Saturday 25 July 2020


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Minor Detail by Adania Shibli    {Reviewed by THOMAS}
Sand absorbs water poured upon it just as it absorbs blood spilled upon it and the actions committed upon it. Where does this water, this blood, and where do these actions go? Can they be recovered? How do they return? Adania Shibli’s remarkable novel is comprised of two parts. The first, told in the third person, describes with elegant impassivity and equivalence the actions and movements of an officer in the Israeli army in the Naqab/Negev desert during the 1948-49 Naqba/War of Independence. Although we gain no access to his thoughts (how could we gain access to his thoughts, after all?), we are witness to his obsessive washing routines, his watchfulness for spiders and insects within his hut and his destruction of them, his tending of a festering spider bite on his thigh, his journeys into the surrounding desert either in vehicles with his soldiers, using maps, searching for Arab ‘insurgents’, or alone, on foot around the camp, following the topography. The other soldiers have no reachable dimension other than being soldiers because any such dimensions would be irrelevant. The officer is the only one who speaks, and that hardly at all except for a long lecture expressing the view that the desert is a wasteland that can be made fertile when cleansed of its current inhabitants. As the rituals of army life are repeated and repeated, the tension builds beneath the narrative. The soldiers come across a group of unarmed Bedouin at an oasis and kill them and their camels, taking a dog and a young woman back to the camp. Their mistreatment of her, culminating in gang rape and later her murder and burial near the camp, can be felt in the narrative long before they occur. The howling dog witness shifts the first section of the book to the second, where a howling dog keeps the first-person narrator awake at night in her house in contemporary Ramallah. She has become obsessed with the fate of the young woman, which she has read about in a newspaper article, and by “the conviction that I can uncover details about the rape and murder as the girl experienced it, not relying on what the soldiers who committed it disclosed.” What happens to those who have no agency in their own story? The narrator cannot accept that the young woman is “a nobody who will forever remain a nobody whose voice nobody will hear,” and, with a borrowed ID, which will help her to enter different areas, and a rented car, one weekend she sets out to see if she can find out more. She takes a pile of maps: the official Israeli maps that show the roads, checkpoints, settlements and army zones in the Negev but do not mark even still-existing Palestinian settlements, and maps of the Naqab before 1948, which give information possibly relevant to her search. Maps are a way in which power imprints itself on territory, and Shibli spends a great deal of careful attention in both parts of the novel to the movements of her main characters over the land, contrasting the movement associated with maps with that concerned with and guided by the terrain. These different ways of moving have, for each of them, quite different results. The movements of the officer in the first section imprints power upon a territory, a pattern traced by the woman in the second section over land that holds the trace of violence in itself. The past is never left behind though it can never be recovered, either. In the first part, the officer has complete ease of movement, heading wherever he wishes, inside or out; in the second part the narrator has her movement checked and restricted wherever she goes (until she reaches the Naqab). “The borders imposed between things here are many. One must pay attention to them, and navigate them, which ultimately protects everyone from perilous consequences,” she notes, waiting at the checkpoints in the wall that divides the territory. “There are some who consider focusing on minor details as the only way to arrive at the truth, and therefore proof of its existence, to reconstruct an incident one has never witnessed simply by noticing little details that everyone else finds to be insignificant,” she says, as a reason for her search. This may be true, but if such minor details exist their significance may also be unrecognised by the searcher. In the military museum that she visits, the only ‘evidence’ is the soap, the jerry cans, the uniforms, the vehicles and the weapons mentioned in the first part. Intention leaves no residue. Also these objects constitute the majority of the soldiers’ experience, given how little the woman meant to them. Part of the narrator’s and Shibli’s project is to uncover the particular from the general, the experience from the history. Although both she and the author bewail injustice, the narrator shows no enmity towards any of the people she meets, all are treated with sympathy; harm arises only from structures of power. Power withdraws the evidence of its actions, hides its victims, disappears into the understructure of everyday life. There is no residue unless the land holds a residue. The second half of the book is lightly told, in keeping with the personality of its narrator, and often funny (she describes a film rewinding in a museum and the settlers dismantling their houses). She visits the settlement with the name of the place where the crime occurred and learns that the actual place is near by, she visits the place and finds nothing of interest, she walks through the surrounding plantations where the desert has been made fertile, but is frightened back by a dog. “I am here in vain,” she says. “I haven’t found anything I’ve been looking for, and this journey hasn’t added anything to what I knew about the incident when I started out.” Reluctant to return to Ramallah, she drives back and forth in the desert, gives a ride to an old woman, and then decides to follow her through a military zone, where she comes across an oasis. The land has drawn her to the core of her quest, but she has no way of recognising it as such, and she does not expect that her quest will be, still unknowingly, fulfilled in the last sentence of the book. 

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