In his novel published by Saqi, the Tunisian writer and journalist Kamal Al Riahi lets us into the world of a society ravaged by political tyranny andsocial backwardness, before one of «Bourguiba’s children» made his appearance and changed the rules of the game
Elie Abdo, for Al Akhbar, October 14, 2011
The routes taken by the literatures of the revolution, which broke out against the Arab tyrannic and oppressing regimes ruling over the people of the region in decades, is not yet clear. What has so far come out does not exceed some works that archive the revolutions on a day to day basis, their details and direct events, in addition to the emotional narrative of impressions and feelings recorded by authors who took part. We did not yet read a literary work, be it novel, poetry or theater, that would question creative writing, in style and substance, in the light of a new reality produced by the Arab revolutions. Most literary works that deal with the Arab revolutions, remains in the orbit of the literary and linguistic styles used earlier.
Perhaps the novel by the Tunisian writer and journalist Kamal Al Riahi, «The gorilla» (Dar al Saqi) fall in this category. The novel surprises the reader as soon as page one: Saleh, the poor young man, climbs up the clock tower at the intersection of Boulevard Mohammed V and Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis to announce the resurrection. People gather around the tower, state police is brought in as the scene of the young man hanging in the air occupies the news and the talk of the population.
Through a scenic coherent structure, the novel’s passages follow each other in a mastered montage, using an intense, accurate, language that preserves its beauty, without falling into rhetoric and useless talk.
Al Riahi lets us into the world of a society ravaged by political tyranny and social backwardness. The authors leaves his main character, Saleh, hanging to the clock, to tell us his story: a foundling child who lives in an orphanage, where most of the children get adopted except him. Because of his dark black skin, he remains a long time in the orphanage before a man called Iyad and a woman called Sasiya come from one of the remote villages and adopt him. Through the character of Saleh, nicknamed «Gorilla» by his schoolmates, the author sheds light on the abandoned children of the Tunisian society, who were called «Children of Bourguiba» in reference to the embrace by the Tunisian leader of all the segments of society. As a revenge of this designation, Saleh fires at Bourguiba’s tomb, and is thereof hunted by the security services who invent rather serious charges against him, such as belonging to a terrorist organization.
In the narrative, transitions are made to different times and climates. The stories of other characters the lives of whom intersect with that of the gorilla’s are recounted. Thus, Al Jatt is brought in, an old friend and drug dealer who spent time in prison, during which he cut off the penis of one of the prisoners. Shakir is the homosexual who tried to seduce Saleh inside a movie theater, and ended up preying on his victims in the back streets adjacent to the Clock Tower. Ali The dogs, is the security officer who had been tracking Saleh for in a living, when he was working in the Friday market, and is in charge of getting Saleh down in the Clock Tower incident.
Kamal Al Riahi, who was selected in the “Beirut 39″ competition organized by the «Foundation Hay Festival» in 2009, succeeds in building nightmarish atmospheres, full of violence, cruelty and tyranny, starting from the clock tower on which Saleh climbs, overcoming his fear, and openly declaring his pain. The narrative expands into the effects of tyranny inside the psyches of marginal individuals, prisoners of a life the conditions of which they did not choose.
Around the Tower Clock — which as the writer specifies in the beginning of the novel is a symbol of the coup carried out by General Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali against President Habib Bourguiba, where the statue of the latter was replaced by the tower clock — the people arise in sympathy with Saleh standing not he electrified Tower. They start calling for the regime’s fall, in a clear reference to the revolution for dignity that broke out in Tunis on January 14 and overthrew the rule of Zine El Abidine.
The use of the revolution in Al Riahi’s novel as the artistic end of the narrative, raises an issue that goes beyond the novel itself. It would be prejudicial to approach it from the angle of the revolutions, without paying attention to the skill of its author and his mastering of novel writing. The pressing question here is: Will Arab revolutions be the theme of the coming novels? Or will the revolutions shape these accounts in accordance with its language and style and new technical tools? How can the revolutions change our current societies, without changing what is told about them in writing, poetry and theater?