When she was a child, Adania Shibli encountered her first storyteller on her family’s almond and olive farm in Palestine. It was her mother. “When we didn’t have electricity, my mom would gather us around, because we were afraid and we couldn’t read. She would tell us stories until the light came back.”
Shibli’s mother didn’t read or write, so the stories she told live now only in Shibli’s brothers and sisters. On a recent morning, back in Zurich where the novelist is in residency, one of these tales chimneys up through memory. Retelling it over Zoom, Shibli’s face breaks into the wide smile that spreads across her face any time she speaks of her family. In the swirl of her telling, the plot floats away but one thing becomes clear: in the tale, as a result of a man’s carelessness to words, he loses everything.
Shibli is telling this story with a purpose. In mid-October, she was due to be awarded the LiBeraturpreis, an award for authors from the global south given out by the German literary organisation LitProm, at a ceremony at the Frankfurt book fair. She was abruptly disinvited “in a brief email”, as she puts it, with LitProm citing the war between Israel and Palestine. A letter criticising the postponement of her award was signed by more than 1,500 authors including Nobel prize winners Annie Ernaux, Abdulrazak Gurnah and Olga Tokarczuk. But Shibli herself has until now not commented on the affair in public.
In spite of the requests that piled on her desk by the dozens, she flew to Korea for a literary festival and a translation of her book. She had previously told people in Seoul she would come and she wasn’t going to go back on her word. “The minute you say you will do something, you have to do it.”
This attitude toward language is also one of the reasons why in 25 years of writing, Shibli has published only three short novels: Touch, We Are all Equally Far from Love and Minor Detail, exquisite, wind-tunnelled books which evoke the inner lives of characters against whom language has been used as a weapon, an instrument, a kind of cage. Her novels sculpt supple, exquisitely beautiful states of being which persist in her characters in spite of these systems, within the landscape of what she calls a “scarred language.”
This is especially true of Minor Detail, a book of two entwined tales. In the first, unfolding in August 1949, an officer leading a battalion cleansing the southern Negev of remaining Arabs and Bedouins comes across, abducts, and ultimately rapes and kills a Bedouin girl. In the book’s second half, a woman born 25 years to the day after this crime reads a news item about it. She sets off to learn more, navigating all the obstacles one might expect a Palestinian faces trying to get through checkpoints to libraries and archives to access her past.
“It’s a miracle that the fiction Adania makes out of such cascadingly political material is so tightly existential,” says the novelist Adam Thirlwell in an email. “It’s something to do with the combination of intent, physical precision, of bodies and of landscapes, combined with her wild compositional control and darkly comic perspective. The novel is an intricate study of empathy and cross-border investigations.”
The book took Shibli 12 long years to write, during which she moved to London to complete a PhD in media and cultural studies (her thesis was on visual terror in 9/11). It was the time of the second intifada and she was having nightmares. Living far from where her language was spoken allowed Shibli to experience it more closely, though, including what became the first line of the book’s second part. “After I had finished hanging the curtains over the windows, I lay down on the bed.”
Language can be attacked, abused. It can still offer the ultimate freedom of being and love you don’t have access to in reality
When it was published in Germany in the spring of 2022, Minor Detail was met with ecstatic reviews. But in the run-up to the Frankfurt book fair, the journalist Carsten Otte wrote a review complaining that in the book “all Israelis are anonymous rapists and killers, while the Palestinians are victims of poisoned or trigger-happy occupiers.” Shibli believes the review was instrumental in the decision to postpone her award. Still, she says, “I experienced this whole matter as a distraction from the real pain, not more”.
Speaking to me now, Shibli points out that all of the Palestinian characters in the book are nameless, too. In fact, the first time we encounter Arabs at all in the novel, it is only their shadows the soldier sees: “Their slender black shadows sometimes wavered in front of him, trembling between the hills, but whenever the vehicles raced toward them, they found no one when they arrived.”
Shibli’s heritage is also Bedouin. Her ancestors came to Palestine 1,000 years ago as warriors for Saladin, the first sultan of both Egypt and Syria. An enormous area of land was handed over to be controlled by her family, but with time it was reduced, first with the British rule over Mandatory Palestine, and then with the creation of Israel, which stopped their nomadic movements which “disrupts the control of land and people,” as Shibli puts it. In the end, the Israeli government confiscated all the lands, allowing her father to claim some back if he took it from another Palestinian family. He refused.
Shibli grew up on the farm that remained, going to work at the age of four. Before entering school she had learned reading and writing Arabic from one sister and English from another, and snuck books out on to the fields. “I spent more time with goats than my parents”, she laughs. At nine a sister gave her a notebook to write in and she didn’t look back. By university, she was writing texts, submitting them to the best magazines in Palestine. In her early 20s, a piece she wrote drew the attention of legendary poet Mahmoud Darwish, who summoned her to his office and asked her to write a four-page text. She did, and then he encouraged her for more: thus her novel Touch came to be.
Nearly 30 years later, Shibli summarises the flex of linguistic power and erasure her book was engaging with as follows: “In Palestine-Israel, I, like many others, grew up realising language is not merely a tool for communication. It often hides rather than articulates, holding between its silence endless possibilities not concerned with expression. Language can be attacked, abused. It can still offer the ultimate freedom of being and love you don’t have access to in reality.”
It is here, when it comes to being Palestinian, that the scar within language can be most painful. How to write what you cannot hear? It begins with deletion of “certain words,” Shibli says, “the most immediate one is ‘Palestine’, the names of places we articulate in Arabic but are never present in road signs or maps, the silence of everyone around us as to the past, the word Arab and Arabic being treated as curse words, ‘Arabic job’ used to mean a bad job, and so on.”
When she talks about language, Shibli often sounds as if she is speaking of a sentient being with a will all of its own. One that can be harmed. Since the explosion of violence in Israel and Palestine, words have left her almost entirely and she worries over their departure. “I was always afraid that one day I would wake up and I wouldn’t have language, this is my fear. And in the last four weeks language has deserted me, it was like it was not there. Whenever I tried, I failed.”
“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.”
The numerous media requests of the last few weeks and the criticism of her not answering them, she says, has made her realise that we tend to reduce silence to something that must be rejected, rather than “recognising our disfluency as a companion to pain”. “Literature, for me, is the only place that accepts silence”.
She had, however, begun writing one text she planned to give as an acceptance speech before she was disinvited from the book fair. It was on book banning.