Salem Labbene at Tahar Haddad Culture Club

The Compass of Sidi Enna… Book Cover. Photo borrowed off

The Compass of Sidi Enna… is a novel written by Salem Labbene. It won a Comar Prize in 2012. Enna is the dimunitive of the name Ennaceur. The following story is a summary of a literary meeting with Salem Labbene at Tahar Haddad Culture Club in Tunis.


Salem Labbene’s novel The Compass of Sidi Enna…:


An epic style and a Balzacian style… And the realistic mingles with the mysterious.

From left to right: Jalloul Azzouna, Salem Labbene, and Massouda Abou Bakr. Photo from Assabah.

The novel Baousalatou Sidi Enna…(The Compass of Sidi Enna…) which is the latest publication of Al Hakawaaty (Haiku writer) Salem Labbene was at the center of a meeting in the evening before yesterday on Friday, April 20, 2012 in The Narratologies Salon run by writer Massouda Abou Bakr at Tahar Haddad Culture Club.

Writer Jalloul Azzouna launched the meeting that was attended by writers, poets, researchers, students, and journalists by giving an intervention in which he spoke about an epic style that characterises the novel The Compass of Sidi Enna… in which the human being struggled with himself/herself, and a Balzacian style deduced from Labbene’s desire to say everything at once.

Diversity and Richness:

The Compass of Sidi Enna… is the result of a two-year experience over the wing of narration. It is the second experience lived by Al Hakawaaty Salem Labbene which he labeled “challenge writing,” or writing under time pressure. He lived it in the years 2008 and 2009 during which he committed himself to write a narrative text in Arabic and French every week and read his texts in The Story Club in El Ouardia before publishing them on the Internet. Thus, the result was 30 narrative texts that are not long. Introducing this novel, Jalloul Azzouna said: “It is a bit lengthy, beautifully written and designed, and characterised by diversity and richness that indicate a deep culture, readings, and a digestion of what is written in Tunisia and abroad.” He added: “During ten years, I have read tens of novels. But two novels remained such peculiarities for me which are Kamel Zoghbani’s Waiting for Life and Salem Labbene’s The Compass of Sidi Enna…. This does not mean that there do not exist what is more important and beautiful. This is not an inclination or sweet-talk, but it is just a personal opinion.”

Azzouna noticed that Salem Labbene made an effort in his novel, to the extent of obsession. Thus, he brought the intertwinement of events, the flashbacks, and the diversity of characters to perfection and even the book cover in fact takes the shape of seasons, and their intertwinement with the main sections of the novel.

He said: “You see in the novel paintings of life that date back to fifty or sixty years ago, and show the coexistence of generations. The focal point of events is the city of Monastir where we have a family story that includes successful love stories and failed ones. The stories put us in the heart of the contemporary events through which Labbene intended to attract the reader, and trigger him/her to accompany, record and work with him while he is living the labour of writing, and the hesitation of the writer.”

An Autobiography of a Whole Generation:

Azzouna saw in The Compass of Sidi Enna… a great thrust of beauty and fantasy, although the novel is realistic, and a writer’s excessive desire to test his reader’s intelligence each time. The researcher ascertained that the realistic is totally intertwined with the mysterious in the novel. Faces and natures sometimes appear, and they sometimes hide. So the vision is intertwined with the prophecy. He found an autobiography of a whole generation, to the point that the novel seems as if a summary of the life of a group of people belonging to one generation.

The intervention about the writer’s career, and the richness of his experience given by Massouda Abou Bakr, the animator of the meeting, and her comments on Jalloul Azzouna’s study pushed Labbene to admit that he is obsessed with the form, and he likes to embroider his novel. He declared that The Compass of Sidi Enna… is basically among the unexpected events of which he is proud, and that his relation with The Story Club in El Ouardia, his cousin who graduated and stayed unemployed for eight years, and the lamented Jilani Ben Haj Yahia permitted it.

Most of the interveners in the debate showed their admiration for Salem Labbene’s career and his seriousness, but they asked about the form of writing. For instance, Fawzia Bennour asked about the relation between the protagonist Mohamed Lamjed Brikcha and Al Hakawaaty, and the similarity between them. She said: “What remained from the writer in his protagonist?” Writer Reem Issaoui praised the dialogue between the writer and his protagonist stating that this is found in the writings of Diderot, the existentialist novels, and in Emirati writer Ali Abou Rich who wrote sixteen novles that are not devoid of such kind of dialogue.

Unnecessary Neccesity:

As for his part, Souf Abid insisted on highlighting Salem Labbene’s versatility of talents in music, theatre, poetry, singing, and acting since late seventies. He said: “He is convincing, to the point he is similar in his style to great poets when he says a columnar poem or a free poem. He is also creative to a great extent when he writes a flash poem or what is called a haiku. Besides, he writes wonderful stories.” He asked: “How do you transit from one literary genre to another? And why? And is it better for you today to focus on a single genre to probe it and add to it?” According to Salah Eddine Grichi, the excess in search of the beautiful word and the wonderful image, and the embellishment of style might be at the expense of the depth of the novel. He said: “Such a thrust is sufficient to bind the next novel.”

Answering all these questions, Salem Labbene or Al Hakawaaty as he likes to be called by his readers, said that The Compass of Sidi Enna… has no relation with what he read in The Story Club in El Ouardia which he will publish it in A Bunch of Tales soon, answering writer Naceur Toumi’s question. He declared that he planned this novel with the lamented Jilani Ben Haj Yahia and he drew the front cover before writing any single word of it. Then Mohamed Lamjed Brikcha, the protagonist of the novel, adjusted it. He added: “I worked on making the novel a haiku, and committed myself to an unnecessary necessity (luzumu ma la yalzam) because art, for me, is a pleasure and work. I trifle with the text, play with it, and work on it because it is not a light which God cast in my breast.”

As for his relation with the protagonist, he said he does not write ex nihilo, and he is the son of the Ribat of Monastir (Fortress of Monastir), and there is a kind of life between them from which he attempted to get inspiration for the events. He also said that Arabic language and Mahmoud Messadi exist between him and his protagonist. He ascertained that he depicted an independent character that has no relation with his personal biography. As for what remained from the writer in his characters, Labbene said that we would rather ask about what remains from the protagonist in his/her writer. He also stated that Mohamed Lamjed Brichka gave him the idea of his next novel and did not bind it and it will be titled The Fool of the Dog’s Terrace. He said: “You will find in it the aesthetic thrust and also the depth.”


Originally appeared in the Tunisian daily Assabah 22/04/2012 by Alia Ben Nhila.

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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