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Minor Details, Major Insights

By Malavika P Pillai

Art by Jemima Storey

Under the sombre sky of a rainy city centre, vibrant flags in black, red, green, and white hues stood out distinctly, even when viewed through the misty window. I sat in the warmth of a cafe, watching a chain of protesters waving flags and fervently calling for help to protect people in distress. It offered a glimpse into a world shrouded in suffering and a history of bloodshed. Holding Adania Shibli's novella Minor Detail  (2017) in my hand, I saw the protesters fade into the distance, while news headlines on such protests across the world kept appearing on social media. I continued reading. 


Shibli’s novella attempts to unveil the roots of the current conflict between Palestine and Israel with a compelling narrative exercise; she thoughtfully divides her work into two distinct sections, each offering a unique perspective and temporal setting. The first section unfolds in August 1949, a year after the Palestinian Catastrophe – commonly referred to as the Nakba – during which a significant majority of the Palestinian Arab population was displaced from their homes. A nameless military commander leads his troops on sweeping patrols through the Negev – or Naqab – desert with the mission of "cleansing it of any remaining Arabs". In their pursuit, they follow the echoes of a dog barking across the sand dunes, only to discover a group of unarmed people with their camels and a dog resting by a spring. As the troops killed these civilians, the desert sands seemed to absorb their blood, symbolically erasing any signs of the violence. Amidst this horror, only a weeping girl, "curled up inside her black clothes like a beetle”, and a dog manages to survive. A real-life incident inspires the dreadful gang rape that the girl then endures.


The second section focuses on an anxious, sleep-deprived woman of undisclosed nationality who stumbles upon the story of the rape victim in a newspaper many years later. She embarks on a quest to uncover the truth about the incident, using maps and archives as her guides, raising questions about the location of borders and the unattainable nature of complete knowledge. The paths the woman travels in her search for knowledge are fraught with barriers and checkpoints, mirroring the confinement and uncertainty of the world she's trying to unearth. Shibli presents these maps to the reader within the pages of her novella, and as each map delineates a distinct number of villages and borders depending on the issuing authority, she adeptly portrays the absurdity of this intricate web of borders and divisions which make even basic travel a logistical nightmare.


The third-person narration, during the first half of the novella, sticks closely to the commanding officer's activities, providing a detailed description of the commander's room, the military camp in the middle of the desert and the desert itself. What very little dialogue there is, is dominated by his voice. The commanding officer’s meticulous cleaning of wounds and cuts on his body and repetitive treatment reflects their obsession and compulsion, echoing through the clinical tone of the novella in the first section. This stylistic shift immerses the reader in the protagonist's inner turmoil, vividly evoking her intense surroundings and emotional journey. When narratives explore suffering and trauma, expressing these experiences can be challenging or complicated due to the limits of language. How writers choose the perspective and structure of the narrative makes a big difference in how readers understand the story and its message. In Minor Details, language is direct, avoiding explicit judgement. This detachment created by third person narrative creates an unsettling atmosphere in the narrative, which makes for eerie and disconcerting storytelling. Shibili tries to find a balance between saying enough and recognising that some things can't be put into words. It's in these choices that the real skill of storytelling shines, as she works to turn the unspeakable into something readers can grasp – a look into the strength people find in tough times.


In a narrative reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), the novella dances delicately between past and present, mirroring Aline Cordonnier's concept of memory as an hourglass. According to this concept, memories – personal or collective – are like sands sitting at opposite ends of the hourglass, and the way they flow between past and present is determined by how the hourglass is turned. In both parts of the novella, the far-off narrator transforms into a kind of time artist who plays with and manipulates the hourglass, mixing, merging and separating, embracing the fluidity of time, portraying memory not as a static thing but a dynamic force, continuously moulded by whoever holds the hourglass.


The Vonnegutian irony in subjecting emotionally charged events to a clinical dissection distils violence and its impacts into something natural and profound. This prevents the narrative from becoming a political manifesto or a desperate plea against violence. Instead, the novella prompts readers to confront the enduring echoes of history, compelling them to reflect on the repercussions of neglecting to acknowledge shared experiences and in so doing instigates a shift away from violence by emphasising the transformative power of remembrance.


The events in the first section of the novel centre around a person causing harm. It suggests that the focus of the story is on the perpetrator rather than the victim or the act of suffering itself. The choice to emphasise the perpetrator's daily life is meant to reflect the biased nature of mainstream history: its silencing of voices and neglect of forgotten stories. The silence becomes loud and our attention is drawn to the hidden parts of official history – to what Urvashi Butalia referred to in her study of Partition as “the other side of silence” – a side where the reader's preconceptions and assumptions about storytelling and trauma are challenged. It is a deliberate choice to challenge the reader's preconceptions and assumptions about storytelling and trauma.


Minor Detail, as the title implies, doesn't recount broad perspectives or collective history. Instead, it delves into the specificity, and the silence, reading trauma as a palimpsest over individual acts of violence. The story explores how seemingly trivial details can escalate into life-or-death matters in a world where borders continually change, narratives are rewritten, and the past continues to cast a shadow over the present. In her words, "the waves of sand, with their shifting shapes, would not settle until the vehicle had vanished far into the distance, and the sound of its engine had entirely faded. Only then did the sand drift gradually back onto the hills, softening the sharp parallel tracks left by the vehicle's tyre." Even these seemingly minor imprints on the landscape serve as a poignant reminder of the profound trauma inflicted on victims. 


