Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
Art by Larissa Sansour
Excerpt from Chapter 1
Nothing moved except the mirage. Vast stretches of barren hills rose in layers up to the sky, trembling silently under the heft of the mirage, while the harsh afternoon sunlight blurred the outlines of the pale yellow ridges. The only details that could be discerned were a faint winding border which aimlessly meandered across these ridges, and the slender shadows of dry, thorny burnet and stones dotting the ground. Aside from these, nothing at all, just a great expanse of the arid Negev desert, over which crouched the intense August heat.
The only signs of life in the area were distant barking and the noise of soldiers working to set up camp. These reached his ears as he gazed through binoculars from his position atop a hill, examining the scene before him. Against the sun’s harsh glare, he carefully followed the course of narrow paths across the sand, occasionally pausing to fix his gaze on a ridge for a moment longer. Finally, he lowered his binoculars, wiped off the sweat, and returned them to their case. Then he began making his way through the thick, heavy afternoon air, back to the camp.
When they had arrived, they found two standing huts and the remains of a wall in a partially destroyed third. It was all that had survived in this place after the heavy shelling the area had experienced at the beginning of the war. But now a command tent and mess tent were pitched next to these huts, and the sounds of hammering stakes and clattering poles filled the air as the soldiers worked to pitch the three tents that would serve as their quarters. His deputy, the sergeant major, met him upon his return, and informed him that the men had removed all the rubble and stones from the area, and that a group of soldiers was working to rebuild the trenches. He replied that all preparations must be finished before nightfall, then told him to order the division sergeants and some corporals and experienced soldiers to report for a meeting in the command tent immediately.
Afternoon sunlight filled the entrance to the tent, streamed through it and spread across the sand, revealing little indentations on its surface made by the soldiers’ feet. He began the briefing by explaining that their primary mission during their presence here, in addition to demarcating the southern border with Egypt and preventing anyone from penetrating it, was to comb the southwest part of the Negev and cleanse it of any remaining Arabs. Air Force sources had reported movements here, of Arabs and infiltrators in the area. They would also undertake daily reconnaissance patrols, to explore and familiarize themselves with the region. This operation could take some time, but they were to remain stationed here until security in this part of the Negev had been established. They would also run daily drills and military maneuvers with the soldiers, to train them in desert combat and acclimatize them to the conditions.
The soldiers in attendance listened as they followed the movement of his hands over the map laid out in front of them, where the camp’s position appeared in the form of a small, barely discernible black dot inside a large gray triangle. None of them commented on what was said, and silence filled the tent for several seconds. The officer turned his gaze from the map to their sullen faces, dripping with sweat, glistening in the light that came through the entrance to the tent. After a pause he continued, instructing them to be sure that the soldiers, especially those who had recently joined the platoon, took good care of their uniforms and gear; if anyone lacked clothing or equipment, they should notify him immediately. The soldiers should also be reminded of the importance of maintaining personal hygiene, and shaving daily. Then, before adjourning the meeting, he turned to the driver, a sergeant, and two corporals who were present, and ordered them to prepare to depart with him on a preliminary reconnaissance patrol of the area.
Before the patrol, he stopped by one of the huts, which he had taken as his quarters, and began moving his belongings from the entrance, where he had stacked them, to a corner of the room. Then he took a jerry can from the stack, and poured water from it into a small tin bowl. He took a towel from his kit bag, dipped it in the water he had poured into the bowl, and used it to wipe the sweat from his face. He rinsed the towel, then took off his shirt and wiped his armpits. He put his shirt back on, buttoned it up, then rinsed the towel thoroughly and hung it on one of the old nails that remained in the wall. Then he took the bowl outside, poured the dirty water onto the sand, went back into the room, put the bowl in the corner with the rest of his belongings and left.
“The waves of sand, with their shifting shapes, would not settle until the vehicle had vanished far into the distance and the sound of its engine had entirely faded.”
The driver was sitting in his seat behind the steering wheel, while the rest of the group that had been ordered to join him were standing around the vehicle. As he approached, they climbed in the back, and he took the front passenger seat. The driver adjusted his position before reaching for the ignition switch and starting the engine, which released a loud roar out into the open space.
They set off west, forging their way through pale yellow hills that extended in every direction. Thick clouds of sand sprung from underneath the vehicle’s tires, rose up and followed after them, completely obscuring the view behind. Some sand struck those seated in the back, forcing them to shut their eyes and mouths in an attempt to keep the dust out. The waves of sand, with their shifting shapes, would not settle until the vehicle had vanished far into the distance and the sound of its engine had entirely faded. Only then did the sand drift gradually back onto the hills, softening the sharp parallel tracks left by the vehicle’s tires.
They reached the armistice line with Egypt and examined the border, but observed no attempts to breach it. By the time the sun neared the line of the horizon, the dust and heat had conquered them, and he ordered the driver to return to camp. They had not encountered any life on their patrol of the area, despite the reports indicating movement there.
