October 24, 2012KR OnlineReview

Geography and One’s Own Room: Adania Shibli’s We Are All Equally Far from Love

Translated by Paul Starkey. Northampton, MA: Clockroot, 2012. 148 pages. $15.00.

We Are All Equally Far from LoveThe most wonderful thing about Adania Shibli’s We Are All Equally Far from Love is the author’s sometimes loving, sometimes angry attention to detail. This attention was also the force behind her first book, Touch, longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award in 2010.

Touch follows an eight-year-old Palestinian girl in 1982, when massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps killed hundreds of Palestinians. Although the young narrator understands little about the world as others see it, or as it’s presented in news headlines, she hangs onto each of its sensory details. Shibli’s second book-length work, We Are All Equally Far from Love, also eschews the Palestine of news headlines. But its characters are, by contrast, largely cut off from the external world, trapped within themselves.

Whereas the protagonist in Touch looks out at her surroundings to understand herself, the protagonists of We Are All Equally Far train their gazes on their memories and bodies. Afaf, who stands out as one of the book’s few named characters, learns about the world by learning to sigh. She begins by imitating her mother. But instead of observing her mother’s sighs, she looks inward: “This was the first time Afaf had ever sighed properly. She felt a little more mature, and started to reflect on what had happened. Her breath had come out, and she felt that a weight had been lifted from her chest. That is why people sigh, then.”

At first glance, both of these short works—and particularly the second—seem self-consciously universal. There is little specific physical setting in We Are All Equally Far from Love; even the most basic geographic markers are absent from most of the book’s sections. The word “Palestine” appears only once, in the first section. Here Afaf, whose job as postmistress gives her an ugly power over her community, must erase the word and replace it with “Israel.” City and street names are virtually absent. Yet geography is absent in a way that demands our attention, as the reader is often compelled to ask where we are, and how a place-name might change the story.

The book’s characters generally either cannot or refuse to grapple with this amorphous world around them. When characters do look up, they occasionally notice things like, “a window blocked up with stones, for example, that looked very annoying.” But even this level of detail is rare. The book’s characters, like its settings, are also rendered nameless, which further traps the characters inside themselves.

The book’s placelessness and namelessness could reflect a universal alienation pointed at by the title’s “we.” However, this is also a particularly Palestinian alienation. In a 2010 interview, Shibli said that her country’s fragmentation is such that “geography becomes one’s own room.” We Are All Equally Far often cannot name its setting because the characters reside in spaces too small and too insignificant to have their own proper names.

Shibli’s characters’ difficulties seeing and moving through the larger landscape resemble much in post-1948 Palestinian literature. In both of Mourid Barghouti’s poetic memoirs, I Saw Ramallah (2000) and I Was Born There, I Was Born Here (2011), characters have trouble getting into and around Palestine; in Selma Dabbagh’s Out of It (2011) and Suad Amiry’s Nothing to Lose But Your Life (2010), characters are trapped within sections of the country. But We Are All Equally Far from Love does not discuss external realities like checkpoints or borders. Instead, it confines its characters to even smaller spaces. For forty-odd pages, one of Shibli’s characters cannot leave her bed. The character dwells in memories, stares at the wall, and listens to events in the next room.

At times, the book’s namelessness frustrates narrative continuity. The book is divided into a beginning, six “measures,” and an ending. We reach the boundary of one section and begin again&#8212but are the characters now the same or different? Without names, it is difficult to tell. Is the story still set in Palestine? Or have we moved to an apartment in London or New York or Dubai?

The book opens with a woman who writes letters to an unnamed lover who does not return her affections. These letters—or some like them—reappear in the first measure, cannibalized by angry, passionate Afaf, who works at the post office for her corrupt father. Afaf appears by name again when we hear of her suicide; she has been unable to connect to anyone beyond the world of purloined letters and so has taken a bottle of cleaning fluid and “emptied its contents down her throat.”

Each of the stories reveals a violent alienation from love and the self, from geography and from family. Often, the characters seem to purposefully mutilate any chance at love, this delicate thing that can scarcely survive the heaviness of a human footfall. In each section, there seems to be some hint of love’s possibility, but it is destroyed before we can ever properly taste it:

But suddenly, and without my knowing how, there stirs within me again a tiny measure that smells faintly of love. Warily, I start to walk amongst it, like walking through pain, delicately, not wanting to wake it. Then it disappears again, before I can even realize what this awakening of love has meant: its taste has already left me, like the almond blossom petals that stay so briefly on the branches.

In the end, the book cuts the characters off even from shared alienation, into a particular, personal darkness:

Thus everything becomes equal again in the darkness of existence, where only pain grows, and my own distance from love.

M. Lynx Qualey lives in Cairo, Egypt, where she writes about Arabic literature. She blogs daily at http://arablit.wordpress.com, and you can follow her at @arablit.