Interview with Tunisian Poet Mohamed Ammar Chaabnia
Poet Mohamed Ammar Chaabnia Speaking to Assabah:
Where does creation come from, and its animators are hungry and their souls are suffering from pains?
Oh, Right Honorable government! If it was true
that some had plotted to topple the government,
that was more than a crime in our opinion.
It’s in our country a serious felony
that deserves execution in the name of the people,
and not in the name of the government
Sit-ins are in abundance
in the hall of every factory, in the front of every quarter,
and over the rail, where tents are pitched,
seeking solutions not barren brittle promises.
But I think our security situation, cannabis, crime
the influence of a veil over a knowledgeable faculty,
fear of future with repressed breaths,
poverty in pockets, and the remaining joblessness
will topple the government.
This is an improvised poetic composition inspired by a statement of one of the members of the government months ago in which he declared that there are some people who seek to topple it. It is one of the most beautiful, sarcastic poems that ridicules some of the attitudes or statements of the members of the government or the constituent assembly. Mohamed Ammar Chaabnia’s talent was so generous to come up with this poem. Assabah met him and asked him about this poem, his preoccupations as an intellectual, a poet, and a citizen who is responsible for his country and for his attitude toward the latest news in the cultural scene. The following is the interview conducted with him.
Your name was closely connected to humoristic writings and comments. What is news with you, as far as humoristic and serious writings are concerned?
My serious writings require from me concentration, suffering, and difficult labour. However, what I have written during the twenty one months that followed my retirement is considered the most seminal writing in the latest ten years of work because creation needs devotion. In the latest months I produced a joint poetry collection with poet Hassan Ben Abdallah and published it in two editions respectively in March and in June 2011 under the title Miscellaneous Situations of a Single Waiting: Poems from the Poetry Book of Revolution. I prepared another poetry collection which I will publish it when the opportunity permits it. I wrote episodes of a T.V. serial. Besides, I prepared an operetta under the title of “How Precious your Soil is!” Or “The Green Soil” which will be produced with an artistic touch by the filmmaker Kamel Alaoui, the composer Samir Agrebi, and the committed music group of Awled El Manajem (The Children of the Mines) when the requirements of sufficient financial support will be available. It is characterised by a Maghrebian orientation, mining traits, and revolutionary qualities. I also prepared a poetic play, other writings, and thirty radio episodes titled “Flowers of Speech in the Salon of the Fasting Month” to be broadcasted during Ramadan 1434/2013.
As far as humoristic poetry is concerned, what was inspired from the circus of the government, parties, and the constituent assembly is able to furnish a medium-sized book. I was improvising it in short seconds.
What is your opinion concerning the situation of culture and intellectuals today after one year and a half of the revolution? And what was the latest news in the cultural scene that caught your attention?
Intellectuals from various literary and artistic fields are seeking to go beyond the remnants of the past, that used to impede the freedom of expression, which is an essential condition for the realization of creation. But what is happening now is the opposite. There are many proofs for this. For instance, the repetitive assaults against artists like actors, committed musical groups, and journalists. Besides, some adamant religious and conservative religious spectra are preventing a number of thinkers from transmitting their opinions to others, methodologically seeking to frustrate and repress enlightened voices, fearing that the voice of the cultural thought will become louder than the political thought which is up to now entangling in flimsy threads. However, it was expected that the revolution would produce outstanding leaders like great revolutions in the latest decades or in older times did. When politics goes into crisis, culture does the same due to politics or its mistakes.
What is the solution according to you?
Perhaps the only flicker of hope is what is expected to be revealed in the articles of the country’s constitution that must frankly indicate that providing suitable support, and free and safe climates for cultural creation is an urgent duty because culture with all its fields is considered an outstanding pillar of the pillars of identity, a large bosom for authenticity, a conscious instigation to the realization of modernity, a rich support of the revolution’s supports, and a vigilant watcher of its path, preventing it from derailment and dispersion. And if the constitution does not speak about culture, it will remain amputated.
Those who are prejudiced against the Writers’ Union are wrong.
What is your attitude toward the problems that currently exist between the Writers’ Union, the Writers’ Guild, and the Free Writers’ League, and the effort of the Ministry of Culture to deal with the crisis?
The photos are various, but the camera is one, and when a new tree is planted in the garden, the farmer does not prefer it to another tree, nor does he prefer the other tree to it, save the one that is able to be distinguished by its fruits. Those who are prejudiced against the Writers’ Union are making a lot of mistakes because this body is a considerable cultural legacy and not persons. Besides, those who oppose the founding of a guild or a league for writers seek to obliterate the monuments of anyone who disagrees with them or gives a new vision. What matters for me is that difference changes into competition through which every side tries to convince its counterparts and observers. As for cheeps, those who cheep will have its scum and slag. The Ministry of Culture has not the right to make wrong effort, like deducing a portion of the grant that is allotted to the Writers’ Union to provide support for the Guild and the League because the latter must receive two separate grants. The government that thirty ministers are able to run it does not deduce their salaries, and hires fifty one ministers and even provides them with extra income.
Are you content with the situation of poets after the revolution?
