By Maria Laura Romani
This year begins with the release of a new graphic novel from the French publishing house Alifbata éditions,Une révolte Tunisienne: La Légende de Chbayah, which is being touted as the first full-length Tunisian graphic novel published in French translation. The work will be simultaneously published in Arabic by the Tunisian publishing house Soubia.
The author-illustrator team are Tunisians Seif Eddine Nechi (illustrator) and Aymen Mbarek (author), the co-founders of the acclaimed Tunisian comix magazine Lab619 and long-time collaborators who co-won the prize for best digital graphic novel for Bombyx More at CairoComix in 2017.
The French translation was done by Marianne Babut, who was also involved in the publication of La bande-dessinée arabe aujourd’hui (Alifbata, 2018) and was co-translator of Lena Merhej’s Murabba wa laban(Alifbata, 2018).
Une révolte Tunisienne is set in between history and fiction, with the main story taking place in the days of the Tunisian “bread riots.” This uprising, which took place between December 1983 and January 1984, was triggered by the rise of bread prices and was brutally suppressed by the ruling regime. At that time, Tunisians discovered through the radio a character called Chbayah, which refers to a little ghost in Tunisian Arabic, and was the name given to Casper in the movie. And the goal of Chbayah and his radio raids? To sidetrack and sow discord in the ranks of the army as they suppressed the revolt.
Chbayah is a character who has remained shrouded in mystery, a legend that offers Seif Eddine Nechi and Aymen Mbarek one of pivot points of this graphic novel: Chbayah inspires and accompanies the little boy Salem. With the help of an old walkie-talkie, Salem and his grandfather sabotage police repression and help raise the spirits of Tunisians. Yet, as the reader will see, the story goes far beyond the days of the “bread riots” and entangles other important moments of the Tunisian history, such as the repression of the 70s and the Second World War.
To expand the reader’s knowledge of the historical and social framework, Alifbata has added a series of historical sources at the end of the graphic novel in what makes for an interesting section.
In the drawings by Seif Eddine Nechi, you will find several allegorical images that run in parallel to the main story of the graphic novel. In this intertwining of stories, times, symbolisms, and artistic references, we really grasp the skill of the two Tunisian artists: by the time you turn the last page of this book, you will have the impression of having read not one, but many stories.
The reader experiences different comic styles and techniques, underlining the skill of Seif Eddine Nechi, who won first prize at CairoComix in 2016 for “best digital comic” with his work on Tawahoch, which was also a finalist for the Mahmoud Kahlil prize. Here, he demonstrates his ability to switch from one style to another in the same book. This is Seif’s first experiment with long-form work; previously, he has mainly worked on short visual stories.
The chosen colors reinforce the narrative: in the flashbacks that characterize the story, we find a predominance of black and white, and then we move into pastel colors. In contrast, the allegorical pages light up with vibrant colors.
The collaboration between Soubia and Alifbata is supported in part by l’Institut français.
This is running simultaneously at arabook.it, where you can read it in Italian.
Maria Laura Romani holds a Master’s Degree from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and has focused her research on Arab comics, especially from Egypt. Maria Laura joined the Arabook team in 2014. Arabook is an Italian distributor of Arab books. Located in Italy and managed by the researcher and translator Enrica Battista, Arabook aims to promote Arab authors and their work in Italy. Through the years, Arabook has become a point of reference for Italian libraries, bookstores, and language schools. The catalog includes publications for adults and children and can be found at www.arabook.it