“We Are All Equally Far from Love is not a book to be picked up and put down. It is at times depressing as it reveals enduring sadness and hopelessness in the lives of others, particularly the lack of hope for so many women: ‘And so together, hand in hand, he and his prey would begin their endless journey into boredom.’ We Are All Equally Far from Love demands to be read, but pick your moment if you want to haul yourself quickly back from the post-reading melancholia.”
This novella is a challenging read; not because of Ms. Shibli’s sparing style of writing, which is strikingly different from the traditional Arabic style and quite riveting, but because of the intensely difficult insight it gives on the minutiae of the lives’ of others. The reader feels like a voyeur, emotions at the mercy of the words and actions of the characters; individuals he never really knows or understands.
We are afforded a glimpse, a snapshot or an occasional, painful slow-motion closeup of one suffering soul after another; perhaps worst of all is that the characters are not always aware of their mundane, vacant, or trouble-weary lives.
Though the setting is unnamed, the lives and experiences of the characters chime like metaphors, sharing with the reader an indirect sense of an occupied, oppressed world—a woman’s world, predominantly, but we also peer into male insecurities and disappointments, such as that of the young man who longs to talk to a woman and rekindle his first youthful experience with a girl and the “memory of the warmth of her triangle, discovered on the third-floor steps” of his father’s friend’s home.
We Are All Equally Far from Love starts with The Beginning and finishes with The End, both of which are narrated in the first person, as is the sixth Measure. In between, third-person Measures provide the structure for the book, with each one far more than a chapter, imparting to the reader as it does a standalone story that might or might not be linked to another Measure.
If there is a consistency running through every one of these stories, it is the intensity Ms. Shibli brings to each human emotion she examines— from love to hatred, of unfulfilled relationships and human interactions, the desperation of adolescence and the plights of female maturity.
In the first measure, we meet Afaf who is stumbling from a bored childhood into adolescence and a boring job. Her priority is to pay attention to herself now that she’s “no longer a schoolgirl: shape her eyebrows, for example, put on some kohl and straighten her hair,” something that finally prompts her to make use of a handful of black hair clips that had belonged to her long-gone mother: Tiny details, but telling ones.
By contrast in a later measure, the description by another young woman of her sibling makes agonizing reading, perhaps especially for women from western society: “My sister had early on discovered that the most precious thing she had was her femininity. This was a sort of unlucky coincidence in our house, where femininity was a flaw.” She goes on to describe how “her breasts were much bigger than mine, and while she liked to show hers off, I would hide mine, not wishing to attract anyone’s attention to this burgeoning disgrace that would lead me to the same fate as the condemned and the handicapped.”
We Are All Equally Far from Love is not a book to be picked up and put down. It is at times depressing as it reveals enduring sadness and hopelessness in the lives of others, particularly the lack of hope for so many women: “And so together, hand in hand, he and his prey would begin their endless journey into boredom.” We Are All Equally Far from Love demands to be read, but pick your moment if you want to haul yourself quickly back from the post-reading melancholia.