Writing the Tunisian Revolution

Cécile Oumhani - Mare Nostrum ForumEuropean Writers CouncilText of Cécile Oumhani's presentation at the Mare Nostrum Forum organized by the European Writers’ Council and hosted  by the Akkademja tal-Malti (the Maltese Language Academy) in Malta on April 11th 2013.



In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old young man, set himself afire in Sidi Bouzid, a remote underprivileged part of Tunisia. No doubt he was unaware that he was starting the countdown to the end of tyrants and igniting the revolts that spread across Tunisia and the Arab world in a matter of weeks. He died before he could see protesters waving signs saying “Game over.”

If Bouazizi had lost all hope, his act of despair led the Tunisian people to stand up and voice their revolt with a determination no one had dared imagine. The flames that caused his death in excruciating pain also burnt down the thick curtain that had gagged the mouths of the people and plunged them into darkness for decades. They now dared glimpse another future. Women and men were now taking to the streets every day, everywhere, brave and defiant.

The regime set out to quash the protests and the count of the dead rose every day as security forces shot indiscriminately. They shot them as they went out onto the streets to protest. They shot them just because they were in the street, no matter if they were just going to work, as one of my friends cruelly experienced when her cousin was shot dead in cold blood on January 12th 2011 as he walked home from work. They even shot them as they went out to the cemetery to bury their dead.

Everywhere TVs, radios and computers were on almost day and night for months, eclipsing all other windows. Facebook pages, videos on cell-phones, Twitter messages captured our whole attention. New technologies have introduced new approaches to events, new ways of perceiving them, of experiencing them. They have turned us into first-hand witnesses if not actors, giving us new responsibilities. I had not used Facebook much before the Tunisian revolution but started doing so in December 2010 to follow what was going on as closely as possible. I cannot forget a post I read on January 12th 2011. One of my Facebook friends wrote: “I don’t know how I can go back home for lunch. They are shooting at people, I am told. I am afraid…” There I was reading her post in Paris, informed and helpless, unable to do more than tell her we were all thinking of them. At the same time, established newspapers were posting on their sites the messages, the videos they received, acknowledging that protesters were also becoming the reporters and journalists of their own revolutions.

Can we write when unprecedented events are shattering the ground beneath our feet? Can we write when history is still in the making under our very eyes? What texts do we write when what seemed like the ordinary world, however much we hated its injustice and oppression, goes into flames? What texts do we write when two years on the ideals that people fought for, died for are under threat? Freedom seems so close and is yet so far away. Have people fought against censorship to let it be replaced by another censorship?

A new world lies out there, still undefined and out of focus. The past tense of fictions and narratives becomes irrelevant when reality eclipses any fiction writers had imagined in the tyrants’ heyday. Mesmerized, they turn to the present, eagerly looking for the future.

The chapters of the novels they had been working so hard on fade away, as writers lose touch with the fictional universes they had settled in. They are now only concerned with what is going on in real life, outside the houses of their novels, leaning from their windows, when they are not actually walking out into the streets. There they run into people and situations that are more intriguing than their characters and the predicaments they left them in on their pages. Each of their encounters questions not only what they had been writing but also the way they wrote. They are flooded with images, words and impressions that throw them off balance, even though they know that in the end all this will nurture future writings.

Writers have turned to the outside world, where every minute seems to last an hour and every day a whole week. It is outside the houses of their novels that they search, looking in the present for the seeds of the future. They are confronted with a sudden acceleration of time, and an unprecedented sequence of events. Some writers have published diaries or chronicles of the revolution; so deeply involved they were with ongoing changes. The old stifling world was blown to pieces and it is through fragments that these writers attempt to reflect their perception of the flow of disconnected, unexpected events still overwhelming them. Poems have been published like Moncef Louhaibi”s superb “Exercice d’écriture du vendredi 14 janvier 2011” (“Friday January 14th 2011 writing exercise”) or Tahar Bekri’s book Je te nomme Tunisie (I call you Tunisia). Some of these poems were written before the revolution and somehow announce recent events.

In March 2011 in Tunisia, I remember how the most ordinary phone-call would not start with the question: “How are you?’ Instead people would ask: “How is your revolution?” meaning what is going on where you live? Or they might ask: “What did you do during the revolution?” So many were the heroes of a revolution started by the people. At one point in 2011, photographers posted huge portraits of ordinary citizens on the façades of public buildings, symbolically emphasizing how the everyday people in the streets had replaced the former dictator, whose portraits used to be omnipresent.

Short texts have been published in collections about the revolutions, like Rêves d’hiver au petit matin, les printemps arabes (Winter dreams at daybreak, the Arab Springs) published by Elyzad or Histoires minuscules des révolutions arabes (Small stories of the Arab revolutions) published by Chèvre-Feuille Etoilée. These vignettes portray characters, real or fictional, scenes, experienced or imaginary; they reflect the multiplicity of the protesters. They reflect the role and importance of the unknown and the ordinary. They are a tribute to the anonymously heroic, to the secret dreams enacted at the time of the revolution, their tragic confrontation with oppression.

A new world is painfully and gradually emerging while people are still working to remove the remnants and legacy of the past, while writers are still engaged in a literature of the instantaneous. Although Tunisian editors, like Elisabeth Daldoul, and booksellers, like Selma Jabbes, agree that they have yet no novel of the Tunisian revolution, it is interesting to note that a number of novels published several years before 2011 can now be read in a different perspective. Emna Belhaj’s Tasharej (2000), or Azza Filali’s Ouatann (written before the revolution but published after for technical reasons), for example, depict characters and situations foreshadowing the revolution. Much more time will have to go by, before novelists can take the retrospective or prospective view they need to go on with their work.



Cécile Oumhani

April 2013







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