When fiction tells the truth about the Israel-Palestine war

A retreat into literature with Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail and Nathan Thrall’s A Day in the Life of Abed Salama.

Published : Nov 02, 2023 11:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

At a rally in support of Palestine in Dearborn, Detroit, US, on October 10. 

At a rally in support of Palestine in Dearborn, Detroit, US, on October 10.  | Photo Credit: Matthew Hatcher

In the weeks since the Israel-Palestine war broke out, a form of collective lunacy has erupted on the Internet, what lecturer and essayist Erik Baker called the “fetish for factuality”, a race to make the most meaning out of a conflict. When news broke of Hamas beheading children, there was a chase for footage. None was found. Accusations about the beheading were backtracked—including those made by the President of the United States.

In a heated moment between fact and rumour, I asked myself, what if such footage was found, what if Hamas did truly behead children? Would that shake my conviction of Israel being a colonial, apartheid state?

Progressives on the left have a rather convenient, comforting reply, which I would like to believe is true, but it seems so idealised and neat, it hardly makes sense—that you can condemn Hamas and support the cause for Palestinian statehood; the separation between the state and its people; an assumption that the state is not constituted by the people. That Hamas did win the 2006 Palestinian legislative election, one that even George Bush called peaceful, has no bearing on this assumption. Does that support not count for anything?

Also Read | What purpose do war memorials serve?

This is the kind of moral tightrope that allows one to feel clean in a mud pit. It should be complicated to support the Palestinian cause because a militant Hamas is at the forefront of it. (Their political rival, the Fatah, who are allied with the Palestinian Authority are, in the words of historian Rashid Khalidi, “moribund”.) But just because it is complicated, does not mean we abdicate our moral responsibility to democratic values, to basic freedoms; these values do not exist to make our lives, or our politics, easier.

“Just because it is complicated to support the Palestinian cause does not mean we abdicate our moral responsibility to democratic values. These values do not exist to make our lives, or our politics, easier.”

I can hear the Israeli apologists clear their throat. Hamas did not behead children, but they did kill children. What then? Can I argue about their being an apartheid state without indicting myself as a supporter of a state that has killed children?

Here is what is happening. The Internet has fractured not just our attention, but our perception of the world; fragmented it into fractals of data that keep leaking into our life like a drip feed, so that, like a hamster on a wheel, we keep circling through, until exhaustion. Any event is incapable of being consumed coherently. It is put together, piecemeal, one breaking news headline after another.

The question of Israel-Palestine is no longer of how over a century a land which was 6 per cent Jews—at the time of the Balfour Declaration in 1917—is today over 70 per cent Jews, having expelled over 7,50,000 Palestinian people in the 1948 Nakba and hundreds of thousands since, upturning villages, implanting settlements, denying water, food, and fuel.

On the Internet, it is not a question of a demographic genocide and cultural repainting, because it is silly to counter a specific incident of violence with a century-long saga of oppression. Do you respond to a tweet with a novel? Do you respond to the abduction of an 18-year-old Israeli woman by Hamas with a history of rape and rampage by the Israeli military and wider state apparatus? It is a paralysing moment.

When Mahmoud Darwish writes …

So now!

record at the top of the first page:

I do not hate people

nor do I steal.

But if I become hungry

I will eat my robber’s flesh.

Beware then, beware of my hunger

and my anger!

… are you going to accuse him of promoting cannibalism? Violence is often embedded in a context, and while it is the acts of violence that are foregrounded in our discourse, what is not given space or time to articulate, to remind oneself constantly, is the context.

It is now a question of, say, who is responsible for the al-Ahli hospital bombing. According to AP’s investigation, it was an errant Palestinian missile, something that Israeli and American officials have endorsed. However, UK’s Channel 4 News and the University of London’s Forensic Architecture suggest the missile came from the direction of Israel. As I write this, no consensus is borne out. Whom do we believe? And until when do we wait to express grievances confidently?

After a point, the shuttle-cocking of bombs and raids and kidnappings and violations, what writer Adam Shatz calls “morbid equality”, spun in my head until it unsteadied the very grip I had over some fundamental beliefs. A madness crept in—are we humans built to endure this atomisation of the world, where details, minor details, flood out the larger systemic concern?

