Najwa Bin Shatwan on her geographic and writerly journey. Translated by Sawad Hussain.
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In St Aidan’s College, Durham, is where I am these days – the ideal environment for me as a writer. So that you’ll understand what I mean by this, practically, and how certain places and their people have been turning points in my life, let me start with the very first place in which I ever wrote.
My birthplace is called Ajdabiya. A barren spot in the desert in Libya that took its name from Al-Jadab, it is a small, haphazard town that came into existence by accident: a rest stop for caravans in the distant past, then a junction for lorries. Perhaps it’s been nominated as the dust capital of the world (no other place could compete), and it wouldn’t be so bad if that were the case.
I can’t help but believe that Gabriel García Márquez travelled through space and time and selected some of Ajdabiya’s peculiarities to describe the imaginary town of Macondo – but what’s imaginary in one place is reality in another, after all. In addition to the dry, hot weather for which it’s known, Ajdabiya is culturally barren. No entertainment venues, no libraries, no theatres, no cinemas. There’s a market, a school for boys and another for girls, a clinic, a police station, and a large cemetery more than big enough for all its inhabitants. There is also a small post office whose mission, when I was in Ajdabiya, was to inspect all the residents’ post; all letters would be sent open and arrive open, otherwise they never stood a chance of being delivered. Soon enough, the state established a small intelligence centre in every village and town, for the regime watchdogs, the Revolutionary Committees Movement. Ours was in the town’s newest building. Now that was some fodder for our stories.
In the universe of Ajdabiya, I heard tales of djinns and ogres, superstitions passed down, and people’s gossip about each other. Gossip and lies require more effort than just speaking the truth. The natural storytellers that they are, the denizens always found themselves exerting the greatest of efforts when speaking.
I learned the alphabet in an old home repurposed as a mixed primary school, and my journey with words began in prep school. At home, I would write crouched in the narrow space between the wall and the back of the door to the guest room for women, the only place I could find for myself in our large house full of my siblings and with guests always passing through. Since we didn’t have any books, I listened to the radio: the Arab stations were varied in their cultural programming, unlike the Libyan ones that broadcast a relentless ideological assault.
We did have one book, actually: the Quran. My mother was illiterate, and my father was pulled out of a shanty school by my grandfather when he was in Year Four, so that he could start working. The first books other than the Quran to enter our home were my older brothers’ textbooks. I resorted to borrowing literature from the neighbour’s son or from school friends, and would read whatever I could get my hands on.
Seemingly content with my literariness, in prep school, I helped a friend write an effusive love letter to the object of her affection. Though it was meant to be strictly confidential, soon enough the whole school knew about it, and by halfway through that year I was composing letters for nearly all the girls. Among the responses from the boys’ school was a message from my teenage brother, who had received a letter in my handwriting. We were in Ajdabiya, after all – a closeted world that we stretched wide with our imaginations.
In that desert wilderness, writing about love was easier than writing about nature. Our teachers would insist that we write about spring, when I didn’t have an inkling about what that was, or what it looked like. It was difficult for me to fathom birds and flowers whose names I didn’t even know.
The rainy season in Ajdabiya posed a real predicament. Our houses would drown and the roads would be swallowed up, making it difficult to get to school. Coughs could be heard from every direction. I’d end up staying in bed for long periods with my breathing problems.
For the longest time, my writing was free of succulent vocabulary. Maybe we didn’t have any sparrows because we didn’t have any trees. The only birds I knew of were the starlings and pigeons that sat on the electricity lines, and the lone penguin in my schoolbook. You could find rainfed plants that our sheep and camels nibbled on, and sunflowers, too – maybe because of all that sun we had. So much so, I was taken aback, later in life, to find out that Van Gogh was Dutch and not from Ajdabiya!
The government tried to help us imagine verdant surroundings when it started an afforestation campaign in the desert, using us students to carry it out. Most days, we’d be out planting seedlings more than studying, all so that we’d have a forest to call our own.
The post office was a suitable place for some characters to appear and humdrum events to take place, but the forest was the perfect setting for crimes, forbidden intercourse, battling djinns, conversing with those back from the dead. But soon enough the sheep ate all the trees that we had planted, and the fabric of our stories was ripped to shreds. The wood gatherers collected what scraps were left of the trees.
And that’s how the land became bare once more, and how stories of that kind stopped coming to light.
But an even more compelling story took place in 1991 when, at 23, I got married and became mother to a son. The marriage lasted less than a year, but it was enough to stamp out my imagination and wipe away any sort of writing from my life, my head plucked clean off, another screwed on in its place.
I returned to my family home, useless, in a society in which women are valued only as victims or servants. For six years I didn’t leave the house. I served my brothers and family guests. I wrote and dreamed of going back to my studies, but was knocked down by reality again and again.
