Palestine as a Position of Witnessing: A Conversation with Adania Shibli

Reem Khader, Faces Offshoot / Courtesy of the artist

In her novel Minor Detail, Palestinian author Adania Shibli sculpts—with trenchant words—a fragile memorial for a Bedouin girl, murdered and raped in the Negev desert in 1949 (WLT, Summer 2020, 87). The mostly silent drama unfolds under a glass dome of heat and hate. The reader gets a terribly close view of the perpetrator, while his victim remains elusive. And the teenage victim becomes only more fugitive in the second part of the book, when, more than half a century later, a woman feels compelled to search for her traces.

Claudia Steinberg: What was your choice to move to Berlin based on? And has living on another continent maybe added to your understanding of Palestine by observing how people abroad view your country?

Adania Shibli: Coming to Germany was chance—I came because I fell in love with someone. I’m open to where life leads me. There was a certain period of time a person could either be inside or outside of Palestine. But now our being is always mingled with so many places at the same time. In terms of language, it has affected me a lot, and I wonder if I had spent most of my time in Palestine, how my writing language would be now. But I don’t lament these changes at all—I’m really open to how things shift and change.

This is the second time in my life that I am not back in Palestine for more than a year. And it’s strange because it creates this feeling of intimacy with the Arabic language that is rare. It’s almost like I have the language all to myself.

Steinberg: So you don’t worry that you might feel slightly estranged from your mother tongue? Does Arabic mutate fast, like most European languages that absorb so many outside influences or come up with their own neologisms?

Shibli: Of course, but non-Arabic words are not very welcome: it’s a matter of class. The tension between the spoken and the classical language is the predominant issue. I may be conservative, but I write only in classical Arabic, and when I speak, I only use the demotic form: I can never mix the two. In emails, people are writing to you as if they were speaking. For me, it’s a huge struggle—I spend so much time with emails, trying not to betray my classical Arabic. Not that I worry I could hurt it, but to me the written word is its very own domain.

In Minor Detail, the tension lies not between the spoken and the written word but between eloquent language with its clarity, which originates in a position of power, and its opposite: a broken, fragmented language. I work with the rhythm of words, and even the letters.

Steinberg: You speak several languages, including Korean. Have you adopted German?

Shibli: No, I don’t feel a close connection. I love Brecht and Fassbinder, of course. And I have recently been contemplating learning German so I would be able to read Robert Walser.

Steinberg: His German is so idiosyncratic that you’d have to take an extra course just to understand him because he invented words all the time: if you read him, you don’t exactly learn German, you learn Walser. It’s a fabulous language all its own.

Shibli: I will to go to the market and shop for my food speaking Walser!

Steinberg: Another question about Germany: you grew up in a country oppressed by Israel. And now you’re in the country that committed the Holocaust and where anti-Semitism has risen again recently—what are your thoughts on this?

Shibli: Maybe I’m an idealist, but I don’t like to define oppression by the state via religion—not the Jewish state is the oppressor, but the state. In the last twenty years, the separation between Palestinians and Israelis has become much more severe than before. You feel the inequality. You feel the privileges—it’s how the state works in a racist system, how certain groups are privileged over others. The question why it should be like this comes up at an early age—to a child, the situation is just incomprehensible. You are surprised—how could this be? Is there something wrong with me? You don’t think that there’s something wrong with the others because you think this is the normal situation, and if you are excluded from it, surely it must be your problem.

You don’t think that there’s something wrong with the others because you think this is the normal situation, and if you are excluded from it, surely it must be your problem.

For me, this situation is never about Jewishness. Differences between people are used to commit injustice—that was an early lesson about racism. My parents didn’t interfere. They had experienced the Nakba when they were fifteen years old. My grandfather had been killed. There was silence about that. But they allowed us to discover it in our own way.

In Germany, you see how a society that took a part of itself, decided it was different, and then had to be killed. This must be acknowledged, and there is the question of how that acknowledgment can continue and expand to recognize more experiences of suffering. Unfortunately, what’s happening these days is that the suffering of different groups of people are played against each other.

Steinberg: You have said about your previous novels that you never write about Palestine.

Shibli: Palestine is a mode of living, an experience. But it’s also a position of witnessing, from a position that can teach us. If you are listening, it becomes so natural that you care, and you create a connection of care toward others that is not limited to the borders of the nation-state or to Palestine as such. This is an ethical point for me—what I am as a human being who has lived in this place under these conditions, what I can carry away from this place on a personal level—and what it created in terms of literature.

Palestine is a mode of living, an experience. But it’s also a position of witnessing, from a position that can teach us.

It has its defining effects on me as a human being, but what do these conditions mean in terms of how you can construct a narrative? 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. But literary work still has its connections to literature elsewhere, to other words—if we talk in terms of literary openness, Palestine is not so closed. Of course, narratives can just disconnect and present themselves as whole and complete, leaving others isolated and denied. But I find it more interesting how not to deny a continuity elsewhere, another faraway connection.

