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Najwa Binshatwan, the 2018 Banipal Visiting Writer Fellow, spent a successful three months' at St Aidan's College, University of Durham. At the Farewell Lunch and Talk last month, she told us how inspired she had been during her stay, finding St Aidan's College, quiet and peaceful and friendly.
Najwa Binshatwan has five collections of short stories, the most recent one published last month while she was in Durham. Her sixth collection of short stories was completed at St Aidan’s during her Fellowship, and has been accepted for publication by a major publisher in Beirut, Lebanon. Below is one of her short stories written while at St Aidan's, and inspired by a cemetery near the college.
On 9 May she will be in Bahrain to give a lecture at the Sheikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Centre for Culture and Research, and will talk specifically about her experience as the Banipal Visiting Writer Fellow in Durham at St Aidan’s College.
On 29 May she will be at the EURAMAL (European Association of Modern Arabic Literature) conference in Naples, whose theme is the Arabic historical novel, to take part in a Banipal event entitled Arabic Literature with Banipal – From London to Libya and Baghdad. In the event Banipal's publisher Margaret Obank and contributing editor Paul Starkey will mark 20 years of publishing contemporary literature of the Arab world in English translation, and establishing its related offshoots for encouraging ever more dialogue between the Arab world and the west – that is, the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, the BALMAL Library of Modern Arab Literature in English Translation, the Banipal Book Club, and most recently, the Banipal Visiting Writer Fellowship, which is partnered with St Aidan's College, Durham University, and the British Council. Najwa Binshatwan will be talking about her historical novel The Slave Pens (2015), which was shortlisted for the 2017 International Prize or Arabic Fiction. An excerpt from The Slave Pens was published by the IPAF prize in a small booklet for the Award Ceremony, and also in Banipal 58 – Arab Literary Awards (Spring 2017). Joining her will be the first Banipal Visiting Writer Fellow, Iraqi author Ali Bader.
A short story by Najwa Binshatwan
It was customary for the dead of Benghazi to visit each other whenever they felt like it. In other words, they would interfere in each other’s business and if a revolution were to break out, they would participate in that too. They did not mind dying twice! That included all the dead of Benghazi, even the ones buried in the Christian cemetery. Each evening, its dead used to go out, heads shaved, perfumed, wearing beautiful, clean outfits. It seemed as though they were at a wedding not a funeral. At the same time, the dead of the Muslim cemetery used to go out and meet with them down the road, as if they were normal citizens coming back from work.
George used to be one of the dead of the exquisite ancient cemetery of Fweehat. He died wearing a beautiful Gucci tuxedo, white silk socks, polished shoes, his nails manicured.
George decided to move to the Muslim cemetery of Al Houari to sleep there peacefully after ISIS troops vandalized the Christian cemetery of Fweehat. They desecrated its graves and insulted the dignity of its dead. According to their plan, they had to dispose of the infidels. On that day, George had brought a bouquet of flowers for the 100th anniversary of his father’s death. And it was then that he had seen, from afar, men in thobes and long beards digging up graves; and realized that it was the end.
He instantly threw the bouquet of flowers onto the road, where it was crushed by cars that would never stop unless they were running over a person. He started running from that black day in the history of death. He ran and ran without knowing where he was heading. It was the afterlife, no way to live again. He sat down under a tree next to a psychiatric hospital hoping a truck would pass by and offer him a lift to the cemetery of Muslims.
Thinking that he was a runaway patient from the hospital, nobody stopped for him. And if anyone had stopped, they would have taken him back to the hospital so that he wouldn’t harm anyone, God forbid!
And so, he had to run from the tree, he had to run from ISIS and he had to run from those trying to help him out!
He then stood next to some kiosks where immigrants were selling things, so as to give the impression he was either a helpless immigrant or a ‘white aubergine’.
He thought that it would be easier in the Muslim cemetery, that his old friends and acquaintances would help him out in getting a new grave there; after all, death is so much easier than life for Muslims. But as soon as the dead of the Muslim cemetery realized there was an outsider amongst them, they started making use of him in all possible ways:
“Please George, close the cemetery gate.”
“George, get us some cigarettes, you’re wearing your clothes, but we’re naked.”
“George, get us lunch, get us dinner, we are craving some fruit and roast chicken.”
George became fed up and yelled at them: “I’m tired and I want to go back to my old cemetery. My tuxedo’s worn out because of the unrelenting hot sun, my shoes are dirty and my beard’s grown too long. There’s no electricity for washing my clothes and ironing them, the power is always cut. And you’re are always asking me to get you things from the most dangerous neighbourhoods, the ones engulfed in civil war.”
Years later, George appeared, wearing torn rags, barefoot, hair all messed up, and covered in dust. He had started going bald, and the dead guy next to him had stolen his shoes, socks and tie. He had been standing barefoot on spikes in the cemetery, his feet bleeding, thinking like a morbid philosopher, but then he had become used to the situation. Life was tough in Libya, and death even tougher.
He paid the price of being there. Neither the living nor the dead were comfortable. There would always be a task to be done, he would always be walking on burning coals.
Whenever the dead had nothing to do they would tell him: “George, get us some news from outside.”
They had asked him to do so just now, and here he comes bearing the news. His friend Muhammad shook his hand and said: “What’s wrong, George? It seems something’s upsetting you.”
George answered: “I miss my old place, and I want to go back there. Years have passed without any glimpse of hope.”
His friend Muhammad said: “Why are you worried, George? You are welcome here, why worry? It’s true you were mugged, you lost your tie and you see your shoes being worn by another man every day without being able to reclaim them, and you were falsely accused of sexually harassing a woman, but you’re better off than those who were forced to leave their homes.
George replied: “I just want to go back to my place, to be honest. Not because it has grass and trees, nor because it’s clean and not polluted by plastic bags, but because the cemetery is jam-packed and so nobody enters it any more, unlike this one. The gate never closes here! Every day more groups of the newly dead come here, casualties of the civil war, of road accidents, random bullets at weddings, electric shocks, landmines, buildings collapsing because they were built with poor materials . . . etc. This makes me worry about my future, so I am considering emigrating to Europe to die.”
Muhammad calms George down a bit and invites him to sit by the fence of the cemetery to watch a nearby wedding, where the music of folk songs is loud, car horns are honking in celebration and bullets are whizzing across the sky.
There is hope.
The two men stand on tiptoe to be able to see it and George finally smiles for the first time since he left the cemetery of his ancestors. He looks happier than the wedding guests. Suddenly he hears: “Run, George, run!”
A stray bullet from the wedding pierces his head. He falls to the ground.
George is killed for the second time, but this time he dies happily ever after!
Translated from the Arabic by Ouissal Harize