David Naimon: This episode of Between The Covers is brought to you in part by Vancouver Manuscript Intensive, a literary mentoring program that pairs emerging and established authors with mentors in their genre. Directed by award-winning writers Elee Kraljii Gardiner and Rachel Rose in Vancouver BC, the program is open to writers around the world who seek sustained mentorship for their works in progress. Writers can join the six-month program that includes interaction with other mentors and students, and participation in a public reading, or they can pursue solo guidance for more directed and short-term support all year long. This year, a fellowship for a writer of exceptional promise who has faced significant barriers to fulfilling that promise is offered for the second time. The application deadline for the six-month program beginning January 2022 is November 9th. Please visit vancouvermanuscriptintensive.com for more information about pairing with a mentor to hone your project. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Annabel Abbs’ Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women, a book Abbott Kahler calls, “A gorgeous and revelatory blend of memoir, travelogue, and long-forgotten history. In captivating and elegant prose, Abbs follows in the footsteps of women who boldly reclaimed wild landscapes for themselves, including Georgia O’Keeffe in the empty plains of Texas and New Mexico, Nan Shepherd in the mountains of Scotland, and Simone de Beauvoir―who walked as much as twenty-five miles―through the mountains and forests of France.” Windswept is out on September 7th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Before we begin today’s conversation with Adania Shibli, do consider taking a moment, if you’re a long time listener or if this is your first time listening and you appreciate what you hear, consider becoming a listener-supporter of Between The Covers. Every supporter receives emails with each episode pointing to lectures, films, interviews, and books referenced in each conversation, as well as suggestions of further places to explore. Every supporter plays a big role in helping shape who we invite in the future as guests. But there are also a lot of other potential benefits and rewards. Some offered by past guests and others by Tin House. Rare collectibles, the bonus audio archive, and the Tin House early readership program, just to mention a few. Head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers to check it all out. Now, for today’s conversation with Adania Shibli.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, Adania Shibli, is a writer of novels, short stories, plays, and essays. She completed her PhD at the University of East London in media and cultural studies, and a postdoctoral fellowship at Europe in the Middle East and Middle East in Europe multi-disciplinary research program through the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin. She’s been a lecturer at the University of Nottingham and since 2013 in the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies at Birzeit University in Ramallah Palestine. Shibli has twice been awarded the Young Writer’s Award-Palestine from the A.M. Qattan Foundation. First, in 2001 for her novel Touch, which prompted Egyptian Novelist and Journalist Ahdaf Soueif to call Shibli, “The most talked-about writer in the West Bank,” and also in 2003 for a novel, We Are All Equally Far from Love. Shibli is also the author of the play, The Error, which has been staged in London, Amherst and San Francisco and the co-curator of the symposium, Journey of Ideas Across: In Dialog with Edward Said, which took place in 2013 in the House of World Cultures in Berlin. Her non-fiction works include the art book, Dispositions, that explores the movement of an artist from familiar surroundings to other unfamiliar ones and how this dispositioning affects the artist’s dispositions, their artistic inclinations and processes. With the book focusing on 17 Palestinian artists, she’s also a contributor to Keep Your Eye on the Wall: Palestinian Landscapes, a collaborative book between seven photographers and four essayists. Adania Shibli is here today to talk about her most recent novel, Minor Detail, translated into English by Elisabeth Jaquette, published in the United States by New Directions and in the UK, by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Minor Detail was long listed for The International Booker Prize and shortlisted for the 2020 National Book Awards for Translated Literature. Meena Kandasamy says of Minor Detail, “Adania Shibli’s exceptional novel belongs to the genre of the novel as resistance, as revolutionary text. As we join the nameless young woman in her quest to find the truth of a long-forgotten atrocity, we realize how dangerous it is to reclaim life and history in the face of ongoing, systematic erasure. This is the political novel we have all been waiting for.” Isabella Hammad adds, “Written with an exquisite, tactile, and deceptive simplicity, Minor Detail tells the story of a woman’s violation and murder in the aftermath of the Palestinian catastrophe and the founding of the Israeli state, and of another woman’s curiosity about this ‘minor detail’ in the modern day. Immediately after I finished reading this miraculous novel, I read it again; both times, it sliced through my heart. I believe it will be one for the ages.” Pankaj Mishra adds, “An extraordinary work of art, Minor Detail is continuously surprising and absorbing: a very rare blend of moral intelligence, political passion and formal virtuosity.” Finally, John Freeman says, “Shibli has created a powerful set of dual heroines, women wracked with disquiet and violence, resisting the frames that have first been chosen for them, then denied to have ever existed. This is an astonishing, major book.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Adania Shibli.
Adania Shibli: Thank you for the introduction, David.
DN: As these various authors have alluded to, Minor Detail is two stories told in two parts. But the two parts, while they’re in separate sections, they really feel inseparable, like two vantage points looking at the same thing. The first in 1949 following an Israeli officer in the Negev desert whose unit encounters and kills some Bedouins except for a girl that they capture, bring back to camp, and eventually rape. The second part is told from the vantage point of a modern-day Palestinian woman who discovers this lost “minor detail” from history and because it’s linked to another minor detail, that it happened on the same day of this woman’s birthday but many years before, she feels compelled to go rescue these details from the erasure of history, from the erasure of major details. But what I love about listening to you talk about the book as a writer myself is that having watched and listened to you in many talks and conversations, that no matter how much a person wants to ask you about the story and its implications or about the political aspect of the book and its implications, you always like to bring it back to question of language and to bring the interviewer’s questions back into the realm of language. For instance, you’ve said that this book started as a linguistic anxiety. In your BOMB interview, you say it began from an inquiry into how the complacency of language can inflict pain and also how the complacency of language can deflect pain. I was hoping we could start with what you mean by the complacency of language but also how these questions of language and its ability to either cause or deflect pain shape the choices that you make in part one versus part two.