Though they arrived back at camp before nightfall, to the east the blue sky had nearly given way to darkness and the faint glow of a few stars had already appeared. Preparations in the camp had not yet been finished, and after stepping down from the vehicle he announced that everything must be completed before they sat down to dinner. That enlivened the soldiers, and their silhouettes began moving more quickly and animatedly around the camp.
He headed into his hut, where darkness had taken hold, so he paused for a moment, then went back to the door and opened it wide, to ease the darkness inside. He took the towel, now completely dry, from where it hung on the wall. He dampened it by pouring water directly onto it from the jerry can, then wiped the sweat and dust from his face and hands. He bent over his belongings again, picked up a lantern, lifted the glass, then placed it on the table without lighting the mantle, and left the hut.
Even though he had been inside for only a few minutes, the sky was now speckled with stars, and darkness had enveloped the hills so completely that night seemed to have descended upon the camp all at once. The soldiers’ silhouettes were moving slowly again, and their voices pierced the deep blue night, while the glow of lanterns sneaked through the cracks and openings of the tents.
He set off on a tour of the camp facilities, and inspected the progress of the work throughout, especially the process of rebuilding trenches and readying the drill areas. Things seemed to be going according to plan, except that it was past eight p.m., and usually they gathered to eat at eight sharp. Before long, they all headed to the mess tent to sit down around the dinner tables.
After dinner he walked to his hut, guided by the light of the full moon and the stars scattered above the dark line of the horizon. He prepared himself for bed, then extinguished the lantern and lay down. He pushed the sheets far away, leaving his body completely exposed; the heat weighing on the room was intense, but despite it he fell straight asleep. It had been a long, hard day for everyone: August 9, 1949.
Excerpt from Chapter 2
After I had finished hanging the curtains over the windows, I lay down on the bed. At that moment, a dog on the opposite hill began to howl incessantly. It was past midnight and I couldn’t sleep, despite how thoroughly exhausted I was. I had spent the whole day arranging and cleaning the house; I dusted the furniture, swept the floor, and rewashed the bedsheets and towels and most of the dishes, even though, in principle, the house was clean before I began cleaning it so thoroughly; the landlord told me he’d brought in a woman especially. I’d started renting this house a few days earlier, right after getting my new job. On the whole, the house is good and the job is good and my colleagues are nice. But none of this was enough to help me overcome the anxiety and fear that the dog’s endless howling awakened in me that night, not even a little. Regardless, I realized that when I woke up the next morning, I’d feel an overwhelming sense of satisfaction, its main source being the cleanness of the house, and perhaps the curtains hung over its windows. I had placed my table by the biggest window, where I would sit every morning and drink my coffee before going to my new job, and the neighbors and their three children would pass by and wave to me, all of which would imply that I lived a peaceful life, overlooking a back garden hidden from view.
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. Neither of these two behaviors is conscious, or rooted in a premeditated desire to resist borders; it’s more like sheer stupidity. To be quite honest, once I cross a border, I fall into a deep pit of anxiety. It’s a matter, simply put, of clumsiness. Once I realized that I inevitably fail whenever I try to navigate borders, I decided to stay within the confines of my house as much as possible. And since this house has many windows, through which the neighbors and their children can easily see me and catch me trespassing borders even when I’m in my own house, I hung the curtains, although I’ll inevitably forget to close them sometimes.
In any case, since I’m always alone when I’m in my house, I’ll sit at my table, nowhere else, and that’s all the outside world will see of me, to the extent that when a few days pass without me doing so, the neighbor’s middle son will tell me he missed seeing me sitting at my table every morning, “working.” Indeed, I justify my extended mornings sitting there by telling others that I’m “working.” And I usually “work” before going to my new job, which will forever be “new” to me, since I don’t know at what point my “new job” should simply become my “job.” I often work until late at night, outlasting even the security guard, since I’m often late getting to the office to start my shift, because the dog on the opposite hill usually wakes me up at night, and I don’t manage to fall back asleep until dawn, so I wake up late, then get to my new job late. And when none of this happens, I stay in my house until the last hours of morning, sitting at my table “working,” but on what exactly?
