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Landscapes of Memory

Two Palestinian novels confront the ghosts of the Nakba

Minor Detail, by Adania Shibli, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette. New Directions, 105 pages.

The Book of Disappearance, by Ibtisam Azem, translated by Sinan Antoon. Syracuse University Press, 256 pages.

My grandmother is eighty-six years old. She is unable to wash herself, can barely walk on her own two feet. She spends most of her days napping on the sofa as endless talk shows stream through the television. Video calls with her are increasingly difficult. She was once a vibrant woman, famous for her sharp comebacks and wisecracks; today she repeats herself often, asks the same two questions over and over again, or stares silently at us through the computer. I suspect that she will die soon.

My grandmother is the last member of our family that lived through the first wave of the Nakba, the war in 1948 that ended in the expulsion of over seven hundred thousand Palestinians and the establishment of the state of Israel. She was fourteen when her family fled their home in Haifa; they made their way by car through Lebanon, eventually settling in Beirut. There was a time when she could recall with perfect clarity the Palestine that once was, pre-occupation. With each passing year, these memories grew more vague and uncertain. She no longer remembers much from that time. Her memories are punctured with large, gaping holes. When she dies, our last direct link with that pivotal moment in Palestinian history will be broken.

Much modern Palestinian literature has been concerned with recuperating memories of life before the Nakba—and laying claim to the land that has been gradually occupied ever since. These were the tasks explicitly taken up by the “Resistance Literature,” a movement which formed around political parties and direct political action in the 1950s and 1960s, and included writers such as Ghassan Kanafani, Sahar Khalifeh, and Mahmoud Darwish. Kanafani, who coined the term, wrote spare, allegorically inflected stories about exile and displacement. In his masterpiece, Men in the Sun (1963), three Palestinian men are left to suffocate in a tanker truck that’s supposed to be smuggling them across the Iraq-Kuwait border—a biting commentary on how Palestinian suffering is simultaneously exploited and ignored by the Arab world. Even when individual narratives ended in tragedy, the Literature of Resistance reasserted the legitimacy of Palestinian struggle. The occupation and ongoing land grab might have rendered a Palestinian state presently untenable. Yet, as Darwish wrote in one of his most famous poems, “We have a country made of words.”

The Arab defeat in 1967 and Lebanese civil war that followed brought loss and existential malaise to the fore of Palestinian writing, even if these themes were often presented in disguise. Emille Habibi’s The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist (1974) is a carnivalesque satire—drawing on Kafka, Walt Disney, and science fiction—about a Palestinian-Israeli who narrates his life story to aliens he believes have contacted him. The interstellar distance between the book’s interlocutors poignantly conveys the absurdity and alienation that marks the lives of Palestinians in Israel.

Contemporary Palestinian artists seem preoccupied with borders, with the alienation, disquiet, and fragmentation they enforce.

The Oslo Accords of 1993-95—which Edward Said rightly denounced as a “Palestinian Versailles”—saw the creation of the Palestinian Authority as a presumptive self-governing body in the West Bank and Gaza. In its aftermath, some Palestinians were able to leave their towns and villages to work or study in Israel. At the same time, the Accords effectively ushered in the dystopian landscape of militarized checkpoints, daily border-crossings, periodic bombing, and the division of land into alphabetically named military zones, not to mention the giant wall separating Palestinians living in Israel from those living in the West Bank and Gaza. In effect, it served as a grand mirage that obfuscated the horrific reality on the ground.

Little surprise then that contemporary Palestinian artists seem preoccupied with borders, with the alienation, disquiet, and fragmentation they enforce. In his memoir Palestinian Walks (2007), Raja Shehadeh chronicled his daily hikes through changing landscapes, noting the mounting challenge of navigating the checkpoints put in place by the Israelis. In a famous scene featuring a red balloon in Elia Suleiman’s black comedy film Divine Intervention (2002), transgressing borders becomes in itself an act of surrealism and absurdity. In a recent essay, “From Haifa to Ramallah (and Back): New/Old Palestinian Literary Topography,” the Palestinian literary scholar Amal Eqeiq argues that what distinguishes the literature of the post-Oslo generation “is its negotiation of border crossing in a fragmented geography and its engagement with the city as a space of paradoxical encounter between a national imaginary and a settler-colonial reality.” In an ever-shrinking homeland, as the last of the Nakba generation begin to die, Palestinian writers reveal how the topographies and memories of the past haunt the present.