AS: I think we experience the pain and the joy related to language on a daily basis. It’s the ability and the inability to find the words or to articulate things. Of course, for me, the question is more concerned with the inarticulation, how actually pain can shape language and what kind of form would language get with pain as a result of pain, and almost walking alongside pain. I think it’s a very important question when it comes to writing because this is a life of writing. It is language or an aspect of language because I feel language is so immense and so amazing that writing is just one element, one aspect of experiencing language. For me personally, it is almost this kind of reconciliation between the inability to articulate but still, you might find a way to the ability to write or language reveals itself within the silence of writing. I’m really maybe more interested in silence. I’ve been struggling maybe with this question of silence with writing, how can you write silence, how silence can be written and in terms of silence, things that cannot be written, things that cannot be articulated, things that cannot be said. This is an essential question when it comes from which perspective you get to writing. I never write “about” but “from.” I think this is the experience of living in Palestine and Palestinian condition, which many people might imagine that it’s unbearable but actually, it is extremely unbearable. So how this unbearable being comes to shape one’s relations or my relation or your relation or everyone’s relation to language. There’s a lot of deletion. There’s a lot of negation. I think that the first time I experienced this, it was not actually in a grand context. In a very small context where I remember this incident because I was just speaking about it yesterday with a friend. I had a fight with one of my sisters. I am the youngest in my family. Sometimes, they forget about me but sometimes they remember. [laughter] Often, we remember each other or they remember me in moments of clash. Because I was the youngest, four years difference of the ages and this is major when you’re a small kid. I had a fight with one of my sisters. It was amazing when I saw how she presented the story to my parents because she edited things out and presented it in a very articulate way. She was older. She was even more free, more social. I was younger. I’m the one who always likes to play with the small insects. Suddenly, I’m confronted with this narrative that is so perfect and being told about me. It’s full of lies. [laughter] She presented herself as a victim and truly, I mean she actually pushed me or even hit me and I tried to defend myself, then she ran away. She was presenting that I was chasing her. I was fascinated by this story that suddenly becomes something as how language can suddenly be not related to reality by a few things, a few differences. I was so surprised that I was not able to speak, then my parents thought yes, I was not able to speak because I was wrong. [laughs] It was fascinating, this moment of understanding your failure with language, with saying things, then when you take it to the level that is more on the macro politically. I witnessed this so often because I worked with the press in difficult years in Palestine. I would see, for instance, we go to a refugee camp. It’s almost half destroyed by the Israeli military. People have been killed. This is in 2002. I remember this is a Balata refugee camp near Nablus. Then the journalists want to know what happened, how things came to that, what this destruction means and you find somebody, there’s a lot of destruction and there’s one person, she only focuses on the burning of one of her papers. There is a grand narrative, there are these wishes for a certain language and we are failing this kind of almost expectations. I was working then also as a translator. I just couldn’t translate that to the reporters. They want to ask about the consequences of the destruction of her house. This lady and her husband got injured. It’s like all of her life was destroyed. She just wanted to speak about a paper that got burned. Not that she didn’t care but she was obsessed with this paper. You find there’s no place for this small paper that got burned within this. For me, I always wonder about these concerns with language that they don’t find a place, the language we expect to hear.
DN: If we take this notion that you’re not writing about, so by extension, you’re not writing about Palestine, I wonder if it’s connected to the anecdote you’re telling about your sister because I’m thinking about how you’ve said in interviews before that you’ve never cared about narrative form. That’s particularly obvious in your first two books that have less plots, less motion and movement than Minor Detail. But more recently, you’ve said that you’ve actually grown disgusted by narrative form. That you have a physical reaction to linear structure, which made me think of the way you were describing your sister’s well-spoken argument against you. In your World Literature Today conversation, you said, “The classical linear narrative structure is a dictatorship that causes blindness. In this enclosed world everything is known and everything is almost complete within itself: there are no outside connections.” I wondered about this because the part of the book that follows the Israeli officer feels almost like it flirts with an elemental horrific allegory. Not entirely. but it feels like it’s trying to be complete within itself. I wondered if you, resisting that, is somehow connected to not writing about something but from within something. I’m not sure if I’m getting to where I’m trying to.
AS: I understand what you say because it’s also something that exactly goes to, let’s say, the starting point of Minor Detail is those who don’t speak well suddenly be able to speak or to imitate the type of language of those who create these narratives. If you’re stuttering, can you imitate somebody who doesn’t stutter if you cannot speak eloquently, if you cannot speak perfectly? Can you suddenly imitate those who speak perfectly? That’s our main question. If you do that, what happens then? What happens to your relation to language? What happens between you and that experience? Speaking about this lady, I would like to go back to her in the Balata refugee camp. Because basically, she doesn’t fit within the narrative of the grand, what you expect, the narrative of the victimhood of the disaster, of the thing that will make you oh so terribly sad and you will feel so angered, political oppression, etc, and she deviates from that. She deviates to something, which is personal, which matters to her, and which doesn’t matter to anybody in the world. I think this is the tension between those who decide what matters, what kind of narratives, and which type of types or forms of narrative should be and which should remain marginal, and never get into a place that creates maybe even a shaking within our positions, at least the linguistic ones. How are we able to listen to those who cannot articulate themselves perfectly who don’t go into these press offices and narrate a whole narrative that there’s not even one moment to question its credibility? Whereas, you will go to another one who’s hysterical, stammering, repeating things, saying things which are unimportant. For me, it’s not like I’m against that but I’m wondering what type of way brought this person to this position? Because language is there for everybody but it is our way towards language or its language’s way towards us, how language reveals itself. That’s when I think language is complacent.
DN: Whereas the first section is linear or more linear. The second section with our modern Palestinian woman who’s nameless also, it’s much more meandering and it’s much more, I don’t know if confused is the right word, but she takes on the task of being an amateur detective of sorts to look for information, like these minor details you’re discussing in the refugee camp. But there isn’t just the obstacle of trying to retrieve further information when all the information’s either being held by the Israelis or being told and narrated by the Israelis. But there’s also just, on a more mundane level, the difficulty of simply being able to move physically from one part of the country to another. I think that’s part of the way in which the narrative stutters in the second section, is the different permits that one Palestinian might be able to go to area B and another might be able to go to area B and C, that she needs to borrow someone else’s identity card to have a greater range of travel, then rent a car with Israeli plates. Even with all of that increased access, she’s completely bewildered even with all of her maps or maybe because of all of her maps because she has this map from 1948 that’s full of all of the names of Palestinian villages and a modern map where all the meandering roads have been straightened, and many of the villages simply are not there or have been renamed. You said that in your own life, linguistic erasure on maps is where you first experience the betrayal of language. I was wondering if we could spend a moment with that and also with your protagonist who’s navigating two maps at once.
AS: I’m not alone in that. It’s how you live as a Palestinian in relation to Arabic language under the Israeli rule. The Israeli government actually passed a law in 2017, downgrading Arabic language to become a language not equal with Hebrew but has a special status. Arabic was never treated with appreciation. I guess this is not only symptomatic of the Israeli government policies but you have this attitude quite widespread and with prejudices, stereotypes etc. Imagine this kind if you grow up in a language that has all this load on it, a language that it’s there where you read poetry and the most fascinating poetry from the 6th Century. It’s like almost something that’s so fascinating there, then you don’t understand how it’s being reduced, being belittled, and being hated so immensely. I experienced this with even my surname, Shibli, which has been changed in the 80s, not out of our choice but the Israeli government forced this change. We were called spare. I remember we didn’t stop at that but I didn’t understand what was the big deal as a kid, for me because I related to my name, Adania. It already was strange enough that it was a big burden, it’s not a common name in Arabic. But I remember there was this unease. You felt it with your parents. They didn’t tell us anything. Our parents always tried to exclude us from any serious conversations, basically. There was this moment in your name that suddenly in the 80s changed. In fact, I have it now. The only document carrying this old name is my driving license that’s issued by the Israeli driving department or traffic department. You know that you don’t have a choice in these issues. It’s not you being able to name yourself. Imagine this act of naming that is so basic, you are not responsible for that. When God calls Adam to name things, this is an act of power. Adam is given the act of naming things. But imagine the other hand, and God is giving him this possibility, please imagine a scenario where God comes and tells Adam, “You cannot name things.” You know the situation’s fragility in terms of what Adam would say, which words Adam would be able to say, how always Adam would be careful saying from a position that Adam is naming things. Of course, you come to the map. You look at the maps. We’re kids. We look at the maps and actually, almost nobody tells you which country you are from. My parents experienced The Nakba. It’s like I was born in ’74. It’s 26 years. It’s almost like you don’t focus on this big thing and you look at the map, and the map doesn’t say things, so you hear Palestine but there’s Israel but what’s this Israel? You know something about Palestine that should not be said. All you know about Palestine, it’s a word you should not say. It’s almost within these kinds of parents who are trying to protect you out of fear. They’re not out of fear, probably also for themselves because they experience expulsion, etc. Then you grow into this language that is around you but on the other hand, you have this poetry from the 6th century, which is so fascinating. You’re moving between that, along that, this erasure but there’s this presence. There’s the cool language. There’s the shy language where people don’t speak in a loud voice in Arabic. They’re almost whispering. It’s the silencing because in the context of other racist contexts, let’s say in the US, you would be identified based on the color of your skin, for instance, or the shape of your physical features, but in Palestine, Israel, sorry, we’re all similar. Even the Jewish-Europeans, they are now being so mixed up. Sometimes, it’s an issue of a class, like how you dress but people are similar. The only way that you can identify, to activate this racist structure, is when you speak. Language becomes the minute you say something, you need to think a lot about the consequences of you just saying a word in Arabic because suddenly, you will be treated in a different way immediately. This is why the complacency of language, you think, “Okay, this is the language where I feel so close, so intimate but this is the language the minute I speak, it will put me in a place that I did not wish to be in.”
