Adania Shibli is a Palestinian author, with two novels translated into English. Touch is a novella about a young girl, the youngest in a large family. She remains unnamed throughout, as do all the other characters. The reader knows her simply as “the girl,” with others being “the first sister,” “the eighth sister,” “the brother,” “the neighbor,” etc. The reader sees the world through the girl’s eyes, which is a very intimate portrayal of her surroundings. It makes for a very touching reading experience.
At the same time, the girl’s anonymity creates a certain distance between reader and character. In addition to this conflict of distance, there is also a conflict of understanding. The reader is trying to make sense of the girl’s observations in the same way the girl is trying to understand her surroundings. As the reader, I often felt as bewildered by events as the girl, yet knowing a little more of the larger conflict involving Palestine, my bewilderment was often infused with sadness.
The girl’s observations are not presented in chronological order. Instead, the chapters are called “Colors,” “Silence,” “Movement,” “Language,” and “The Wall.” The writing is very sensory, often focusing on impressions.
“The girl started to run, wanting to get home before anyone else in the world. As she ran, she watched the speed of the ground below her. The rocks and little puddles and clods of mud and shiny wet dots of asphalt all looked just as they had traveling in the father’s car.”
Many times, the writing reminded me of an impressionist painting, moments captured by language instead of paint. But many times, the scenes are interrupted by sharp and heartbreaking events. There is the time when the girl is counting passing cars while waiting for her brother to come home. Her impatience is perfectly captured by her childish ultimatum that her brother will come when 17 cars have passed. The brother does arrive in the 18th vehicle, only it is not a car but an ambulance, and he doesn’t move.
“The sky had not changed its silence or its shape or its position after the brother’s soul rose up to it. The little girl raised her eyes to it, searching for some trace. She walked then stopped, ran then stopped, and finally she sat down. But the sky still looked the same, uninterested in all the movements underneath it.”
The family’s grief following the brother’s death is palpable, yet it is approached with a young child’s naiveté, which makes it so much more tragic. This is only one instance where the girl’s naturally limited knowledge clashes with the wider context. Later on, the girl contemplates the words “sabra” and “shatila” because she hears the adults around her talking about them. She thinks they might have something to do with a cactus. In reality, “Sabra and Shatila” refers to a massacre at refugee camps in Beirut.
The novella is firmly rooted in Palestine, but at the same time, some of the girl’s observations are universal and make the novella accessible: the contemplation of the sunset’s colors or of the feel of rusted metal, the pain of an illness or the joy of making a friend. This was a rewarding reading experience, and I have no doubt that a re-read will be as well.