The Body in the Tunisian Short Story Between Commitment and Seduction by Mohamed Issa El Mouadeb.
Translated by Ali Znaidi
Introduction: The Beginnings and Trends of The Tunisian Short Story:
“The short story” as a modern term is an art that came to the Arab culture from the West. The press contributed to establish and spread this art during the twentieth century. The corpus of the Tunisian short story began with the appearance of the first Tunisian short story around 1905 which was written in French by Hassan Hosni Abdelwahab and titled “The Last Evening in Granada.” Then it was followed by other attempts by Salah Souissi, Mohamed Manchou, and Mohamed El Fadhel Ben Achour.
But, technically speaking, the artistic short story began with Ali Douagi. Then it witnessed several transformations and trends that can be summarised according to the following periods of time:
-The thirties: It was the beginning of the heyday of the Tunisian short story through the experiences of Ali Douagi, Mohamed Bachrouch, Bechir Khraief, Mahmoud Messadi, and later on, Mohamed Laroussi Metoui, Bechir Ben Slama, Rachad Hamzaoui, Fraj Chedly. These experiences are divided into two trends: The realistic trend represented by Ali Douagi, and the romantic trend represented by Mohamed Bachrouch. The pioneers’ concept of the short story was closely connected to the indispensability to comply with the standards of a narrative form that is governed by rules like the features of the story in the West.
-The sixties: It was a period that witnessed the emergence of the avant-garde movement. Among the outstanding writers of this period we can mention Ezzedine Madani, Mahmoud Tounsi, Samir Ayadi, Ahmed Mammou, Radwan Al-Kouni, and Mohamed Ridha Kefi. This movement craved after developing the form of the classical story, and coming up with new forms because true creation is the one that is established at the level of totalities. Thus, avant-gardists’ fictional writings were devoted to the creation of the fictional form because it is an object in itself. This made them avoid details.
-The nineties: The most distinctive features of this period were the final abandonment of the classical standardised writing, and the total difference from the avant-gardist story through caring for details. This was through the use of various techniques, chief among them, the poetics of discourse, the mysterious, and enriching the storytelling’s context with the attitudes of dodge and surprise.
The most prominent writers of this period are Amel Mokhtar, Ibrahim Dargouthi, Massouda Abou Bakr, Faouzia Aloui, Lassaad Ben Hsin, and others belonging to the new generation.
The Tunisian short story in all its stages is a scene of revelation, a transmission of the traits of popular life and the images of the countryside and the city, a portrayal of the lesser-known and the forgotten, and a transmission of human emotions in all their situations: Love and hatred, loyalty and betrayal, deep-rootedness and orphanhood.
The body is tackled as a cultural subject in contemporary thought. Awareness of its climates and significances has accelerated in modern literatures. So, there is a perpetual trend to understand the body through unveiling it as a form, and stripping it bare as a content.
So, what do we mean by the body?
Is it the individual body?
Or is it the universal body, the human body?
To put simply, it is the woman’s body, and all the imaginative narrative representations that literature gives for it. The body becomes the center around which relations pertaining to situations and acts revolve.
The body as a subject is about to be neglected and marginalised in the Arab and Tunisian critical studies that touch upon literatures and arts. Although the body and the use of all its revelations, colours, and reactions are present in poetry, novel, short story, fine arts, and cinema, it is rare to devote interventions to approach this body that is concealed and not spoken about due to religious, ethical and social reasons.
A big wave of Arab poets, novelists, short story writers who adopted the so-called writing of the body has appeared from the late sixties to the present. In this regard, we can mention Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone, a taboo autobiography that was published in French, then translated into Arabic and received a wide circulation, and Ahlam Mosteghanemi’s Memory of Flesh in which she told her sexual autobiography as an oppressed woman in her male-dominated oriental society. She was met with a great sympathy by Arab seculars.
So, how is the image of the body manifested in the Tunisian short story?
