“Nothing moved except the mirage”: Analysing Fear and Freedom in Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail — by Dr. Chaandreyi Mukherjee

Mar 16, 2021

Dr. Chaandreyi Mukherjee presents an academic paper that is also a book review for Palestinian author Adania Shibli's 2020 novel, “Minor Detail” (New Directions). A finalist for the National Book Award, “Minor Detail” is one of the most relevant works of contemporary Palestinian literature that connects 1949 and the Nakba with present day Palestine—as its protagonist digs into the past to uncover horrific truths. Mukherjee's response and writing on the novel and its many themes is essential to understanding the greater depth to be found in decades of Israeli occupation over Palestinian land and life. The academic not only includes relevant criticism within this piece but also integrates theoretical formulations and observations by various scholars and thinkers that are pertinent to her own readings, such that through her 'book-review-as-academic-paper' one gets access to entire bodies and fields of knowledge, from postcolonial theory to resistance literature. Just as "Minor Detail" tells the story of a people and their larger history by means of a protagonist, Dr. Mukherjee's paper offers multiple vectors of understanding in order to facilitate incisive critical engagement with this recent work of Palestinian literature.

In the documentary by Peter Rodis, “Nina Simone: a Historical Perspective”, an interviewer asks the bold and irrepressible entertainer what she means by freedom. The reply in a typical Simone fashion is deceptive in its simplicity and ingenuous clarity - "I'll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean, really, no fear!" It is interesting how the concept of freedom attains meaning through the complete eradication of fear – both intangible, immeasurable entities, probably on the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Simone’s passionate lucidity paves the way to re-interrogate ideas of freedom against realms of conflict and the imperviousness of fear. This curious juxtaposition of fear and freedom brings one to Minor Detail – an extraordinary novella by Adania Shibli, originally written in Arabic in 2017 and skilfully translated into English by Elisabeth Jaquette in 2020. Shibli, a Palestinian writer, constructs a heart-wrenching saga of the horrors of occupation and neo-colonization in sparse, detached prose, almost clinical in its treatment of the sensitive subject matter. Minor Detail is a brave, brilliant novel, not only requisitioning a voice for the voiceless, but also acting as a glaring reminder about all those seemingly insignificant details, effortlessly and categorically submerged by official history.

In Resistance Literature, Barbara Harlow discusses how the resistance narrative tries to analyze and reconstruct the present socio-political scenario through reconfigurations of the way history has been recorded. Harlow adds that “to represent the historical, cultural and ideological context that shaped the narrative of choice, a resistant writer challenges certain literary conventions that have to do with temporal chronology and continuity” (80). The reimagining of historical and political events may often empower the writer to engage in literary experimentations – especially with narrative and plot structuring, character building and establishing the setting of the narrative. Resistance literature in Palestine erupted as the foremost literary and creative expression especially during the aftermath of the calamity of 1948, the al-Nakba, leading to the forcible displacements and violent expulsions of more than seven hundred fifty thousand Palestinians from their homelands. The agony, anguish and humiliation were captured in the oral reiterations of poetry:

The resistance poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim, which precedes the emergence of narrative due to the directness and immediacy of the poetic form, is the first articulation of Palestinian identity. As these poets tapped into oral history and culture, their poetry did not need the gestation period that other artistic forms, such as narrative and drama, need to develop, hence its early emergence and dissemination. It is the novel and other narrative forms, however, that probe the deeper impact of the 1948 Disaster (Mir 122).

