Saber Mansouri: Je suis né huit fois [I Was Born Eight Times]
Massyre is the youngest of eight – he has seven older sisters, all of whom have several children each. He also goes through eight jobs. Either of these two may be the source of the title. It is not entirely clearly who is the hero – Massyre or the place where he lives. The place is called Montagne Blanche in French (White Mountain in English) but is, presumably, Djebel Abiod (the Arabic for white mountain), a small village in the North-West of Tunisia. Massyre is very much influenced by his place of birth, as he repeatedly states. Indeed, it is, as he tells us, a key place in Tunisia, as many invaders have passed through it. The novel is a poor boy makes good (to a certain degree) story, with a certain amount of satire thrown in.
Massyre becomes an entrepreneur early on. At the age of five he is given some money when he is circumcised (by his grandfather, the local circumciser). Following the advice of his grandfather, he buys three goats, which he looks after. As they are female, he manages to get them impregnated and then has seven goats. His father had worked for a government agency but it had been privatised, resulting in many of the staff, his father included, being made redundant (his criticism of privatisation and the control of public services for the benefit of the rich is one of the areas he satirises.) His father takes up goat-herding and he gives some goats to his son. One area where Massyre is grateful to the rulers of the country is the one that requires all children to attend school, so off he trots four kilometres to the local school. He is very bright and does well at school, though he is weak in maths and, later, in physics and chemistry. However, his marks are high enough for him to advance. Some of the teachers he likes and some he does not. Later on, one teacher will be really abusive and Massyre and a relative will help drive this teacher out of the school. School is not just for study; it is a place where he can meet girls of his own age though, by his own admission, he is not very successful with them. It is also a place where he can make money which he does, by selling wild fruits he has collected, such as wild cherries, strawberries, etc.
But with his father not earning as much as he used to, money is tight, and Massyre has to work. As well as goat herding, he takes up other jobs. For example, his father somehow manages to get holds large amounts of used newspaper. Massyre goes round the market, selling this paper to the various merchants to wrap their goods in. It is time-consuming but profitable. He also hunts out and sells the Helix aperta snail, which is a gastronomic delicacy. This is quite complicated, particularly the storage of them, and we get detailed explanations of how this is done. We get even more detailed explanations of the slaughter and selling of goat meat. Massyre follows the business very carefully and accosts the butchers who pretend to sell only kid meat, while actually selling cut up meat of old goat, which requires much longer cooking. He also tries to prevent the very rich merchants who buy up all the best meat from doing so but there he is less successful. Indeed, he seems to take up moral crusades of this nature on a regular basis.
He moves up through school and even gets a girlfriend (she will later marry a police officer). His remunerative occupations change. After an epidemic in the goat population, goat breeding is banned. The ban lasts for three years but both Massyre and his father decide not to return to it when the ban is lifted. The government also bans his newspaper business as unhealthy. However, the entrepreneurial spirit comes to the fore and they open up a new business – second-hand clothes. A man drives to Tunis once a week and collects a large amount of used clothing, presumably imported from Europe. He distributes it among the three second-hand clothes dealers, including Massyre and his father. It is Massyre’s job is to extract all the underwear, which he burns behind the slaughterhouse. The local imam suggests that he should, instead, wash the underwear with bleach – the imam is prepared to provide the bleach – and let it dry on the Red Hill, as this would be more”islamo-compatible”. Massyre declines.
Mansouri gives a detailed account of Massyre’s schooling. We know from early on that he will become a history teacher. His initial exposure to Tunisian teaching of history is disappointing. In order to cram in world history, the pupils merely learn basic dates and facts, without any understanding of history. He also gives us a long critique of the teaching of philosophy, not least because the focus is on Western, specifically European, philosophy and ignores the famous Islamic philosophers. But he passes his first baccalaureate and goes off to Tunis to study. However, during this period there is a strong anti-Islamic crackdown and Massyre is caught up in it. When he comes home for the holidays, the local chief makes him sign a document which says that he will spy on his fellow students. If he refuses to sign the document, which he initially does, he will be arrested for being an Islamist, as he has been seen going to the mosque to pray.
He qualifies as a teacher but tries for a master’s degree. As a teacher, he sees the other side of the coin, both dealing with the pupils and the criticism he gets from the inspector, who thinks that he should model himself on TV presenters (he does not have a TV) and not teach in the old-fashioned way nor, indeed, dress in the old-fashioned way. But the issue that persuades him that he might be better off away from Tunisia is, inevitably, love where his latest attempt goes badly wrong.
This is an interesting book, giving a perspective on Tunisia, an Islamic country where fanaticism is condemned. Massyre and, from what he states, his fellow Tunisians, have no time for Algeria and its fanaticism. However, he feels the anti-Islam trend went too far. It is clear that, at least among Massyre and his friends, conventional Islam behaviour is not always adopted. They drink, smoke, swear and have premarital sex. It would have been nice to see how the Tunisian Arab Spring turned out, from their point of view but, though this book was published in 2013, it is set entirely in the last century. However, all too often, he gets carried away in his descriptions – the philosophy teacher giving his views on philosophy, for example, or the wedding of his best friend to the woman he (Massyre) loves. It is not bad but it not the great Tunisian novel and is unlikely to be translated into English.
First published in 2013 by Seuil
No English translation