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Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Nas Decameron: An island of culture in the sea of Tunisian politics

A small group started by novelist Kamel Riahi tries to save culture from the avalanche of politics that has taken over since the revolution

Mary Mourad , Wednesday 13 Jun 2012
Nas Decameron

In a world swamped by politics, it seems no other voice can stand up to the tide. But a small group of young and ambitious Tunisian men and women have decided there is something else to live for – culture. Nas Decameron is the initiative started by the Tunisian journalist and writer Kamel Riahi; it quickly became a fixed weekly gathering for feeding on culture, in all its forms, but with writing and books at the heart of the scene. "Politicians were taken by politics and by the roles they can play in political parties or other forms of politics, but we needed to do something still," Riahi explained. The concept is based on a small, fixed group of 10 individuals who come together to manage this weekly culture salon.

The meeting place is never fixed, but the starting point every week is Riahi's small office at Dar Thkafet Ibn Khaldoun (House of Culture at Ibn Khaldoun Street, associated with the ministry of culture in Tunisia), right at the heart of Tunis, only a block away from Habib Bourguiba avenue. Movies and discussions are an essential aspect of events, even if the movie is a documentary about Salvador Dali, as was the case for the 8 May gathering that luckily had the main hall of the Dar. The documentary shown at the beginning featured an interview with Dali in French, which is understood by everyone in Tunisia. The evening also featured a small clip prepared by the Cameronians, showing the most famous paintings by Dali, with some of his famous photographs and physical art.

Adnan Gadi, a student of philosophy and aesthetics, led the conversation about the history of surrealism, bringing in the historical, theoretical and artistic building blocks of the movement. Every now and then, readings from the book by Dali were shared by Riahi and Ansaf Sultany, a psychologist and PhD student, who were tasked with this aspect of the evening. Many exciting stories about the life of the great artist were told, and for the first time for some, they spoke of the contempt he held for all contemporary artists with the exception of Picasso, and the relation he had with philosophers of his time.

The discussion after this exciting introduction revolved around the whole topic about the nature of surrealism and even stepped into the little glimpses of surrealism in Egypt that started with the manifesto of the movement in the 1930s, moving onto its death in the 1960s with the death of its founder, Andre Breton, yet also current-day movements that may be considered offspring of surrealist philosophy, such as magic realism. Speculations as to why the movement and the philosophy never took off in the Arab world revolved around the wild aspect of the movement pitted against the conservative, occupied lands of the Arab countries struggling for freedom at the time. The Cameronians in the discussion included poet and journalist, Salah Bin Ayyad, poet Shawkh Barnusie and psychoanalyst Ayman Dabbusi, among a host of guests including intellectuals, artists and writers.

Politics somehow took the back seat. The world is full of colour, philosophy, art, music, knowledge, cinema; and here was a space where people could meet and overcome the world as it had become, diving into culture, history and the values of beauty and freedom on a different scale. Here it is neither the study nor an intellectualisation of the world.

Decameron, the name of the group, comes from the famous book by the Italian medieval author, Boccassio, who wrote about this group of 10 men and women who escaped the plague by locking themselves away and telling each other stories, "This is our way of escaping the death of culture," Riahi told Ahram Online. The Cameronians meets every Friday at 4.15 pm, and their meetings are open to guests with the topic of conversation announced in advanced through Facebook.

This is definitely an event worth a visit while in Tunisia.



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