A Talk with Seif Eddine Nachi About ‘Une Révolution Tunisienne’

Special from Arabook.It

In January, the French publishing house Alifbata published the graphic novel Une Révolution Tunisienne. The graphic novel has now been published in an Arabic editing by the editorial project Soubia. Arabook had the opportunity to have a chat with the artist Seif Eddine Nachi. 

We are grateful to Seif Eddine for his availability, frankness, and humor: his vision of the comic has offered many interesting ideas and perspectives on Tunisian (and Arab) comics. 

Arabook: The graphic novel Une Révolution Tunisienne is midway between journalism and fiction and includes many elements related to your family history. Was it simple or difficult to transform all this into drawings and a narrative? 

Seif Eddine Nachi: I experienced the bread protest movement, unlike Aymen, who is younger than me. Nevertheless, he has links with those historical facts in his own family history. Yet from the beginning, Aymen and I knew we didn’t want to make a biographical novel; we put our memories into the narration, as well as what we heard about that historical period, and what we read and studied. 

Still, there are many references to our lives: for example, the elementary school I draw is my elementary school; the fact that the protagonist loses an arm refers to the fact that I was left-handed and by force they made me right-handed. The Tunisia described is in fact the country I lived in. My family and I had an apartment in a building where Italians, Jews, and French were neighbors . . . . It was a melting pot. When there were floods, everyone helped to remove the water from the entrance hall of the building. 

Arabook: Speaking of Italians, the comic makes reference to the Italian community of Tunis, even with some sentences in Italian… 

SEN: Absolutely. There were many Italians in Tunisia at that time. Maybe this is the reason I have always had a deep connection with Italy, ever since I was a child: I often went to my Italian neighbor to watch the broadcasting channel RAI, and at 10 I could speak Italian.

Arabook: Une Révolution Tunisienne comes with some interesting historical sources, which help the reader to frame the Tunisian historical context. How did you work on that part?

SEN: Aymen and I embarked on a very long journey of research; we have watched documentaries, read books, and visited several archives. I must say that we spent a lot of time researching, and we had a lot of fun. It is also important to mention that the historical facts of the “bread riots” have been taken up and used for propaganda by various political parties. It was therefore necessary to make a comparison of the sources. 

For a very long time, we could not find any articles about Chbayah in the archives: it was a legend. I had only a memory of this mysterious character and we had no concrete proof. One day, we found an article that mentioned Chbayah . . . . Well, that day was fantastic.

Arabook: How have you and Aymen organized the work in order to create a coherent story line? 

SEN: It is not the first time that Aymen and I have worked together. We were part of the Lab916 collective. While Aymen is more specialized in the scenario, I am the one who worked on the images. We have a great chemistry, and we respect each other: This is extremely important and the reason why we work so well together. There is this deep connection between us which also implies the possibility of criticizing each other: we do not take it personally. 

And in fact, for a long time we have tried to bring to life this graphic novel—confronting, making and undoing, and combining our ideas to reach the final narrative of the comic. He often came to my house and asked me “we could do this and this…” in short, it was a process of small steps but always in synchrony.

Arabook: Can you tell us something about the style chosen for this graphic novel? Which reader were you thinking of when you were making it?

SEN: My style is quite “sketchy.” I have redone the boards over and over again and in different styles, as I said, often asking Aymen for his opinion. It must be said that I tend to redo the boards very frequently. Most of the time, I am not very happy with my work. I tried different colors, different techniques before arriving at the final choice. Even now I am not convinced of some boards, but this is my peculiarity.

This reminds me of a cartoon I saw not long ago: The artist made several tests, and the final result was even worse than the initial sketch  . . . you could still see the pencil proofs of the drawings. Well, the cartoon was published like this. I found this very significant because I think that sometimes we need to give the artist the possibility of being human, of making and undoing. 

About the reader . . .  I haven’t thought of a particular reader. Rather, what interests me is: Was I able to activate emotions in the reader, to transmit movement, to create a coherent narrative?

Arabook: What are your thoughts on the current Tunisian comics scene? 

SEN: It is clear that comics have changed a lot since the previous century and have been freed from the limitation of being considered a product for children. However, at present, if you want to be a cartoonist and earn a living, you have to talk about some particular issues, say for example illegal immigration. 

I have an inherent difficulty with engagement or to consider myself “engaged,” in any form. I find that today’s artists, especially Arabs, are chained into themes and categories that don’t belong to me. So . . . I don’t have a real vision of Tunisian comics, but I know that at the moment there are no publications here ” talking to the people.” The ones who have succeeded in this are the Egyptians: The Egyptian cartoons speak to ordinary people, and this is fantastic.

Arabook: The graphic novel has just been released in standard Arabic by the Soubia publishing house. Why this choice and what are the objectives of the Soubia project?

Seif: We have chosen to publish in standard Arabic because probably, if the comic were in Tunisian Arabic, no one would read it. People don’t seem interested in the Tunisian dialect—I get the impression that they switch off their brains as soon as you start speaking Tunisian. The aim is for this work to be red outside Tunisia. 

About Soubia—this is a project which could go in different directions. We still don’t know what Soubia will become in the future, what we will focus on and how. I see that there is a need for illustrated books for children and we would like to try to find a place in this specific market. We will probably not only do paper editions, but we will focus on digital, as we believe that the book must not necessarily be on paper and must be accessible to all. Comics and picture books are extremely expensive here and there is not a real large market to tackle. Lastly, we must not forget the huge problem of the paper and printing costs. We are currently a niche market, but perhaps we want to keep working in this niche market  . . .  all options are possible at the moment, and it is an ongoing debate within Soubia.

This interview is also available at arabook.it, where you can read it in Italian.

Also read: ‘Une Révolte Tunisienne’: New Graphic Novel from Lab619 Co-founders