Layers of violence
This third novel by Libyan writer Najwa Bin Shatwan, The Slave Yards (Zarayib al-Abid), was shortlisted for the 2017 International Prize for Arab Fiction. It was the first novel by a Libyan author to be selected for the prize, and the only book written by a woman shortlisted that year. Set in 19th century Libya, then under Ottoman rule, the book’s title refers to the real-life encampments on the outskirts of Benghazi where most of the country’s slaves and former slaves were held at the time, and which provides the backdrop to the fictional, harrowing story of Tawida, an enslaved woman owned by a Libyan merchant, and her daughter Atiga.
We first encounter Atiga as an adult: she is the wife of a pharmacist and a mother of two and lives a seemingly unremarkable life in a quiet unnamed town. On an otherwise ordinary afternoon, she receives a visit from Ali Bin Shatwan, a cousin she has never met before. He explains that he has Atiga’s birth certificate and holds important information about her paternal lineage and her rights to an inheritance. From then on, the book’s narrative structure covers three different historical periods, with each period preceding the former, which flesh out the intricate backstory behind Ali’s revelation.
As a little girl Atiga grows up among the shacks of the slave yards and is raised by her mother who, for reasons that become clearer as the narrative progresses, passes as her Aunt Sabriya. Atiga’s friends are slaves and the children of slaves for whom the yards, a makeshift community of people ‘separated in both place and time from their roots’, is home. Social ties are formed and destroyed under perpetual hardship, poverty and relentless gossiping. Atiga’s mixed-race heritage is also unexplained to, and in some sense hidden from, her. But when she reaches puberty her eligibility for a customary ‘locking ceremony’ forces Aunt Sabriya to reveal that Atiga is not in fact a shushana, a slave born to slave parents, but the daughter of ‘a free man’: a white Libyan named Muhammad Bin Shatwan, who is the son of Atiga’s mother’s master, Imuhammad Bin Shatwan.
The central thread in the novel, then, traces the relationship between Atiga’s mother, Tawida, and her father, Muhammad, from their first encounter and blossoming love to their painful separations and feverish, confused reunions. Certainly, their love affair bears all the hallmarks of an epic love story, and a superficial reading of the novel would regard it as precisely that: the slave and her master as star-crossed lovers, locked into an impossible mutual passion. But a more critical view (which, I believe, the author does invite) cannot bypass the fact that their relationship is embedded in exploitation and oppression. For Muhammad, Tawida remains first and foremost an enslaved woman who can be possessed, and whose racial ‘otherness’ and subservience are a part of her sensual appeal. Meanwhile, her affair with Muhammad allows Tawida to reimagine her life through a prism of choice and personal freedom (“He’s not my master, he’s my sweetheart”) and believe that she can transcend the terrible restrictions forced onto her by her society. But, tragically, she cannot. In fact, her relationship with Muhammad makes matters so much worse for Tawida: Muhammad’s parents, predictably disgusted by their son’s love for a slave, do everything possible to break up the affair. Tawida’s first pregnancy is aborted against her will. She is removed from the master’s home, trafficked across Benghazi and held captive in a brothel. Muhammad goes looking for her. But in the end their relationship stands little chance against the adverse forces that are just too great to overcome and, by the time of their daughter’s birth, Tawida is alone and in hiding in the slave encampments.
On the one hand, The Slave Yards is a richly layered story with several sub-plots – each interesting in its own right – as well as with a multitude of peripheral characters that bring to life its socio-historical setting. The myriad of descriptions of forms of dress, food and conventions (helpfully elucidated in footnotes in Nancy Roberts’s translation) also bring about a strong sense of place. The violence and suffering in the novel, on the other hand, is relentless and unsparing, and the story is saturated with depictions of sexualised violence and with derogatory terminology about the bodies of black people that gives a troubling dimension to the narration. Certainly, one guesses that the author sought to embed the story in the social perspectives of a particular time and place, but this is put into effect with blunt linguistic force, and readers should approach the text with some caution. Interestingly, with regards to giving the slave-owning merchants central to the novel her own family name, Bin Shatwan has highlighted the enduring difficulties that exist in openly addressing the story of slavery in the Libyan context, and stated she “avoided using other names because I didn’t want to clash with people’s real life sensitivities. So I used my own”. For this reason, Bin Shatwan should be credited for writing The Slave Yards with frankness – its social themes, not limited to Libyan history alone, must be brought into focus.
First published in Banipal 68, Summer 2020