In this study we decided to examine examples of short stories in the sixties and nineties. Besides, the dichotomy of commitment and seduction caught our attention.
What strikes in the Tunisian fictional experiences is the commitment to a sum total of social values and constants. The countryside that is governed by customs, traditions, and noble values that are based upon honour and simmering emotions often embraces this orientation. This is revealed, for instance, in Saleh al-Dames’s short story “The Lass and the Pigeon:”
“That lass who is wrapped in pigeon’s wings comes in Sundays
Afternoon calling her fiancé, while I am behind the bank passing
the number to her, while pigeons are cooing in my chest. That black-
eyed lass is walking from the bank to the room like a summer’s
cloud, while the telephone rings. So the wind sears me, and the
word goes by. He calls her to make a beautiful, towering, and
lofty nest over the telephone pillar. That lass comes in Sundays
afternoon. She finds me alone in the office. So she stands erect
in front of me, with her svelte figure and unsealed neck,
wrapped in her whiteness. The post seals get jumbled in my hands.
She comes calling that faraway knight. She founds with him a nest
for the tomorrow of joy… That white lass… is now at hospital
giving birth to our second child…”
The body in this story is manifested as a dream that reflects an effluence of beauty and happiness. This shows the presence of beautiful and noble values that center round loyalty, faithfulness, and honesty.
In his short story collection The Palm-trees Die Erect, and particularly in the short story “A Sun over Aziz’s Palm” Ibrahim Dargouthi sings the woman’s beauty—that beauty which is mingled with the desert’s beauty:
“Once upon a day she was the most beautiful girl in the village.
A pure spring of water flows from her eyes in our dry desert.
The sun rises from her forehead.
The gazelles revel in her bulgy bosom.
The night weaves nets of love from her mad hair.
She was a foal for the wounded horseman,
a cloud for the dry field,
and a breeze in the scorching summer.
She was the spring of all life.”
This descriptive passage with its lyrical touch abundantly uses comparisons and metaphors, to the point that the body’s attractions were concealed. Its charm conceals in a rigid rural milieu.
When it comes to the afore-mentioned description, the writer Hassouna Mosbahi is not dissimilar in his short story collection A Tale of My Cousin Hniyya’s Madness, and particularly in the short story “A Love Story” in which he insists on the commitment to the features of Platonic love, and the connectedness of the described body to its features:
“She was wearing a black melia (large rectangular wrap), and
putting a red scarf on her head. Her hair goes down her back
like spikes of henna. Her skin is white like the women of the
city. A deep pain was flowing from her eyes.”
He also says:
“He was contemplating the strong virgin shapes that the
pleats of the transparent dress were drawing on the body…”
He chooses from language what conveys implicitness, highlighting the connectedness of the described body to the emotion of love more than being dazzled by the body’s details.
In his collection Memory’s Pains, and particularly in his story “Me and the Place” the writer Mohamed Mejri is committed to the purity of love in atmospheres that are not devoid of dreamy romanticism. For him, the body is not but a gate of simmering emotions, and a noble feeling of love:
“The place is teeming with persons, and my sweetheart is
hugging me with her arms that carry her simmering emotions
He also says:
“Under the table there is a red token like my heart, and the
heart of my sweetheart. Her eyelashes are telling me about
all the dates that we had together.”
It is a beautiful unity of two souls that negates the lustful presence of the body. The writer himself declares this in the same story:
“Girls remind me of Nizar Qabbani’s saying:
‘We wore civilisation’s shells,
and the soul is Pre-Islamic.
Girls hold cigarettes, and my lung can’t even take a puff.
A man lies to her with words that he learnt them by heart from
films and streets. They have their own mobiles. They look at them
to check time every quarter an hour, while they are talking. My
sweetheart is hugging me, and sleeping on my shoulder. She is saying
to me and I am saying to her:
‘We want to be away from this place—from this dirty life.”
