Tunisian novelists caught between sadness and optimism

Mary Mourad , Monday 30 Jan 2012

Three writers discuss their novels portraying Tunisia's modern history and ponder the future of literature in the post-Ben Ali era at the Cairo Book Fair

Tunisia Guest

A group of Tunisian writers attended the Cairo Book Fair on 27 January to discuss the North African country's literary scene in the post-Ben Ali era. Hosting the talk was leading Tunisian novelist and scriptwriter Arousia Nalouti, who introduced three novels portraying elements of modern Tunisian history: Al-Hay Yrawah (The Living Leave) by Kamel Riahi, Borj Roumi by Samir Sassi, and Akhlat (Mixes) by Kamel Zoghbany.

Two of the three novels were written prior to the revolution that brought down former president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011 and sparked the so-called Arab Spring, and one after.

The first book under discussion was Al-Hay Yrawah (The Living Leave) by Kamel Riahi. The novel follows the life of a left wing political activist taken from the warmth of his home, family and society and thrown into the seclusion of a cold prison cell. Through the hero we learn about a whole generation of Tunisians living under the repressive Ben Ali regime.

During the discussion of his book, Riahi said Tunisian literature since the revolution had become what he called 'hasty literature', reflecting a form and a style akin to journalism or autobiography more than a traditional novel. Ibrahim Abdel-Maguid's new novel is an example of this new style, added Riahi.

Literature about the revolution will be written in the future with the benefit of time and distance, Riahi emphasised, and the quality of writing is crucially important when writing about  political events:

"It's better to read a good story about insects than a poor novel about Palestinian suffering...Poor literature only strengthens the values of ugliness and stupidity fostered by oppressive regimes...Literature must side with beauty even if it's speaking differently than the rest of the crowd."

In response to the popular claim that his novel The Gorilla had predicted the revolution, Riahi said, "It doesn't matter that it predicted the revolution, I would like it to be read after the revolution hype is over."

The second book under discussion was Borj Roumi by Samir Sassi. The story is also set in a prison, but this time the main protagonist is an Islamist political prisoner.

The third book introduced by Nalouti, Akhlat by Kamel Zoghbany – a philosophy professor and newspaper columnist – is a collection of stories, articles, and narratives examining the deterioration of Tunisian society under the Ben Ali regime, some written before the revolution and some afterwards.

 Zoghbany writes that things were so bad under Ben Ali that even thinking became an 'improper' activity, which was captured in the slang term "keep it in your brain" and meant that if you have a smart idea, don’t tell anybody.

The second section of Zoghbany's book examines the stories of people that changed the course after the revolution, from siding loyally with the corrupt Ben Ali regime then praising the revolution after it succeeded.

Zoghbany read passages from his book, including a message from the minister of higher education to the president asking him to apply oppressive security measures at universities, such as surveillance cameras in professors' halls and the restructuring of universities so security personnel could secretly observe students and staff. Friends of Zoghbany advised him not to write about such sensitive political issues before he finished his Ph.D.  

During the discussion, renowned Tunisian novelist, writer and professor of culture Nur Al-Din Alawi asked the question, How are we going to write from now on? Tunisian fiction and poetry had been loaded with feelings of pain and defeat for a long time, he said.

"Writers seemed like they were spreading pain among the people. The pain had gone too deep into people that was inevitable, and even I had it," he testified.

He had decided to stop writing for a while, said Alawi, in order to feel happier then later write with more optimism. However, he fears writing overly optimistic and preachy literature with characters portrayed as saints, and wishes to discover new themes without prophesying or praising anybody too highly.

Alawi warned against writing novels that are too light and hurried like newspaper articles that do not survive.  He recalled that Mahfouz stopped writing for five years after the 1952 Egyptian Revolution before starting a new phase in his literary career.

"The happiness we must enjoy is happiness with life and not with the future," Alawi concluded, ending the session with a note of patience and optimism.

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