In the summer of 1949, a platoon in the Sodom District Battalion of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) established an outpost at Nirim in the western Negev desert. The platoon was one of several IDF units tasked with preventing infiltration by Bedouin across the newly established armistice lines with Egypt. On August 12 a patrol led by the platoon’s commanding officer, Second Lieutenant Moshe, encountered three unarmed Arabs—two men and a girl, apparently in her teens, though possibly younger. The soldiers took the girl prisoner and frightened the men off with gunshots. While returning to the outpost, the soldiers came across a herd of camels, six of which they shot dead. When they arrived back at camp, the platoon sergeant stripped the prisoner naked and washed her in a public outdoor shower, burned her clothes, and placed her under guard.
According to IDF trial records, the private tasked with guarding the prisoner was the first to rape her. Two other soldiers soon followed. When Moshe learned of what had happened, he ordered that the girl’s long hair be chopped short and the remainder be washed with kerosene, “so she would be clean for fucking,” as a fellow officer later testified. That night, the platoon was asked to vote on the girl’s fate. The troops chanted, “We want to fuck.” After the meal, the prisoner was first moved into the officers’ tent, where Moshe and the platoon sergeant joined her. The lieutenant later ordered her to be carried out unconscious, “because there is a stink coming off her.” The next morning, after she complained of her treatment, the prisoner was driven out into the desert, shot in the head, and buried in a shallow grave.
The first half of Adania Shibli’s novel Minor Detail tells the story of this crime in spare, uninflected prose. She bases her account on a long article published in Haaretz in 2003, which first made public the IDF records.1 Shibli narrates the events without speculating on the characters’ thoughts or motivations. In fact, her retelling is far cooler than the newspaper version, which calls the crime “one of the ugliest and most appalling episodes in the history of the Israel Defense Forces.” Shibli telescopes some events and leaves out others. She also invents a number of memorable details: after the girl’s hair is chopped off, Shibli tells us that “a few tiny black ringlets of hair remained scattered across the sand”; after the slaughter of the camels, we’re told the officer’s gaze “rested on a clutch of dry grass lying by the mouth of one camel; it had been ripped up by the roots, which still held suspended grains of sand.”
The second half of the novel is set in 2004 and narrated by an unnamed Palestinian woman in Ramallah, who reads about the crime and decides “to discover the complete truth about the incident.” We’re told little about the would–be detective: she has a job, but we don’t know what it is; she seems not to have a family and never mentions friends. She prefers to stay at home, staring out the window and pretending to work (maybe she’s a writer). Everyday life in the Occupied Territories, a gauntlet of checkpoints and separation walls, offers her too many temptations to break the rules. She appears to have something like a death wish:
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.
The narrator’s interest in the murdered girl is sparked by her discovery that the date of the prisoner’s death coincides exactly with her own birth twenty–five years later (it isn’t the rape and killing that interest her, she says, since “incidents like that aren’t out of the ordinary”). The narrator’s decision to investigate the crime suggests an obscure desire to cross the border between past and present, between herself, an urbanized professional woman, and the young camel herder from the Negev. Though Minor Detail initially promises to be a kind of counterhistory or whodunit—a rescue of the victim’s story from military courts and Israeli newspapers—it turns out to be something stranger and bleaker. Rather than a discovery of hidden truths, or a search for justice, it is a meditation on the repetitions of history, the past as a recurring trauma.
Shibli is the author of two previous books, Touch (2002) and We Are All Equally Far from Love (2004), that make a sharp break with earlier Palestinian fiction. Canonical Palestinian novels, from Ghassan Kanafani and Emile Habibi to Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and Sahar Khalifeh, are dominated by explicitly political themes. They explore the intersection of individual lives and large historical forces, backlit by the grand narrative of collective liberation. Shibli wrote her early books in the midst of the Second Intifada—an uprising that coincided with growing popular disillusionment over the so–called peace process—and she takes a more skeptical attitude toward these dreams of emancipation.
Shibli doesn’t foreground national emergencies but the experience of individuals who live far from the headlines. Her protagonists aren’t exemplary people or even particularly admirable—unlike the martyrs and superheroes of Jabra, for example, who act out a fantasy of Palestinian fortitude in the ruins of the Nakba. Shibli rarely stages conflicts between her Israeli and Palestinian characters. Whereas Kanafani’s seminal novella, Returning to Haifa (1969), centers on a confrontation between a displaced Palestinian couple and the Polish refugee who has lived in their home since 1948, Shibli avoids such plot devices. In Minor Detail, despite the narrator’s anxiety about checkpoints, the bored guards invariably wave her through. For Shibli, the emblematic experience of occupation is the longue durée of ennui and isolation rather than the dramatic moment of crisis.
