Banipal’s Take on Modern Tunisian Literature Disappoints

There are gems, of course, in Banipal39.

Unfortunately, several of this issue’s gems I’d already read: selections from Adonis’s new collection, an excerpt from Habib Selmi’s new novel (translated by Maia Tabet), an excerpt from Kamel Riahi’s The Gorilla (translated by Peter Clark, and also appearing in dual Arabic/English in Emerging Arab Voices).

Other things I found interesting but frustrating: I was enjoying Fadhil al-Azzawi’s novel excerpt and Mekkawi Said’s short story, but I did not want to continue reading them online. (With poetry, yes, I’m happy to read more of a collection online. But I don’t want a story to end mid-way and be told: Go find a computer.)

The issue tries to do a great deal: It introduces readers to a broad range of contemporary Tunisian literature: from IPAF-shortlisted Habib Selmi to Beirut39 laureaute Kamel Riahi to young author Rachida el-Charni to novelist and short-story writer Hassan Ben Othman to poets Moncef Mezghanni and Saghir Oulad Ahmed. It also tries to cover the modern classics of Tunisian lit, with very brief, encyclopedia-like entries about the lives and works of Abu al-Qassim al-Shabi, Mahmoud Messadi, Ezzadine Madani, Samir Ayadi, many others.

Although there is good information here, it makes for a somewhat dizzying and unsatisfying experience, as we switch back and forth between information and art. Perhaps the problem is not that it is less than, for instance, Banipal 37: Iraqi Lit (although I was partial to that one), but in what it seems to promise.

Some of the highlights:

  • Really, you should just go on and get Adonis: Selected Poems, put together so well by Khaled Mattawa.
  • Excerpts from Fadhil al-Azzawi’s The Traveller and the Innkeeper, translated by William M. Hutchins. Cell Block 5 and The Last of the Angels were both innovative and enjoyable: I would be happy to get my hands on another al-Azzawi novel.
  • Excerpts from Habib Selmi’s The Women’s Orchards, which I find remarkable for its small psychological insights and Kamel Riahi’s The Gorilla, although you get a longer version in Emerging Arab Voices.
  • Rachida el-Charni’s “The Way to Poppy Street,” translated by Piers Amodia. Some of the prose felt off to me—whether as a result of the translation or the original, I don’t know—but the situation and imagery were sharply done. Memorable.
  • Selected poems by Moncef Mezghanni, translated by Sinan Antoon, and poetry by Saghir Oulad Ahmed, translated by Tristan Cranfield.
  • Hassan Ben Othman’s short story, “The Berlin Wall,” which has a lovely sense of history and culture (clash), translated by Ali Azeriah.

Perhaps that seems like a lot for a magazine—six bullet-pointed highlights! After all, many small magazines feature only one or two stories or poems of merit. But when the entirety of Tunisian literature seems promised,  (and Samuel Shimon tells us, in the introduction, that Tunisian lit is one of his particular passions), I would’ve liked more coherence, more structure, more essay and less dutiful explanation.