DN: If we were to take that question of whether to speak and how to speak, potentially whispering the language if speaking it at all, and connect it to your protagonist in part two, she doesn’t have much of a political analysis of the situation she’s living in. In some ways, she’s not only grown desensitized to the trauma and its unpredictability, where she focuses almost matter-of-factly on the dust in her house that has been created by the nearby house that has been bombed rather than on the bombing or on the fate of the people who are bombed, but she also seems to critique herself more than she critiques the circumstances. She says, “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. Neither of these two behaviors is conscious, or rooted in a premeditated desire to resist borders; it’s more like sheer stupidity. […] It’s a matter, simply put, of clumsiness.” She also says this failure on her part around borders. Even “very rational” borders make her overreact sometimes and under react at other times. It feels to me like she’s almost internalized the borders psychologically inside of her. That she’ll move less. She’ll aspire for fewer things, or maybe what you’re saying, also speak less, speak more quietly that in a way, the checkpoints have been internalized. I didn’t know if that sounded right to you but I wanted to hear about the potential way that may or may not have entered her psychology where she’s not even arriving at a checkpoint because she’s not bothering to even leave her house for instance.
AS: I would say if you’re subjected to limitations of movement, that you cannot move so often, you basically learn at the end not to move. It’s a known method in occupation, colonization, called learned helplessness. Actually, I have a friend who was studying psychology at Haifa University. We were making all these experiments and she told me an experiment that was done with mice. They put the mice in an enclosed space and in the middle, they have the food for them and this plate, or whatever is connected to electric shocks. Sometimes, when the mice go to eat, then there could be an electric shock but sometimes there isn’t. It’s unexpected. Eventually, the mice stop approaching this plate for fear of the electric shock and they die in their place. She told me this in early 2000. The name of the experiment is Learned Helplessness, how you learn to be helpless. Of course, these experiments are employed within military operations and thinking of these methods. I could see actually how a lot of Palestinians don’t even consider opposing that. Basically, you have all these machines, you have all these huge stones, you have all these huge structures. If you move a little bit differently, it’s your end because you will become a suspect of a sort and also, your world becomes smaller and smaller in terms of the space you can move. This happened over a period of time. You can see a lot of people actually don’t move. This character is just one of the many who don’t move. Actually, people now move from one city to another over the weekend. People used to commute between cities but the distances between places have tripled, at least, and let alone the traffic jams. It’s tiring. It’s almost like your imagination, your stamina, they become completely reduced and you don’t go, I mean now, when I’m in Palestine, I make a point to move. I make a point as a person but I know and everybody knows I’m making a point. When you decide to move, it is like you’re making a huge effort. It’s not the norm. I went for instance from Ramallah to Hebron. It used to be 40 minutes. It took three hours and a half.
AS: You are tired with these long trips. Because the roads are not so good and up and down, you feel exhausted. You need two days to recover from such a trip, which used to be 40 minutes.
DN: I wanted to ask you about something that J. M. Coetzee said in relation to the book, in relationship to what we’re talking about now. I’m not surprised that he loves this book. Particularly part one, I thought of Waiting for the Barbarians in terms of the spare intensity of both of your books in that regard but in his blurb for Minor Detail, he calls the Israeli officer a psychopath, and the Palestinian in part two, high on the autism scale. For me, I found this medical and psychiatric interpretation really problematic. For one, to make the officer seem exceptionally bad when I feel like the acts he’s doing, while obviously horrific, are horrifically commonplace in war and occupation. I think even the narrator in part two acknowledges that in a way, this is a minor detail and also one where so many other soldiers were involved in this one act. To me, it would be more accurate to say that the army is psychopathic or armies are psychopathic and that the occupation is. I don’t know, but it troubled me to make him seem like his motivations were some psychiatric disorder that was individual but I also found that the Palestinian woman in part two, her obsessive attention to dust in her home and her anxious maladaptive responses to borders, and checkpoints felt like they were more a reflection of the impossible in what you call the unbearable way of being Palestinian. The impossible conditions upon her rather than her having some organic brain disorder of some sort. I didn’t know if you had any thoughts about either of these. Obviously, there’s always an interplay between our conditions and our psychologies. I don’t deny that but to say that it’s coming from some individual psychological flaw on both accounts seemed strange to me.
AS: I think you’re totally right in your observation. On the other hand, it’s his observation. I love his writing. Even if he says it’s a book for recipes, I will accept that. I don’t mind whatever he would say, like “Okay, thank you for reading it.”
DN: [laughter] That’s how I would feel too actually. I think his writing is amazing.
AS: It’s very interesting, what you’re observing because this is a running joke within the Palestinian society. Most often, when there are cases of Israeli individuals or military committing crimes that are defined by the Israeli legal system as crimes, it is known that there will be a lenient ruling based on psychological grounds. Almost everybody is being identified as mentally unstable. This is the way to go out of it legally. I wonder, exactly as you say, if you’re in these conditions, aren’t you mad anyway, and what kind of responsibility? It’s really interesting, this definition between those who are unstable and mad, and those who are stable. It’s almost like those who can speak perfectly or right perfectly and those who cannot. Certainly, there is compliment in this dichotomy and who decides even the criteria of sanity. I’m certainly thinking everybody who holds a gun and thinks that they’ve got the power to terminate the life of the other, regardless if the other is an attacker or being attacked, is doing something that I don’t see as normal but this is my position. Certainly, not only the armies but manufacturers of arms. It’s interesting that the most important literary prize is being awarded by the person who invented the source of arms that we’re now witnessing, the acceleration of the arm race, etc. Maybe it’s a moment that literature can return to that and try to reflect on that. I don’t want to give literature a mission actually.
DN: When I think of our Palestinian protagonist in part two, I also think of the title of Edward Said’s memoir, Out of Place, but also the original title he had for it before it was changed, Not Quite Right. I was thinking about a talk that you were part of where the interviewer asked the panel about the literature of exile. While you do split your time between Berlin and Palestine, you push back against this notion of exile saying that there’s nowhere you feel more exiled than when you’re at home in Palestine. That comment of yours is the lens through which I find myself understanding our protagonist and her psychology, that it’s a product of being exiled in place. Is she one possible example of what you mean when you say that you feel exiled?
