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Hassouna Mosbahi: الطلييتيم الدهر (Solitaire)

The title comes from the two meanings of the Arabic word, which are described by the translator William Maynard Hutchins: a unique, precious pearl or gem but also negatively to fate’s orphan—in other words, to a solitary, tragic, or pathetic figure.

Yunus has just reached the age of sixty which, both for him and the author, seems to be an age when decrepitude, mental and physical, sets in. Time had unexpected consequences. It destroyed beauty, deformed bodies and souls, ruined minds and relationships, turned criminals into innocent people and innocent people into criminals, a king to a slave and a slave to a king. It is also for him a an age when reflection becomes important, reflection on his life, on his country, on his religion and on literature.

He starts with religion, especially Sufism which particularly influenced him when he was younger. Now he has a problem with religion as it is practised in Tunisia. Now the order of the day was men with unkempt beards and black prayer calluses on their foreheads. Their harsh and crude voices grew even uglier when amplified by loudspeakers, night or day. What he and his friend Hisham are appalled by is the fact that people, instead, of praying to Allah silently, now feel they must make a great show of it and, if you are not making a great show of praying, you are deemed to be wanting. The argument is that when people prayed silently, Allah abandoned them, so they have to shout to be heard.

He had met Hisham in a café in Neapolis/Nabeul, where both men live and they had become friends. Hisham had spent most of his adult life in Paris and, for him, Arab poetry is of little interest, much preferring French and, indeed the poetry of other countries such as Japan. Hisham had left Paris as his wife died and he did not want to die alone in a foreign country but coming back soon turns out to be a big mistake. He remembers the Tunisia of his childhood but it is now a different country. The president is the despotic Ben Ali. Above all, people behave differently, including the breast-beating prayers.

Hisham soon regrets returning and the strong Islamist approach of people now. He remembers, when young, going to Kabul and it was much freer than Tunisia now is. His protests against it land him in trouble.

There is a another returnee later,Bechir. He had travelled to various countries, when leaving Tunisia. Algeria and Libya had similar problems to Tunisia. Lebanon looked fine till the civil war broke out so, like Hisham, he ended up in Paris. His twenty year old son commented that he was looking old so he felt it was time to return to Tunisia. He fares no better than Hisham.

Yunus had been married. They had met at university and it had been love at first sight but that, too, had failed, particularly after both her parents died, though, despite being sixty, he is still sexually active.

For Yunus, though, it is old age. Old age weakens us and makes us feebler day by day, hour by hour, and continues to affect us until death comes. It takes from us a quarter or a half of the man we were. However he can reminisce. He first starts reminiscing abut Sufi mystics. We get a detailed account of Gharsallah who travels round Tunisia preaching. He is a complete ascetic,often staying naked even when it is cold. He makes various predictions that come true. He is captured in the war by the Italians who think he is a spy and he is tortured but survives that and accurately predicts the death of the interpreter. He provides a lot of help and comfort to people in distress. His mausoleum is now a shrine.

Yunus admires mystics like Gharsallah. However he is less impressed with the current leaders of Tunisia. He meets an old sheikh who lives a life not unlike that of Gharsallah and wonders if he too could live such a life.

He dips into the history of Tunisia on a visit to Morocco and, specifically, Marrakesh, when he recalls the Almoravids and their ruler Yusuf ibn Tashfin and the conquest of Andalusia. He is critical of the Arabs. Ibn Khaldun also thought that the basis of rule among the Arabs was oppression of the citizenry. That was why he believed every land that an Arab governs is one where “the culture collapses and the resident is desolate.”

But it is not just history and religion but also literature that enthrals him. he had always been a great lover of Flaubert and indeed tells us a couple of tales from his own experience inspired by (though not based on) Flaubert’s Three Tales. Flaubert was a solitary man, even though married.

He had considered being a writer when young. He wrote a few stories and then decided he needed to see the nitty gritty of urban life and went off to Kairouan to visit a bar, where he drank alcohol and smoked and even went to a brothel. In Tunis he reads US novels such as Erskine Caldwell, Ernest Hemingway, Poe and Mark Twain.

He read Tunisian writers as well but finds the finest had struggled against tyranny, bigotry, and despotism and had paid dearly for their efforts. They had died young. He meets a real writer and talks to him. He advises Perhaps you dream of becoming a writer or poet one day. But you should realise that writing in this country is a curse and a trial. He had written more under the pseudonym Solitaire but had not published them. His wife had suggested burning them.

Virtually all the major characters are men but there is one interesting exception. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, second president of Tunisia is certainly criticised for his corruption and cruelty but Mosbahi reserves his real wrath for Ben Ali’s second wife, Leïla Ben Ali, née Trabelsi. I cannot think of a more vicious portrait of a real (and, at the time of writing) still living person in any novel. She is totally corrupt and manipulative. You will learn, as I did, a lot about Tunisian politics from reading this long diatribe against her.

In short, this novel is about a man who has just reached his sixtieth birthday and who is looking back at his life, his country, the politics of his country and the world, particularly the Arab world, and the literature he enjoys. He also looks forward. The future alarmed him because all he could envision was a bleak, desolate, thorny desert. The view back, though, was of an enjoyable, comforting expanse. It is not just Yunus. He meets up with several men of about his age and they all complain about the trials and tribulations of old age and about the country. Several of them have had marital problems. Si al-Yahir, who had been told he was old by a student when he was forty-five, comments I turned fifty, and my circumstances became increasingly bad and crummy, while Arab wars, defeats, schisms, insurrections, calamities, diseases, and complexes multiplied. Whichever way you faced, you confronted ruins, conflagrations, and vanquished peoples awaiting a dubious liberation.

Growing old is undoubtedly something most of us do not particularly welcome but being considered over the hill by the time we are sixty is, I think, something many of us, at least in the Western world, would dispute. Of course, as Yunus and his friends make clear, it is not just the aching bones and fading eyesight, it is the political situation in Tunisia and in the broader Arab world that depresses them so much. For those that have kept away and return to retire, it is worse as they are often surprised by how much things have changed in their absence.

Mosbahi was sixty-two when he wrote this book and seventy-two when it appeared in English, so this is undoubtedly, at least to some degree, personal. However, my advice to him would be to look on the bright side and enjoy your books.

Publishing history

First published in 2012 by Ǧadāwil lin-Našr wa-‘t-Tauzīʻ
First English translation in 2022 by Syracuse University Press
Translated by William Maynard Hutchins