This past July, the German literary organization Litprof announced that Palestinian writer Adania Shibli won the 2023 LiBeraturpreis award for her novel Minor Detail and would receive the award at a ceremony on October 13, 2023 at the 2023 Frankfurt Book Fair. As is well known by now, the Frankfurt Book Fair decided to cancel the ceremony, citing the “war started by Hamas, under which millions of people in Israel and Palestine are suffering.” The war was apparently not enough to cancel the Fair entirely—only the award ceremony honoring Shibli and a scheduled discussion.
The decision to cancel the ceremony for Shibli’s novel is morally confused: it implies that some connection exists between celebrating literature written by a Palestinian woman and the horrific attacks carried out by Hamas on October 7. These blanket generalizations—associating an entire group of people with the actions of a small few—not only mirror the justifications given for engaging in collective punishment of Palestinians, but also subvert literature itself. One reason we come to books is to deepen our understanding of ourselves, the experience of being human, and the world. Canceling an award ceremony and event centered on Minor Detail is particularly unfortunate because the logic of occupation explored and exposed in the book expands our knowledge of the current moment in important ways.
Written in the first person, the Minor Detail offers microcosmic accounts of how structures of the state play out within an individual: the brutal logic of dehumanization required to carry out acts of violence for the Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldier, and the omnipresent, violent paranoia of occupation that permeates life for Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel. The first half of the novel opens with a fictionalized account of the gang rape and murder of a Bedouin woman by members of the IDF in 1949. The event took place just over one year after the mass expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes in an event known as the Nakba.
The second half of the novel picks up in the occupied West Bank decades later. Sitting down to read a newspaper in her home, a young woman discovers that she was born twenty-five years from the date of the brutal crime depicted in the first half. The murder itself is unremarkable, she tells us: “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.” But the coincidental date of the murder piques her interest enough to follow her trail of curiosity to the Negev desert in an effort to learn more about the victim. Her movements both within and outside of the West Bank unveil the physical and psychological violence inflicted on Palestinians living under occupation, shaping what is and is not considered “normal.”
Navigating borders—military checkpoints, different regions of Israel that select Palestinians are granted access to, and the blurred line between violence and safety—is central to life under occupation. “The borders imposed between things here are many,” she tells us. “One must pay attention to them, and navigate them, which ultimately protects everyone from perilous consequences. This grants a person a sense of security, despite everything else.” The logic of these borders is one that inverts the typical relationship between safety and violence. Under occupation, the closer you are to the structures of violence, the more you abide by and accommodate them, the safer you are; but even the most banal movements that cross the borders and logic of occupation could be a death sentence.
When a colleague walks into our protagonist’s office at work to open the windows, he gives a disinterested explanation that the army is planning to bomb a nearby building, and if the windows aren’t open, they will shatter. Another day, when she is walking to work, she finds that the army is besieging a nearby building. When she tries to reach the main entrance of her office building, a soldier blocks her way, pointing the barrel of his gun in her direction. In both circumstances, the violence is understood dispassionately, a mere inconvenience, as they are just baked into the rules of life under occupation. When the bomb goes off near her building, she casually reflects on the different types of dust particles that land on her paper; when a gun is pointed at her face when she tries reaching her office building, she turns around and finds a new way through the back.
In contrast, when the protagonist borrows her colleague’s ID card to leave the West Bank and venture to the Negev, entering lands that her own ID card does not give her access to, she is beset with fear: “[A]s soon as I sit down behind the steering wheel of the little white car I’ve just rented, and turn the key to start the engine, what appears to be a spider begins spinning its threads around me, tightening them into something like a barrier, impenetrable if only because they’re so fragile. It’s the barrier of fear, fashioned from fear of the barrier. The check-point.” Terror grips her throughout the journey as she navigates an uncanny land that has been stripped of all that was familiar to her: Palestinian villages listed on her 1948 map have either been razed or renamed; roads that were once winding are now wide and straight; prisons and walls are newly erected where none existed. Though there are no explosions or guns pointed in her face, the mere act of existing outside of the rules governing occupation submerges her in fear, even though all she is doing is driving around, entering museums, reading pamphlets. Nevertheless, it is ultimately her existence outside of the West Bank that becomes a death sentence.
