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from the December 2017 issue

We Take the Present in Our Own Hands: Writing by Tunisian Women

Acclaimed writer and translator Cécile Oumhani introduces our December issue featuring contemporary writing by Tunisian women.


What do Tunisian women write today? It is now almost seven years since the people of Tunisia put an end to dictatorship. And it is over sixty years since Tunisian women obtained a status women in neighboring countries are still dreaming of. What could be achieved at the time of the Arab Spring was in many ways the result of the high degree of involvement of Tunisian women in all areas of public life. The urge to write immediate testimonies about the unprecedented events of 2011 has certainly eased as years have gone by. Have these changes affected women's writing? If so, how?

When a country overthrows a dictatorial regime that has lasted for decades, the whole society is reorganized in depth. Relationships are redefined at all levels, collective as well as individual, public and private. The perception we have of ourselves, where we are in the world, in time and space, is also completely altered. It is not just the future that offers new perspectives, as we take the present in our own hands. The past also appears under a different light, as it is re-evaluated in the context of a new freedom of expression.

Whether they are men or women, writers are keen observers of the world around them. Human passions, the mechanisms of power and oppression at work in their society hold few secrets for them. Writers will sometimes be so perceptive that they almost foresee events before they actually unfold. This is apparent in some novels published before the Tunisian revolution, where the events of 2011 seem to be already in the making. The vision of a possible future underlying a novel is especially striking, at a time when writers had to contend with censorship and develop strategies of circumvention. 

The writers here present astute portraits of Tunisia just before and after the Arab Spring. They reflect the intensity of long pent-up emotions and the anguish born with times of uncertainty. These texts were chosen from today’s Tunisian literary scene, with some writers expressing themselves in Arabic and others in French.  

Emna Belhaj Yahia had almost finished writing her novel Jeux de rubans (Game of Ribbons) when the revolution broke out. The main character is a middle-aged woman, free from the constraints of traditional Tunisia.  She moves between her old mother, whom she takes care of, the companion she chose after her divorce, and her adult son. She grew up after women gained access to public life and became a university professor. Now in her fifties, she is struck by the growing number of young women wearing headscarves, at odds with the lifestyle and values women of her own generation treasured.

“El qâtil” (The Killer), Emna Rmili's short story, captures the many terrible times that people were gunned down as they demonstrated. Narrated by a policeman aiming his weapon at a demonstrator, it is a vivid and cruel evocation of the repression that led to the fall of Ben Ali in a matter of weeks.

Les intranquilles (The Restless), Azza Filali's novel, covers the year 2011 and ends with the election of the constitutional assembly at the end of October. She depicts several characters with different social backgrounds as they are confronted with the changes around them. An old man arrives in the capital looking for work. Another man is haunted by the time he was tortured at the Ministry of Interior, before he spent fifteen years in jail for belonging to an Islamist party. A corrupt banker is seeking to hide his practices during the time the former regime was in power. In the episode appearing here, another man visits a dermatologist whose clientele is rapidly decreasing in the wake of the revolution. Azza Filali describes a changing world with biting irony and insight.

Noura Bensaad is well known for her exquisite short stories. Set in Mediterranean atmospheres, they retain a dreamlike quality. She is attentive to her characters' aspirations and disillusionments in a social environment she suggests in faint touches. She gives us “L'étranger et la vieille dame” (The Stranger and the Old Lady). The stranger is observing a mysterious dimly-lit scene in a street, where he comes across an old lady and has a brief vision of a couple passing.

In addition to these fiction writers, the issue presents two poets. Ines Abassi's poetry powerfully delineates emotions and the outer world, blending them together into personal inner landscapes. Beyond the light of a Mediterranean city, she also suggests the darkness of the past, only to celebrate life, desire and resilience.

Amina Saïd's poetry embraces past and present. Beyond a specific sense of place, it questions our passage on earth. It erases borders between sounds and silence, colors and darkness, the diurnal and the nocturnal, highlighting timeless, hidden currents, underlying our selves, as well as the memory of trees. 

An unheard-of process is still underway in Tunisia. It will still take a long time for past wounds to heal and for Tunisian citizens’ dreams to come true. A period of such deep change will undoubtedly remain a source of inspiration for writers, just as their words on the page will go on questioning past, present and future. Countries have always needed that back and forth movement between the inky mirrors of literature and a reality that is constantly in the making.

© 2017 Cécile Oumhani. All rights reserved.

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