Three North African Novels Dance Between Colonial & Postcolonial Worlds

25 April, 2021


The Slave Yards, a nov­el by Najwa Bin Shatwan
Trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Nan­cy Roberts
Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press (May 2020)
ISBN 9780815611257

Rana Asfour 

The Slave Yards   is an unforgettable story.

The Slave Yards is an unfor­get­table story.

This his­tor­i­cal nov­el is set in late 19th-cen­tu­ry Beng­hazi and probes the city’s entan­gle­ment with slav­ery dur­ing the Ottoman rule, just before its offi­cial abol­ish­ment by Ital­ian colo­nial­ists. Short­list­ed for the 2017 Inter­na­tion­al Prize for Ara­bic Fic­tion, The Slave Yards fol­lows the epic love sto­ry of two star-crossed lovers, Taw­i­da, a Black African slave, and her white Libyan mas­ter, Moham­mad, play­ing against a back­drop of a sav­agery and inhu­man­i­ty that came to mark a dark chap­ter of Libyan his­to­ry — one which remains sore­ly under-exam­ined to this day. 

The sto­ry is nar­rat­ed by Atiqa, Taw­ida’s daugh­ter who we meet as a grown woman. She is free and mar­ried with chil­dren to a man she loves, and works as a doc­tor’s assis­tant at a Beng­hazi clin­ic, where she receives an unex­pect­ed vis­it from Ali Bin Shat­wan, a cousin she’s nev­er met, who will final­ly lay to rest the ambi­gu­i­ty of her bira­cial ances­try. Through his sto­ry and hers, read­ers are trans­port­ed to Atiqa’s child­hood in the “slave yards,” a mis­er­able pen-like makeshift encamp­ment along Beng­haz­i’s coast, hous­ing the city’s cur­rent and for­mer slaves. There, Atiqa lives with her black aun­ty Sabriya and Mif­tah, a fair skinned, blued-eyed orphan. As the nov­el reach­es fur­ther into the past, the trag­ic details of the illic­it love affair between Atiqa’s par­ents are revealed, as well as Sabriya and Mif­tah’s true iden­ti­ties. In the process, read­ers are treat­ed to a vivid edu­ca­tion in the time’s social tra­di­tions, rit­u­als, super­sti­tions, and cul­ture includ­ing attire, foods and music. 

Novelist Najwa Bin Shatwan (Photo: Kheridine Mabrouk).
Nov­el­ist Najwa Bin Shat­wan (Pho­to: Kheri­dine Mabrouk).

The book is most mem­o­rable for its vis­cer­al descrip­tions of the Libyan car­a­vans trans­port­ing the African slaves to be auc­tioned at Beng­haz­i’s mar­ket, the insuf­fer­able con­di­tions of the slaves as “right­ful pos­ses­sions” with­in Islam­ic soci­ety as well as high­light­ing Libyan soci­ety’s gen­er­al dis­crim­i­na­tion, racism and injus­tice towards eman­ci­pat­ed slaves, towards women, and towards minori­ties. Through­out, it is Shat­wan’s incred­i­bly mea­sured prose, mir­rored by Nan­cy Robert­s’s accom­plished trans­la­tion that ren­ders this cap­tur­ing of a painful time and place both nuanced and compassionate.

In a 2017 video inter­view, Najwa Bin Shat­wan said she viewed The Slave Yards not as “the sto­ry of one par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter or a group of char­ac­ters. It is the sto­ry of an entire soci­ety, the sto­ry of all Libyans. I believe that here lies the true chron­i­cle of the Libyan char­ac­ter or iden­ti­ty when the city was divid­ed into two sep­a­rate com­mu­ni­ties: for whites and blacks; for over­lords and slaves…The world does not for­get its his­to­ry with racism or with slav­ery. Leg­is­la­tions can abol­ish, but nev­er com­plete­ly wipe away everything.”

Meryem Alaoui's debut novel is   Straight From the Horse's Mouth   .
Meryem Alaoui’s debut nov­el is Straight From the Horse’s Mouth.

