What We Are Reading Today: The Strength in Numbers



    CHICAGO: There is an ever-present power in award-winning Palestinian author Adania Shibli’s work and “Minor Detail” is another novel in which that magic lingers. Told in two equal parts, both the same length but with different main characters who live in different eras, Shibli crafts a story that connects strangers to one another through the occupation that has shaped their lives. The novel begins in 1949, one year after the Nakba in which 700,000 Palestinians were displaced. A military operation is taking place in the Negev desert, south of Gaza along the Egyptian border, to secure the land and expel the Arabs.

    Expertly translated into English by Elisabeth Jaquette, Shibli’s her story begins with descriptions of layered landscape that stretches from sandy hills to blue skies, both assaulted by a blazing, August sun. Israeli soldiers build a camp in an abandoned area where days of heavy shelling have left only two huts standing. Despite the monotony of the soldiers’ lives, they still have a mission to carry out which is “demarcating the southern border with Egypt and preventing anyone from penetrating it,” and “to comb the southwest part of the Negev and cleanse it of any remaining Arabs.”

    There is an eerie calm and pace to Shibli’s novel as an Israeli commander devotes all his time to exploring and driving through the pale-yellow, sandy hills of the Negev desert. He explores an empty landscape day in and day out, with nothing to report, as if he and his soldiers are stalking themselves. Eventually, however, they come across a tribe of Bedouin and kill everyone, including a teenage girl.

    The novel then shifts to present day, to a narrator who is attempting to live her life in Ramallah, many miles away from the Negev Desert. The narrator is quirky and admits that she does not evaluate the things that happen in her life rationally which she chalks up to living under occupation. One day, she reads a story in the newspaper about the death of the teenager in the Negev desert. Nothing should make her think twice about the story but for the date the incident took place, twenty-five years before the day of her birth, on her birthday.

    In what ensues thereafter is a journey, one that is nerve-wrecking and eye-opening as the narrator moves across territory that is a distant memory in her mind, teetering between feelings of belonging and rejection. Both the women in Shibli’s book, like blades of grass that are at the mercy of the wind, speak volumes through the events that shape their lives. They are so intertwined into one another and the history of Palestine that their roots are one and the same. There are lifetimes between 1949 and present day in her characters, but all seem to move along the same thread, experiencing the same lives.

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