The travelling of cultures in Francophone Tunisian literature

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With no doubt Tunisian literature is much more well-known for its Arab-speaking than Francophone writers (1). Mario Scalesi, Albert Memmi and Abdelwaheb Meddeb use French as a direct consequence of the colonial experience that, since independence in 1956, has started to be progressively removed from the national cultural heritage of Tunisia. This literature is characterised by cultural hybridisation and the experience of migration and separation. Exile – either the ‘external’ (real) or the ‘internal’ one, the last being a feeling of dispossession not related to the actual separation from the hometown – is not under the control of the writer. It is in fact an unchangeable and painful condition that can be a great source of inspiration for writing. It implies a continuous movement between the departure and the return: a journey that never ends.
Foreignness and Multiple Identities
Originally Punic, Latin-speaking from the final defeat of Carthage against Rome onward (II century B.C.), later influenced by Italian culture and language, Tunisia became a French Protectorate in 1881. Thus the colonial experience may be considered as a stage within a long interbreeding process of Tunisian culture, which resulted from its position in the Mediterranean sea, at the crossroads between Europe and Africa, the West and the Levant, the North and the South.
An initial distinction has to be made between European-Tunisian – who are ‘outsiders’, often of European descent but who were born and lived in Tunisia (2) – and Arab-Tunisian writers (3). European writers travelling to Tunisia – such as Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, André Gide, Claude Roy, Georges Duhamel – cannot be included in Tunisian literature as they do not have any connection with the country.
Thus, when we look at French-speaking Tunisian literature the first challenge is to define the cultural identity of the writer whose complex background implies different components often in contrast to each other. If we consider the work of Mario Scalesi (1892-1922), a Tunisian-born Italian who adopted French for his poetry, to which literature does it belong to: Italian, Tunisian or French? Similarly, Abdelwaheb Meddeb (1943-) and Albert Memmi (1920 -) express the mergence of two different worlds – i.e. the Levant and the West – where they are considered from both sides to be outsiders: they are in-between the French and the Arab cultural spheres. French-Arabic bilingualism is a determinant aspect of their writing, as Albert Memmi has rightly pointed out:
Colonial bilingualism cannot be compared to just any linguistic dualism. Possession of two languages is not merely a matter of having two tools, but actually means of participating in two physical and cultural realms. Here, the two worlds symbolised and conveyed by the two tongues are in conflict, they are those of the coloniser and the colonised. (4)
On the other hand multiple identities and cultural interbreeding were debated also by Latin philosophers as Ancient Rome – just like modern France and the USA – was the synthesis of different cultural and ethnic contributions. According to Cicero (106-43 B.C.) a feeling of membership and identity is not related only to the country of origin but can coexist with different ones, independently from ethnic origins. This multiple loyalty implies that ‘everyone has two countries, one by nature and the other by citizenship’ (5). Albert Memmi seems to share this idea when he writes that ‘it is a tyranny to ask an individual to be exclusive to only one country’ (6).
It was especially during the European Protectorate (1881-1956) that Tunisia experienced a multicultural society: many ‘outsiders’ such as temporary migrants, travellers, farmers, adventurers or fugitives (a majority of them escaping from poverty and/or political repression) settled in the country leaving their marks on the local culture. Claude Benady, a Tunisian Jewish writer, expressed very well the feeling of the migrant who lands in Tunisia and feels up-rooted and as though he does not belong anywhere:
We went exploring virgin spaces, not as conquerors but as humble pilgrims in love with roots and with stones, with plants to pamper, with birds to protect. We went, the ones towards the Levant, the others towards the Sunset, without passports, but with the same identity and the respect in the heart for the fresh bread, the wine and the olive. We went with different languages but we made the same solemn vow of allegiance to the Master companion of the tops in order to learn the humility, the meaning of the word given, the measure of the equitable sharing. We went, as innocent children between the light and the dark, between the ignorance and the hope of an unlimited welcome (7).
The Muse of Mario Scalesi is also a nomad, up-rooted and reflects the communities of immigrants living in Tunisia:
She flees in exile from shore to shore Imploring for the charity or hospitality
A terror written on her ingenuous looks
Thin, prostitute to the lips of passers-by
Under the beautiful linen reduced to sordid relics
She looks like a madwoman wandering through the fields (8)
The métissage is then a key-aspect in Tunisian literature, which results from the intersection of Mediterranean Diasporas and their cultural and national affiliations. In his novel The Pillar of Salt Albert Memmi describes how he sees the cosmopolitism of Tunisia in colonial times:
And I – well I am my city’s illegitimate son, the child of a whore of a city whose heart has been divided among all those to whom she has been a slave. And the list of her masters, when I came to know some history, made me giddy: Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantine Greeks, Berbers, Arabs, Spaniards, Turks, Italians, French – but I must be forgetting some and confusing others’..[…] And within this great variety, where everyone feels at home but no one at ease, each man is shut up in his own neighbourhood, in fear, hate, and contempt of his neighbour (9).
