touch by Adania Shibli, translated by Paula Haydar
Less is indeed more in Palestinian writer Adania Shibli’s U.S. debut-in-translation. The deceptively minimal 72 pages of touch hold layered shards from a young girl’s life, some shining with promise, others sharp with painful gravity, but undoubtedly an existence shattered at seemingly regular intervals by violence and tragedy.
The unnamed girl is the youngest in a large family of nine girls and one son. She goes to school, forgets-on-purpose to wear her unfashionable coat in the rain, gets teased by her classmates, and learns to read (books will soon enough guide her into other worlds). She chases rainbows, fights with her older siblings, watches her mother perform her prayers, and plays a secret game of evol with the neighbor boy.
She goes to too many funerals for one so young, waits for her absent father to return by counting the passing cars (“Thirty cars for the father’s car to get there, another thirty cars for him to return, and twenty cars for his stay there”), and doesn’t ask questions when she overhears charged conversations of “Oh my God” mixed with “Sabra and Shatila.” As she grows, her relationship with her siblings and parents become distanced, until finally she can only view her home through a rearview mirror. Survival (thus far) comes with immeasurable cost.
Shibli, lauded as a major young voice in Arabic fiction, deftly intertwines the mundane with the shocking to create a girl’s life in uncertain times. Shibli carefully lays out events and details, as if lining up possible matching fragments of a complicated puzzle: she introduces, for example, each of the girl’s eight older sisters in ascending order by age, their interactions that begin with the young girl bathing with her eighth sister to being slapped by the eldest sister by title’s end. As the sparse pages turn all too quickly, haunted readers are left to piece together the shards … both gleaming and tarnished, hopeful and resigned.
Published: 2010 (United States)