Tunisian book fair bridges gap between publishers, readers

Under the banner “The Book is Life,” the festival sends a message that reading should be a priority for everyone.
Sunday 22/12/2019
A visitor examines books during the second National Exhibition of the Tunisian Book,  December 20. (National Exhibition of the Tunisian Book)
Nurturing readers’ interest. A visitor examines books during the second National Exhibition of the Tunisian Book, December 20. (National Exhibition of the Tunisian Book)

TUNIS - The second National Exhibition of the Tunisian Book kicked off December 19, inviting bookworms, writers, publishers and everyday Tunisians to enjoy a large selection of national works and literary events.

Including classic Tunisian literature and the latest publications, the fair featured 15,000 titles from all genres and some 70 Tunisian publishers. The festival began as an initiative by the Union of Tunisian Publishers to promote literary productions, particularly from Tunisia.

“All festivals and arts are noble but this festival remains one of the noblest festivals, for it promotes books,” said festival director Imen Boukhobza. “It is part of the Ministry of Culture’s policy to promote creativity and artistic expression, especially that these are part of the values of freedom of expression and thought that are guaranteed by the constitution.”

She added: “It aims to create a space for an exchange between Tunisian readers and writers where both can explore the newest Tunisian writings. It is also an opportunity to encourage reading among youth. There are also new activities and literary panels in different regions. Children will have a special programme as they are the future.”

The fair awarded various prizes, including awards for Best Female Writer and Best Writer Under 35 Years. Panels to discuss contemporary issues were on the agenda.

Under the banner “The Book is Life,” the festival sends a message that reading should be a priority for everyone.

“The slogan definitely reflects on a variety of issues that books can address… A book helps readers manage their lives, to build the personalities of children and teens,” said Slaheddine Lahmadi, president of the Union of Tunisian Writers.

“Books are also what our country needs in the current situation of political division and deteriorating values. Books build society and without books we can’t make progress.”

Lahmadi stressed how the fair was uniquely dedicated to Tunisian books and their history, giving Tunisian writers a needed platform to showcase their work.

“The book of Tunisia is a book that has an identity and Tunisian writers have a long, rich history,” Lahmadi said. “It is an opportunity to learn about the past of Tunisian literature and also the new releases of Tunisian writers to encourage and promote them.

“If we want to help our country develop, we need to promote books and literature. We need to set an example even on the Arab level. We hear of all these statistics about the low numbers of readers in the Arab world. This should be a chance to set an example.”

In addition to the fair and panels, the event includes outreach to prisons and hospitals.

“This has been a concern for us as directors of the festival and it was fruitful as we received encouragement from the ministries,” said Boukhobza. “It will consist of three meetings in prisons to discuss issues that prisoners can relate to.”

President of the Union of Publishers Mohamed Salah Maalej said the initiative could play an important role in sending a message of support to those in difficult circumstances.

“The book helps give life for patients in the hospital,” said Lahmadi. “Books are therapy to help with many illnesses. Also, hosting literary meetings in prisons will give hope to them and this time we will have writers in prisons and hospitals to talk to them and to benefit from the exchange. We learn from them and they learn from us.

“The talks will provide hope and energy and the writers will have deep insight into the lives and circumstances of prisons and patients.”

Maalej said the fair has become an important part of Tunisia’s cultural life, with some 200,000 visitors taking part last year. It allowed for a partnership between publishers and writers to promote Tunisian books.

“The presence of 70 publishers in Tunisia is important because they are publishing and are productive,” said Maalej. “Some publishing houses publish 150 books per year. Such a partnership between writers and publishers helps Tunisian books compete on the inferential level in the Arab world.”

He added: “We have publishers who distribute books outside of Tunisia successfully. In this context, we devoted a professional workshop for these issues. As publishers, we struggle with many issues like the lack of markets for books, which is why fairs like this event play an important role in the absence of libraries in the capital and in the regions.”

The fair included workshops for children, as well as panels on cinema and literature featuring prominent writers from around Tunisia.