The Howling of the Dog: Adania Shibli’s “Minor Detail”

30 December, 2020


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You may not have heard of her until now, but as South African Nobel Lau­re­ate J.M. Coet­zee mar­veled of Ada­nia Shi­b­li’s third nov­el, she “takes a gam­ble in entrust­ing our access to the key event in her novel—the rape and mur­der of a young Bedouin woman—to two pro­found­ly self-absorbed nar­ra­tors, an Israeli psy­chopath and a Pales­tin­ian ama­teur sleuth high on the autism scale, but her method of indi­rec­tion jus­ti­fies itself ful­ly as the book reach­es its heart-stop­ping con­clu­sion.” Final­ist for the Nation­al Book Award, Ada­nia Shi­b­li is one of Arab lit­er­a­ture’s prodi­gious younger tal­ents, and Minor Detail, which was 12 years in the mak­ing, is the work she was des­tined to write. Reviewed by nov­el­ist Lay­la AlAmmar. 


Minor Detail
, a nov­el by Ada­nia Shi­b­li
Trans­lat­ed by Eliz­a­beth Jacquette
New Direc­tions 2020
ISBN 9780811229074

Layla AlAmmar

In light of the infi­nite array of atroc­i­ties, actu­al and sym­bol­ic, per­pe­trat­ed on the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple over the bet­ter part of a cen­tu­ry — forced dis­place­ment, occu­pa­tion, human rights’ abus­es, eth­nic cleans­ing, bomb­ings and besiege­ment — the mur­der of a lone Arab Bedouin girl in August 1949 hard­ly war­rants atten­tion. How­ev­er, the chill­ing full­ness of this small event forms the back­bone of Pales­tin­ian author Ada­nia Shi­b­li’s lat­est nov­el, Minor Detail (trans. Elis­a­beth Jaque­tte). The first half of the nar­ra­tive fic­tion­al­izes this inci­dent. Told from the per­spec­tive of an Israeli com­man­der, it takes place over four days in (what became) the Negev desert when a group of soldiers—tasked with “cleans[ing] it of any remain­ing Arabs”—massacres a tribe, takes one of its daugh­ters cap­tive, gang rapes and kills her. The nov­el mir­rors the real­i­ty of what fol­lowed, where­by the crime was cov­ered up by author­i­ties, only com­ing to light fifty years lat­er. Con­se­quent­ly, the sec­ond half of the nar­ra­tive takes place in the ear­ly 2000s when an unnamed Pales­tin­ian woman in Ramal­lah becomes obsessed with the inci­dent after read­ing about it in the news­pa­per one day.

Adania Shibli's  Minor Detail  is available from  New Directions .

Even she is per­plexed as to why she should be so con­sumed by a small his­toric tragedy when the present is “no less hor­rif­ic.” She ini­tial­ly chalks it up to the fact that the crime occurred twen­ty-five years to the day before she was born, i.e. 1974, which inci­den­tal­ly is the author’s birth year. The sec­ond sec­tion becomes a jour­ney to dis­cov­er what the nar­ra­tor calls “the com­plete truth which, by leav­ing out the girl’s sto­ry, the arti­cle does not reveal.” Uncov­er­ing the girl’s sto­ry, giv­ing her a voice, is Shi­b­li’s (equal­ly futile) task in the meta­con­text of writ­ing the first half of the novel.

