Tunisian Hedi Thabet and Science Fiction Writing
Kamel Riahi-Tunisia (Translated from Arabic by Ali Znaidi)
Hedi Thabet is considered among the contemporary Tunisian novelists who gave a major addition to the Tunisian narration, despite his late plunge into novel writing, gaining a virgin road and opening a new door in the realm of narration, that is, of science fiction literaure.
Thabet surprised the Tunisian cultural scene in 1999 with his novel (Ghar Eljinn) The Cave of the Jinns, and then followed it by the novel of (Jabel Elliyine) Elliyine Mountain. Both novels were characterised by an unfamiliar genre feature, that is, of ‘the science fiction novel’ to begin a new novelistic project which is formed on the margin of the classical realistic, social, and political novel.
But afterwards Hedi Thabet published his novel (Al Qoronfoul La Yanboutou fi Assahraa) The Carnations Don’t Live in the Desert, winning the Tunisian prestigious Golden Comar. This novel was about to abort the experience of science fiction writing for him. But his persistence in his project and his fondness for science fiction literature made him return to the scene with his novel (Law Aada Hannibal) If Hannibal Returned. His political novel The Rape did not also prevent him from his project. Thus he returned to his beloved field with his novel Tanit’s Temple.
Through his works Thabet broke all expectations. A professor of French literature who hold degrees from French universities and a man belonging to the Sixties and Seventies Generation with all his francophone weight chooses Arabic as a medium for his novels. He could have easily written in French but he chose the hardest way, especially if we remembered the reception crisis of the literary genre he chose, that is, of science fiction, in Tunisia.
Contemplating the life of Hedi Thabet who one day extricated himself from the political activity in which he was involved for years preferring the cultural choice, one cannot find strange this adventure in which he believed, despite the decrease of possibilities for him as a former politician and a new novelist to publish. Although he was not able to publish his novel The Rape, which he wrote in the beginning of the eighties, only in the late nineties, he kept resisting the ogre of books censorship and dissented from it through science fiction literature breaking the horizon of its waiting for a new culture that apparently seems an intellectual luxury, but in its deepest nature, gives a flagrant criticism of the Tunisian and Arab society, and divulges the working mechanisms of the disease of benightedness, reactionism, and illiteracy that are decaying its body.
Today Hedi Thabet was preoccupied in his project with writing the Carthagian history of Tunisia. After the Second Gulf War, he reverted to the character of Hannibal in his novel If Hannibal Returned resurrecting the great leader to write the history of Carthage on the one hand and write the reality of the Arab nation on the other hand. So he approached the Arab status quo and deconstructed the Western thought and the movement of international imperialism through the operation of cloning and resurrecting the Carthagian leader.
Thabet considered that he wanted to try to touch upon two things in this novel: First is comparing two imperial regimes; Carthage and Rome with the first building its hegemony through commerce without the need for military hegemony, and the second using the military power to impose its hegemony on the other, and unfortunately the second toppled the first and the civilisation of war and hegemony pervaded humanity. Second is warning about the return of American imperialism today to impose on the world an order that is akin to what Rome did before more than two thousand years. That’s why we must be like Hannibal to stop this imperial hegemony in order for the hands of the clock not to return two thousand years behind.
Returning to the literatures of science fiction we made sure the existence of this type of literature that is called ‘political fiction literature,’ a literature that originated from science fiction then it stood on its own right. Writer Mahmoud Kassem devoted for it a whole chapter in his book Science Fiction: The Literature of the Twentieth Century. Among the predictions of this literature were ‘the dominance of political violence,’ ‘the demise of the modern civilisaton of the West,’ and the ‘demise of communism.’
There are other themes that are familiar to political fiction literature like the dominance of a certain ideology or the dominance of political violence over the form of social relations or religious extremism or the dominance of the era of dictatorship or the dominance of another human race that is similar to the human kind in evolution like monkeys or the woodman.
Except the last theme, all other predictions are realistic and can happen as we are living today in the era of new dictatorships and the dominance of ideologies.
Here we can mention George Orwell’s novel 1984 in which he predicted the dominance of big powers in which the human being lives a situation of alienation and is just a number that is subject to an endless surveillance in the authoritarian state of the “Big Brother.” In his novel Orwell described the world that became a nightmare in which spying pervaded all the places.
And in this category we can put a part of the novelistic realm of Hedi Thabet who plunges into science fiction to say the political reality. His writings attempt to criticise reality, deconstruct its problems, and reveal the depth of ugliness of the unspoken about in it. The writer speaks about the fact that his literary project is stirred by a societal project saying,
I started writing science fiction bearing in my mind a future societal project in which the human being becomes liberated from his/her humanity limitations: violence of all its forms, worshipping the self with all its defects, hegemony of all its aspects, and fear of all its dimensions.
This presentation is shown in both of his novels The Cave of the Jinns and Elliyine Mountain where the events take place between the Earth and Qanmad. The general form of scientific fantasy appears through space creatures, planets, mysteries, and wonders. However the ideas are societal, human, and earthly dealing with the diseases of violence, war, poverty, and racial discrimination.
This article appeared in aljazeera.net 07/09/2012 by Kamel Riahi.
You can read the original text in Arabic here.
Translated from Arabic by Ali Znaidi.