Translated into English by Kari Dickson.
This essay was first published in the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen.
The very last encore that the British artist PJ Harvey gave at her concert in Oslo, on 30 October 2023, ended with her standing alone in her white dress on the stage, holding the flat of her hands out towards us, the audience, open, empty, as she sang the words: “I got blood on my hands.” She held her hands out to us for a long time, even after the music had stopped and everyone was clapping. All of us who were there, clapping, knew very well that we were in a safe space, in a safe, rich country.
We also knew we were in a kind of hiatus from the realities around us; an unthinkable genocide in Gaza, scenes that will never leave us once we’ve seen them. A father carrying the remains of his child in a plastic bag, a mother clutching her dead baby to her bosom, a little boy sitting covered in dust from the bombs that keep raining down, his feet shaking uncontrollably, his brother, covered in just as much dust, puts a hand on his foot to stop the shaking, but the little boy opens his hand and sees: he has blood on his hand, he is scared.
PJ Harvey, standing there on that safe stage, singing, in a western country, in a white dress, holding her hands out to us, at that precise moment in time, wants these to be the last words we hear before we go out into the snow, that she has blood on her hands. I don’t know if everyone in the room felt it, but I felt it, as I stood there clapping with my hands.
I had just read Adania Shibli’s novel, Minor Detail. Adania Shibli is the Palestinian author who was supposed to receive LiBeraturpreis 2023 at the Frankfurt Book Fair, but the Frankfurt Book Fair then decided she would have to wait because of Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7, 2023.
Minor Detail had overwhelmed me, among other things, because of this: shame at how little I actually knew. I knew that the Palestinians had suffered chronic injustice ever since they were driven from their own country—but did I know that they lived in such a deeply segregated society?
I, who had cried through Mandela’s struggles in the 80s, as a child, and couldn’t comprehend that it was possible, in my time, that people could be segregated because of race, I who had then been pacified when apartheid was abolished and thought the world had moved on? Minor Detail so upended this perception that when PJ Harvey sang “I got blood on my hands,” I felt my own ignorance running shameful red down between my fingers.
The Palestinian writer, Isabella Hammad, describes a similar aha-moment for Western authors at The Palestine Festival of Literature; Western authors who, like me, were not ignorant of the conflicts, but had not fully understood the depths, the consequences, the reality.
In the essay “Recognizing the Stranger,” she writes about a group of authors who are invited to visit Palestine and who experience it as a farewell to innocence; “They said things like ‘My youth is gone’ and ‘I have walked through a door and it has locked behind me.’ These were not even people who needed to be brought over from a distant political position: they came to Palestine with the desire to learn. They visited Hebron, and saw the soldiers patrolling, guarding settlers; they visited the destroyed town of al-Lydd; they navigated checkpoints; they traveled through Jerusalem and crossed in and out of the West Bank; they listened to statistics of killings and imprisonments and nighttime raids…”
Silence is what opens Shibli’s novel, and the sound of gunshots is what closes it. The endless silence of sand is there at the start and the end.
I didn’t visit Palestine, I only read Minor Detail. I didn’t spend my time as a student on post-colonial literary perspectives, I studied post-structuralism and deconstruction, and wrote my thesis on the French author Arthur Rimbaud, who actually went to Africa and was probably an arms dealer there when he stopped writing—but I didn’t pay too much attention to that, I wanted to find out how he used masks in his texts, how he expressed existential claustrophobia through what I came to call an inner irony.
Twenty years later, I nervously follow Shibli’s protagonist, a nameless first-person narrator, in her car through an area she isn’t actually allowed to be in, in search of information about a Bedouin girl who she’s read about in a newspaper article. The Bedouin girl was raped and killed by Israeli soldiers in 1948, after the Nakba, “the catastrophe,” the mass displacement of the Palestinians, a documented, historical event.
The girl is a small detail in a long history, who the narrator in the novel decides to seek out and make into the main story. But the narrator is soon overwhelmed by problems, the checkpoints she has to pass through, the borders she has to cross but can’t, because she doesn’t have permission to do so:
So I drive the little white car back to my house, where I’ll have the opportunity to reconsider my undertaking: maybe I’ll finally stop chasing after these reckless ideas, with their inevitably perilous consequences, and rid myself of the conviction that I can uncover any details about the rape and murder as the girl experienced it, not relying only on what the soldiers who committed it disclosed, as the author of the article did.
