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Adania Shibli: وسفر الاختفاءتفصيل ثانوي (Minor Detail)

The novel opens in 1949 at a remote spot in the Negev Desert, near the Egyptian border. An Israeli troop had been sent to this spot to check whether there is any Arab activity near the border. There had been a kibbutz there, which had been attacked by the Egyptian army in 1948. While some members of the kibbutz were killed, they did hold out. The kibbutz subsequently moved 25 milometer for security reasons but also because there was more rainfall there. The new kibbutz was one of the victims of the Hamas attack on 7 October 2023, with members of the kibbutz killed and kidnapped as hostages by Hamas.

Back in 1949, there are only scant remains of the kibbutz when the troop arrives. They set up tents. It is, of course, very hot. Life is very boring. They carry out patrols but, while occasionally seeing tracks and even the occasional sighting of Arabs, they cannot catch anyone.

The commander is bitten by an insect on his thigh and he self-medicates. However he will continue to have problems, with it, including various reactions. This does not hinder his patrol activity. However all they see are sandstorms and shadows.

One day, however, they hear a dog barking. On approaching, they find a small Bedouin band. Without any provocation, they kill all the Arabs, except for one girl, as well as killing the camels, though sparing the dog. No weapons are found. The girl is captured. They will humiliate her by making her strip down and wash herself in front of them. They then discuss what to with her: either they send the girl to work in the camp’s kitchen, or they all have their way with her. The second option wins. As she is locked up and then raped and subsequently murdered, the dog howls.

We now jump to a later period, probably early 2000s. An unnamed Palestinian woman has started a new job. Exactly what the job is, is never made clear, but it is not important. She has also moved to a new house. She likes the job, the house and her colleagues. She tells us a fair bit about herself but more about her state of mind than her personal history.

She is not surprisingly obsessed with borders: The borders imposed between things here are many. One must pay attention to them, and navigate them, which ultimately protects everyone from perilous consequences. This grants a person a sense of serenity, despite everything else. There are some people who navigate borders masterfully, who never trespass, but these people are few and I’m not one of them. As soon as I see a border, I either race toward it and leap over, or cross it stealthily, with a step. She admits I can no longer fathom what is permissible and what is not, and I end up trespassing even more borders, worse ones than before.

Throughout this relatively small section , she will bring to our attention various aspects of the current situation in Israel, from the Palestinian point of view. For example, early on, a colleague opens all the windows, to her annoyance, as it lets the dust in. His reason is because the army is about to blow up a nearby building in which three young men had barricaded themselves. Obviously, if the windows had remained closed, she would have been showered with glass from the windows.

She has come across an article written by an Israeli journalist about the murder of the young woman .and the other Arabs mentioned above. She is fascinated by the article particularly because the event took place exactly twenty-five years to the day before she was born. She agrees that this may not in itself be a good reason. Interestingly, there is another, albeit minor connection between the two events that she is unaware of but we are. When the murdered girl is locked up, raped and then murdered, her dog continually barks and howls. Indeed, that section ends with the dog howling. The start of the second section also has a dog howling. This dog presumably belongs to a neighbour and his howling will keep her awake on several occasions. There is a clear link between the two dogs and, indeed, perhaps between the dogs and what is happening to the Palestinians.

She tracks down the journalist, who is not very friendly or forthcoming but he gives her some leads to his sources. She is determined to find out more and that means going to the area concerned. However the places she wishes to visit she cannot visit because the category of identity card she has does not permit her to go to these areas.

She manages to find a way round that problem and to hire a car and sets off. We follow her journey and we see other examples of life under the occupation: roads closed off, walls built, prisons abound, numerous checkpoints, both fixed and mobile, Palestinian villages on her map wiped out and an attack – artillery shelling and then a ground attack – on Rafah. She visits Nirim, though only later does she realise that its location, as mentioned above, has moved. She visits the museum of the Israeli Defence Force which is interesting but not helpful in her quest. Obviously there is little evidence to be found about an incident that must have taken place well over fifty years previously.

What makes this book so interesting, apart from the reaction it caused at the Frankfurt Book Fair is that Shibli reports in a fairly impassioned, journalistic way on all the horrors Palestinians face on a day-to-day basis and how the Israelis consider killing Palestinians as more or less the same as killing camels.

Our unnamed heroine of the second part, born the same year as the author, has her feelings and concerns about the occupation but, on the whole, takes them in her stride. As mentioned she was mainly prompted to investigate the murders because of the coincidence of dates because there was nothing really unusual about the main details, especially when compared with what happens daily in a place dominated by the roar of occupation and ceaseless killing. Occupation, random killing, borders, numerous restrictions, all of this is the daily life of Palestinians, which Shibli superbly illustrates.

Publishing history

First published in 2017 byDar al-Arab
First published in English in 2020 by Fitzcarraldo (UK), New Directions (US)
Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette