The latest work of Benghazi-born writer Najwa Bin Shatwan, The Slave Pens (زرايب العبيد) has been garnering praise across the Arab literary world. She was recently shortlisted for the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and a translated excerpt from her book is featured in the current issue of Banipal magazine (#58 ‘Arab Literary Awards’).
The novel is set just outside of downtown Benghazi in the early 20th century. In this part of the city, known as al-Sabri (الصابري), both enslaved and free people lived in a dense network of rudimentary palm-leaf dwellings, essentially a ghetto. Bin Shatwan is the first writer or scholar to attempt to address this aspect of Benghazi’s history in particular, perhaps the first Libyan writer to deal deeply with slavery and its legacy in Libya.
Summary: The Slave Pens lifts the lid on the dark, untold history of slavery in Libya, of which the effects can still be felt today. Slave owner Mohammed and his slave Ta’awidha have fallen in love, but their relationship is considered taboo. Living in a community where masters take female slaves as lovers as they please, Mohammed’s father sends him on a trading mission in an attempt to distance him from Ta’awidha. During his absence, his mother forces her to miscarry by serving her a spiked drink, and she is married off to another slave. On his return from his trip, Mohammed learns of his family’s activities and he begins searching for his beloved.
Interviews with the author:
The Libyan historian Hadi Bulugma produced a series of books in Arabic on the history of Benghazi entitled بنغازي عبر التاريخ. He also made an abbreviated English version, the first volume of which (I am not sure that the second and third volumes were ever finished) concentrates on the geography and geographical history of the city. Here is a PDF of the book.
Bulugma, Hadi. 1968. Benghazi through the Ages. Volume I. Dar Maktabat al-Fikr, Tripoli.
Fikry, Mona. 1978. “An Oil Boom, Women, and Changing Traditions: A study of Libyan women in Benghazi.” In Folklore in the Modern World, ed. R. Dorson. Mouton: The Hague, pp. 65–76. [PDF]
This is an article about the modernization of Libya after the discovery of oil and its effects on the lives and roles of women in Benghazi. The article discusses in particular the suppression of the social and cultural lives of women in connection with modernizing forces, such as mass media, and draws attention to the declining visibility of, and place for, folklore and oral literature–which except for traditional poetry was mostly transmitted and performed by women. Fikry notes, for example, that:
“Tale-telling, called khurrafat in Libya, used to be an essential part of family entertainment in towns, villages, and tents, but in the city it has now all but disappeared to be replaced by television. The time that young children spent listening to tales is now spent studying, reading magazines, or watching television. Rare are the occasions when tales are told and few are the young urban women who know any tales to tell. Even the special night devoted to tale-telling during the wedding celebration is now firmly linked with the past.”
With apologies for a series of posts of articles that are not easily accessible, though worth reading if you have access, I present the following:
Henning Sievert, “Intermediaries and Local Knowledge in a Changing Political Environment: Complaints from Libya at the Turn of the 20th Century”. Die Welt des Islams 54, 3-4 (2014), pp. 322–362. [Online behind paywall]
Abstract: As historiography on Ottoman Tripolitania and Benghazi focuses mainly on the Italian invasion and on the Sanūsiyya and pays little attention to Ottoman records, studies on political practice and change in that period are rare. However, the special circumstances of that remote and sparsely populated part of the empire enable us to focus on the role of intermediaries and complaints within the imperial framework. Complaints and related correspondence were crucial in the negotiation of order, both from the government’s and from the subjects’ point of view. With the 19th-century reforms, new notions of order emerged, and old notions were modified. The new mode of politics did not, however, consist of immutable prescriptions but could acquire new layers of meaning in a process of translation into the vernacular politics of the Libyan provinces and vice versa. Imperial notions of order were thus read and utilised in various ways. The key interpreters and translators in this process were intermediaries between imperial, provincial and local levels. This contribution suggests to study political communication within the imperial framework by focusing on these intermediaries.
I recently came across a small, old pamphlet entitled, in French, “Essai sur la peste de Benghazi en 1874” (Essay on the 1874 plague of Benghazi) written by a certain Dr. Léonard Arnaud (a “médécin sanitaire au service Ottomane”) and published by the Ottoman Health Administration in Constantinople in 1875.
The report deals with an interesting and practically unknown episode of eastern Libyan history: an outbreak of the plague in ‘Benghazi’—then used to indicate the eastern part of modern-day Libya in general—which followed an earlier outbreak in the same region in 1858. This particular outbreak occurred in the encampments of several groups of nomadic Bedouin in the plateaus between Benghazi and al-Merj. Of concern to the Ottoman officials, no doubt, was that Dr. Arnaud identified the disease as the same as the plague which had been occurring in the Levant (according to a report made in London, the Ottoman health service was apparently dealing with a number of plague outbreaks in their Middle Eastern provinces). A quick search for the author reveals that he seems to have been a specialist in dealing with the plague and other epidemics in various territories of the Ottoman empire.
Are there any other sources for this episode of history, Ottoman, Arabic, or European?
The first volume of the novel The Confines of the Shadow, “a literary homage to Benghazi”, was released one week ago by Darf Publishers, the English-language imprint of the well-known Libyan publisher Dar el-Fergiani.
The sequence of novels and short stories takes as its subject the Italian experience in Cyrenaica. The Young Maronite (1971) discusses the 1911 war prompted by Giolitti, Omar’s Wedding(1973) narrates the ensuing truce and the attempt by the two peoples to strike a compromise before the rise of Fascism. The Nocturnal Visitor (1979) chronicles the end of the twenty-year Libyan resistance; Officers’ Tales (1967) focuses on the triumph of colonialism—albeit this having been achieved when the end of Italian hegemony already loomed in sight and the Second World War appeared inevitable—and The Psychological Comedy(1992), which ends with Italy’s retreat from Libya and the fleeing of settlers. Entry Into Babylon (1976) concentrates on Libyan independence in 1951, Cairo Nights (1986) illustrates the early years of the Senussi Monarchy and the looming spectre of Pan-Arab nationalism, while The Shore of the Lesser Life (1997) examines the profound social and political changes that occurred when large oil and gas deposits were discovered in the mid-1960s. Each text can be read independently or as part of the sequence. Either mode of reading will produce different—but equally legitimate—impressions.
The novel is translated from the Italian by André Naffis-Sahely, who has written previously (see his article in the Nation, republished in Banipal) about the process of researching and translating Spina’s opus. This is the third Libyan novel that Darf Publishers have published in translation. Read a recent interview with the publishers here.
Support Libyan literature in translation! Buy a copy from your nearest bookseller today!
[Updates!—Reviews and other news added below, as they appear.]
5 July 2015 Review by Seth Messigner at the Sultan’s Seal blog.
28 July 2015 Review by Boyd Tonkin in The Independent.
9 Sept 2015 Essay by Andre Naffis-Sahely at Words Beyond Borders.
21 Sept 2015 Interview with Andre Naffis-Sahely here at ArabLit.
1 Oct 2015 Review by Ursula Lindsey at The Nation.