By contrasting her experiences in and outside of the occupied West Bank, Minor Detail reveals the logic of life under occupation. Living within the confines of violence—making room for its brutality—in one’s daily life is the key to safety; and refusing to submit to the violence of occupation is the most dangerous thing one can do, regardless of how harmlessly one crosses its borders. Everyday activities as mundane and routine as driving, exploring a new area, or getting on a bus can be met with force if they cross the boundaries established by the occupying force. Conversely, events as violent as bombings and murders can become normal, a part of the backdrop to everyday life under this logic. The logic of occupation means that the acceptability of one’s actions are not measured by any criteria of objectivity or morality, but whether or not they fit within the confines and boundaries established by the occupation.
This logic is evidently at play in our culture today, as demonstrated by the abrupt change in the terms and conditions by which writers’ and artists’ free judgment and expression can be exercised, particularly on matters related to Israel and Palestine.
The violence of dispossession and occupation depicted in Minor Detail is just as present in Israel and Palestine today as it was in 2017 when it was published; it was just as present in 2020 when it was shortlisted for the National Book Award in Translated Literature; it was just as present in 2021 when it was longlisted for the International Booker Prize; and it was just as present in July of this year when Minor Detail won the German literary prize, LiBeraturpreis. Neither the ideas nor creative value explored in the book have changed, but the Frankfurt Book Fair canceled the award ceremony and discussion meant to honor and celebrate it. It becomes clear, then, that the sudden cancellation and switch up reflects a change in the very logic by which the work is being considered.
The Frankfurt Book Festival was just the first domino to fall in a series of decisions reflecting a change in logic governing our culture. In response to Hamas’ attacks on October 7, Israel has unleashed a relentless campaign of violence that a senior official and human rights lawyer at the United Nations has described as a “text-book case of genocide.” Accordingly, artists and writers across disciplines have spoken out against the violence, signing letters that mourn the loss of all innocent lives and call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. In many instances, though, these letters and statements have been met with canceled events and lost jobs. After Pulitzer prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen signed a letter published in the London Review of Books calling for “an end to the violence and destruction in Palestine,” 92NY abruptly canceled a scheduled event featuring Nguyen in response. After Artforum published an open letter signed by thousands of artists calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, David Velasco, the editor-in-chief of the magazine, was fired. After reposting an article about Gaza from the Onion on Twitter, Michael Eisen, the editor-in-chief of eLife magazine, was fired.
If advocating for the rights, safety, and security of Palestinians was morally indefensible, writers and institutions who did so would have been discredited long ago. Yet some of the most widely recognized human rights organizations—Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, for example—and some of the most celebrated writers in American history—such as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, who are both beloved and widely read to this day—have long advocated for Palestinian rights. If Shibli’s novel was not fit to be widely read and celebrated at international book festivals, our culture would have organically determined that by now. But the sudden pushback and professional repercussions that people and institutions advocating on behalf of Palestinians are now facing is not because those positions lack moral value. It is because the logic of occupation—the logic of determining which actions will be met with force and which ones will be accepted—has now placed them outside of the bounds of acceptable opinions.
The arbitrary boundaries drawn under the logic of occupation are particularly insidious when exercised by magazines and cultural institutions that platform artists of diverse backgrounds in the name of free speech or free expression. The fundamental purpose of free speech is to advance the pursuit of truth, rather than to serve as some sort of credential for liberalism or a liberal society. A great danger occurs when principles of free expression are suspended yet the language and aesthetics of those principles are upheld by our cultural institutions. Holding on to the veneer of free expression and the search for truth while fundamentally stifling it creates the type of dangerous hegemony that these very principles are meant to protect against.
We should push back against the occupation of language, deplatforming of artists and writers, and selective speech protocols, but not just out of an abstract fealty to literature or books themselves. We should push back because of our fealty to humanity and human dignity. Language cannot be bound by the shape-shifting logic of occupation because there is a lot more than just language on the line. Our ability to speak clearly and fearlessly about what our eyes and hearts bear witness to—in this case, genocidal violence inflicted against Palestinians by Israel—matters because the lives we are speaking up for matter. Life, dignity, justice, and preventing suffering matter.
Minor Detail sheds light on the logic of occupation, under which the acceptability of one’s actions are not determined by their objective or moral value but by boundaries and limits drawn by the state. We must resist the occupation of language itself, which seeks to clip the wings of our words according to a logic that is divorced from what we see in front of our very eyes.
By Adania Shibli
Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette
New Directions Publishing Corporation
Published May 26, 2020
Farooq Chaudhry is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He currently serves as a Daily Editor for the Chicago Review of Books. You can find him on Twitter at @spilledchai_.