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Shukri Mabkhout: الطلياني (The Italian)

This book is not about an Italian. The eponymous Abdel Nasser is Tunisian. However, he has Italian film star good looks so is nicknamed “El-Talyani – The Italian. His mother’s friends says this might be because, when he was born, the only foreign TV station available in Tunisia was the Italian one and, because his mother watched it, she produced an Italian-looking son.

The book, narrated by an unnamed narrator, a friend of Abdel Nasser, opens in the summer of 1990 at the funeral of Abdel Nasser’s father, the highly respected Hajj Mahmoud. Abdel Nasser does not behave well. He won’t go the front to pray for his father, snapping that he doesn’t pray. Then, suddenly, he lashes out at the imam, kicking him in the head when he bent down, causing him to bleed. This is, of course unacceptable at any time but particularly at his father’s funeral.

His older sister Jweeda says it because he reads corrupt books while his mother blames the nefarious influence of his university classmates. The only one sympathetic is Leila Jneena. If I were him, I’d have done that and more! she says. Leila Jneena helped bring up Abdel Naser but is now the wife of the imam.

So why did he do it? He is not telling. Hajja Zeinab, his mother, asked Salah Eddine, his older brother, a respected economist who lives in Switzerland, to have a word with him. The two brothers generally get on well though they are very different. Salah Eddine is a believer in conventional market economics while Abel Nasser, who works as a journalist, is a Marxist. Salah Eddine is shocked by his brother’s behaviour but is very pragmatic. While seeming to condemn it he tries to understand what was behind it. You’ve got to know I’m no good. I’m a failure; I just didn’t want to admit it to myself, Abdel Nasser tells him. Things had not been going well for him. He is recently divorced from Zeina, for example. But no real reason is forthcoming.

We now go back to their childhood. Salah Eddine is twelve years older than Abdel Nasser and soon left to go to France. As the elder brother he was looked up to. Abdel Nasser, however, was left to his own devices as a child. As he grew up Abdel Nasser was still a child in the eyes of his mother and sisters, but in the eyes of other women he was a teenager with raging hormones. He began to charm girls (and even older women) with his good looks and attractive build. He argued with his mother and she got fed up with him. However, Leila Jneena looked after him and introduced him to the joys of the flesh.

However, he grows up and heads for university. The narrator assumed that Abdel Nasser would read philosophy so he, the narrator, did but, instead Abdel Nasser chooses law. Though he is reading law (subsidised by his older brother) he spends much of his time in politics. Given the details we get about both the university and national political situations, we must assume that the author is basing at least some of this on his own experience.

Abdel Nasser is associated with a left-wing group and their enemies are the government and the Islamists. The Islamists are relatively united, not least because they have one common aim. The left, inevitably, is highly splintered and, also inevitably, seems to spend more time arguing with other leftists than confronting their political opponents.

It is in this setting that Abdel Nasser meets Zeina. Zeina is outspoken and very much her own woman which means she criticises all and sundry, including various left-wing icons such as Stalin. Indeed, one of the leading leftists suggests she should be eliminated as her approach puts off potential left-wingers. Abdel Nasser is given the task but, as we know, they start a relationship.

Abdel Nasser carries on studying (and failing) so he can continue his involvement in the political scene. Zeina, however, qualifies but finds she is banned from teaching jobs because of her political views. The couple secretly marry, while Zeina is able to do a post-graduate degree. She devotes herself heart and soul to this degree and Abdel Nasser increasingly feels left out. (Their marriage had become mere cohabitation). He has a couple of flings but also graduates. He chooses not to go into law and plans on applying to the civil servce, However, because of the political and economic situation, the civil service is not recruiting and, almost by accident, he gets a job as a proofreader for a government newspaper and moves up the ladder, becoming a highly competent journalist.

We watch their marriage falling apart, Abdel Nasser’s journalistic career taking off and Zeina pursuing her studies. We also see the major political changes in Tunisia, particularly the 1987 Tunisian coup d’état, which leads to major changes in Tunisia politically and socially, which we learn about. They had hoped for improvement: Hadn’t the president himself declared as much in his immortal statement that there would be “no injustice after today?” As we know politicians all over the world make promises which they do not always keep. Abdel Nasser’s boss is particularly cynical about Ben Ali: Just wait. From the beginning, he’s pulled the rug out from under all of us. He’ll get rid of the Islamists; then, he’ll take care of the rest of the opposition; after that he’ll be able to devote himself to killing—his favourite pastime.

And Zeina and Abdel Nasser drift along, neither happy with their lot. And yes, we do find out why Abdel Nasser behaved the way he did at his father’s funeral.

If there is a moral to this story – and I am not sure that there is – it is that love and politics do not mix and that love and total commitment to a career do not mix and, perhaps, men often tend to behave badly, at least where sex is concerned.

Relatively few Tunisian novels are translated into English and when they are they are far more likely to have been translated from the French than the Arabic, as is the case here. This novel is therefore particularly welcome. You will learn a lot about late twentieth century politics in Tunisia, which, like many political situations in countries we know little about, are fascinating and messy. Above all, Mabkhout gives us an excellent story of life and love not working out the way the protagonists hoped and thought they would.

Other links

Miled Faiza and Karen McNeil, ‘On the Merits of Tunisian Literature’ (despite the title, interview with the translators mainly about this book)

Publishing history

First published in 2014 by Dar Tanwir
First English translation in 2021 by Europa Editions
Translated by Karen McNeil and Miled Faiz