Najwa Bin Shatwan’s Slave Pens was shortlisted for the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). This excerpt is from the beginning of the book:
From the IPAF organizers:
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.
Unions and Divisions of Fate
by Najwa Bin Shatwan, translation by Sawad Hussain and M Lynx Qualey
The road was dusty, long, and narrow, its houses packed one against the next, built in the same shape and with the same faded white paint falling off in large flakes. The uneven heights were interrupted by a few small shops, most owned by the surrounding residents, and where this road turned into the next, there was a small pharmacy with no signboard. It was the only one around, and they called it “Giuseppe’s,” a name the owner didn’t like, that people called him behind his back.
It was in one of these houses that a young boy told his mother: “There’s an old man standing by the door that wants you.” The mother was startled by the arrival of a man her son didn’t know. Her husband always met patients and strangers at his medicine shop. It was a Sunday morning, and she was busy cooking while her husband sat in the courtyard smoking his pipe and reading a few books. Sometimes, he would place his book to one side and play with a young brown girl who could have been his granddaughter.
The young boy had gone right past his father, straight to his mother, to tell her about the person knocking at the door. “The man wants to meet you, because he asked about you, not Dad.” She wiped her hands on the kitchen rag before she walked to her husband and gave him the news. They were both surprised that a man would come ask for the woman of the house and not the man. “Go and see,” her husband advised. “Maybe he’s come with a message from the clinic or the missionaries.”
She was more surprised than hesitant. As she made her way to the front door, countless questions formed in her mind. Her two children tagged along. She craned her neck, moving up from behind the curtain that hung behind the door until she was smack in the middle and could see who this man might be. He was standing in front of the house, facing the street with his back to the door, wearing a long, clean jard, his hands clasped behind his back. He was tall. When she saw how clean his clothes were from the back, she said to herself: This man came just to see me. His jard wouldn’t be so immaculate if he’d been wearing it every day.
She spoke to the man to make him turn around. “Yes—tell me what it is.” The man turned quickly. “Peace upon you, Miss.” Then he averted his gaze from her face. At this, she felt a strong curiosity to know who this was and what, exactly, had brought him here!
It wasn’t easy for him to catch his breath or shape his words. He couldn’t even look at her for a long time, but he also wanted to look and take her in. In that fleeting, all-encompassing moment, despite the presence of a door between them, he felt the need to reorder his words once more, so they would be effective and the woman wouldn’t shut the door in his face, refusing to speak. But why would she shut the door on him, if she was now speaking in such a gentle and polite tone? Maybe he should stop guessing and do what had to be done.
It wouldn’t be proper for him to say, “I’ve come to speak to Atiqa Bint Tawida, the servant of Haj Emuhammad Bin Abd Alkabeer Bin Ali Bin Shatwan.” No, no, he definitely couldn’t say that and he should avoid the word servant. It would be better not to use the word at all, even if he couldn’t find another label for Tawida, the subject of this visit. No one had ever given the girl another name or label beyond the one of her servitude. He didn’t know her any other way, and he didn’t know what to say to her daughter, Atiqa, at this moment. He had to avoid
Translation Copyright 2017- Sawad Hussain and Marcia Lynx Qualey
speaking about maidservants and slave girls to describe her. He had to avoid mention of inferior status, breaking from the mold accepted by society.
When she asked him who he was, he’d say he wanted to speak to her alone—him and a woman who he didn’t know, who he hadn’t seen before. And she was to listen to this stranger who had come to share news, as if he were one of her relatives. News she didn’t know about herself and his servant, her mother.
It was as if they’d both been sent to this moment from another life, a place where they weren’t, as now, living two separate lives. But what if the woman doesn’t want to go back in time with you? What if she prefers to shut the door in your face once and for all, go back to her kitchen, and carry on living without hearing your tale? What if she isn’t curious about what happened?
Part of him was thinking this, considering it, and he grew anxious. Another part—the liberal, optimistic part—went so far as to imagine himself sitting in the men’s annex of her house as a most honored guest.
Her clenched hand on the door, her voice in her brief words, that’s all he knew of her.
What would he say to her when she asked: “What do you want and why are you here?” Would she know him from his name, or might she never have heard it before now? He brushed off the shoulders of his jard and fixed his eyes on the door. The words were drawn haltingly from his throat. “I want to speak with Atiqa Bint Tawida.”
“And who are you?”
He’d expected her to fire this question at him. He stalled a moment. “I’m Ali Bin Shatwan.”
“Who?” The woman spoke in a high voice, with a mixture of astonishment and surprise.
“Yes. I’m Ali Bin Shatwan.” “What do you want?”
“I can’t speak out here on the street. What I’ve come to say can’t be said like this, out in the open. Now, will you let me come inside?”
“I can’t let you in and I can’t listen to you. You’re a stranger, and I don’t need whatever you have to say. It seems you’re the one who needs to speak to me. So let me live my life and don’t worry me with whatever you’re bringing. I don’t want to hear, it’s not worth it.”
“I’m begging you, please. Hear me out.”
“No.” She stretched out a hand and drew back the child who was standing between them, pulling him to the threshold. Then she quickly shut the door.
He stood, rooted in place. For a few moments, he didn’t know what to do. He took a few steps towards the front door and spoke, as if he could see through the cracks to where she stood. “If you decide you want to hear what I have to say, I’m staying at the town’s hotel. If you want to talk, send a servant there, and he’ll find me right away. The whole souk knows me. I’m putting a lineage document on your doorstep. It’s for you to take, even if you don’t want to meet or speak to me. This document was drawn up only for your sake, for you and you alone. I’ve no other reason or agenda, God as my witness. I hope you give me the chance to speak.” He took one step further. “I swear on your children’s lives, I mean no harm.”
From his vest, he took a paper wrapped in string and placed it in the niche between the door and the raised step. “Peace upon you, Atiqa Bint Mohammed Bin Emuhammad Bin Abd Alkabeer Bin Ali Bin Shatwan, these are your rights being handed to you, so take them and don’t give them back.” Then he stepped away from the door, his gaze fixed on it.
As for Atiqa, as she stood in the open door, her innermost self was full of something she couldn’t describe. Her almond eyes summed up, in silence, the love story of her miserable mother and her master, and how she’d run from the both of them to help the missionary doctor. How she’d nursed women and children with the best care and rarely spoke. This silence ran parallel to a long conversation within her soul, about the anxiety of identity as she lived between two colors: between dark skin and almond eyes, and about a sadness that didn’t belong to any particular blood.
Why scrape off my scabbed wound now, Haj Ali? Why prolong tales after the season of their telling has passed? Is it to remedy the past or apologize for the pain? Atiqa didn’t say a word to give the stranger any idea of where she stood on the matter. Today, someone who shared her origins was at her house. He was here now, her own flesh and blood, wanting to confess his wrongs and give her what was rightfully hers. She closed the door between them, relieved to get away.
Editor’s note: Those interested in translation rights should contact the Raya Agency.
Najwa Bin Shatwan is a Libyan academic and novelist, born in 1970. She is the author of two other novels: The Horses’ Hair (2007) and Orange Content (2008), three collections of short stories and a play. In 2005, The Horses’ Hair won the inaugural Sudanese al-Begrawiya Festival prize, in the same year that Sudan was Capital of Arab Culture. She was chosen as one of the 39 best Arab authors under the age of 40 by the Beirut39 project and her story “The Pool and the Piano” was included in the Beirut39 anthology.
Sawad Hussain and Marcia Lynx Qualey are stalwarts of ArabLit.