mon 10/08/2020

Book extract: Minor Detail by Adania Shibli | reviews, news & interviews

Book extract: Minor Detail by Adania Shibli

Book extract: Minor Detail by Adania Shibli

Extract I of III – a challenge of leadership

'Minor Detail' by Adania Shibli© Fitzcarraldo Editions

The first half of Minor Detail is set in an Israeli military camp in the Negev desert in August 1949, during the conflict celebrated as the War of Independence in Israel and a year after the mass expulsion mourned as the Nakba in Arabic in which around 700,000 Palestinians permanently fled their homes. It follows a senior military officer in charge of reconnaissance. After days of searching among the dunes, his patrol eventually comes across a group of Bedouins at a spring. After the patrol guns down the men and their camels, the commander brings the girl who has survived the slaughter back to the camp.

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Near-empty plates and cups littered the tables as the party came to an end, while the soldiers were still immersed in conversation and vociferous laughter, creating a jubilant atmosphere the camp had not witnessed over the previous days. This was the first time since their arrival that everyone seemed in high spirits; the wine may have played a role too. Although there was not much of it, every soldier managed to have a little to drink that night.

At about half past nine, he stood up again and asked everyone to be quiet. His eyes and face were deep red. He reminded them about the girl they had brought to the camp that day, and said that there were some soldiers who had fooled around with her. A thick silence prevailed, subduing the joyousness that had filled the tent until a moment earlier.

Several seconds passed in which no one uttered a word, and the tension swelled until he spoke again, announcing that he was presenting them with two options for a vote: either they send the girl to work in the camp’s kitchen, or they all have their way with her.

Adania Shibli's notesFor a while the soldiers remained startled. Some looked for a reaction in their comrades’ eyes, and others looked away in confusion or suspicion; none of them really knew if he meant what he was saying, if he was laying a trap, or if he was drunk. Then, gradually, separate voices rose, quickly building into a boisterous collective cry in favour of the second option.

The rumble and clamour continued to reign in the tent, as soldiers began enthusiastically planning how they would divide their time with the girl, allocating the first day to soldiers in the first squad, the second day to the second squad, the third day to the third squad, and assigning the driver, the medic, the maintenance team and the cooks to a separate group with the sergeants and squad commanders, corporals, and the officer.

Finally, before taking his seat again, he said in a loud, clear voice that if any of them touched the girl, they would hear from this, and he gestured at the gun resting to his right.

After dinner, he went straight to the second hut, where he told the guard to bring the girl and follow him, and he headed to his hut, followed by the guard and the girl, who were in turn followed by the dog. On the way there, he passed by the supply dump in the middle of the camp, and appeared a few moments later with a folding bed, which the guard rushed to carry for him.

When they arrived at his hut, he took the folding bed from the guard and brought it inside, while the others waited outside. After a moment a lantern’s glow, then the noise of furniture being moved around the room, reached them.

He soon reappeared and told the guard to put the girl by the bed on the left side of the room while he remained in the doorway, staring into the darkness taking shape around him, permeated with the sound of the dog panting. Stars were scattered in their infinite numbers across the clear night sky, but they seemed smaller and less brilliant than the nights before, like the grains of sand strewn across the threshold, which glittered in the soft lantern light emanating from inside. He did not turn to the guard who now had emerged and was standing behind him, but when he finally turned around and saw him, the officer’s movements betrayed a slight surprise. Before leaving, he ordered the guard to remain in his position by the door and prevent anyone from entering the hut. He would be back in an hour at most.

The cramps in his body grew so intense that he could no longer move

He descended the small sandy slope leading to the tents, where the soldiers’ low conversations dissipated into the vast darkness. When the sand levelled out, he turned right towards the main gate, and as he passed through it, he continued walking towards the nearby hills, on a quick patrol around the camp.

When he had finished inspecting the area and returned to where he started, he squatted on the sand with his back to the camp, facing the low, undulating hills that swelled in every direction, their deep blue shapes incredibly still. The distant, recurrent noises he had heard over the previous nights had disappeared, and the soldiers’ chatter had died down now too. Suddenly the darkness intensified and he turned his swollen, bulging eyes back to the camp. The light that had been shining from the mess tent until a moment earlier had been extinguished; the men had finished cleaning up from the festive dinner. He stood, brushed off the sand that clung to him, and walked back to the camp.

The guard was sitting by the door to his hut, exactly where he had left him. The dog lay in front of him, resting its head on its front paws. After the guard assured him that everything was all right, he dismissed him, telling him to return at 6am.

As he opened the door to go inside, cramps seized his limbs and back, forcing his body to arch, but he continued into the hut and reached the table, which he had moved closer to the wall to make room for the second bed, and stood there. The silence was absolute, and it teemed with a strong tangy smell, overpowered by that of petrol. After a moment, the sound of troubled breathing infiltrated the space too, then the sound of a slight movement in the bed.

He stood motionless for a moment, and then his hand managed to guide itself to the lantern on the table and light it. Instantly the room’s new shape appeared; the table and chair had been moved and the second bed added, and their shadows traced new shapes across the walls and floor.

He began conducting his thorough inspection of the room. First, the posts of his bed, then the edges of the trunk, and behind the kit bag and his other belongings, then the corner to the left of the door, and the door, the posts of the second bed, and the chair legs and the table, then another corner of the room, the floor and the walls, the ceiling, including every corner, and in one a small spider with a huge shadow appeared. He pulled over the chair, climbed onto it, crushed the spider, then stepped down, dragged the chair back and sat down. He took off his boots and pushed them under the chair, then stood up, took off his clothes, and placed them on the back of the chair. He walked over to the trunk, removed the bottle of ointment and a new bandage, and carried these with him to the bed, where he sat down on the edge and began removing the bandage from his thigh. But before he could clean the bite and apply some ointment to it, the cramps in his body grew so intense that he could no longer move. He dropped the ointment and bandage next to him on the bed and walked over to the lantern, with an effort that was reflected on his face, and extinguished it. Darkness invaded the hut again. He eased himself onto the bed, lay down on his back, stretched out and fell asleep.

None of them really knew if he meant what he was saying, if he was laying a trap, or if he was drunk

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