In ‘Minor Detail’, the truth does not always do people justice, but it is the willingness to seek it that counts
Everyone’s life is governed by minor details: little elements of reality which are the reason why we gravitate to this or that subject. Sometimes a certain passion or dedication is the result of one’s upbringing, a flair, or a set of skills one may possess and needs to develop. Sometimes it may be determined by an accident, a small detail, a surprising coincidence.
This is well known to Palestinian writer Adania Shibli, who makes the titular ‘minor detail’ the axis of the entire narrative of her micro-story. The 2017 book was longlisted for The International Booker Prize. Some time ago there was a cancellation of the LiBeraturpreis award ceremony for the author at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The cancellation of the honour was linked to attacks in Israel and Palestine and caused an international scandal and backlash from the writing and publishing community.
The newspaper’s story of the gang rape of a Bedouin girl by Israeli soldiers in 1949 catches the attention of a Palestinian woman, the novel’s protagonist. Why? Because it happened exactly 25 years before her birthday. This minor detail does not give the woman peace of mind and makes her launch her own private investigation. She embarks on a risky journey despite the fact that she herself feels uncertainty and fear of the unknown. She feels that she must know the truth, because the enigmatic article is not insufficient. The protagonist tries, with her imagination’s eyes, to sketch the fate and feelings of the wronged Bedouin woman, hoping to restore her dignity, at least in some small way. But we don’t get to know the Palestinian woman until the second part of ‘Minor Detail’.
History is written by the perpetrators
Divided into two parts, the novel describes an old crime in its first chapter. We learn its details in a third-person narrative following the footsteps of an Israeli commander. The soldiers set up a camp in the Negev desert where, in the words of the commander: ‘their main task (…) apart from demarcating the border with Egypt and making sure that no one crosses it, will be to comb the north-western part of the Negev and clear it of the Arabs who are still here’. All this is happening in the name of the newly formed state of Israel and after the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of forced displacement and ethnic cleansing.
As we follow the officer, we observe the daily life of the soldiers. We do not know his name, nor do we know exactly what he looks like. The novel is filled with his meticulously described toilet routines and the desert sultry weather. Everyday life is shown from a distance and almost completely stripped of any signs of emotion, which creates a dense atmosphere and tension. It’s a story written in a sparing language of details, which occasionally incorporates incredibly precise metaphors. Because of these reasons, this part evokes associations with the writing of John Maxwell Coetzee.
Adania Shibli’s language of corporeality
During one of the reconnaissances, the soldiers find a girl and take her hostage. The brutal rape of the woman happens somewhere nearby, we do not get to know the young Bedouin girl’s perspective, nor do we hear her words. At times, Shibli reveals that the girl is crying and screaming. The hostage’s body is first washed in a humiliating way, in front of other soldiers, only to be defiled later. The more detailed account refers only to the description of the rape by the officer himself. The scene depicts what can be seen and felt: smells and descriptions of the body movements.
Shibli’s language is the language of corporeality. The executioner is bitten by a creature beforehand, and the wound deepens and refuses to heal as events unfold. It represents a symbol of the impending crime. A crime that cannot be washed away and will not be erased by time. The figure of the woman can also be read symbolically as the personification of the Palestinians who have been wronged by wars, whose stories have never seen the light of day or have been summarised by a brief mention in a newspaper article. History is written by the victors and the oppressors, says Shibli.
The experience of occupation
The heroine of the second part of the novel is the counterbalance of the character of the raped and murdered woman. We get to know her emotions and hesitations in a first-person narrative in which she shares her experiences of the reality of the occupation. She notes every hesitation, fear and terror associated not only with life in Zone A (which includes the larger urban centres of the West Bank), but also with the journey toward learning the details of the events of 1949. The narrative is full of terror, drowning in it and unable to get out of its uncertainty.
We accompany the narrator as she is inspected by the military while commuting to work, as she is aimed at with a rifle by an Israeli soldier, or as a nearby house is blown to bits while she is in her office nearby. This part of the novel is a testimony to the daily life of Palestinians under occupation: the explosions, the inspections, the inability to move freely, the constant sense of fear. Among other things, the protagonist describes this reality as follows:
“The fact that my attention was drawn to the date of the event described in the article is perhaps due to the fact that there was nothing extraordinary in its main details, if one compares them to what happens on a daily basis in a place where the turmoil of occupation as well as death at the hands of another human being is the most normal thing. Blowing up a building is just one example. Even rape. It happens not only in war, but also in everyday life. Murder or rape, and sometimes both”.