It is a total refusal of the blind imitation of the other, and a deepening of the relation with identity and the place. It is a refusal that connotes a cultural background towards the body that is based upon the fact that the body is the gate of the soul, virtue, beauty, and love in its noblest meanings…
In this regard, women’s fiction does not differ from fiction produced by men, when it comes to commitment. But the woman raises an important issue which is the respect of the body through stripping the male-dominated society bare, and divulging its crime that targeted her and her body. Images of the accused man and the victim woman abound.
In her short story “In the Darkness of Light” Hafidha Gara Biban deeply and violently tackled this issue. The writer says:
“I look at fever in your eyes, the frivolous desire in all your touches,
and the solid sternness that is wrapping up the body of the thrown
doll. I look at you as a free and unconfined lion that is trampling
the forests. You break my body members, and pluck my fruits.
You squeeze, crush, and tread without asking anything else.
I look at you like a single spectator who is watching a violent
cruel film. I feel coldness stinging my naked body.”
The discourse reflects the woman’s protest against the man because of the presence of the instinct, and the absence of love and emotional satisfaction which are natural rights of the woman. This protest opens onto the image of the woman in the male-dominated authoritarian society. The man’s body dominates, and the woman’s body dies imprisoned.
Calling for respecting the woman’s body is also exemplified through singing its beauties, and highlighting the spiritual dimension. This is present in Fathia Nasri’s story “The Last Night’s Scent:”
“He is wrapping her up, while yearning is stifling him. Those
are her night-like black hair, and svelte figure. Her extensive
hair ringlets are clothing him, and her hair plaits are teasing
his face. So sleep forsakes him, and leads him to the harbours of
The writer does not mention a sensual and unveiled body. She expresses it using a language replete with yearning and longing, to the point it becomes a beautiful painting that is about to take on the aspect of dream…
It is imperative to highlight the particularity of women’s fiction in its relation with the body because the woman communicates with herself on the one hand, and with physical, psychological, and cultural relations on the other hand. These relations are distorted, and sometimes complicated due to coercion that the male-dominated culture practiced.
Inside the circle of commitment the body expresses religious, civilisational, and social backgrounds that center round virtue, honour, and beauty. They reflect to a great degree the coherent Tunisian society in which the woman is present playing several roles: A mother, a sister, a sweetheart, and a wife.
Contrary to commitment, we see in some Tunisian fictional examples that the body is connected to seduction; that’s to say, temptation. So the world of fiction loses its innocence, and the characters are characterised by contradiction, anxiety, and loss. Short story writers transmit the changes from traditional structures and relations to contemporary and open relations witnessed by the society.
Fatma Ben Mahmoud’s flash story “My Heart is There” which has a poetic touch catches our attention. It is a story that transmits the anxious and tense change from childhood with its meanings of the absence of the feeling of the body and the lack of power to puberty or adolescence. The latter is accompanied by fear, anxiety, feeling of the body, and the presence of its power.
Fatma Ben Mahmoud says:
“For the first time,
when drops of youth
are sprinkled on
my mother shone for the young girl,
and hailed the body.
My heart broke,
and said farewell to
According to her social view, the mother is ready that her daughter reaches the age of marriage, however the daughter fears the body because she knows the huge responsibility to preserve it in a world of changes and contradictions.
The writer Hafidha Guesmi expressed the stage of the discovery of pleasure and the body in her collection From the Diaries of a Stupid Girl, especially in the story “Om Alhana” in a manner that may shock the recipient because the image is characterised with edginess and violence, although I am certain that reality is teeming with more than that …
The daughter escapes the husband of her nursemaid after losing her mother immediately after her birth, and she moves from one ruin to another, and sees what she sees…The writer says:
“She saw a young girl following a boy through her region.
Then she slept on four, and lifted her dress up to show her
buttocks… She remembered how she was feeling a strange
pleasure when she was seeing the young goats jumping over
each other. She was still looking at something between
the boy’s thighs. Finally, she asked:
-What is this?
