Acts of Silence in Literature

A reading and reflection from Palestinian author Adania Shibli

Adania Shibli

The teller behind the counter tells the man in Hebrew that he does not have enough money in the cash register. But the man does not understand what the teller is saying.

One Palestinian woman in line volunteers that she speaks a little Hebrew, and “slowly and with a lot of effort and whispering,” tries to ask the teller what she has said to the man.

Shibli speaks fluent Hebrew, but she remained silent.

“I’m not 100 percent sure the teller is racist, but I’m afraid. I fear that my box will not arrive at its destination on time if she realizes I’m Palestinian,” Shibli explained. “She will neglect it. She would forget it for weeks. It would not receive the same care other non-Arab boxes receive. So, I’m hiding my Arabness for a box. I take cover behind my silence. I do not open my mouth.”

Shibli writes that she wished that she had spoken.

“But I’m silent. I remain silent.” she said. “Silent. The phenomenon Palestinians take refuge in whenever you’re around Hebrew speakers in Palestine, Israel is not an unfamiliar one. As a matter of fact, almost every Palestinian that was born after 1948, after the creation of the State of Israel, had to undergo this experience at least once in their lifetime.”

Shibli’s April 3 lecture was sponsored by the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies with co-sponsors from across Duke, including the Provost’s Initiative on the Middle East. The event was convened by Professor Frances Hasso as part of her Palestine Seminar course this spring.

Shibli is a two-time recipient of the Qattan Young Writer's Award-Palestine for her novels Touch and We Are All Equally Far from Love.

Shibli’s latest novel, Minor Detail, was shortlisted for the National Book Award in 2020, and was nominated for the International Booker Prize in 2021. 

The 105-page Minor Detail is written as a novel yet evokes the feel of a tragic epic poem, deploying simple language to tell a story that begins following what the Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

It tells the story of a Palestinian teen raped and murdered in 1949 by Israeli solders, and the quest by a Palestinian woman generations later to investigate the crime.

Last fall, Minor Detail was to receive the LiBeraturpreis, an award for authors from the global south given out by the German literary organization LitProm, at a ceremony at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

“She was abruptly disinvited ‘in a brief email,’ as she puts it, with LitProm citing the war between Israel and Palestine,” according to London’s The Guardian newspaper. 

While the book was generally well reviewed, The Guardian reported that German journalist “Carsten Otte wrote a review complaining that in the book ‘all Israelis are anonymous rapists and killers, while the Palestinians are victims of poisoned or trigger-happy occupiers.’” 

Shibli told The Guardian that “she believes the review was instrumental in the decision to postpone her award.”