Two recent Palestinian novels approach this subject in very different ways. Ibtisam Azem’s The Book of Disappearance, translated from the Arabic by the Iraqi poet Sinan Antoon, imagines what happens when the gradual disappearance of the Palestinian people from their land reaches its logical conclusion. Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, returns to the Nakba to examine the repercussions of a single, emblematic incident of violence that has been all but erased from history. Both writers were born in 1974 and can be considered a part of the “post-Oslo” generation. Both have lived considerable parts of their adult lives abroad. Born in Palestine, Shibli currently splits her time between Berlin and Jerusalem; born and raised in northern Jaffa, Azem is now based in New York. If Palestinian literature of earlier generations was largely driven by nostalgia for an idyllic pre-1948 past, these novels are an investigation into what remains: the ghosts that linger in the ongoing, slow-burning, ethnic cleansing of a land.

West Bank settlements, 2011 | Montecruz Foto/Flickr.

The Book of Disappearance begins with a tantalizing thought experiment: What would happen if Palestinians suddenly disappear into thin air? At the stroke of midnight, all the Palestinian inhabitants of Israel inexplicably vanish. Field and hospital workers don’t show up to work; public transportation grinds to a halt; and prison guards are shocked to find endless cells suddenly empty of prisoners.

Azem relates the following events—a kind of hardline Israeli pipe dream—from two alternating perspectives. About half of the book is made up of excerpts from a diary left behind by Alaa, a Palestinian who worked as a freelance cameraman in Tel Aviv. The diary is found by his Israeli neighbor Ariel, himself a journalist, who mulls over it over the course of forty-eight hours. Occasionally, the narrative provides snapshots from elsewhere—a patient awaiting treatment at a hospital, a transgender sex worker whose Palestinian pimp has vanished—offering a spectrum of Israeli reactions to this strange event, which range from anger to suspicion, indignation to relief, joy to betrayal. Some discern a conspiracy and prepare for an imminent attack. Others, more cunning, move into the “abandoned” houses that once belonged to Palestinian residents, jostling for the real estate on Haifa’s Abbas Street that overlooks the sea—a clear echo of what happened after the Nakba. Still others fail to understand why Palestinians would choose to disappear at all. “Why would they go on strike? What do they lack?” a clueless character asks.

The Israeli military police logged 158 investigation cases of sexual assault in 2018 alone, likely just the tip of the iceberg.

Ariel is uncomfortable with the quick appropriation of spaces left behind by the Palestinians. Tel Aviv starts to look strange to him, the ghosts of the past becoming clear only in their absence. It is a reaction befitting a “liberal” Israeli, which is how Ariel thinks of himself. He has questioned the military occupation, both in his journalism and in private conversations with his right-wing uncle (he “did not think it was necessary to keep the West Bank and Gaza”); and he prides himself on (sometimes) saying the “West Bank” as opposed to “Judea and Samaria.” But then again, he also served with the army in Hebron because “his presence and writing about it would be more important and consequential than refusing to serve.”

Soon enough, Ariel begins writing news pieces about the disappearance for an American newspaper. It is as part of his “research” that he begins to read through Alaa’s diary, gradually, coming to understand something of the daily struggles and frustrations of Palestinians living under the racist state. These readings also cast a dark light on what Ariel thought was a relatively uncomplicated friendship between them. In an entry written after the two met for drinks one evening, Alaa recounts how he suddenly had to excuse himself and leave, running out of patience with his Israeli friend:

I felt estranged from myself. This is not the first time I have had this feeling. But it was so intense and overwhelming this time. I can’t take it any longer, and am running out of patience with them. But how many times have I said this before? I say it and it doesn’t matter whether I speak calmly or scream, they only see themselves. They hear, but they don’t listen.

This could have been the start of bitter and necessary education. But even as he reads Alaa’s diaries (an invasive act in itself), even as he spars with his mother who intends to move into a now abandoned Palestinian home in Haifa, even as he admits to having “misgivings” about the Israeli government’s response to the disappearances, Ariel eventually moves into his friend’s apartment. Azem paces this slowly, subtly, so that it is barely perceptible, the appropriation only fully realized in its aftermath.

Meanwhile, another drama plays out in the pages of the diary. Alaa’s grandmother, like my own, was alive during the Nakba of 1948. She remained in the state that would be called Israel, becoming “[an] orphan of a country.” Early in the novel, we learn of her death, in the wake of which Alaa tries to recall what she told him about the Jaffaa of her youth. The diary is, in fact, addressed to her. At one point he pleads with her, writing:

I’m mad at you. Your memory, which is engraved in my mind, has all these holes it. Am I not remembering all that you told me, or was it incomprehensible? I was very young when I started listening to your stories. Later, when I turned to them for help, I discovered these holes. I started to ask you about them. But the more I asked, the more you got mixed up, or maybe I did. How would things not get mixed up?

Much like my own disquiet over the impending death of my grandmother and the loss of the memories trapped inside her mind, Alaa’s grief is over more than a single family member. His grandmother’s death is a rupture. It unearths in Alaa a fear that is familiar to Palestinians all over the world. As the guardians of pre-Nakba memory die—as what is left of our country is erased, bit by bit, before our eyes—new meaning is given to Anton Shammas’s observation that “the loneliness of the Palestinian . . . is the greatest loneliness of all” (a quote that appears in Sinan Antoon’s translator’s afterword). Before he disappeared, Alaa always felt a kind of cognitive dissonance living in the space between the Jaffa of his grandmother’s pockmarked memories and the modern city of Tel Aviv. “I feel like I am a returnee from history,” he writes to her. “Always tired, roaming my own life like a ghost. Yes, I am a ghost who lives in your city. You, too, are a ghost, living in my city.”

Adania Shibli. | Photo Hartwig Klappert.

Although just over one hundred pages, Adania Shibli’s magnificent Minor Detail took twelve years to write—and it shows in the novel’s razor-sharp prose. Divided into two halves of equal length, the first section of Minor Detail begins in the summer of 1949, one year into the Nakba. Set in an Israeli army encampment in the Negev Desert, the narrative covers a few days in the life of a platoon officer overseeing the clearing of the land, carried out in preparation of establishing the new state’s border with Egypt. While on patrol, the soldiers encounter a tribe of Bedouins, killing nearly all of them. They take hostage the sole survivors: a young woman and her dog. Over the course of the next two days, the soldiers take turns raping the teenager, before they murder her and bury her body in the desert.

Based on a real-life case, this incident—a “minor detail” quickly forgotten in the midst of the violence of Israeli state-making—joins other testimonies and documentations on the use of rape and sexual violence by the IDF against Palestinian women during the 1948 war, a tactic that continues to the present day. (The Israeli military police logged 158 investigation cases of sexual assault in 2018 alone, likely just the tip of the iceberg.[*]) Shibli recounts the crime from a clinical and detached third person perspective. At times, the text almost resembles stage directions for a ghastly screenplay, as in this account of the captive’s “sterilization”:

The medic placed the chair on the ground and set the bag beside it, then turned to the girl, took her by the arm, and led her toward the chair, pressing down on her shoulders to make her sit. He bent over his bag, removed a pair of gloves, and nimbly donned them, then gestured for the soldier to bring him the jerry can. The medic took it and began pouring gasoline over the girl’s hair until it was completely soaked. Then he set the jerry can aside and patiently began to rub her scalp, focusing on the roots of her hair, behind the ears and above her nape.

Form, psychology, and politics are powerfully brought together in such passages. The sterilized tone—clean and crisp, withholding all moral commentary—chimes eerily with the soldiers’ mission in the desert: to cleanse the land of Palestinians. The platoon officer himself is obsessed with cleansing: purifying the woman, sweeping and ordering his room, sterilizing and washing his own body in the relentless heat. Despite all this, the girl’s suffocating odor haunts him like a moral stain, as she lays captive in his small hut before her brutal violation:

The scent of manure, a sharp smell of urine and genital secretions, and the sour stench of old sweat overpowering new. The air gradually filled with all these pungent smells, some of which still clung to the girl’s body, forcing him at times to turn his head to avoid breathing the air around her. 

Throughout, the landscape presents itself as silent and mysterious force, quick to bury secrets and the dead. The sand muffles the sound of footsteps, disappears tire tracks; it refuses to “let the water travel across it, and instead greedily sucks the moisture down into its depths.”