AS: Certainly, all these forces that keep alienating you from these intimate relations to a place, to even a plant, a bending in a road, etc. Can we always say it’s about correlations? Of course, you see those affecting places and the planet are those who have the tools. It’s not that the planet is not being destroyed by third world countries receiving the rubbish from first world countries. There is an active destruction that looks itself as a civilization. It’s, the last 70 years, an exhilaration of colonialism. You look also at a place, like the United States and what happened to the first nations. Even I am ashamed to say reservations, I really am ashamed to say the term. There is this alienation that you’re being brought to. It’s not your choice. We can’t choose to be alienated but it’s all these forces that bring you. Even in terms of language, what kind of language and the silence that covers these experiences, I mean as first nations, how they feel about their experience of exile, what they might still be in what is called reservations. These are questions for me. They are not only related to the Palestinian experience but I try to basically understand, from the Palestinian experience, a way towards understanding other experiences. Not to be self-obsessed with what one experiences in a specific place. For me, it’s an act of generosity, how we learn and how we can see in our positions, not as definitions to decide this or that, what to discover and actually, to always give the possibility that something might change. I think making these judgments, even in terms of our place, like being in places outside Palestine, it almost doesn’t land in you as much as the force of violence that is being activated in you while you are in Palestine. If we go back to language, again, I say language is the first level that you experience that since childhood.
DN: You speak a lot of languages to varying degrees.
AS: I love language. [laughter]
DN: Tell me if I’m missing one but English, Hebrew, German, French, and Korean in addition to Arabic.
AS: I’m almost forgetting German. I’m refusing to learn better. I’m with Mark Twain when he wrote The Awful German Language. It’s a fascinating book. But probably, when you think about writers like Robert Walser, Brecht and Fassbinder, you think, “ I might have liked to know to read these texts in their original language.” I mean who doesn’t want to read the book in the original language? I think knowing other languages opens up the language itself. It becomes almost a different entry to the language you feel most in love with. I have to confess I love the Arabic language. It’s so terrible to say that they love all other languages because it makes me look at Arabic differently but it can be.
DN: You live in multiple places and I was thinking about how Said, being both American and Palestinian, speaking English and Arabic as both of his mother tongues, yet not really feeling at home entirely in Arabic, it seems to me, from everything I’ve heard you speak quite wonderfully, that Arabic is a home for you. Maybe a porous home with influences from other languages but it feels like a place of, I don’t know if it’s joy and delight.
AS: Not at home because I feel homes are structures. I’m more with the things that can shift, move, and not structure. I think it’s a being. Arabic is the most open being. I don’t know if everybody feels this when they are in love with language but I think it’s the most loving back. In the way that I want to be loved is like how language is loving me. I know it might be crazy to say that language loves you but maybe it does in unconceivable and inarticulate ways but I feel this love of the language towards me because for me, I really am clumsy and keep forgetting, and replacing words with other words. Language is patience that says, “Okay, do your mistakes. I’m here.” It’s like, “Wow, if I could be language, if I could behave like language behave, I would be the nicest human being.”
DN: Yeah. [laughs] I love that. I’m going to read something that the Palestinian-American poet and translator Fady Joudah said about Arabic. “I live Palestine in English. But in my heart Palestine is Arabic. And Palestine in Arabic does not need to explain itself. Despite setbacks, disasters, revolving conspiracies against it, Palestine in Arabic is self-possessed. It is exterior to English yet born internationalist and shall remain so — neither thinking it is the center of the world nor surrendering to the imperial center as the primary source of its future liberation. Palestine in Arabic is where the overwhelming sacrifice is made. Palestine in Arabic dreams, lives in and with more than 15 hundred years of literary, intellectual, and ecumenical traditions, belongs to 10 thousand years before that. History does not end for Palestine in Arabic.” In light of his comments and your comments about it as a being, I have a question for you from Fady that he’s going to pose to you, that he recorded from Beirut.
Fady Joudah: Marhaba Adania [foreign language] there is an aesthetic to your sentence, marked by a clarity that condenses time and place into a point from which subsequent unfurling flows and lines unfold. Do you think this comes across in English the way it exists in Arabic? Yani [foreign language].
AS: Wow, that was a nice surprise. [laughter] Thank you.
DN: You’re welcome.
AS: I didn’t hear the voice of Fady since like 17 years. We write to each other but you see, this is the voice. Actually, he shared with me some of his poems the day before yesterday.
DN: Oh, wow.
AS: Yes, in Arabic. So the question, to be frank, I never read fully what I wrote. I work on it, I write it, I edit it, I make it crazy, I squeeze it but I don’t read it calmly to be able to have an understanding that can offer an answer and this includes the translation. I know deep in my heart, I don’t have a connection to the text once it’s over. But certainly, I will not have this connection when it moves to another language. It’s not about me. Again, if we’re talking about an act of generosity, it should happen because a lot of the literature that I grew up on as a kid that I’m still enjoying is the one that was translated into Arabic. This is what I say, like how translations can open up a language. But sometimes, I have a struggle. Probably 99% of translators from Arabic to English hate me.
DN: [laughter] Really?
AS: Yes, because there’s like, “Oh, it’s difficult to start.” It’s almost as precise as the elections in Syria. There’s a lot of this translation that is almost going comfortably into English or another language. It’s not about that because it’s already not comfortable in Arabic, so why create discomfort in English? I think this is the danger of it becoming informative and I resist because for me, this means betrayal of the language as it reveals itself to my word. There are bells ringing here.
DN: I love it. [laughter] What are they the bells of?
AS: This is the evening prayer. This is the city of bells and towers. I’m in Bergamo. Actually, I was here at a concert two days ago and they stopped the concert because these bells are quite dominant. It’s interesting how they bring everything to be still. Maybe we also should follow the Bergamescan tradition and stuff for a minute. To the question of the informative, it’s very problematic. I don’t blame the translators for that because there is an urge sometimes to conceive things about, for me, it’s always how we can go back to see it not about a narrative or a story because again, I said this before, it’s a coincidence. This is a story about. It’s not important. It’s not the “about.” It is really how it is written, how the words come together, and shift their meaning. The ability to shift their meaning is really magic. This is fascinating, the ability of language. The struggle becomes how to have the sensibility to the Arabic the way I’m trying to work. Of course, it demands a lot of time, work, and attention. Also, with the badly paid translators, it’s hard to ask them to do that. It remains a question how much collaboration they will come on board. Sometimes, there is the attitude, which I don’t find mistaken but I find it doesn’t work with the text I’m writing. It’s like I am bringing it to another language. I’m the writer of the text. I don’t even consider myself a writer of the text. I’m maximum, the waiter carrying these words. It’s about writing. It’s what the text wants to be. This is very important. To hear that, it requires a lot. It requires to be risky in terms of not trying to write correctly. I find it sometimes difficult to convince translators to do that, how to write almost correctly but leave a crack of like, “Hmm, this sounds a bit weird.” With that, this kind of almost a little mistake, it’s very important. It’s almost like the carpet makers. There’s always this cliche of the carpet makers.
DN: With the flaw in the carpet. You just mentioned about potentially your minor role in writing the book essentially, like the way that maybe as a writer, you’re even a minor detail. That you’re listening to the words or maybe listening to the silence, which I just think is so mysterious and interesting to me.
AS: They really have their agency, these words. They probably need somebody to write them.
