“Packs quite the punch” – Minor Detail by Adania Shibli (trans. Elisabeth Jaquette)

What a great pleasure it is to read a book I didn’t see coming. Full disclosure (and, you know, respect to another piece of work): I read this review in The Guardian, I thought the book sounded terrific, I bought a copy of the book (albeit for my electronic reading device, given the current circumstances) and I read it and it was much better than I hoped it would be. Arguably that’s all you need to hear, really. You can read that first review, make your mind up, treat yourself to a copy.

If you’d like a little more (and I am nothing if not a people pleaser), what we have here is somewhat of a game of two halves: part one takes place in August 1949 in an encampment within the ‘great expanse of the arid Negev desert’. A group of soldiers are performing regular patrols, keeping their eyes out for any Arabs in the area. Their commanding officer, a man who seems to live a life of quite habitual pattern (Shibli takes time establishing his calm routines each day), is bitten by a bug and becomes quite ill, the bite on his leg seemingly infected, his bandages needing to be changed each day, the wound oozing in uncomfortable fashion. On one tour of the surrounding area, he and his men chance upon a group of Arabs who are all immediately killed, leaving behind a young female survivor who is brought back to the camp. Without giving too much away, the first part of the book then becomes a litany of horror for the young woman. Here’s the aforementioned commanding officer, addressing his troops:

“At about half nine, he stood up again and asked everyone to be quiet. His eyes and is face were deep red. He reminded them about the girl they had brought to the camp that day, and said there were some soldiers who had fooled around with her. A thick silence prevailed, subduing the joyousness that had filled the tent until a moment earlier. Several seconds passed in which no one uttered a word, and the tension swelled until he spoke again, announcing that he was presenting them with two options for a vote: either they send the girl to work in the camp’s kitchen, or they all have their way with her.”

This is merely the opening act, though, of much worse. The second half of the book concentrates on a person who reads the first part of the book as a news story many years later.

“To an extent, the only unusual thing about this killing, which came as the final act of a gang rape, was that it happened on a morning that would coincide, exactly twenty-five years later, with the morning I was born.”

The second narrator is a Palestinian whose movement is severely restricted. She has to borrow ID from a friend, and ask a colleague to rent a car for her, in order to travel to where the soldiers were camped and experience the place for herself – and the second half of the book is largely her journey, her nervousness, her vacillations, in regard to what she learns about that historical atrocity. She tells us:

“…there are some who consider this way of seeing, which is to say, focussing intently on the most minor details, like dust on the desk or fly shit on a painting, as the only way to arrive at the truth and definitive proof of its existence.”

Reading about the narrator’s journey will have you realising how easy your life is, even in the midst of lockdown. Even as our narrator takes a shower, we are forced to admit that quite possibly are lives are much easier than others around the world, that we have blessings upon blessings just from being born in a place. This feels like a fundamental truth of existence that a great many people (too many people) don’t consider each and every hour of their lives.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve passed through here, and wherever I look, all the changes constantly reassert the absence of anything Palestinian: the names of cities and villages on road signs, billboards written in Hebrew, new buildings, even vast fields abutting the horizon on my left and right.”

She travels with a number of different maps and can see how the world in front of her has changed over the course of twenty-five years. A single phrase reoccurs – a phrase that hangs in the camp at the start of the book for all the soldiers to see, a phrase that rings out throughout the second half of the book – “Man, not the tank, shall prevail.” The phrase travels from one side to the other. Which is to say, there is hope here, even as the book refuses to let the brutality escape. The brutality remains and the reader has no choice but to face it.

Any Cop?: Which is to say that Minor Detail by Adania Shibli packs quite the punch and comes highly recommended by us. For whatever that is worth.


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