In 1998, I finally left Ajdabiya with two certificates: my secondary school diploma and a piece of paper confirming that I was divorced. I moved to Benghazi to live in our new family home so that I could continue my university studies after their prolonged interruption. An overwhelming sadness overcame me at leaving the door where I’d grown so familiar with writing. How would I be able to write anywhere else? My greatest sadness though was leaving my son behind. Till today, its reverberations are still felt.
It was difficult for me to adjust to a new home in a city that was bigger and more liberal. For a long period, I couldn’t write, because there was a lack of intimacy between me and the new house. Then, one day, I went up to the storeroom and laid a mattress on the floor, claimed it as my haven, and told myself just to try. I needed solitude and quietness, which weren’t forthcoming with my thirteen family members and their guests. No one joined me in the storeroom, unless they came to look for something; I was surrounded by pillows, extra blankets, plates, some shoes, spare parts, and other bits and bobs. The only thing it was missing revealed itself when I fell asleep and found a mouse roaming freely next to my pillow.
In that storeroom, on the second floor, where a lousy wire dangled from the ceiling with a lightbulb at the end of it, I wrote my first play, which won the Sharjah Festival Award for Arab Creativity in 2002. Then I wrote my first novel, which won a prize in Khartoum when it was the capital for Arab Culture in 2005. All in all, it gave life to five books.
In that storeroom, I studied Special Education for four years, and taught myself to write with my left hand. After I refused the persistent advances of one of my professors, he failed me for that term. Unable to tell anyone what was happening, I was left to fend for myself. I laboured to write with my left hand, so that in our final exam he wouldn’t be able to identify my paper. Triumphantly successful in my examinations, I was chosen as a university teaching assistant and on the way to get my master’s. Then, when pieces of the roof fell in on me, I was forced to think about leaving.
In Libya, the internet was new, and to connect with the world I used to go to an internet café. Only men would sit in such places, and I’d get strange looks – a lone woman is always seen to be suspicious. Sometimes, my younger brother would accompany me as a form of protection. I would rent him a device to keep him entertained while I sent emails and downloaded the material I wanted to read later onto a USB stick.
The advent of the internet was like the opening of a small window in a large prison. Light and air came through, even if ended up being censored.
I left that storeroom afraid that the ceiling would cave in. After my father’s death, the house immediately became my brother’s property and I finally mustered the courage to gain complete independence from my family. It was the greatest revolutionary decision that I had made, in an ultra-patriarchal family and society in which a woman couldn’t live on her own.
I used to find it difficult to be around others. I’d have feelings of being out of place, and my sadness would balloon. I could never stop it. Writing was my substitute for the world; where I found myself. Even today I can’t really describe this world of mine, and put off talking about it at all.
I rented a place high above the rooftops and stayed there for six months, sleeping on the floor. I remember how I’d place the computer before me, unable to knit together even one idea. My head was out of sorts, my soul a shattered mirror with its shards still stuck together. I felt that the place was driving me out, even though it was peaceful and isolated and I didn’t hear a sound other than the nearby mosque droning on about heaven and hell and a woman’s lack of competence to do anything other than homemaking and childcare. I felt as if the elder of the mosque, or a member of the family I had left behind, were living with me. I hated the place, and the sermon that came along with it. So I bought a small studio in the heart of Benghazi and moved there.
In my new building, the neighbours found it odd that I asked them not to disturb me. Everyone was wild; it seemed that no one had ever asked them to keep it down before. Children played football and tag in the hallways and in the old lift. The neighbours told me that they’d been patient enough with a solitary woman like me – couldn’t I do the same for their children? Couldn’t I see that playing inside was much safer than being out on the streets? I couldn’t stand having dozens of children running about in and out of the lift. It was hardly like Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. I was working as a university professor then, and at the same time writing short stories. Every day I felt uncared for, no better than the old lift . But when I sat down in front of my computer, I was my truest self.
And then I spent a night alone in the lift, when the children and their families fled, leaving the football and the building, and leaving me with the quietness I had craved for so long. Gaddafi had stormed Benghazi to quell the revolution that had erupted in the city. The closer he got, the more indiscriminate the shelling was, and the more inflamed his rhetoric grew. The metal lift was the most solid space, I had decided, if the building were to collapse. So I stayed in it, listening to my breath and the rattle of gunfire near and far.
I left that circus for Italy in 2012 to study for my doctorate. I lived out of a suitcase, moving from city to city, house to house. In Perugia, I found a sense of relative quiet but without much productivity. It was a depressing, gloomy city where I cried for so long, falling into depression. My psoriasis flared up.
With the start of the second war in Benghazi in 2014, my desire for everything was snuffed out. I stumbled through my thesis, my heart dropping dozens of times a day. I’d pick it up, then it would drop again, and I’d put it back. Then, when it dropped again, I’d just go on living without it.
One day in 2015 I wiped my tears, packed my suitcase, and made up my mind to go somewhere that wouldn’t kill me slowly, Rome, with my heart in my hand.
In Rome, I confronted my depression, as if pushing a boulder out of my way whilst on a slope. I prayed at home, went to churches to renew my spiritual life, and took up horse riding, all a part of my plan to kill the dark dog within and to stop the psoriasis taking hold of my body.
