JUNE 3, 2021
THIS PAST YEAR of containment, isolation, and inertia has been an apt setting for reading the work of Adania Shibli. Her first novel, Touch (2010), narrated through the constricted perception of a small child, contends at once with the claustrophobic anxiety caused by inhabiting one’s body and wonder at the minuscule sensations and textures born of a new kind of inert attention. The characters of We Are All Equally Far from Love (2012), true to the book’s title, are lonely and stubbornly so, devoted to their self-destructive suffering in an almost childish protest against “the ugliness of movement.” A Palestinian writer currently living between Ramallah and Berlin, Shibli implicitly links her characters’ physical and emotional immobility to the ongoing violence and suspended mobility of Palestinian daily life. While her short stories and essays, many of which have been translated into English, address this reality explicitly, her third novel, Minor Detail, is the first time her prose exceeds the claustrophobic Palestinian present and forays into the past. Recently published by New Directions in Elisabeth Jaquette’s exacting and admirable translation, Minor Detail is a historical fiction, a detective novel, and a road-trip chronicle. But in spite of all these dramatic genres snaking through it, it reiterates the themes of Shibli’s earlier work: there is no escape from the present and from our bodies. Under the weight of history’s ongoing catastrophe, we are stuck.
Minor Detail recounts a true event: in August 1949, shortly after the end of the 1948 war, a unit of Israeli soldiers positioned in the Nirim outpost, just outside the newly drawn border with Egypt, captured a Bedouin girl, raped and murdered her, and buried her body in the sands. While the incident was investigated at the time (20 soldiers, including the platoon commander, were court martialed), the trial proceedings were kept secret and remained, to the public, unknown. Only in 2003, due to a chance archival discovery, was “the Nirim outpost incident” exposed in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. The long article, based on court documents and interviews with numerous people who were involved, remains the only publicly available investigation of this case. It provides a timeline of the harrowing events but is primarily concerned with the military climate in which such acts were perpetrated: Who were the perpetrators, and where are they today? How did this story of rape and murder square with the IDF’s self-image as the world’s “most moral army”?
Perhaps the most notable part of the article is a quote from the late politician, journalist, and peace activist Uri Avnery, who blames the incident on the new IDF recruits, Jewish immigrants from the Middle East and the Balkans. We longtimers (i.e., Ashkenazi soldiers), Avnery says, were “just too racist to do such things” — a bad-faith confession of one’s own racism that only serves to perpetuate another racist narrative. Avnery identifies violence with the uncivilized Orientals, the ones who have not learned that raping the natives is a faux pas. The question of the girl’s identity is brought up briefly at the end of the article; nothing is known about her, not even her age.
Shibli’s Minor Detail is a fictionalized investigation of the real murder in two acts. The first narrates the girl’s capture, rape, and death, but from the vexing perspective of the platoon commander who orchestrated them. The narrative voice follows him in a kind of somatic free indirect discourse: it remains very close to his skin, tracking every minor irritation and perception, but bars the readers from his thoughts, emotions, or reflections. This technique is both chilling and brilliant: we aren’t made to envision this man’s interior life during the two days in which the girl was held captive. The second part of Minor Detail, taking place around 2008, is narrated by a nameless Palestinian woman from Ramallah. When she reads about the atrocities in the newspaper, she realizes that the girl was murdered on the same date as her birthday — surely a minor detail. Nevertheless, and despite acknowledging that she is utterly inadequate to the task, she decides to uncover the girl’s story. She steals through the checkpoint in a rented car and embarks on an investigation through Israeli archives and erased Palestinian landscapes.
Reading Minor Detail, I was continuously reminded of “Venus in Two Acts,” Saidiya Hartman’s companion essay to her monumental Lose Your Mother, with which the novel shares some striking similarities. Hartman reflects in this essay on her efforts to recover the story of a girl — Venus — who survives in the archives of the Atlantic slave trade only through the brief mention of her violent death. “The necessity of recounting Venus’s death is overshadowed by the inevitable failure of any attempt to represent her,” writes Hartman, acknowledging the archive’s intractable limits. Nevertheless, she adds, “wrestling with the girl’s claim on the present is a way of naming our time, thinking our present, and envisioning the past which has created it.” Hartman’s point is worth a pause: yes, there is an ethical impetus to uncover the horrors of the past, to appease its ghosts and their “claims on the present.” But coming to terms with history, knowing its terms, is eventually a means of thinking our present — of giving the present a name.
Shibli’s Minor Detail is a similar exercise in diagnosing the present by staging an effort to answer the faint, indeterminate claim of a dead girl lost to history. There are further similarities between this novel and Lose Your Mother, Hartman’s personal account of her encounter with the material traces of the Atlantic slave trade. To begin with, both are not just histories but travelogues, staging a return to the geographical site of violence. In Lose Your Mother, Hartman follows the slave route to Ghana, hoping to make up for the silences of the archive through a material encounter, yet she discovers that all she can lay claim to is the wound of dispossession. The narrator of Minor Detail also believes that she might learn something new by returning to the scene of the crime, but all she finds are the archives and monuments set up by the Israeli state.
