What (or Who) Is Tunisian Literature?

Caine prize shortlist-ee Hassouna Mosbahi; one of the Tunisians included in Banipal's latest issue

When the latest issue of Banipal was released (39: Tunisian Literature), the MLA Division on Arabic Literature and Culture commented on Facebook:

New Banipal issue is devoted to Tunisian Literature–a nice gesture, but is that really it? Is that Tunisian literature? (Anyhow, let’s just say, it’s better than nothing)

Prodded by a friend, I asked MLADALC—who, like me, has not yet seen issue 39—who he would have put in the table of contents:

It may be just less than practical to aim to be inclusive in this case, but to exclude Mahmoud Messadi, Ali Dou’aji, Laroussi al-Metoui, Mohammed Saleh al-Jaberi, Bashir Khreif, Mahmoud Tarshouna, Slaheddine Boujeh–and many other names published in “3oyun al-mu3asra” like Aroussia Nalouti series–is quite unwarranted, but I have not yet read the issue and so the editors might have explained the reasons behind such grandiose omissions.

I suppose we could add Hassan Nasrallah, Al-Bashir bin Salamah, Abdel Qader Ben Shaikh, Faraj Al-Huwar, all laureates—like Messadi, al-Jaberi, Nalouti, Khreif, al-Metoui, and Boujeh— of the Arab Writers Union’s top 105 list. You can read Hassan Nasrallah’s Return to Dar al-Basha in English translation by William Hutchins, but nothing by the others, not even—I believe—Mahmoud Messadi.

Oh, but Aroussia Naluti was included in a previous Banipal with the short story “You taught me to love life, Father.”

Banipal’s exploration of Tunisian literature—with the exception of an essay by Hassouna Mosbahi, “Outstanding Figures in 20th Century Tunisian Culture” and portraits of Aboul-Qacem Echebbi and Samir Ayadi—seems to focus on younger (living) Tunisian authors, including Beirut39 laureate Kamel Riahi.  In this, the Tunisia issue promises to be similar to the Iraq issue (37),  which wasn’t so much an exploration of Iraqi greats as a look at the work of newer writers, including some unpublished manuscripts.

Yes, there is a pressing need to translate and explore the Tunisian authors MLADALC mentions above. And perhaps just a bit or bob by Messadi or al-Jaberi would’ve added a great deal to the issue. But Banipal seems to be following a general publishing trend in focusing on the new, the younger, the up-and-coming.

Too bad we can’t all pop up to Frankfurt this afternoon and listen in on (and ask questions at) the Banipal presentation: Tunisian Literature – from the author to the reader.

The event blurb promises: “Habib Selmi, Nouri Obaid, Walid Soliman and Samuel Shimon uncover the vitality of the diverse Tunisian literary scene with its innovative novelists, poets and short story writers, and many publishing houses.” (Although this too, of course, seems to point toward younger, contemporary authors….)

Oh, and if you wanted to know: The Middle East Times has a piece titled “What Makes a Tunisian?

And of course there are also the Tunisian authors who write in French: Abdelwahab Meddeb for instance…but Tahar Bekri writes, in “On French-Language Tunisian Literature,” that: “Unlike the French-language literatures of Algeria and Morocco, that of Tunisia has been of secondary importance for a long time….”