Najwa Benshatwan: Libyan Female Author ‘Under The Radar’

An ugly shadow side of Libya’s history is that it was a slave market route for centuries under Ottoman rule, way before the Italian occupation and prior to Libya’s declared independence in 1951. Growing up in Libya, children might still hear stories from elders about the black maids who used to work in their household or about distant cousins in Africa who carry their same recognisable surnames.

There would be no elaboration on the reality of the trade that used to buy, sell and barter human beings and rarely admission of how the ancestors may have been involved in the mistreatment of those held captive. Few Libyans have the courage to revisit that period with its many ghosts or to bring up the racism issues that still persist in the culture.

Not up until now that the talented author Najwa Benshatwan has taken the task to heart by writing a novel so powerful, beautiful and so sensitively fashioned in the narrative voice of the slaves. She has creatively wrapped it up into a love story that touches upon the era and the taboo subjects that have never been exposed before.

Shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, ‘The Slave Pens’ has yet to be translated into English. Already, Benshatwan is being courted to turn it into different languages and to adapt it into a TV series or a film. This new positive intrigue by the literary world has been unexpected – as she has already successfully published two other novels and collections of short stories – but very much welcome.

For the Shubbak Festival 2017, I spoke with Benshatwan via Skype and we conversed in the Libyan dialect. She opened up not just about the book that will undoubtedly transform her artistic destiny; but, also, on the challenges she faced as a budding intellectual during the oppressive Gaddafi regime, how she managed to overcome obstacles put in her way and how she is now content to be in Rome, Italy where she can pursue her work without complications.

Benshatwan: “For a long time, I felt buried in Libya. Born in 1969, I was of the generations that were denied the right to learn European languages at school and it is still a source of anger for me that I don’t’ speak except very basic English. When I was young, my talent as a writer would be denied as my homework at the age of 11 became a source of suspicion amongst teachers, who could not believe that it was my work and not that of an adult.

“Later on when I went on to university in Benghazi, it was my beautiful handwriting in Arabic that was a problem. To trick my examiners not to recognise my paper, I forced myself to write with my left hand so they wouldn’t know it was me. I did also learn braille and sign language for a brief period when I specialised in working with deaf and blind children.

“In terms of my literary ambitions, under Gaddafi there was no intellectual freedom and I was always worried about not just the state control but family and societal controls too. It is only now in ‘The Slave Pens’ that I am much older and more confident that I can safely explore things like love and sex for example.

“So I turned to short story fiction and utilised symbolism when dealing with Libya as the essence and background of my tales. But I was careful to enter only competitions judged abroad and they were one way to gain recognition. But my work came to the scrutiny of the Libyan authorities who tried to lure me to write about the regime and its ideology which I refused to do.

“The situation worsened when I got arrested and charged for writing against the state with the publication my short story ‘His Excellency, the Eminence of the Void’. Afraid and terrified to spend a night in prison with criminals, I travelled all the way to Tripoli where I spent four hours under interrogation knowing that the maximum sentence could be execution.

“Although I was not convicted, they wouldn’t leave me in peace, making my life hell and sending spies at the university where I was teaching and forcing me to attend political events. It was like cat and mouse that I stopped publishing my work and planned to save up enough money to be able to make an escape.

“But things changed with the February Revolution. I had naively believed in the rebel fighters and the struggle so much that I gave them my savings. Then sadly realising that there would be no security in Libya, my next chance to leave came when I got accepted to study in Italy where I have been for the past four years.

“My time in Italy has not been easy. I have been lonely and had to face dire economic circumstances and the psychological turmoil that entails. I had to take all sorts of jobs to survive and it took time to learn Italian before I could complete my doctoral degree at La Piensa University in Rome.

“I wanted to dedicate my thesis to the slavery and human trafficking under the Ottoman period and the Islamic Empire because I was haunted by a black and white picture that I had seen in an Englishman’s traveller book… although I cannot remember the name of the book or the Italian photographer who must have captured the image around early 1900s.

“It was of black women slaves with a boy and a child. When I asked about the scene, I was told that the quarters where they used to live were commonly referred to in the local dialect as ‘pens’ in the way of an animal’s pen. I had the photo scanned and put as my screensaver since 2006.

“For years I couldn’t steal myself away from the characters and my imagination became immersed in contemplating their lives… that is what urged me to write and finish the novel. My hope for it is to be a wake up call for Libyans to learn from past mistakes and acknowledge how black slavery – both past and present – has impacted on our society, from the economic to the social, political, cultural, psychological and mental aspects.

“Overall I am happy to have explored this subject and I am proud to be the first Libyan woman to be shortlisted for the IPAF. I can now finally be able to dedicate more and more of my time to just being a writer.”

Benshatwan is scheduled to participate in the ‘Under The Radar’ talk that is part of the Shubbak Literature programme at the British Library. This interview article was written in collaboration with the Shubbak Festival 2017.

For more information about Shubbak Festival:

Note: This article was first published circa July 2017

Banthology: Stories From Unwanted Nations

Using resentful rhetoric to justify his executive order made early last year – to ban the entry of people coming from seven Muslim-majority countries into the United States – President Donald Trump was indicating that America needs to be protected from these ‘other’ people on the count of their religion. A religion that is a personal faith to over 1.8 billion worldwide which he simply reduces to an enemy of ‘his’ great nation, using the language of fear and dangerously manipulating the historical context.

In a creative response to what can only be described as a hysterical political measure, Comma Press, the champions of the short story form, commissioned seven writers from the original countries in Executive Order 13769 – Sudan, Syria, Somalia, Iran, Libya, Iraq and Yemen – to contribute to an anthology that would be published in the UK and the US. Five of the entries were penned in the native languages and have been translated into English.

“The idea for this book was born amid the chaos of that first ban, and sought to champion, give voice to, and better understand a set of nations that the White House would like us to believe are populated entirely by terrorists. As publishers, we are acutely aware of the importance of cultural exchange between communities, and have also seen first-hand the damage caused by tightened visa controls and existing travel restrictions…” Sarah Cleave, Editor.

Opening with Rania Mamoun’s ‘Bird of Paradise’, a young Sudanese woman finds herself lost, alone and bewildered at an airport. She is psychologically frozen and unable to board the scheduled flight even though her dream had always been to run away from her oppressive life in the town of Wad Madani. Standing in the queue with the ticket ready in hand, she is held back by an emotional force and paralysed at the prospect of getting onto the plane.

Showing the mental resilience required of the refugee from a dark comic perspective, author Zaher Moareen’s ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Smuggling’ is about a Syrian man still in transit in Paris, France with a plan to get to Sweden to seek final asylum. At the mercy of smugglers who have no care as to his survival and who can never offer a guarantee of safe passage, his story reflects on what compels one to escape one’s country of origin and the myriad justifications one has to come up with to be granted entry at some borders. We sense his unease, anxiety and panic at the prospect of an uncertain future as he is beyond the point of return.

In Iranian writer Fereshteh Molaui’s ‘Phantom Limb’, we are presented with an unusual psychic connection that occurs between loved ones when they are separated and become physically thousands of miles apart. A troubled Kurdish-Iranian male refugee in Toronto, Canada experiences a pain that has no medical explanation, except that it happens to correspond directly with an injury endured by his mother back home in Iran, an amputated right leg.

Taking a swipe at Trump is Libyan writer Najwa Benshwatwan’s ‘Return Ticket’ that pokes fun at the preposterousness of what can happen at immigration controls and the pretexts offered when one is being screened purely based on their colour, sex, race, religion or nationality. She initially creates an imaginary village named Schrodinger that has the extraordinary powers to be able to move through time and space and where people are judged purely on good deeds and acts of piety.

But one very odd thing about Schrodinger is the grave of six Americans who came to it and never left: “not out of love, but because the walls of their own nation never stopped rising, day after day, until it was cut off from the world and the world cut off from it. Each attempt by an American tourist to scale the towering walls and return home proved fatal!”

The grandmother then narrates the endless humiliations she encounters as a woman traveller when once she tried to step outside the village in search of her husband and needing to visit some real and imagined places. In one instance, she is forced to take off all of her clothes because it is ‘a crime to feel embarrassed’, but in another, she is faced with the religious fundamentalists who tell her off for not wearing the hijab and threaten her with the punishment of hell.

Carrying us to an ancient time, Yemeni Wajdi al-Ahdal’s ‘The Slow Man’ begins at ‘The Year 100 According to the Babylonian Calendar’ and then moves us right up to the ‘400 Babylonians Era’. Highlighting confrontations and the war between the Egyptians and Babylonians, the tale alludes to how every great and mighty empire sooner or later comes to pass and is replaced by another. In the end, the narrator foresees the total annihilation of the human race as it devours itself for the sake of dominance, power and control.

Last but not least are Iraqi Anoud’s ‘Storyteller’ and Somali Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s ‘Jujube’ that are similar in many ways but written in unique styles. Told by two young females, they both speak of the lived realities of war, its consequent tragedies, the incurred losses of dear ones, the clinging on to false hope and the nightmares that continue even when one is eventually outside of the conflict zone due to the irreversible damage and the invisible scarring.

Bringing to light the incredulity that was felt by many people at Trump’s original order, this powerful anthology offers, in the fictional short story format, all of the associated states of anger, upset, sadness, frustration, and even hilarity at this new added travel stigma. In terms of international borders and the movement of people, it relays the stories of those who end up paying the heaviest price when discriminatory and unfair laws are put into practice. It also, very effectively, turns upside down the President’s Islamophobia, especially as you enter the minds of the whose who have been forced to risk the migrant journey and come to appreciate the complex dynamics that are at play, wherein their religion is in no way of an aggressive nature.

Note: This article was first published circa April 2018