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Empty Words? Tunisian Writers Face Hard Times Amid Economic Slump

Tunisia- Tunisian writers
Young Tunisians look through copies of comic books and graphic novels, 2017, Tunis. Photo: FETHI BELAID / AFP ©AFP ⁃ FETHI BELAID

The worsening economic situation in Tunisia after the 2011 revolution discouraged the development of a vibrant literary market. After the fall of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, it was no longer the harsh censorship that encouraged authors to publish elsewhere but the rapid decrease in Tunisians’ purchasing power.

“Many authors realize that between 30 and 65 Tunisian dinars [$10.45 and $22.62] for a book is out of the reach of an average Tunisian citizen with a monthly salary of about 600 dinars,” Lotfi Jallouli from al-Kitab bookshop in the capital Tunis told Fanack. As a result, high-profile writers such as Fawzia Zouari, author of the prize-winning novel Le corps de ma mère, and Habib Selmi choose to publish their books in France and Lebanon respectively.

“Tunisian publishers have a very limited budget for book-marketing services,” Jallouli continued, “Authors who publish through Tunisian publishers find new ways to tap into the market and reach out to more readers. We are seeing an increasing number of reading clubs that grow organically via Facebook.”

Even so, the market remains restricted. “Books are considered as school material, to quickly forget once the school period is over,” said Selma Jabbas, al-Kitab’s owner, in an interview with ActuaLitté. “Our clientele is limited to intellectuals who love books. The book has long been considered a dangerous product and has suffered from censorship for 50 years.”

According to figures released by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Tunisians read an average of 0.58 books per year, compared to 35 per year in Europe. Economics is not the only reason for this low number. Books have lost out to cinemas, mosques and sport clubs as a way to spend leisure time, said Elyes Rebhi, head of the ministry’s public reading department.

After the end of censorship post-2011, books that were previously banned became instant favourites. Presumably engendered by the rapid political and social changes, Tunisians also became increasingly interested in their own neglected history, sociology, philosophy and psychology.

Times of change and upheaval are fascinating for any writer. Former politicians, sociologists and political scientists have all been eager to document and explain the so-called ‘Tunisian exception’ as other countries in the region descended into violence. Religion, contemporary history and historic figures have also provided a rich source of inspiration. Numerous books have been published about Habib Bourguiba (1903-2000), the first president after independence from France and a highly symbolic figure. Women and Terrorism, published in 2017, emerged as a must-read book for people interested in gender and terrorism in post-revolutionary Tunisia.

Young authors have arguably benefited the most from the new freedom of speech, breaching previously taboo topics such as homosexuality, female sexuality, misogyny and neglected history. Aymen Daboussi (1982) has published two controversial books so far. His first book, Black Erection (2015), explores the sexual experiences of a youth group in post-revolutionary Tunisia. The second, News from Razi (2017), is a damning account of the psychiatric care offered at Razi Hospital in Tunis.

Khaoula Hamdi (1984), a contemporary of Daboussi’s, wrote the 2012 bestseller In My Heart a Jewish Girl, about an orphaned Muslim girl who is taken in by a Jewish family on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The book was widely read across the Arab-speaking world as well as being translated into Persian and dramatized.

Clearly, there is no shortage of compelling stories to inspire Tunisian writers. Whether they can inspire Tunisian readers to open their wallets is less certain.

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