Touch tells the story of a Palestinian girl’s childhood through a series of minutely evoked episodes. Though barely sixty pages long, it quickly becomes claustrophobic. We’re immersed in a world of impressions—colors, noises, and smells—but deprived of any history or scene–setting. The clarity of the protagonist’s perceptions only highlights the surrounding silence: “The sound of cucumbers crunching in her father’s mouth stretched over the tray between them.” When the girl first hears the phrase “Sabra and Shatila”—refugee camps in Beirut where hundreds of Palestinians were massacred in 1982—she thinks the reference is to cactuses (sabr) and sprouts (shatla). Shibli has turned our telescope around: instead of seeing Palestine through the lens of political crises, we see those crises through the lens of a young woman’s untutored experience. For a moment, at least, this endlessly analyzed conflict regains some of its weirdness and contingency.
Shibli’s second book, We Are All Equally Far from Love, is a collection of stories set in a city very like Ramallah. The question of what if anything links the stories together is part of what the book is about. The characters, mostly unnamed young Palestinians, seem doomed to solitude. Their lives are a series of failed connections—letters that never arrive, dropped phone calls, unconsummated desires. They spend their time cocooned in private miseries, masturbating or watching television alone. The only named character is a postal worker who opens envelopes and passes on the contents to her father, a collaborator with the Occupation. She shakes her head over the vogue for writing to pen pals, a common hobby for Palestinians who have learned English: “Lost souls, all looking for a rich old lady from Europe or America to adopt them, and save them from a life back home.”
What is most striking about We Are All Equally Far from Love is Shibli’s treatment of female sexuality, which is punishingly unromantic. Her stories are full of sweating, peeing, vomiting, and sagging bodies (a rebuke, maybe, to the world of Egyptian and Syrian soap operas that her characters are always watching). In the longest story of the book, the narrator is a self–pitying neurotic who rarely leaves her bed and feels that she is already starting to rot. “How many smells were now mingling on my corpse,” she wonders. “Vomit, sweat, the smell of masturbation, underarm odors, my feet, the dust rag, my mouth, my hair, my throat, and my tears.” She resents her mother’s offers of sympathy because she doesn’t want to share her pain, the only thing she feels is truly hers. Here again, the truths of geopolitics—the closure of political possibilities and the increasing isolation of Palestine—are felt first of all at the level of the body.
And yet Shibli also registers an uncanny pleasure in these experiences of being alone. Her female characters are alternately disgusted and fascinated by their physical selves, furtively sniffing their fingers, luxuriating in their tears. Lifting her blanket and flaring her nostrils, the depressed woman admits, “Perhaps I liked it a little, this smell.” I suspect these clandestine pleasures belong to Shibli the writer as much as to her characters. It is a recognition of the real—of “the fact,” as another character says, “that we are truly and simply sordid.” Despite the narrowing of political horizons, Shibli is delighting in the discovery of new terrain for fiction. No Arab writer has handled female characters in quite this way (though the Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim approaches his male characters in a similar spirit). Their escape from the strictures of romance and allegory feels like a liberation in its own right.
The protagonist of Minor Detail, like many of Shibli’s narrators, seems mired in immediacy, haplessly self–absorbed. But this is precisely what suits her for detective work. She explains why by means of a short “fable,” which also gives Shibli her title:
It is possible to reconstruct something’s appearance, or an incident one has never witnessed, simply by noticing various little details which everyone else finds to be insignificant. It’s the kind of thing that happens in old fables, like the tale where three brothers meet a man who has lost his camel, and immediately they describe the lost beast to him: it is a white camel, blind in one eye, carrying two skins on its saddle, one full of oil and the other of wine. You must have seen it, shouts the man. No, we have not seen it, they reply. But he does not believe them and accuses them of stealing his camel. So the four men are brought before the court, where the three brothers prove their innocence by revealing to the judge how they were able to describe an animal they had never seen before, by noticing the smallest and simplest details, such as the camel’s uneven tracks across the sand, a few drops of oil and wine that spilled from its load as it limped away, and a tuft of its shedding hair.
