Shukrii Mabkhout is not just a novelist — he's the biographer of modern Tunisia.
When I met the novelist Shukri Mabkhout in his office on the campus of Manouba University, where he is president, he stood up from a wide, clean desk in the center of the room and led me to another desk tucked away in the corner, almost hidden, and covered in scattered newspapers, books, and official paperwork. Mabkhout is not afraid of chaos — it’s what drives his fiction.
“The novel for me is a way of looking into the chaos of a society even if it at first glance it appears stable and coherent,” said Mabkhout, while sipping a Turkish coffee and puffing a cigarette. Years of chain-smoking have given his smooth baritone voice a subtle rasp. “The chaos described in the book is not my own chaos. It is a chaos of a society in transition from one regime to another.”
Mabkhout’s debut novel, The Italian, tells the story of a leftist student named Abdel Nasser as he navigates the political and social tumult that accompanied one of the most dramatic moments in modern Tunisian history — the day in 1987 when Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali seized power from then-President Habib Bourguiba. But it was likely because of the book’s intriguing parallels with another transition — that of modern-day Tunisia from dictatorship to democracy — that it won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (often known colloquially as the “Arab Booker”) in 2015. It was the first book by a Tunisian author to win the prestigious award.
Likely due to its controversial subject matter, the book was initially — albeit briefly — banned in the United Arab Emirates. Ironically, the Arab Booker’s annual cash prize is funded by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority and it was there, the Emirati capital, that the award was to be presented. Months later, Mabkhout’s novel was excluded from the Kuwait International Book Fair. None of this stopped it from becoming a bestseller in Tunisia.
The Italian recounts the struggle of Tunisia’s political student movements to achieve freedom and recognition during the political transition of the 1980s. Because of restrictions on expression and assembly, Tunisian universities, and especially their departments for the study of humanities and the law, became major outlets for the currents of political dissent running through the rest of the body politic.
“The university was for a long time the only place for open political debate in the country,” Mabkhout told me. “Political parties — especially those on the left — who were struggling against the ruling regime but didn’t have the capacity to really fight it, used their youth groups within the student movements to shake the apparent stability of the regime.”
A contemporary reader is struck by the manner in which many of the political debates that divided Tunisia’s youth at the time — particularly debates about the role of Islam in society and the rights and freedoms of women — are the same that divide its political leaders today. According to Mabkhout, this is no coincidence: Yesterday’s student activists are the leading members of today’s newly formed political class.
“Sometimes they’re even the same faces,” he said, citing Mohsen Marzouk, the co-founder of Tunisia’s current ruling party, and Chokri Belaid, the leftist politician whose assassination in 2013 led to a political crisis, as well as other figures similarly active in student politics in their youth.
Because of these continuities, the author hopes his novel will be able to touch the younger generation — those who were born after Ben Ali’s 1987 coup d’état — by introducing them to an episode of the nation’s history that is still not well-known and is not taught in schools. They may recognize quite a bit of what they read.
“The political struggles between the different political movements that were discussed in the book are still the same,” he said. “It’s still the same fight between liberals and leftists and conservatives, mainly Islamist ones.”
Born in 1962 to a middle-class family in Tunis, Mabkhout witnessed those formative conflicts first as a student in the coastal town of Sousse, then as a young professor at the university over which he now presides. Ideological debates in his university years took place in the context of bitter economic discontent; tensions escalated amid an IMF austerity program that cut food subsidies and set off a wave of nationwide protests. The bread riots of 1984 were violently repressed, leaving 89 dead, according to official statistics.
But in Mabkhout’s childhood, his mother gave him more practical advice about baked goods. “She used to tell us: ‘If you want to eat cake and croissant, you have to take school seriously, but if you want to eat stale bread, you don’t have to go to school,’” he said with a smile.
Though illiterate herself, she encouraged him to read and study, and he duly devoured books on politics, philosophy, and literature. By the time the polarized 1980s arrived, he was too much the skeptical intellectual to throw in his lot unreservedly with any political faction.
“By the time I got to university, I was vaccinated against political movements. I was in contradiction with Islamists, with leftists, and with nationalists. I saw that that there was theoretical weakness in all of those movements,” said Mabkhout. “I disputed every idea and criticized every ideology.”