Underlining both texts is an anticipated and missed encounter with history. Both of these books, then, take up forensic search as their model, but their sustaining mystery is not the murder: the perpetrators are known to be the victors whose records make up history; the girl’s identity remains unrecoverable. What these historian and amateur detective protagonists need to discover is the relationship between the past and the present. Is the present indebted to the past? Can the past be redeemed by the present? Who is the owner of such debt? What is the past’s medium, and in what form can it be experienced, witnessed, and claimed? As Hartman asks, “How does one revisit the scene of subjection without replicating the grammar of violence?”
Despite the similarity of their search, Hartman and Shibli come up with two different answers, or develop two different grammars, to the same question of the past’s presentness. Their two answers allow us to consider the variances between the Black experience in the afterlife of slavery, as Hartman calls it, and the Palestinian reality of ongoing settler-colonial violence, a distinction that is important to make given the proliferating interest in Black and Palestinian transnational solidarities, grounded in a shared analysis of white supremacy and imperialism.
Both of these writers take the presence of the past for granted. “I, too, live in the time of slavery,” Hartman writes, “by which I mean I am living in the future created by it.” There are of course material and structural connections between the past and the present, relations of consequence and accumulation, but what interests Hartman are the affective and emotional ties that bind them. Having reached the historical archive’s epistemological limits, she develops an affective method of doing history, intimating that the link between the present and the past should pass through the historian’s body and its emotional capacities. Meanwhile, Minor Detail, which shuffles between 1949 and the 2000s, between checkpoint-encircled Ramallah and the destroyed Palestinian villages of the Negev/Naqab, writes the Palestinian present as part of an ongoing process of settler colonialism and violent dispossession, the persistence of the past rather than its outcome.
The destruction and expulsion of Palestinian society with Israel’s establishment in 1948 has been known in Arabic as the nakba, the catastrophe, a term that suggests its singularity as an event. But since the early 2000s, this term has been increasingly replaced with the term al-nakba al-mustamarra, “the ongoing nakba.” Rather than a traumatic event that happened in a specific moment in the past, with tragic historical repercussions, the nakba is now viewed as an ongoing, still unfolding process. “The ongoing nakba” is a historiographical paradigm, replacing earlier narratives of Palestinian history. But it is also a structure of feeling, a sense of suspended temporality that emerged in the aftermath of the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the subsequent normalization of Israeli violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and within its borders. In other words, it is a means of making sense of the Palestinian present that inevitably shapes the past with it.
Hartman’s affective history borrows the form of the ghost story, in which an unappeased past continues to make its presence felt in the present, demanding its dues. In his latest book, None Like Us, Stephen Best positions Hartman’s work within a burgeoning archival approach in Black Studies and beyond it: recuperative studies that account for the affective and ethical claims that the past makes upon the contemporary historian. Best notes that the practice of approaching the archive as if it were a crime scene is, in its structure, melancholic, sustained by the continued narration of loss. Melancholy historicism is driven by the premise that the historian as well as her reader should come to feel the loss of the past in the present moment. Which is to say that the form in which the past materializes in the present is personal and emotional. The past is present because we can feel it — or at least “we” should feel it. As Best adds, melancholy historicism assumes and is directed toward the recovery of a “we” at the point of violent origin, a Black sociality grounded in the scene of horror.
Whereas Hartman’s attachment to the past is scaffolded through emotions, Shibli’s writing seems to revel in creating emotional impasses. Her prose, precise and technical, remains at a distance from the nameless characters, resisting sentimental identification. Rather than an embodied, emotional bond, a shared felt ache, the connection between the past and the present in Minor Detail is a coincidence: the chance correspondence of the date of the murder and the narrator’s birthdate. Is there any significance to this minor detail? (Is this the way the past makes its claim on the present?) Or is the narrator simply an obsessive eccentric? On the back cover of the American edition of Minor Detail, J. M. Coetzee calls its narrator a “Palestinian amateur sleuth high on the autism scale.” This diagnosis is not exactly right, even though Shibli’s interest in forms of autistic perception and attention is evident. It would be more precise to say that this protagonist is a bad reader, unable to properly decipher and assess the world around her and its codes. “The borders imposed between things here are many,” she writes:
One must pay attention to them, and navigate them, which ultimately protects everyone from perilous consequences. […] 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 toward it and leap over, or cross it stealthily, with a step. Neither of these two behaviors is conscious, or rooted in a premeditated desire to resist borders; it’s more like sheer stupidity. […] It’s a matter, simply put, of clumsiness.