So often these types of stories—which deal with the lega­cies of col­lec­tive his­toric trau­ma, such as, in this case, the 1948 Nak­ba—aim to give voice to the voice­less and recov­er buried ordeals in a kind of redemp­tive, qua­si-tri­umphal­ist ges­ture. Recov­er yes­ter­day in ser­vice of a brighter tomor­row… or some such clap­trap. How­ev­er, as we’ve come to know from her two pre­vi­ous nov­els, Touch (trans. Paula Hay­dar, 2010) and We Are All Equal­ly Far From Love (trans. Paul Starkey, 2012), Shi­b­li is no ordi­nary writer. Her fic­tion is exper­i­men­tal and com­plex, fre­quent­ly upend­ing the con­ven­tions of the genre: char­ac­ters are unnamed and lack per­son­al his­to­ries; the struc­tures of the nov­els are porous and frag­ment­ed, com­posed of vignettes and iso­lat­ed chap­ters that you have to reach through and across in order to make sense of the whole; and there’s a lack of overt rev­o­lu­tion­ary zeal or nos­tal­gic harken­ing to a pre-1948 exis­tence. Shi­b­li’s prose is pre­cise and tac­tile, cre­at­ing a holis­tic atmos­phere of over­whelm­ing anx­i­ety that afflicts her char­ac­ters, as in the sec­ond part of Minor Detail, where the pro­tag­o­nist notes:

I rush to close all the win­dows until I get to the big win­dow, through which I see how mer­ci­less­ly the wind is pulling at the grass­es and trees, shak­ing their branch­es in every direc­tion, while the leaves trem­ble and writhe back and forth, near­ly rip­ping off as the wind vicious­ly toys with them. And the plants sim­ply don’t resist. They just sur­ren­der to the fact of their fragili­ty, that the wind can do what it wish­es with them, fool­ing around with their leaves, pass­ing between their branch­es, pen­e­trat­ing their boughs…

What is laud­able about the trans­la­tions is how they make no effort to bring the texts clos­er to an Eng­lish-speak­ing audi­ence. They stay true to Shi­b­li’s inten­tion of con­fronting, head on, the lim­its of empa­thy. Her nov­els keep the read­er on the out­side, in a state of pro­found and jar­ring unset­tle­ment, which mir­rors the sus­pend­ed alien­ation that is (and has been) the con­di­tion of Pales­tini­ans everywhere—erased, sup­pressed, estranged.

The fun­da­men­tal, inescapable impos­si­bil­i­ty of reclaim­ing the Bedouin girl’s voice stands front and cen­ter in this sto­ry. The fas­tid­i­ous com­man­der of the first sec­tion nei­ther cares who she is nor under­stands her lan­guage. And so, all we hear is her “bab­bling incom­pre­hen­si­ble frag­ments.” Shi­b­li shuts us out of the girl’s psy­che in a rad­i­cal act that under­scores the idea that rep­re­sen­ta­tion can only extend so far. In oth­er words, while Shi­b­li, a Pales­tin­ian liv­ing in the West Bank, is in a posi­tion to rep­re­sent trau­ma that, to a cer­tain extent, is her own, she refus­es to ven­ture into the head­space of this Arab Bedouin girl. By not speak­ing for her, Shi­b­li high­lights that the girl’s voice can­not be retrieved. What has been lost is lost for­ev­er and can nev­er be restored — the girl “will for­ev­er remain a nobody whose voice nobody will hear.”

This isn’t to say that the hor­ror of the crime is not made plain. The abuse she suf­fers is painful­ly recount­ed: she’s stripped and hosed down in front of the camp; sol­diers go in and out of the hut to assault her; and on the morn­ing of August 13, she’s tak­en out into the desert and shot: “Blood poured from her right tem­ple onto the sand, which steadi­ly sucked it down, while the after­noon sun­light gath­ered on her naked bot­tom, itself the col­or of sand.” The voice used to speak of these acts is chill­ing­ly ster­ile and car­ries a haunt­ing pre­ci­sion, as when the com­man­der rapes her: 

With his right hand cov­er­ing her mouth and his left hand clutch­ing her right breast, the bed’s squeak­ing drift­ed up over the still­ness of dawn, then increased and inten­si­fied, accom­pa­nied again by the dog’s howl­ing. And after the squeak­ing final­ly ceased, the loud howl­ing out­side the door con­tin­ued for a long time.

This dog, this anguished dog, is a fix­ture in the nov­el. Itself a minor detail, the dog stands wit­ness to all the atroc­i­ties the sol­diers com­mit, its sounds of dis­tress serv­ing as an inef­fec­tu­al protest to the girl’s pain and degra­da­tion. Indeed, if we, as read­ers, are to iden­ti­fy with any char­ac­ter in the sto­ry, sure­ly it is this dog, stand­ing apart and out­side of the girl’s expe­ri­ence, unable to do any­thing but howl. 