First of all, it is devastating to read this, when one has seen people on the news sitting on top of endless mounds of dusty ruins, grimy, dusty faces, to read how one lives with bomb warnings, even before this relentless bombing and genocide, how one has to open the windows so they don’t shatter when bombs explode, but that means that the room is covered in dust after the bombing, and secondly, it is devastating to read how the narrator goes about getting an ID card she has no access to, in order to go to an area where she’s not allowed to go, to visit a museum so she can source information about where the violated Bedouin girl was found. Not allowed.
I think about what it would be like for me if I first had to get an ID card to be allowed to travel to Oslo to go to the National Library, it’s impossible to imagine. Or if I wasn’t able to travel where I wanted in the world because I have a Norwegian passport, impossible to imagine, I take it for granted.
“By the way, I hope I didn’t cause any awkwardness when I mentioned the incident with the soldier, or the checkpoint, or when I reveal that we are living under occupation here,” says the narrator to the reader, in a shift that’s so typical of Shibli; ironic, gentle, floodlighting perfectly simple, absurd facts. They are occupied, there’s a risk it might be “awkward” to talk about it directly.
So, it was for this novel that Shibli was to be given LiBeraturpreis 2023. LiBeraturpreis: a prize name that’s worth considering for three seconds. The word for “freedom” has been grafted onto “literature,” in the form the Latin “liber,” which means free. The prize was established to honor the translation of voices that do not find their way so easily to the German public. It is awarded every year at the Frankfurt Book Fair to a fictional work written by a woman from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Arab world, and was created in response to the fact that translations of fiction written by women from these parts of the world are massively underrepresented in the German book market, as it says on the prize website, Litprom.de.
It’s a freedom prize; its purpose is to liberate, set free a voice. For Adania Shibli, who was awarded the prize for a novel about giving a voice to a girl who was never able to speak for herself, despite the narrator’s doubts; “In short, there’s absolutely no point in my feeling responsible for her, feeling like she’s a nobody and will forever remain a nobody whose voice nobody will hear,” who was never able to tell her story to the world, but who was raped and killed and then spoken about as a minor detail in a bigger news report, this silencing must have been ironic in the extreme.
“To cancel the ceremony and so try to silence the voice of Adania Shibli—‘due to the war in Israel’—is cowardly. But to say that Shibli agreed (‘amid the suffering in Gaza’) is worse.”
And what is worse, one can read that Litprom, who gives out the prize during the Frankfurt Book Fair, originally said in a statement that Shibli had agreed that postponing the prize ceremony was a good idea. This proved not be true; Shibli said that if she had come (an event with her translator was also canceled), she would have used the opportunity to reflect on the role that literature can play in such evil and painful times.
Shibli’s American publisher, Barbara Epler from New Directions, protested in an open letter: “To cancel the ceremony and so try to silence the voice of Adania Shibli—‘due to the war in Israel’—is cowardly. But to say that Shibli agreed (‘amid the suffering in Gaza’) is worse.” Litprom revised their statement—one now can’t find the original statement (published in the New York Times, by the way, who have also corrected their article).
In an open letter published on October 17 on Lit Hub, more than 650 authors, critics and publishers from all over the world criticized the decision to postpone, they cited Epler in the letter and concluded that the Frankfurt Book Fair has a responsibility to give space to Palestinian authors, not to shut them out.
Shibli, herself, was silent. She actually said nothing about what she felt in those four weeks, until she gave an interview with John Freeman in The Guardian, where she says: “Language has abandoned me in the past four weeks.” She then goes on to say:
I now understand this loss of language as an outcome of staying with pain: the incomprehensible pain of those in Palestine-Israel against whom a new degree of cruelty has been unleashed, the personal pain of the loss of a dream that we could dare to imagine a new form of togetherness, where we allow ourselves to learn from pain rather than unleash it against others.
She also says that the pressure to speak, from countless media, has made her realize that we normally “reduce silence to something that must be rejected, rather than recognizing our disfluency as a companion to pain. Literature is, for me, the only place that accepts silence.”
