Whoever tries to read a book cancel, often achieves the opposite. That certainly applies to what concerns the novel Tafṣīl Ṯānawī (A small detail) by the Palestinian writer Adania Shibli happened. Shibli has been praised in literary circles for years, but she was hardly known to the general public. Till the Frankfurter Book fairalmost the most important book fair in the world, decided to organize the event allocated to Shibli Liberaturpreis cannot be issued until further notice.
Adania Shibli: ‘What if you can no longer love? Many people have this deep question because of the war’
A public performance by Shibli and the German translator of her latest novel was also canceled. At the same time, it was reported that the book fair would pay a lot of attention to Jewish and Israeli voices. First the Frankfurt Book Fair reported that everything had happened in consultation with Shibli, but later the organization admitted that the Palestinian writer knew nothing about it.
The author, who commutes between Berlin and Jerusalem, may not have received a prize, but her fate did trigger a stream of supportive responses. Publishers promptly withdrew their participation in the book fair, more than 1,300 intellectuals called in an open letter to also give place to Palestinian writers:
“We must look for a new language and new ideas to approach these bleak times in a new way. We need writers – including Palestinian writers – more than ever for that.”
Despite the massive protest, Shibli remained unwelcome. “I don’t think it’s a problem that people are now getting to know my work thanks to the controversy,” Shibli tells a packed festival tent in The Hague.
More than history
In Arabic script she writes the first name of anyone who buys a copy of her contested novel Crossing Borderfestival in The Hague on November 5. Both the English and Dutch versions are selling quickly.
A small detail is the only novel by Shibli translated into Dutch. In English her two previous novels are – Touch and We are all equally far from love – can still be found as an e-book. Some of her short stories can be read (free) online.
‘As a writer you have the desire to portray something that goes beyond history’
In response to the cancellation of the award ceremony, the online magazine Arablit published her short story A tin ball again. Shibli tells how soldiers carelessly throw their materials into garbage bags among the rubble and corpses on the battlefield and then leave. Then come the medical teams, the international press and humanitarian aid convoys. Some children slip through the newcomers and make a football with the little waste left behind. With the words “They were happy” ends this post-apocalyptic short story.
In her novel A small detail In the first part, Shibli lets a disturbed officer of the Israeli army speak. We write August 13, 1949, one year after the Nakba (the catastrophe) for the Palestinians, or for the Israelis the origins of their nation. The officer, together with a number of soldiers, rapes and kills a defenseless Palestinian girl.
In the second part, Shibli zooms in on a Palestinian woman who was born exactly 25 years after this war crime. She reads a newspaper article about the girl.
“Coincidentally, I was also born in 1974,” Shibli laughs. The nameless narrator sets out on a staggering search for details about the girl of 1949. “It took me many years to write this complex story,” Shibli tells the Crossing Border audience. “I didn’t just base this book on a true story. As a writer you have the desire to portray something that goes beyond history.”
In love with language
As a child, Shibli immediately fell in love with language. “Anyone who grows up in Palestine automatically has a special relationship with language. You quickly understand that language is more than a means of communicating. You hear a lot of silence around you or soft whispers. You hear things that you cannot reach.”
She went on bizarre picnic trips with her parents. “My parents said we drove to places whose names I didn’t see anywhere on a sign along the way. They were names of destroyed Palestinian villages, I only realized later. Language gives you access to places that are no longer there.”
‘My book We are all equally far from love views love as a political force that can be destroyed’
In her novels, most characters remain nameless. Shibli considers giving a name an act of power that she does not want to have. “People who have no power are often nameless or have no face. I never try to depict a complete person, only a part. You only see a small detail.”
Yet she shudders at the idea of portraying the voice of the outcast. “It sounds spooky, but when you write you disappear and the voices come to you. They choose you.”
For Shibli, being Palestinian is something intimate. “It is our encounter with language and literature that shapes us. Literature teaches you how to live every day. Without it I would have become a monster,” she says with a quip. When she writes herself, she only listens to the language and tries to carry out that task with care. “I just happen to be in love with language.”
War endangers even love. Her previous novel We are all equally far from love contains a lot of hate. “That book was my most political novel. Even though there is nothing about politics in it. It views love as a political force that can be destroyed.”
“With the war between Palestine and Israel, the destruction of humanity is underway. Women are the first victims. What if you can no longer love? Many people have that deep question because of the war.”
A new view
In both parts of A small detail words take on a different meaning over time. “Compare it to how someone says to you at the beginning of a relationship, ‘oh, you’re crazy.’ Twenty years later, the meaning can be completely different, even though it’s the same words, the same people and maybe even the same sofa. “
Shibli has a serious complex with ‘water’. “In a silent film from 1930, I saw a woman filling a bucket of water. Then the man appears and what does she do? She just lets the water flow! I wanted to scream, ‘What a waste!’ When water is absent, life disappears. How do you deal with that? In the second part of A small detail the main character thinks about that.”
‘We read a lot at home, but sometimes the power went out and then it was my mother’s turn to tell stories’
As a writer, Shibli feels like a researcher. “I imagine and investigate the possibilities. That is not academic research or historiography. Both are very closed and investigate what has already been investigated. Literature goes further and opens up a new view.”
For Shibli, Palestine is not a country or nation state, nor an identity. She dreams of being able to call herself the literary teacher of Palestine. “My true quest: how can a text exist? My mother could not read or write. Yet I was always fascinated by how she could construct a story.”
“We read a lot at home, but sometimes the power went out and then it was my mother’s turn to tell stories. When the power came back on, she stopped her story. Where did that go? How does such a story survive ?”
A flock of geese
Shibli once wrote that writers are great illusionists. She is asked whether she harbors an illusion about the future. “Now I’m mostly afraid. Afraid that one day I’ll wake up and have no language left. That’s exactly what happened last month.”
“I’m afraid we will never look at the present with the idea that it is better than the past. What kind of bad joke have we found ourselves in that we long for the past?”
“What kind of bad joke have we gotten ourselves into that makes us long for the past?”
Last week Shibli was in Korea, on the border between north and south. “There I was, as a Palestinian, standing again at a border and soldiers. So I turned around. Suddenly I saw hundreds of geese sitting together in the zone where no one goes. So beautiful. Suddenly they flew up, their wingbeats made the air tremble. Wonderful.”
“Which goose took off first? How do they communicate with each other? This is what they do: neither goose forces the other to do anything, they consult constantly. They decide together and have a great sense of togetherness. Maybe I want to dream that for the future. That we could be those geese.”