The World through the Eye of the Needle: Readings in Contemporary Tunisian Literature by Mejdi Ben Issa Reviewed by Saleh Souissi

A new book titled The World through the Eye of the Needle: Readings in Contemporary Tunisian Literature by the Tunisian poet and critic Mejdi Ben Issa, and published by Inana- Editions and Distributions came out under the series “Approaches.” It included articles, and critical approaches about modern Tunisian literary texts—be they poetry or prose. Ben Issa has already published other books of criticism including Enthusiasm in Old Arabic Poetry, and Language and its Sciences in Ibn Khaldoun’s Prolegomenon, as well as poetry books including The Aroma is Bursting into Flame, The Eulogy of Lust, and Deserted Arrows.

Through this book which is the sum total of more than one decade of reading Tunisian literature and keeping abreast with its new poetry, novels, stories, and literary criticism, the writer attempted to insist on the diversity, the depth, and the abundance that characterised Tunisian literature, and on its richness in literary, and civilisational issues, and preoccupations that reflect the interests of the Tunisian writer in his/her home space, and his/her interaction with his/her nationalistic, and universal milieu. The reader finds in the articles of the book various readings of Tunisian texts of different artistic forms which the writer has chosen “not for reasons that are related to the fame of their owners, but rather for their relation to the issues that aroused our interest while reading them,” as he stated in the introduction of the book. Mejdi continued “This finds its frame in a general cultural context that we have chosen since we embarked upon literary writing which is based upon giving priority to the Tunisian literary text when it comes to the critical preoccupation for the reason to accord it the place it deserves among Arabic literatures.”

Besides, Ben Issa insists on the fact that he attempted in the various articles and chapters not to abide by any of the critical methods ad verbum, but rather to draw benefit from some of them each time. He adds: “They were just illuminations which we wanted them to facilitate our penetration into the realms of the readable text without limitating our dialogue with it or restricting its brilliance, and richness. Moreover, throughout the chapters of the book, we remained faithful to our desire to emphasise the diversity, and richness that Tunisian literature has acquired which is a fact we noticed during the years that we lived with its texts—be they poetry or prose, and that we worked on scrutinising it in this book.”

Ben Issa believes, though he does not claim professionalism in literary criticism or the mastery of all its tools, that through this book he somehow fulfilled a duty towards a Tunisian literature that is still in dire need to the pens of its critics and the efforts of its researchers in order that its masterpieces might be disseminated among the readers, and might occupy the place they deserve.

The book includes a number of Tunisian literary texts ranging between poetry, and prose. Through them the writer attempted to show the extent of the richness, and the diversity of the Tunisian literary scene, and emphasised, relying on his well-versedness in those works he has chosen, the need to more focus on Tunisian literary experiences that convey excellence, and uniqueness to a great degree. The first study in the book is titled “The Memory and the Counter-memory or the Question of Identity in Ibrahim Dargouthi’s novel The Secrets of the Man in the Curtain” published in 1998 by Dar Samed-Editions and Diffusions. Then, the book gives a critical reading to the collection of poetry titled The Man of the Ascension (to the seven Heavens) by the lamented poet Mohamed Faouzi Ghozzi. The article is titled “Now, You Dwell in Yourself: A Reading of an Epitaph.” Furthermore, the writer suggests a reading on “The Social Transformations and the Evolution of the Narrative Forms” through examples of Tunisian short stories. He worked on the concept and stopped at the beginnings of the Tunisian short stories in it. He also spoke about the forms and the content.

The book of Mejdi Ben Issa also includes another approach about “Poetry in the Tunisian Novel: From the Sills to the Texts.” It contains subtitles such as “Paratextualities or Poetic Sills of the Fictional Text,” “Poetry as a Prelude,” “Poetry as a Title,” and “Intertextuality and the Presence of Poetry in the Tunisian Fictional Text.”

The writer reviews two books of criticism that represent “The Issues of Arabic Literature from Tunisian Lenses.” The two books are The Poetic in Ahlam Mosteghanemi’s Novels by Zohra Kammoun published in 2007 by Dar Samed, and Flowers of Law: A Reading of the Arabic Prose Poem by Qais Mrabet published in 2008 by Aspis-Editions and Distribution.

Another chapter was suggested to the reader by Mejdi Ben Issa. It can be considered as a reference to an important literary period that our country witnessed. That chapter or article is titled “The Experience of the Poets of the 90’s through their Manifestos.” The writer gave his reading to that period in which he represented one of its poetic symbols. Referring to those manifestos, he says: “Thus, the poetic manifesto became pregnant with the meanings of change, and transcendence amidst the movement of Arabic modernism in its political, social, and cultural dimensions. This affected the nature of the discourse in which the poetic manifestos were moulded as regards the mobilising, and provocative dimensions they convey, and the pronouns they use, for instance, the plural first pronoun substitutes the singular first pronoun which pervaded the introductions of poetry collections. On the other hand, the third pronouns are present to point to any side that is against the project of the poetic manifesto. Lexical items of revolutionary political speeches are also present in abundance, and the discourse tends towards argumentations, and debate.

Commenting on what characterized those manifestos in that particular period the writers says: “Two features began to take root in the poetic manifestos at the end of the 90’s, and beyond. The first one is the feature of reviewing, and rectification. This feature makes the poetic manifestos go in continuum with the totality of the current or previous ideas, and conceptions as regards the poetic writing, its goals, and its relations with its tools, and the cultural project in which the poetic text plays a certain role. The second feature is the metaphoric language in which these manifestos were written. Yet, less present than the first feature, it had a clear impact on all the poetic manifestos that were written in the 90’s, as it was emulated when it came to writing manifestos but in a language that is closer to the language of prose…”

The rest of the articles included in Mejdi Ben Issa’s book The World through the Eye of the Needle are respectively “The Descriptive Discourse in Some Examples of the Tunisian Novel,” “The Sufistic Reference in Mahjoub Ayari’s Poems”— a seminal study that the writer presented in the Tunisian poetry meeting held in Bizerte in 2010, in which Ben Issa tackled the aspects of intertextuality, and the possibilities of transformation in the text of Ayari, Then, “Symmetrical Mirrors in Ibrahim Dargouthi’s The Windows of Midnight,” and “The Revelations of Meaning in Examples of Tunisian Poetry in the 90’s,” in which the writer opted to talk about Mourad Amdouni, Hisham M’hemdi, Ettouhami El Hani, and Abdul Aziz El Haji. Finally, he worked on the corpora of Dargouthi, Omar Gdamsi, Faouzia Aloui, and Mohamed Issa El Mouadeb in “The Experimentation in the Tunisian Narrative.”

Originally appeared in the Tunisian daily Essahafa 09/09/2011 by Saleh Souissi

You can read the original text in Arabic here 

Translated from Arabic by Ali Znaidi

About aliznaidi

Ali Znaidi lives in Redeyef, Tunisia. He graduated with a BA in Anglo-American Studies in 2002. He teaches English at Tunisian public secondary schools. He writes poetry and has an interest in literature, languages, and literary translations. His work has appeared here and there and is scheduled to appear elsewhere . At moments of revelation, he smokes and drinks green tea with mint while pondering.
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One Response to The World through the Eye of the Needle: Readings in Contemporary Tunisian Literature by Mejdi Ben Issa Reviewed by Saleh Souissi

  1. aliznaidi says:

    thatdudeeddie -Thank you very much.

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