'Minor Detail' by Adania Shibli
'Besides, sometimes it's inevitable for the past to be forgotten, especially if the present is no less horrific....'—Review #172
Tremendous news! Books on GIF was featured in:
Check it out:
I was floored when I saw this. To be described as ‘a brilliant high-low fusion of an old art form and a modern storytelling device’ and named one of the 10 best newsletters on the whole internet made me tear up a little as I held a hard copy of the magazine in the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue. To all you new subscribers:
Donna and I are happy you’re here, and we hope our quirky missives will guide you to books you’ll enjoy. Now, let’s pivot to ‘Minor Detail’ by Adania Shibli, which was a finalist for a 2020 National Book Award for translated literature (which was won by Yu Miri’s ‘Tokyo Ueno Station,’ as seen in our previous newsletter) and a winner of an English PEN Award. Before we begin, I want to caution you that what’s described below is intense and disturbing.
Here’s the cover:
The novel has two parts. It begins in 1949, following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, with a military unit setting up a base of operations in the Negev desert to ‘cleanse it of any remaining Arabs.’ One night, the unit’s commanding officer is bitten on the leg while in his sleeping quarters by a venomous creature, most likely a spider (it’s not clear). He washes the wound and treats it with topical ointment, but he does not seek medical attention. As the wound festers, he becomes increasingly ill and erratic. While on patrol one day, he and his men encounter a group of Arabs. The soldiers kill all of them except for a girl. They bring her to the base, where the commanding officer initially protects her from being mistreated by his men. But then, whether influenced by venom or indifference, he humiliates the girl by stripping off her clothes and shaving her head in front of his soldiers. He then houses her in his quarters, again, ostensibly, to protect her, but he assaults her. Later, some of the soldiers rape her. The officer then takes her into the desert, shoots her, and buries her. It was terrible. I was like:
The story then jumps several decades. We follow a woman in Ramallah who reads an article that mentions the girl and the incident. The woman feels connected to the girl and embarks on a harrowing journey from the West Bank into Israel to search for records to learn more about her and her tragic fate, like:
The woman evades Israeli military incursions into the Palestinian territory and navigates checkpoints on her way to Tel Aviv, where there’s an archive that might hold clues for her quest. She also wants to visit a settlement near the former location of the military base. She has several maps to guide her: A Palestinian map from before the war shows cities and towns with Arabic names; a modern Israeli map shows the same area with only highways and roads passing through empty space. The book is full of heavy symbols like this. For example, there is a near-constant presence of barking dogs whenever something bad is about to happen, but those dogs are often ignored by whoever is about to commit those acts. I thought the presence of the dogs highlighted how those in power can ignore calls for change. Further, the bite on the officer’s leg and his failure to properly treat it shows that wounds, regardless of whether they come from spiders or historical events, won’t heal if we:
The title ‘Minor Detail’ is itself a metaphor for how the plight of women and girls amid war and violence is often sidelined in larger historical narratives. The book is an important work of visibility, for Palestinians and women, and it packs an emotional and political wallop. It is efficiently written and has moments of beauty. I love the description below of the August heat crouching over the desert. Even so, the story’s bleak and brutal realism might not appeal to everyone, and I was relieved when I finished it. But ‘Minor Detail’ still is worth a read.
How it begins:
Nothing moved except the mirage. Vast stretches of barren hills rose in layers up to the sky, trembling silently under the heft of the mirage, while the harsh afternoon sunlight blurred the outlines of the pale yellow ridges. The only details that could be discerned were a faint winding border which aimlessly meandered across these ridges, and the slender shadows of dry, thorny burnet and stones dotting the ground. Aside from these, nothing at all, just a great expanse of the arid Negev desert, over which crouched an intense August heat.
The only signs of life in the area were distant barking and the noise of soldiers working to set up camp. These reached his ears as he gazed through binoculars from his position atop a hill, examining the scene before him. Against the sun’s harsh glare, he carefully followed the course of narrow paths across the sand, occasionally pausing to fix his gaze on a ridge for a moment longer. Finally, he lowered his binoculars, wiped off the sweat and returned them to their case. Then he began making his way through the thick, heavy afternoon air, back to the camp.
When they had arrived, they found two standing huts and the remains of a wall in a partially destroyed third. It was all that had survived in this place after the heavy shelling the area had experienced at the beginning of the war. But now a command tent and mess tent were pitched next to these huts, and the sounds of hammering stakes and clattering poles filled the air as the soldiers worked to pitch the three tents that would serve as their quarters. His deputy, the sergeant major, met him upon his return, and informed him that the men had removed all the rubble and stones from the area, and that a group of soldiers was working to rebuild the trenches. He replied that all preparations must be finished before nightfall, then told him to order the division sergeants and some corporals and experienced soldiers to report for a meeting in the command tent immediately.
‘Minor Detail’ by Adania Shibli originally was published in 2017. It was translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2020. The New Directions edition is available at Bookshop.org for $14.67.
What is the most emotionally difficult book you’ve read?
Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #171:
Thanks for the shoutout:
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time,