101 Years of Tunisian Author Mahmoud Messadi (But Not in English)

Tunisian novelist Kamel Riahi — trans. Ali Znaidi, of Tunisian Literature (in English) — writes of Mahmoud Messadi:

Messadi reading from his novel “The Dam.”

It is impossible to speak about the achievement of Tunisian literature without the name of Mahmoud Messadi grabbing an outstanding position in it. Tunisia has not known a famous author like him except Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi, writer of “Life’s Will.” Thus Messadi ascends the throne of narration, whereas al-Shabbi is the prince of poetry. The celebration of the centenary of Messadi’s birth is going on in Tunisia through different cultural events.

Riahi has been disappointed in many of these events. But, back to Messadi:

A native of the village of Tazerka in the coastal governorate of Nabeul, he produced unique works, Haddathâ Abou Houraïrata qâl (Thus Spoke Abou Hourairata), Essoud (The Dam), Mawlidou’ Nissiâne (The Genesis of Forgetfulness), Min Ayâmi Imrâne (Days in the Life of Imrane, and Other Meditations ), Tâssilân likiâne (Rooting of a Being), and al-Iqaa’ fi al-Saj al-Arabi (Rhythm in Arabic Rhymed Prose) chief among them. All of them are narrative works save the two latter ones.

Messadi, born in 1911, did all of his writing in his youth. According to Riahi, Messadi “stopped writing around his forties” and yet “until his death in 2004 he did not lose his pioneering position in the Tunisian literary scene,” a scene still influenced and shadowed by his work.

Riahi also notes that Messadi’s works “were translated into many languages, Dutch, French, and German among them.”

I will add that Messadi’s Thus Spoke Abu Huraira, voted by the Arab Writers Union one of the top 100 novels of the twentieth century, is available in French (Ainsi parlait Abou Hourayra, Actes Sud 1996) and in German (Und es sprach Abu Hurairata, Hamouda 2009). At least two other novels by Messadi have been translated into French and German. However, I have not been able to find anything of his available in English.

Why no Messadi in English?

LibraryThing commenter Asterixia suggests, “If you read Arabic or French, I highly recommend Tunisian writer Mahmoud Messadi. It’s a shame he’s not translated into English, but his texts in Arabic are SO dense, they’d scare away the best of translators!”

Perhaps. But I think it most likely that there have not been the channels between Tunisian literature and English-language translators and publishers that have existed — for instance — between Tunisian and France.

AUC Press has recently published two books written by Tunisians: Hassouna Mosbahi’s strong A Tunisian Tale, excellently trans. Max Weiss (2012) and Habib Selmi’s compelling, International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted The Scents of Marie-Claire, trans. Fadwa Qasem. However, no other Tunisian authors published by AUC Press spring to mind or to a google search.

There is a new interview on the AUC Press website with Hassouna Mosbahi. He says, among other things:

 I must admit that I acquired this from writers that have influenced me during my youth and continue to do so, such as William Faulkner, Edgar Allen Poe, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Growing up in my village, during one hot summer I read Faulkner’s Light in August, as well as Sanctuary, in which one of the characters rapes a young woman with a corncob. Since then, I decided to use the same fast paced rhythm you have in action films in my novels in order to grab and keep the reader’s attention.

Also, Mosbahi is currently a Feuchtwanger Fellow at the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles. He will be giving a reading from A Tunisian Tale at the Goethe Institute in Los Angeles on July 19 at 7:00 pmAngelenos, please let me know if you’re going.


  1. I have just corrected a mistake in the following sentence “All of them are prose works.” It should read “All of them are narrative works.” Would you please correct it as well in your post.

    I love this post and thanks for the efforts you made in giving more information about Messadi. Alas the man’s works were not translated into English while he was alive. Otherwise, he could be able to compete for the Nobel Prize.

    1. I’m correcting now, ya Ali. And thank you for your efforts to forge better connections between Tunisian literature and English-language readers.

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