The Frankfurt book fair’s cancelling of an award ceremony for Adania Shibli shows the risks of imposing one narrative on our cultural space
Hanno Hauenstein is a Berlin-based journalist and author. He worked as a senior editor in Berliner Zeitung’s culture department, specialising in contemporary art and politics
Cross-posted from the Other News Website
More than a decade ago, in a crowded bar in Tel Aviv, my friend and I found ourselves talking to a group of German tourists. At the time, the world was watching Israel’s 2012 Gaza operation unfold. “Most Palestinians are terrorists,” one of the Germans explained to my friend, a Jewish Israeli who opposed the attack. And: “Not supporting the IDF is betraying your legacy.” A German, whose family is, like my own German family, implicated in historical atrocities, lecturing an Israeli about what moral or political lesson she may or may not derive from that very history was a grotesque sight to watch.
In German society today, however, such views seem normalised. Support for Israel is seen as a prerequisite for a newly constructed, collective German identity. While a degree of sensitivity towards Israel seems understandable given Germany’s brutal antisemitic history, the issue has turned ever more problematic in recent years. Palestinians, artists and curators from the so-called global south and leftwing Israelis are regularly reprimanded, dismissed or cancelled for views on Israeli policies that are deemed unpalatable. Last week, the Social Democratic co-party leader Saskia Esken even called off a meeting with Bernie Sanders due to his stance on the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. Sanders lost many family members in the Holocaust.
Adania Shibli’s case is the most recent and perhaps most acute example of such absurdities. Shibli’s novel Minor Detail tells the true story of an Israeli soldier’s 1949 rape and subsequent murder of a Palestinian Bedouin girl. Published by Fitzcarraldo in 2020 and longlisted for the International Booker prize, the book won Germany’s 2023 LiBeraturpreis, which is for female writers from Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Arab world. But as a result of events in Israel, it was decided by the organisers that a ceremony on 20 October to honour Shibli at the Frankfurt book fair would be postponed.
I have read Minor Detail both in English and the German version, which was published in 2022. The book is a watertight account of what Palestinians and historians refer to as the Nakba – atrocities committed by Israelis in historic Palestine during the establishment of the state of Israel. Between the third-person narration of the pained Israeli officer responsible for the action and the later first-person account of an insomniac Palestinian in Ramallah today, the story moves between two viewpoints. In the second, Shibli relates what seems to approximate her own experience: the difficulty of trying to research a historical account from the victim’s perspective in contemporary Israel. In the novel, her project leads her to embark on a risky road trip towards a site in the south of the country, beyond the boundaries permitted by her Palestinian ID card.
There is, without a doubt, a connection between the cancellation of Shibli’s award ceremony and German sensibilities. This summer, the journalist Ulrich Noller left the jury for the award in protest at the book. According to Noller, the novel “serves anti-Israeli and antisemitic narratives”. A few days before the announcement, the journalist Carsten Otte, in an article for the leftwing newspaper Taz, wrote that the novel’s empathetic tone “overshadows a basic problem: in this short novel, all Israelis are anonymous rapists and killers”. Otte further complained that Shibli’s book neglects to recount violence against Israeli civilians and thus rests on an “ideological and inhumane basis”. Following the mass murders perpetrated by the Hamas terrorists, he concludes, awarding the prize to Shibli would be “hardly endurable”.
In my view, such readings are not only brazenly reductive, they are also politically self-defeating and essentially xenophobic. First and foremost, they are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of literature, which has never been to give a balanced account of historical events or meet the demands of a Wikipedia-like homework assignment. In exploring subjectivity itself, beyond the boundaries of ethnicity, memory and even objectivity, literature’s great potential is to shed light on untold stories and open up new pathways of thinking about the world.
It is as if Shibli’s German critics nest in a warm blanket of historical fantasy: they hang on to a vision of Israel’s founding as an immaculate conception, one that has been refuted by any serious – Israeli or Palestinian – historian one can consult on the matter. They also seem to implicitly suggest that Israel’s founding constitutes a negation of their forefathers’ historical crimes. As a German, I can relate to such delusion. And yet, it doesn’t erase historical violence – or make literary accounts thereof any less valid.
What’s more, it doesn’t seem to bother Shibli’s critics that their criticism strongly resonates with the mindset of some of the far-right ethno-nationalists currently in power in Israel: people who either downplay the Nakba or deny it ever happened. In fact, I doubt they even comprehend the terrain in which they move, a terrain where Palestinian voices are most often seen as irritations, rather than enrichments of discourse. In their lack of empathy, these critics defend a non-benchmark, which squeezes out any tolerance for more than just one perspective.
According to the announcement from LitProm, the ceremony’s organisers, it was postponed “jointly” with the author. She later clarified that the decision was made without her consent. Her statement said she would have used the ceremony to reflect on the role of literature in these painful times. This is what makes the book fair’s decision so enraging. It is precisely because Germany has been so slow to platform voices of Israelis and Palestinians that discussions in Germany around this topic often feel so reductive. As Germans, we cannot afford to forfeit pluralist discourse.
An open letter signed by more than 350 authors, including Nobel literature laureates Annie Ernaux and Olga Tokarczuk, admonished the book fair’s organisers for shutting down the voices of Palestinians. “It is their responsibility to create spaces for Palestinian writers to share their thoughts, feelings and reflections,” they wrote.
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If Adania Shibli’s case tells us one thing, it’s that performative ignorance and avoidance on the issue of Israel-Palestine will not help us to dodge difficult questions about our own family histories for ever. Neither will it help to prevent present-day antisemitism. This was true before Hamas’s heinous massacre of Israeli civilians on 7 October. It was also true before the current, most rightwing government in Israel’s history came to power. If Germany keeps refusing to engage with both Israeli and Palestinian voices within its society, it could soon be steering into cultural irrelevance and political intolerance. The book fair furore should serve as a dire warning.