Misleading in size and the simplicity of its prose, Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail is brutal in its exploration of political violence towards women and the normalisation and erasure of this when it comes to national memorialisation, writes Selin Genc.
I received Minor Detail, written by Adania Shibli and translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, through my mail-shoot in an envelope. After finishing the book, it felt appropriate that the initial presentation of it should have come in such an intimate format. I felt as though I had been let in on a hidden history. Though ‘minor’ compared to the scope of a long-lasting period of war and occupation, it held the details of a human life at its centre, irreducible in size or importance.
The book is elusive. Even though the central event, the violation and murder of a Bedouin woman by Israeli soldiers in 1949, is a clear fact, this central character is obscured as the novella follows two aloof characters who do not bring us any closer to the inner world of the victim. The first half is told in the third-person, following a nameless Israeli commander who is responsible for the capture and murder of the young woman. The scene is set in a barren and blazing desert landscape in cinematic clarity. There is no dialogue or introspection – just the mechanical pace of military life and bodily sensations. A massacre is chronicled with as much of a blasé attitude as the periodic description of the soldier’s self-grooming routine. The girl remains an anonymous black mass, a bare breast, or a source of foreign odours. Only once are we presented with the commander’s voice in a speech he gives out to his troop. Here, he speaks in stock propaganda rhetoric, and does not betray any trace of personal thoughts. His self-righteousness and hostility are bloodcurdling. He is such a dissociative character that it is almost difficult to feel anything towards him, apart from fury when it becomes apparent how he is willing to administer such boundless extents of brutality.
The second half presents an estranged character of a different kind; this time we follow the actions, from the first-person perspective, of a young Palestinian woman, nearly half a century after the tragedy. She becomes infatuated with this ‘minor’ incident in history. She can only explain this obsession, an interest in one violent act out of many, due to it coinciding with her birthday. She endeavours to learn more about it by travelling, illegally, across Israel, passing through landscapes with depopulated Palestinian villages, to reach archives and museums that might enclose more clues. As she attempts to excavate the past in a futile desire to find out “the whole truth” as to how the murdered girl might have felt, she only gets sucked further into feelings of alienation, disorientation and anxiety. The ways in which she can arrive at such a past are limited, out of bounds or completely wiped out.
To paraphrase Susan Sontag: each memory is irreproducible and dies with the individual. So what is left in its place, especially when subjected to systematic erasure and constant silencing? Distorted and obstructed histories veil over lived reality. Collective memory is constituted by flickering mirages in the horizon as past and ongoing violence seem equally unreal. Reality becomes unstable, and as a result, the only way in which the mind can cope with such disjointed impressions is either through mass scaled dissociation, or through some kind of impostor syndrome. On one hand is the official narrative, as told by those with authority, such as the soldiers and perpetrators (though the book does not give them a direct voice, the seeming neutrality of narration in the first half conceals the matter-of-fact rhetoric often used in constructing communal memory, which serves political ends). On the other hand is the dilettante investigator, who constantly suspects her own emotions. As she accuses herself of being overly anxious, invalidating her own well-placed terror in the face of ongoing conflict, her perturbed psychology shows symptoms of constant exposure to gaslight abuse.
The soldier is a ‘citizen-perpetrator’ in extremis. He stands for the initial implementation of outrageous violence, which over the years becomes the status quo. Over time, it becomes warranted that certain people should have a license to kill, a power they may exert over those who are considered non-citizens. As defined by Ariella Aisha Azoulay, a citizen-perpetrator is “an ordinary man or woman whose actions seem ordinary to herself or himself. They take part in or acquiesce in crimes they have learned to see as proper law enforcement (…) Their political lexicon is shaped under the imperial condition.” The soldier may not be necessarily an ordinary man. He is, after all, a person with authority. Yet the kind of behaviour he legitimises has been absorbed into normality. His detached manner renders it easy to almost dismiss him as a psychopath. Yet on a communal scale this legacy is not accidental, but rather an organised event, and to reference Azoulay again, a ‘regime-made disaster’. The imperial apparatus has been wound to operate across generations, until the day comes when onslaught and injustice are an undisputed daily reality. It feels like there is no going back. As the amateur investigator in the novel experiences, the differential body politic encloses the non-citizen between many borders (“military ones, physical ones, psychological ones, mental ones”), such that all sense of reality is destabilised and one can “no longer fathom what is permissible and what is not”.
In Istanbul, where I come from, it is not uncommon to see graffiti voicing solidarity with Palestinians. A particular one in my neighbourhood reads ‘Baby killer Israel’. The message conveyed seems confused to me as what is inscribed on the walls of our streets is about violence happening elsewhere, when in fact it is uncommon to read such outcry against the violence happening within the borders of our own country. Inequality continues to impede the lives of ethnic and religious minorities today under Turkish despotism. Surely recognising injustices elsewhere, but not in one’s self, is a product of cognitive dissonance, a mechanism often employed, and a by-product of, the differential sovereignty. Which narratives are not permitted to be told and which histories are rendered legitimate? What has the public consciousness come to accept as commonplace as opposed to appalling? In her book, Shibli asks such questions, which are universal concerns, relevant wherever political tyranny disempowers individuals and communities. Thus Minor Detail transcends the political environment it conveys, and arrives at a deep-rooted human predicament. As someone living with the privilege of being acknowledged as a citizen with claim to many rights, upon reading Minor Detail, I am reminded to consider my position also as a citizen-perpetrator. I become conscious that I have been born into and prompted to play along with this role, and once again, I am reminded that I need to actively find ways in which I can disinvest.
By way of serendipitous chance I have concurrently been reading Ariella Aisha Azoulay’s big brick of a book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (Verso), which tackles Palestinian disempowerment, but more generally the mechanism of the imperial apparatus. I must admit that this tour-de-force, with its urgency of a manifesto, has affected my reading of Minor Detail, and some of the language I use here is borrowed from this work. Though I haven’t really touched on this book in my review, I would like to recommend Potential History in its own right, as well as being a worthy theoretic counterpart to Minor Detail.
Though a slender volume, Minor Detail presents a difficult pill to swallow. It contains no cryptic passages, yet I read it rather slowly, allowing it to sink in. Jaquette’s translation captures some beautiful, albeit chilling, poetic descriptions which are hidden amidst the misleading simplicity of the prose. The characteristic regal azure of the Fitzcarraldo editions, coupled with the minute size of the volume, reminds one of evil-eye beads, charms that needn’t be intimidating in size to exercise their potency. Minor Detail’s efficacy will stay with me for a while I think.
This review was commissioned for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Jen Calleja, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages