This is Tunisian Literature: Habib Selmi’s نساء البساتين, /The Women’s Orchards/

Although I haven’t yet gotten my Banipal 39, I was delighted to see a preview, in two chapters from Habib Selmi’s recently released The Women’s Orchards, translated by the lovely Maia Tabet.

At once, the reader feels the tug of Selmi’s characteristic strength: the interplay of family relationships, particularly those between women and men. The narrator returns (from Paris) to Tunisia to visit his brother Ibrahim, and yes—the big narrative change is that his sister-in-law Yusra will no longer hug him, and has decided to wear hijab—but the real-ness of a Selmi story comes from the psychological discomfort over the gifts the narrator has brought from France:

Yusra remarks that she is well-acquainted with this kind of chocolate – many of her neighbors buy the very same kind for their children from the French supermarket, Carrefour, which opened in Tunis two years earlier – implying that my gift is of little value, and that it falls well short of what a man like myself, living in France, is expected to bring to the only son of his closest brother after a long absence.

And when he pulls out the clothes (too big) that he bought for his nephew, the description of his nephew’s reaction is perfect:

Summoning Ibrahim to bring it into the room, I open my suitcase and take out a plastic bag that I hand to Wa’el, whose eyes are shining as he follows the scene. Wa’el feels around the package, takes out the trousers and shirt that I bought for him and thrusts them at Yusra, as if the gift is for her.

This powerful self- and other-observation is also evident in Selmi’s 2008 novel, The Scents of Marie-Claire, although the clunky language (in English) reduces the enjoyment of the book, particularly in dialogue. This is Marie-Claire speaking with the protagonist, Mahfouth:

Later, as I got older and began mixing with adults, I was able to get rid of this complex, for I discovered that men did not hate freckles; in fact some men liked them, especially on the face.

Anyhow. I’m biased, but I feel no stiffness here, and revel in the family scene:

-“… Meaning that Tunisian women wear hijabs but don’t give up tight jeans ….”

-“And why should they? The important thing is to wear loose-fitting clothes over them…”

-“And miniskirts then…?”

– “What’s the difference between a mini-skirt and jeans? The main thing is for women to look modest in the presence of men …”

Ibrahim falls silent, and then resumes, with more derision.

-“And it doesn’t stop there either… I’ve heard that veiled women also wear thongs…”

Yusra bursts out laughing. Joining in her laughter, Ibrahim adds “Imagine, a hijab, up top, and a thong, down below …”

Turning to me, Ibrahim insists that I weigh in on the matter. But I hold my tongue.

– “Lord have mercy! Forgive them the errors of their ways…” Yusra intones as she carries the plates and dishes off to the kitchen.

The book, which takes on issues of cultural changes, displays of religiosity, politics, and family, never gets bogged down in all this because of Selmi’s deft psychological observances and true-feeling family moments.

A review in As-Safir echoes this:

نساء البساتين»، رواية تطرح العديد من الأسئلة علينا، لكنها أسئلة تأتي بهدوء، ولا تطغى على العملية الروائية، بل تفرد لها الحيز الأكبر، لتطرح بذلك أيضا أسئلة أخرى عن الكتابة، هذه الكتابة الحقة التي تميّز أعمال الحبيب السالمي.

Indeed—at least in the first two chapters—the questions posed in The Women’s Orchards don’t overwhelm the narrative’s forward motion, and indeed are part of what moves us forward.

One hopes that Ms. Maia will continue, and translate the entire novel….

This is completely unrelated, but over at Read Kutub Kids we are (that is, I am) very excited about the shortlist for the 1 million AED Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature.