Kamel Riahi speaking to Assabah:
“Nas Decameron” is a laboratory, and a salon bringing together writers, and artists.
“What we are seeing today is a political confusion caused by the fact that we are not aware that the subject-matter is, first and foremost, cultural.”
“Nas Decameron” is a cultural salon that became in a very short period of time a mecca for the lovers of intellect, literature, and the seekers of more knowledge. It is a meeting held on a weekly basis in The Culture House Ibn Rachiq in the capital to which some authors, artists, and the ones who are interested in books come in crowds to discuss, criticise, and before that draw benefits.
The writer Kamel Riahi was able to achieve his dream that had always seduced him which is the establishing of a laboratory/salon aiming at bringing writers, and artists together to bridge the gap between them, and creating a true cultural activity that moves away from traditional imitation, and passive reception to establishing a new scene based on the interaction between the audience, and the creator. So this salon which began to catch the attention of the intellectuals in general in the previous days was born.
This interview was conducted with the patron of this venture, and dream that became a reality, to speak about “Nas Decameron,” and other related issues.
What do you mean by “Nas Decameron?” And why this name?
Decameron or The Italian Nights is a 702-page book by the famous Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio which is translated by Saleh Almani. It is the sum total of tales speaking about the resistance of death in the city of plague by a group of youth through storytelling.
“Nas Decameron” is a cultural salon that groups some writers, and artists to present a different cultural experience that cuts with the usual, and standardised image of the literary, and cultural activities. The group includes permanent members who present their narrative works on a weekly basis through theatrical readings à l’italienne. It is an experience that aims at restoring the culture of storytelling, and orality that would boost the Tunisian narrative scene, and showing the closeness of literature to the other arts, such as music, drama, and fine arts.
The idea started after my return from Algeria where I took the position of the Head of the department of Translation in The Arab League Institute of Translation for one year. My essential project was to establish a laboratory of narrative writing in Tunisia as I was running for many years creative writing workshops in the Arab World (Egypt, Jordan, Oman, and Algeria), and in some European countries like Italy. Besides, I believe that creative writing became an industry, while we still treat it as a luxury, and a social prestige on the one hand, and believing in the devils of poetry, and literature, and inspiration on the other hand. However, creative writing in the West is taught like fine arts, cinema, and drama in universities.
What were the most important stages witnessed by the project before reaching the stage of realisation?
I found a lot of difficulties in establishing this project due to my complicated relationship with the defunct regime until the revolution started in Tunisia. My meetings with other creators who are enthusiastic for the establishing of the project were secretive, and in cafés as if we were talking about issues pertaining to state security. After joining in the Ministry of Culture, and precisely The House of Culture Ibn Rachiq, as a responsible for cultural activities in general, I found the classical tradition of organising seminars, and inviting writers. I did the same for around one month and a half. After that, the old dream which is the establishing of something deeper came back seducing me. The idea has developed, and came into fruition in the form of this salon. I invited many writers, distinguished young authors, and promising researchers to contribute to the running, and animation of the salon.
We noticed the interest in world literature. What about the share of Tunisian literature, and writers in “Nas Decameron” Salon?
The first bet of the salon’s programme was on distinguished figures in the intellectual and cultural scene in Tunisia. The first meeting was with the free thinker Slim Doula. Then there was an experience with the former political prisoner Samir Sassi, the writer of Borj Erroumi. We also invited Jamel Jlassi, a poet, and translator of the international writer Asturias. Indeed, there were a project, and a programme based on world literature. The salon has to have a clear vision in order not to derail the idea of the laboratory (the laboratory of the book). We discussed Tunisian texts before being published. Besides, we discussed international works, and experiences in order for all, either published or not, to draw benefit from them. Moreover, world literature was not read even by some writers themselves. Writers in Tunisia do not know, for example, Salim Barakat, a Kurdish Syrian writer residing in Sweden that Mahmoud Darwish said about him: “I try, as far as possible, not to emulate Salim Barakat,” and Adonis: “Arabic language is in Salim Barakat’s pocket.” This writer is not read even in the Tunisian university. Thanks to him, Mahmoud Darwish’s Al-Karmel Magazine has spread, and closed when he left it. He was the only poet that Mahmoud Darwish praised. That was in his poem “The Kurds have not, but wind.”
Nowadays the world is witnessing technological breakthroughs. So is the book still valued?
I was among the first journalists, and writers who used the Internet in Tunisia because of my job. I was making a living through writing to foreign cultural media. Being in touch with both the literary and digital scenes in the world, I did not find the existence of such an infatuation. For instance, in the USA, the heart of modernism, and post-modernism, the book is still the master of the literary scene. Besides, Paul Auster, for example, still stopped the traffic in New York, when his Oracle Night was published, and which sold 50000 copies in two weeks in France. We will also introduce the Afghan- American author Khaled Hosseini whose bulky novel The Kite Runner sold four million copies when it was published.
How do you assess the performance of writers, and intellectuals in general after January 14th?
Unfortunately, their role is still too modest, if not to say there is a resignation of the Tunisian creator and intellectual towards his/her true role because he/she threw himself/herself into the lap of politics, seeking chairs, positions, and privileges that are being programmed from now. The salon of “Nas Decameron” is a reaction against the deadly cultural status quo in the street, like the city of Florence in Italy that was afflicted by the plague. We smuggled our dream of arts to the corridor of the Culture House Ibn Rachiq. Then we revive it because at the end, what we are seeing today as a political confusion is caused, according to me, by the fact that we are not still aware that the subject-matter is, first and foremost, cultural.
Originally appeared in the Tunisian daily Assabah 01/10/2011 by Adel Jebali.
You can read the original text in Arabic here.
Translated from Arabic by Ali Znaidi.