The many varieties of modern Tunisian literatures were the focus of a two-day workshop co-hosted by Hanan Natour and Professor Mohamed-Salah Omri in Berlin – from Arabic to Francophone, written to oral, and pre-colonial to post-colonial.
By Hanan Natour
What can modern Tunisian literatures tell us about the country’s literary voices, socio-political controversies, and historical reflections? Is the literature published by Tunisian writers partly in standard Arabic, French, and Tunisian vernaculars unique, and if yes, how so? How do modern Tunisian literatures relate to the wider literary context of the Maghreb, as well as to Arabic and world literature?
These were some of the questions discussed in the two-day in-person workshop “Modern Tunisian Literatures” at Freie Universität Berlin on 29–30 September 2022, which was co-hosted by Hanan Natour (Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies) and Professor Mohamed-Salah Omri (University of Oxford) and funded by the Dahlem Humanities Center’s Dahlem Junior Host Program, The Berlin University Alliance, and St. John’s College Oxford. The two meeting days were divided into publicly accessible presentations and discussions, and conceptual meetings. The format of a workshop thus underlined the collaborative process and work-in-progress character of proceedings, to which interested members of the public were invited to participate.
Tunisia is predominantly studied through the lenses of politics and religion. This workshop, however, placed the humanities, and literature in particular, at the forefront of the conversation to set the ground for a continued discussion of Tunisian literary voices within their local, regional, and international context. Participants explored how Tunisian literatures can grasp realities that lie beyond the borders of other disciplines. In other words, the event uncovered stories told by Tunisian literary voices and what we can learn from them. What forms, styles, and registers have Tunisian literatures adopted over the past century?
Readers might wonder why speak of Tunisian literatures in the plural. The plural term captures the multiplicity of literary realities in the modern Tunisian context. This includes the overlapping languages and vibrant multilingualisms that shape lives – from Arabic to French, to different dialects, to traces of Amazigh – as well as a tendency to question the boundaries of genres and literary historical periodisation.
While academic institutions and departments are still structured mono-lingually by area or language, everyday life in Tunisia shows a more complex linguistic reality. It is the Tunisian colloquial, al-dārijah, that is the speech of daily interactions, but in itself includes elements from different languages such as Arabic, French, and Italian. These elements are traces of the different powers that dominated North Africa before and after nation-states were established. Speaking to people in the dialect may involve starting a sentence in French and ending it in Arabic, or using words derived from Amazigh languages, without realising. The Tunisian dialect also varies depending on where you are within the country – whether in Northern Bizerta or Southern Tataouine, whether in a coastal-urban or rural area.
Some members of the elite would have gone to French lycées and speak the dialect, but not be able to access the world of classical Arabic literatures. This is partly due to the difference between the standard Arabic spoken in media today and the many dialects spoken across countries of the Middle East and North Africa, which can be compared to speaking German, but writing in Dutch, or the reverse. As a result, you would get the gist of what has been said or written, but not necessarily understand every detail, unless you have studied it in greater depth. Besides this discrepancy, people’s access to different literary realities has been impacted by linguistic policies – pro-French or pro-Arabic, to cite only the most prominent example – and by censorship exerted both during the French colonial rule and after Tunisia became independent in 1956.
These overlapping languages lead to a varied literary reality, too. The workshop was designed to address this multifaceted nature through an interdisciplinary approach, stretching from Arabic to French studies, comparative literature, and the visual arts. These subjects and perspectives were reflected by nine contributors and their respective original take on modern Tunisian literatures. Some presentations focused on Francophone texts, some on Arabic, and others again read these two sources of literature in comparison. Another way to grasp the realities of these multiple languages and literatures was to go back in time, asking, for example, how historical novels deal with the pre-colonial Tunisian context. Looking at texts from different genres, including novels, plays, and poetry, but also stretching to the literary controversies prevalent in cultural periodicals across different periods, was another way of extending the dimensions within which Tunisian literatures are being thought and spoken about.
One of the challenges resulting from a focus on Tunisian literatures is to avoid essentialising its characteristics as exclusively Tunisian, although they might actually be shared with other North African literatures, as well as with the wider field of Arabic literatures, and even world literature. Literatures of the Levant and Egypt, however, have been studied in much more detail before. What this workshop and the group’s on-going work on modern Tunisian literatures aims for is to find a balance between these poles: of devoting attention to the specific Tunisian literary context, while also reading it within the context of regional and global literary movements and discourses.
One key outcome of the workshop and the project as a whole is that this conversation on the many facets of modern Tunisian literatures will continue – first through further events and conceptual meetings, and more long-term in an edited volume. The envisaged book will be the first English-language edited volume devoted entirely to modern Tunisian literatures and aims to share insights into this literary field with a wider audience.
Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to receive further information on future “Modern Tunisian Literatures” events, in case you did not register for the initial workshop.
Hanan Natour is a German-Palestinian PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin and a research associate at the ERC-funded project “PalREAD – Country of Words: Reading and Reception of Palestinian Literature from 1948 to the Present”. Her doctoral research at the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies focuses on “Narratives of Liberation, Emancipation, and Decoloniality in Contemporary Tunisian Arabic Prose”.