DN: They’re waiting for you. [laughter]
AS: I’m their kind of employee.
DN: Yeah, I mean because this book took 11 or 12 years and was about 120 pages in English. It feels very distilled. I imagine, you’ve described in multiple places, the words emerging from silence and you being present to silence, but I’m also guessing that there was a lot of unwriting too or the removal of what had been written.
AS: Yeah. This happens a lot, especially when I try to intervene in the process too much. [laughs] When I try cheating, I call it cheating because it’s exactly to sit and to wait for that word because it’s hovering somewhere but you cannot catch it. Then you try a different route. This is the problem when you think you have a position of power over language and this is with the second draft, I look for these and I remove that, so, exactly. But also things that they really insist on coming together and leaving things out, it also happens with which words bring which words. It’s quite a fascinating process. I think it’s so coincidental, almost like you don’t have a role that you think sometimes but it’s almost you build a house from matches, matchsticks, it’s like maybe one is like, “But oh, but it might fall. How did it come? You’re not even making that, that just comes together.” Things happen. They come together in a way that is quite fascinating, and I say it’s a coincidence because I feel I don’t have control over the process. This is fascinating because maybe in reality, I cannot not interfere, maybe a lot of trouble that I do interfere and think sometimes I shouldn’t take it seriously. But only with writing, I try not to interfere, and this process of going back to the text is almost like making sure did it really happen or did they do their job correctly? It’s a return to see what you did with the words, not what you wrote as a writer. I really don’t see myself as that. Actually when you write, you disappear. There’s a fascinating thing like you completely vanish. It’s almost like you are not there, there’s a strange experience of being and that it’s specific to the writing that I never would experience elsewhere.
DN: Perhaps similar to when you half jokingly said that you’re the most hated author for translators, you have a fraught relationship to what you’ve already written. I know you’ve talked elsewhere about not liking to revisit your past books or having to stop yourself from saying negative things about your earlier novels, that you don’t like to read, understandably from your book in translation, but generally speaking don’t like to read your work. But you’ve graciously picked out a small amount to read for us in Arabic just for the sound and the music of the syntax.
AS: Yes, and I hate it but I’ll do it.
DN: [laughs] You don’t have to. We can skip it if you want.
AS: We talk about generosity so we should be generous.
[Adania Shibli reads from Minor Detail in Arabic]
AS: I survived it.
DN: [laughs] Good. We’ve been listening to Adania Shibli read from Minor Detail, and now we’re going to hear the English version as translated by Elisabeth Jaquette and read by the poet George Abraham.
[George Abraham reads from Minor Detail in English]
DN: We’ve been listening to Adania Shibli read from Minor Detail in Arabic and George Abraham read from Minor Detail in English. When a moderator of a translation panel asked if it were possible for the silences in Arabic to survive translation, the silences that you’re contending with in the Arabic that you are making, particularly when the audience in the original language shares a cultural history and an acquaintance with specific gestures and shadows within a language, and I loved your response which was sharing this anecdote about Jean Genet and Edward Said and the translation of Genet’s talk when he came to New York City. I wondered if you might be willing to share that with listeners today.
AS: Yeah, actually, that was a story that taught me a lot. Basically, I think it’s the period of the Black Panthers, the student upheavals in the US and revolts and marches and Jean Genet was invited there. They asked him to say something. This is something brief about, I can’t remember now exactly what about, the injustices of society and how to oppose that. Then the translator, it takes maybe 10 seconds, there’s a translator student who supposedly speaks French and he’s accompanying Jean Genet in this event. He goes on translating this sentence and going, “This capitalist f*cking exists in this country,” and he goes on and on and on and on like for three minutes. Edward Said is there because he comes to this talk to hear Jean Genet. Then he approaches Jean Genet and says, “Okay, but this translation there, didn’t you think that the student mistranslated what you said?” He basically said, “No, maybe not in the words but the spirit is the same one.” I think this is very important and what the text intends to be, and that’s what I was saying earlier, what the text wants to be. Jean Genet, with this short sentence, probably meant all of these things but he didn’t say them. They were in the spirit the way that the student translated. They remained within the spirit that he said these words. I think that this is the most difficult task of translating, not the words but the spirit of the words, what the words want to be. I wish I could be as generous as Jean Genet, but I share totally with him the importance of the spirit.
DN: Yeah. That’s a great story. I want to return to silence again. We have the silences of the state, for instance, Israel has criminalized the commemoration of The Nakba, and as you mentioned, Arabic has been demoted from a national language to a language of special status. You’ve talked about how fraud it is to speak Arabic in public spaces, but you talk about silence as not just something being done to Palestinians but something Palestinians use for survival and also for resistance. In your lecture, I’m Not to Speak my Language, you say the Palestinian experience is the opposite of One Thousand and One Nights that Scheherazade needs to keep telling stories to stay alive, and silence is literally equated with death, but that for a Palestinian, silence is a means of survival. You then shared an anecdote about, or I don’t know if it’s the same place, but you shared an anecdote about being in line at the post office and how people can be indistinguishable from each other as you mentioned earlier in certain contexts, you don’t know who’s an Israeli or a Palestinian until which language they choose to speak. But I wondered about all this in relationship to your desire to retain the not said and silence within the Arabic in Minor Detail, if it wasn’t just about the safety that Palestinians seek but potentially the resistance that happens through silence. Because in your writings about Said, you talk about his misbehaving as a child—nail biting, loitering, lagging behind—and you say, “The very techniques associated with weakness, such as ‘failing’ and ‘misbehaving’, could indeed help foster what Said describes on a different occasion as a spirit not of conformity but of resistance; of individual agency rather than of collective determinism, precisely in situations of excessive authority and domination, where one lacks the physical power to fight back. How can we incorporate a recurring sense of weakness into an active system of resistance? In what way does weakness inform and delineate the limits of power? What type of agency would all this eventually contribute to shaping?” I’m wondering if you’re not only trying to bring silence into the language but also weakness, if part of what you were talking earlier about stammering and stuttering versus a linear smooth narrative is resistance through “failing”.
AS: Yeah. Silence and connecting it with resistance, even the resistance, how we can perceive the idea of resistance because if we’re always busy with resisting something that is being enforced on us, aren’t we consummated by something that is being forced on us? For me, it’s important to say that resistance is not in terms of opposing something but in shifting and taking a situation into something transformative. Not that weakness should transform into a situation of power but weakness can transform into a situation of sensitivity and care. Also creativity. What kind of narrative structure ever told would be created in these conditions? Are we going to the cliche of the idea of the classical narrative structure, when it appeared, how it appeared? This idea of the grand narrative—and you have this a lot in literature. I don’t hate this literature, basically, I love everything, everything is written almost, let’s say, including shopping list, I don’t differentiate—but it’s also important to see the different ways that our interest in language, what they can create. For instance, talking about lagging behind and failing. I just could remember while you’re speaking, for instance, Ágota Kristóf and her inability, for instance, to speak French language when she arrived in Switzerland and working in a factory and that takes that she wrote what’s called The Illiterate. This is a way of not resistance but truly, it’s transforming how weakness is supposed to defeat you and how it’s being enforced in you, let’s say even linguistically, and how you turn this weakness into something, that yes, you’re experiencing it but not as those who impose it in you want it to be, you do something else with it. This is the possibility I think that creates many different things, that we depart from the monocultures, the structures of the narrative, of literature. We go, for example, to the works of Robert Walser, the Microscripts that he wrote while he was in the mental hospital. It is a place actually, there is one of his friends that was always coming as a literary critic that was always coming to visit him and ask him once, “Are you writing?” He said, “No. I’m here to be mad, not to be a writer.” It’s very interesting what this meant because actually when he died, they discovered all these micro scripts behind, which he left, which he was writing in small scraps of paper. Maybe it is what he meant, “I’m not going to write what you expect me to write, all these novels that I was writing in the word of the same. But I am mad and this is the madness that created different forms of text.” There’s the importance of failing that almost allows us a sense of freedom. I’m not romanticizing failure but I’m also not saying that it is defined in a certain way by those who try to use it as a weapon against somebody else. I think this is important, maybe I’m optimist by nature but I think these shifts, they create so many amazing moments in the arts and in life, not only life but we’re talking about literature, it creates the most fascinating works that gives us the space, the freedom to think and to imagine, there are different possibilities.
