In Tunisia: The Health of the Book

Today and tomorrow, “Cartooning for Peace” will bring together cartoonists from across Tunisia as the country continues to probe its red lines and limits to freedom of expression. This is against the backdrop of the Tunis International Book Fair, which will run through Nov. 3. Chiara Comito wrote about the fair — and the situation of publishing in Tunisia — on her blog, Editoriaraba:

By Chiara Comito

tunisia-picThe Tunis International Book Fair was not included among the cultural activities suspended during the 3-day national grief, and thus it was officially inaugurated Friday at 10 by the country’s prime minister and was open to the public by noon.

Ok, but what public? With the country shaken by attacks and protests, and blocked in a political impasse, one wonders how many Tunisians will find the time (or will be willing) to visit the stands of the fair, which now celebrates 30 years.

The political situation is not the only threat to the fair’s success: According to the figures published last week by Huffington Post Maghreb on the reading habits and book circulation in Tunisia, publishing in Tunisia is not in good health. Only 100 titles have been published since the beginning of the year by some 190 publishing houses — though I doubt this number. These books are apparently being distributed by the 20-some bookshops scattered in the country, but concentrated mainly in the biggest cities. (If anybody has other information, please drop me a line.)

The online magazine goes on to report that the Tunisian literature would have bloomed again after the 2011 revolutionary events: Apparently, a huge amount of publications on the revolution have literally invaded the bookshops. But this non-fiction socio-political invasion would have overshadowed the publications of fiction books because, in simple words, the former sell more.

I am not personally against non-fiction: I do read a lot of non-fiction books, especially in the recent period, but fiction is something else. It makes you dream, it develops your imagination, it can be subtle or more immediate. It can make the reader think, be entertained, and forget what happens around us. Fiction and poetry are fundamental for developing a country’s culture and cannot disappear.

Moreover, in Tunisia, as in all the Maghreb, the publishing market suffers from colonial structures: As the French anthropologist and arabist Franck Mermier writes in his (very useful) book Le Livre et la Ville. Beyrouth et l’édition arabe (published in France by Actes Sud in 2005 and translated in Italian by Mesogea in 2012 as Il libro e la città. Beirut e l’editoria araba), the French market “attracts the main francophone authors of the Maghreb,” who prefer to publish their books in France, where they are ensured a more effective distribution. On the other hand, the publishing industry in the Maghreb “covers more the of francophone market than the Arab one,” with the result that the production in Arabic receives much less attention. In conclusion, Mermier notes also that the mashreq publishers have the exclusive in publishing the literature written in Arabic.

That being said, it does not mean that one cannot find books in Arabic in Tunisia: They are published by the biggest publishing houses, like  Cérès. However: What space is left for the production in classical Arabic (fusha) in a country where the majority of the people speaks in French or in darija, the dialect? HuffPost provocatively writes: What if the Tunisian authors wrote their books using dialect? Would these be more appealing to readers? What is certain is that this would be a challenge that might affect also those Arab countries in which the “diglossia” between fusha and darija is a reality (not to mention those cases in which Arabic-French-English are spoken in the same country).

These hot topics are going to be discussed at the Tunis Book Fair this year during the numerous scheduled talks and debates between publishers, authors, and representatives of culture of the Arab world. Some of the issues discussed will be: the role of the novel and the intellectuals in the Arab world; the issue of reading in Tunisia; the image of the “Other” conveyed in the Arab novel; and the state of the Arabic literature translated abroad.

Senegal will be the guest of honor, demonstrating the interest showed by the Tunisian publishers towards the sub-Saharan book market (and, most probably, the francophone book market).

Among the international guests there will be: Lebanese writer and journalist Abbas Beydoun, Berlin LitFest director  Ulrich Schreiber, Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan, Yemeni writer Ali al-Muqri, Kuwaiti writer  Saud al-Sanussi, Sudanese writer Amir Tag Elsir, and Mexican writer  Alberto Ruy Sanchez.

Also, in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture, fair organizers have promised to travel the country bringing some of the cultural activities organized during the fair.

There is no doubt that today Tunisia needs a national reconciliation. What if it started from a true and effective policy of the book and the reading?

In the meantime, things have already changed among young Tunisians, also thanks to the social networks: A Facebook group aimed at exchanging opinions on books has been joined so far by almost 2,000 people. Three of them — Sami Mokaddem, Souha Cherni, and Atef Attia — have joined forces and have decided to start a publishing house named Pop Libris that aims at publishing a pop(ular) and entertaining literature. They said they would like to publish those more innovative genres such as sci-fi books, thrillers, and romantic novels, which do not find space among the titles published by the Tunisian publishing houses. And even more importantly, the price will be affordable by everyone.

So far they have published two books in French, but they said they are willing to publish also in Arabic. The challenge to the new generations of Tunisian readers and writers are perhaps just at the beginning.

This originally appeared in Italian on Chiara Comito’s indispensible blog Editoriaraba and was translated by the (also indispensible) Comito. You can also follow her work on Twitter (@editoriaraba) and Facebook (