The slave pens


Zarayeb al ‘abid
Dar al saqi, Lebanon, Beirut, 2016 , 350 pages



Benghazi, Lybia, some time in the first half of the past century, Atiqa now a free woman, hears the story of her mother’s life as a slave and lover for the first time.

“The slave pens”, by Libyan novelist Najwa Bin Shatwan is unprecedented in its tackling the life of slaves in Benghazi. A historian herself, Bin Shatwan nonetheless chose not to write a historical novel. While very well documented, the book is a work of fiction, with voluntarily blurred time references.

The story is that of Atiqa, the daughter of a woman slave, Tawida, and a free Libyan white man, Mohammad. It is also the story of Atiqa’s mother Tawida, how she fell in love with her master, how their love story destroyed both their lives and beyond, and finally brought Atiqa to life.

The narrative structure of the book covers three different historical periods, highlighting the evolution of social structure. The adult Atiqa we meet works at the dispensary, a free woman married to a caring man she loves. Atiqa the child, grew up in the slave pens, free but exposed to all possible sorts of violence and abuse. While Tawida, the mother, was a slave in the Bin Shatwan household.

The author succeeds in creating a multilayered story, featuring many sub-plots that support the main narrative, as well as a multitude of secondary characters ranging from other slaves surrounding Tawida, to the Cheikh who plays a detrimental role in her life, and his son, a repressed homosexual; other children of the pens who mark Atiqa’s childhood, namely Muftah, the baby boy Tawida saves and raises, and who, it turns out, is the one that motivates her taking the risk to flee the brothel where she was secluded.

Without being descriptive, the novel succeeds in representing Beghazi, people’s looks, dress and conventions. The writing mostly focuses on the events, and is in this sense driven mostly by the action, making of the novel a captivating read.

This novel explores the complexity of Libyan contemporary culture and identity, largely ignored by the world today, and long forgotten by the Libyans themselves.

This very unique book was shortlisted for the IPAF in 2017.

[More details available upon request]

Translation sample

Translation sample

Translation by Nancy Roberts.

“For your children’s sake, I just ask you to hear me out. Please.”

Out of his vest pocket he brought a document that had been rolled up and tied with a string. Slipping it under the door, he said, “God’s peace be with you, Atiqa Bint Muhammad Bin Imuhammad Bin Abd al-Kabir Bin Ali Bin Shatwan. Your right’s been restored to you. So take it, and don’t refuse it.”

He stepped away from the door, his eyes still fixed on it.

Deep inside her were things Atiqa didn’t know how to describe. Without a word, her almond eyes summed up the story of a wretched slave woman’s love for her master. With these eyes she retreated into her work as the mission doctor’s assistant, most of her patients women and children. She rarely spoke with anyone. However, her outer silence was paralleled by an extended, angst-filled conversation with the Spirit about who she was, about the struggle to craft an identity out of two colors. What was she supposed to do with dark skin and almond eyes, and with a grief that belonged to no particular race or blood line?

Why are you reopening my wounds now, Hajj Ali? Why do stories surface when it’s too late to do anything about them? To correct their details? To apologize for their painful parts? Atiqa wasn’t one to reveal her perspective to a stranger, even if he’d shown up in person at her house to acknowledge her identity and her long overdue rights. So she closed the door on him, content to keep her distance.

Longsuffering and silent like her mother, like a boulder that endures the pounding of the salty waves year in and year out without being eroded away, Atiqa gave in at last to the insistent urging of the dignified, elegant Ali, who stood apart from the family that had spurned both her appearance and her person. She told him stories and he listened. On the other side of blood, pedigree and sorrow, he acknowledged her suffering, allowing her to voice her pain in his presence to the extent that she was able. He opened the doors that had been closed to her for so long, letting her choose where to situate herself in place, time, and perception. He embraced her regardless of how complicated her life was, no matter how winding her roads. He loved experiencing Muhammad through her. In her he saw Muhammad’s eyes, and a bit of the gap between his teeth when she smiled.

He would love and commiserate with her proud, dignified sorrow. He would draw near to her without revealing his own secret. He would be close to her through a silent embrace, realizing that there was no use in resisting fate. However much he wished he could reach out and touch her spirit, he knew he mustn’t try to come closer than the distance between them would allow.

[Full translation available upon request]




Dar al saqi has world rights to this title. RAYA represents Dar al saqi for world rights.

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