Salam Mir further enumerates the issues which have been utilized as inspirations by writers to depict the chaotic reality – settler colonialism, refugee camps, military occupation, labour exploitation and others. “Whereas the historical outcome has been total denial of Palestinian existence as a people and the establishment of another state on their homeland, the literary output has reclaimed the lost land, albeit in words, reconstructed the denied history, and emphasized the Palestinian voice” (Mir 124). This literary transgression highlights the implications of neo-colonization, insidiousness of neo-imperialism, the pervasiveness of racism and the vicious circle of exile, abandonment and return. Resistance narratives problematize ideas related to identity, belonging and cultural hegemony and usher in a dialogue which is vehemently political. Palestinian narratives of resistance boldly and poignantly navigate the ongoing legacy of loss and dispossession and find unlimited creative potential in it. Through the highlighting of cultural consciousness, typical to the Palestinian experience, Palestinian resistance literature reveals the urgency of drafting a type of literature almost similar to Franz Fanon’s conception of ‘literature of combat’- “It is a literature of combat, because it molds the national consciousness, giving it form and contours and flinging open before it new and boundless horizons; it is a literature of combat because it assumes responsibility, and because it is the will to liberty expressed in terms of time and space” (Fanon 240). In the third and last stage of the cultural trajectory of the colonized individual, Fanon discusses the formation of a creative entity through which the liberation struggle can be manifested. This literature of combat will operate as an instrument of resistance and will also be an avenue through which repressed narratives can be emancipated and collective political consciousness can be maintained. These would be amalgamated into the construction of an irreducible national consciousness.

Reviewing Minor Detail, Meera Kandasamy writes:

Adania Shibli’s exceptional novel Minor Detail belongs to the genre of the novel as resistance, as revolutionary text. Simultaneously depicting the dehumanization that surrounds rape and land-grab, it is a text that palpitates with fear and with outrage. As we join the nameless young woman in her quest to find a long-forgotten atrocity, we realize how dangerous it is to reclaim life and history in the face of an ongoing, systematic erasure. The narrative tempo, that eventually reaches a crescendo, astutely captures how alienation and heightened anxiety are elemental states of living under Israeli occupation. This is the political novel we have all been waiting for.

As a revolutionary text, Shibli’s tiny novel contains within its pages the power to slow burn and incinerate. A novel titled Minor Detail is curiously filled with numerous mundane details of the daily life – the repetitions almost verging on obsessive compulsive disorder. The detached accumulation of details is a familiar trope of postmodernist narratives, very frequently observed in the novels of Haruki Murakami, probably to usher in a semblance of normalcy in an otherwise meaningless and chaotic world. Shibli’s novel begins with the painstaking detailing of the everyday activities of an Israeli platoon commander and his deranged need for cleanliness. As the same activities are repeated again and again, the narrative starts resembling an infinite loop of fear and foreboding, providing a subtle yet powerful expression of the inescapable rut most of the Palestinians find themselves in. This harrowing first part of Shibli’s novella is based on a report published in Haaretz in October 2003 which described the capture and gang rape of a young Bedouin girl by a platoon of IDF soldiers in August 1949. In the report to the Company Commander, the Officer states, “In my patrol on 12.8.49 I encountered Arabs in the territory under my command, one of them armed. I killed the armed Arab on the spot and took his weapon. I took the Arab female captive. On the first night the soldiers abused her and the next day I saw fit to remove her from the world” (Lavie). Following the exact trajectory of the article, Shibli streamlines her narrative into an exploration of military power and the corresponding dehumanization. The tonality of her narration is as precise, detached and dispassionate as the article. What elevates this journalistic chronicling is her sudden and startling emphasis on the seemingly ‘minor details’ of the event, ushering in a hitherto unseen poetic sensibility - “Stars were scattered in their infinite numbers across the clear night sky, but they seemed smaller and less brilliant than the night before, like the grains of sand strewn across the threshold, which glittered in the soft lantern light emanating from inside” (Shibli 40) or “Now the only sound was the muffled weeping of a girl who had curled up inside her black clothes like a beetle…” (Shibli 25).