Silence is what opens Shibli’s novel, and the sound of gunshots is what closes it. The endless silence of sand is there at the start and the end. In between, there is the search for a voice, to say the unsayable, because it’s too painful, but that has to be said all the same. Here is the opening:
Nothing moved except the mirage. Vast stretches of barren hills rose in layers up to the sky, trembling silently under the heft of the mirage, while the harsh afternoon sunlight blurred the outlines of the pale yellow ridges. The only details that could be discerned were a faint winding border which aimlessly meandered across these ridges, and the slender shadows of dry, thorny burnet and stones dotting the ground. Aside from these, nothing at all, just a great expanse of the arid Negev desert, over which crouched the intense August heat.
The novel is divided into two roughly equal parts; the first part is narrated in the third person, and the incident with the Bedouin girl is seen from the outside, how the soldiers find her, what they do with her, where she ends up (buried in the sand). The second part is told in the first person. The narrator reads about the incident that happened twenty-five years before she was born, and decides to find out more about the girl and tell the story from her perspective. It turns out that it’s not that easy to get hold of information; part two is a labyrinthine, nervous journey across borders and bans.
And even though the girl, her story, is the focus of both parts, her voice is never heard; in the first, she is a minor character, in the second, she is a goal that is never reached. The girl, who was a minor detail in the newspaper article, and her voice, are per definition unreachable, she is, at the end of the novel, still gagged.
What is truly remarkable about this two-part story, is that when the novel ends, the narrator is also silent, as all narrators fall silent when the final full stop is in place, but here: the narrator has managed to find a way into a forbidden area, gets out of her car at the desert where the girl lies buried, she walks over the sand and spots some camels in the distance—and soldiers. She has picked up a bullet casing she found in the sand, and is scared: “I have to calm down, immediately. Being tense won’t change the course of things. Then there’s the bullet casing in my hand; I open my fingers and it falls softly to the sand.”
Is that not the very essence of fiction, that there’s a voice that is distinct from the unequivocal, that has a fundamental complexity, and a fundamental ambivalence about it?
The soldiers ask her to stand completely still, but the narrator is so nervous that she grabs a packet of chewing gum she has in her pocket, and these are the final words of the novel, don’t read them if you don’t want to know what happens, but then you can’t read the rest of the essay either, you have to stop at this point, go and read the novel, then come back here and read again the last words of the novel, which are these: “And suddenly, something like a sharp flame pierces my hand, then my chest, followed by the distant sound of gunshots.” And then there is silence.
Just before Litprom and the Frankfurt Book Fair made their decision to postpone the prize ceremony and cancel the event Shibli was going to have there, there was an article about Minor Detail in the leftwing German newspaper Die Tageszeitung, also known as TAZ. The ingress asks: “Can one commend a novel that portrays Israel as a murder machine?”
The journalist Carsten Otte is of the view that Ulrich Noller, who left the Litprom jury in protest against the prize being given to Shibli, because he thought the book promoted anti-Semitic feelings (due to the portrayal of the Israeli soldiers who raped and killed the Bedouin girl) and the author Maxim Biller, who reviewed Minor Detail in Süddeutsche Zeitung and said that it was nonliterary, Palestinian propaganda, did not go far enough.
The article has been quoted before, in Klassekampen among other places, but there’s one detail that was not be included in the account of Otte’s argument; and that is that Otte refers to Shibli’s narrator in Minor Detail as “a Palestinian first-person narrator.” Otte writes that Biller was of the view that “…the book, which ends with the heavily symbolic murder of the terrified Palestinian first-person narrator by a couple of faceless, nameless, brutal Israeli soldiers, in the end is nothing more than a piece of nonliterary propaganda.”
It’s the first time I have heard a nationality specified in a narrator context (I have never heard of the first-person narrator in Madame Bovary being spoken of as a French first-person narrator, for example). What about the authorial narrator of the first part, what nationality is he then? The solution for Otte here is to call the style “French existential prose in an authorial perspective.” Thus, a division is made, almost unnoticeably, between first-person narrators and third-person narrators, where it’s possible to specify a nationality for a first-person narrator, but not a third-person narrator. Where does that leave literature?
