Interview with Tunisian Writer Jalloul Azzouna

Jalloul Azzouna Speaking to Essahafa:

The Indispensability to adopt the cultural dimension as a strategic guarantee for the success of any democratic transition

Jalloul Azzouna

The writer Jalloul Azzouna bears a history of militancy that combines the dichotomy of the intellectual and the political. He is a short story writer, and a novelist who has published more than sixteen books. Studies in Tunisian Popular Literature is his latest publication. He held many positions with The Writers’ Union, and he was one of the founders of The Free Writers’ League. He writes critical essays, and has an interest in creative writing, history, and the intellect. He experienced prison under the former regime due to his intellectual thoughts. His militant and intellectual career reflects a model of the organic intellectual who adopts the concerns of his/her people. He is always a rebel for the sake of freedom and progress. He founded The Popular Party for Freedom and Progress. He believes in free thought. He was recently elected as the president of The Free Writers’ League.

In the following interview for Essahafa we asked him about the role of the book and the writer, the horizons of culture and its role, and the combination of the dichotomy of the political and the intellectual.

Could Jalloul Azzouna, the man of culture and politics, tell us about his two-sided experience especially through introducing his cultural vision of his political project?

According to my personal experience, the attempt to persuade politicians even if they are degree holders of the value of culture and creation is a difficult thing because they are obsessed with the current moment, diving in it to the marrow, and everything else, according to them, is less valuable because they are struggling with the acceleration of events and the need to take a stance of them, analyse them, and try to understand them and their implications on their parties and on the course of events in their countries and milieus.

As for the project of the party- The Popular Party for Freedom and Progress-that I belong to is to attempt to convince its members and followers of the indispensability of adopting the cultural dimension as a strategic guarantee for the success of any democratic transition because culture would be the real and deep guarantee to use the transformations, and would enable us to prospect the future, and sort the most important things, not to fall into confusion. But this goal remains difficult to achieve because of the involvement of pseudo intellectuals in supporting the Ben Ali corrupt regime. The politician, especially the militant looks down on the shaky and chameleon-like intellectual.

You are a former political prisoner who was jailed because of his thoughts and writings. Could you tell us about this experience and what is its impact on Jalloul Azzouna as an intellectual and politician after and before the revolution?

A book of mine was confiscated for about five years in the era of Ben Ali. Besides, another book was confiscated for more than one year, and my passport was also confiscated. I was the first political prisoner in the era of Ben Ali. That was in 1989 because I said no to Ben Ali with my colleagues in the legitimate Popular Unity Party, and we published a statement in the late 1988 year in which we declared our refusal to nominate Ben Ali in the presidential elections of 1989, and we said that we would have our independent nominee as an opponent to Ben Ali. So from the outset our party was the first not to choose to play the role of “the political décor” of the authority.

As for that prison experience and its impact on my psyche, I accepted it with a kind of tranquility and clairvoyance. I was very certain that the regime of Ben Ali would not last. I came up with this conclusion through a very deep lesson that I had learnt in 1952. At that time, I was eight years old when some of my relatives; my brother, my uncle, and my brother-in-law, and the headmaster of my school, my Arabic teacher, and my French teacher were jailed in the prisons of the French coloniser. I saw how they were released after two years, and Tunisia got its independence. That was a practical lesson that meant that struggle would came into fruition sooner or later.

What were the conditions behind the emergence of the idea of founding The Free Writers’ League? And what about its most important stages?

After nearly a quarter of a century as a member in The Tunisian Writers’ Union, including more than ten years in the board of this organisation, I realised with a few members that the Writers’ Union derailed the path and became a real cell pertaining to the ruling patry, so after lengthy and deep discussions we decided to found an alternative organisation that restores the role and the place of the intellectual and the writer in the national, Arab, and international scene. We founded The Free Writers’ League in 2001. Although we did not get recognition, and our resources were modest, we continued our work. The most outstanding stages in our work were the agreements with cultural and human rights’ organisations, and newspapers in Tunisia and abroad. That choice was like immunity for us. Despite ongoing siege, harassment, and prevention of our manifestations, we were able to remain that militant, free, and resisting voice that supported each free breath in Tunisia.

