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Najwa Bin Shatwan: كتالوج حياة خاصة (Catalogue of a Private Life)

This is not a novel but a collection of short stories. They are here because they are linked and because there is very little Libyan literature available in translation. There are eight stories, all fairly short, and, in general, they are about grim living in contemporary Libya.

The first one is called The Burglar in White Socks. Apparently wearing white socks means that you are relatively posh. The house belongs to Baqrallah, a most unpleasant man. he regularly beats up his wife and only defers to his mother, who lives with them. They have several children but nearly all girls. They have had no education because, of course, if girls learned to read and write they would spend their time writing love letters. Indeed, they have barely left the house. Baqrallah is, by profession, a taxi driver, a difficult profession because of the state of the roads in Libya.

One day, while he is out, a burglar falls through the skylight. He claims he was going next door and it was mistake. Nevertheless, under grandma’s orders, the girls capture him and tie him up. However, Baqrallah seems to have disappeared (we learn why), the police do not want to know and grandma is worried that the girls are getting more interested than they should in the only male not related to them they have even seen close up. Grandma decides that she and Hamala, a handicapped girl,born with half a mind and hunchbacked will take charge. What could go wrong?

The second story is called A Catalogue of Private Life. It is a strange story, clearly a satire on the current situation in Libya, about a general who has acquired a mass of sophisticated weapons but does not have an army. He is planning his strategy with maps,watched over by his bodyguard who wonders whether he should assassinate the general, thereby ending the war, sell him out or carry on as before. But what about the enemy. Aren’t they in a similar situation?

But it starts getting bloodier and more surrealistic with Convention for the Protection of National Pestles where the National Dialogue Committee is going back and forth between two warring parties, wittily called the Elephant Owners and the Ababil Birds, clearly satire on the warring parties in Libya. In this case the innocent man in the middle is, as civilians often are, the victim, while the women have to queue up for fuel, in a queue that stretches to Tunis.

The stories continue in this vein with a cow that becomes a giant missile; a firefighter who has little work because there were no fires to speak of, they’d been replaced by general destruction; a family that cannot seem to set out on a picnic, a primary school now a shelter for refugees; and a race between old Volkswagen Beetles to help Palestine. However despite their best efforts it had no effect on Israel though the town gets an upgrade. Then there is the village of Shrundigar which could move through time and space, changing its orbit spontaneously and, with more sexism, the woman who should be forbidden from entering all seven levels of heaven because she was not wearing a hijab.

The stories are funny, satirical, absurd, serious and surrealistic, but they make they make their point both about the repression in a strict Muslim society but, more particularly, about the horrors of the political situation in Libya where civilians are the main victim. The book is short so it won’t take you long to read and it will be well worth it.

Publishing history

First published in 2018 by Dar Atha
First English translation in 2021 by Dedalus Books
Translated by Sawad Hussain