Or, flipped around, were we ever built to endure ossified ideology?

These details can hold a roadmap to our insanity. But also, perhaps, these details can be an edification of our being. It depends on where the details are blaring from. On the Internet, it felt like being hosed down; a breathless rampage of ifs and buts. As revenge against the homepage, I then retreated into literature, because literature is an act of sustained attention, of both the writer who spent time with the manuscript and the reader with the text. It is coherent, it is built by a sheltering intensity. It is easy to moralise literature in a moment where its opposite, a tweet, is a seizured laser beam to the brain, but it is impossible to deny that its opposite-ness is becoming, increasingly, some sort of bulwark, where details are given an increasingly moral weight; where details do not crowd out the context, but deepen it.

In Minor Detail, Palestinian writer Adania Shibli’s novel, details swamp out the consciousness and hypnotise the protagonist. The first half of her book outlines, in spectacularly pedantic retelling, the events leading to the rape and murder of a Palestinian Bedouin girl by Israeli soldiers in 1949 in the Negev. This is based on true events.

Many years later, reading a news report of this rape and murder, a woman in Ramallah is fixated on one rather irrelevant detail—the day it occurred. It is 25 years to the day before she was born. And this irrational fixation leads her to find the source of the story, to trace some remaining voice of the girl. It is a mad desire, because it requires meandering through the logistical nightmare of traveling from Area C to Area A, through check points and guns toted out like accessories, a cross-body embellishment. (Shibli was supposed to be awarded at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is now cancelled. People are organising read-alouds of her thin-as-a-thimble book.)

The question Shibli refuses to answer, rightfully, is why her character fixates.

There is a desperation that perhaps comes with cultural erasure, an existential anxiety of being excised from language, and thus history. It is this same anxiety that leads the journalist Nathan Thrall to pore over the lives of Palestinian men and women (some Israeli too) to come up with a coherent story of one bus accident in A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy.

A bus with Palestinian kids in it collides with a semi-trailer. Abed Salama’s child is one of those who dies in the subsequent fire that could have been prevented. Thrall goes through the intersecting lives of people, trying to find the hundred, thousand, million things that had to go wrong—or right—for this accident to take place. It is a manic excavation of lives and beings, throwing its torch beam on the smallest details, while never letting go of the larger arc of tragedy that clots the story together. Here, details, however atomic, are in service of, never in contention with, a larger purpose. It is this larger purpose that withers within 30 seconds of an online scroll.

What Baker means by “fetish for factuality” is not really a desire to know, but a posture of desiring to know. This posture is based on a completely bogus claim that the world works through and with reason; that rationality forms the contours along which history flows. (Baker states this presumption like this—“we could make all of this right, if only we knew”.)

Bogus, since we believe with intuition, with a visceral sense of the world, but build a fortress of reason around it—we do not reason towards something, we reason away from our beliefs. You can counter reason; but you cannot counter intuition.

Also Read | ‘The Kerala Story’ is greedy in its impulse to demonise Muslims

And it is why these past few weeks have been unbearable online. It is not just, as the late French philosopher Bruno Lantour argued controversially, that facts are “networked”, that they are produced and made intelligible by institutions and practices; institutions and practices that are becoming increasingly suspect, such as a campaign of influencers being paid to flood the Internet with Israeli propaganda.

That there is “shadow-banning” on Instagram, which has led people to post updates on the war against the background of kittens and flowers, what a journalist described as an “algorithmically driven fog of war”. It is that these “facts” are continuously insisting on unsteadying our intuitions, sandpapering what is left of our moral certainty. It is that the details are making us forget what they are the details of.

On Twitter, someone somewhere shrieked a sentence that has been curdling in my mind since—that the Indians supporting Israel today could not have supported our freedom struggle. Like Palestine’s, ours too was an anti-colonial struggle. There were bursts of violence then too, as during Chauri Chaura in 1922. But the thing is, when all life is not valued equally, why should all death be valued equally? What is it about death that suddenly levels the playing field?

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.

More stories from this issue

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment