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 a 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.
Shatwan’s novel is meticulously detailed and very moving. First published in 2016 and translated into English by Nancy Roberts, “The Slave Yards” penetrates the soul and lives deep down in the heart. This story adds another layer to a traumatic history that still haunts the world today.