Saving Tunis’s old city bookshops
Tunis - Boasting French colonial architecture, downtown Tunis safeguards landmark buildings and neighbourhoods that have withstood time. In the back alleys of Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Dabagheen street sits amongst the decaying buildings around it, its bookshops still open almost in defiance of changes brought about by technology. But like bookshops almost everywhere, they are becoming noticeably more run-down as customers become an ever rarer breed.
Originally a market for leather products, Dabagheen became a hub for bookworms following Tunisian independence in 1956. Today, the seven bookshops in the area — there were once about 20 — are lively as customers pop in, seeking certain titles. Others ask about the section for novels to look for their favourite writer. In one of the shops, where the dimly lit space is unusually packed with books, the owner moves swiftly between the piles looking for titles his customers requested.
“This place has inspired a great change in the cultural scene. Dating back to 1959, this bookshop has lived all different decades as reflected in the changes of quality and type of books requested by customers,” said Mohsen Omri, who has worked for 30 years as an employee of a bookshop.
“Business differed from one decade to another and so did the quality of the reader. Back in the 60s and the 70s, people were more interested in reading than today. Reading was encouraged by the government.
“The original owner of this shop, the late Abdessatar Mzoughi, was the first Tunisian to open this kind of bookstore. After 30 years here, I call this place Ali Baba’s cave. It has all the books you can possibly think about: philosophical, religious and political can be found here.”
According to the shop’s owner, Hichem Mzoughi, Abdessatar’s son, government policy as well as the lack of readers in the country has deeply affected business.
“The policy of the government changed after Ben Ali came to power. He imposed censorship on people. First, the price of books increased, then some themes were banned. People also used to exchange books. Now readers are no longer interested,” Mzoughi said.
Recent surveys suggest that Tunisians are not avid book readers, with the annual average of pages read not exceeding three pages per Tunisian.
Yet, there has been a growing change in the relationship of the average Tunisian to books. Following the revolution, as censorship decreased, there was a bit of a revival of interest in books and bookshops.
“The revolution brought back some readers as they knew they can find what they seek in these stores. Books on religion and ideologies were no longer banned and could be found in these bookshops at a reasonable price. After the revolution, I remember we constantly had people asking for books about Islamic philosophy and communist ideologies. These were popular,” Omri stated.
“The problem now is the price of the book. These bookstores are supposed to provide affordably priced books. Yet it is not the case as books are getting more and more expensive. If that can be fixed, readers will be back.”
To support bookstores and reading, small book clubs have sprung around Tunis among younger people. Student Leila Bezzine, along with other members of the Medina Book Club, started a campaign in August to save the Dabagheen bookstores.
They visited stores and bought books during an event that many hope becomes a monthly ritual. “It started with a book club initiative that gathered young people interested in reading and chose for it to be located in the Medina. The book club explores both books and the Medina by having the book club sessions in different places in the Medina for the sake of exploration,” Bezzine said.
She added: “Then we launched a campaign to save the old bookstores as we noticed that they are encountering many difficulties with the decline in their customers. Some even closed. Around a couple of hundred people showed up that day to buy books and encourage the owners… The owners were very happy to see that crowd and opened their space for us. They were very welcoming.”
To save these old bookstores, Omri says the government has to take an active role in promoting reading among younger generations.
“The government has to intervene. Tunisians now are not avid readers,” Omri said. “This could be changed through including reading sessions in primary schools. Now pupils rarely read or do their own research for school. Instead, they rely on the internet or their parents. The problem is we have a lot of books but no readers or we find readers that are only interested in one kind. Back in the ‘80s, readers would read anything or any writer. Now we have readers who won’t read unless they find the specific genre they are looking for.”
As a father and his son entered the bookshop, Omri directed them to the section for children as he was answering their questions about the best stories for children who are starting to learn how to read.
“Now in this bookstore, we have all sorts of books. We don’t exclude genres or people. We have everything as this is a space open for all types and categories of people,” Omri said.