Yet it cannot disappear everything. In the novel’s second section, set in the present day, an unnamed Palestinian woman in Ramallah comes across an article about this incident. Minor Detail does not tell us much about the woman, neither her job nor her name, but in a recent interview in Literary Hub, Shibli described her as “hesitant, messy,” someone who “works in vain”—a foil to the Israeli officer, who embodies “order and power.” All we know from the book is that she was born on August 13, exactly twenty-five years after the murder of the Bedouin girl, another “minor detail” that sparks her growing obsession. Using old maps as a guide, she travels from Ramallah to the Negev desert, and there meets a fate that is as ironic as it is chilling.

With the deftest of touches, Shibli addresses both the mental and physical toll of the ongoing military occupation. When the unnamed woman embarks on a relatively short journey from Ramallah to the Negev desert, she quickly runs up against the borders put in place by the labyrinthine Israeli bureaucracy:

The site of the incident, and the museums and archives documenting it, are located outside Area C, according to the military’s division of the country, and not only that, but they’re quite far away, close to the border with Egypt, while the longest trip I can embark on with my green identity card, which shows I’m from Area A, is from my house to my new job. Legally, though, anyone from Area A can go to Area B, if there aren’t exceptional political or military circumstances that prevent one from doing so. But nowadays, such exceptional circumstances are in fact the norm.

Both novels enact their own form of resistance, blasting away the smokescreen of modern day Israel’s hasbara and amnesia.

This disorientation is exacerbated by the changing landscape: the ongoing colonization of land, the road closures and military checkpoints, the erection of new barriers and the disappearance of Palestinian villages, sucked deep into the sand like blood or gasoline. On her journey, the woman discovers that the maps she has brought are outdated; the occupation has changed things beyond recognition. Loss is mapped onto topography, as past and present brush up and push against one another, blurring the line between reality and memory like a mirage in the desert. “Nothing moved except the mirage,” runs the novel’s first line.

Shibli has spoken of her desire to create a “perforated language,” and she worked closely with Elisabeth Jaquette to ensure this came through in the English translation. The effect is that the first half of the novel seeps through the second, like two photographs superimposed. The two narratives are suffused with intratextual allusions and echoes: a barking dog, the stench of gasoline, the relentless heat.

The formal triumph of Minor Detail lies in its circumscribed focus. By honing in on a single incident, breaking it down into its constituent parts, exploring its reverberations through time, Shibli leads the reader to imagine the thousands of such minor details that have been erased from the historical record. As the woman in the present-day narrative explains: “Focusing intently on the most minor details, like dust on the desk or fly shit on a painting, is the only way to arrive at the truth and definitive proof of its existence.”

Neither Minor Detail nor The Book of Disappearance offer much in the way of redemption. Patterns repeat themselves, injustices continue, and loss is only magnified and re-perpetrated over time. Yet in attending to buried violence and divining the ghosts that inhabit the present, both novels enact their own form of resistance, blasting away the smokescreen of modern day Israel’s hasbara and amnesia. For it is not just the Palestinian protagonists of these novels who are haunted, but their Israeli “compatriots” as well.

When Ariel moves into Alaa’s apartment near the end of Disappearance, he begins to hear sounds—rustlings—whose source he cannot trace. Alaa’s diary offers one explanation: “I want to believe that the spirits of those who used to live in [these stolen houses] are still there, seeking comfort.” But it’s unlikely that Ariel grasps the import of those lines.

In Minor Detail, the Israeli commanding officer is secretly tending to his own mysterious wound: a nighttime bite from an unknown creature. Over time, the wound worsens, turning white and red, beginning to swell and throb. The officer struggles to walk, develops a fever and chills, vomits. No amount of cleaning can fight the infection. In the aftermath of rape and murder, the swelling bursts open, revealing “a small crater of decaying flesh, which held a mixture of white, pink and yellow pus and gave off a sharp, putrid smell.” The reader cannot but wonder: that putrid stench that obsessed the officer—which haunted his hut and the fine hairs of his nose—was it coming from the young woman, or his own festering wound?


[*] The American feminist philosopher Catherine McKinnon once praised the IDF for being “the only army in the world that does not rape the women of its occupied people.” It would be interesting to know what she makes of this novel.