Bin Shat­wan is a Libyan aca­d­e­m­ic and writer; in addi­tion to her three nov­els, includ­ing The Hors­es’ Hair and Orange Con­tent, she is the author of sev­er­al short sto­ry col­lec­tions and plays. She was cho­sen as one of the 39 best Arab authors under the age of forty by the Beirut39 project of the Hay Fes­ti­val. She com­plet­ed her PhD in human­i­ties at La Sapien­za Uni­ver­si­ty in Rome, where her doc­tor­al research focused on the slave trade in Libya and the reper­cus­sions on Libyan society. 

Straight from the Horse’s Mouth, a nov­el by Meryem Alaoui
Trans­lat­ed by Emma Ramadan
Oth­er Press (Sept 2020)
ISBN 9781892746795


By turns star­tling and bit­ing­ly fun­ny, Meryem Alaoui’s enter­tain­ing debut nov­el paints a col­or­ful por­trait of sex work­ers’ dai­ly exis­tence in mod­ern day Casablan­ca. 34-year-old Jmi­aa is sassy, curvy, quick-wit­ted, prag­mat­ic & bru­tal­ly hon­est. Pimped by a dead­beat hus­band who lat­er aban­dons her and their young daugh­ter to cross ille­gal­ly into Spain, she is left with no recourse but to con­tin­ue what he start­ed since like many women in her neigh­bor­hood, she needs to earn enough mon­ey to sup­port her­self and her fam­i­ly, includ­ing her con­ser­v­a­tive moth­er in the vil­lage who is led to believe that Jmi­aa works as a “respectable” clean­ing lady.

Jmi­aa’s rou­tine con­sists of ser­vic­ing clients, drink­ing, smok­ing and brawl­ing with (and in defense of) her girl­friends, while dish­ing out a 101 crash course in sex work eti­quette to the new­er girls. This is inter­rupt­ed when aspir­ing direc­tor, Chadlia, whom Jmi­aa labels “Horse Mouth” — on account of her toothy grin — lands in Casablan­ca from the Nether­lands with plans for a film project. By a twist of fate, Jmi­aa is offered the lead role — an oppor­tu­ni­ty that turns her life upside down, tak­ing her on a sur­pris­ing path.

Novelist Meryem Alaoui (Photo: Francesca Mantovani, Gallimard)
Nov­el­ist Meryem Alaoui (Pho­to: Francesca Man­to­vani, Gallimard).

A rags-to-rich­es diary-style com­e­dy that is pro­pelled for­ward first and fore­most by Jmi­aa’s comedic run of the mouth quips that range from describ­ing her­self as “a human sized cake filled with cream” to her first impres­sions of Amer­i­cans as “a bit stu­pid” to ratio­nal­iz­ing her debil­i­tat­ing drink prob­lem and pill pop­ping habits as harm­less recre­ations and men as what women, like her, have to get to live.

The oth­er thing going for this nov­el is its abun­dant cast of quirky mem­o­rable char­ac­ters that range from the scar-rid­dled yet com­pas­sion­ate pimp Houcine, to the Quran-tout­ing pros­ti­tute Hal­i­ma, Rabia of the good instincts, on and off boyfriend Chai­i­ba (of the ever-expand­ing girth), best friend Sami­ra in love with a cop who beats her, and Dan­ish direc­tor Chadlia, whom the Moroc­can street police treat with def­er­ence and respect in vast con­trast to their usu­al han­dling of the neigh­bor­hood dwellers.

Straight from the Horse’s Mouth offers a live­ly take on Casablan­ca as a heady mix of reli­gions, tra­di­tions, super­sti­tions and mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties. While the rags-to rich­es aspect has been done before ad nau­se­um, Alaoui’s use of the trope here comes as more of a sur­prise. And as her trans­la­tor, Emma Ramadan, point­ed out, the nov­el is “about Moroc­co, but not the cliched ver­sion of Moroc­co that can get neat­ly pack­aged to Amer­i­can read­ers.”  The attuned read­er will appre­ci­ate that Straight From the Horse’s Mouth reveals the fragili­ty and harsh­ness that imbues a seg­ment of Moroc­can soci­ety usu­al­ly ostra­cized and rarely talked about and hard­ly ever lis­tened to. By the way, although pros­ti­tu­tion in Moroc­co has been ille­gal since the 1970s, in 2015 the Moroc­can Health Min­istry esti­mat­ed there were 50,000 sex work­ers in the coun­try. UNAIDS esti­mat­ed the fig­ure at 75,000 in 2016.

