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Return to Equinoxes, Issue 5: Printemps/Eté 2005
Article ©2005, Nadia Mamelouk

Nadia Mamelouk, University of Virginia

Shifting Centers:

Views of Tunis in the Literary Review Afrique Littéraire (1940-1944)

The violent events in France during 1939 and 1940, with a merciless attack by the German army, an embarrassing French defeat, and a humiliating Armistice brokered by Maréchal Pétain with Hitler, sent the French scrambling for cover. The Maréchal managed to save part of France (the Free Zone) and to keep the Empire intact. Because of its proximity and its location in a French Protectorate, Tunis became a haven for the French as Paris fell into German hands.

The mix of metropolitan French intellectuals with local French and Tunisian elites results in a surprising event. Amid the turmoil of troubled times there appears a newspaper-size, 10-page literary review that brings together the diverse voices of the intellectual community. Afrique Littéraire appears monthly in French beginning in November 1940. Such literary reviews of the colonial period need to be considered in order to trace the roots of postcolonial Maghrebin literature. Jean Déjeux links the development of a recognizable Maghrebin literature to production, when publishers such as Editions du Seuil, Denoël and Plon take an interest in Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan writers in 1950 (1992, 3), while pointing out that the preceding generation of writers are generally unrecognized and “passés sous silence” (13).

Speaking of this forgotten generation, Déjeux notes: “Les écrivains ont d'abord pris la parole en tant que colonisés, revendiquant le combat pour la nation” (7). He sees these writers taking up the pen to improve conditions under colonization and working in the direction of a national movement. Déjeux's idea of making the beginnings of Maghrebin literature dependant on the physical act of production is pertinent as this notion reflects the problems of production linked to economic and political issues of the preceding generations. Maghrebin writers still face the problem of publishing today. In order to understand how the first generation of Maghrebin writers using the French language comes into existence after World War II, it is essential to consider those writers that preceded them. A study of pre-Independence reviews shows that Tunisian and other Maghrebin intellectuals are present and not silent. To bring them to the forefront is to give them agency and break the silence that Déjeux sees.

Working against French efforts to silence the colonized through heavy censorship, Tunisian intellectuals during the 1940s are generally limited to publication in periodicals (Fontaine, 139). The press, in turn, contributes to the formation of what Benedict Anderson terms the “imagined community,” a community whose members do not necessarily know each other but who share in a fraternity and who are connected by reading about the same events as others. According to Anderson, the “imagined community” is the basis for notions of nationhood (33). In addition, within the pages of periodicals, traces of the “hidden transcript” of the colonized may be found. James Scott defines the “hidden transcript” as a critique of power that is disguised from the colonizer and expressed in non-confrontational arenas, such as the literary review (xii-xiii). Thus, periodicals contain the possibility of subversion of the dominant discourse, as in Afrique Littéraire , where definitions of center and periphery are unstable and shifting.

The over-arching humanist theme of Afrique Littéraire theoretically allows for dialogue. However, I suggest that French intellectuals attempt to make Tunis into a temporary literary center by bringing diverse voices into their project of “collaboration” in order to reconstruct the image of the French Empire. On the other hand, Tunisian elites write against the French view by defining Tunis not only as a literary center, but as a center of a nation freed from colonialism. This study examines how the French of Tunisia create a North African literature to establish the periphery in Tunis and connect it to the center in Paris. It also looks at how the French editors of Afrique Littéraire describe Tunis as a literary and cultural center for both French and Tunisian culture and how Tunisians express a different view of Tunis as center of the nation.

Although this literary review is dominated by French and European writers, when articles by Tunisians (about 12% of the total number) are considered together, another description of Tunis appears. This difference shows the ideological and political shift from Tunis as a colonized city of the Protectorate, to Tunis as a capital of the nation, which precedes the acceleration of events after World War II that will ultimately lead to independence.

Establishing the periphery by writing the periphery

French anxiety over a literary center and the existence of a North African literature in Afrique Littéraire exists since the early twentieth century when Europeans living in Tunis try to create a viable literature of the periphery. This is not a problem for Tunisians as they have a well-established literary tradition in Arabic maintained by a prestigious, if struggling, center of learning at the Zitouna University of the Great Mosque. As early as 1900, Frenchmen attempt to “write the colony” as a means to establish the colony's existence in the center, in Paris. This phenomenon can be seen in Albert Canal's Littérature et la Presse tunisiennes de l'occupation à 1900 . In this account, Canal intends to prove that there is an intellectual community that is worthy of note by French standards and describes its development and European participants.

