Catalogue of a Private Life: Layered Libyan reflections about relationships with others

Catalogue of a Private Life: Layered Libyan reflections about relationships with others
Book Club: A collection of short stories by one of the Arab world's most accomplished writers, Najwa bin Shawtan's Catalogue of a Private Life takes on the Libyan psyche, veering between the serious and the surreal to entrance readers into her world.
6 min read
26 July, 2023
Najwa Bin Shatwan navigates the tensions between loyalty and betrayal, ambition and regret, and tenderness and cruelty to weave a portrait of family, war and nation against a stark backdrop of the completely absurd [Dedalus Books]

Catalogue of a Private Life is a collection of eight short stories by Libyan academic and novelist, Najwa bin Shawtan, translated by Sawad Hussain. The stories are set primarily in Libya and focus on a similar theme (examining the war and its effects on the average Libyan). However, some stories explore Libya’s relationships with certain countries and how that manifests in the lives of the characters.

The stories in this collection have some of the best opening paragraphs I have experienced in short stories. They pique your interest from the onset and already hold a promise of some strangeness, perhaps magical realism, that readers should expect.

A case in point is in the titular story, Catalogue of a Private Life, which opens with: “When the days were thirty hours long and weeks lasted five to thirteen days, the successors bought weapons of every kind and size to carry on with the war that had first ignited under their predecessors”

In this story, readers meet an unnamed bodyguard and experience his musings – about the legitimacy of the war, which his general is hellbent on continuing; about his innocence if he decides to kill the unsuspecting general to end the war; and whether “peace might yet prevail in spite of the bloodthirsty will of certain rulers”.

Catalogue of a Private Life is a layered introspection into war, and bin Shatwan delivers these varied thoughts through one character, from the very first paragraph.

In the opening story – A Burglar in White Socks – bin Shatwan taunts a common societal view that forbids girls from obtaining an education “because they will learn how to write and read love letters”.

In this story, a man, Baqallah, holds this view and has vowed to make sure his daughters not only remain uneducated but also never engage in “such wicked behaviours”. The irony of this story manifests when a burglar invades the house – while Baqallah is stuck on the road.

Other stories like Convention for the Protection of National Pestles, The Irresponsible Director, and When Can We Go Home? zero in on the effects of bad governance and the war on the lives of Libyans.

She uses her magical realism/futuristic/alternate-world writing style to achieve this, which I believe is an explorative way to criticise a government that might not take too well to criticism.

There are also intricately unique ways in which she condemns how classism largely determines the types of Libyans that manage to escape the worst of the war.

To highlight the performative style of charity that Libyans displaced by war also have to deal with, in When Can We Go Home? the main character mentions that she is “proud of how haughtily her son refused a charity’s request to photograph him next to the donations they’d brought for them”.

In The Irresponsible Director, a newborn baby tries to rally her siblings and mother to rise against their father’s bad governance, “Rise up against him now! What are you waiting for? Why are you taking orders from a man who made a decision standing on top of a roof without his glasses, when you’re closer to the ground and the sea?”

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Interestingly, in The Beetle is a Good Support, bin Shatwan alludes to the Libyan support for the Palestinian cause, and how it is ingrained in the consciousness of the average Libyan.

However, it is unclear whether she’s suggesting that this support for Palestine is just performative and cannot achieve much in toppling Israeli oppression – so perhaps, it should not be encouraged when Libyans have not fixed their bad governance – or she’s alluding to her opposition of the cause itself.

I also love how she blends the teachings of the Quran and Hadith into her stories. Bin Shatwan does this so effortlessly that unless the reader is previously familiar with the instructions, they would have missed it.

For instance, in the titular story, the bodyguard tells his general ‘Yarhamukum Allah” whenever he sneezes but then also noted later on in the story that the general never responds to his “wish for God’s mercy to be upon him — either because he didn’t want to stoop to a guardsman’s level… or because he hadn’t heard of Abu Huraira, the narrator of the sneeze hadith”. The act of saying ‘Yarhamukum Allah’ whenever another Muslim sneezes is encouraged in Islam, thanks to a narration of the Prophet (Peace and blessings upon him) as reported by Abu Huraira.

Another brilliant (less obvious example) is in the story Return Ticket where the main character talks about freedom of movement in her home village because “it doesn’t matter if you’re Arab or foreign; there is no difference between us, except in good deeds and acts of piety” – some of the words from the Prophet Muhammad's famous last speech.

This style of blending Islamic teachings into stories brings to mind some points that Emad Mirmotahari made in the book Islam in the Eastern African Novel about critically reading East African books (particularly Abdulrazak Gurnah’s works) with the correct Islamic context – although since bin Shatwan’s collection is set in a country that is traditionally Islamic (Libya), it might not face the same threat of ‘missing context’ as Gurnah’s works, often primarily set in Tanzania.

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Unsurprisingly, her stories also criticise the subjugation and policing of women’s rights under the guise of Islam which is prevalent in her society. A good example is the aforementioned view in A Burglar in White Socks.

Another is Return Ticket, which is perhaps the most evident way she does this because she brings into play how women face even more policing from societies that are supposedly liberal and respectful of freedom. 

In this story, a dead grandmother writes to her only grandson. In her letter, she details her experiences as she journeys to visit her husband abroad while pregnant. There are so many ways she explores the policing of women’s bodies in this short story that I cannot fully articulate in this review.

Overall, I enjoyed the wittiness and strangeness of these stories. I appreciate the themes explored and resonate with many of the characters. But I also acknowledge that Catalogue of a Private Life might not be every reader’s cup of tea.

Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London.

Follow her on Twitter: @allthingsaeesha

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