The capture and rape of the girl is itself converted into a forgettable, minor incident, erased from the pages of history which brings one to consider the postmodernist subversion of history. Postmodernism creates a new desire to treat history through critical and contextual processes. Linda Hutcheon states, “It reinstalls historical contexts as significant and even determining, but in so doing, it problematizes the entire notion of historical knowledge...And the implication is that there can be no single, essentialized, transcendent concept of ‘genuine historicity’” (89). Postmodernist historiography leads to a creative structuring of the past through narrative emplotment of so called historical facts. Postmodernism rejects essentialized, idealistic and rational ideas about comprehending and articulating history. “In the postmodernist writing of history and literature, it does so by first installing and then critically confronting both that grounding process and those grounds themselves. This is the paradox of the postmodern” (Hutcheon 92). In a way, the title itself seems an ironic taunt towards the habitual suppression of events relegated as ‘minor’. Shibli’s postmodernist subversion of official history points towards the possibility of multiple histories and subjective pasts. Amitav Ghosh in his novel The Shadow Lines had discussed how certain incidents have purely subjective and personal interpretations, capable of overwhelming the entire existence of a person yet is afforded only a limited and negligible space in official newspapers. The ramifications of a seemingly ‘minor’ incident are hardly noteworthy when it comes to enlisting the parameters of nationhood. Shibli’s Bedouin girl is perhaps one of the millions whose stories are rendered ineffective, dismissed and erased.

In one of her interviews, Shibli discusses the tendency of the State to associate war crimes or misuse of military power with psychological imbalances. The unnamed platoon commander of her novella has been called a psychopath who is obsessed with purity and cleanliness. His stoic resistance to terrible pain and festering infection from the poison of an insect bite is directly proportional to his paranoia, insomnia, restlessness and megalomaniacal declarations of order. His desire to eradicate all vestiges of Arab life from the vicinity is glaringly similar to one of the most diabolical dictators of the world, Adolf Hitler and his unrepentant obliteration of the so called ‘impure’ race. It is interesting to observe how power and authority can transform someone from the persecuted race into a merciless agent of control and destruction.

He is an occupier, a man at war, and Shibli reveals his sinister power slowly, with a delicate touch. That night, over a celebratory meal, the commander congratulates his men, extolling the finer points of their Zionist mission – erasing the “sterile nationalist sentiments” of the Arabs and planting the fertile seeds of their own nationalist expansion. Only they can make the “desolate” desert “bloom”, he promises. At the end, the commander offers his men a choice regarding their prisoner – shall they put the Palestinian girl to work in the camp kitchen? Or shall they share her among themselves? (Bhutto)

According to Shibli, the probable psychological illnesses of the military personnel is too infantile a reason, especially when compared to the magnitude of destruction which organized military attacks bring. Mental illness cannot be the only reason repeated endlessly to exculpate the perpetrators of inhumane terror. In Ari Folman’s animated war documentary Waltz with Bashir, the protagonist struggles with amnesia stemming from his participation in a particularly atrocious war crime. As an Israeli soldier he was ordered to shoot flares illuminating the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, aiding the massacre. His profound guilt had effectively suppressed his memories related to that incident. In Shibli’s novella, the platoon commander is overcome with revulsion as he smells the petrol with which the girl’s hair was drenched. He smells the ‘stench’ of the girl everywhere, an inescapable reminder of the guilt, which he will never acknowledge. The festering wound on his leg also seems an appropriate analogy to the rotting, disgusting and painful situation of the country and how violence is naturalized as an everyday reality.

The second part brings in the quirky, introspective, restless and nervous first person narrative of a Palestinian woman living in Ramallah. She notices an article in a newspaper about the incident narrated in the first section which piqued her interest because it occurred exactly twenty five years before, on the exact date as that of her birth. It is this ‘minor detail’ which fascinates and propels her to launch on an impulsive and dangerous adventure of seeking the repressed truth, recreating the past and re-narrating the history, possibly from the victim’s point of view. She states, “There was nothing really unusual about the main details, especially when compared with what happens daily in a place dominated by the roar of occupation and ceaseless killing. And bombing that building is just one example. Even rape” (Shibli 64). It is the sheer lackadaisical attitude with which the narrator, a citizen of an occupied state, refers to the banality of the main details, which leads one to imagine the normalization of horrors on an everyday basis. With an amusing sensitivity, Shibli evokes the idea of ‘minor details’, “...there are some who consider this way of seeing...focusing intently on the most minor details, like dust on the desk or fly shit on a painting, as the only way to arrive at the truth and definitive proof of its existence” (63). When the major details have gone through repetitive forgery and fabrication at the hands of the powerful, the powerless can only aspire to look for the minor details in order to attempt to evoke their testimonies. Tahrir Hamdi states:

