“The borders imposed between things here are many and you absolutely must pay attention to them, to navigate them,” says the nameless female narrator in Palestinian writer, Adania Shibli’s novel, Minor Detail. This attention, the narrator informs, “ultimately protects you from the perilous consequences.” In a novel exploring the excavation of Palestinian narratives, the consequences are almost always perilous.
Minor Detail is Shibli’s third book length work, and is translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jacquette for New Directions. Borders — the real kind in Occupied Palestine, as well as the metaphorical demarcations between historical memory and displacement — haunt time and space in this compelling work. Minor Detail does something crafty: the narrative speaks forward while simultaneously looking back, reminding the reader that the excavation of memory is politicized and dangerous. History is present everywhere, but remains sequestered, inaccessible. The Palestinian narrator trespasses into institutionalized Israeli history and confronts a narrative defined by what is omitted.
The slim novel offers two contiguous accounts; it begins with the third person rumination of an Israeli general in the Negev in 1949. The second half of the novel moves inward, to a first person point-of-view from a Palestinian woman. Most of the proper nouns in the novel belong to cities, settlements, and Palestinian villages, including the disappeared villages from pre-1948. These geographies become clues, carrying contested historical weight in a land tethered to God and covenant, depending on who is telling the story.
Minor Detail opens a year after Israel obtained statehood and after the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians during the Catastrophe, or Nakba, in May of 1948. A group of Jewish soldiers are patrolling the Negez for Bedouin intruders. The general tells the men that “no one has more right to this area than us, after they [Arabs] left it abandoned for so long, after they let it be seized by the Bedouins and their animals.”
A small group of Bedouins standing “motionless by the spring” are killed. The two survivors, a yelping dog and a young girl, are seized and taken to the make-shift desert camp. The young woman faces multiple humiliations: she is stripped naked, doused with petrol, then soaped and hosed down in front of the male soldiers. Several days later, she is gang raped, murdered and buried in the desert by the soldiers.
The Palestinian narrator in the near present-day discovers this incident through an Israeli newspaper article. She is compelled by one minor detail: the incident took place exactly 25 years to the day before her birth. Unable to let this casual connection subside, she is determined to learn more about the murdered girl and prepares to navigate the complexities of traveling from the West Bank into Israel.
Boundaries, she repeatedly reminds the reader, cause her to overreact. She prepares to cross numerous boundaries in search of this lost story. She knows the plan is reckless. Indeed, reclamation of memory, the nameless narrative hints, comes with those “inevitable perilous consequences.” Sometimes, she is filled with self-doubt. Yet, she crosses multiple checkpoints with her borrowed ID, and embarks on a journey overwhelmed by the discrepancies between the Israeli and Palestinian maps she uses to navigate.
Once she leaves East Jerusalem, Israel is experienced through the lack of boundaries. There are no checkpoints. She visits a military history museum in Tel Aviv. She casually opens an unattended gate at a kibbutz settlement where she later stays overnight in a guest house. She travels unfettered outside of the Occupied Territories, no longer subject to Palestinian-only roads. Eventually, she locates the original site of the crime, and perhaps the ghost of the dead girl, as well as the perilous consequences she understood would greet her.
In the first half of the novel, the general is unable to look at the festering insect wound on his thigh; a wound that leaves him increasingly ill and foul smelling. This odor he blames on the Bedouin girl he has moved into his tent. The Negev is an infection that will rot him from within. The contemporary narrator is followed by a yapping dog that reappears everywhere she goes in the Negev; a canine familiar barking out the mark of time.
No character is named in the novel. Direct dialogue is sparse, and Shibli’s writing is economical, yet dense. Daily life, and the associated internal musings, are weighty objects. The Palestinian narrative recounts everyday horrors, like how one must open the windows in Ramallah when a nearby building is being bombed by the Israelis, or else the window will shatter. Yet, to open the windows means dust from the blast will intrude. Intrusion is everywhere, even in the measured cadence of how Shibli writes the Palestinian narrator’s reflections: “..the situation like this for such a long that that there aren’t many people alive today who remember little details about what life was like before all this, details as small as rotten lettuce in an otherwise closed vegetable market.”
In many conversations about Palestine and Israel, political ideologies often define the human experience of Occupation and effectively obscure personal Palestinian stories. Indeed; memory, longing and victimization are sometimes weaponized by both to claim historical narratives. In Minor Detail, the story is propelled by reclamation, not defamation. The Occupation is an ugly, constant pulse, but the Palestinian narrator experiences space through her own agency and historical curiosity. Until of course, a minor detail gets in the way.
The two perspectives in Minor Detail suggests that Israel is imprisoned by the inability to honestly confront Palestinian existence. The novel opens with a first line acknowledging this reality: “Nothing moved but the mirage.” Shibli’s excavation of unearth buried Palestinian history suggests it is time for Israel to consider the rest of the story.
Deonna Kelli Sayed is an internationally published author with essays and short stories featured in Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, Everywhere Stories, Vol. 3: Short Fiction From a Small Planet, and New Moons: Contemporary Writing by North American Muslims (forthcoming). She works for the North Carolina Writers’ Network and is the PEN America N.C. Piedmont Representative.