Tunisian Novelist Shukri al-Mabkhout: ‘We Have To Be Merciful Toward Our Intellectuals’

Continuing our series of profiles and interviews on International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF)-shortlisted novelists and their books, Abdeddayem Sallami talks to Tunisian and shortlisted novelist Shukri al-Mabkhout:

By Abdeddayem Sallami

mabkhoutLonglisted for the 2015 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), Shukri al-Mabkhout’s novel Ettalyani (The Italian) released by Dar Tanweer in the summer of 2014, represents his debut literary production. This surprised the Tunisian litterati, especially as al-Mabkhout is among the most well-known Tunisian academic and cultural figures.

Al-Mabkhout was known for his translations, focused on literary criticism and linguistics; for his books and research articles on pragmatics; and for his cultural and media activities, either through writing a weekly column in Tunisian newspapers. He also ran Academia, a cultural magazine covering the university life, and The Annals of the Tunisian University, a journal specialized in scientific research. He was a former dean of the famous Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Humanities of Manouba, and he is currently the Head of the University of Manouba.

In 2015, he will publish a second novel, titled Baganda, and a collection of poetry titled Siratou Wahm (A Biography of an Illusion).  In this interview, we learn about Chokri Mabkhout’s views on the novel, criticism, the literature of prizes, and the relation of the intellectual to the revolution and the political life.

Abdeddayem Sallami: Novels written by Tunisian academics seem to be crafted according to the requirements of narrative theories, which make them lacking in creative juices. Does readers’ great celebration of your novel The Italian signify that it overcame the ‘curse’ of academia?

Shukri al-Mabkhout: This is a common attitude vis-à-vis the contributions of academics to the writing of the novel and a widespread allegation found only in Tunisia! International, Arabic, and Tunisian examples of academics who entered the realm of the novel and who produced distinguished and respectable works are more than numerous.

However, I don’t think that everything written by academics is good for a simple reason: All novelists and poets are necessarily autodidacts, if autodidactism is considered the opposite of academia. Even writing workshops and books which claim to be writing guides (I have translated one of them) do not make authors as much as they make them be aware of the dangers of the act of creativity and its stakes. According to this, you can compare what is produced by non-academics. Academic affiliation is not a requirement for the quality of creativity and vice versa.

This is not because I am well-versed in narrative theories, but because I wrote a novel as I personally want novels to be.

As for the novel of The Italian, it really has met with acclaim from different kinds of Tunisian and Arab readers, which personally surprised me, even though I was certain that it is a novel which the reader cannot leave before reaching its end. This is not because I am well-versed in narrative theories, but because I wrote a novel as I personally want novels to be. I rejected everything I don’t like in narrative writing for aesthetic reasons, adhering to my choices as a reader. I chose to tell a suspenseful tale full of life, which asks questions and lets the characters express their hesitations, wonder, and pains.

I think readers saw glimpses of their humanity in this work, so they reacted to it. The recipe is very simple:  Don’t write only what you love to read in other writers’ work! This may be due to the fact that I see my text, while writing, from the point of view of the reader that dwells in me. I admit that it is a distance full of risks. But I wrote a novel for myself and I found readers sharing with me their anticipations and expectations from the novelistic pact. There may be some portions of answer to your question in this. And let the critics ponder more on the matter!

AS: But your novel The Italian is teeming with disappointments, debacles, and defeated characters…

SM: Yes, your description of the novel is in a way true — and it is also true that it is an exhilarating novel, in spite of these disappointments. In it, there is a celebration of life and a clinging to its gaiety and, as critics observed, an elegant eroticism and an evocation of the spirit of rebellion, ambition, will, and elation among the young people. Its characters are dreamy young people swept up by life…

In this novel, footsteps and traces left by exhausted legs are more important than roads themselves.

I don’t see in it disappointments insofar as these disappointments connote a love for life that includes the confluence of passion, the creative power, the agents of debacles, and the demolition of pleasures. … I didn’t plan to depict “positive” heroes, if we can put it that way, because the era of false heroism has gone. On the contrary, I followed paths of people in certain positions: People who keep moving, although they were walking, as titles of some chapters indicate, in wild passages, straits, alleys, corridors for pain and dream, crossroads, and closed railway lines.

