Review: Adania Shibli’s ‘We Are All Equally Far from Love’

KRO has posted my review of Adania Shibli’s We Are All Equally Far from Love,  but apparently the audio recording I made was too full of ambient noise, oops. I am a fan of Shibli’s work, although it’s certainly for those interested in literature that explores new places and not as a beach/airplane read.

Translated by Paul Starkey. Northampton, MA: Clockroot, 2012. 148 pages. $15.00.

The most wonderful thing about Adania Shibli’s We Are All Equally Far from Love is the author’s sometimes loving, sometimes angry attention to detail. This attention was also the force behind her first book, Touch,longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award in 2010.

Touch follows an eight-year-old Palestinian girl in 1982, when massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps killed hundreds of Palestinians. Although the young narrator understands little about the world as others see it, or as it’s presented in news headlines, she hangs onto each of its sensory details. Shibli’s second book-length work, We Are All Equally Far from Love, also eschews the Palestine of news headlines. But its characters are, by contrast, largely cut off from the external world, trapped within themselves.

Whereas the protagonist in Touch looks out at her surroundings to understand herself, the protagonists of We Are All Equally Far train their gazes on their memories and bodies. Afaf, who stands out as one of the book’s few named characters, learns about the world by learning to sigh. She begins by imitating her mother. But instead of observing her mother’s sighs, she looks inward: “This was the first time Afaf had ever sighed properly. She felt a little more mature, and started to reflect on what had happened. Her breath had come out, and she felt that a weight had been lifted from her chest. That is why people sigh, then.”

At first glance, both of these short works—and particularly the second—seem self-consciously universal. There is little specific physical setting in We Are All Equally Far from Love; even the most basic geographic markers are absent from most of the book’s sections. The word “Palestine” appears only once, in the first section. Here Afaf, whose job as postmistress gives her an ugly power over her community, must erase the word and replace it with “Israel.” City and street names are virtually absent. Yet geography is absent in a way that demands our attention, as the reader is often compelled to ask where we are, and how a place-name might change the story.

The book’s characters generally either cannot or refuse to grapple with this amorphous world around them. When characters do look up, they occasionally notice things like, “a window blocked up with stones, for example, that looked very annoying.” But even this level of detail is rare. The book’s characters, like its settings, are also rendered nameless, which further traps the characters inside themselves. Keep reading over at the K-R-O.