The situation of poets after the revolution is not different from the situation of all cultural persons (I do not say intellectuals because educated people share with them the quality of culture). It is even similar to the situation of the wounded of the revolution. Nothing has changed to encourage them to innovate. Measures have not been taken to provide suitable climates for spreading production, and easing the conditions of printing to publish the poems they wrote about the revolution that some of them are characterised by honesty and research which enable some of them to become “cultural persons” who are able to produce the patterns and visions that embrace the expected creative discourses after the revolution. In the absence of this, pseudo- revolutionaries increased. Being in the capital and its borders enabled them to lick the boots of tribunes. So they read just one poetry composition and not poetry seventy times and some newspapers repeat publishing it ninety times. Thus it only receives acclaim from flatterers.
Apart from what I have mentioned, I indicate that poems which heralded the revolution are finer than the ones that are inspired by it. To prove this, we can refer to the collections of Moncef Louhaibi, Ammar Mansour’s The Diaries of a Jobless, written third a century ago, Mezghenni’s The Assassination of Ayach Ksibi and Bunches of Empty Joy, lamented Mokhtar Loghmani’s I swore the Sun Would Win, Awlad Ahmed’s The Anthem of the Six Days, Jamel Slii’s The Valley of Ants, my books The Taste of Sweat and The Dust of Time, most writings of the lamented Mounaouer Smadah, and the poems of Samira Kasraoui and Zohra Labidi who are absent from the scene for years. All in all, we are waiting for the appearance of poems that are able to eternalise the revolution and be eternal with it.
You said that some poets seize the opportunity of dwelling in the capital or near it. Do you consider dwelling inside the republic might impede the intellectual from exposure? What do you suggest in order for culture to be promoted inside the regions?
Before promoting culture inside the regions, it is imperative to make a scheme to promote the national culture in general through measures and procedures that enhance its fields at the levels of legislation, production, publication, distribution, and protection. Consequently, it is imperative to show the suitable care for the cultural movements inside the regions not through increasing the efforts of building cultural spaces, equipping them, and allotting financial resources to encourage production, but it is worthier to work on fostering the role of culture, libraries, and regional libraries with specialised staff in the fields of theatrical and musical animation, and fine arts, in order not that these arts would perish. Besides, the working conditions and salaries of the directors of culture houses and librarians do not bring any good tidings. The most suitable word that describes this is “pitiful” compared to the situations of the directors and animators of youth houses. For example, in the last two years about forty graduates of The Higher Institute of Animation for Youth and Culture of Bir El Bey were recruited to work in culture houses where they were stationed as animators till they were recruited to work in youth houses. They did not hesitate to leave the first for the second due to difference in the salary which amounts to more than 150 Tunisian dinars. So where does creation come from, and its animators are hungry and their souls are suffering from pains?
But the problems of cultural work do not lie in what you have mentioned, but also it is jeopardised by the dangers of those who refuse arts and consider them haram (illegal in Islam)?
When the state becomes able to impose law, and the hands of the security forces are powerful, the stones that are in the hands will be thrown away, and no person or an extremist group or a religious Salafist movement will be able to threaten the democracy of cultural exposure. Besides, the elevated art that distances itself from exaggeration and instigation to what might scarify people’s emotions in an Arab-Islamic society is able to thwart the endeavours opposing its dissemination.
What is your share of poetry translation into other languages?
What is translated of our poetry is less fortunate of what is translated of Mauritanian poems into foreign tongues. It even does not reach one tenth of our colleagues’ translated work in Morocco. Those in Tunisia who are lucky that their poems were translated fall into three categories:
A-Their poems imposed themselves on Tunisian translators who liked them. I am among them as my work was translated by Hedi Khelil, Othman Ben Taleb, and Ibtissem Sassi.
B-They were invited by the Tunisian Writers’ Union to nominate their production for translation within the framework of an agreement with another union or a book association or a foreign literary newsletter. Some of my poems were translated into Russian and Yougoslavian according to what I have mentioned.
C-Some poems were given by its owner to a foreign side that invited him/her to participate in a poetry festival in the foreign side’s country. Some of my poems were lucky to be translated into Romanian on the occasion of my invitation to participate in The Orient-Occident International Poetry Festival in Curtea de Arges, Romania in April 2004.
There are some experiences that are not devoid of favoritism in translating Tunisian poetry collections into this language or another. Apart from this, The National Translation Center is shier than me to answer.
You are based in the Tunisian south and precisely in Metlaoui, the capital of phosphate mines. According to you, what is the role of the intellectual in calming down the agitations in the Tunisian south?
Agitations that happen from time to time in the Tunisian south are the result of a chronic repression that its owners were not allowed to express their frank opinions to reform the economic, social, and cultural situations which worsened in the older periods. What is happening is not isolated from what happened in several regions in the country, and it is not worser than them. So confrontations, that occurred after the revolution between clans and villages, appeared to settle scores that their repercussions had accrued, seizing the opportunities of security looseness, and the inability of the state to face it. Ibn Khaldoun sees that whenever the authority weakens in the souls, unrest and turmoils increase. In my opinion, I see that the intellectual has a role in appeasing the intensity of conflicts that might lead to confrontations. But in conditions like these he/she can only play the role that is based on enlightening and raising awareness. He/She is not able to give the suitable solutions to extinguish the fires of turmoils because the authority is required and even obliged to do so.
Originally appeared in the Tunisian daily Assabah 17/06/2012 by Alia Ben Nhila.
You can read the original text in Arabic here.
Translated from Arabic by Ali Znaidi.