A Question and Testimonies: Prison Literature in Tunisia. What are its Features, Issues, and the Nature of its Message?

Prison literature did not acquire the qualities of the literary pursuit that stands straight on its stem in Tunisia, and in the Arab world likewise. It remained a side of the marginalised literature that its advocates live on the periphery and lead a sombre and dire life.

This kind of creative writing did not also attain recognition, respect or criticism, and academic credit that it deserves in the Tunisian universities because it is at odds with the prevailing social tranquility.

When the writer recollects the realms of prison in his/her literary works, the tamed reader gets frightened not because the text lacks integrity or does not meet the standards of creativity , but because the reality which is reflected in the mirror of prison literature offends the psychological tranquility of the recipient, and disturbs the public submission as well. Thus, the text which is chased by the secret and cultural police or the like runs in the wilderness of tranquility, and it does not leave behind it, but the memories of sorrow, pain, and torment.

The jailed intellectual who is in a bewildered state of affairs, and who acquires eminence through words remains always under the control of the authority because he/she is a true witness. As a result, he/she is in the same position to view, and to scrutinise like what is found in the literatures of Sufism.

Criticising the ruling authority, and rebelling against its text in reality is undoubtedly a leap into the “orbits of horror,” and a moment of revealing the evil side in the human being, society, and the system of the relation between both of them.

The language of the one who savoured the horrors of suppression, and torture, and who experienced aspects of obliterating his/her freedom could only identify with the spirit of creativity that is roaring with the scandals of authority, and the rulers, the predominance of weakness, the lack of money, and the coercion of the executioners.

Perhaps this amalgam makes each page of prison literature a candle that its owner lights an area of injustice, and torture in the prison, and the detention centers as well as in the brains, and the hearts of the submissive ones.

The memory of prisons was not absent from the Islamic, and the Arabic text. The Qur’an, for instance, pioneered the talks about the despotism of the ruler, the injustice of the authority, and the description of the tragic ending of unjust people. In this regard, we remember the story of the prophet Joseph (peace be upon him), and the story of Dhun-Nun (the prophet Jonah) who was swallowed by the whale, and remained jailed in between its ribs till God prescribed relief to him.

Among eminent Arab writers who enriched prison literature with their texts we can cite Abdul Rahman Munif in his The East of the Mediterranean, Son’allah Ibrahim in his The Smell of it, and The Committee, Saad Zahran in his The Urdi Prison: Memoirs of a Prisoner, Taher Ben Jelloun in his This Blinding Absence of Light, and Malika Oufkir in her The Prisoner (lately known as Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail), and The Alien, and the poets Mohamed El-Magout, Moudhafer Al-Nawab, and Ahmed Matar.

Among the most famous works that spring from the wounds of jailed hearts, and the minds  that were injured by prison, we can cite in previous times The House of the Dead by the famous Russian writer Dostoyevsky, the poems of the Turkish poet of freedom Nazim Hikmet. In the contemporary era, we can cite The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vergas Llosa.

In Tunisia the novel The Olive never Dies by Abdul Qadir Ben Haj Nasr was very famous in the 70’s of the previous century. Also the book The Prison is a Liar and the Living Leave by  Fathi Ben Haj Yahia that was published two years ago, and was greatly welcomed by the media, and The Isthmus (Its new edition is titled Borj Erroumi: The Gates of Death) by Samir Sassi which its consequent editions after the revolution  were out of stock in a very short period of time, beating a record.

Fathi Ben Haj Yahia’s Novel

Essahafa newspaper asked about prison literature, and its realms through the observation of testimonies of the pioneers of this literary pursuit.

Lazhar Sahraoui, novelist:

“The prison can be so wide that it becomes a country where freedom is confiscated”

Prison literature is a literary type like travel literature, love literature, and the literature of war, and national resistance and struggle. As far as this literary colour is concerned, it has roots in the Arabic heritage. For instance, we find captivity literature exemplified in the poetry of Abou firas al-Hamdani, and literature of exile exemplified in the poetry of both Al Mutamid ibn Abbad, and Abul-Baqa’ ar’Randi, and the narratives of al-Nifzi, al-Hallaj, and al-Sahrawardi.

As far as the subject-matters, and the meanings of this literature are concerned, we can state the focus on the bitter lyrical self, the magnification of the broken, conquered, and disabled self, and the ugly image of the enemy or the executioner or the tyrant.

Prison literature is a modern critical term, but it is sometimes so simplified that becomes narrow. However, it is larger than that.

