Are related to South Italians and Tunisians - Dialogue with the Islamic World

The fact that the Arab Booker Prize 2015 went to the hitherto unknown Tunisian author Shukri al-Mabkhout probably also surprised the donors in the Persian Gulf, because the book was initially listed as banned in the United Arab Emirates - until one came to further embarrassment save, then hastily approved the award-winning work. After all, the attraction of the forbidden was there and also aroused curiosity about what was originally to be withheld from a part of the Arab reading public.

The first thing we learn from this novel is that beautiful men in Tunisia are supposedly called Italians (in Arabic, "Tilyani"). The focus of this novel is accordingly the "Italian" Abdel-Nasser, who is always swarmed by women, who in a striking appearance on the first pages during the funeral of his father in front of the gathered mourners, the Imam, who is about to put the dead to rest, in a wild rage beats bloody. This outbreak of the declared atheist initially remains an embarrassing mystery to all those present.

In search of private peace

Looking back, we get to know the main protagonist as an originally left-wing utopian and activist, who over the years has made more and more peace with the conditions in Tunisia and at the same time - in vain - seeks his private peace.

Historically, the story spans the phase from the rule of the Tunisian republic's founder, Habib Bourguiba (until 1987) to the consolidation of the presidency of the coup d'état against him, Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali around 1990. However, this limited time is described so precisely and accurately that the discourses and conflicts in the motherland of the Arab revolutions of 2011 become so understandable that one can literally sense the revolution in advance.

The fact that the author Mabkhout does not succumb to the temptation to deal with the well-known later expulsion of Ben Ali by the Tunisian popular uprising is not a weakness: the Arabic keystone novel about the events of 2011 will probably be a few years away, because yet the upheavals in the Arab countries are not over, and Tunisia is still not on the safe side, despite its democratic achievements.

With his portrayal of the mechanisms of the Ben Ali era, Mabkhout does the Tunisians a great service - while at the same time he presents a novel that moves between a universally understandable Stasi documentation and the abysses of the amorous entanglements of the protagonist Nasser. It is an uncompromisingly modern and utterly "atypical" Arabic novel - although most Arabic novels are now exactly that, except that hardly anyone in the West is aware of it.

Linguistically like an expensive, long-matured wine

The book lives from the narrated atmosphere, from the development of the main character, but also from the mannerliness and sometimes the pedantry of the narrator, who does not show any negligence in details, metaphors and intertextuality, and certainly not in his sweeping, but always precisely structured sentences want to make guilty. His Arabic is like an expensive, long-matured wine, as it is only found in a few writers today and which nevertheless never denies its North African location through local vocabulary and expressions.

At the university, Nasser becomes one of the leading figures in the radical left student movement, which has to face both clashes with the growing Islamists and the state apparatus and therefore remains socially marginal. But in a radical movement the movement is the world, and into this world comes Zeina, a philosophy student from the flat country, who rises to a spokesperson for the movement and who beguiles Nasser with her Berber beauty as well as with her abstract, but logically always watertight excursions . Debates about Bourdieu's sociology unfolded among the students as well as about the position of Mao or Lenin as leading figures or wrong turns in the hoped-for world revolution.

Much of the story about Nasser and Zeina takes up the discussion about whether what is between them is love. Zeina has reservations. She is charged with a brutal rape of which she suspects her father or brother. But in order to be able to teach at university after graduation, the two have to marry (they are content with a civil marriage). Almost predictably, they are becoming increasingly alienated, albeit painfully slowly.

Fraternization with the lesser evil

Nasser becomes a journalist in a state newspaper in which he can no longer remain independent; the censorship demands humiliating contortions from him. But the growing Islamist threat makes fraternization with the regime seem like the lesser evil for many intellectuals. The formerly radical Zeina also becomes an admirer of the "savior" Ben Ali.

While Zeina prepares her entrance exam, Nasser makes her cousin Najla docile. This turns into a second great love story and, in the novel, also one of the longest, most poetic and courageous love scenes in modern Arabic literature. In fact, the result is a delicate three-way relationship, which in turn can only fail.

While the atmosphere in Tunis is changing, criminals are increasingly setting the tone and Islamists are attracting more and more people with more and more mosques, Zeina is told that she has failed the test. She fails to convince the university administration that her failure was only due to her refusal to allow the professor to have sex. For her, this devastating humiliation is the decisive factor in turning her back on Tunisia - an elderly admirer is waiting for her in Paris who loves her devotedly, but with whom she has to forego the great dream of an academic career. For Nasser, meanwhile, the last dream of fulfilled love breaks.

After the failure of the substitute relationship with Najla, Nasser's behavior becomes more and more pathological. His latest prey is a young student whom he wants to retain through career promises. But he fails miserably with their conquest when he becomes aware of a scene from his childhood, which explains the cemetery scene at the beginning of the book.

The protagonists of this novel fail because of the impossibility of love and because of the political and social conditions. With the "Italian", Shukri al-Mabkhout presented a work that deservedly won the grand prize this year.

Günther Orth

© 2015

Shukri al-Mabkhout: "The Italian", Arabic, Roman, Cairo 2015, 344 pages