Steinberg: Minor Detail makes very clear how violence and oppression have even imprinted the landscape, with its tangle of roads, the willful detours.

Shibli: You are constantly reevaluating this landscape emotionally—you don’t trust it. But you can write about what has been erased from this landscape—those trees don’t disappear from the language, and that way, they almost exist. People may gain from literature what they cannot get from their own lives. It’s not escapism but rather a kind of openness.

Steinberg: So language is also a tool of preservation in a very unreliable environment where you cannot really risk attachment.

Shibli: Nature is subjected to the elements, to animals, and to humans, but in Palestine you have one dominant power that has the ability to interfere with nature. If you prefer to live that reality as it is, I’m not going to be fascistic and tell you that I have the truth—no, our reality will keep changing unpredictably, and I might not trust either that things are going to be there the next day. But this landscape has an alliance with language; they exist together and actually can haunt you, despite any attempt at their erasure.

Steinberg: Going back to Minor Detail, the commander’s cleanliness, your careful descriptions of his washing rituals, represents a common trait of authoritarian regimes that tend to consider everything that is not of their culture as dirty—xenophobia always includes this fear of contamination with foreign filth and disease. The commander, along with his soldiers, has internalized this standard way of creating otherness. At the same time, it is he who carries within him a festering infection, a feast of bacteria and poison.

Shibli: I think it’s a colonial obsession to clean. The Palestinian presence in the region is seen as harmful. Africans are viewed as primitive and irrational. Freud writes about cleanliness in relation to the desire for self-control and orderliness. This is something that not only occurs in the context of Palestine, but civilization in general, as per Freud, is associated with cleanness, which, along with order, brings beauty. Nationalism is also about cleanliness: cleaning the state from those “others.”

Steinberg: You have said that you don’t think in terms of male and female. But in Minor Detail the rape and murder of the Bedouin girl is such a condemnation of patriarchal culture.

Shibli: I don’t want to otherize. To reduce the situation to female and male creates a separation and maybe the decision not to extend oneself to be in the position of the other. In literature a viewpoint can move to another being or another place, where you are capable of playing with and experiencing feelings that are alien. That position is related to generosity. I don’t think that divisions help understanding. I’m not denying difference, but I’m not using difference to define my position: that’s how I was able write the first chapter of Minor Detail—the fact that the man is a rapist is incidental.

Steinberg: You create an ominous unwanted sort of intimacy with the commander—we become familiar with his habits and learn about his intense need for control. You get very close to him, even under his skin, into his wound. He talks very little, but when he does terrible things, he’s not a stranger—he is a human being.

Shibli: And maybe he brings us closer to our own cruelty, and the normalcy of brutality: I always ask myself what kind of terrible things I could commit. This is a question for any human being.

Steinberg: Most of us are committing cruelty by remaining passive in its face.

Shibli: So many people are moving, drowning, and they are left at the bottom of the sea—somebody who is forty years old, somebody who is twelve—suddenly those deaths are normal. Because somebody else decided that the gifts of the earth are ours and not yours. If kids behave like this on the playground, we would not want our kids to play with those who are selfish and keep their toys for themselves. I’m against the normalization of inequality, of privileges.

Steinberg: Kant already wrote about the right of a foreigner not to be treated as an enemy, that the finitude of our globe unites all places on its surface, which is commonly owned, and therefore hospitality is a universal mandate. However, he did believe in the state, which you don’t—does that mean that you don’t want a Palestinian state?

Shibli: I don’t want a state. I’m not nostalgic, and this question is about us being in places without violence or violations against our existence—the state will normalize violence. It also depends on one language—I am for polyphony: there can be many, many different languages. Considering all these current divisions between ethnicities and religions, it’s madness to have a state, and I really don’t understand the joy in forcing people together. If someone will find these documents about statehood in five hundred years, they will say these guys were total morons: the state claims there should be only one ethnic majority, one religion, and one language.

I’m against the injustices, the colonization, the occupation, and the humiliation of Palestinians by defining them as others within the Israeli state and Israeli politics and ideologies: I would like that to end. I don’t want a Palestinian state, or a state of Israel—I don’t want either. I don’t want any states, actually. Is this too idealistic? People might want to call me a Marxist. I’m a writer, so I can indulge in fantasies.

December 2020

Adania Shibli (b. 1974, Palestine) has written novels, plays, short stories, and narrative essays. Her latest is Tafsil Thanawi (2017; Eng. Minor Detail, 2020), which was a finalist for a 2020 National Book Award in translated literature. Shibli is also a researcher in cultural studies and visual culture and teaches part-time at Birzeit University, Palestine.

Claudia Steinberg is a New York–based journalist who writes about art, architecture, design, and literature for Die Zeit, German Vogue, Tank magazine, and many other publications.