Short Fiction in Translation: Najwa Binshatwan’s ‘The Eavesdropper’

By Najwa Binshatwan

Translated by Salma Moustafa Khalil 

She went to the library in the morning and stayed for two hours. She called the plumber as soon as she left; there was a leak in the bathroom. She gave a lesson to one of the foreigners in the evening, then went to bed. That day, she hardly touched the phone.

The next morning, she turned the phone over as soon as she woke up. The phone, with all its apps,  is like the crush of a pliers. If a person doesn’t liberate herself from it, the phone will never leave her, not even after the death of its battery.


She went to the supermarket and shopped. I knew her usual dietary habits: no sugar, no flour, no processed ingredients. She used Apple Pay at the register. Then she walked in the heat for thirty minutes, so that my head swelled under the sun while she read an article about Ali al-Wardi. She didn’t take me with her when she went into the bathroom to shower. 

She shared a few things on Instagram as she took a bite out of an apple. The microphone is sensitive enough to identify all sounds; no need for guesswork. The moment I captured the words “shoes” and “clothes” during one of her phone calls, I hastened to display the contents of my pouch for her. With every glance, I shared new shoe stores, and shoes lured her to clothes, and clothes led to make up, perfumes, plates, decorative items, kitchenware, bedsheets, Princess Diana earrings, an IKEA store, and Teslas…

There’s no end to it. Truly, in my persistence, I am worse than the Italian shopkeepers who chase customers as if they’re police officers. Nevertheless, this is liquid commerce, and it is with persistence that money is extracted from all its hiding places.

I heard a crash in the kitchen. At first, I thought it was the sound of a military tank passing by on the street, but it turned out to be the lid of a Turkish-made cooking pot. I can distinguish its ringing and reverberation. It’s sold in some online stores in the Middle East and has a good rating. Ratings can be deceptive in the virtual world; if they’re high, they are often created by the product owners themselves. If they’re low, they are likely made by the competition. I can determine whether the ratings for a pot are fabricated or not by tracking the reviewers’ accounts and identifying their locations across the region.

 From the next room, her son asked: “What are you making?” She said, “Lamb and bean stew,” and immediately, I arranged promotional materials related to beans, meat, cooking pots, restaurants, Turkish songs, TV series, politics, and even elections. I showed her everything and anything Turkish and then expanded to showcase Afghan dishes, coinciding with her interest in a report about the Taliban’s policies toward women in Afghanistan. The topics gradually intertwined.

 I extracted some clothing-related content after she searched for a fabric shop near her house. She was preparing for an event that I would be able to identify later, when she took me along to the tailor… If she took me with her, which she undoubtedly would.

 She sat in Papparotti café and drank coffee, but she didn’t take small sips of it, since she isn’t an intellectual by social media standards. She drank it all in one shot, put the cup down, and immersed herself in her book.

 Her lips remain untouched by cosmetic procedures, and through her handling of the coffee, I can hear and see that this is the perfect time to present offers for facelifts, nose adjustments, and lip fillers. The abundance of approaches will eventually catch her attention, even if she doesn’t care about it yet.

 She browsed through literary magazines and selected a podcast to listen to while walking. Typically, I can’t hear external sounds if there’s a podcast or music playing in the phone’s background. So many podcasts, and so many philosophical lectures on YouTube! She had her fill, to the point of satiety. She paused the podcast episode to record voice messages for a distant man with whom she shares a special connection.

 The next day, she awaited the arrival of someone dear to her at the airport. The flight was delayed by an hour, so she sat and read as she waited. When the person arrived, they embraced and exchanged words in the Libyan dialect that I couldn’t decipher. Libyans have cultivated a devilish language that even Arab djinn can’t fully understand. And I, being neither djinn nor Arab, couldn’t understand a word of it!

 At one pm, she walked into a Lebanese restaurant, where writers and authors gathered around her table. She speaks little in these gatherings, but listens attentively to the gossip; she categorizes these gatherings as “the Arab cultural scene.” She met up with a kind Algerian friend and the two of them went to the Fairmont beach. The friend swam while she sat on the beach, exchanging bits of conversation, taking pictures, and surfing the internet. She has never liked to swim, ever since her first “dip” in the handwashing basin at the hospital on the day she was born. A coward. Instead of despising governmental negligence, she hated swimming in both pools and open water.

In the afternoon, she gathered her belongings from the hotel room but didn’t pack the banner the Writer’s Union had gifted her. It’s a heavy banner, difficult to carry around airports and would cost a lot in extra weight. The voice of the man sharing her room asked: Why are you leaving it? She answered: It’s heavy. They gave this to me instead of a Kindle or a phone or an iPad, which I need for my work as a writer. It would’ve been more useful to me and to them… the era of banners is over.”

 On the way, she spoke to nobody, I couldn’t read her thoughts, and I couldn’t penetrate them to find out what was going on inside her. She wasn’t asleep, she was thinking.

 The battery died, but I didn’t cease doing my job. Little do smartphone users know, but the company designed me with features that allow me to work through power and internet cuts, and even when my owner’s breathing stops.

 On Sunday, she rode the bus, and everything was normal. But when she got off, she was a man, which was strange!

 Her voice grew rough, her grip tightened, and her scent changed. Even her interests were no longer the same!

 In the evening, she started browsing sites for desert car and motorcycle races. Her daily routine now included nightly viewings of wrestling, horror movies, and adult films, while she spent the daytime asleep. Unemployment has struck me.

 Conversations about drugs, women, and romantic rendezvous with sex workers have become common on her WhatsApp!

 I tried to process what was happening… She was transformed. I became a little dizzy. No, I became a lot dizzy. Why had her interests changed? Why so radically? Why did she appear to me as an entirely different person? Why had she become a whore?

 On Sunday, the police arrested the man who had stolen the phone and returned me to her.

 Ouuufff… I am back to my first job. Today, I started gathering and correcting data.

 Thank God for my safety!

Najwa Binshatwan is a Libyan academic and novelist, born in Ajdabiya, Libya, in 1970. She was the first Libyan author to be shortlisted, in 2017, for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, for her novel The Slave Yards (2016). She has written three other novels: The Horses’ Hair (2007), Orange Content (2008) and Concerto Qurina Eduardo (2022). She was chosen as one of the 39 best Arab authors under the age of 40 by the Beirut39 project (2009-2010) organized by the Hay Festival, and her story ‘The Pool and the Piano’ was included in the Beirut39 anthology. In 2018, Binshatwan won a Banipal fellowship for creative writing. In 2019, her short story collection Serendipity (2019) was longlisted for the Al-Multaqa Short Story Prize, and her collection Catalogue of a Private Life (2018) won the English Pen Translates Award.

Salma Moustafa Khalil is an Egyptian translator and social and political researcher based in London. Her translation and research work is focused on gender and minority issues, both in the Arabic-speaking world and among the diaspora across Europe. She is a research associate at the University of Birmingham and the University of Pennsylvania and translator at the Middle East Centre, LSE. Her literary work and interests are aligned with her academic research, where she focuses on empowering the voices of young Arabs everywhere through editorial guidance and translation.