DN: I want to bring some of these questions back to the notion of Minor Detail because I’m thinking again when you mention Adam and the power of naming, and naming and namelessness in this book. I almost wonder if our nameless protagonist, if not being named, is a way maybe not to reclaim power but a form of resistance also. But I’m thinking also, there’s a lot of naming and renaming happening in Israel, so Ludwig Pfeuffer becomes Yehuda Amichai, and many other settlers change their names to Hebrew names and place names are disappearing, place names are being renamed. But there are these minor details that don’t go away between part one and part two that connect them, the howling dog, the smell of gasoline, the thorn acacia, the terebinth trees, the cane grass, the spiders, serve as a continuity. But there’s also a philosophical notion of Minor Detail that you briefly reference in the book that comes from history and art history and painting. When I think of the remapping and the renaming as a painting over of one reality with another, it feels like Carlo Ginzburg’s notion that history can be reconstructed by using things that are seemingly trivial and that a painting’s authenticity is not going to be established through major details, so not through Mona Lisa’s smile but through things that we don’t notice in the painting. Those are going to tell us whether the painting is true, or authentic to the person who painted it. But I was wondering if you could just speak more about the presence of this philosophical analysis by Ginzburg in relationship to Minor Detail.
AS: Yes. Actually, he has been very important to my thinking in the last 20 years, I would say, and also to approaching Minor Detail. Going back to what is not written and what is not accessible linguistically. As I said earlier, you grow in a place where language is guarded. It is very guarded, what you can hear and what you cannot hear, what is being said and what will never be said, something that would be said and would never be explained. It’s almost like a mystery, you walk through something as if you look around, things seem normal, but the only level where they make you start doubting that there’s something wrong is language. Again, it’s language. The names that are not said, the place that we’re going to go and pick up some white plants with my family as an outing and we call it Shajara but in science, it’s called gillenia, which is the Hebrew name for this area after building a settlement there in the 30s. There’s something that is present and revealing itself and being identified and being celebrated, not only in the public space, not only science but in archives, in museums, in school books, and everything that is being officially laid there. You think, “But what about all these little words I’m getting here and there? Where’s their place? There’s no mention of them. There’s no one singing a written mention of them.” But it’s like you go and it’s like yeah, actually your parents don’t know how to pronounce their Hebrew name because they don’t know Hebrew really well, and my mom doesn’t know Hebrew, my father, it’s kind of a broken Hebrew, and it’s like the most, no, it’s not. For me, the question was “Where is it?” If only narratives can be constructed through these clear linguistic cues that are present everywhere, is this the only possible way to excavate a narrative? Then I came across a work of Microhistory and Carlo Ginzburg where you can actually find it. Now, it could be in the worms and the flower and the register books of somebody, a merchant or in the church files, whatever, and it’s exactly in the plans, in the little talk we have. It is almost this microhistory that you live but it’s not officially revealed or being accepted or being shared openly. It’s almost like a secret life but it’s not secret. But nobody recognizes it except for you. When I got to know the work of Carlo Ginzburg, I was fascinated. A lot of people approach the work of Carlo Ginzburg as a forensic, a method towards forensics, but for me it was not, it was the method for those who are deleted or they don’t have the tools which the powerful have to establish a narrative or a history, let’s say. I unfortunately discovered the works of Saidiya Hartman quite late after I finished the novel but when I read also how she was speaking about history, how this history that deletes the narratives of the kidnapped Africans from the African continent and who drowned and they will have any trace of them, only in a marginal way through the speech of the powerful, so you cannot trust history and you cannot trust the tools of history or the method of history. Therefore, maybe microhistory is only a point of reconciliation because it is these details that the powerful doesn’t notice and doesn’t pay attention to. There was actually something so funny that happened in May during the last wave of attacks on Palestinian cities and especially in Gaza. I think Facebook monitored activities of certain people and the content and they banned mention of certain words, so people on Facebook use the Arabic script from the 6th Century, which is without dots. This way, Facebook couldn’t recognize the content but you as an Arabic reader, suddenly. But the removal of this tiny element, suddenly language becomes, you see, yeah. It’s funny because you start imagining what could be the content. For me, this is almost, let’s say, this creative moment of thinking of places where you’re being denied but through this denial, you create something else and that’s what we could call resistance but it doesn’t stop about resistance, it creates a whole new approach even to language. Now for me, I was like this was opening to go back, it’s like the scripture from the 4th Century, 5th Century because they’re putting points on top of the letters in Arabic. It was introduced in the 7th Century. There’s all these possibilities and it’s amazing. I actually also met Carlo Ginzburg, he had a talk in Berlin while I was almost finished writing the novel but I was struggling with the title. I was telling him, thanking him for his influence. He asked me, “So what are you calling the novel?” I was so ashamed. I told him Minor Detail and he started laughing and I started laughing. [laughter] We were just laughing and then he said, “Actually, call it Minor Details.” I said, “No, I call it just Minor Detail.”
DN: Nice. I’m glad you brought up Saidiya Hartman. There’s some really great criticism that compares your book with her book Lose Your Mother. But I was also wanting to talk about archives and confronting archives, which you both are doing and our amateur detective protagonist is doing. But it seems like this impossible task to unearth Minor Detail and reconstruct this life of this raped and murdered nameless girl because the only means—first of all, as we’ve discussed the ability to even move around is deeply compromised—but the only means to retrieve information or this only seeming means to retrieve information are what is held by the Israeli archives or the Israeli museums which are difficult to access. In one talk you mentioned you were arrested in a museum for simply being Palestinian with a laptop. But the museums don’t include minor details, or if they include minor details, they’re not included in a way that is legible to understand what you’re seeing and what our protagonist is looking at when she goes to the museum of the Israel Defense Forces isn’t legible to her. But it all made me think of, I think my favorite lecture of yours which was called Cracking The Surface: Decanonisation As Method where you talk about The Great Book Robbery, which is also the name of a film about this that is worth seeing, when the National Library of Israel confiscated 80,000 books from private Palestinian collections, 20,000 of which were deemed unfit for circulation because they could do potential harm to the Israeli Project and were sold as paper waste. But in this talk, you’re talking about your desire to go and steal one book back of Sakakini, a poet who had an incredible private library that was a de facto resource for the neighborhood and which he was dispossessed of when he was dispossessed of his home.