In 1919, Canal's friend, Arthur Pellegrin publishes La Littérature Nord-africaine . He defines North African Literature within a French context, attaching it to the metropolitan center while creating its autonomy in the colonial periphery, and emphasizing its uniqueness (51-53, 71-72). To promote the development of this literature, the exoticism and taste of metropolitan writers are rejected in favor of a more “true” writing based on observation of local life (89-91). Pellegrin's book generates enough interest that the “Société d'Ecrivains de l'Afrique du nord” is created by him and his friends with its center in Tunis (Chatelain, 39-40).

The ongoing concern about a unique literature of North Africa contributes to the existence of the Empire as this literature separates itself from and puts itself above a local literature, associating itself to the imperial center. Furthermore, it is seen as an expression of the colonial community, attesting to its existence as a contributing member of the Empire and promoting Tunis as an intellectual center of the periphery. Consequently, literature is an important aspect of the Empire and essential to the colonial enterprise. Even though the periphery has some influence on the center, it is the center that ultimately imposes constructed values of taste, humanity and civilization (Ashcroft et al, 3-4). This is reflected in Afrique Littéraire , as the majority of articles celebrate metropolitan French literature, history, music and theater, upholding French humanism as a universal standard. The small quantity of articles by French and Tunisian writers going against the grain are too few to influence the general tone of the review.

The existence of a colonial or North African literature that is centered in Tunis takes on new importance with the French defeat and Armistice in 1939-40. The editorial in the first issue of Afrique Littéraire (November 1940) mentions current discussion about the problem of “décentralisation intellectuelle,” reflecting the fact that Paris as a center is now occupied and thus distanced. One of the French founders' objectives for the review is to act as the connection between France and North Africa and eventually between France and all of Africa. Interpretations of this objective vary: French authors of the review write to reinforce the center and the Empire, whereas Tunisians and Arabs of other countries write to show the French that they have a civilization and culture that puts them on an equal level with the French. Overall, the founders' objectives prevail. Afrique Littéraire promotes a coming together of the West and the Orient for the benefit of the West, allowing a renewal of the West, particularly of France ( AL , no.1, p.1).

The advent of war accompanied by defeat enlarges the French literary community in North Africa. Reinvigorating the French image and nation becomes necessary while shifting the literary center from Paris to Tunis. The literary review serves as a means of ideological resistance, particularly to fascism, and incorporates the aid of imperial subjects.

Tunis as a cultural center, but whose center?

In each issue of Afrique Littéraire , the editors establish Tunis as a center both of French culture in North Africa, and of Tunisian culture, by describing literary and cultural activities, organizations, and publications and locating them in time and space. The “De Tunis…” column, appearing in the first four issues, and the “Echos” column appearing in later issues, give readers an account of literary and cultural events around Tunis. Several locations are prominent as gathering places for literary and cultural activities. Located on the main street of Tunis, Avenue Jules Ferry, the Baghdad Restaurant is a popular gathering place for both the French and Tunisians ( AL , no.1, p.2). The Café d'Alger is mentioned when the “Cénacle Littéraire Tunisien,” a French-language Tunisian literary group, meets there for an art and literature encounter ( AL , no.3, p.3).

The review also contains references to newspapers and other reviews in Tunis. This intertext is important because it reinforces a larger network of publishing in which Afrique Littéraire establishes its place. In this way, it is connected to the wider community, thus establishing the “imagined community” to rally the French whose nation is in a precarious position. Generally, French newspapers are referred to, such as the Dépêche Tunisienne , Tunis soir , La Tunisie Catholique and La Tunisie Française (connected to colonial right-wing settlers). There is an occasional reference to Arabic-language newspapers, such as Ez-Zohra . In addition, books published in Tunis by Henri Vallet, Louis Grivel, Louis Rivals, Michel du Cogly and Claude Benady, among others, are announced and reviewed, as well as those published in France and Algeria (AL, no.3, p.4). Thus a web of connections is created with Afrique Littéraire at the center. It leads in the project of “collaboration” and re-establishment of French “values” and empire, making Tunis its focal point while looking beyond Tunisia's borders so as not to be limited to a regional view.

An account of the activities of the numerous cultural organizations in Tunis adds weight to the notion of Tunis as a cultural center. The Alliance Française is mentioned in every issue and in certain issues has an entire page containing articles resuming conferences, literary interviews and news about concerts and exhibitions. Also mentioned are “L'Essor”, a French literary and theatrical society, and “IBLA,” the “Institut de Belles Lettres Arabes” run by the White Fathers. The “Al Fath,” an association created for the expansion of Arab theater, and the “Cénacle littéraire tunisien,” representing Tunisian organizations, are included in line with Afrique Littéraire 's goals of creating an atmosphere of friendly exchange.

