Tunisian novelist Kamel Riahi has spoken previously — at the Cairo Book Fair, among other places — about how the “hasty stories” inspired by the Tunisian revolution do a disservice to literature. This weekend, he blogged about what he sees as one of the uglier outgrowths of this fast-lit phenomenon: Tahar Ben Jelloun’s novella about Tunisian street vendor and spark to revolution Mohamed Bouazizi.
The novella was definitely fast: In the summer of 2011, Tahar Ben Jelloun published *two* books about the so-called “Arab spring”: L’étincelle : Révoltes dans les pays arabes (June 2011) and the novella titled Par le feu (June 2011), which had Bouazizi as its protagonist. The books have been widely criticized, and Ben Jelloun called a resistance fighter “only in the final hours.”
Where did Ben Jelloun — as Riahi notes, “winner of the Goncourt prize” (in 1987, for his La Nuit sacrée / The Sacred Night) — go wrong?
Riahi asks: “Doesn’t Ben Jalloun have the right to write about Bouazizi?”
Yes, Riahi says. “Undoubtedly.” Just as Rachid Boujedra fictionalized Tariq Ibn Zayid and Bensalem Himmich novelized the life of Ibn Khaldun, “…each author has the right to write or transfer any referential figure…which includes historical, mythological, metaphorical, and social figures summoned in the fictional character of the fictional work.”
Riahi does not here put limits on which authors, by nationality, are granted such rights. Himmich, author of the award-winning The Polymath, is Moroccan (like Ben Jalloun) and the book’s protagonist, Ibn Khaldun, is claimed by Tunisia (like Bouazizi). But although his examples are all Arab, Riahi makes no red lines regarding nationality.
Riahi does say that this sort of work carries within its belly a large responsibility, particularly when it’s part of a realist tradition. Riahi says that deep research is necessary, and “excavating in the life of a referential or historical figure is an obligatory mission for the novelist, and only then he has the right to convert” these figures “from the world of reality to the world of imagination.”
Ben Jelloun, Riahi says, does not meet this criterion, and he “appeared to be hasty in shaping the character Bouazizi, taking for granted the rumors…that have surrounded him before the flight of Ben Ali.”
Neither did Ben Jelloun do sufficient research about Tunisia, Riahi writes: “Because Tahar Ben Jelloun knows nothing about the nature of the Tunisian society, he does not hesitate to make its holiday on Friday and Saturday as in other Arab countries, for, after all, all the Arab countries in his mind are similar.”
How could a writer do justice to appropriating Bouazizi and folding him into a fiction? Is distance required? Is an author’s motivation important? Or is it all in the craft, in the proper research and full imagining?
The real question is, who has the right to determine who gets to write about anything, let alone a now-historic figure like Mohamed Bouazizi? The answer is: no one. You may criticize any piece of literature on whatever basis you like, but censorship of this sort, as implied by the question posed in the article, and Kamal Riahi’s reasoning about it (however qualified), is anathema to literature itself. The questions asked in the final paragraph, nonetheless, are good ones–so long as the answers are not prescriptive.
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