A sub-genre of literature called ‘bearing witness’ addresses the need for a kind of literature that communicates to the present about a past that is unthink­able and which, in the case of the Palestinian narrative, has been intentionally suppressed by the dominant narrative. This is when the writer is called upon to ‘create’ an archive which would ‘contribute to [his or her people’s] constitu­tion’. (23)

Hamdi discusses how the ability of the past to bear witness to a particular traumatic event has repercussions on the present. The writer, in this case, Shibli, creates a perfectly identifiable alter ego, a Palestinian female researcher/investigator/writer who is provided the hardly enviable role of preserving and recapturing the memory of a deluded or erased past. “The witness writer is inevitably encapsu­lating her or his people’s suffering, documenting it and producing an archive that would prove necessary for a mass witnessing” (Hamdi 23). The ‘bearing witness’ of Shibli’s unnamed narrator and her focus on minor details essentially lead one to consider the implications of minoritization – the process of minority formation and eventual marginalization. The Arabs who once upon a time held an unquestionable majority have now been reduced to minority in their own homeland, struggling to survive as marginalized, vulnerable citizens of an occupied state. The metaphor of the land, as a living breathing presence, further adds to the concept of minoritization. According to Fawaz Turki “Landhood,” is the crux of Palestinian being and consciousness. Man and land are integrally linked with each other; the absence of one may lead to the erasure of the other. He states, “A Palestinian estranged from his land is, in effect, repudiated as a human being” (373). Shibli’s novella narrates the lived realities of the Palestinians who are in a state of permanent isolation, cocooned and quarantined in their own land. In her interview with Fatima Bhutto, Shilbi talks about the one of the frightening psychological researches being carried out in an Israeli University, mostly to aid military knowledge. Called “learned helplessness” the experiment involves the strategic placement of a block of cheese in the middle of a room with an electric wire attached to it. When a rat comes to consume the cheese, it may or may not get an electric shock. The absolutely terrifying probability of the shock immobilizes the rat and it starves itself to death. Talking about the Covid-19 restrictions, Shibli states how she was already immune to this immobility. As a citizen, she has access to the official permits enabling movement, but she, like so many others, and like the rat, is petrified to imagine the circumstances leading to that act and its dubious aftermath. The female sleuth of Shibli’s novella begins her journey in an overwhelming anxiety, nervous agitation and tremendous fear of getting caught:

What ought to be an ordinary search – visiting two museum archives – becomes a logistical nightmare for someone living under occupation. Palestinians are forbidden free movement. Millions are confined to controlled zones, with a draconian permit system if they wish to travel from one zone to another. The unnamed woman is a resident of Area A and must travel into Area C, an impossible idea even for those who live in Area B. The divisions are absurd and Shibli’s amateur sleuth professes an inability to properly identify borders even as she navigates their suffocating restrictions. She persuades a colleague to give her their Area C identity card and someone else to rent her a car with the correct colour licence plate, and sets off on her mission. (Bhutto)

The journey of the female truth seeker is also an exploration into the transience of maps and borders. Her movement is dominated by this continuous lack of freedom and eventual incarceration. From the very beginning she expresses her problems in comprehending and adhering to the multiple borders imposed on their existence. Shibli writes, “There are some people who navigate borders masterfully, who never trespass, but these people are few and I’m not one of them. As soon as I see a border, I either race towards it and leap over, or cross it stealthily” (58). She adds, “Neither of these two behaviours is conscious, or rooted in a premeditated desire to resist borders; it’s more like sheer stupidity...once I cross a border, I fall into a deep pit of anxiety” (58). These borders are both of the self and the State – the personal and political entangled in an inescapable chaos. Regarding the shadowy flimsiness of these so called national borders, Amitav Ghosh states:

What interested me first about borders was their arbitrariness, their constructedness – the ways in which they are ‘naturalized’ by modern political mythmaking. I think this interest arose because of some kind of inborn distrust of anything that appears to be ‘given’ or taken-for-granted (…). I think these lines are drawn in order to manipulate our ways of thought: that is why they must be disregarded. (Roy 113)

