Realm of the senses: Adania Shibli's Touch

In spare, evocative prose, this debut novella perfectly captures the visceral intensity of childhood experience.

"Shibli picks up the glinting fragments of the girl's experience, then turns them over in her hand to see how they reflect the light of a world so radically constricted and reduced."
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The protagonist of Adania Shibli's Touch is a little girl, the youngest of nine sisters, who discovers love, death, literature, violence, betrayal, infidelity, alienation, loneliness and decay as she trips through the disjointed plot of a novella that runs just under 75 pages. Shibli never names her, never describes her and fills in few details of her time and place. She defies basically every convention of novelistic form. There is no setting, no character development, no detectable sequence of events set in motion. Divided into five chapters, the book barely tells a story at all. Instead, Touch purrs along like an extended prose poem - all words and sounds and images - as Shibli picks up the glinting fragments of the girl's experience, then turns them over in her hand to see how they refract the light of a world so radically constricted and reduced.

Shibli's first complete work of fiction to appear in English translation, Touch was originally published in Arabic (as Masaas) in 2002. Editions in French and Italian followed shortly thereafter. A few excerpts and short stories have lately appeared in literary journals, such as Banipal, and anthologies, such as Beirut 39: New Writing from the Arab World, which was published this spring to coincide with the Hay Festival's series of literary events in Beirut. On the page, the translation of Touch feels fresh, signalling the arrival of a young stylist who writes like no one else. In the press, it has suffered, just a bit, from its baggage and hype.

Six years ago, the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif penned an article on writers and poets in Palestine, in which she declared Shibli "the current most-talked-about young writer on the West Bank". That line, a throwaway in an otherwise thoughtful piece, is now emblazoned on the front cover of Touch and has been recycled in virtually every review, article and interview with the author since. In April, when the organisers of the Hay Festival programme in Beirut tried to bring all 39 of the authors featured in its anthology to the city, Shibli and another writer, Ala Hlehel, were unable to make it, due to the fact that they both hold Israeli passports. (The Israeli authorities said no, then yes; the Lebanese authorities said no, and left it at that). Hlehel had wanted to make a point, and had petitioned the Israeli courts to lift an edict that prohibits the nation's passport holders from travelling to so-called enemy states. If the goal had been to get to Beirut, it backfired (by law, one cannot enter Lebanon with an Israeli stamp, let alone an Israeli passport - though exceptions are commonly, quietly made), but a media ruckus still ensued. However, it would be a shame if these events were to overshadow the critical reception of Shibli's slim but dazzlingly potent English-language debut.

In an interview, Shibli once referred to her Israeli passport as merely a detail of an injustice. In another, she batted away a question about how her writing responded to or reflected the Palestinian condition by saying that her texts were simply a consequence of it. In a recently published essay on the importance of encountering the unfamiliar in foreign fiction - reading stories for reasons of their otherness, rather than for their ability to explain or make the foreign familiar and accessible - the editor Hilary Plum credits Touch for its deft and unusual handling of politics. "Everyday activities and sensations occur in slow, strange, precise detail, so that the tangible world becomes suffocating," she writes, "while the outside world, the larger questions of the Palestinian setting and history, is merely sketched, left vague, distant."

Plum is one of the directors of Clockroot Books, which just published Touch and is now in the process of translating Shibli's second book, a novel titled We Are All Equally Far from Love. Plum's essay lays out the sales pitch for Touch, then casts it aside. Touch is, after all, a highly experimental work. It does not fit the stereotypical mould of Arabic or even specifically Palestinian literature. It may speak in the occasional euphemisms of a young girl but it does not elevate them to allegory. Sixty years into one of the most protracted and entrenched conflicts on earth, its trays far from the notion that Palestinian writers must be committed to a political cause or engaged in a revolutionary struggle. Those days are over; history has moved on. What is left is a quizzically brilliant piece of writing that begins with the five senses, and builds up a precarious plot from there.

As the novella opens, the little girl is standing by a rusted water tank. She wraps one of her hands around one of the tank's legs. The flakes of rust glitter like gold on her palm. She tries to do the same with the other hand, but rubs too hard and hurts herself. Then, standing with beauty in one hand and pain in the other, she remembers why she came to this spot in the first place. But without either hand free to lift her dress, she wets herself, and so Touch begins with a stream of urine sliding down the little girl's legs.

The first chapter, "Colors", pulses through a dreamlike fog. The little girl chases a rainbow down the side of a mountain, and finds purple. Later she discovers green, then blue, then brown, in the eyes of a boy with whom she plays "evol", love spelt backwards, an invented game of innocent and incremental intimacies. In the second chapter, "Silence", she falls dangerously ill from an ear infection. "The sounds that stormed her ears would not come out. They piled on top of each other. She poked her finger into her ear to try to pick them out, but failed. She tried sitting behind others, so their ears would pick up the coming sounds instead of hers, to prevent the sounds from piling up there, but the sounds wanted all the ears."

Touch does not so much convey a story through a child's eyes as inhabit the sensorial and imaginative overload of childhood itself. The girl becomes feverish, goes to the hospital and eventually has her ears drained. She learns she will suffer recurring infections for the rest of her life. Her subsequent sensitivity to sound makes her retreat from her siblings, her classmates, the world. "During the day she wandered far into the fields, and in the evening she sat in the father's car until everyone fell asleep. Then she would come inside, put the car keys on top of the fireplace, and go into her bedroom until the next sound came and pushed her out of the house. Loneliness always saved a place for the little girl inside the silence." Then, some 10 pages later, we read: "As for the silence of her marriage, that was voluntary."

The movement from one chapter to the next is never strictly chronological, and Touch is one of those books that you read once, then twice, before you can start putting its pieces together. The little girl loses her brother. Maybe she fought with him, maybe she cursed him, maybe she wished him dead. Maybe her mother knew it, and shut her out as a result. If silence provides the girl's first solace, books provide her second. In the penultimate chapter, "Language", she discovers her father's library and picks her way slowly through three shelves, starting with Dostoyevsky. Then she discovers more in the house to read. She finds her sisters' diaries, old letters, her father's papers packed in a green toolbox.

"Shared events and similar feelings gathered in every diary and on every sheet of paper, transforming the single world of the house into several distinct, contradictory worlds, which the girl's eyes traversed. She read all the pages and reread them again and again. Without anyone seeing her, she came near each of their worlds, except the world of the mother, who didn't write. It was impossible to approach her unwritten world."

At some point, she hears the words Sabra and Shatila. At another point, after a classmate is flogged at school, she learns that the word Palestine is forbidden. As far as sociopolitical context goes, that is about all there is. But in Shibli's spare prose, there is so much more besides. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a staff writer for The Review in Beirut