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‘Minor Details’ hiding in the desert sands

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If oppression is felt most acutely in the habits of embodied, everyday life, is it possible to resist its violent creep into normalcy? This is a question that has occupied Adania Shibli’s work for some time. In an interview published in 2017, Shibli enigmatically suggested that it is the commonplace — “a walk, a pavement, a tree, a stone, endless minor objects” — which can become a site for the assertion of human dignity against the numbness that constant dehumanization inflicts. Oppression cannot touch these minor objects because they are insignificant enough to escape its detection. Shibli’s comments echo the plaintive words Rilke wrote in his “Duino Elegies.” If angels and the celestial are terrifying and unsympathetic, Rilke sighs and notes, 

… there remains for us
some tree on a hillside, which every day we can take
into our vision; there remains for us yesterday’s street
and the loyalty of a habit so much at ease
when it stayed with us that it moved in and never left.

(“Duino Elegies & The Sonnets to Orpheus” by Rainer Maria Rilke and translated by Stephen Mitchell, 1923)

Shibli’s latest novel, fittingly entitled “Minor Detail,” (translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette) obsesses over mundane descriptions. These descriptions would be passed over by many other narrators of the same story in favor of more sensational depictions of military brutality, especially since the rape and murder of a Bedouin woman forms the main event of the book. Over the course of “Minor Detail,” Shibli implores us not to push the minor details to the margins, those which Rilke maintains are uniquely ours and therefore trace the outline of the autonomy we retain over our lives.

The first part of the novel follows a platoon commander and his troop as they patrol the southern border of the newly formed state of Israel. “Patrolling the southern border,” it turns out, is a euphemism for the horror of the activities they participate in while on duty. Narrated in third person, we do not get the chance to access the commander’s thoughts or feelings, and that is for the best. There is, after all, no point in speculating about his psychology and its role in the unspeakable violence which he visits upon the Bedouins. In the place of a penetrating psychological analysis of the commander and his soldiers, the narrator fixates on those petty concerns which afflict our lives: festering wounds, rancid odors and the order of our living spaces. 

While the soldiers conduct their operations under the guise of capturing “infiltrators,” the Bedouins want no trouble with the soldiers and deliberately steer clear of nightly patrols in the desert. The killing of six Arabs is abhorrent in itself, but the sense of injustice and unease is heightened by the fact that they were unarmed and ambushed by the soldiers. 

Shibli, however, is markedly disinterested in sentimentalizing the event, and refuses us the vicarious experience of gratuitous violence. Instead, if the narrator is a witness to the events relayed in the first part of the novel, the narrator is a witness in the same sense that trees, desert sand, dogs and dry grass might act as witnesses too. Take the deliberately distant description of the captured Bedouin woman’s murder by the soldiers: “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 sand, Shibli seems to suggest, has as much to say about the woman’s violent end as a narrator would. Yet, a real aura of loss shrouds the event in invisibility and silence, one aided by the anonymity and lifelessness of the expansive Negev Desert. 

In the second part of “Minor Detail,” the reader keenly feels this loss when a woman from Ramallah incidentally comes across records of the event decades later and is overcome by the desire to find out more. On a whim, she journeys to the site of the massacre, only to find herself confronted with nothing more than she already knows. By the final page of the novel, she realizes her mission in an unexpected, poetic and tragic way.

The coherence of “Minor Detail”’s narrative arc comes from the senseless echo of oppressive violence. A sensible response to the cruelty of military occupation, which Shibli so coldly renders in the novel, would be despair. But since Shibli’s novel is named “Minor Detail,” we ask, what do the minor details tell us? It turns out that the minor details are the ones which hold power to account, from the putrefying injury on the commander’s leg to the barking dog which keeps the woman from Ramallah perturbed. And as the woman from Ramallah drives out of her administrative area, she registers all the small changes in urban geography that have been implemented, from new speed bumps to new buildings. There is no clear higher purpose that determines if the minor details will amount to something, but in this novel, it is the minor detail which propels the protagonist to act.

The title of the novel, combined with Shibli’s remarkable attention to the shifting sands of overlooked features of daily life, constitutes a plea: Pay attention to the minor details, for that is where power may be reclaimed.

Contact Jasmine Liu at jasmineliu at jliu98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Jasmine Liu is a senior staff writer and writes for Opinions and Arts & Life.