Book as Enemy



Adania Shibli. Photograph courtesy of Adania Shibli.

Smoking might be banned at book fairs, while one doesn’t expect books to be banned from book fairs. Even if a character in one of the books exhibited at a fair is smoking, this wouldn’t lead to a ban on characters smoking in books, or to a ban on that specific book. The simple, obvious reason is: literature does not equal reality. Fiction, especially, has its own way of working and should be examined on its own criteria. Smoking in real life has negative impacts on one’s health and the health of others, and banning it can prevent people from becoming ill. Smoking in a book can be evaluated only in terms of its relevance to a character and their actions in a text.

In 1988, when smoking was still allowed in many indoor places, probably including book fairs, I learned from my schoolteacher about the creation of the first public library in my village in Palestine/Israel. Upon hearing the news, I rushed to the little room where this library was being assembled, offering the librarian my help in labeling the books and arranging them on the shelves. I had a love for books, which I wanted to share with others.

That same year, 1988, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie was published. Working side by side, the librarian and I discussed its publication and its themes, which had led some, including many people we knew, to condemn the book. We both agreed that no one should judge a book before they had read it, and we decided that we should obtain a copy for the library. After reading it, the librarian, who was in his twenties, found it interesting. I, a fourteen-year-old with a taste for early-twentieth-century literature, found it uninteresting. But we both seemed to judge the book on its literary merits, not on the standards of the reality we were living in or by any one system of spiritual or ideological beliefs.

A few months later, someone noticed The Satanic Verses on the library shelves, and it was subsequently removed by the librarian himself. He told me that he decided to remove it because he feared a backlash and an even bigger controversy, which might antagonize the library. He wanted the library to remain open to everyone, to offer a wide range of readers its other books. I didn’t agree, and my passion for the library dwindled.

There can be dangers in conflating fiction with any lived reality. When Rushdie was attacked before a public talk he was set to give two years ago, as some of his translators and publishers had been attacked in the past, we witnessed once again that danger of forging a link between fiction and reality.

Targeting books is not a new practice, and it has a violent history. It is said that when Hulagu Khan’s soldiers captured Baghdad in 1258, they threw tens of thousands of books into the Tigris River, turning it black as the ink dissolved in its waters. In Germany, in 1933, books were not only banned but burned, turning the words, this time, into smoke.

Back to Palestine, not in 1988 but in 1948. When Zionist militias raided Palestinian towns, they were followed by book experts who worked for institutions including the Jewish National and University Library (later renamed the National Library of Israel). These experts looted and pillaged books from private Palestinian homes.

Khalil al-Sakakini, a Palestinian thinker, writer, and poet, was one of the many whose libraries were looted. Al-Sakakini was forced to flee Jerusalem on April 30, 1948, mere hours before members of the Haganah and Palmach militias occupied the neighborhood of Qatamon, where he lived. He managed to pack only a few of his belongings before seeking safety elsewhere. In a diary entry from that day, he writes:

We put a few clothes that we would need in the suitcases, and left the rest behind […] for our return. … We left the house, the clothes, the furniture, the library, the food and the giant piano … Farewell to our house! … Farewell to my library; farewell, house of wisdom, hall of philosophers, institute of science, home of the literary committee. How many sleepless nights have I spent in you, reading and writing.

During his years of forced exile in Egypt, al-Sakakini was haunted, first and foremost, by the loss of his books. Libraries like al-Sakakini’s often included books that were not mass-produced or commercially available. They were largely made up of scholarly volumes in Arabic, many of which are rare or out of print today. On October 11, 1948, a few months after arriving in Cairo, he wrote them a farewell letter:

Goodbye, my precious, valuable, well-chosen books. I say my books, meaning that I didn’t inherit you from my parents or grandparents … And I didn’t borrow you from other people either … Who would believe that doctors used to borrow medical books from me because they could only be found in my library? No linguistic problem ever arose in one of the government departments without those concerned consulting me, because they knew my library was the most likely place to find a solution to the problem or because they thought I would at least know where the solution could be found. I do not know what has become of you after our departure: were you looted or burned? Have you been honorably transferred to a public or private library? Or have you been carted over to grocery shops so that your pages could be used for wrapping onions?