Albert Memmi represented cultural interbreeding also using the metaphor of the marriage between people of different cultures and/or religions. In Strangers, his second novel, published in 1955, Memmi analyses the results of a sort of ‘alliance’ between a Tunisian Jew and a French catholic woman named Marie. The hero is dramatically torn between his traditional family and a wife that represents a new world which he wants to belong to. By endeavouring to manage the dilemma he becomes a sort of ‘tightrope walker with his balancing pole where the lower air breath could make him dangerously lean from one side to the other’ (10). When he wants to belong by any means to the world of the coloniser, the colonised might lose his own identity: ‘If I could only become again like them! My misfortune is that I am like nobody anymore. I cannot even defend myself against this disgust of myself that she reveals to me, with which I am seized and that I approve […] I came to the good result to have said no to both sides, having then to surrender vis-à-vis to one or the other’ (11).
The experience of exile
The word exile comes from the Latin exilium which means « banishment ». The exiled is then the one who has been banished, or has decided to be so, from somewhere (12). Albert Memmi suggested the notion of ‘interior land’, a place normally not visible on the geographical map (13). According to him a man can bring with him a ‘transportable fatherland’, an almost imaginary birthplace that may have never existed, or does not anymore, but is still present in his thoughts (14). This is also the mythical paradise lost and regretted by men during their experience of exile.
In Francophone Tunisian Literature many forms of exile are represented. There is a voluntary exile from the hometown, where according to Albert Memmi it is not possible to be an intellectual with freedom of thought. There is the exile imposed by poverty and consequent migration from the home country in the hope of a better life, well depicted in the poetry of Mario Scalesi and Claude Bénady. But there are also ‘symbolic’ exiles, which result from the separation between the writer’s original mother tongue (Tunisian patois) and the adoption of a foreign language (French), the marginalisation both from the French and Arab-Tunisian cultural scene as they might be considered ‘outsiders’ everywhere. In Le Scorpion, Memmi declares feeling in exile both in his native Tunisia and abroad and this paradox has no solution (15). According to him one can never give up his home land:
My native city is after my own image […] I discovered I was doomed forever to be an outsider in my own native city. And one’s hometown can no more be replaced than one’s mother. A man may travel, marvel at the world, change, become a stranger to his relatives and friends, but he will always retain within him the hard kernel of his awareness of belonging to some nameless village. Defeated, blind, his imagination will bring him back to that landmark; for his hands and feet know its contours and his nerves are wonderfully attuned to it (16).
On the other hand the exile is not only a negative experience. In the novel Le Désert, Memmi tells the story of his presumed ancestor, Jubair Al-Memmi, who wandered in Maghreb in the 15th century. He wrote: ‘despite the misery and loneliness, what gratitude I had for the exile! Linking myself to nowhere and nobody, the restless wandering, from Tunis to Tlemcen, from Fez to Spain, from Cairo to Damascus, kept me to myself, and this is the only true freedom’ (17)
One generation younger than Memmi, Meddeb was defined as an Oriental intellectual ‘who locates his work in a Western cultural field’ (18). Like Memmi, he is a sort of smuggler, a ferryman, among different cultures with a final goal of unity among cultures and identities that generally tend to fight against each other. In fact, according to Ferial J. Ghazoul, from the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, Meddeb is a ‘poet of hyphenation’ and the nature of his writing ‘stands in the very area between two cultures […] he is a member of an increasing group of Arab writers who produce creative writing in foreign languages while imbuing their texts with an unmistakable Arab touch and flavour’ (19). As a trait d’union between cultures, the hero-writer successfully manages to combine the three different linguistic instruments at his disposal – Tunisian patois, standard Arabic and French:
Between languages between races
Nomad wandering among the continents
He discovers in himself the name of sunset (20).
The cultural interbreeding brings the exiled writer to a polyglot literature that reflects one’s multiple identities. Jocelyne Dakhlia has rightly pointed out that the linguistic métissage of Meddeb included not only French, his lingua franca, classical Arabic and Tunisian dialects but also Italian which is ‘the solution to the violent contradictions between Arabic and French’ (21) (the titles of his novels Talismano and Fantasia are Italian for instance). Memmi, on his side, considered Italy as his fourth fatherland after Tunisia, France and Israel and he found a genealogical link with a Numidian Romanised family, the gens Memmia (22), and a Renaissance Italian painter of 14th century, Lippo Memmi.
Meddeb’s French translation of the Story of the Western exile of Sohrawardi (23) helps us to understand his conception of exile. Sohrawardi was a Persian theosophist executed in 1191, at the age of 36, for heresy on Saladin’s orders. Meddeb declares that he felt that the book was personally addressed to him as the expression ‘western exile’ encapsulated his own experience. The story of the hero, a nostalgic outsider who tries to go back to his birthplace, had in fact harmonies and echoes of Meddeb’s route. In his words: ‘the expatriation is not the departure with any return […] which would correspond to death […]. The running to and from the exile becomes an intermediate condition that manages the space between two places and ensures the survival in the evacuation of madness’ (24). He says: ‘I have landed on the northern shore of the ‘median’ sea, in the city where the inhabitants are unfair, after I was buffeted by the swells of the tempest in a packed hold, dark, nauseous’ (25). Meddeb clarifies this in Le tombeau d’Ibn Arabi :
The shapes moved and changed, and I felt able to accept all of them, I saw myself wandering in the country, mumbling all languages, touching at all writing scripts, going in and going out, following the possibilities of encounters, from one scene to another, admiring the traces of peoples, travelling in time, moving, changing, in the mirror of metamorphosis, to the chance of passion that moves the world (26).