The most famous version of this story comes in chapter 3 of Voltaire’s Zadig (where the camel is replaced by a dog and a horse), but Shibli’s version comes from the Italian Jewish historian Carlo Ginzburg’s essay “Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method.” Ginzburg discusses art historians’ use of seemingly trivial details—the shape of an earlobe or fingernails—to establish a painting’s authenticity, since a work’s more conspicuous characteristics (Leonardo’s smiles, Michelangelo’s musculature) are easier to falsify. Ginzburg compares this forensic technique to Freud’s approach to symptoms and Sherlock Holmes’s deductive method, and he argues that historians can also reconstruct past events from apparently minor details or unimportant individuals (he has admitted to a “passion for the anomalous”). Seen in this light, Shibli’s narrator–detective becomes a historian of a particular kind, interested in what Ginzburg calls microhistories: small–scale narratives of overlooked and marginalized persons—not history’s victors, but its victims.
This theorizing puts a lot of pressure on the actual details of Shibli’s novels. When we’re told that minor details will lead to the truth, then of course there are no minor details. Everything becomes a potential clue. Soon after her reference to the fable of the lost camel, Shibli’s narrator considers the coincidence between the prisoner’s death and her own birth twenty–five years later (the detail that drew her attention to the story in the first place):
One cannot rule out the possibility of a connection between the two events, or the existence of a hidden link, as one sometimes finds with plants, for instance, like when a clutch of grass is pulled out by the roots, and you think you’ve got rid of it entirely, only for grass of the exact same species to grow back in the same spot a quarter of a century later.
This sends us back to the dead camel with its mouth full of grass in the novel’s first section, turning that seemingly trivial detail into something more portentous—a clue, in fact, that the narrator may be the reincarnation of the murdered girl, or would at least like to see herself that way. But when things are so neatly cued up, they feel more like inventions (or symbols) than realistic details. The uprooted yet regenerated grass becomes an emblem of the echt–Palestinian virtue of sumud, or steadfastness.
Given Shibli’s interest in bodies and smells, one wonders if the detail in Haaretz that drew her own attention (as opposed to her narrator’s) was the Israeli lieutenant’s preoccupation with hygiene—his order that the prisoner be removed from his tent because of her “stink.” According to IDF trial records, the officer denied the accusation of rape because, as he said, “Morally speaking, it was impossible to sleep with such a dirty girl.” Shibli highlights this pathology. Her officer is obsessed with killing the bugs in his desert tent and views Arab “infiltrators” as another species of vermin. As soon as the prisoner is brought back to the outpost, he strips her clothes off: “A mixture of odors had collected in their weave: the scent of manure, a sharp smell of urine and genital secretions, and the sour stench of old sweat overpowering new.” The officer turns away in disgust, a gesture he will repeat several times, before turning the hose on her. His aversion reminds us, by contrast, of the secret pleasure Shibli’s shut–ins take in sniffing the same odors. Her fiction emphasizes, again and again, the ethical and political importance of acknowledging the most sordid facts. If the Israeli officer’s disgust is a refusal of the real, Shibli insists that the stink can’t be washed away.
Minor Detail begins with a landscape:
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 the intense August heat.
A few lines later, Shibli reveals that we are looking out through the Israeli officer’s field binoculars. It is a brilliant beginning (skillfully translated by Elisabeth Jaquette), reminding us that landscapes aren’t neutral facts but the results of artistic as well as ideological cropping and framing. “This place,” the officer tells his troops during a pep talk, “which now seems barren, with nothing aside from infiltrators, a few Bedouins, and camels, is where our forefathers passed thousands of years ago.” For Zionists, of course, barren landscapes were a summons to make the desert bloom, which often meant overlooking the current inhabitants, or viewing them as inconveniences—variously dirty, unproductive, or dangerous—that required removal.
The opening also alludes to a famous short story, “The Prisoner” (1949), by the Israeli writer S. Yizhar. That story, like Shibli’s novel, is a meditation on the meaning and moral consequences of 1948—Yizhar was a soldier in the war and later a member of the Knesset—and it begins with the figure of an Israeli officer surveilling the landscape through binoculars, looking for Arabs. He finds one: a shepherd, in this case (“as dumbly silent as an uprooted plant”), who is brought back to the army base and brutally interrogated, though he clearly knows nothing of military value. The narrator of the story, an army private and Israeli everyman, is charged with transferring the shepherd to another base for further interrogation. The story ends, in rather existentialist fashion, with the private debating with himself whether to let the prisoner free.
This sort of self–interrogation is a hallmark of Yizhar’s fiction. He is best known for his novel Khirbet Khizeh (1949), the story of an Israeli platoon’s clearing and destruction of a Palestinian village, which explores the bitter irony of Jews, the people of exile, creating exiles of their own. In “The Prisoner,” Yizhar worries that the war has turned Jews into mere conquerors of the land—soldiers viewing it through binoculars rather than stewards of its bounty. Yizhar admired Rousseau, and gave expression to his pastoral Zionism in passages of great lyrical beauty. “We watched him as he made his survey,” Yizhar’s narrator says of his commanding officer:
He saw whatever it was that he saw. As for us, we could see a world of hills, all woolly with greenstuff and stony ground and olives in the distance, a world crisscrossed and bedappled with little golden hollows and dips of durrah.
For Yizhar, the landscape offered an aesthetic respite from the horrors of war and its impossible dilemmas.
Shibli’s allusion to Yizhar’s story is her way of creating a contrast. Minor Detail’s soldiers, confronted with a defenseless prisoner, suffer no moral qualms as they abuse her. But Shibli draws a more pointed distinction with Yizhar’s approach to the land. The second half of Minor Detail is a road trip, as the narrator travels from Ramallah, west to Tel Aviv, and then south to the scene of the crime. For her, the landscape is the opposite of pastoral. Rather than greenstuff and bedappled hills, it is a gray labyrinth of crowded checkpoints, dump sites, high walls, and gated settlements. Where Yizhar found biblical echoes, Shibli’s narrator finds a relentlessly “modernized” country, in which Arab villages have been razed and built over, and road signs have only Hebrew place names. The joy of the open road has been replaced by a nightmare of permits and identity cards, without which one cannot cross the borders between Areas A, B, and C. It is a landscape surveilled and controlled by the military—just as Yizhar feared—but with no possibility of escape into the sentimentalized beauties of the past.
Modern Palestinian and Israeli writers have long struggled over their communities’ historical, legal, and literary rights to the land. Many have contrasted the supposedly immediate and concrete relation of Palestinians with the earth to the bookish and abstract relation enjoyed by Israelis. As Avishai Margalit wrote in these pages, in a review of Yizhar’s work, “Many Zionists were, and still often are, caught in ‘landscape schizophrenia’; they have a strong symbolic bond to the land, and very little concrete attachment to it.”2 But Shibli’s fiction—unlike, for example, the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish—doesn’t claim a deep or especially intimate attachment to the land. Instead, it points a finger at the sordid fact of an occupation in which the beauties of the landscape are increasingly placed behind walls guarded with guns.
Does Shibli’s retelling of this old atrocity make it into an allegory for the origins of Israel? She doesn’t imply that the crime is representative in any obvious sense. Instead, she carefully particularizes her version of the story, noting dates, fully imagining each scene and detail of camp life, situating the episode as a discrete moment of history. All of Shibli’s work points to a suspicion of allegory and its abstractions. She is at pains to locate the political dimensions of her fiction in the quotidian lives of individuals—especially those who feel alienated from any collective project. As her friendless, disconnected, and apparently neurotic narrator says, “I certainly cannot speak for anyone else.”
But fiction (like history writing) cannot escape its representative function so easily. Neither Shibli’s narrator nor the prisoner is as isolated as they may at first appear. Beyond the little parable of the uprooted grass, Shibli hints at more than one “hidden link” between them—the narrator is, after all, eager to return to the scene of the crime and place herself in the victim’s shoes. More delicately, the story of the murdered prisoner resonates with the histories of Jewish victims of the death camps: the officer’s determination to cleanse the sector of bugs and Arabs, the sadistic “shower” he subjects her to, the haircut and the evidence it leaves on the sand. The connections Shibli traces between the Holocaust, the Nakba, and the occupation are not equivalences, but they add up to a remarkably grim vision of history.
The narrator of Minor Detail never discovers “the complete truth about the incident.” She uncovers no new evidence and assigns no guilt. But her decision to put herself physically in the place of the prisoner suggests that this history of detention, abuse, and killing is ongoing, repeating itself remorselessly under different conditions. The narrator’s “stupidity”—her impulse to cross the boundaries between past and present, between Area A and Area B—is a form of reluctant solidarity: reluctant because premised, first of all, on suffering. The most difficult thing to acknowledge about this history of violation and murder is ultimately not the ugly details, but the fact that these things aren’t even out of the ordinary. Yet that ordinariness is also what makes them shared, or shareable. “Nowadays,” the narrator says, with a disabused and typically Palestinian wisdom, “such exceptional circumstances are in fact the norm.”