We have thus seen that by naming meeting places such as restaurants and cafés, by describing cultural activities of various organizations, and by identifying the people who organize and attend these events, the editors of Afrique littéraire define Tunis as a cultural center of the Empire. In addition, by including announcements or articles about the professional activities of contributors and intellectuals from the community, this review puts a human face on the intellectual community of Tunis and shows the actions of individuals, thus giving them agency, that is, the ability to organize events and to contribute to the cultural center.

Establishing a center by creating a literature of the nation

Despite French colonialism's dominant discourse of “civilizing mission,” Tunis has its own history as a center of civilization and culture. It became the capital of “Ifriqyaa,” an early name for Tunisia, in 1207 under the reign of the Hafsides (Abdul Moula, 33). In 1283, a center of learning was founded at the Great Mosque of Tunis (Natsis, 33), which eventually developed into a major learning center of Islam known as the Zitouna University, drawing students from distant lands. In addition, being located on the Mediterranean Sea, it developed a thriving trade with Mediterranean countries. The beys of the Husseinite dynasty (1705-1957) continued to make Tunis the center of their government. Thus, as a political, religious, educational and commercial capital, the role of Tunis as a center for the region and for the Protectorate is undeniable.

After sixty years of French colonial rule, however, Tunisians want to establish Tunis as the capital of an independent nation. Because of heavy censorship from the colonial authorities in the 1940s, this cannot be done in a direct or confrontational manner. The public transcript remains dominated by French authorities. Thus, subtle methods are needed to express the “hidden transcript,” in an effort to shift from Tunis as a center for French culture to a center for Tunisian culture and literature that contributes to the nationalist movement and resists the cultural assimilation of French colonialism. Articles by Tunisians suggest the idea of Tunis as center of the nation (and no longer as a part of the Empire), while describing life in Tunis and indirectly criticizing the colonial system. A short story by K. Hajeri demonstrates a roundabout way used to contest the injustices of the colonial system in Tunis.

Hajeri's short story, “Mokdad rêve: Conte tunisien de notre temps,” is about a young boy living in the heart of the Médina, the Arab city ( AL , no.5, p.1). The author emphasizes in the title that this is a contemporary story, which does not allow readers to distance it in time from themselves; it contains a description of a contemporary Tunis in which the fictional character circulates. One cold morning, after being awakened by his mother, Mokdad—not wanting to leave his warm bed—falls asleep again and dreams that he is walking to school. The names of actual streets are mentioned and Tunis is described as a marvelous place. The air is warm and smells sweet, the streets are clean and the houses are newly-painted. The cobblestones are smooth and soft like “une nappe de laine.” Indeed, it is a lovely city.

The dream fades when the child is brutally awakened to daily reality by his father. Ironically, his world is characterized by the opposite of what he dreams: dirt, violence, corporal punishment at home and at the Kouteb (primary school in a mosque), the crumbling Arab city. The intrusion of war planes and bombardments at the end of his dream is the only thing that links him to the outside world. Mokdad represents the majority of the Tunis population, as his lack of freedom of movement, felt as a claustrophobic imprisonment, results in a need to dream in order to endure daily life. The relationship of violence between the child and adults reflects the rapport between the colonized and the colonizer. His name (not used by city families) also identifies him as coming from a rural area, displaced by colonization.

This description of life in Tunis does not flatter the French notion of the civilizing mission, but reflects the constraints of colonial authority imposed upon Tunisians. Although the author does not criticize the French colonizer openly or even mention him, this glaring absence raises questions. First of all, Mokdad attends the Kouteb. If Tunisians carry the brunt of the tax burden, then Mokdad should be in a public school, whereas only a minority of Tunisians actually attend the French public schools (Vermeren, 20). To get to his Kouteb, Mokhdad must make his way through dirty, smelly streets. Where are the basic municipal services that are taken for granted in any French city with a tax base? Such issues figure in the demands of Tunisian political parties that begin to take shape in 1919. The need for improved social services, that include education and hygiene, is expressed by Tunisians in French as early as 1907 in Ali Bach-Hamba's newspaper, Le Tunisien .

Similarly avoiding any direct critique of French colonization, Tunisian writers establish the importance of Arabic literature by demonstrating its quality, the contributions of many cultures to it, and its long tradition. In “Bref aperçu de littérature africaine” ( AL , No.5, p.8), Mohamed Bachrouch discusses the Latin letters of Carthage, the famous Aghlabite poets in Kairouan, then the contributions of the Almohades and of the Hussanite dynasty, ending with Khereddine Pacha's trip to Europe to show that Islam is not the enemy of civilization. Bachrouch demonstrates that there is a long Tunisian literary history of twenty-five centuries that shows the “âme africaine.” It has been in contact with both Christian and Muslim civilizations: “Elle s'est enrichie en s'imposant sa propre personnalité; elle a gardé son caractère en profitant des effluves spirituelles qui lui venaient de l'extérieur. Et ce n'est pas le moindre de ses mérites que d'avoir su manifester son génie avec éclat et demeurer malgré tout digne et humaine” ( AL , no.5, p.8).