In this novel, footsteps and traces left by exhausted legs are more important than roads themselves.

AS: The Tunisian revolution opened the door wide to criticizing the regimes that used to rule people. Thus, your novel The Italian falls within a framework of engaging in a trial of the ideology of the Tunisian left, which kept “exploring the dirty Leninian and Stalinian dumps” as you said through your character Zina?

SM: Many readers and those who wrote on The Italian focused on the criticism of the left and its ideology. They are not wrong in doing so, although the novel has more objectives at the symbolic level and in the possibilities of its interpretation. Perhaps what caught their attention is the fact that it is a novel that rejected depicting the militant stereotype that glorifies the oppressed leftist who searches for justice, who believes in change, and who sacrifices for a principle.

The reader just finds perplexed characters who give their leftist hero a human depth that makes him dream, be defeated, love, betray, be weak, resist, and do other things that characterize the real human being and not the fanciful example. Perhaps, the main thing in this criticism of the left is revolving around the concept of the freedom of the individual, taking charge of his wounds and hallucinations, and “cursing his origins,” as one of the critics of the novel said. This radical freedom, the freedom of the individual, was neglected by the Tunisian left, which was just content with calling upon the liberation of society through militants who are defeated from the beginning.

AS: To what extent is the saying true: that the Arab critical enterprise remained locked in the university amphitheatres and didn’t go out to the streets of writing — and that what was written has only scholastic applications that don’t serve the creative achievement?

SM: The enterprise of criticism cannot be limited to one type, which is the academic criticism, although this criticism is the most important thing produced by Arab critics. The reason is simple: The university is the home for the production of knowledge in literature and it has its traditions, rules, and demands that sound rigid and sometimes boring.

However, what is required from specialized academic criticism doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with the expectations of all cultured people and the observers of the cultural affair. The objectives related to academic criticism are various and don’t necessarily realize the communication with the broad categories of intellectuals, and particularly authors and creators. Perhaps the problem lies in another thing, apart from what you called the rigid scholastic applications.

There is an absence of other ways of dealing with creative and literary texts, approaching them with tools and taste that are more linked to the interactive aspect of literature. For instance, journalistic literary criticism is an established art found in the biggest international magazines and cultural supplements. But in our Arab world we rarely find a journalist who built his or her fame on journalistic literary criticism. The irony is that writers who complain about, and who are right in most cases, academic criticism, become jubilant whenever one of the departments of Arabic in the universities teaches one of their works or one of the academics writes  a rigid “research” about the work in which he or she applies antiquated approaches.

Here, I don’t blame the creators. Some of our colleagues, among academics, confuse the academic discourse on literature and the cultural and media discourse. This causes trouble in our minds. Thus, it decreases the value of academic criticism and at the same time doesn’t let it achieve the stamina and value of journalistic cultural criticism. Once again, misunderstanding dominates the relationship between the enterprise of the university and the cultural enterprise because, in my opinion, the awareness of borders and the conditions of interaction is limited.

AS: The hurry in most Arabic literary prizes somehow triggered many to doubt the integrity of these prizes and the neutrality of their judging committees. This doubt lets us question the benefit of awards for the creator.

SM: In my opinion, the matter is not necessarily as you have described it. I have participated in prize committees, and most of them worked in a satisfactory manner. Before judging the integrity of committees, we should look at the nominated works because the matter is relative. This doesn’t mean that some committees are free from narrow calculations, devious methods, and personal considerations.

I unveiled some of these shenanigans when I found some of these committees’ announcements unfair, and I didn’t hesitate from using an ethical and moral point of view to condemn this. However, I don’t think that most works that won prizes in Tunisia or in the Arab world lack rationality because most novels that won the Arabic Booker, for instance, are respectable and worthy of it.

