Chokri Mabkhout, 2015 Arabic fiction award winner

Friday 22/05/2015
Chokri Mabkhout during a Tunis ceremony

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.