by M. Lynx Qualey
Stories about the past often mislead: in order to create a satisfying whole, most writers carefully arrange history and memory, inventing links and causal connections. Sometimes, this results in good storytelling. But sometimes the task of an author—particularly one who writes about a hyper-symbolized terrain—is to un-narrativize, to pull things back apart.
Adania Shibli is up to this task. Touch brings us the fragmented worldview of a narrator at the cusp of understanding her world. The 72-page novella could be described as five interconnected prose poems, a historical fiction about the Palestinian territories set in 1982, or a coming-of-age tale in which maturation is marked not by a loss of innocence, but by an ever-growing loneliness and alienation.
Shibli, who was born in 1974, would have been eight years old during the book’s historical anchor, the Sabra and Shatila massacres. But this anchor is neither described nor lived by the characters. It is instead the young girl’s disassembly of the words “Sabra” and “Shatila” that is rendered in vivid, arresting prose.
The novella begins with the girl’s experience of the color of a giant water tank, her father’s infidelity, and her brother’s funeral. The items are almost evenly weighted, as they would be by a girl not yet sure how to arrange her memories. She finds a dark outfit to wear, but then discovers a hole in it. Heading to the gravesite:
The pushing became harder and harsher, and each time it would force her hand away from the hole, so she would press on it harder and harder, using all her strength, including that in her right hand. That hand now had weakened its hold on the bottle, and a little black liquid leaked out with each step she was pushed backward.
The events of Touch—the narrator’s brother’s death, her sister’s hasty marriage, the massacres—are never foregrounded. This is not the story an adult would tell about her childhood. Instead, Shibli breaks the story down into its component, sensory parts. It’s the narrator’s attempt to see colors, to hear sounds, and to take hold of her own thoughts that are given center stage.
This can at times be confusing, particularly when issues of Arabic-English translation muddy the waters. At one point, the narrator takes her father’s books off the shelf, and is baffled by the literary (fos’ha) Arabic. Translator Paula Haydar makes a good attempt, but—unless the reader understands the differences between literary and colloquial Arabic—the translation doesn’t really make sense:
The little girl then started to picture something in her mind, then very quickly stuck the new word to whatever that was before a spoken word could reach it.
Egyptian author Ahdaf Souief has pronounced Adania Shibli “the most talked-about author on the West Bank.” While it’s difficult to assess the reality of such a statement, Shibli certainly has found new and affecting ways of structuring the experience of dislocation and violence, and her prose—even through the lens of translation—startles the reader into re-imagining the familiar.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010