Exile can also be a sort of ‘reward’ after the pain of separation: ‘The heterogeneous that constitutes me secretes a substance that dissolves the separation inherited from history; the man of exile is the one who crosses the best-preserved boundaries’ (27).
Like Memmi and Scalesi, who incorporate some images of Jewish history or Christianity in their work, Meddeb suggests a parallel between the exile and the status of the Muslim. He underlines that the prophet Mohammad and Ishmael are the heroes of orphanage and expatriation. Agar, the mother of Ishmael (but also the French name of Memmi’s novel: Stranger) symbolises the exile, the search of one’s identity. According to Meddeb, the prophet himself said: ‘Islam started as foreigner and will end as foreigner; God bless the foreigners’ (28).
To conclude, exile is a journey towards one’s identity. The return to one’s origins is no more than a prelude to a new departure for a new hunt, as the ‘residences of the exile are many’ (29). But at least the exiled is at home everywhere because:
Comme tu es partout étranger, tu seras chez toi où que tu ailles, car l’individu est la possession de la personne (30).

1. For an overview on Francophone Tunisian literature see: Guy Dugas in Bibliographie de la littérature tunisienne des Français (Paris, CNRS, 1981) and Bibliographie critique de la littérature judéo-maghrébine d’expression française (Paris, l’Harmattan, 1991) ; Jean Fontaine in La littérature tunisienne contemporaine (CNRS, Paris, 1990) ; Anthologie de la poésie tunisienne de langue française, introduction par Hédia Khadhar (L’Harmattan, Paris, 1985) ; Anthologie du Roman Maghrébin (Nathan, Paris, 1987).
2. See for example Francesco Cucca, Mario Scalesi and Adrien Salmieri.
3. Arab-Tunisian writers come both from Muslim – such as Abdelwaheb Meddeb, Majid El Houssi – and Jewish background – such as Albert Memmi, Claude Benady, Serge and Nine Moati.
4. Portrait du colonisé,(Gallimard, Paris, 1957), pp. 125-27 (ed. 1985).
5. De Legibus, Book II, Translated by Clinton Walker Keys (William Heinemann Ltd, London, 1948), pp. 375-377.
6. Le Nomade immobile (Arléa, Paris, 2000), p. 105.
7. Claude Benady in Les Etangs du soleil (Paris, Les cahiers de l’oiseleur, 1981).
8. In ‘De profundis’, Œuvre complète, p. 38. The French original version : « Elle fuit en exil de rivage en rivage/ En implorant l’aumône ou l’hospitalité/ Une épouvante inscrite en ses regards candides/ Maigre, prostituée aux lèvres des passants/ Sous le beau lin réduit en vestiges sordides / Elle semble une folle errante dans les champs ».
9. Albert Memmi in The Pillar of Salt (London, Elek Books, 1956), p. 96.
10. Agar, (Corréa Buchet/Chastel, 1955, Paris), p. 102 of Gallimard edition (1984).
11. Agar, op. cit., pp. 99, 183.
12. Exile is a human condition represented in many works of ancient literature – such as, for instance, the Odyssey of Homer and the Aeneid of Virgil.
13. See La Terre intérieure (Gallimard, Paris, 1977).
14. Le Scorpion (Gallimard, 1969), p. 243.
15. See Le Scorpion, op. cit., p. 251.
16. The Pillar of Salt (London, Elek Books, 1956), p. 96.
17. Le Désert (Gallimard, 1977), p. 18.
18. See the article ‘Il est temps de reconsidérer notre rapport au passé’, in Confluences Méditerranée (n.6, Spring 1993).
19. Al-Ahram Weekly, 14-20 September 2000.
20. The Tomb of Ibn Arabi Aya: the 99 stations of Yale, translated by Mohammed Bennis (Cairo, Supreme Council of Culture, 1999).
21. ‘Mémoire des langues’, by Jocelyne Dakhlia, in La pensée de midi, pp. 40-43.
22. He proved this thanks to a Roman coin where ‘Memmi’ is inscribed on, which was founded in Carthage.
23. Récit de l’exil occidental par Sohrawardi, traduit et commenté par Abdelwaheb Meddeb (Fata Morgana, 1993).
24. Ibidem, p. 34.
25. Ibidem, p. 33.
26. Op. Cit., p. 24.
27. Récit, op. cit., p. 37.
28. Ibidem, p. 31.
29. Fantasia, p. 207.
30. Fantasia, p. 210.
///Article N° : 7000


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