“Try to remember some details,” implores the speaker of one of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s well-known poems (Amichai, 318). In translation, it’s impossible to tell that the original Hebrew recalls the Passover Haggadah’s Rabbi Yehuda (naturally), who proffered a mnemonic for the ten plagues, brutal punishments that God memorably rained down on the Egyptians. Amichai reimagines this perhaps undue need for the recollection of details—committing to memory the kinds of clothing our loved ones last wore, for example—as an existential imperative, or that which leaves room for human individuation in the face of death’s leveling processes.
Yet what is one to do when the details constitute the predicament itself? When a few unbearable fragments are all that we cannot unknow and when they point to all that we never will know? Adania Shibli’s third novel, Minor Detail, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, attends to these questions with imagination and searing irony. At the center of Shibli’s work is a set of heinous crimes (whose once-buried “details” were first reported in the newspaper Ha’aretz in 2003) perpetrated in the early years of Israeli statehood: over the course of three days in August 1949, a group of Israeli soldiers stationed on a surveillance mission in the Negev desert captured, gang raped, and murdered a young Bedouin girl—likely a teenage child.
The first half of Minor Detail reconstructs these crimes while imagining the events surrounding them, lending the testimonies and records coherence and creative force. From the first pages, Shibli builds atmospheric tension by foregrounding the hostility and tedium of the desert setting, with its “thick, heavy […] air” and unrelenting heat (7). But toward whom does the desert direct its hostilities? By way of response, an Israeli platoon commander comes into focus, and the section thereafter spotlights his actions, especially his insistent, careful practice of personal hygiene, without offering a view into his psyche. The third-person limited seemed a wisely restrained narratorial choice within the context of this bold literary move.
The apprehensive mood that Shibli and her very capable translator Elisabeth Jaquette cultivate is displaced onto the extended metaphor of a mysterious bite that afflicts the commander in the middle of the night, its two dots characteristic of the Mediterranean black widow’s puncture marks. As the venom courses through the commander’s body, it leaves him feeling like he’s “being flayed alive” and seizes his central nervous system (13). The circumstances don’t improve much from there. That a tiny (probably female) “creature” could knock the officer to his knees speaks to the outsize power of the “minor detail,” a poetic metacommentary on the toxic, lingering aftereffects of the supposedly “small-scale,” unacknowledged war crime.
With the commander hovering over the brink of hallucination, the narrative reaches its pitch. His eyes narrow on “a band of Arabs” whom his men execute without provocation or warning: “Then,” we’re told, “came the sound of heavy gunfire” (24). By whose orders? The agentlessness of this clipped sentence emphasizes the commander’s dissociation from his role in the violence, read, perhaps, as part of an out-of-body experience that conveniently disavows moral culpability.
After the killings, there remains the matter of a girl “curled up inside her black clothes like a beetle” (24). The narrator, following the attentions of the commander, offers only these sorts of pared-down, dehumanizing descriptions of the girl throughout the work. We never truly learn much about her under his gaze, except that her body odors assail his senses, described to us on several occasions.
Despite the offense the commander takes at the girl’s odors, despite even his own initial warnings to his men not to touch her, he rapes her and creates the conditions for his men to do the same. The collective rape, we come to understand, is only one of several violations they commit against her person. Shibli illustrates the commander’s public stripping and hosing down of the girl, as well as the delousing and hair cutting that are invariably allusive of the Holocaust. So too is the commander’s obsession with hygiene—his desire to maintain his dignity and his show of civility—which stands at odds with his brutality toward his captive. His decision making concerning the girl is more capricious than calculated, however, highlighting his disregard for her body and fate, her status as afterthought in his mind, as minor.
The latter half of the novel brings us to the present day or thereabout, with a first-person account of a Palestinian woman from Ramallah, consumed with uncovering “the whole truth” about the rape and murder. Such violent incidents had historically not drawn her attention, she concedes, since they’re regular features of “a place dominated by the roar of occupation and ceaseless killing” (60). Still, she cannot shake one minor detail: the crime transpired exactly twenty-five years before the day that she was born.
The narrator attributes her fixation on this coincidence to her inability to “evaluate situations rationally and logically” (59). She confesses to navigating borders—whether barriers marked by checkpoints or figurative social boundaries—unmasterfully, despite their ubiquity in her life. These aren’t fine lines, as it were, and she thus all but explicitly self-identifies as neuroatypical. What she lacks in instinctive self-preservation, however, underscores her inequitable circumstances more than it compromises her credibility as a narrator. Why should anyone, neurotypical or otherwise, be forced to understand how to behave when a soldier aims a gun at them?
The second half of the work ultimately comments on and complicates our understanding of the first half, viewed through a Palestinian lens that speaks to the legacies of war and colonial dispossession. The atmosphere remains sinister, with common motifs—a dog’s howl, spiders, the oppressive desert heat—echoing throughout; however, the first-person narratorial voice offers a greater sense of immediacy for the reader, who is also frustrated by the omissions that characterize the first half. At the same time, it becomes clear that life for Palestinians is still subject to the dominion and whims of Israeli soldiers over fifty years later.
It is here that I’d also like to bring attention to Jaquette’s translation, with its subtle shift in the transliteration of the Hebrew Negev to that of the Arabic Naqab desert mirroring the move from the first to the second half of the text. I took this to be the translator’s own ironizing of the “minor detail,” thrown into relief by the namelessness of the characters and of entire towns and villages that have been obliterated from the narrator’s map.
While reading this work, one cannot help but consider war’s distortions of scale, how a series of savage acts committed against one person can be treated as “minor” by its perpetrators, by the military courts that too-leniently sentenced those perpetrators, and by history. Despite it all, Minor Detail upholds the practice of close observation and the attempt to rescue and lay hold of small pieces within circumstances whose magnitudes threaten to overwhelm human attentiveness. These details do matter in an existential sense, for it’s their lack that haunts each page, implicating the powerful individuals and institutions involved in violating the young girl’s body and her truth.
Shibli, Adania. Minor Detail, trans. Elisabeth Jaquette. New Directions Books, 2020.
Sheera Talpaz is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College, where she teaches courses on modern Hebrew, Arabic, and English literatures. Her research focuses on the intersection of politics, poetry, and literary reception, with attention to the figures of the “national poet” and the poet-activist in Palestine/Israel. Outside of her scholarship, Sheera occasionally writes and translates poetry. She splits her time between Oberlin, Ohio and Durham, North Carolina.
 Nearly objective, except that the narrator is privy to such internal elements as the commander’s unvoiced feelings of physical pain.
Amichai, Yehuda. “Try to Remember Some Details,” trans. Chana Bloch in The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, ed. Robert Alter (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015), 319.
Lavie, Aviv, and Moshe Gorali.“‘I Saw Fit to Remove Her From the World.” Ha’aretz, 28 October 2003, www.haaretz.com/1.4746524. Accessed 7 August 2020.