Authors somehow have to get rid of their narcissism. The issue is not financial insofar as it is moral and symbolic — whatever the value of the prize is. Moreover, sociologically speaking, the system of prizes is part of the literary enterprise, which is still in the making in our Arab world and requires support. I don’t think that this methodological doubt will add something. Even the Nobel Prize for Literature is not devoid of this criticism and objection. But it is certain that most of the winners are at least among top writers. Apart from this, the matter is debatable on aesthetic, literary, and cultural bases and not on personal and narcissistic ones.

AS: Events of the Arab Spring show the deterioration of the authority of the intellectuals — after they have been bypassed by the masses in the revolution against the status quo and by the masses’ audacity in violating its political sacredness.  To what does the intellectual have recourse, if we can put it this way, to restore his or her symbolic authority among hisor her social group?

SM: I don’t think the matter is so poignant despite what was said about the absence of intellectuals, leaders and parties and the spontaneous awareness of the masses. We don’t forget that the slogans that were raised during the Arab Spring, before it had been infested by the diseased and chagrined slogans of identity of the Muslim Brotherhood, express a citizenly social awareness which is not similar to that alleged spontaneity.

But the act of culture and its impact are slow and hardly visible. We have not to forget, for instance, that the notions of freedom, democracy and dignity are modern in their prevailing attributes today. They are the result of an important theoretical and cultural preoccupation. For instance, the ones who revolted in Tunisia are the children of the school of the modern republic who were brought up and educated by men and women who carried the values of freedom and dignity and taught these to them. We don’t forget that Egypt and Syria have established modernist cultural traditions. And when we look today, we find the intellectuals, at least in Tunisia, performing, whatever has been said, major functions through their considerable contributions to the work of civil society associations, media, and even the Constituent Assembly when drafting the constitution.

We have to be merciful towards our intellectuals, and we must not project our illusions, perceptions and our complaint about politicians and their lies onto intellectuals.

Did you forget that most important things in the universal system of human rights are included in the new Tunisian constitution, including the freedom of conscience? Do you think this is a matter available for all? Isn’t this a thing made by the conscious intellectuals who cling to the value of freedom? And, to be honest, I personally learned about democracy, liberties, and the system of rule from Tunisian lawyers, through their interventions and their written, audio and visual debates, more than I ever learned from books. They have performed an educational and pedagogical role that can be performed only by intellectuals. We have to be merciful towards our intellectuals, and we must not project our illusions, perceptions and our complaint about politicians and their lies onto intellectuals. No people can enter the orbits of modernity without an intellectual elite, even if the movement of the masses seems spontaneous. Perhaps there is a change in the roles of the intellectuals, and their place, their image, and their ways of influence. Perhaps, their authority has changed and it has become more invisible. But, it will remain in one way or another.

AS: How do you assess the performance of politicians in Tunisia? And do you trust their discourse?

SM: What do you expect from a football player who remained on the bench without training for more than twenty years, and then the coach made him play in a decisive match? This is the situation of our politicians after the former president eradicated every element of political life.

In my opinion, the most important thing that the Tunisian revolution brought is the establishment of an anti-power for the first time in our history.

But this doesn’t negate the fact that the performance of the political class in Tunisia is weak, timid, and disappointing in its entirety. The political Tunisian scene is still in a state of formation and we need the birth of a new political class. As for the confidence in the discourse of politicians, I think that the matter is related to the intellectual’s function of criticism in general and his or her ethical place, which transgresses party calculations and the lust for power. In my opinion, the most important thing that the Tunisian revolution brought is the establishment of an anti-power for the first time in our history. Personally, I have chosen my place among this power from the beginning due to my innate doubt vis-à-vis politics and politicians.

This interview was originally published in Arabic, under a Creative Commons license, in the Lebanese electronic newspaper Al Modon on January 13, 2015.

Interviewer: Abdeddayem Sallami is a Tunisian writer and journalist specialized in cultural affairs.

Translator: Ali Znaidi is a Tunisian poet of English expression. He keeps a blog about Tunisian literature at tunisianlit.wordpress.com and you can see more of his work on his blog at aliznaidi.blogspot.com.