The unnamed female narrator must transgress these arbitrary borders of the mind as well as the lines demarcating distinct geographical locations. Ghosh’s political mythmaking becomes essentially relevant in this case where the old Palestinian names of roads, areas and villages have been given new names by the Israeli government. The myth of the power, authority, strength and infinite capabilities of the Israelite State is demonstrated and maintained through the metaphor of the borders and the act of naming. The constructedness of these borders can also be seen in the different maps which the narrator carries for guidance, “Next I pick up the map showing the country until 1948, but I snap it shut as horror rushes over me. Palestinian villages, which on the Israel map appear to have been swallowed by a yellow sea, appear on this one by the dozen, their names practically leaping off the page (87). Shibli states, “Linguistic erasure on maps is where you first experience the betrayal of language; the erasure of Palestine from the map continues today. Your linguistic consciousness from an early age is built on reading these omissions” (Juchau). The erasure of history is re-established by this act of cartographic omission, itself an extremely political act, laden with subtexts of occupation, displacement and eradication.

Shibli demonstrates that maps themselves can never be apolitical, but are there to assert particular ways of reading the landscape. No map that this woman has can tell the whole story, nor can she make up her own picture from amalgamating them; she is left to attempt to negotiate those borders with a map that is essentially invisible and unknowable. (Lewin)

The female narrator, thus, transforms into an explorer, a cartographer and a researcher devoted to seek the truth, something which is almost ‘invisible and unknowable’, propelled by surges of impulsive courage, and simultaneously crippled with overwhelming fear and anxiety. Before initiating her quest, the narrator even tries to resist the urge to retrace the past thinking there is “no point in me feeling responsible for her, feeling like she’s a nobody, and will forever remain a nobody whose voice nobody will hear. Besides, people have to deal with enough misery in the world today; there’s no reason to go searching for more…” (69). This aura of apathetic hopelessness is maintained throughout her narration leading to one’s entrapment in a dialogue of fear which destroys any semblance of freedom. Ghosh writes about this unspeakable and unforgettable texture of fear, “It is a fear that comes of the knowledge that normalcy is utterly contingent, that the spaces that surround one, the streets that one inhabits, can become, suddenly and without warning, as hostile as a desert in a flash flood” (192).

This fear attains gargantuan proportions, transforms into something palpable and monstrous – plaguing, impeding as well as pushing the narrator to continue; resisting as well as facilitating resistance. Adania Shibli has constructed a contemporary masterpiece which effectively demonstrates the kind of hegemony fear is capable of maintaining. Apart from restricting movement, one of the major avenues of the debilitating effects of fear is the curtailment of speech and expression. Language and its configurations become extremely vital for Shibli’s novella. Shibli herself considers language as something intimate, endearing, playful and capable of bringing infinite joy and tenderness. However, she observes how language is frequently transformed into a threat, treated as something inferior, reduced to trembling and mumbling due to the fear of persecution. Salam Mir states, “In discussing Palestinian literature it is imperative to consider the specific context from which a writer is writing and the language in which s/he writes. Despite the differences in personal growth, educational background and space from which Palestinian writers voice their identity, they all write in Arabic. The issue of language has been a unifying factor for the Palestinians” (126). Shibli in her interview with Mireille Juchau states about her fondness for writing in Arabic, “I only write fiction in Arabic because this language is a witch—an amazing, funny, crazy, generous, and forgiving witch. It has allowed me everything. It is the space of the most intimate freedom I have ever experienced in my life.” In another interview she talks about her arrest while visiting museums for the research of this novella. She mentions the soldiers speaking in Hebrew as they had no idea she was conversant in it. The Hebrew/Arabic binary is established through powerful metaphors in this sparse novel. The Bedouin’s girl’s screams are reduced to the same level as the anguished howling of the dog, an enforced muteness bridging the human ‘Other’ with the animal:

Suddenly the door opened and the girl stepped out, crying and babbling incomprehensible fragments that intertwined with the dog’s ceaseless barking. And in that moment after dusk, before complete darkness fell, as her mouth released a language different to theirs, the girl became a stranger again, despite how closely she resembled all the soldiers in camp. (36)