In order to get into Zone C (comprising mainly agricultural areas in the West Bank, Jewish settlements and strategic areas such as most of the Jordan Valley) to search the archives and to get closer to the crime scene, the protagonist needs to obtain specific documents. She borrows a blue identity card from a friend living in Zone C in Jerusalem. She is aware that, as a Palestinian, she may also have problems at checkpoints and in various institutions managed by the Israeli authorities. In order to reach her chosen destinations, she has to use two maps: a historical map of Palestine from before 1948 and a contemporary Israeli map. Even this one, which is supposed to reflect today’s reality, is not up to the task due to, among other things, the demolition of villages by the Israeli military.
Tracing the details
“This minor detail, which others will pass over, will forever stay with me in spite of myself, and no matter how I try to forget it, it will constantly haunt me, because I am as weak and fragile as the trees I see through the glass. Maybe, indeed, there is nothing more important than this minor detail and only it can lead to the whole truth, which is not revealed by the article that omits the girl’s perspective,” the woman confesses.
This passage shows emphatically that she is not a fearless fighter for the truth; she feels stress, repeatedly retreats from certain steps, sometimes fails to take advantage of the situation. In her uncertainty, she is somewhat reminiscent of the protagonist of another novel published by Drzazgi, Ariane Koch’s “The Visitor”. “I’m shaking all over. I’m trying to calm myself down, but to no avail. Fear has possessed my entire body to the point where it has become weightless. But how pathetic I am.” She is a non-idealised heroine, flesh and blood, and for her, action is a way out of her comfort zone. She is a character who is brave in spite of her insecurities, and so her courage is all the greater. She believes that it is the details that uncover the truth and preserve her memory.
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And in these details, the woman also sees traces of Zone C’s Palestinian past. She passes areas where Palestinian villages previously existed. They were demolished and the inhabitants and residents were expelled. The heroine’s mention of their names is a beautiful way of commemorating them. Despite the Israeli destruction, the space continues to contain small Palestinian details: a lone acacia, a few shepherds with their flocks on a hill, or the mastic tree (a.k.a. the sticky pistachio, which gives off a resin used for chewing, as a hygienic remedy or in medicine, among other things).
During her investigation, the woman visits the Israel Defence Forces History Museum in Jaffa, Israel, and eventually arrives at the likely crime scene as well. In order not to give away all the details to the readers, I will only write that the protagonist does not gain much information, but somehow symbolically shares some elements of the heroine’s fate. Her body follows the traces of the past: like a Bedouin woman, she takes a long bath, meets a dog, comes into contact with soldiers aiming at her with guns. By accident, he douses himself with petrol. Perhaps she feels some similar emotions, and places her feet on the same ground. She is witness to the past. The history is based on a terrifying repetition.
According to Shibli, what are we left with then? In “Minor Detail”, the truth does not always do people justice, but what matters is the willingness to seek it.
Against the silence
Shibli’s novel obviously resonates a little differently in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel, in the face of the helplessness that accompanies us as we watch on social media or news portals the massacre being perpetrated on the Palestinians. A massacre that is met with an absolutely disproportionate response from the international community. There is silence where rescue is needed. How much suffering reaches us through the small screens of our phones? How big is the depth of despair that will never see the light of day or get justice? Who will write the story of today’s bombing of Gaza or the hostages kidnapped by Hamas, who tells it today? This book is painful especially today, but literature must hurt.
However, “Minor Detail” is, beyond a subtle and parabolic story of the suffering of Palestinians, a deeply universal tale. A novel that asks who writes history in general and whether it is possible to get to the truth. In talking about the big issues, Shibli uses language that is close to reality, leaving interpretation of events and conjecture to the readers. She does not moralise or lecture. She follows her heroes and heroines, records their fates and writes them down. It is the literature that have the most power here, because the most important thing happens somewhere beneath the palimpsest surface of the novel.
The protagonist’s internal monologue is a testament to the havoc that violent mechanisms wreak on the human psyche and how difficult it is to emerge from a position of subjugation. Language pursues this. Language triggers, names emotions, binds meanings where reality remains helpless. Great literature often speaks where others remain silent. Shibli’s novel, then, is literature with a capital L. So let us read to defy the helpless silence.