The boy laughed:
-Don’t you know it?
-So, come …!
She agreed like a drugged person, and she was pleased.”
The body in Brahim Lassoued’s story “A Drunken Man in an Empty Street” loses its substance and beauty, and becomes a cheap merchandise that is sold in the street:
“Last night you sold your coat, your shoes, and other things
I don’t remember… What will you sell tomorrow to afford
a bottle of wine, and to hug a saggy body of a certain
woman…? Oh, … There is nothing more wonderful than
wine, sex, and dreams…!”
The writer Mohamed Mejri transmits to us in his short story collection Diaries of an Alien Poet, and particularly in his story “An Alien Man” the same meaning:
“It is a city with chaotic feelings. Its doors are closed. Its windows
are closed. You hear the violent creaking of beds. It reflects the
darkness of the black night in cellars of gasps…
A whore was walking in the middle of the street. She went out
from a grey French apartment. Her hair is black and thick.
A lit cigarette was between her lips that had kissed all sorts of men,
and had been bitten by different teeth: Sleek, white, sorry and
even implanted steel teeth…!”
The fictional world is charged with want, desire and sex. It is a world where the woman is absent as a being, and present as a body that is devoid of all values… It is a world that makes the relation between the human being and his/her body tense. So he/she ends up objectifying it, and feeling the body as a mere instrument of pleasure that is bought and sold…
So, is there a transmission of reality or exaggeration due to the protagonist’s failure and confusion in describing the body? And is the image of the woman in the contemporary society connected to the running after boosting the productive competence in the stock markets of sports, advertisements, and fashion?
It is a natural matter because the world of the story has opened onto the realm of the marginalised and the forgotten, and deeply studied the features of life in the bottom of the city. So, it is normal that the scenes are like that image…
Seduction is also present in another form that equates body and emotion, and does not reduce femininity in a mere body that carries pleasure. Dichotomies of concealment and showing, prohibition and permission, body and soul are also present.
In this regard, Mohamed Ridha Kefi’s short story collection Women catches our attention. I consider this Tunisian writer ahead of his time. Although he was belonging to the avant-gardists, and apart from working on the renewal of the fictional technique, he worked on details so that narration is shaped in his writings in the form of images like the precise cinematic image. In “Aida, Once Upon a Stormy Night” the writer describes an emotional adventure in a precise way that advocates the body’s aesthetics and its reactions…:
“Her beautiful face radiated with a sudden joy. Her thin red lips
opened to reveal two rows of pure white teeth that are about to spark
and glow due to the high intensity of purity. Then she straightened
her combed hair. She gathered it in two ringlets that she lowered
them on her chest to hide her pseudo-naked breasts.
She pressed her cold fingers against my thigh…”
In his story “The Star of Emotion” the writer Hassouna Mosbahi combines desire with a fictional scene that is not devoid of aesthetics and originality:
“I drew near her till my body touched hers, and said: ‘Oh, angels
of sky! Be with me! I will slaughter a calf as a sacrifice for the holy
man Sidi Ahmed Ben Said if I penetrate her!’ I extended my hand
toward her thigh. She didn’t move. My hand feverishly and eagerly
began to climb and climb…”
In Lassaad Ben Hsin’s short story collection the body keeps away from dominance, repression, and manacles. It liberates itself from the concepts of scandal and illegality. The body is connected to freedom, production, and creation… Those mesmerising undulations, and lively reactions that disentangle the human being from habit and repetitions…They ingrain the charm of the woman, and the attraction of love, and renew the presence of the body. In the story “The Harmonica” Wahid remembers his beloved Fatma, while he was wandering with a dream:
“His beloved Fatma is like a siren that came out from
the folds of One Thousand and One Nights. In a
flicker of sight, it wakes up to accompany him, and his
magic instrument plays a music replete with love…
life… and hope…”
Writing is undoubtedly an attitude and a point of view that is formed from the interaction of the creative self with itself, and the contexts of its milieu, and the other selves. That’s why we saw differences and dissimilarities in the studied fictional experiences starting from the dichotomy of commitment and seduction.
