‘The Slave Yards,’ a soul-pen­e­trat­ing novel by Na­jwa Bin Shat­wan

Arab News - - &finally - Manal Shakir Chicago

Along the Libyan coast in 19th-cen­tury Beng­hazi, thou­sands of African slaves line the shore­line. They’ve been kid­napped or forcibly sold to Libyan car­a­vans to serve their white masters in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa and the bru­tal liv­ing and work­ing con­di­tions they en­dure are laid out in “The Slave Yards,” the lat­est novel by the crit­i­cally ac­claimed au­thor and aca­demic Na­jwa Bin Shat­wan. Short­listed for the 2017 In­ter­na­tional Prize for Ara­bic Fic­tion, Shat­wan’s in­cred­i­ble tale adds an­other shadow to the dark history of slav­ery, high­light­ing the re­silience of the men and women who pushed for­ward amid the great­est in­hu­man­ity through one of the dark­est pe­ri­ods in history. A sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion free woman, Atiqa, who is de­scribed as “long-suf­fer­ing and silent, like a boul­der that en­dures the pound­ing of the salty waves year in and year out with­out be­ing eroded away,” has lived most of her life in the “slave yards,” a stretch of the Beng­hazi coast­line that no­body wants. She grows up in a shack with her aunt Sabriya, who is black, Mif­tah, a blue-eyed, blond-haired or­phan, and her­self, who is dark-skinned but dif­fer­ent.

With an iden­tity that has al­ways eluded her, Atiqa’s life has al­ways hung in a fine bal­ance. She lives in a city where a name can re­store a per­son’s rights, where a trau­matic past can be un­done by a sin­gle piece of pa­per claim­ing birthright. In a story where it’s eas­ier to keep the door closed on a painful past, Shat­wan throws it open.

There is an ever-present heart­break as you read Shat­wan’s pow­er­ful novel, one that steers clear of happy endings and white sav­iors, pre­sent­ing it­self with bold clar­ity. Her char­ac­ters may have no rights and no free will, but they are vi­brant. From the mo­ment they are auc­tioned off, pinched and prod­ded as if they were an­i­mals, to when they step foot in some­one’s home as a pos­ses­sion, they suf­fer cru­elty and vi­cious­ness. How­ever, they don’t al­low the in­hu­man­ity of their white masters to take away from the in­cred­i­ble bonds they have built and the re­silience to make a life. Women stick to­gether in the heav­ily pa­tri­ar­chal and tra­di­tional so­ci­ety where bad luck and su­per­sti­tion is used to con­trol and harm them.

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