Meryem Alaoui was born and raised in Moroc­co, where she man­aged an inde­pen­dent media group that com­bined pub­li­ca­tions in French (TelQuel) and Ara­bic (Nichane). Straight from the Horse’s Mouth, her debut nov­el, was first pub­lished in France, where it has achieved great crit­i­cal acclaim. After sev­er­al years in New York, Alaoui now lives in Morocco.


Abdellah Taïa's   A Country For Dying  .
Abdel­lah Taïa’s A Coun­try For Dying.

A Coun­try for Dying, a nov­el by Abdel­lah Taïa 
Trans­lat­ed by Emma Ramadan 
Sev­en Sto­ries Press (Sept 2020)
ISBN: 9781609809904 


Apt­ly described, I believe, by nov­el­ist Viet Thanh Nguyen (author of the best­selling lit thrillers The Sym­pa­thiz­er and The Com­mit­ted) as “a knife of a nov­el that expos­es how col­o­niza­tion has shaped sex­u­al desire, expres­sion and exploita­tion,” A Coun­try for Dying is set in Paris, in the sum­mer of 2010. Zahi­ra, a Moroc­can pros­ti­tute, is in love with a man who no longer loves her. Zahi­ra’s friend Zan­nou­ba — for­mer­ly Aziz — pre­pares for gen­der con­fir­ma­tion surgery and reflects on the recur­ring trau­ma of loss, includ­ing the loss of her pre-tran­si­tion male per­sona. Mojta­ba is a gay Iran­ian rev­o­lu­tion­ary who finds refuge with Zahi­ra. And Allal, Zahi­ra’s first love back in Moroc­co, trav­els to Paris to find her.

Paris-based Moroccan novelist Abdellah Taïa (Photo: Abderrahim Annag).
Paris-based Moroc­can nov­el­ist Abdel­lah Taïa (Pho­to: Abder­rahim Annag).

Through swirling, per­pen­dic­u­lar nar­ra­tives, the nov­el enlivens the inner lives of immi­grants as they con­tend with their real­i­ties in the city of dreams, in a schism of a post­colo­nial world where as Taïa writes, “So many peo­ple find them­selves in the same sit­u­a­tion. It is our des­tiny: to pay with our bod­ies for oth­er peo­ple’s future.”

Taïa writes in a mes­mer­iz­ing, lyri­cal prose cou­pled with the author’s empa­thet­ic han­dling of del­i­cate — even con­tro­ver­sial and taboo — themes. The nar­ra­tive con­sis­tent­ly is noth­ing short of “an incred­i­ble sweet­ness. A sea of ten­der­ness. Rivers of infi­nite love.”

Taïa’s own sto­ry is no less com­pelling. He was born in a pub­lic library in Rabat, Moroc­co in 1973, where his father was the jan­i­tor and where his fam­i­ly lived until he was two years old. He lat­er migrat­ed to France and found acclaim as both a nov­el­ist and film­mak­er, choos­ing to write in French rather than Ara­bic. His eight books have been wide­ly trans­lat­ed, includ­ing Le jour de roi, which was award­ed the pres­ti­gious French Prix de Flo­re in 2010. An adap­ta­tion of his nov­el L’Ar­mée du salut was his first fea­ture film, released in 2014, screened at major fes­ti­vals around the world, and hailed by the New York Times as giv­ing “the Arab world its first on-screen gay pro­tag­o­nist.” Abdel­lah Taïa made his­to­ry in 2006 by com­ing out in Moroc­co, where homo­sex­u­al­i­ty is still ille­gal. His com­mit­ment to the defense of homo­sex­u­als in Mus­lim coun­tries has made him one of the most promi­nent Arab writ­ers of his generation—both “a lit­er­ary trans­gres­sor and cul­tur­al paragon,” accord­ing to Inter­view mag­a­zine. Taia has lived in Paris since 1998.


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