In the sec­ond half, the dog returns as a spec­tre, haunt­ing the woman — “the dog’s bark­ing con­tin­ues to echo in the air until the last hours of morn­ing; some­times the wind car­ries it clos­er to me, and some­times fur­ther from me” — and even­tu­al­ly urg­ing her to under­take a risky jour­ney to uncov­er more about the crime that took place a half cen­tu­ry before. In an end­ing as abrupt as it is infu­ri­at­ing, we come to under­stand what Shi­b­li is telling us, which is that where jus­tice and resti­tu­tion are impos­si­ble, the dog’s howl­ing not only con­sti­tutes a call for past atroc­i­ties to be remem­bered but is also an anguished cry of futil­i­ty. It is a howl against both a his­to­ry that can­not be recov­ered and a “no less hor­rif­ic” present that remains unchanged.

On August 13, 2020, 71 years to the day after an Arab Bedouin girl was shot and buried in the Negev, the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates announced nor­mal­iza­tion of rela­tions with Israel, soon fol­lowed by anoth­er Gulf state, Bahrain, and with endorse­ments from a third, Oman. These agree­ments occur against a back­drop of con­tin­ued annex­a­tion of the West Bank, the bull­doz­ing of homes, and bom­bard­ments of a Gaza awash in sui­cides. In short, there is no longer even the illu­sion of Arab state uni­ty and sup­port for the Pales­tin­ian cause. In State of Siege, Mah­moud Dar­wish writes, “Only when life gets back to nor­mal again | can we grieve like every­one else over per­son­al mat­ters.” Shi­b­li’s nov­el is a sear­ing admis­sion that return is impos­si­ble. There is no nor­mal to get back to.

When injus­tices are so large and anguish so all-encom­pass­ing, maybe all that’s left is to howl at minor details. 

Palestinian novelist Adania Shibli (Photo  ©  Hartwig Klappert)

Ada­nia Shi­b­li was born in Pales­tine in 1974. She has been pub­lish­ing since 1996 in lit­er­ary mag­a­zines in the Arab world and Europe. Shi­b­li has twice been award­ed the Young Writer’s Award-Pales­tine by the A.M. Qat­tan Foun­da­tion for her nov­els Masaas (Touch­ing, al-Adab 2002), trans­lat­ed into French as Reflets sur un mur blanc (Actes-sud, 2004), and Kul­lu­na Ba’eed Bethat al Miq­dar ‘an al Hub (We Are All Equal­ly Far from Love, al-Adab, 2004). The Eng­lish trans­la­tions of her nov­els, Touch and We Are All Equal­ly Far from Love, were pub­lished by Clock­root Books. Her work has also been trans­lat­ed into French, Ger­man, Ital­ian, Hebrew, and Kore­an. She has taught at uni­ver­si­ties, includ­ing the Uni­ver­si­ty of Not­ting­ham, and was a fel­low at the Berlin Insti­tute for Advanced Study. Shi­b­li teach­es visu­al cul­ture and phi­los­o­phy at Birzeit Uni­ver­si­ty, Pales­tine. She splits her time between Berlin and Jerusalem.

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Layla AlAmmar is a writer and academic from Kuwait. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh. Her short stories have appeared in the Evening Standard, The Red Letters St Andrews Prose Journal, and Aesthetica Magazine where she was a finalist for the Creative Writing Award 2014. She was 2018 British Council International Writer in Residence at the Small Wonder Short Story Festival. She has also written for The Guardian and Arablit Quarterly. Her debut novel The Pact We Made (2019) was long-listed for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and nominated for the First Book Award at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Her second novel, Silence is a Sense, was published in 2021 and the paperback comes out March 2022. She is pursuing a PhD on the intersection of Arab women’s fiction and literary trauma theory.

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