Review of ‘The Slave Yards’ by Najwa Bin Shatwan

“The Slave Yards” is the latest novel by the critically acclaimed author and academic Najwa Bin Shatwan. (Supplied)
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Updated 29 June 2020

Review of ‘The Slave Yards’ by Najwa Bin Shatwan

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.


In Lebanon, single-concert festival serenades empty ruins

Updated 05 July 2020

In Lebanon, single-concert festival serenades empty ruins

  • The Baalbek International Festival was streamed live on television and social media
  • The night kicked off with the Lebanese philharmonic orchestra and choir performing the national anthem

BEIRUT: A philharmonic orchestra performed to spectator-free Roman ruins in east Lebanon Sunday, after a top summer festival downsized to a single concert in a year of economic meltdown and pandemic.
The Baalbek International Festival was instead streamed live on television and social media, in what its director called a message of “hope and resilience” amid ever-worsening daily woes.
The night kicked off with the Lebanese philharmonic orchestra and choir performing the national anthem, followed by Carmina Burana’s “O Fortuna,” a 13th century poem set to music.

The program, which ran for just over an hour, included a mix of classical music and rock and folk tunes by composers ranging from Beethoven to Lebanon’s Rahbani brothers.
Held in the open air and conducted by Harout Fazlian, the 150 musicians and chorists were scattered inside the illuminated Temple of Bacchus, as drones filmed them among the enormous ruins and Greco-Roman temples of Baalbek.
Festival director Nayla de Freige told AFP most artists performed for free at the designated UNESCO World Heritage site.
The concert aimed to represent “a way of saying that Lebanon does not want to die. We have an extremely productive and creative art and culture sector,” she said.
“We want to send a message of civilization, hope and resilience.”
Baalbek itself became a militia stronghold during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, but conservation and tourism have revived the ruins over the past three decades.
Lebanon is known for its summer music festivals, which have in past years drawn large crowds every night and attracted performers like Shakira, Sting and Andrea Bocelli.
Other festivals have not yet announced their plans for this year.
Lebanon has recorded just 1,873 cases of COVID-19, including 36 deaths.
But measures to stem the spread of the virus have exacerbated the country’s worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Since economic woes in the autumn sparked mass protests against a political class deemed irretrievably corrupt, tens of thousands have lost their jobs or part of their income, and prices have skyrocketed.
Banks have prevented depositors from withdrawing their dollar savings, while the local currency has lost more than 80 percent of its value to the greenback on the black market.