AS: It was actually not only for the neighborhood, it’s for the whole region. He’s a very, very important thinker. He’s not only a poet. He secretly wrote his love poems to his wife but his major work is in education and philosophy.
DN: Yeah. But you talk about also pausing around whether to steal this book, whether to reclaim this book from the Israeli museum because there’s this project of digitization by the museum. Usually, in archival perspectives, this is considered an act of generosity to digitize things, to make them more accessible. But you wonder whether this digitization is an amplification of the theft. But nevertheless, it makes you pause. We don’t know whether you’ve stolen the book but we do know that you’re unsure whether to steal it because if you do before it’s digitized, then Palestinians won’t have access to it. But I guess I wondered about this in light of the second section of Minor Detail, whether we could view the impossibility of retrieval in your story around Sakakini’s books and this impossible journey of engagement with the archives for our protagonist. And maybe you could speak to how accessible or inaccessible your actual books are in Israel-Palestine in light of that.
AS: These examples, it’s just almost the first tip when you think to go on research or to consider even researching, how just this simple wish on going to an archive, it turns you immediately into a criminal, you’re a potential thief, you’re committing a fraud, you’re a liar. It’s like almost immediate implications and it’s very interesting how this unethical trap that is being put around you, so you only could be still, you only could not research, you only could be ignorant because the minute you would like to experience, check more, explore more, it’s really closing on you and you are treated as a criminal. It’s very interesting, it’s not like the conditions are normal conditions, this is the conditions of occupational colonization. This is what it wants. Going back to this mice of learned helplessness, it’s not only you learn to be helpless, you learn how to be satisfied of being a good citizen, this idea of a good citizen who’s an ignorant citizen that also justifies controlling you because you’re ignorant and you are primitive and so on and so on. Otherwise, you’re a criminal and a liar and all these definitions we have to those who always want to steal from us. It’s very interesting actually. There’s a small talk in this novel, actually, this small language always comes up, for instance, about this man, one of the slurs that often, casually, an angry Israeli would tell a Palestinian like, “You’re a stinking Arab. You smell bad.” Sometimes, okay, if you don’t have water and your water is being taken from you and you have a current of water coming once a week, I think you would be saving a lot on water and you might sacrifice taking a shower every day and you might not have a swimming pool too to sunbathe in one settlement or your village is down the slope, not on top and sucking all the water. You see all of these issues that they come up with that builds, it’s almost like you are constructed as inhuman. This is your condition and you’re a liar. When one wants to offer you the hand, you want the whole arm. This is like a famous reaction, especially when it comes to political negotiation, and you think like, “No, it’s not like I want the arm or this. Come on, we’re talking about occupation, you are confiscating these lands, you are confiscating these books,” and this is exactly what goes with the works of Sakakini. I was so much influenced by Sakakini since I’m a child because I thought he had this idea of almost an open school reform. I hated school since I went to school and I don’t know why I continued to do my PhD when every day, literally, me studying, I hated that. [laughter] I was always hoping, I knew that Palestinian resistant fighters wanted to liberate Palestine but for me, I wanted them to destroy my school, to destroy it, that’s it, that somebody should bomb my school and we’re over with it. [laughter] Then I was reading Sakakini. I was around maybe 11 and 12 and he was talking about a way of how school can be, and this almost giving dignity to pupils and there’s not this, again, this structure of teachers who know and children who don’t know, but it’s something participatory. He established the school in the ‘30s and ‘32 in Jerusalem; it was an experimental school. I was fascinated like, “Wow. So I don’t have to bomb my school, I can do something else with it.” [laughter] I was so happy with him and I started reading him and I tried to talk to the principal of the school and he told me, “Okay, we will not change the school structure but I allow you to discuss your ideas with the other pupils.” The pupils thought it’s a crazy idea because they didn’t believe that we could do that. Sakakini doesn’t mean anything for the Israeli society as such. His books were looted from his house. They are sitting there in The National Library of Israel and I’m able to access them but if I want to have it, it’s like I know this is a theft and a theft like I should take that and it’s mine, this almost childish angry impulse that gets in you, but also that you are turning into the criminal that you’re being designed to be, you have the machine of being turned into a criminal that you are, you have no ethical base for acting almost on a daily basis. It’s fascinating what it turns into and for me, it’s almost an exam of the limits of a human being and what could be considered ethical, survival, and so on. I think a lot about that actually. I would say the words of others, they help me a lot. I know that Primo Levi was very important for me because the pain he experienced is not something that is limited to him in a way that I think he’s the most generous to be able with your own pain, even if you’re coming from a different experience, to feel something connected. It’s fascinating. I think this is the generosity and it’s so painful for me to realize that he committed suicide because this means he doesn’t trust humanity. With his writing, he makes me trust humanity or regain my humanity. I think there’s a lot of contradiction that one works with in this kind of what type of knowledge you would also obtain. I wanted Sakakini’s books because I wanted to see how this person in the 30s, when we are being presented like the primitive Arabs, was creating something that led him to think of a different schooling system and he created that school. Actually, this is my secret wish, if one day language leaves me alone, I would love to go to this project and create this school.
DN: I love that idea.
AS: Yeah. This school functioned until ‘48, until the war. He’s a precious mind that his books suddenly are not a collection, they are not this collection that leads you to this knowledge or behavior. They are scattered on shelves, mixed with something. Of course, one can derive other knowledge in different ways.
DN: Near the beginning, we were talking a little bit about complacent language in relationship to pain and I wanted to return to pain and trauma in relationship to language but also to life outside of language. When you were writing about Edward Said’s father after The Nakba, how he resorted to constantly playing cards, you say, “Said identifies his father’s card playing as a dispiriting blankness; an act signifying minimal emotional investment; a way to subliminate anxieties; an escape from a confrontation with reality, all requiring the least words: Silence.” I was thinking about this in relation to something else you’ve said, that the book is less about the past’s relationship to the present than the past tense in relationship to the present tense, that the past is the realm of the articulate because we have the benefit of retrospection and reflection, and the present tense is, by nature, stumbling forward. When our Palestinian protagonist goes to an Israeli settlement to visit a museum archive, you described the museum guardian in this way, translated into English obviously, “He begins speaking in a voice so calm and clear, so untouched by stuttering, stammering, or rambling, that it feels as if he is smoothly unraveling a delicate thread, one which cannot easily be cut.” I think if you’re talking Stockholm where you are asked, “Why the first part is the officer’s story and not the girl’s story?” You said that we can’t have access to her language, that pain is not something that can be communicated, that we even have trouble recalling pain after it passes. In a sense, she’s silent in the story because of this. But thinking about the too smooth delicate thread that can’t be easily cut and then also perhaps of weakness as a source of resistance, I wonder if we could talk about the wound of the Israeli officer in part one. Because he’s obsessed with cleanliness and ritual, which includes this obsessive desire to rid his hut of insects, but he’s bitten by one, we don’t know what it is but the wound won’t heal and much of our time spent with him, he’s thinking about or obsessively cleaning his wound. In your previous books, your characters, they revel in odors and secretions and here, the officer can’t stop describing his revulsion for the odor on the girl’s clothes, manure, urine, genital secretions, and of her sticky saliva and mucus and tears that accumulate on his hand when it’s over her mouth. But his wound feels like the one place where the smooth articulation of his routine is disrupted, he has no control over this silent, persistent thing. It feels to me like it’s the one place where he becomes, against his wishes, vulnerable to the land, that the land has wounded him so much so that he comes into the room at one point and is just completely repulsed by the smell of the girl but then realizes that the smell is of him, of his own wound. I guess I wanted to hear you speak more about the beingness outside of language with the wound, the smells, the saliva, the secretions, I don’t know if it’s in relationship to silence or weakness, but it does feel like the one way in which this linear narrative, dictatorship has been foiled.
