Sarah Irving read Adania Shibli’s first book-length work, which was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, in one sitting. Irving calls the poetic novella a “startlingly real portrait of the world from a young child’s perspective, laden with colours, textures, sensations and occasional bemusement”. She writes:
Adania Shibli has been described by Ahdaf Soueif as the ‘most talked-about writer on the West Bank’, was included in the ‘Beirut 39’ list of the ‘best young Arab writers’ and has twice been awarded the AM Qattan Foundation’s award for young writers. It’s quite a CV to live up to.
I didn’t know all of this when I picked up a copy of Touch at Readers in Amman. Actually, this is a prime example of how good design can pay off. I thought the cover was pretty. Then I read the blurb and was interested enough to venture inside. I went home and read the whole thing, cover-to-cover.
This isn’t perhaps the most momentous of achievements. Touch is a novella of just 72 pages, and there’s a fair amount of white paper in that. But its clear-eyed, detached simplicity – beautifully translated by Paula Haydar – hefts a considerable emotional and intellectual weight (and this is extremely high praise from me: I usually have an intense dislike of books about, and centred on, children. It’s anomalous that I even considered buying it).
Touch can’t really be said to tell a story. It is a series of vignettes and impressions (perhaps even sets of prose-poems) which, in sum, add up to something that hints at a narrative. The ‘little girl’ at the centre of this remains unnamed (as do pretty much all the other characters), and goes around her unnamed village (possibly, probably in the West Bank?) doing the kinds of things that small children do – wetting herself, fighting with her sisters, doing things wrong at school, getting ear infections.
More significant events – marital infidelity, a brother’s death, a sister’s marriage, a neighbour’s suicide – do occur. But in an authentically childlike representation, their depiction is hazy, filtered through a child’s confusion about adult reactions; the half-knowledge of the kid who is aware that something is going on, but doesn’t know what or why. This is a startlingly real portrait of the world from a young child’s perspective, laden with colours, textures, sensations and occasional bemusement, and it is a challenge to the adult reader who has to cope with this half-knowledge, re-learn to read the world through new (old, part-forgotten) codes. The descriptions themselves are precise, rendered in beautifully clean language. They’re just not necessarily precise about the details that grown-ups would expect them to focus on.
The ‘Palestinian-ness’ of the writer breaks through at just one point, with the small girl’s bewilderment at hearing snatches of uncomprehended news about something called ‘Sabra and Shatila’. Then a classmate gets into trouble for bringing a ruler with the word ‘Palestine’ on it (at a time when Palestinian flags and other manifestations of national sentiment were forbidden under Israeli military rule). Otherwise, the descriptions of prayer, scenery and female dress tell us only that we are in a rural, Islamic society. Two young men also die during the course of the book; one of them is the little girl’s brother. While their deaths hint at the violence to which Palestinian rural communities were and are subjected to by Israeli soldiers and settlers, we never know for a fact that this is the cause.
Given the state of international attitudes to the Middle East, it is inevitable that Adania Shibli will be labelled a ‘Palestinian writer’. But this is not a political book, except insofar as anything which humanises Palestinians and asserts a Palestinian cultural life will remain ‘political’ in some quarters. But it transcends any national origin, and should be valued as a wonderfully elegant, innovative, engaging piece of writing, and one which comes from a formidable if understated talent.
Editor’s note: I reviewed Shibli’s second novel, We Are All Equally Far from Love, for the Kenyon Review, but am not at all sure what happened to the review. Anyhow! Just go on and read it without me.
Sarah Irving [http://www.sarahirving.co.uk] is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, and has been a journalist and reviewer for over a decade. She is currently a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh and is dipping a tentative toe into the waters of Arabic-English translation.