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Azza Filali: Les intranquilles [Uncertain Times]

I had a certain amount of difficulty with the translation of the title of this book. When a has not been translated into English, I try to stick as closely as possible to the original. However, both intranquille in French and untranqil in English do exist but are relatively rare (my spell checker does not like either and offers tranquil as an alternative.) I have gone with Uncertain Times which I am not very happy with, but Filali’s sense is both that the people are uncertain and also that they are the opposite of tranquil, not least because they are in the middle of a revolution. If the book is ever translated into English (don’t hold your breath), I trust the translator will do much better than I have.

It is no secret that the Tunisian Revolution was meant to herald the return of democracy not only to Tunisia but to other Arab countries which would follow the Tunisians. It is also no secret that this did not happen. Not only, in many cases, were one lot of crooks replaced by another, these revolutions saw the rise of hard-line Islamists who were opposed to women’s rights, human rights and many other liberal reforms. This novel, published in 2014, tells the story of some of the people caught up in the Tunisian Revolution.

The novel starts with Abdallah returning to Tunis in February 2011, just as the revolution is getting started. We later learn that he was a phosphate miner from Redeyef but strikes and the dismissal of all the older workers, particularly those like Abdallah who were associated with the old regime, mean that there are now no jobs in Redeyef. On arrival he sees a rich lady and immediately asks her for a job as a a gardener. Surprisingly she gives him the job. The lady is Zeineb and she is married to Jaafar, another of Filali’s characters who has made his money in dubious ways. They have a daughter, Sonia, who is very much involved in the revolution and we initially see her painting a banner for a demonstration. She is engaged to Hakim, who works for a leasing company, which is doing very well in this period of uncertainty. They met when he rescued her from a group of Islamists who were attacking her for being inappropriately dressed. (Filali refers to the Islamists as beardies.)

The other main character is Hechmi. Hechmi is a beardie. He had been arrested in 1991. We never learn what exactly for but clearly connected to his Islamist activities and, in particular because Lotfi Besbès, his cousin, had been the boyfriend of Nejia, Hechmi’s wife, before she had married Hechmi. Besbès is now a police officer and uses his position to gain revenge for Nejia. Hechmi was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, which he served. Nejia divorced him and married Besbès. Only Hechmi’s mother stayed loyal to him, visiting him every week, at great expense. Hechmi remains a troubled man, after his time in prison. In particular, he is reluctant to use the public baths as his chest still has the cigarette burns from where he was tortured in prison and, in particular, the name Besbès has been engraved on him with the burns. However, he remains obsessed by Besbès and goes to his house to spy on him, Nejia and their children.

Meanwhile Abdallah is struggling. He supplements his income by selling fruit and vegetables he buys from the wholesale market but is harassed by the police. He gets a job as a night-watchman but then that goes as the employer can no longer afford to pay him. He becomes friends with Latifa, who helps and befriends him. Only later do we learn that she is a prostitute. He then manages to get a job as caretaker at the mosque but loses that when someone he knew in Redeyef tells the mosque authorities that we was associated with the old regime. Finally, to Hechmi’s disgust, he goes to work for Besbès.

Jaafar is having trouble at the bank where he works. He is director of personnel. The bank is in trouble. The director of the bank, Si Mondher, had promised to build housing for the staff but seems to have reneged on his promise. We later learn that the money has been spent on saving the bank from its crippling debts. Si Mondher now wants to cut the thirteenth month payment to staff, a long-established tradition, and Jaafar warns him that this will not be acceptable. However, Si Mondher has made various “loans” to Jaafar, which he has used for going to Mecca (where his hypochondria made his life very difficult) and building an extension to his house. Unless Jaafar uses his influence to get the staff to accept losing the thirteenth month payment, he will call in the loans. Indeed, it seems that all sorts of crooked deeds have been carried out in the bank by Si Monder, Jaafar and Hamza, the chief accountant, who now seems to find religion and becomes friends with Latifa.

For many of these characters – Abdallah, Hechmi, Jaafar, Si Mondher, Hamza, Latifa, Sonia and Zeineb – life is going to become untranquil. Their lives will be disrupted, their views will change and they will have to adapt to changing circumstances. For several of them life will definitely get worse while, for others, it will be very different, though not necessarily worse.

This is not a very good novel (though not a bad one, either) but what makes it interesting is the portrait of Tunisia just after the Revolution. In particular, Filali is smart enough not to tell just the story of the more saintly characters in the revolution but those that were compromised in some way: the crooks, like Jaafar, Si Mondher and Hamza, those associated with the old regime, like Abdallah, and the Islamists, like Hechmi. There is one quasi-saintly character, Latifa, the prostitute with the heart of gold, who seems to come into contact with virtually all of the other characters and helps two or three of them. Ultimately, it is clear, at least from Filali’s point of view, that the revolution has been a failure. The only character who seems to support it at the beginning – Sonia – soon becomes disillusioned. It is also clear that all the revolution has meant for most of the people of Tunisia is that one bunch of crooks/oppressors has been replaced by a different bunch of crooks/oppressors and all that matters is making sure that you are on the side of the current top dog. A sad state of affairs but, of course not unique to Tunisia.

Publishing history

First published in 2014 by Elyzad
No English translation