It is interesting to note how something as fundamental and impalpable as language can be used to ascertain power dynamics and political superiority. Shibli notes, “The novel started from this contemplative inquiry on how the complacency of language can inflict pain—and also how the complacency of language can deflect pain” (Juchau). Language becomes a weapon in the hands of Shibli as well, as she expertly manoeuvres her narrative through the impassive horror of the first half to the breathless introspection of the second half leading to the extraordinary climax. Shibli’s words contemplate the discourse of the “Other” and how it is manifested and sustained. Language is provided unprecedented power to transform the quotidian into enlightening. It is language which dehumanizes and otherizes, demonstrates and conceals. Language or its absence creates the ambience of terror, loss and devastation. Minor Detail interrogates the ramifications of fear through political control, cultural and linguistic hegemony, geographical occupation and historical erasure. It is fear which provides expression to a conflicted existence and severely restricts the innate human potential of growth. In the harrowing past constructed by Shibli, as well as in the chaotic present, the idea of freedom is hypothetical and arbitrary. Minor Detail exists not just as a Palestinian resistance literature but a poignant reminder of the propensities of absolute terror and incomprehensible violence which human beings are capable of.

 

Works Cited

Bhutto, Fatima. “Minor Detail by Adania Shibli review – horror in the desert.” The Guardian. 30 May 2020. Web. 27 February 2021.
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/30/minor-detail-by-adania-shibli-review-horror-in-the-desert

Bhutto Fatima and Adania Shilbi. Interview. “When the Present is Haunted by the Past.” Youtube, uploaded by edbookfest. 26 August 2020. Web. 27 February 2021.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TJ1jpTYQcU

Cummins, Anthony. “Minor Detail by Adania Shibli review – between-the-lines horror.” The Guardian. 2 June 2020. Web. 27 February 2021.
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/02/minor-detail-by-adania-shibli-review-between-the-lines-horror

Fanon, Franz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1963. Print.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

Hamdi, Tahrir. “Bearing witness in Palestinian resistance literature.” Race and Class. Institute of Race Relations, Vol. 52(3), 2011, 21–42. SAGE. Web. 27 February 2021.
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Harlow, Barbara. Resistance Literature. New York: Metheun, 1987. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory Fiction. New York and London: Routledge, 1988. Print.

Juchau, Mirelli and Adania Shilbi. “The Words Will Find Their Place: Adania Shibli Interviewed by Mireille Juchau.” BOMB Magazine. 17 September 2020. Web. 27 February 2021.
https://bombmagazine.org/articles/adania-shibli-interviewed/

Kandasamy, Meena. “Adania Shibli’s exceptional novel.”
https://www.ndbooks.com/book/minor-detail

Lavie, Aviv and Moshe Gorali. “I Saw Fit to Remove Her From the World.” Haaretz. 29 October 2003. Web. 27 February 2021.
https://www.haaretz.com/1.4746524

Lewin, Katie da Cunha. “The Choreography of Violence: On Adania Shibli’s “Minor Detail.” Los Angeles Review of Books. 21 June 2020. Web. 27 February 2021.
https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-choreography-of-violence-on-adania-shiblis-minor-detail/

Mir, Salam. “Palestinian Literature: Occupation and Exile.” Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Spring 2013), pp. 110-129. Jstor. Web. 27.02.2021.
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.13169/arabstudquar.35.2.0110

Rodis, Peter. “Nina Simone: A Historical Perspective.” Youtube, uploaded by NinaSimone.com. 16 February 2013. Web. 26 February 2021.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pByeP0T6zZE

Roy, Rituparna. South Asian Partition Fiction in English. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010. Print.

Shibli, Adania. Minor Detail. Trans. Elisabeth Jaquette. United Kingdom: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020. Print.

Turki, Fawaz. “Meaning in Palestinian History: Text and Context.” Arab Studies Quarterly 3 (1981), 371-383. Jstor. Web. 27 February 2021.
https://www.jstor.org/stable/41857582

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About the Contributor

Dr. Chaandreyi Mukherjee has pursued her Ph.D. from Jamia Millia Islamia. She is working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Vivekananda College, University of Delhi. She is an avid reader and a book reviewer on Instagram (@paperback.girl).