While the Arabic-language literature in Tunisia has its roots back to the 700s, French-language literature in the country did not grow until the early 1900s. When it comes to today’s publications, it is thought that Arabic-language literature amounts to about twice as much as French-language. As a result of the “Arab Spring” beginning with the revolution in Tunisia in 2011, some young French-language writers from this country have received particular attention throughout the French-speaking world.
Freedom, persecution and breakup
Tunisia was strongly influenced by French values until independence in 1956, and even after independence, the country has been one of the more Western-oriented in the Arab world. But although Tunisia has been characterized by radical and culturally hostile Islamism to a small extent, many authors have left their homeland, either for good or for a period, under Habib Bourguibas and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule.
The fact that Tunisia has a large Jewish population is also reflected in the literature. During World War II, the country was subject to the Vichy government in France, and during that time there were major Jewish persecutions in Tunisia. After the war, many Tunisian Jews left the country and emigrated especially to Israel. However, both before and after independence, several Tunisian writers have had Jewish backgrounds, which has greatly influenced their books.
Because many modern Tunisian writers have chosen to move to Europe or America or live abroad for short or long periods, themes such as break-up, emigration and land volatility play an important role in the new Tunisian literature. It may therefore seem that this literature often conveys an experience of restlessness and unrest.
The interwar period
Some of the first Tunisian writers who wrote in French were characterized by their coming from Muslim communities. Perhaps the most famous of these was Mahmoud Aslan, born 1902, dead after 1971. He was an official, but also published a number of novels and short stories from the early 1930s onwards. Other writers of this generation belonged to the great Jewish colonies. A typical representative of these is Ryvel (pseudonym of Raphaël Lévy, (1898-1972)), who wrote both novels and educational and historical works.
Albert Memmi (born 1920), one of North Africa’s best known authors, also comes from a Jewish environment. His first novels and essays, inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre and e- existentialism, among others, address issues related to colonialism. But they also depict how he as a Jew feels foreign in his country because he can neither be considered Europeans nor Arabs. Later his theme became more and more general and his form more experimental. All of Memmi’s authorship is characterized by a deeply pessimistic basic attitude.
The postwar period: A multicultural literature
Mustapha Tlil ( 1937–2017), who spent most of her adult life in New York and Paris, portrays people in a modern international and multicultural environment. Abdelwahab Meddeb (1946–2014) lived in France and considered himself a French and Tunisian author. His form was experimental; he often made use of intertextuality and used ever-changing narrative angles. Like many other authors of his generation, he opposed extreme trends in Islam. He was also keen to show kinship and connections between Western and Arab culture.
One of Tunisia’s most original and versatile writers is Hédi Bouraoui (born 1932). He has spent much of his life in Canada and became a Canadian citizen in 1971. Bouraoui, not least, has worked to create a common platform for all French-language literature outside France. The themes of the lyric and his novels also revolve around the unity and community of people from different countries and cultures.
Ali Bécheur (born 1939), who is considered among the central writers in today’s Tunisia, has primarily made his mark on the novels published after the turn of the millennium. He writes in particular about the relationship between fathers and sons, and his portrayal of authoritarian father figures is at the same time a criticism of features of Tunisia’s society before the revolution in 2011. Also Fawzi Mellah (born 1946) is an important representative of modern Tunisian novel writing. He has spent much of his adult life in Switzerland. Mellah is one of the few Tunisian writers dealing with historical issues. This is how he wants to show that the problems facing modern Tunisia can often be explained by circumstances in the past.
A characteristic feature of Tunisian French-language literature is that many women have asserted themselves. Particularly famous are Hélé Béji (born 1948) and Fawzia Zouari (born 1955). Both have pursued academic careers in their homeland, and they have published both fiction and essays where they discuss, among other things, what it takes to create mutual understanding between Europeans and moderate Muslims. The subject of Belhadj Yahia (born 1945) has not become as well known internationally, but has gained recognition in his home country both as a philosopher and as a novelist.
Azza Filali (born 1952) is a doctor of education. In her novels, she shows not least why religious fundamentalism has become a threat to women’s health. Cécile Oumhani (born 1952) is of Tunisian genealogy, but lived as a child in a number of countries and came to Tunisia first to adulthood. She has portrayed different sides by having roots in multiple cultures. With this background, she also fights for greater understanding between people from the Middle East and Europe. The same generation also belongs to Noura Bensaad. She has a French mother and Tunisian father and lived as a young man for several years in Italy, but later settled in Tunisia. Her writing is small; it includes a novel and some short story collections. She is particularly inspired by Latin American literature and is considered the Tunisian author who most consistently represents magical realism.
In many of the Tunisian lyricists, traditional lyrical themes gain a distinctive content through their ethnic background and often multicultural orientation. This applies, among other things, to Mohammed Aziza (born 1940), who is also a historian and anthropologist, Alain Suied (1951–2008) is very influenced by his Jewish background. Typical of his poetry is also a strong sense of death. Tahar Bekri (born 1951) who has lived in Paris from 1976, has published lyric in both French and Arabic. He has also written several monographsabout writers from Tunisia and other countries in North Africa. Majid El-Houssi’s poetry (1941–2008) is characterized by his being a professor of Italian and highly influenced by Italian culture. Aggression and sarcasm are typical features of the lyrics of Salah Garmadi (1933–82), who wrote both French and Arabic and were also important as a translator.
Among female Tunisian lyricists, Amina Saïd (born 1953) is the most famous. Through her intense erotic and esoteric poetry she fights for feminist, social and cultural liberation. Saïd has also recreated Tunisian folk tales and translated lyrics from Spanish and English. She has herself been translated into a number of languages, including English and German, and some of her poems are in bilingual editions (French and English).
Literature and film
Several well-known Tunisian writers have also made their mark as filmmakers. Serge Mati (born 1946), who has spent most of his work in France, has portrayed the situation of the Jews in a Muslim environment, both in books and in films. He has also been concerned with the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. Also Sonia Chamkho, is best known as a filmmaker, but in recent years has also been active as a novelist.
The youngest generation
Most of the younger Tunisian writers write in Arabic, but a few of the youngest writers in French have made their mark. One of these is Yamen Manaï (born 1980). He is Arabic-speaking but hates choosing to write in French, which he experiences as a foreign language. By education he is a computer engineer, and his novels are characterized by great interest in modern natural sciences. At the same time, they have a certain sense of adventure, and they have been compared to Voltaire’s philosophical stories. In particular, the latest of Manaï’s novels, L’Amas has ardent(2016, “The Burning Heap” has been noted. This is a fable about an old beekeeper taking up the fight when his beloved bees are attacked by a swarm of aggressive wasps. Like all of Manaï’s books, it depicts the struggle between humanistic and authoritarian values in it Arab World In 2017, the novel received the highest literary award for French-language literature outside France.
Another author of this generation who writes in French is Aymen Hacen (born 1981). Hacen has already published a number of poetry collections, and he is also important as a critic and essayist. He is particularly inspired by Romanian writer Emil Cioran and Irish writer Samuel Beckett. Both of these authors wrote a significant part of their work in French. They are both known for a very pessimistic view of reality and a nihilistic view of value. Therefore, Hacen also builds on a literary tradition that is very different from the attitudes that usually characterize Muslim literature.
In Tunisia, several publishers of good quality have gradually developed. But because so many of the country’s writers have had to live abroad, much of this literature is first published in France or other French-speaking countries, and then published in the authors’ homeland.