Happy Women in Translation Month (almost)! As you are probably aware, August is a month for celebrating women in translation and in preparation for this I have chosen to read Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette. For many of us, reading translated fiction is the only way we can access work written in other languages and about cultures other than our own. However, translated works are disproportionately written by white authors in Western European languages and therefore it is paramount we champion non-Western authors in translation. It’s also important for us to support women writers of translated fiction since less than a third of literary translations published in the UK are written by women.
Shibli’s book begins with a description of an Israeli patrol unit and their setting up camp in the Negev desert in 1949. They have been given the task of clearing the region to prepare for Israeli settlements. Their mission is largely uneventful, until one day they find a group of Arab nomads travelling with a young woman. Through the perspective of the officer in charge, the first half of the book narrates the rape and murder of the young Bedouin woman. The second half of the book is set in more recent times and is told from the viewpoint of an Arab woman living in Ramallah. After reading about the incident involving the young woman, she becomes obsessed with finding out the truth about what really happened all those years ago. Despite living in a zone which doesn’t permit her to travel, she decides to undertake a dangerous trip South to the scene of the incident where she hopes to investigate the case further. This book is about borders, man-made and unnatural, and how history is a matter of perspective.
Ultimately, the book aims to revisit forgotten events and to give the people who have been lost in history a voice. The Bedouin woman is labelled a “still-moaning black mass” by the captain and speaks in a different language to the other soldiers, only ever understood by her desperate screams. That her story has been retold in an article from the perspective of the Israeli soldiers emphasises her lack of agency. In addition to this, neither of the two women are named in the book which serves to highlight how they are two figures without a place in history. It stands for how they represent Palestinian women of past and present, both existing in times of unchanging political turmoil and suffering.
The narrator admits how had it not been that the event happened 25 years to the day she was born, she would never have sought to research it. Considering that incidents of this kind are not unusual, she notes how it was this minor detail, rather than the brutalities that took place, which drew her attention to it. However, apart from the date, there are many other minor details which connect the two stories. For example, the smell of petrol in the Bedouin woman’s hair is replicated when the modern-day narrator stops off at a petrol station to fill up her car and spills the petrol on her clothes. Or, in the detailed account of the modern-day narrator washing her body which was in contrast to the barbaric way the captured woman was stripped and hosed down by the captain in front of the other soldiers.
Both parts were written beautifully, in a calm, reflective style. Despite there being some very tense and uncomfortable moments, Shibli’s writing is unwavering and certain. I liked how the narrative was told without sentiment - to me, it made the story feel all that more genuine and less like a work of fiction. I enjoyed both parts equally and even though there weren’t any chapters, I found myself flying through this book.
This book is not heartwarming or optimistic, but it is beautiful and utterly compelling. Recently, I’ve been wanting to read more books about the Palestinian conflict and this book certainly delivered. It explores what every day life is like for people living in modern-day Palestine: from how occupied landscapes have changed, to the role of censorship in erasing local history. I would recommend it to anyone.
This copy was kindly gifted to me by Fitzcarraldo Editions and Clare Bogen <3