an essential read to understand the extent of the erasure of Palestinian history after the Nakba and life under tyranny in its cities.
Design: Maisha Syeda

In its transition from five sweltering hot days with a stoic Israeli platoon commander, to the experiences of a jittery woman living in occupied Ramallah, Minor Detail (Text Publishing, 2020) by Adania Shibli and translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, weaves together a story in two parts that echo off each other. Shibli's piece masterfully ties together concepts of military violence, war, brutality, and erasure. 

In the first half of the book, we are in Negev, 1949, seeing everything through the eyes of the platoon commander and witnessing the gang-rape and murder of a Bedouin girl. The end of the Nakba—the catastrophe that rendered 750,000 Palestinians displaced—is upon Palestine and a group of soldiers are sent on a mission to rid the southern border of any remaining Arabs. 

When  the commander is bitten by a spider on the first night, in a psychedelic few pages, we are given gruesome details of his festering wound and increasing physical pain. Shibli's writing in these pages runs in a state of conscious flow—a mix of vigilance and overstimulation from his surroundings. She writes, "…a wave of darkness flooded the hut; it seemed as if time were ebbing back into night instead of advancing towards day…he took his trembling hands from between his legs and gripped his belly; the stomach ache had returned. His body continued to shiver, then began shaking violently, and the bedsprings beneath him started to squeak." It is as though every sound is a jeering reflection of his own pitiful self and his wound a manifestation of his progressively abhorrent character and something indelibly evil growing within him.

Despite his worsening conditions, his daily patrols remain unwavered, and when, on one of these missions, the soldiers find a group of Bedouins in the desert, they kill all of them—save a girl and a dog. The dog's ominous howls remain a constant linkage between the two parts of the book, at times acting as protector for the Bedouin girl. That night, over a festive dinner, the commander organises the gang-rape of the girl, who they kill hours later. This is where the first part ends, leaving the reader disappointed and incredibly angry. It feels wrong to have read something so inhumane through the eyes of the offender while knowing almost nothing about the victim. It seems cruel to just call her the "Bedouin girl". This is Shibli's stroke of genius—it is exactly the sort of restlessness that needs to be carried over by the reader into the second half of the novel. 

A nervy woman, born 25 years later on the same date as the gang-rape, becomes obsessed with the incident after coming across it in an article. She is hell-bent on finding out more about the Bedouin girl. The characters of Minor Detail, though disarranged, are very stubborn. 

The authoritarian regime of occupied Palestine does not stop her from borrowing a colleague's ID and heading towards the museums in Jerusalem. We accompany her in a rental car on the strict roads of Palestine, our—the readers'—hearts beating in unison at every checkpoint. 

She follows an Israeli map—an illustration accurate to the country as she knows it, and occasionally a Palestinian one; peering into the heart of a land that once was. The map of Palestine was a picture of home, it showed villages with Arabic names her colleagues said they had visited, locations of old important buildings that had been bombed and graffitied, towns her families and friends had come from, which were now nothing but ransacked villages, remnants of wiped-out homes, streets newly named in Hebrew, a city built on displacement. 

We never truly find out who the Bedouin girl was, except that she was a bi-product of the Palestinian dispossession whose story relied on the word of the opponent.

Shibli uses verbose but constricted story-telling, a form of prose that encapsulates the essence of her anxiety-ridden yet stubborn protagonist. She relies on inanimate objects as anchors and to draw parallels between the two halves. A pack of chewing gum distracts the protagonist in her travels. The sand beneath their feet and the howls of the dog evoke the same uneasiness in the characters. The stench of petrol looms above the Bedouin girl and our protagonist as though they are connected somehow. 

This book is an essential read to understand the extent of the erasure of Palestinian history after the Nakba and life under tyranny in its cities where buildings blow-up in the middle of a work day next to your office. In a conversation with Madeleine Thien on Brookline Booksmith, when asked what life was like in lockdown at her home in Berlin, Shibli said, "It's almost like Palestine," she added, "It was a strange feeling, as if the body suddenly remembers something". 

Minor Detail ends as mercilessly as you would expect a story like this to end. It shakes the reader just as it did in the first part. It lays the truth bare and lets you take from it what you will. Shibli traces the footprints of destruction and dehumanization and leaves you with something angry in the pit of your stomach.

Rushmila Shehreen Khan is a published poet and seasonal artist. Find her at [email protected]

 

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