I stayed in a flatshare with two Italian girls. One of them gave me earplugs on my first day there, as one of the walls in my room was shared with the neighbours, whose children were obsessed with TV and PlayStation, and whose dog, stuck inside, howled nonstop. That’s how my relationship with earplugs began. Today, I always carry them with me, anxious that I won’t be able to sleep without them.
After six months of action films and PlayStation and the cooped-up dog’s howling, I had written part of my thesis. But my literary imprisonment continued. I decided to leave and move to a place of my own in an attic, where my only neighbour was the sky. I found one at a decent price and thought it was suitable; it was clean, organised, and on the bathroom door was a large poster of Charlie Chaplin.
After two months in the attic with Charlie Chaplin, the landlady asked me to write her thesis for her. She’d pay me, of course. I refused, and she asked me to leave, saying that her son needed the room. I stopped living with Chaplin in an ideal place for writing because I wasn’t going to sell myself for it.
In March 2015 I opened the file for my novel The Slave Yards, which, two years later, would be shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. The file had been sitting idle for years on a USB stick. With it, I left Rome for Palermo, searching for a job and a new place. There, waiting for me, was the worst shared accommodation I’ve had in my entire life – a cell-like room in a flat with vicious, despicable women. When I was signing the contract, the owner claimed she was of a family that had brought forth monks in Sicily, and that her roommates were just as peaceful. Today I value such an experience, even if only for its training me how to live with mad cows. I endured the stress by writing, and insisting that I had to finish my novel.
I was alone and isolated. Provoked repeatedly, I was on the verge of leaving, but I didn’t, for the sake of the book. On a marble table on the balcony is where I would write during the roasting summer. Because of where I sat, one side of my body grew darker than the other. The hustle and bustle of the street was below me: sellers, children, everything, coating me like dust. Next to me was the garbage, deliberately put there, teaching me that the most difficult test a person can experience is the enduring of insult and managing of one’s anger.
In a bathroom that belonged to the beginning of time, I came across something that could pass as a toilet. I made edits to my novel there. The internet – a year’s access to which I’d managed to get for a euro by buying a coffee from the café at the bottom of our building and getting their password – only reached the bathroom, and from there I carried out all my correspondence with my publisher, edited the text with my friend in the Netherlands, and filled in the International Prize for Arabic Fiction application.
I’d write from 8am to 2pm. In the evenings, I’d go out for a walk in the nearby park, then come back to my room and shut the door and put in my ear plugs till the next day.
I then returned to Rome to finish the last parts of my thesis and prepare for my viva. For nine months I stayed with an Italian woman, Ms Joya, in her flat. During that time, The Slave Yards made it onto the IPAF longlist and then the shortlist, and I passed my final doctoral exam. I was overjoyed with this achievement of mine.
It was so cold that I had to sleep with my coat on; the old lady was kind, but frugal with the heating – so much so that I had to look for another place to spend the winter. Somewhere I could write, someplace warm, even if it wasn’t quiet. And that’s exactly what I got. When leaving Ms Joya’s apartment for another room, I took some inspiration from her for a new novel.
Where I live now, in a room in Rome, I have heating, ear plugs, a bed from which I write, and a big window from which I see the day being born.
Two days before coming to Durham, I woke up several times in the night and the woman within me wondered, ‘What will Durham be like for you as a writer?’ I fell quiet. I hadn’t given her an answer, not in Rome, nor Amsterdam, nor Newcastle or even Durham. When I finally arrived and found the place to be ideal, she told me, ‘It’s heaven, I tell you, heaven!’ And she swooned over it all for an entire day.
Najwa Bin Shatwan is a Libyan academic and novelist, the first Libyan to ever be shortlisted for the International Prize of Arabic Fiction (in 2017). She has written three novels: Waber Al Ahssina (The Horses’ Hair), Madmum Burtuqali (Orange Content), and Zareeb Al-Abeed (The Slave Yards), in addition to several collections of short stories and plays. She was chosen as one of the thirty-nine best Arab authors under the age of forty by Hay Festival’s Beirut 39 project (2009). In 2018, she was chosen from hundreds of Arab writers for the 2018 Banipal Writing Fellowship Residency at the University of Durham and in 2020, she was chosen to co-lead a series of creative writing workshops in Sharjah (World Book Capital 2019) for Arab writers.
Sawad Hussain is a translator from the Arabic whose work has been recognized by English PEN, the Anglo-Omani Society and the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, among others. She is a judge for the Palestine Book Awards. Her recent translations include Passage to the Plaza by Sahar Khalifeh and A Bed for the King’s Daughter by Shahla Ujayli. She has run workshops introducing translation to students and adults under the auspices of Shadow Heroes, Africa Writes and Shubbak Festival. She is the 2022 translator in residence at the British Centre for Literary Translation. She tweets at @sawadhussain.
Reviewed by Masoud Saleh Masoud.
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