Azza Filali: Outann [Outann]
While this novel was published after the Tunisian Revolution, it is set well before that period. Nevertheless, the issues that led to the revolution are very clear. For Filali, to survive in Tunisia during this period, you have to sell your soul, be a crook, have connections. If you do not, you are going nowhere. Virtually every character in his book is engaged in activities that are best compromising and, in many cases, downright illegal, from smuggling mobile phones and computers to smuggling people, from bribery and corruption to outright theft. Just to make matters worse, virtually every one has a failed marriage/relationship. It is not a portrait of a happy country. Outann, by the way, means something like country or fatherland.
The novel opens with Michkat, a forty-two year old lawyer and divorcee. She is not happy in her job. Her boss is ruthless, greedy and corrupt. However, she has recently won a case where a rich man successfully beat off a poor man, thanks to her. She feels guilty about it. She is asked to give her support it a project which would result in the houses of poor people being pulled down – they would, says the developer, be adequately compensated – in order to build a shopping and office complex. She declines to help. Her boss now asks her to take on a divorce case (the company does a lot of divorce case) for an important client – him. She has to go to his wife, tell her that he wants a divorce (he has not told her) and tell her the very meagre terms he is offering. Not surprisingly, the wife does not agree to the terms and wants a lot more and he blames Michkat for failing to convince her, even though he has incriminating photos with her lover. He is so rude to her that she tells him to shut up and quits on the spot. Unfortunately for her, he is head of the local lawyers society so the chances of her getting another job are minimal, which is what happens.
She is also dealing with her mother, who can no longer walk, who is going a bit senile and always complaining. Her father, Si Mokhtar, is not happy about the situation. As Michkat’s ex-husband said, she looks more like the accused than a lawyer, though that is perhaps not surprising.
The second person we follow is Rached. He is also a lawyer but was unable to find work when he graduated and had to teach maths to local children to make a living. Finally, he manages to get a job in the local mayor’s office, a job he hates and which pays badly. He does meet a woman and they marry. She gets pregnant, and she is not happy about it, and has twin girls. She is even less happy when Rached takes no part in his daughters’ upbringing, spending his time on his two hobbies, swimming and playing cards. She is bitter than Rached will not let her wear a hijab. The result is that she denies him sex so he takes up masturbation and visiting prostitutes. In short, the marriage is not a happy one.
Every summer, he rents a house near the sea so that the children can play and he can go swimming. This year, when he pays the rental and gets the key late one evening, he goes to the house and finds someone else there, a young woman who he later learns is called Faiza. It turns out that the house has been rented to her for the same period. When he goes to investigate, the renter has left for Italy. Not surprisingly, Rached is attracted to Faiza, and even more attracted when they go skinny dipping together that night. She is writing her doctoral thesis (on neocolonialism in contemporary Tunisia). She makes him an offer. They will play cards and the winner keeps the house for the month. He is very skilled at cards and is confident of winning. He loses.
As he has time off work, he spends his time at a local café. There he meets Mansour, who had been at school with him fifteen years ago. They chat a few times and then Mansour makes him an offer – to come and work for him and his boss. What is involved is not clear and Rached declines. Then Mansour tells him how much he will be paid. It is a very large sum. Rached, who is fed up with his job, quits and takes up Mansour’s offer. His first job is to go to Bizerte and find a suitable house to rent for an important client. At first, Rached cannot find a suitable house but then the barman at the hotel where he is staying refers him to a house on the seashore. It is empty and has been so for eight years. It was owned by a Frenchman who died without heirs. He is buried in the garden. It was then bought by Si Mokhtar, the father of Michkat, who bought it for his son. However, the son has gone off to Canada and shows no signs of returning so it remains empty. Michkat comes now and then to collect the money from the milk from the cattle owned by the property but rarely stays. The caretaker, a friend of the barman, is prepared to (illegally) let it out to Rached and, as he has no choice, this is what he does.
He meets the caretaker’s family. The caretaker himself is a bit strange, the result of an accident. His wife is an excellent cook. Of their two sons, one has found God and spends all his time praying and plotting with others to go to Palestine to help the Palestinians. The other son is a petty smuggler and wants to go to Italy. He has tried a couple of times but has been caught each time. Rached prepares the house and Mansour brings Naceur, the man who is to stay there and whom Rached must look after. In the meantime, we have been following Mansour’s story, a man who also struggled when young and got caught when carrying forged passports. He was sentenced to ten years in prison but, after four years, was rescued by a mysterious stranger, who uses him to carry out a range of unspecified but clearly illegal or quasi-legal jobs.
Naceur does arrive and the two men have a generally cordial but somewhat uneasy relationship while we gradually learn Naceur’s background, why he is there and what is to happen to him. Inevitably, Michkat arrives to deal with the payments but they do not seem too upset and the caretaker claims that Naceur is his cousin while Rached hides. Inevitably, things go wrong, particularly when Michkat recognises both Naceur and Mansour
Towards the end, Filali drags this novel out a bit, as Michkat returns and then seems, while not to enjoy the company of the two men, at least to accept it. However, it is clear that Filali’s intention is to paint a grim picture of the situation in Tunisia. Many of the main characters have been or are involved in very dubious enterprises, often of a criminal nature and often causing a lot of damage to Tunisia and the Tunisian people. We get considerable detail of the various scams and dirty deeds carried out by these men and their associates. While Michkat and her family are (relatively) clean, they certainly are tangentially involved or have been associated with such people, particularly Michkat in her previous job. Even the dead Frenchman, who seemed to have been a decent man and somewhat supportive of Tunisian independence, tuns out to have a dirty past. In short, Filali clearly wants to show us that this is a country ripe for revolution, with the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer. Of course, I could point out that this is happening in many other countries – the UK and the USA are two obvious examples – but, unlike in these countries, there is no social safety net for the poor in Tunisia and democracy is very fragile. As we shall see in her next novel, sadly the revolution is not going to help.
First published in 2012 by Elyzad
No English translation