Goodbye, my books! You are too precious for me to be without you.

Al-Sakakini died five years later, on August 13, 1953, in Cairo, without ever seeing his books again.

In 1957, Israeli authorities decided that around twenty-six thousand books, among those looted from private libraries across Palestine in 1948, were “unsuitable for use, in Arab schools and Israel [because] some of them contained inciting materials against the State [of Israel], and therefore their distribution or selling might cause damage to the State.” The scholar Gish Amit notes that these books were “sold as paper waste.”

Whether a book is banned by a governmental authority, as is now happening in countries ranging from Syria to the U.S., or transmuted into smoke, ash, or paper pulp, the effect is the same: a book, for nonliterary reasons, is treated as an enemy. And in such cases, books are not permitted to reach readers, not on account of a lack of literary merit but for other, nonliterary reasons.

When, in June 2023, my novel Minor Detail won Germany’s LiBeraturpreis, it was threatened with a version of this. Long before then, the novel had been rejected politely and repeatedly by German publishers, who—though they said they admired it as a literary text—were afraid to publish it. One editor at a prestigious publishing house even called up a writer friend of mine to inquire about my position on the BDS movement.

Minor Detail was unanimously selected by the jury for the LiBeraturpreis, but before the award was announced, two members of the preselection committee resigned. Then a cultural venue withdrew its invitation to host the awards ceremony after receiving calls expressing concern that the book presented an anti-Israeli narrative and could, therefore, potentially be read as anti-Semitic. The claims were related to an event in the book: the rape of Palestinian girl by Israeli soldiers. During the same period the idea that these elements of the novel made the book “anti-Israeli” emerged, the Israeli government had passed a law which would allow judges to hand a Palestinian who sexually assaults a Jewish Israeli double the sentence of a Jewish Israeli rapist, in cases where the assault is believed to be “nationalistically” or “racially” motivated, or, in other words, to be anti-Israeli. One cannot avoid feeling the irony in constructing a meaning for this term.

Personally, whenever I have encountered the limitedness of reality, literary imagination has rushed to my aid. Writers often write fiction in order to leave behind the oppressiveness of the lived world. To force a link between fiction and the real is an act of violence against the imagination. This is true no matter who is doing it, whether they be a member of a legal committee or a literary committee, a religious clerk or a literary critic.

In Arabic, the word for literature and ethics is one and the same: adab. Adab suggests that it is from literature that we might generate an ethics to guide us in life. Literature can instruct us how to act, and it is not down to any one of us to instruct literature how it should act. Adab—literature as ethics—is, unlike a religious or governmental authority, not dictated by one text, one path, or one writer. Ethics, to me, is a field that is constantly being nourished, revisited, and revised with every act of reading and every act of writing. Literature has never exercised or threatened violence as governmental or religious authorities have. Considering literature as an ethics would allow us more possibilities, ethical and otherwise, than those we currently have available. These possibilities might assist us in realizing or even imagining who we are in relation to one another, and in allowing others a place within ourselves.

As a child, I loved to follow smoke with my eyes as it rose in the air, tracing its trail into the distance. When it approached me, I would try to restrict its movement with my hands, but each time I tried to stop it, the smoke would only weave through my fingers and curve upward. Often in my life, just as I chased smoke, the limitations of reality have chased me into the realm of literature and all its possibilities. Perhaps words do act like smoke when suppressed or banned, continuing on their way, unfettered by anyone that tries to stop them; I shall follow in their wake.

Zurich, September 2023

A postscript:

The intensification of the Israeli military assaults on Palestinians in the past few months has seen the destruction of almost every library in Gaza, and the burning of thousands of books.


Adania Shibli was born in Palestine in 1974. She is a writer of novels, plays, short stories, and narrative essays, and her most recent book is Minor Detail, which was short-listed for the National Book Award in 2020 and in 2021 was nominated for the International Booker Prize. Shibli teaches and engages in academic research at universities across Europe, as well as at Birzeit University in Palestine.

This lecture was intended as the acceptance speech for the LiBeraturpreis, which was never delivered after the cancellation of the ceremony at the Frankfurt Book Fair.