On the whole, I realize that this might seem exaggerated, but this is due to the issue I previously mentioned, namely my inability to identify borders, even very rational borders, which makes me overreact sometimes, or underreact at other times, unlike most people. For instance, when a military patrol stops the minibus I take to my new job, and the first thing that appears through the door is the barrel of the gun, I ask the soldier, while stuttering, most likely out of fear, to put it away when he’s talking to me or asking to see my identity card. At which point the soldier starts mocking my stutter, and the passengers around me grumble because I’m overreacting; there’s no need to make things so tense. The soldier isn’t going to shoot at us, and even if he does, my intervention won’t change the course of things; quite the opposite. Yes, I realize all that, just not in the moment, but rather hours, days, or even years later. That’s one example. But this same behavior can be observed in various other situations, from undressing during a security inspection at a checkpoint, to asking an amateur vegetable seller sitting in Ramallah’s vegetable market, which is otherwise closed on Fridays, about the price of some wilting lettuce, and being quoted three times the normal price of normal lettuce. Since I lack the ability to evaluate things rationally, situations like these have a severe impact on me; they shake and destabilize me to the point that I can no longer fathom what is permissible and what is not, and I end up trespassing even more borders, worse ones than before. Yet all my fear and anxiety and internal turmoil dissipates when this trespassing occurs within the confines of my solitude. Solitude is so forgiving of trespassed borders; it was only thanks to my time spent alone, sitting at my table in the mornings, “working” on something, that I was able to make my discovery.
By the way, I hope I didn’t cause any awkwardness when I mentioned the incident with the soldier, or the checkpoint, or when I reveal that we are living under occupation here. Gunshots and military vehicle sirens, and sometimes the sound of helicopters, warplanes, and shelling, the subsequent wail of ambulances; not only do these noises precede breaking news reports, but now they have to compete with the dog’s barking, too. And the situation has been like this for such a long time that there aren’t many people alive today who remember little details about what life was like before all this, like the detail about the wilting lettuce in an otherwise closed vegetable market, for example.
So, one morning when I was reading the newspaper, and happened across an article about a certain incident, it naturally wasn’t the incident itself that began to haunt me. Incidents like that aren’t out of the ordinary, or, let us say, they happen in contexts like this. In fact, they happen so often that I’ve never paid them much attention before. For instance, on another morning when it was raining, I woke up late, which meant I couldn’t sit and “work” at my table in front of the big window; instead I had to go straight to my new job. When I arrived at my stop, and got off the minibus a bit before the clocktower, I found the street empty of people and cars, and I saw a military vehicle stopped in front of al-Bandi grocery. But since there was nothing out of the ordinary in that, I kept walking in the other direction, toward my new job. And when I arrived at the top of the street that leads to my office, a passerby, the only one I had encountered until that moment, pointed out that the area was under curfew, and the army was besieging a building nearby.
Nothing struck me as unusual about this either, and I continued on my way. Then, there in the middle of the street, in front of the main entrance to the building where my office is, I glimpsed two soldiers. And by now I’ve learned my lesson, that I must remain calm and composed in situations like this, and so I waved at them, saying in a clear, confident voice that I worked in the building they were standing in front of. At that, one of them bent his right knee to the ground and propped his left elbow on his other knee, aiming the barrel of his gun at me, and immediately I leapt behind a thorn acacia tree, using its prickly branches to shield myself from gunshots, which, in any event, never came. And while his action, by which I mean him pointing his gun at me, cannot be described as humane, it was enough for me to understand what he meant, and that I had to find another way to my new job. Up until this point, I had not found the situation to be unusual, or not so unusual that I should turn around and go back to my house. So I jumped over the walls and borders dividing the houses and buildings, and I do believe that jumping over borders is fully justifiable in a situation like this, is it not? Anyhow, I carried on in that fashion until I reached the back of the building where I work. And since only three of my colleagues had come to the office that morning, I got to work without anyone disturbing me, carrying out my responsibilities diligently, and very well, until a colleague came into my office and opened the window without my permission, and when I protested, he said the glass would shatter if he did not do so. The army had informed the residents in the area that it was going to bomb one of the neighboring buildings where three young men had barricaded themselves, which is exactly what happened a few minutes later. There was one window this colleague had forgotten to open, and the glass shattered the moment the building was bombed.
©2016 by Adania Shibli, translation © 2020 by Elisabeth Jaquette.
Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
Fall / Winter 2023
Adania Shibli (1974, Palestine) has been writing novels, plays, short stories and narrative essays, which were published in various anthologies, art books, and literary and cultural magazines in different languages. Her latest novel Minor Detail was published in the U.S. by New Directions in 2020, in a translation by Elisabeth Jaquette, and has been translated into many languages, most recently into German (published by Berenberg Verlag). Minor Detail was a finalist for the National Book Award and longlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize.
Elisabeth Jaquette is a translator from the Arabic and the Executive Director of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA).
Larissa Sansour was born in 1973 in East Jerusalem, Palestine. Working mainly with film, she also produces installations, photographs, and sculptures. Central to her work is the dialectics between myth and historical narrative. Sansour has shown in film festivals and museums worldwide, including the Tate Modern, MoMA, Centre Pompidou, and the Istanbul Biennial; she represented Denmark at the 58th Venice Biennial. In 2020, she was the co-recipient of the prestigious Jarman Award. Her recent solo exhibitions include Whitworth Gallery, Manchester; KINDL, Berlin; Copenhagen Contemporary; Bluecoat, Liverpool; Bildmuseet, Umeå; and Dar El-Nimer, Beirut. Sansour lives and works in London.