Habib Selmi: نساء البساتين (Souriez, vous êtes en Tunisie!) [The Women of al-Basatin (Arabic title); Smile, You Are In Tunisia (French title)]
This book was published shortly before the Arab Spring and, while it does not give any clue to the future uprising, it does give a lot of clues that Tunisians were not, on the whole, happy with their lot. Of course, the same could be said for the inhabitants of many countries and they did not go on to have an uprising – yet. This novel tells the story of Taoufik. He went to France to study, met a French woman, Catherine, and they married. He abandoned his studies and became a school teacher. The couple does not have any children. As it is now the school holidays in France, he is able to come back to Tunisia,which he has not visited for five years. Much of the book is his shock at how much Tunisia has changed since he last visited.
Taoufik has several siblings but he stays with Ibrahim, the brother who is closest to him in age (one year younger) and Ibrahim’s wife, Yousra. The couple have a young son, Wael. The first thing that Taoufik notices is that his sister-in-law wears a veil and shakes his hand instead of kissing him. This is new. This is because of the influence of a neighbour (who has since abandoned it). However, it is indicative of a trend that Taoufik soon finds in the country – a strong religious trend. Wael is very keen on going to the mosque with his father. When Taoufik goes out on a Friday, he finds that he is the only adult male at the bus-stop. The women and children look at him in an odd way. Only later does he realise that it is because he is not at the mosque for Friday prayer, unlike virtually all the other adult males. What he finds odd is despite women wearing the veil and the strong religious trend, women still wear trendy jeans or even mini-skirts. When he gives Yousra a sexy blouse, she is very glad to have it and says she will either wear it at home or under something when she goes out. Not all women have adopted the veil. Leïla, Yousra’s sister, for example, has fallen out with Yousra just because Yousra has adopted the veil and she has not.
The woman who influenced Yousra to wear the veil is a neighbour in the same building, called Naïma. She and Yousra have fallen out and it seems that her husband has left her, as she cannot have any children. Taoufik soon becomes obsessed with her, wondering whether to go into her flat when he sees the door open, spying on her from the window and even mildly stalking her in the supermarket. Yousra and Ibrahim, however, do not like her and, because she has a male visitor (who may well be a cousin), they accuse her of being a prostitute.
Wandering around the town he finds much has changed (though the bureaucracy, e.g. at the bank, has not). People seem to condemn him for being an exile and more than once he is asked what nationality he is and people are surprised when he says that he is Tunisian. Indeed, he is mocked for his apparent foreignness. Some, of course, envy him. Again, more than one person says that they envy him for having married a French woman and would love to do the same. One friend tells him that he would love a foreign tourist to take him away, as has happened to others, and he would happily leave his wife and children if this happened. He also gets a proposal, even though he is married and the woman is married to someone else, purely so she can leave Tunisia and go and live in France. Tourism seems to be having something of a negative effect, with the locals envious of the tourists and some tourists coming for sex – both heterosexual and homosexual.
However, the leitmotiv of this book is hypocrisy. Everyone, even Taoufik, shows hypocritical behaviour. They pretend to be very religious but do not put this into practice in their daily lives, drinking alcohol, having extramarital sex and wearing trendy, Western clothing. However, they are more than happy to condemn others for the faults that they commit. Bashir, the older brother of Taoufik and Ibrahim, cheats on his taxes and is proud of it. When he is caught, he bribes his way out of it. While the main characters are religious, there are some who are Islamist fanatics, calling for the return to sharia law and even saying that those who do not pray will be punished. There is only one, fairly minor character, who is honest enough to say that Tunisia is hell for those that live there and that it is falling apart, that it does not know where it is going. This is by no means a great book but certainly an interesting read about Tunisia just before the Arab Spring.
First published in 2010 by Dar al-Adab
No English translation
Published in French as Souriez, vous êtes en Tunisie! by Actes Sud in 2013