After the demise of political despotism and intellectual oppression, is there any need to use the descriptive adjective “free writer?”

Yes, because history taught us that political despotism and intellectual oppression can come back quickly. Many revolutions were aborted, and many noble values were forgotten and trodden upon. The adjective “free” is a declaration of our decision to continue to be totally alert to what might affect the freedom of creation, and which irritates any authoritarian thought that its sole concern is to take power, stick to it, and delete everything else as it believes in owning the only truth.

What is next after the congress of The Free Writers’ League that was held in mid-April?

We will start our habitual work of introducing books and writers, and organising important seminars which we want them to be clear stages in enhancing the role of the writer in society, and boosting critical thinking without which intellectual life and the future of any nation would not develop.

The intellectual is the person who enters into social life relying on a vast culture trying to use it in the social affair with the aim to change it to the better. What do you think of this?

The intervention of the intellectual is not only restricted to social life, but it also aims at changing all sides of life to the better. Despite the difference of its eras, civilisations, and languages, world literatures were and still are similar in targeting the human being’s mind and emotions to first remind him/her of his/her humanity and of the need to orient all the humanity towards reviewing the self, criticising the hurdles of progress, defeating evil, and heralding a shinier and more sublime tomorrow.

How do you assess the cultural scene in general in Tunisia? And which reality that the book wants to develop the common taste of society and to enjoy a better role after its substitution with modern technologies?

The cultural scene in Tunisia is searching for itself in the midst of accelerated transformations in all fields. We saw the publication of several hasty books about the revolution and its future in which there are much mediocrities than the acceptable level especially that many intellectuals rode the revolution’s wave while they were known for their silence in the era of Ben Ali, and even their complicity with him and beating the drum for him.

Waiting for the scene to become gradually clear, it is imperative to call for restoring the value of writing through the classic book or through modern technologies. What matters is instilling the love of reading into the young generations because reading is an indispensible intellectual and spiritual food.

In this regard, we, as a league, held many meetings with the Ministry of Culture to prepare for the book fair that is due to take place next autumn, and we gave and still are giving our suggestions in this respect.

You are one of the intellectuals who got rid of auto-censorship as you were famous for militancy by pen. What was it like? Will we get rid of the intellectual of the court and authority after the revolution? Or is it a matter of fate that the intellectuals of the Arab World are always with the authority and not with the people?

In my opinion, resisting official censorship is easier than resisting auto-censorship because the first one is visible and conspicuous, however the second one is very invisible, and it may be clothed with justifications and excuses; society’s values and conviction ingrained in the writer’s innermost due to education and surroundings, and even personal inferiority and arrogance complexes. So everything is relative. Each authority is always trying to extend its influence over all life’s fields, and sometimes even over the world of afterlife. It wants to use all that to secure a foothold for itself in power and tame all powers for its benefit, for instance, the endeavour to make the intellectual kneel down, and the necessity of his/her dependence.

Fortunately for people, and for Arab people, the existence of intellectuals who remained firm and free, and who did their best to resist, including those who were tormented and martyred. Despite their limited numbers, they are their people’s consciousness, lighthouse, and beacon.

True democracy requires full clarity, the knowledge of red lines, and prospective political vision that must cut with hesitation, and miscalculation, and overcome this intellectual adolescence that is unable to make a decision about essential, fundamental, and democratic issues because democracy refuses violence and it only and only accepts dialogue.

The Tunisian political status quo witnessed many transformations and contexts after the revolution. To what extent can we be optimistic about the future?

We are still living in the revolution’s labours and its implications. Besides, cleaning the machineries of the state from the remnants of the defunct regime is still in its beginning. Only a little bit of the revolution’s objectives is achieved. The first objective is the writing of a new constitution. Despite the many internal and external hurdles in the way of the revolution, and the increase of the number of the ones who turn around the revolution’s objectives, Tunisian people who were liberated from fear will not be silent after this day, will impose the respect of their rights, and will achieve their objectives. As an intellectual, I cannot but be optimistic about the abilities of my people, the determination of the youths of my country, and the role of the intellectual who is alert to dangers and who is confident to address them.

Originally appeared in the Tunisian daily Essahafa 20/05/2012 by Al Alayani.

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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