The work highlights that tales of hardship don't necessarily have to be emotionally charged; they can also depict the numbness of pain or the detachment of amputated feelings within individuals. This difficulty in conveying suffering, described as "linguistic aporia" by trauma theorists like Cathy Caruth, refers to the inherent limitations of language when it comes to communicating the depth and complexity of traumatic experiences. Her narrative paves way for the readers to travel the “other side of silence” to acknowledge the pain, and give way to reconciliation.


The narrator’s journey across shifting lines is also Shibli’s attempt to come to terms with the arbitrary borders of a settler-colonial society: “Borders imposed between things here are many. One must pay attention to them and navigate them, which ultimately protects everyone from perilous consequences.” The anonymous narrator in the second part of the novella carries multiple maps of the same place, between which borders and laws vary. She has maps from research and political study centres detailing the boundaries of four regions, the Wall's route, settlement construction, and checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza. One map displays pre-1948 Palestine, another – provided by the rental car company and created by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism – outlines streets and residential areas as designated by the Israeli government. Each of these maps serves as a distinct lens through which the geopolitical landscape is interpreted and controlled, highlighting the multifaceted nature of geographical power play. These “minor details” shed light on the inexorable process of land expropriation and displacement and the ensuing “military”, “geographical”, “physical” and “mental” borders which render the Nakba a transhistorical political process. For once, Shibli takes the position of the victims, asking the readers in her narrator’s voice, "I jumped over the walls and borders dividing the houses and buildings, and I do believe that jumping over borders is fully justifiable in a situation like this, is it not?" These seemingly insignificant elements represent more than just geographic features; they are the markers of our connection to a place, evoking a profound sense of belonging. Each contour, boundary line, or landmark defines not only the physical landscape but also becomes a canvas upon which the narratives of communities and individuals are inscribed, influencing the way people perceive themselves and their place in the real world.


Throughout the novella, Shibli masterfully weaves a larger context embedded with subtle but significant details to fully grasp the suffering and chaos that conflicts can bring. The novella takes a stand against distorted histories by zooming in on small but crucial details. This rebellion is evident in the second section when the narrator discovers misleading or missing information in the museum's documents. The narrative challenges the authenticity of grand historical accounts, emphasising the importance of scrutinising the finer points to uncover a more truthful and nuanced understanding of events. Drawing from her studies on memories, Aleida Assmann encourages us to engage in conversations about the seemingly minor details of experiences. By preserving and passing on these small yet significant truths, we contribute to a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of the violence and hardships faced by marginalised communities. It becomes a powerful act of resistance against the potential violence of forgetting and neglecting the intricacies that shape the narratives of those who have endured persecution. In the novella, even the slightest movements of people are meticulously observed and explained to uncover the character, their mindset, and the larger cause they're dedicated to, thereby reflecting the socio-political conditions of that time. For instance, the repetitive act of cleaning with "water from a jerry can" and the commander's insistence that "soldiers should also be reminded of the importance of maintaining personal hygiene and shaving daily" serve as stark indicators of his unwavering obsession with purity and order. His constant act of cleaning himself shows his fixation on the Zionist mission, which involves erasing the "sterile nationalist sentiments" of the Arabs and sowing the seeds of his own nationalist expansion. Minor Detail redirects the narrative's focus inwards, departing from the customary conflict-driven stories. It delves deep into the realms of a military encampment. It ventures inside the cabin of a high-ranking military officer, peering into the intricacies of his innermost thoughts and emotions. Within this exploration, it reveals the painful wounds that we readers, as members of society, in a somewhat pitiful attempt, endeavour to cleanse and heal.


In an interview with Mireille Juchau in 2020, Shibli shared that her novella, originally written in Arabic, uses the language that had been “formulated by a specific experience” – in this case, the ways people were violated. Elisabeth Jaquette's translation of the work masterfully captures the horror and levity in Shibli's prose. “In Arabic, this linguistic experience needed a lot of space and precision – attention to what is written and what is intentionally not written,” says Shibli. The charged socio-political landscape compelled her to seek solace within the intricate minutiae , or indeed the ‘minor details' of human experiences, creating a vast, impenetrable sanctuary away from conflicts and distinct from forged stories. The dual temporal perspectives, nuanced layers of meanings in a narrative on disrupted landscapes - both physical and emotional - resonate even today. Whether in the harsh deserts of the first section of the novella or the actual tumultuous political landscapes in the present, sufferings form a common thread between disparate moments in history. 


As I lifted my head from the book and gazed out of the window, I was met with a scene that seemed to encapsulate the essence of Minor Detail. There, on the road, lay fallen flags - symbols of nations, ideologies, and conflicts. The fallen flags became a poignant reminder of the interconnectedness of our world, where the threads of past events are woven into the fabric of our present. As I closed the book and walked out of the cafe with a lingering sense of unease, I couldn't help but contemplate the weight of Minor Detail and its powerful reflection on the perennial nature of human struggles and the indelible marks they leave on the pages of history.


MALAVIKA P PILLAI is a first year DPhil student in English. With five shades of sticky notes in her pouch and a questionable amount of coffee in her mug, she's rewriting narratives one witty footnote at a time.


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