Tunisia: in Arabic or in French, Tunisian literature increasingly read

The Tunis International Book Fair is back after two years of absence due to Covid. About twenty countries are represented for this 36th edition, which puts Mauritania in the spotlight, with 150 Tunisian exhibitors and 300 Arab and international publishers.

Publishing houses are planning a scramble for books during the event, which will benefit from the traditional 20% discount until November 21.

For the writer Yamen Manai, whose fifth novel in French “Bel Abîme” was published in September, there is “a revival of the Tunisian literary scene, many bloggers and influencers, a craze for certain book releases and writers that the public is starting to follow and encourage“.

Explosion in sales of books written in “derja”

To his eyes, “it is the consequence of the turmoil that the country experienced after the revolution (of 2011), we want to relive after years of inaction“. Under the regime of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2011), no book came out without the blank check from the censorship office, he recalls. Today, Tunisian literature can”address previously taboo themes such as sexuality, intimacy“.

Its editor Elisabeth Daldoul, Palestinian-Tunisian founder, in 2005, of the Elyzad house, which accompanies other renowned authors like Ali Bécheur, draws up a similar observation. “For the older generations, there were topics they didn’t talk about. The youngest do not put this pressure on themselves” and are “much less padlocked“, according to her.

The Al Kitab bookstore in Tunis, Tunisia.

Elyzad, devoted internationally in 2021 with the Goncourt of the Premier novel (Emilienne Malfatto with “Que sur toi se laments le Tigre”), proposes “novels at Tunisian prices (around 10 dinars, around 3 euros) so that people can access them“, explains Elisabeth Daldoul, who has her books printed in Tunisia. While she was one of the pioneers, there are now”around twenty (local) publishers, including five in French“, she congratulates herself.

Jamel Chérif, the manager of the famous El Kitab bookstore on avenue Bourguiba in Tunis confirms the boom in Tunisian literature, in particular in “derja“, the local Arabic dialect. He qualifies as”book-phenomenon” the novel “Hestiriya“by the author Faten Fazaa, who dares to break the taboos on prostitution or homosexuality.”In less than a month, we sold 800 copies, 38 per day on average“, explains Jamel Chérif.

With the current situation in Tunisia, marked by a political, economic and health crisis, readers (…) are looking for books that tell their daily life.

Jamel Chérif, manager of the El Kitab bookstore

Such a success is explained, according to him, by the original choice to write in Tunisian Arabic: “even someone who has never owned a book can read it. And his books speak of everyday life with sometimes intimate stories“.

Another success: the works of Hassanine Ben Ammou, which relate, by mixing literary Arabic and dialect, Tunisian history through the life of endearing characters (“Rahmana” for example).

“Political will”

Jamel Chérif notices the readings’ appetite for works that are linked to reality: “With the current situation in Tunisia, marked by a political, economic and health crisis, readers (…) are looking for books that tell about their daily lives, talk about their society, their traditions and their way of life.“.

No doubt also that the “price factor explains the high demand for Tunisian books because they are much cheaper than others“, he says. At comparable purchasing power,”it’s as if an imported book was sold for 340 euros“, supports Elisabeth Daldoul, stressing that”this problem arises throughout the Maghreb“.

For the editor, the taste of Tunisians for books asks only to be encouraged. “Since 2011, many book clubs have flourished all over the country, they will probably produce vocations“, she estimates. Even if rare are the bookstores outside Tunis or large cities like Sfax or Bizerte.

Libraries must once again become places of exchange.

Elisabeth Daldoul, editor

In a country “long precursor“with 400 public libraries, today”often dying or transformed into reading rooms“,”it would take political will, promote books at school, train librarians, etc.“, she pleads.

By associating publishers and book clubs, “it wouldn’t take much“, believes Elisabeth Daldoul, so that people more easily push the doors of bookstores and that libraries”become places of exchange again“.

This year, the three most prestigious literary prizes have been awarded to African authors. South African Damon Galgut won the Booker Prize, the most popular award for novels written in English. The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the Tanzanian Abdulrazak Gurnah. At 31, Senegalese Mohamed Mbougar Sarr became the first writer from sub-Saharan Africa to win the Goncourt, Grail of French letters, for his novel “The most secret memory of men“.

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Tunisia: in Arabic or in French, Tunisian literature increasingly read