Minor Details, Major Revelations

by Beatrice Tridimas

In her novel Minor Detail — originally published in 2017; translated into English by Elisabeth Jaquette in 2020 — Palestinian author Adania Shibli retells a single act of violence that occurred in the wake of the 1948 Palestine war.

With immense precision, Shibli spends the first half of the book recounting the days leading up to the rape and murder of a Bedouin girl at the hands of Israeli soldiers, breaking down each action of a commanding soldier to its minutiae: from how his eyes adjust in the dark, to the order in which he walks to a corner of his hut, takes a jerry can, pours water into a bowl and so on.

In the second half, Shibli tries to make sense of this senseless atrocity — a true event — through a narrator who has become fixated on the story because it happened on the same day as her birthday, 25 years before she was born. Shibli and her narrator are able to piece together a fractured history and reclaim a narrative that would otherwise be lost and that challenges the accepted course of events.

Shibli was due to be awarded this year’s LiBeraturpreis, a prize open to female writers from Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Arab world, at a ceremony during the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. But in the run up to the festival, organisers of the award Litprom postponed the ceremony ‘due to the war started by Hamas, from which millions of people in Israel and Palestine are suffering.’

Shibli’s literary agency later told The Guardian that Shibli had intended to use the ceremony as an opportunity to speak about the role of literature during these times. Indeed, that sentiment is underlined in the very act of postponing the ceremony — an act that suggests the existence of a novel like Minor Detail poses some threat to the status quo.

The postponement of the award ceremony isn’t an outright silencing or cancelling — hundreds of authors have stood up in defence of Shibli, and the media spectacle has helped the book have lasting traction on social media — but it is a direct assault on the project she represents: the attempt to reconstruct histories and challenge dominant narratives, an assault that is reflected in the continued silencing of pro-Palestinians voices online.

Since violence broke out between Israel and Hamas, a number of Palestinian writers and their supporters have alleged that their social media platforms, which have become a lifeline amid continued disruption to internet and electricity services, have been shadow-banned — deprioritised, so that their content, their perspectives are hard to find on social media — or censored.

Much like Shibli’s novel, social media is all about minor details — a tool with which we document, record and share the minutiae, albeit often trivial, of life. It has become one of our most important sources of information. Entire wars and other major events are documented through social media posts. It is particularly valuable in a place like Gaza that is often cut off from the wider world. Social media has become its own purveyor of narratives, allowing users to piece together details, specific instances to make sense of the world around them.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. After violence broke out between Israel and Palestine in May 2021, Human Rights Watch called out Facebook for censoring Palestinian social media users. 7amleh, the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media recorded increased suppression of Palestinian voices online, while an independent review later found that Facebook had over moderated Arabic content.

In an article from October, experts from the Institute for Palestine Studies told Wired that collecting first-hand accounts and documenting live updates is essential to their work. Silencing voices online disrupts our understanding of history.

Had Litprom gone ahead with celebrating Minor Detail, they would have truly recognised the suffering they claim as the reason for postponement and acknowledged that this suffering is deep-wedged in a history they have instead tried to divorce it from, suggesting that the present is a reason to overwrite the past, rather than viewing the past as a tool for making sense of the present.

And while this reaction to Shibli’s novel is emblematic of its power, it also represents the danger of trying to reclaim narratives — a danger Shibli in fact warns us about in Minor Detail. Her narrator faces violent obstacles in her quest to uncover the truth of the Bedouin girl’s rape, which culminates in her own death at the hands of Israeli soldiers.

The narrator’s death contains another, more sombre warning to which we should all take heed as this war stretches on and as, inevitably, new divisions erupt: the censoring of minor details ultimately leads to the erasure of entire voices and entire histories.