‘A Tunisian Tale’ by Hassouna Mosbahi
William Armstrong - firstname.lastname@example.org
Tunisian boys run away as they throw stones at a police station in the southern border town of Ben Guerdane. AFP photo‘A Tunisian Tale’ by Hassouna Mosbahi, translated by Max Weiss (American University in Cairo Press, 142 pages)
When reading Arabic fiction from around a decade ago, it’s always tempting to look for clues of social alienation and individual frustration that erupted in the Arab Spring in 2011. Few people saw those revolutions coming, but retrospectively the signs were there in the books written in preceding years. Thousands of stories reflected a latent, combustible energy on the brink of boiling over.
“A Tunisian Tale” by novelist Hassouna Mosbahi can be read as one such example. First appearing in Arabic in 2008 and recently published in an English translation, it is a raw, claustrophobic book about frustrated ambitions, urban desperation and hopelessness. The narrative is brilliantly paced, with an almost Shakespearean sense of characters embroiled in tragic situations where fate beats towards an inescapable conclusion.
The action circles around a single killing. Chapters alternate between first-person monologues spoken by a son, Alaa al-Din, and his late mother Najma. The sociopathic Alaa is on death row awaiting execution for the murder of Najma, who speaks to us from beyond the grave. Each chapter teases out the backstory that led to the grisly central event. We read on eagerly, piecing together details like we’re reading a thriller.
The beautiful Najma was born in a remote Tunisian village where beauty is “a liability, a danger to its possessor,” attracting unwanted attention and malicious rumors. She says she rarely went outside, “and whenever I did so, I’d feel the entire village, its animals, vegetables and minerals, monitoring me, scrutinizing every move I made, checking every word that fell from me tongue.” She enters a loveless marriage in order to trade the village for the city, ending up in an impoverished slum on the outskirts of Tunis, full of “migrants from the mountains and the distant deserts who had fled famines and plagues.”
Life there is no easier in the slum than in the village. Najma is still subjected to nefarious rumors from local men keen to woo her and from local women jealous of her beauty. “The world around me was all smoke and dust, cheerless melancholy, as malicious, angry, and cruel eyes monitored my every move,” she laments. Her husband gets killed trying to defend the family’s honor, and Najma’s unwanted son blames her for his his father’s death. Gnawed at by the rumors and embittered by the cramped horizons of an impoverished, conservative society, he douses his mother in petrol and lights a match in an act of blind rage.
“A Tunisian Tale” is a searing portrait of the harrowing effects of circumstances on fate and the moral corrosiveness of environment. Alaa is trapped between an emasculated daily reality and crazed, destructive action. “I had a particular taste for Westerns, violent films, and true crime,” he says at one point, hinting at his troubled emotional landscape. “You might even say I was addicted to watching them. I used to identify with the heroes, especially those who got revenge for something that had happened to them when they were younger or those who had been deceived and double-crossed by people.” In another nod to social decay, Alaa observes elsewhere that “the number of people who had started talking to themselves in our country had increased in a shocking manner over the last few years.”
The book is not without flaws. Mosbahi’s voice sometimes impinges on the words of both mother and son. At one point, for example, the former says inhabitants of their slum are “forced to leave their small villages behind, to flood into the peripheries of the capital, like swarms of locusts searching for verdant lands during a time of famine and drought. Dreaming of a better life, they quickly found themselves having lost everything, and they remained lost creatures without origins or roots.” Such artificial authorial interjections risk loosening the otherwise watertight narrative.
But on the whole “A Tunisian Tale” is subtle and convincing. The bleak reality it describes is contrasted throughout the book with fairy tales remembered by Alaa in his prison cell. “The heroes of fairy tales are always and eternally luckier than people like me, who are destined to live a miserable life in a miserable reality,” he reflects. But the grim personal stories told in “A Tunisian Tale” stand for more than what they initially appear to. In a chilling parallel with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, which lit the spark for the Arab Spring in December 2010, Mosbahi’s novel shows how one burning can symbolize something broader and even more tragic than itself.