These borders include everyday codes of behavior, such as shopping for vegetables or doing housework, but it is in the encounter with the ever-shifting borders of the Israeli state and its security apparatus that the narrator’s disability becomes most apparent. Her inability to identify borders, even “very rational borders,” makes her “overreact sometimes or underreact at other times” (as if there was a “just right” way to react when armed soldiers block your way to work). These so-called ordinary encounters with mundane violence underscore what both neoliberal regimes and a normalized military occupation demand of their individual subjects: that they be proficient, resilient readers, prepared for crisis and flexible in their response, a task at which the narrator fails miserably.
This incapacity proves tragic, if only because the narrator’s present is riddled with remnants of the past that she cannot properly decipher. There are countless minor details that link the novel’s two parts, holding up its careful architecture: the continuous barking of dogs, the lingering smell of gasoline, spiders in the corner of the ceiling. We can recognize these details, having read the first part of the book, but the narrator-detective remains oblivious to the clues and traces of the past that are present all around her. This gap in knowledge has a remarkably disturbing effect. What is a ghost story if the ghost is never heard, if her haunting presence is never felt? The desert through which the narrator wanders is like a parody of the melancholy ghost story, an emptied-out form. Imagine a classic House of Horror ride, the passengers sitting through it with disinterested neutrality, unaware that the shaking bones should make them scream.
This hollowed-out ghost story forced me to consider that I was reading the book in the wrong order. In the confounding stagnated temporality of the ongoing nakba, who is to say that the past came first? The second part of the book, the futile search through the partial archive, highlights the fabulated, authored nature of the first part narrating the murder. And if we are encouraged to remember that the first part is not documented history, but a fabulation, then it is not the details of the past that are reappearing in the narrator’s present, but rather the minor details of her present appearing in the past. Shibli constructs a perverse, nonintuitive temporality, in which it is the present that persists into the past, not the other way around.
When Hartman reaches an archival dead end in her search for Venus, she outsteps her role as an historian and resorts to what she calls “critical fabulation”: narrative in the subjunctive mood, trying “to imagine what might have happened or might have been said or might have been done.” In Lose Your Mother, she imagines for a few brief pages the state of mind of a young girl beyond the trace she had left in the accounts of her tormentors: the girl’s increasing, and then disappearing hunger, the gulls squawking above the deck, her fierce dedication to dying. “If the story ended there,” Hartman writes, “I could feel a small measure of comfort.” Critical fabulation in the subjunctive, the mood of the “might have been,” aims “both to tell an impossible story and to amplify the impossibility of its telling.” Hartman recognizes that she is inventing a romance, a comforting tale that is very much at odds with the fragments found in the archive itself. The subjunctive offers an unhappy but needed balance between what she looks for in the archive and what is actually found there. Most importantly, the deliberately impossible narrative, which we all partake in, solidifies the emotive circulation between Venus, the historian, and her reader.
As a fiction writer, Shibli is supposedly not restricted by what Hartman calls “the boundaries of the archive,” and yet her permissible basis for historical fabulation seems even more constrained. The landscape of Minor Detail’s past is made solely by the present’s materials; the present is all pervasive, imperialist. Hartman finds respite in the subjunctive mood, but Shibli’s grammar for history’s scene of subjection is, rather, the future perfect, what is called in French le futur anterior, the prior future. The shape of this tense is the “will have been,” a future happening that does not open new horizons but is concluded and decided, a future already foreclosed by its past. In Minor Detail, the past is a history whose future horizon has been decreed and defined by the present moment, the stagnation of an ongoing apartheid. In other words, the problem with the past, the reason we cannot know it, is not its foreignness, but its familiarity, its utter identity to the present from which it is impossible to escape. In Shibli’s writing, the present is not populated by ghosts, but by dumb, inanimate objects, and its link to the past is always potentially random, askew.
Needless to say, neither embodied affect nor an imagined collectivity can provide an anchor for this historical model. Instead, it suggests the minor, random detail as a possible, uncertain way out of impasse. In a 2017 interview, José García asked Shibli about avoiding getting desensitized to violence. Her response begins, somewhat expectedly, with a reflection on writing, but continues by denying it any privileged or lofty position:
I always find a place with words to create parallel possibilities where dehumanization thrives. However, in real life, you need to neutralize all your emotions and become numb, but then writing neutralizes that neutralization. Other people don’t have words for their rescue. But something else, a walk, a pavement, a tree, a stone, endless minor objects that turn into the place where they practice their humanity, a place where oppression cannot reach or destroy.
Mute minor objects, like a tree or a stone, can become means to “neutralize the neutralization,” to emerge from the state of desensitized apathy, and practice humanity, or care. Writing enters this category as well. The minor detail might not be a porthole to the past, but it is the key to animating and inhabiting the present. Admittedly, this is not much. But it might be the best that the present can offer.
Shir Alon is assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her work on modern Arabic and Hebrew literatures and cultures has appeared in boundary 2, Comparative Literature, Arab Studies Journal, and other venues.