If we take another example: How should one read the book Weep Not, Child by the Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o—should one call his narrator, who has a kind of implicit first-person narrator perspective (because it’s obvious that he knows the culture he is telling about from the inside) despite the third-person perspective, a “Kenyan narrator,” and should one, as a white person, be suspicious of him, because he portrays the abuse of power by whites over blacks?
Could one then, for example, not read this paragraph “You could never tell what these people would do. In spite of the fact that they were all white, they killed one another with poison, fire and big bombs that destroyed the land. They had even called the people to help them in killing one another. It was puzzling,” without thinking that he’s biased, because he himself (as a Kenyan narrator) is black, and his criticism (which comes through in the irony) is colored by his own national perspective?
The thought is absurd, not just because we as whites have gradually learnt that we deserve all the rage and have more than enough to answer for, but also because it makes no sense to read a narrative voice as separate from a complex, linguistic universe where voice, style, linguistic imagery, perspective, syntactical rhythm, dramaturgical development, all elements that give a meaning that counteracts, with all its complex force, the unequivocal. One can get so tired of saying it. But it has to be said.
However, for Biller and Otte, the fact that Shibli’s narrator gets shot in the final scene invalidates the book’s literariness. It’s not unusual for a narrator’s voice to stop talking once the final full stop is in place. But this particular way of silencing the narrator’s voice is so effective for Otte that he loses sight of the literary merit. What kind of literary voice are we dealing with when it ends like this? How can a first-person narrator who has been shot talk about themselves and their own (possible) moment of death in retrospect, a retrospect that plays out in the present, no less, as we read? Is that not the very essence of fiction, that there’s a voice that is distinct from the unequivocal, that has a fundamental complexity, and a fundamental ambivalence about it?
When the voice in Shibli’s novel tells us in the last line that she has been hit in the hand and chest by bullets, one might assume that consciousness ends there, but the voice then registers that the searing flame in her hand and chest is “followed by the distant sound of gunshots.” The voice that is speaking here, both the one that drops a bullet casing in the sand and the one that registers the burning pain, and afterwards, “the distant sound of gunshots,” is talking outside and beyond the present tense of language. It is a constructed literary presence, from a voice without bounds.
As a writer, it makes me uneasy, to put it mildly, to read about these accusations of propaganda, particularly when they are based on a misinterpretation of the splintered end (the narrator is shot in front of our eyes, but still speaks). But worse still, Otte, who has established that the novel makes use of a Palestinian first-person narrator, and has used this as an argument to kill any notion of a fictional construction, wants to support his own argument by pointing out that Adania Shibli can be called a BDS-activist.
Implied: if one is an activist, one uses propaganda—in all fora? BDS stands for “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions,” a movement working to end international support for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, as it says on their website, and pressure Israel to comply with international law. TAZ-journalist Otte argues that Shibli has signed a BDS call for a boycott: in 2007, she signed a call that compares Israel with South Africa’s apartheid regime, “a classic in modern anti-Semitism,” according to Otte.
Adania Shibli sued TAZ for these accusations. She wanted the sentences “In this short novel, all Israelis are anonymous rapists and killers, while the Palestinians are victims (…). The violence against Israeli civilians therefore does not come to the fore, as the violence is presented as a legitimate means in the fight for independence from the occupiers. This is the ideological basis for the book that also shows a contempt for humanity” to be deleted from Otte’s article, she did not want to be called a BDS-activist, and demonstrated that she has spoken out against cultural boycott as a tool in several essays. Shibli lost the case, and TAZ reported the ruling as follows: “Victory for TAZ and freedom of speech.” Adania Shibli has lodged an appeal.
What is a mirage? They occur when warm air reflects the sky on the ground. The world appears upside down. The sand that opens and closes the novel, Minor Detail, is what unsettles me most, as I sit here looking at my hands. If I lift my hands up in front of my face they look so grainy, they look as though they intend to crumble if I don’t hold them together, try to say something about this, about what happened when Adania Shibli was awarded Litprom’s LiBeraturpreis 2023, about what might happen if we don’t protect the place that Shibli is talking about, fiction as the only place that accepts silence, fiction as a place where boundaries can be crossed, into something hopeful, uplifting, expansive, where voices that can’t speak are given a voice.