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Tunisian bookstore sees demand rise for revolutionary and Islamist publications

Tunisian readers are looking back and reading about their own history and Islamism in a new era in which censorship is gone

Sayed Mahmoud, Tuesday 19 Jul 2011
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Just like in Egypt, the Tunisian revolution changed many of the reading habits and directions in Tunisia, and changed publishers' plans, as confirmed to Ahram Online by Munzir Belhaj, manager of Al-Kitab bookstore – the largest bookstore in Habib Bourguiba street in Tunisia.

According to Belhaj, Tunisians are very interested in reading books about the Tunisian revolution, many of which are in French, in addition to reading books tackling the topic of the "globalization" of the revolution concept, in particular young readers now reading about the various phases of the French revolution as well as the Egyptian July revolution.

On another front, it seems Tunisians are interested in reading books about what was really going on during the rule of the removed president Ben Ali and the means through which his wife's family, Al-Tarabuslsi, were able to control the key joints of the state.

Many of these books were published before the revolution outside Tunisia, or in the form of articles whose writers were forbidden from publishing, although some were for their extreme sarcasm.

According to the sales records in the bookstore, the highest selling book is Burj El-Rumy by Samir Al-Salsy, observing the experience of the torture of the Islamists in Tunisian jails.

Other books include Prostate Years, which is a novel with a photo of Ben Ali and his wife Leila on the cover, written by the famous journalist Al-Safi Said.

There's also Why I Scoffed at Ben Ali by Salim Bukhazeer, Season for Migration to Dignity, The Fall of the Tyrant, It's the Revolution your Majesty, in addition to human rights reports about Tunisian from international organizations such as Tunisia Report: the Black Book by Reporters Without Borders with an introduction by the French journalist Gill Peroux.

The highest selling book overall though is the French title, Degage (Leave) which documents, with photos, the phases of the Tunisian revolution.

Belhaj also explained that there was large demand for books that were previously banned in Tunisia, most of which deal with political Islam and the rise and fall of Islamist movements, pertaining to the censorship authorities that didn't distinguish between books that were pro or against the phenomenon.

For example, Sayed Kotb's books, the Jihadi thinker, were banned and are now featured at the front of many bookstores without issues. Books by Rashid Al-Ghanouchi, Ibn Tayema, Youssef Al-Karadawy and Mohamed Ghazali are now very popular, especially with the return of many figures of the Nahda Islamist party back to Tunisia.

To the contrary of the fate of the books on fundamentalism, leftist books never faced any issues, with the exception of books about the Arab revolution or books related to the Nasserist Pan-Arab project, the most famous of which are by the late Essamt Seif El-Dawla.

What's notable as well is that among the priorities of the Tunisian readers is learning about the Bourguibian era; the time following the French evacuation when there were major reforms to the civilian state.

This era is highly problematic, as the Islamist groups lay the blame on the "westernization" or "estrangement" of Tunisia, resembling in their views the forced modernization by Ataturk.

Belhaj confirms that many books are now reviewing Bourguiba's achievements in this light: the civil powers defend the laws protecting women and personal rights, while the Islamists attack these same things.

These books weren't really banned at any point, but were just out of priority or focus, and many of them are fairly recent.

The manager of Al-Kitab explains that there's a major issue when it comes to the publishing business in Tunisia, as the market is still very small for Arabic books, and most of the publishing is focused on the local market and not for export.

He asserts that there's no form of censorship whatsoever at the moment, and that he would use self-censorship regarding what is on sale at his own bookstore: refusing books with incitement tones or calling for hatred or sectarianism.

Otherwise, he finds that it's his role to support freedom. While some readers have fears from the radicalization of the Islamist forces, Belhaj doesn't find this an issue for the average citizen who perceives no road back into repression.

On another front, Samer Ben Ali, the Tunisian publisher, explained that there's a concern about the future of Tunisian books after the revolution, as the previous regime was supporting the business through purchasing a fixed number of copies, although this support never really resulted in any true cultural improvement due to the oppression and the censoring authorities, leading to the disappearance of the serious books to the benefit of lighter books.

He explained that reading classes are no longer mandatory in Tunisian schools for a while now, and many public libraries disappeared, leading to a huge drop in readership, especially in Arabic.

The elite, according to Ben Ali, read whatever the French books offer, while the Tunisian literature in Arabic was limited, despite the fame many Tunisian writers achieved such as Al-Habib Al-Salmy, Hassuna Al-Misbahi and others. 

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