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 latest working title of The Massachusetts Review is a prizewinning novella entitled The Leader by Libyan-American writer Nouri Zarrugh. The novella follows three generations of a Libyan family during the reign of Muammar Gaddafi and the aftermath of the revolution, and is introduced by Khaled Mattawa. Check it out at http://massreview.org/node/787.
An extract is below:
That last February before the war and the hard years that were to follow it, forty-one years after the Leader’s revolution, Laila woke to the sound of explosions in the street. She sat clutching the blanket, eyes darting, half expecting to find herself buried in dust and rubble, her vision slowly adjusting to the familiar sight of the armoire and the floral cushions piled beside it, the matching nightstand and the ceramic lamp and on the other side of them, undisturbed, the sheets tucked and folded, Hajj Yunus’s empty bed, glowing in the faint moonlight like a preserved artifact. Finding everything intact, she lay down, thinking the sound a remnant of some already fading dream, a trace of that April night a quarter century earlier when the walls had shaken and the neighbors had cried out in terror, and she had buried her face in her father’s arms, whispering with him: “I seek refuge in the Lord of the dawn.”
It was when she heard the laughter that she finally understood, voices in the alley giving way to the pop and scatter of what she now recognized as firecrackers, to the exclamations of the boys who lit and tossed them and to the nasal cries of the youngest among them, who begged to spark the fuses. She lay there a long time listening as they tried out their bottle rockets and smoking black snakes, eager for the coming mawlid, when they would march down Sharaa Fashloum and Ben Ashour, the older boys bearing makeshift torches and singing, the younger boys relegated to harmless sparklers and pouting. She waited for the footsteps of the other women but had by then learned that only the morning prayer call could draw them from their beds to wash and dress in the darkness. Theirs was a sleep of boundless exhaustion, all of them foreigners, maids and nannies, and it seemed at times that all that kept them awake was their duty to Allah and to the task he’d given them of surviving. . .