To counter the rise of racism and xenophobia, I began thinking about a project that could be an antidote to the toxic culture of hate prevailing all over the world. A fellowship in the west for Arab authors seemed a fitting way of challenging preconceptions and creating dialogue between civilisations.
During my travels over the past two years, I spoke to academics, writers, intellectuals, journalist both Arab and non-Arab about my dream.
In 2013 I had an author’s round table and a book signing at the Fourth Annual Translation Conference, held at the Hamad bin Khalifa University, and co-sponsored by the Qatar Foundation. Iraqi author and journalist Samuel Shimon, the London-based editor and co-founder of Banipal, a renowned international magazine of contemporary Arab literature published in English, gave a keynote speech in which he said that in his experience of publishing from Arabic into English, Western publishers needed to move beyond narrow stereotypes of Arabic novels and writers. Listening to him, the idea of cooperation with Banipal began germinating.
I went back to Durham and had a meeting with Dr Susan Frenk, the principal of St Aidan’s College, Durham University, where I hold a Creative Writing Fellowship, and this distinguished scholar and amazing woman welcomed the idea.
On 27 April 2016, at the Abu Dhabi International Bookfair, I had a meeting with Margaret Obank, trustee of Banipal Publishing, and discussed the idea with her. The outcome was positive, and we agreed to hold a meeting in Durham to discuss it further.
On 26 September Dr Sudan Frenk, Margaret Obank, Samuel Shimon, and I met, and we agreed to set up the Banipal Visiting Writer Fellowship (BVWF) for published authors writing in Arabic. History was made for the fellowship is the first of its kind. I have nothing but praise and gratitude for the Banipal team, and the staff of St Aidan’s College.
Margaret kindly offered to conduct negotiations with the British Council. After a number of conversations and a meeting they agreed to support us.
We publicised the fellowship in November 2016, and we received 198 applications. Some of the best Arab writers have applied. We chose the Iraqi author Ali Bader as the first Fellow.
In 2017 we received over 90 applications and selected the Libyan Woman writer Najwa Binshatwan.
Najwa Binshatwan is a Libyan academic, novelist, and playwright. She was an assistant lecturer at the University of Benghazi and was awarded a PhD in human science from La Sapienz University in Rome. She is the author of three collections of short stories and three novels, including The Slave Pens, which was shortlisted for IPAF 2017 (aka Arabic Booker). In 2003 she received the Arab Creativity Prize at the Sharjah Festival, and her novel The Horses’ Hair won the inaugural Sudanese al-Begrawiya Festival prize, when Sudan was Capital of Arab Culture in 2005. She was chosen as one of the 39 best Arab authors under the age of 40 by the Beirut39 project and her story The Pool and the Piano was included in the Beirut39 anthology, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2010. Her work is also featured in Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations, which was published recently by Commapress, and showcases new works by previously unplatformed writers.
Nahla al-Ageli interviewed Binshatwan for Shubak Festival. She wrote, “An ugly shadow side of Libya’s history is that it was a slave market route for centuries under Ottoman rule, way before the Italian occupation and prior to Libya’s declared independence in 1951. Growing up in Libya, children might still hear stories from elders about the black maids who used to work in their household or about distant cousins in Africa who carry their same recognisable surnames.
There would be no elaboration on the reality of the trade that used to buy, sell, and barter human beings and rarely admission of how the ancestors may have been involved in the mistreatment of those held captive. Few Libyans have the courage to revisit that period with its many ghosts or to bring up the racism issues that persist in the culture.
Not up until now that the talented author Najwa Benshatwan has taken the task to heart by writing a novel so powerful, beautiful, and so sensitively fashioned in the narrative voice of the slaves. She has creatively wrapped it up into a love story that touches upon the era and the taboo subjects that have never been exposed before.”
One of the themes of the novel, and it has many, is visibility and its perils. In a vivid scene, the young slave endangering herself to have a glimpse of her face. Looking at her reflection in a shard of a broken mirror she becomes visible. That act was penalised not by the racist, misogynist society but by her mother because appearing in the picture, becoming visible even if just to yourself was subversive and might endanger your life.
Slave Pens can sit comfortably alongside great literature about slavery from Haley’s Roots all the way to Toni Morrison’s writings. For many reasons, the novel is a milestone, but the main one is that a woman writer dared to investigate, describe, and expose two slaveries: that of slaves and that of women.