AS: Yeah. Silence, it’s probably a being or maybe it wants this to be its manifestation. I know living with silence is not the absence of words, maybe it’s an element. But going back to this, it’s not about an absence, it’s not something that is missing but it’s something else that reveals itself and lives. I think this is the beauty about maybe sometimes of language, that it allows that, it doesn’t feel threatened by the silence or by the other, and also that it’s not that almost opposition is either this or that, it doesn’t function. Its function is probably the multiplicity that there are the words and there’s the silence and as there is in language so many words, in the silence, there are so many silences, and what are these silences and what their manifestation or being. It’s interesting because silence smells somehow. It’s something that doesn’t go in negation but with, it’s almost the life, if silence lives, if we don’t think about it as only the negation of all the absence or the deletion of words, it is probably that. But also, what can live within all of this silence, what can still have the force, and force, I’m talking about force and not power because this is the force of life somehow.
DN: Yeah. You were part of organizing a conference that was organized around a grammatical structure that’s unique to Arabic, Al-muthanna, that has to do with the relationship between two people. I think of it a little bit when you’re talking about the “not in negation but with”. There was quoted in the conference materials, the Palestinian mathematician Munir Fasheh, who said that Al-muthanna does not perceive the other as non-I or as a person that is a copy of I. Each person remains who they are, but a relation develops that becomes so important that neither person can live any longer as if the relationship is not there. The text for your conference continues, “Al-muthanna relations extend beyond the structuralist logic of the binary, oppositional relations in language systems. Its simplest order is of an I/us, as opposed to ‘Other,’ which Said repeatedly problematized and criticized.” You’ve said in interviews that in your opposition to Israel, you don’t see yourself as against a Jewish state but against a state; and also that while you don’t want a state of Israel, you also don’t want a Palestinian state. It made me wonder if these were related to this Al-muthanna sentiment. Because I’m thinking of Said who often put forth or put forth a one-state solution that was not based on identity or on language or ethnicity, if that was somehow connected to this I/us.
AS: Certainly. The emergence of nationalism of which Zionism is an outcome and it’s a movement that appeared in Europe and Zionism as a later outcome of that because it already started in Europe, because it fitted the time and the divisions of trying to make sense of the self. I’m not opposing the state just because of the idea of the state but one sees the consequences of the state. The consequences of nationalism, where the nation state was brought about, are disastrous. So far we have not witnessed a state that is functioning in a way that we would like to replicate proudly. We are maybe doing it as a result of vengeance or anger or “Ah, you are like that so I want to be like that,” but it’s not out of this free way of thinking, “Ah, this is the way to be together as human beings.” It is a system that is based on exclusion and forcing certain definitions and perceptions of the self in relation to the others, which is quite violent. Essentially, it’s violent even when it comes in this almost humanitarian patronizing form like, “Yeah, I’m welcoming refugees.” Who are you to welcome anybody? Because you live in a structure of a state so you just put yourself in a position of “I am welcoming refugees.” Pardon, this place could also have different structures and then you lose this possibility to say that you are welcoming, nobody is welcoming anybody. In daily life, it’s not the definition of “I am that the native and you are the intruder.” I would say actually in Palestine, when the Jewish immigration, the Zionist settlement started, people were not reacting in a hostile way. The problem starts when it turns into a project of colonization rather than living. I think this happens in different contexts of colonization. People, in many places, didn’t oppose people’s arrival. The minute it becomes problematic is when it becomes about power, about control, about resources, about who’s going to control. I think the state is always a structure that wants to control to enable the functioning, I don’t know, of the economy, probably if we are following Marx, is the economic structure that needs a state to carry this burden of running lives so it continues, but it’s not the way I would like to live. Now I’m saying this because in the case of the Palestinians, we witness the state of Israel as a state and what it does to you. Is this what I would like to replicate? Is there actually a different way for our state to exist? There’s an example that I actually discussed with my students in Birzeit, there’s the watchtowers, there are checkpoints, and they have Israeli soldiers inside. They are controlling and seeing. But we always ask, “If we take the Israeli soldiers and we put Palestinian radical leftists, will the power shift its function?” No. It will remain and those who are inside will remain only being able to watch the others and to have this power relations. I don’t want to go into the structure and to fill it with different people, because we see now with the Palestinian authority that tries to imitate a structure, a state structure, I don’t think they are bad people but what they are doing is terrible because this is the structure. Even if I go there, because some of my friends are writers that became the ministers of culture there, they suddenly change not because they’re bad, they’re really wonderful people, but suddenly, the position shifts you. I think it’s corrupt. It’s dysfunctional. If it’s functional, it just brings about power relations and enforcing things on others. I don’t think this is the way to live so I don’t want states as such. Imagine the saying in a radio program which is called The United States of America. [laughter]
DN: Maybe to finish, you’ve spent 12 years sitting in the silence while the words of Minor Detail emerge. But I’m curious if you have been writing since then, how is what is emerging now an extension of the questions of this book or a departure from this book?
AS: Yeah. With Minor Detail, there was this really good question of language, how the language of the powerful, the language of the stammerer who makes fun of those who speak clearly and perfectly. That was the question and it was. I started to work on a novel in 2018. I finished Minor Detail in 2016 and I wanted to work on something and this is a problem, whenever I want to work on something in writing, it doesn’t happen as if I should not have a will. Language can’t say, “No, no you will not do that.” I said, “Yes, I actually dreamed it, it’s a structure. I’m going to write this now,” and no, it doesn’t work. I tried for two years to think about this, to convince myself that I am ready, I have an idea. Writing, in my case, doesn’t come with an idea, it comes with a sense. Then I left that, I said, “Okay, I go back to the sense of my place to come to literature, to writing.” It’s completely different ,or I hope so.
DN: I really look forward to it. This is one of the highlight reads for me in years, actually, Minor Detail. Thank you for your work and for today.
AS: Thank you. I’m really humbled with your words.
DN: We’re talking today to Adania Shibli about her most recent book, Minor Detail, from New Directions and Fitzcarraldo Editions, and Text Publishing in Australia and New Zealand. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. I’d like to thank the Poets Fady Joudah and George Abraham for being part of this episode today and making this episode better because of it. Fady Joudah’s latest poetry collection is Tethered to Stars out from Milkweed. George Abraham’s latest poetry collection is Birthright from Button Poetry. I hope you support their work. Speaking of support, if you enjoy what you’ve heard, consider becoming a listener-supporter of Between The Covers. Every supporter gets a resource-rich email with each episode, which for this episode would point you to Adania’s own lectures and conversations referenced today, as well as writers, books, or films mentioned. And every supporter joins a community that is actively shaping who comes on the show in the future. There are also many other possible benefits from rare collectibles from past guests, to access to the bonus audio, to becoming an early reader for Tin House receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public. You can find out more about becoming a listener supporter of Between The Covers at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team, Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. I’d also like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.