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.
اخر عنوان خطي لمجلة “ماساچوستز” هو رواية قصيرة “القائد” للكاتب الليبي الامريكي نوري زروق. الرواية القصيرة تتابع ثلاث اجيال عائلة ليبية خلال فترتي نظام معمر القذافي و ثورة فبراير و لها مقدمة من قلم الشاعر خالد مطاوع.
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. . .
Hisham Matar’s first novel In the Country of Men has been re-released as a Penguin Essential: “The Penguin Essentials are some of the twentieth-century’s most important books. When they were first published they changed the way we thought about literature and about life. And they have remained vital reading ever since.”
The book is graced by a fantastic new cover designed by Christopher Worker.
I assume that everyone has already read this book, so I post it here to mark the occasion. Of course, with its fancy new cover, you have yet another reason to share it with as many people as possible. As a friend recently said: “the cover is beautiful but the content is more beautiful.”
The blurb is: “Nine-year-old Suleiman is just awakening to the wider world beyond the games on the hot pavement outside his home and beyond the loving embrace of his parents. He becomes the man of the house when his father goes away on business, but then he sees his father, standing in the market square in a pair of dark glasses. Suddenly the wider world becomes a frightening place where parents lie and questions go unanswered. Suleiman turns to his mother, who, under the cover of night, entrusts him with the secret story of her childhood.”
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.