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Friday / October 19.

Book Review: Life through the eyes of a Palestinian child

“Touch” by Adania Shibli is a book that should be revisited every few years for its contemporary structured prose and powerful narrative. It is a simple story told through the eyes of a young Palestinian girl as she experiences the events of daily life and observes the world as it moves forward. Shibli, who is the author of two novels, including “We Are All Equally Far from Love,” has been the recipient of the Young Writer Award by the A.M. Qattan Foundation twice. “Touch” was her American Debut in 2010, which was translated into English by Paula Haydar.
The book has received much praise for its style and elegant prose. Shibli takes the reader on a quiet journey to witness life through the eyes of a young, innocent girl. As if Shibli intended the reader to be the little girl’s shadow, we observe everything she does, from the way she documents the mundane to the way she deals with tragedy.
Our main character is the youngest of nine sisters and a brother. We are never told anyone’s name, each sister is referred to in chronological order of their birth — the “third sister” and the “eighth sister,” for example. The youngest sister watches her family as carefully as she watches the world around her, quietly observing as a young child would. There is an incorruptibility to what she observes as Shibli eliminates the girl’s emotions, no matter the nature of the event she witnesses, allowing the reader to dismiss or linger on whatever she sees.
The imagery in the book is as simple and beautiful as the prose. Shibli writes of landscapes that stretch from mountains to shorelines and as her character watches the world she lives in, her young mind takes her thoughts from being ordinary to magical.
“Sometimes colors disappeared from nature and all that remained was green on the mountain, yellow on the hay and blue on the sky in summer.”
Shibli does an incredible job of describing everything, from the dry, crunchy leaves underfoot to the glistening of the shiny scales on a snake hidden in grey dust. Her book is divided into five sections that focus on human senses: Colors, silence, movement, language and the wall. Each section provides evidence that the girl senses the world, but as for her place within it, it is complicated. She observes the world as if she is not in it, as if she is only witnessing life and not living it.
There is a haunting undertone to Shibli’s book, despite the careful and beautiful imagery.
“Before the sun was created, black alone filled the universe. Black was there before creation. Before she was born. And after she would die, blackness would return to its place, her empty place.”
Shibli does a brilliant job of keeping her character consistent, of not evoking feeling or creating any hierarchy of good or bad events in her life, therefore allowing the reader to feel whatever they want to feel.
One of the most fascinating elements about “Touch” is that it feels as if the character has taken herself out of the context in which she is written, as children often do. The world can be so big and so small at the same time, depending on the power of one’s imagination. The narrative is full of magic and surprise and is exciting and exhilarating as she separates herself from her bleak circumstance.
When it comes to her home, Shibli carefully constructs a picture which gives the reader access to its history, character and depth.
“The bales of hay were tossed onto the harvested half of the fields and the shepherds headed there, with their flocks following behind, and dust behind the flocks and behind that the road, the valley and the mountain with all the balconies, observers sitting on them watching the entire outburst, which erupted the movement the harvesters left.”
Eventually, however, after the quiet comes noise, noise of the world, noise of tragedy and of massacre. Shibli writes of death and touches upon the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982.
The book moves from the freedom of colors and light to the inability to stop movement and time. It is a beautiful depiction of life, as if it were a silent film in black and white with only wisps of smells, sights and sounds.
There is an unbounded purity to the book, to the perspective of the child who knows nothing of the world, but knows that there are harsh realities that lurk in the shadows. As long as she stays in the light, she is safe from the shadows, but as time moves forward, the light seems to fade.
“Touch” is an incredible book that strays from traditional story telling. It is not written like any other book, especially one that deals with the circumstances of populations that have faced decades of war, oppression and political instability. The nameless characters play out what a reader may see on the news — nameless stories of human beings who face tragedy and death and experience life as everybody else — but they remain nameless and detached from viewers and eventually are forgotten about.
The disconnect in the book is as purposeful as the beautiful imagery. It is a clear picture of what life embodies, from the good to the bad, and the way that time does not stop for anyone. As Shibli writes of her characters, we are all left waiting to see what happens. “The whole place seethed with waiting— the sunset for the sun’s movement, the shepherds for the sunset, the herds for the shepherd,” she wrote.

via AN