Review by Moira John
Minor Detail, by Adania Shibli
Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette
This novella is set in the year 1949 in the aftermath of the period, known by Palestinians as the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe,” when hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes in the Palestinian Mandate into exile.
A central theme of the book is the struggle to understand the totality of the Nakba and find a way forward, a way of existing and surviving the futility and helplessness of what happened and what is still happening. This is done by the examination of the minor details of one incident.
The fate of one girl is seen firstly through the eyes of an Israeli platoon commander in the Negev desert, and then finally through the eyes of a young Palestinian woman who seeks to establish the facts and the detail of what occurred.
The first sentence of the book is “Nothing moved except the mirage”.
This bleak theme is echoed repeatedly in the second part of the book.
The commander scans the hillside searching for signs of Arabs. When found, they are massacred. This is witnessed by a young Palestinian girl who is seized.
The Platoon commander is demented with his search for creatures that have given him insect bites that are eating away at his flesh. He cannot communicate with the girl and is obsessed with her smell. He douses her in carbolic to clean her up. She is raped by the platoon and killed.
These events are revisited in the second part of the novella by another unnamed girl who was born exactly when the first girl died. A second unnamed girl from Ramallah, takes the story forward 25 years later. She realises she was born on the day the girl was murdered. After reading a newspaper story about the event, her quest is to find out the detail of what happened. She must lose her identity in order to make her illegal journey through closed roads on lands that have been continually seized by the Israelis. The place names have been removed and the landscape is a mirage in which she becomes lost struggling to grasp any minor detail, as if to bear witness to the truth.
The story reflects on the Palestinian experience and is a difficult and haunting read.