That distance allowed him to make friends with different political leanings, giving him the time to observe and understand interactions he would come to portray in his novel.
The Italian benefits from the author’s nuanced characterization, a feature that drew praise from the award’s judges. Among Mabkhout’s more memorable creations is his protagonist, Abdel Nasser, a charming rake who is transformed by events from a passionate idealist to a canny pragmatist. Then there’s Lella Jenaina, the lascivious neighbor who introduces both Abdel Nasser and his brother to sex. But most striking among Mabkhout’s cast is Zina, Abdel Nasser’s wife.
Zina was the most difficult and complex character for Mabkhout to create, but she was also the one who came most resemble her author. She shares Mabkhout’s passion for reading and fierce skepticism toward all ideologies. Through her, we are introduced to the intimate and painful sufferings of Tunisia’s women, like incest, rape, and sexual harassment in academic institutions.
Mabkhout said that he sought to depict not only the hurdles facing Tunisian women, but also their strength and intelligence in seeking to overcome those difficulties. In the end, though, the novel doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the options for women in a society that, in Mabkhout’s words, was “built on rape.”
Indeed, though Tunisian women are often rated by nongovernmental organizations and other outside observers as enjoying the highest level of human rights in the region, they still suffer from stark restrictions in sex and marriage, rampant domestic abuse, and a patriarchal culture built around male honor. “We need to stop talking about Tunisian women as an example for the Arab world,” Mabkhout said. “Yes, they might have some gains that their peers in neighboring countries don’t have, but we need to focus more on what is missing and what still needs to be done to achieve full equality.”
The status of women is one of several issues that have animated post-revolution debates. Some politicians have recently introduced the idea, for example, of finally placing women’s inheritance rights on legal par with men’s. Under the current system, women inherit only half of what their brothers get unless a will specifies otherwise. Mabkhout strongly advocates reform of the law, but he notes that this one, like so many other proposed changes, has gotten lost in the muddle of Tunisia’s transition. Mabkhout blames some of this inertia on the inability of his old student activist colleagues to adapt to Tunisia’s present-day political climate. “They’re still adjusting to the current situation, a context of democratic transition. They aren’t used to democracy,” he said. “They found themselves in a new reality but they don’t have the tools to cope with it.”
In a country mired in economic stagnation, threatened by terrorism, and burdened by a lack of strong political leadership, the arts may not seem like the most obvious place to look for such tools. But for Mabkhout, creative people do have a role to play in guiding Tunisia through the troubled waters of transition.
“Nations live by their symbols,” said the novelist. “George Washington and the like, they’re all symbols of nations, but people here have come to realize that there is a political void…. We’re starting to fill this void, but we need more work from writers and artists, poets and creators, to forge these symbols, so they can be anchored in the collective memory.”
The Italian offers no simple narratives to serve as manifestos for Tunisia’s new generation of revolutionaries and radicals. But perhaps by revisiting the old patterns of his country’s history — the reflexes and neuroses of identity and tradition that recur like nervous tics — Mabkhout has managed to shake up the Tunisian mentality just a bit, raising the lid on his beloved chaos just enough to provoke knowledge-hungry young literati into seeking out new narratives and new possibilities.
Photo credit: SOPHIA BARAKET for Foreign Policy
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Missing the Old Days: Tunisia is a democracy. Here’s a man who still mourns for the old regime.
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Not Arab, and Proud of It: Tunisia’s long-suppressed Amazigh minority is finding its voice for the first time in years.
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Crisis of Governance: Local Edition: In many ways, democratic Tunisia remains just as centralized as it was before the revolution. And that’s a big problem for the mayor of Kasserine.
Tunisia’s Dying Jazz: New freedoms have brought art and religion into conflict, threatening to crush a tradition trapped in the middle.
Trouble in the Wild East: The border town of Ben Guerdane is a haven for smugglers. Locals would like to keep it that way.
Terms of Abuse: On paper, Tunisia’s revolution has boosted legal protections for women. Yet the reality is starkly different.
Five Years of the New Tunisia: From revolution to disillusionment and back again: Milestones on Tunisia’s rocky path to democracy.
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Tunisia’s War on Islam: Is overzealous prosecution of the war on terror contributing to radicalization?