The Slave Yards by Najwa Bin Shatwan

The Slave Yards by Najwa Bin Shatwan
5 min read
14 October, 2020
Book Club: Najwa Bin Shatwan's unforgettable novel explores questions of race, class, and freedom in nineteenth century Libya.
The Slave Yards offers a window into a dark chapter of Libyan history. [Syracuse]

Najwa Bin Shatwan's novel The Slave Yards delves into a legacy of trauma to uncover a family history wrought by abuse, racism, power and tradition in late 19th century Benghazi.

Atiqa, who is introduced to the reader at the beginning of the novel, lives a quiet life married to a pharmacist. But her past beckons to her during a visit from Ali Bin Shatwan, a cousin, who explains that he can provide answers about her childhood.

Atiqa's reticence does not last long. From that point onwards the book plunges into historical and family narratives, painting a vivid image of Libya under Ottoman rule in the 19th century, with the lives of a Black slave girl and her Libyan master intertwining against a backdrop teeming with violence.

The narrative commences with the 'slave yards', where Atiqa grows up under the care of Aunt Sabriya, whose real identity is revealed only later in the novel. Atiqa is not yet aware of her mixed-race heritage; this is revealed when at puberty she is taken for the traditional "locking ceremony" - a ritual in which a girl's chastity is ostensibly protected until marriage. 

The author paints a vivid picture of a community ostracised from the rest of society in Libya, and one that is imbued with its own social structures and hardships. Gossip is also central to this community – a trait which stands in contrast to Atiqa's hidden past.

Najwa Bin Shatwan's novel delves into a legacy of trauma to uncover a family history wrought by abuse, racism, power and tradition

Upon revealing that Atiqa's father is a white Libyan man, the story shifts to Atiqa's mother, Tawida, whose one particular interaction with her master, Muhammad Bin Shatwan, ignites a love affair that is not only frowned upon but also instigates intense loathing towards Tawida.

The love affair is shackled by various societal dictates. Muhammad is married and the affair, which is soon discovered, becomes an obsession for his parents, who are intent on bringing about a permanent separation between the pair. 

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However, the power imbalance between a master and his slave, while not expounded upon by the author, is also keenly felt throughout the novel. There is an element of possession which does not escape the reader.

It is also this power imbalance and the curiosity of experiencing physical closeness with a Black woman which first intrigues Muhammad to an affair with Tawida – a new experience, rather than love.  

In terms of offering protection, Muhammad's long absences from home on account of his work and travel render Tawida vulnerable to the scheming of his family.

For her part, Tawida at first believes that their relationship can transcend the boundaries placed upon their relationship by society, as well as overcome the ramifications of Muhammad's obligations towards his family. In his absence, however, Tawida finds herself subjected to increasing violence and a plot to eliminate her presence in the household. 

Muhammad's family conspire to traffic Tawida, where she finds herself imprisoned in a brothel. Upon returning, Muhammad relentlessly searches for her, but the separation, as well as the different experiences both parties are subjected to by his family, ultimately drive a permanent wedge.

The author paints a vivid picture of a community ostracised from the rest of Libyan society

From a slave girl experiencing what she believed was a taste of freedom, Tawida ultimately finds shelter in the slave yards, where a well-meaning long-time friend advises her to shut out her emotions for Muhammad. 

The disparities in race and social standing, she is told, cannot be overcome. It is in this ambience that Atiqa is born, and the slave camps are the environment in which living on the fringes of society cultivates a protection of its own that reflects the trauma inherent in survival.

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Atiqa's freedom is juxtaposed against a history of enslavement. Yet even here, it is the decision of a male family member whom she has never met that provides her with the links to her past, as is her right. On one hand, Ali is receptive towards Atiqa and conscious of the need for a person to learn about their origins.

In this way, Ali broke away from the family's violent history. However, Atiqa's knowledge regarding her past rested upon his conscience, rather than her rights, thus emphasising the traumatic legacy of slavery until the very end of the story. 

The novel is powerful in terms of language and imagery. Shatwan touches upon a sensitive topic that is rooted in violence, and the language brings out this contradiction. It is ultimately the violence that asserts its presence, while sensitivity needs to be excavated by the reader. However, the author's portrayal of the main characters and their tribulations makes it impossible for the reader not to discern the ramifications of being an outcast. 

In Muhammad's case, his status in society ultimately provided no protection for what he wanted and who he desired. Tawida, on the other hand, lacks the status in society which would have afforded her a better life. Navigating emotions is already a complex process; living these out in a society ridden with prejudice, as the novel clearly illustrates, leaves a trajectory of residual pain for descendants to uncover. 

Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger specialising in the struggle for memory in Chile and Palestine, colonial violence and the manipulation of international law.

Follow her on Twitter: @walzerscent

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