We knew for certain that the Tunisian short story was closely connected to society, transmitting its preoccupations and aspirations, stopping at the protrusions of the transformations, and questioning the face and the back in all available spaces.
The image of the body embodied all that. It transmits to us the features of the coherent society that is governed by values, and the Islamic Arab identity on the one hand, and it transmits the changes that happened to this society due to the inevitability of contemporariness and the impositions of globalisation on the other hand.
Modern narrative women’s writings that were really one of the modern society’s expressions caught our attention. The image of the body in most of women’s writings transmitted her preoccupations and dreams. Among the tackled issues we can mention the domination of traditions and the fossilised society, emotional deprivation, psychological anxiety, and the daily routines that express the woman’s dream…
Many experiences were characterised with the betting on experimentation at the level of artistic forms, the introspection of the self, the involvement in the narrator’s situation, the insistence on refuting of what is clichéd and existing, and the revelation of what is hidden in the body and society with an honest and distinctive audacity that has a clear militant touch. She also expressed her situation in modern society through the meanings of freedom, justice, and partnership with man. This is exemplified in contemporary narrative writings of, for instance, Aroussia Nalouti, Hafidha Gara Biban, Amel Mokhtar, Massouda Abou Bakr, Faouzia Aloui, and Fatma Ben Mahmoud.
To conclude, I would like to ascertain that this study about the image of the body in the Tunisian short story is not comprehensive and final because it relied on eclecticism of Tunisian fictional experiences.
But, it is certain that short story writers in Tunisia did not affiliate themselves with literature of the body or the physical erotic literature that distances itself from the soul due first to several personal prohibitions because the body is a private matter and not a public matter that is available for everyone. Besides, religious, civilisational, and social prohibitions insist on the body’s sanctity, and the privacy of the spiritual and physical relationship between man and woman.
Moreover, the form of the short story that is characterised with brevity and terseness does not provide the writers with a large margin of freedom to mention details. This is contrasted to the novel that is replete with such a margin, and enjoys many revelations of the body.
Sahib Al Jabal 28/04/2010
–The Palm-trees Die Erect. Ibrahim Dargouthi. Dar Samed Editions and Distribution.
–A Tale of My Cousin Hniyya’s Madness, and Other Stories. Hassouna Mosbahi. Dar Erriah Alarbaa Editions (House of Four Winds Editions).
–Memory’s Pains. Mohamed Mejri. Simpact Editions.
–The City of Assassination of Dreams. Fathia Nasri. Dar Sahar Editions.
–From the Diaries of a Stupid Girl. Hafidha Guesmi. Dar Sahar Editions.
–Diaries of an Alien Poet. Mohamed Mejri. Aljoumhouria Printing and Editions.
–Women. Mohamed Ridha Kefi. Dar Al Nawras (The Seagull House).
–Another Miracle of Love. Lassaad Ben Hsin. EDICOP
–On Criticism of the Story and the Novel in Tunisia. Noureddine Ben Belgacem. Addar Alarabia Lilkitab (Arab House of Books).
–Meditations on Narration and the Short Story. Belhouane Hamdi. Matbaatou Fan Attibaa (Art of Printing Press).
–Majallat Al Hayat Aththaqafia (Cultural Life Magazine) Issue 80 Year 21 December 1996.
–Majallat Al Hayat Aththaqafia (Cultural Life Magazine) Issue 86 Year 22 December 1997.
–Majallat Al Hayat Aththaqafia (Cultural Life Magazine) Issue 94 Year 23 December 1998.
–Majallat Al Hayat Aththaqafia (Cultural Life Magazine) Issue 98 Year 23 December 1998.
This study appeared in http://sabamag.blogspot.com.
You can read the original text in Arabic here.
Translated from Arabic by Ali Znaidi.