Slavery and Its Legacies in the Modern Arabic Novel
Panel III-15, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am
This panel offers fresh and engaging critical perspectives on how slavery and its legacies inform perceptions of the nation and identity in various parts of the Arab region. The presenters explore how Arab writers adopt a variety of narrative approaches and rhetorical strategies to address the legacy of slavery and its socio-cultural constructions within modern Arab cultures and societies. The first presentation looks at how Radwa Ashour’s novel Siraaj (2007) and Khrais’s novel Fustuq `abīd (2017) employ polyphonic narratives to explore slavery in relation to female voices and experiences and incorporate traditional Arab and African storytelling conventions in relation to desire and memory in contexts where slavery and political oppression inhibit individual growth, disrupt families, and disconnect individuals across space and time. The second presentation examines how "new novels" by Gulf women writers confront the silence on the history and legacy of slavery in the four novels, Sayyidat al Qamar by the Omani novelist Jokha Alharthi; Al ashya' layssat fi amakiniha by the Omani Huda Hamed, Jahiliyya by the Saudi novelist Leila al Juhani, and Jawari by the Bahraini author Mounira Swar. The presentation focuses on erased stories of marginalized people in relation to the rapid transition from the slavery/colonialist period to the post-slavery/oil period. The third presentation examines the legacy of slavery stories in Libya in Najwa Bin Shitwan’s Zarayeb al-‘Abid (2016; The Slave Yards, 2020). The analysis traces the complex interconnected histories of three generations of slave descendants around Benghazi, both those living in their masters’ households and those outside the city in slave ghettos, and looks at how the testimonies of individual slave protagonists shed light on blackness as a social construct and how the story of the young slave female protagonist functions allegorically as an attempt to reclaim the history of slavery and insert slavery in a revisionist reading of the official historical record of Libya’s cultural memory. The last presentation further develops the question of slavery in relation to Arabic historical memory by examining how a historical fictionalization of slavery in Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account speculates both the past and future of its Muslim characters and offers alternatives to western colonial narratives to create space to explore Muslim futurities, build worlds where racialized and gendered people are dynamic forces in their own stories, and reimagine North African slavery in relation to contemporary anti-Muslim and anti-black racism.
Egyptian author Radwa Ashour and Jordanian novelist Samiha Khrais both employ polyphonic narratives to explore sensitive topics regarding the history of slavery in the Arab world. Ashour’s novel Siraaj (2007) and Khrais’s novel Fustuq `abīd (2017) both forefront female voices and experience as they deal with the Arab and European practice of slavery and British colonial intervention in the Middle East and North Africa. Both novels begin in the late 19th century and deal with indigenous rebellions. Siraaj explores a slave revolt against the British supported Sultan of the imaginary Arab Sultanate of Ghurrat Bahr al-`Arab off the coast of Yemen. Fustuq `abīd explores the Mahdist Rebellion against the British in the Sudan and the Portuguese slave trade. At the same time, Ashour and Khrais have different aims in deploying this technique. Ashour generates a plurality of independent voices to explore slavery as a metaphor for tyrannical rule. She draws parallels between the emotional impact of repressive rule on both the nominally free-born Arab subjects and the African slave population of Ghurrat Bahr al-`Arab. Khrais on the other hand uses the polyphonic narrative to explore the experience of gender, race and color as they inform identity. She also uses the diversity of consciousnesses to explore the impact on individuals of physical abuse, rape and other humiliations of enslavement, and to probe into the psyches of those who perpetrate this violence. Finally, the paper explores the way in which both novels reference and incorporate traditional Arab and African storytelling conventions to get at questions of desire and memory in contexts where slavery and political oppression inhibit individual growth, disrupt families and disconnect individuals across space and time.
While modern history of Libya is often associated with its emergence as a modern rich oil-producing state and, recently, as the Arab state most intensely transformed by the Arab spring, its pre-modern history is more conflicted and heterogeneous. Slavery is a major constituent part of that pre-modern Libyan history. Slave ownership was practiced there even before the rise of Islam, and black slaves exported from Africa were widely traded throughout North Africa, across the Mediterranean and the Islamic world.
Najwa Bin Shitwan’s Zarayeb al-‘Abid (2016; The Slave Yards, 2020) harks back to the premodern society in Libya, focusing on a period straddling the end of Ottoman rule and leading up to the imposition of Italian colonial rule on Libya in 1911. The novel not only traces the complex interconnected histories of three generations of slave descendants around Benghazi, both those living in their masters’ households and those outside the city in slave ghettos, but also incorporates testimonies of individual slave protagonists as they recount their trials and privations in their struggle to gain dignity and break free from the yoke of subjection and dispossession. In my paper, I explore blackness as a social construct that is connected to not only race but also to the social dynamic that produces it in relation to desire and power. In communities where polygamy is practiced and tolerated, female slaves are often treated as concubines who are expected to submit to the will of the master and satisfy his desires while still conceding subjugation to the enslaving power of inherited and socially imposed blackness/slavery. The readers, however, are made aware of the parallel historical developments that are taking place, such as the Ottoman edict for military conscription, the outbreak of the plague of 1874 and the Italian colonial rule. This parallel narrative is an effective literary device that suggests a need to integrate slave micro histories in the official historical record for a more inclusive and assimilated society. I argue that the efforts of the master patriarchs in the enslaving household to disown Atiqa, Muhammad’s biracial daughter, functions allegorically to represent the erasure of the history of slavery from the official historical record of Libya. When Ali, Atiqa’s white cousin, visits her with the official document of her birthright, he is gesturing to the need to rewrite slavery and its atrocities within a revisionist account of the history of the nation in modern Libya.
I propose to examine how a historical fictionalization of slavery, Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account, can potentially be a source of a radical reimagining of colonialism, race, and gender. Written in English, the novel presents itself as a fictionalized Spanish-language memoir of sixteenth-century Arabic-speaking Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, an enslaved Black Moroccan Muslim man about whom almost nothing is known beyond scattered mentions of his presence in an expedition part of the Spanish invasion of the “Land of the Indians” (2014, 5). The Moor’s Account speculates both the past and future of its Muslim characters and prompts us to consider what a story, written in the present but based in historical realities between the Arab world, the African content, and North America, can tell us about the future. It does this by retelling stories of the Spanish invasion and colonization, forced conversions to Christianity, genocide of Indigenous Peoples, and the kidnapping and enslavement of African Peoples. I suggest that this narrative told by a Muslim protagonist offers a vision of differences between real and speculative histories and argue that such alternative narratives allow us to evaluate how anti-Muslim racism works within North American conceptualizations of race and racism and how it produces a nuanced understanding of Blackness, gender, and colonialism as crucial aspects of Islamophobia. I propose that the novel inverts hegemonic narratives of transatlantic slavery whereby the enslaved rather than the enslaver and colonizer is the authoritative figure about the invasion of the “New World.” It is the inversion of, speculations on, and alternatives to western colonial narratives of such phenomena that create space to explore Muslim futurities. Such narrations build worlds where racialized and gendered people are dynamic forces in their own stories, reimagining resistance to anti-Muslim racism, challenging and changing narratives of Muslim being.
Lalami, Laila. The Moor's Account: A Novel. Vintage Books, 2014.