“…You have been duly warned. The Israeli Defense Forces….” A few words, disturbed and spoken over the phone, precede the beginning of the bombings in Ramallah, West Bank. Bombings that are only announced – the narrative is limited to the half hour before them – by one-sided, interrupted communication. It is the helpless waiting of civilians that is at the center of the narrative by Palestinian writer Adania Shibli, published in 2014 and going viral on October 18. “The Israeli army can now call me on my mobile phone to inform me of its intention to bomb my house, but my tongue is struck dumb,” denounces the protagonist of the story, which was shared mainly by the Arab world on the day of the massacre at the Baptist hospital in Gaza.
For some, the intention is twofold: to express outrage and solidarity with what happened, but also to support Shibli herself, winner of the 2023 LiBeraturpreis for her novel A Minor Detail, which was never awarded at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The prestigious award had been postponed just a few days earlier “due to the war started by Hamas, which is affecting millions of people in Israel and Palestine,” the organizers explained, adding that “we will make Jewish and Israeli voices especially visible at the book fair.”
This decision was criticized by some 1,300 publishers, writers, translators, actors and academics from all over the world, who stressed in an open letter that the Frankfurt Book Fair‘s responsibility was rather “to be creating spaces for Palestinian writers to share […] their reflections on literature through these terrible, cruel times” and not “shutting them down”. Also because of its theme: A Minor Detail is inspired by a news story, the gang rape and subsequent murder of a Palestinian woman by Israeli soldiers during the Nakba, as reported in a 2003 Haaretz article.
Among the signatories of the open letter is Monica Ruocco, Italian translator of the novel and professor of Arabic literature at the Orientale University of Naples. “A great opportunity has been missed: I had seen Adania a few weeks before, and she was preparing a speech [for the Book Fair edition] on the relationship between literature and war. She was referring to other wars that were being talked about in those weeks, like the one in Ukraine,” she tells Reset. According to the translator, the literary value of the text is twofold: “A Minor Detail is a political novel, and it is based on a reality where the memory, speech, and even existence of Palestinian citizens were and still are unmentionable. But it is also a universal text that speaks of all the invisible and the disappeared of this world.”
On the political value alone, Ruocco explains, “As a researcher and university professor, Adania has done a lot of work on an important early 20th-century intellectual like Khalil Sakakini, who participated in the revival of Arabic language and culture after Turkish-Ottoman colonialism and whose library was dispersed. His books later found their way into various libraries in the Israeli state. In short, there was a Palestinian memory that was erased, and language may be key to shed some light on Palestinian history once again.” While, again according to the professor, the description of violent episodes such as the ones in the book “is not only the prerogative of Palestinian literature. In a recent article, Tommaso Di Francesco rightly recalls a fine novel by Israeli writer S. Yzhar, Khirbet Khizeh, which speaks precisely of the despair of the expulsion of the Arabs from the Palestinian territories.”
Among those who have not signed the appeal is Marco Vigevani, an Italian literary agent and president of the events committee of the Shoah Memorial in Milan. Not so much because he agrees with the book fair, but because of the beginning of the open letter: “It says ‘The shocking and tragic events that began on October 7th and are going today’ and places the genocidal pogrom by Hamas and the Israeli counteroffensive on an equal footing. For me, this is already unacceptable.” The decision to postpone the award ceremony “can be criticized, perhaps it was taken for security reasons or perhaps because there is a particular sensitivity in Germany,” Vigevani continues, adding that “presenting a book at the fair – which will be awarded, by the way – that tells of a collective rape in ’48, when we still have in our eyes the images of Israeli women raped and carried around as trophies, could have raised concerns.”
“I’m not defending the decision of the fair and LibProm,” Vigevani chimes in, but he says he is rather surprised by the response to the open letter in support of Shibli: “I find it really strange that this has been blown out of proportion, while the appeal itself does not mention Hamas. It gives me pause, especially in light of the silence of most European intellectuals in the face of the horror that has been perpetrated. He continues: “I haven’t seen an appeal from European left-wing intellectuals after the events in Hamas. What I saw was the appeal of 50 Israeli intellectuals, led by David Grossman and other people who have been working for peace, against the occupation of the territories, where they said to the European intellectuals, ‘You have not understood what Hamas is’.”
Cover photo: an exhibitor poses with the German edition of the book by Palestinian author Adania Shibli with the title ‘Minor Detail’ (2017, German title ‘Eine Nebensache’, Berenberg Verlag publishing house) at The Frankfurt Book Fair in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany on October 19, 2023. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP.)