Mahmoud Messadi: The Icon of Tunisian Narration
Kamel Riahi-Tunisia (Translated from Arabic by Ali Znaidi)
It is impossible to speak about the achievement of Tunisian literature without the name of Mahmoud Messadi grabbing an outstanding position in it. Tunisia has not known a famous author like him except Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi, writer of “Life’s Will.” Thus Messadi ascends the throne of narration, whereas al-Shabbi is the prince of poetry. The celebration of the centenary of Messadi’s birth is going on in Tunisia through different cultural events.
Just like al-Shabbi’s, the fame of the deceased Mahmoud Messadi and the success of his works seemed one of the psychological obstacles for Tunisian writers. So, a large number of them fell into a superficial imitation of his style, while some fanatics declared themselves his enemies. They considered that the Messadi myth is fake and was produced by the official institution to destroy literature and authors when creating a matchless idol.
A native of the village of Tazerka in the coastal governorate of Nabeul, he produced unique works, Haddathâ Abou Houraïrata qâl (Thus Spoke Abou Hourairata), Essoud (The Dam), Mawlidou’ Nissiâne (The Genesis of Forgetfulness), Min Ayâmi Imrâne (Days in the Life of Imrane, and Other Meditations ), Tâssilân likiâne (Rooting of a Being), and al-Iqaa’ fi al-Saj al-Arabi (Rhythm in Arabic Rhymed Prose) chief among them. All of them are narrative works save the two latter ones. These works were translated into many languages, Dutch, French, and German among them.
Messadi’s works were characterised by a big strength which was affirmed by distinguished Arab writers, chief among them Taha Houssein who used to have a friendship relation with him which yielded a body of correspondences, and discussion about the assessment of one of Messadi’s works afterwards.
That strong throbbing language is related to Messadi’s education and his training which began with memorising the Quran in kouttabs( traditional Quranic schools) before joining school in the city of Korba, then joining the outstanding Sadiki College in the capital which opened for him the road to join the Sorbonne University in Paris where he graduated in 1936. Then he started preparing two PhD theses: One about Abou Nawas and another about rhythm in Arabic poetry. He finished the first one but he did not defend it due to the Second World War.
This Arab-Islamic formation on one side and the French Western formation on the other side provided Messadi with a particularity which appeared in his prose works that oscillate between authenticity and modernisation. Messadi was not a writer who devoted himself to literature, but an intellectual who was entangled in politics. He was one of the men of the post-independence era. He took charge of the Ministries of Education and Culture. During that period he founded two famous magazines: Al Hayat Aththaqafia (The Cultural Life) which is still issued by the Ministry of Culture and Al Mabâhith (Studies) which stopped publication.
Perhaps the most important thing that shaped Messadi’s genius –as most critics see–is that he stopped writing around his forties and until his death in 2004 he did not lose his pioneering position in the Tunisian literary scene. Besides, Arab and foreign writers and translators are still fascinated by his texts whenever they fell within their reach.
Messadi in the Memory:
Honouring the distinguished writer of Tunisia, the Ministry of Culture republished his complete works this year in a revised and added edition by Dr. Mahmoud Tarchouna who said to Aljazeera.net that this edition was restricted to updating the bibliography like referring to all the studies, books, translations, and dissertations that touched upon the literature of Mahmoud Messadi.
Among the additions in this second edition was the publication of an important text titled “A Lesson from History” that Messadi published in Lissan Echaab (The People’s Tongue) newspaper on February 12, 1930 at an age under 20. It is considered the first theoretical text that he published. It was about the indispensability to use the literary legacy in creative writing. It is considered as a literary pact which he adopted during his cultural life.
Besides, another text was also published which is a tribute to the soul of his wife on the fortieth day after her death in 1990 which might be useful to researchers who are interested in his relation with women in general, and particularly with his wife. A 53-minute documentary film titled “Messadi , Magician of the Existence,” which examines Messadi’s life from birth to departure, was also made about the owner of The Dam by Tunisian filmmaker Mokhtar Laajimi with the help of testimonies about his political, literary , and life experience given by a large number of Arab politicians and intellectuals.
Although the honouring and eulogistic side of the literary, cultural, and human life of Messadi pervailed, this did not prevent the presence of another opinion which accuses Messadi of stopping the Zaytounian education, and charges him with that, considering it a crime against Tunisian education when saying, “I will not forgive Messadi because he obeyed Bourguiba’s orders and ended the Zaytounian education.” Thus the owner of this opinion adds him to the seculars. This is what the film attempts, in a way, to refute it and presents him clinging to his Arab-Islamic identity.
Seminars that were organised did not also come up with new things. So Messadi remains a text that is secluded in itself waiting for other mad readings that its madness reaches even the opening of the file of the mediocre in Messadi’s writings or the discovery of other backgrounds which are not the usually regurgitated ones in studies that normally proliferate from the students of the mentors: Readings that put, even for one time, that famous statement “Existentialism embraced Islam at Messadi’s hands” into oblivion.
This article appeared in aljazeera.net 15/07/2012 by Kamel Riahi.
You can read the original text in Arabic here.
Translated from Arabic by Ali Znaidi.