Chokri Mabkhout, 2015 Arabic fiction award winner
Tunis - For more than three decades, Chokri Mabkhout sought a writing outlet to express the struggles that face modern Tunisians. He found it via fiction and his first novel was rewarded with one of the Arab world’s most prestigious literary prizes.
“For over 30 years, I wrote in different genres that ranged from academic to literary,” Mabkhout said. “I wrote in different genres but finally chose the genre of the novel as it allowed for an easier expression of the changes and the conflicts that arose in our time.
“Not only is the novel a cultural performance but also an act of inspiration that is steeped in reality and the conditions of the aesthetics of literature. In this sense, the novel is an additional value to reality and a part of the paradox of life and the conflicts it implies.”
Mabkhout spoke to The Arab Weekly after returning from Abu Dhabi where, on May 7th, he received the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (Booker 2015) for Ettalyani (The Italian). Mabkhout is the first Tunisian to be awarded this prize.
Mabkhout’s novel was selected by a jury, led by Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, from a shortlist of six books by writers from Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, the Palestine territories, Tunisia and Morocco. More than 180 novels from 15 countries were originally listed in the competition.
Barghouti said The Italian is “a magical debut that ensnares you from the first chapter”.
Mabkhout, 53, is president of Manouba University in Tunis. While The Italian is his debut novel, he has previously published literary criticism and essays.
The witty use of Arabic in the novel was highly praised by the committee. Yasir Suleiman, chairman of Board of Trustees of the Booker Prize and professor of Modern Arabic Studies at the University of Cambridge, commended Mabkhout’s writing as “vibrant and full with all forms of life in a way that nothing can resist or stand to language. Language flows harmoniously on the pages of the novel”.
“We express our pain, our dreams and inner thoughts, like love and anger, in the mother tongue that represents our initial reflection. It is strange actually that some people expect you to write in another language,” Mabkhout told The Arab Weekly.
He does not mince his words about Tunisian and North African elites who would put down Arabic.
“The position of French-speaking elite regarding Arabic is strange and inconsistent culturally and socially,” he says.
“They think that the Arabic language is the language of religion. They see it as the language of oppression in the name of religion and backwardness and cultural regression. Such a position also expresses an ideological stand that is rather naïve still living in the leftovers of the colonialism.”
Set in Tunis, the novel recounts the journey of “the Italian” — a nickname relating to the protagonist’s foreign looks — and his political and romantic exploits. Throughout the novel, Mabkhout explores the troubling transition from the rule of Habib Bourguiba to that of Zine el- Abidine Ben Ali.
“In the novel, I mentioned both the role of the Islamists and the leftists at the time in manoeuvring the political and social scene,” he said. “Islamists are still part of the cultural conflict today.
“The question is how to live the changes of our time with a new religious conscience. I believe that the Islamists’ answer to this remained tied to the past with their inability to be open to the universal values. They always have an issue with identity, which is, for them, related to religion. The problem is not there since we all agree that religion is a part of the identity but what religion?”
He added: “I hope the new dynamics provided by the new constitution offer an opportunity for Islamists to reconsider their position and the same applies to the rest of the other ideological movements. They need to reflect on the foundations of their thought to defend the freedom of mankind instead of living in the delusions of the past.”
Mabkhout addresses sexuality in his novel as a component of human relationships and also as a taboo in a society that claims to be modern.
“Our societies live a paradox. They are obsessed with sex and only see women as an object of desire most of the time.
“When we talk creatively about the oppressed body and the desire in men and women to free the body, they consider it an attack on morality,” Mabkhout said.
“Ironically, Muslims were prolific writers about sexuality using a language that we shy away today from using. Strangely, Islam is the only religion that recognised the pleasure of women despite what has been said about men being superior to women and responsible for them. It is also understandable because we are a conservative society: hypocritical on one side and culturally defeated on the other side.”
Against the backdrop of the transition from Bourguiba to Ben Ali, the novel visits the situation of Tunisian women who were torn between new freedoms granted by legal reform in Tunisia and the inhibitions of a conservative society.
“The novel criticises Tunisian society, which believes that reform can only be done through the change of laws pertinent to the situation of women. That is not all. Tunisian women, like all women in the world, are struggling to gain their freedom against the violence imposed by the misogynist mentality. I think the novel is the most capable of all literary genres to reveal the reality of Tunisian women,” Mabkhout explained.
“Perhaps some readers will see that the female protagonists failed in the novel. I see, however, their beautiful struggle for freedom. They walk a difficult line and stumble. But they remain vibrantly alive and driven by passion for living.”
The International Prize for Arabic Fiction includes an award of $50,000. The Italian is to be translated into English.
“The Spanish translation is almost ready and we’ve just started working on the French one. Also, there are some proposals for cinematic adaptations of the novel,” Mabkhout said.