After formulating a description of Arabic literature, an article by the same author appears in February 1944 that demonstrates the cultural richness of the society within which Tunisian elites circulate in the Protectorate. Mohamed Bachrouch begins his article, “La littérature tunisienne moderne,” with a critique of European scholars studying the Arab world (“orientalists”) by saying : “Il n'est pas exagéré de dire que la littérature tunisienne dans sa dernière évolution n'est pas appréciée à sa juste valeur dans les milieux orientalistes” ( AL , no.25, p.1). This writer speaks repeatedly of “évolution,” pointing out that Tunisians have fought to obtain their goal and deserve more recognition. He maintains that Tunisian letters have evolved during the French occupation despite the colonial system. First giving a brief view of the state of poetry and prose before 1881, he notes that poetry had become static whereas prose had developed with the era of reform of the mid-19 th century preceding the Protectorate. He states that the evolution of Tunisian letters “fut le fruit d'une confrontation de deux civilisations. Elle eut lieu parce que l'Esprit Tunisien en sentit la nécessité urgente et en prit conscience” ( AL , no.25, p.6). Tunisian thought has evolved to meet new needs and continues to develop, however this is not due to the French and their civilizing mission, but to Tunisians' own efforts. This new literature remains faithful to its Arabic past, however : “…elle a pu comprendre ce qui lui manquait, ce qu'il devait emprunter à l'Occident sans craindre pour sa personnalité” (6). He speaks of a liberation of poetry and prose through turning to inspiration taken from the daily life of Tunisians, which he associates with a similar evolution in Egypt. Thus, he sees the East as a source of inspiration as well as the West.

Bachrouch's mention of Abdellaziz Thaâlbi, a well-known nationalist who founds the Destour Party in 1920, adds a political aspect to this article. Thaâlbi's L'Esprit Libéral du Coran is edited in Paris, the metropolitan center, in 1905. Providing a careful explanation to pass by French censors, Bachrouch writes : “Ce livre ne constituait pas une réfutation adressée à un penseur occidental déterminé mais un exposé à l'intention de l'Occident des principes fondamentaux de l'Islam. C'est pour cette raison qu'il [Thaâlbi] le rédigea en français…” (6). Thus, Bachrouch shows that Tunisians actively reached out to the metropolitan center, which they perceived as a center of universal human rights, in an effort to explain their needs and to show that they as Muslims had a long tradition of liberalism. Also, the French language was used for practical reasons in the early 1900s, with a change in attitude occurring in the early 1930s as more Tunisians obtained a French education and recognized the value of French culture and republican discourse to make use of in the fight for legal rights and independence.

Pointing out the appearance of the short story and a renewal of poetry, Bachrouch names a number of poets, including Abdul Qacem Chabbi, whose poems appear in the pages of Afrique Littéraire. He concludes his article by praising Egyptian literature while maintaining that the development of Tunisian literature is unique and worthy of consideration. In writing this article, Bachrouch makes the Tunisian point of view clear : 1) he defends the Tunisian and Arabic literary tradition while applauding renewal and development since the beginning of the Protectorate; 2) he turns to the East while nodding to the West; 3) he defends Islam's liberal, progressive thought while avoiding all discussion of Christianity or the Western tradition of humanism; 4) he includes both French-language and Arab-language texts by Tunisians in his description of a Tunisian literature; and 5) he brings in echoes of the nationalist movement by naming Thaâlbi. Because he does all this, Bachrouch's article is a clear example of an anti-colonial subtext of resistance created from within the French colonial system. To define a Tunisian literature as being separate and unique from France and from Egypt contributes to the formation of a national culture and therefore a national conscience.

This Tunisian literature defined in Afrique Littéraire is centered in Tunis where the majority of the intellectual elites live, making it not only a literary capital, but because of the nationalist subtext, also the capital of the nation. As colonial literature describes and reinforces the colonies as the periphery, so Tunisian literature describes Tunis as the center of the nation. Working against Afrique Littéraire 's editors' project to incorporate imperial subjects in order to renew the image of the French nation, Tunisian writers subtly contribute to a call for independence. Their writing undermines French efforts to establish a temporary imperial center, making it unstable, and causing a shift towards a national center.

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