The prison in its symbolic meaning is the cuff, deprivation, confiscation of all basic liberties, and fear or self-censorship. That’s why we find the prison or the detention center in its known physical meaning, but this prison can be so large that it becomes a country where freedom is confiscated. It is the country of fear, coercion, disability, and deprivation. We remember that Tunisia was a large prison in the era of the dictator. The prison can be fixed or mobile. For example, the veil that is imposed on the woman is, in brief, and symbolically speaking a mobile prison.

Philosophically and mystically speaking, the prison can be the body that prevents the soul from flying in the space of cultural infiniteness, and the creative imagination. Here, we can cite Abul’Ala Al-Ma’arri in his famous poem:

“I see myself in my three prisons.

So don’t query about the cursed news!” (The translation is mine)

As for the exile, it is that obligatory or optional prison as it is replete with the meanings of seclusion, alienation, deprivation, and disability (al-Sayyab, al-Bayati, and Mahmoud Bayrem Ettounsi)

To conclude, prison literature—be it poetry, drama, short stories, novel, or autobiography is a literary type or colour that is deeply rooted in the Arabic heritage. Besides, it is universal, and comprehensive with broad significance, and meaning.

Samir Sassi, novelist:


“The transmission of the tragedy, and the creation of the elegant literary image”

Prison literature can be considered as a new literary type compared to other literary genres due to the exceptional dimension in the lives of the authors who were victims to their suppressive political systems.

Texts that recollect stories of prisons, and torture are not that frequent, especially in world literatures. Despite the lack of works of prison literature, the latter have a great impact on the cultural scene because what they depict stems from living with tragedies, and situations that are contradictory to humanity, and human rights.

Scenes, chapters, and images of coercion, suppression, and autocracy depicted by prison literature represent a talent when it comes to creativity, and artfulness. This puts the writer in a position of transcending a difficult equation based on the transmission of the tragedy, and the creation of the elegant normative literary image.

The writer who suffered in prison has to make the reader enjoy the work as an art, and inspect the hidden truths at the level of the content. Also, while the writer is transmitting the brutalities of the prison he/she is recollecting once again the images of torture that only strong-hearted ones can put up with when examining them. That’s why, in this respect, prison literature is characterised with the artistic images, and the suffering of its owner who revives the experience of the prison with all its pains, and torments on the paper.

Prison literature is not widespread in Tunisia, despite the fact that the Tunisian have tasted the pains of prison since the birth of the Independent State.

There is no doubt that the revolution that brought out this type of literature into light will contribute to the enhancement of its circulation, and criticism, hence, enriching the general literary scene in Tunisia.

Mohamed Jaballi, writer:

“The Free Writers’ League was the first to liberate prison literature”

Prison literature was something silenced in Tunisia, especially that we have firmly established prisons. I think that Lazhar Sahraoui‘s novel Two Faces of One Corpse, that was banned in Tunisia, is the first creative text that raised the phenomenon of prison literature, and touched upon the activities of torture. This made it the object of exclusion, harassment, and chasing in order not to reach the audience even in book fairs, although it was awarded abroad, and was published in Sharjah, and then in Syria.

Fathi Ben Haj Yahia also documented the memories of prison that refer to honesty from one hand, and to the documentary aspect from the other hand.

As far as Lazhar Sahraoui’s novel is concerned, it conveys a documentary trait in a creative way of a period or periods witnessed by all people, especially the experience of the Tunisian Left when its militants were jailed.

Prison literature remains an epitome of marginalised writings due to the political concealment. Thus, it is mandatory to reconsider them.

The Tunisian Free Writers’ League was the first to liberate this type of literature, and to introduce it to us.

As far as the Tunisian university is concerned, it deals with Tunisian literature from a background that is generally at the service of politics in a way or another. Thus, it excludes what may lead to trouble, especially that the saying “I knocked at the door till my shoulders became weary (of knocking). And when my shoulders were totally weary she talked to me.” (There is a rhyme in the Arabic version/ The translation of the saying is mine) is applicable to it. That’s to say, it excludes the texts that are closely connected to the reality, and the historical current moment, and encourages experimentation, celebrates the language that says nothing, and puts creation that is laden with criticism aside.

Originally appeared in the Tunisian daily Essahafa 13/10/2011 by Essahbi Ben Mansour

You can read the original text in Arabic here 

Translated (with some slight rectifications in some authors’ names) 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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