Interview with shortlisted author Amira Ghenim
Where were you when the shortlist was announced and what was your reaction?
When the shortlist was announced, I was on my way to the school ten minutes away from my house, where I was taking my daughter Rajila. I kept an eye on my mobile, waiting for the news. And indeed, I had just started back when my publisher called to congratulate me. This was followed by friends who were following the live announcement on the Prize’s facebook page. Of course, I felt incredibly happy. I had reached the longlist against the odds, so going beyond this to the shortlist gave me such joy, as if the doors of hope had been opened before me, while I stood there shyly.
Tell us about the research you did in order to write The Calamity of the Nobility?
The research for The Calamity of the Nobility was not a stage preceding the writing, but in fact it continued as I put pen to paper. In order to create a cohesive narrative, I sometimes needed to consult historical documents related to the thirties in Tunisia, in particular. Most of what I read whilst I was engaged in writing the novel was on those lines. When some events concerned characters who were fundamental, I needed to deepen my knowledge of these people and their relationships with the space in which they lived and moved. I also worked on the non-tangible cultural heritage of Tunisia, which sometimes made it necessary for me to look for information in university theses or documentaries, or even verbal eyewitness accounts of those who are custodians of collective memory. Generally, I was open to anything which might give the narrative credibility and factual depth, not in a way which bluntly announced itself, but as a background which can be sensed although it is not directly visible.
In a previous interview, you said that you wanted to write “the unofficial history of personalities whose pictures have been falsified in the collective memory”. Has the picture of El-Taher El-Haddad been falsified? In your view, is he - as he has been described - the Tunisian equivalent of Egyptian Qasim Amin?
I think that recent writings about El-Taher El-Haddad have managed to correct the false image of him. In fact, most of them have been fair to him and his ideas, after the premier Habib Bourguiba gave his reforming ideas social acceptability through the power of the law. He issued the Code of Personal Status at the dawn of independence, a code inspired by El-Haddad’s enlightened vision of women and the family. However, if we go back to the writings of his contemporaries, whether in the newspapers which reviled him after the publication of his book Our Women in the Shari 'a and Society, or the writings of the sheikhs of Al-Zaytouna composed in response to him, we can easily see their intention to distort and falsify his ideas and declare him an apostate. This led his friend Ahmed Al-Dar’i to write a book entitled In Defence of El-Haddad. In the introduction, he describes it as A Correction of History for Those Who Desire to Know It. I think that in some aspects, The Calamity of the Nobility was part of this corrective trend related to national figures, but it interposed a veil of imagination between the reader and history, relying on the intelligence of the reader, who is surely well aware of how transparent such veils are, woven by the creative narrative. They reveal more than they conceal. With a little thought, the reader/viewer quickly perceives what lies behind the veil: our past, present and some of what is yet to come.
As for El-Taher El-Haddad being “the Qasim Amin of Tunisia”, I think it is a useful description summarising one aspect of his reforming project – the emancipation of women. However, it’s important to notice that El-Taher El-Haddad was not just a social reformer, and his intellectual battle was not limited to the subject of women. Despite his short life, El-Haddad dealt with intersecting subjects of reform. He was a social reformer, defending women’s rights as Qasim Amin did, and also a trade union reformer who defended the rights of the working class in his book about the workers’ movement in Tunisia in the twenties. Besides this, he wrote a pamphlet about reforming the teaching of Al-Zaytouna. He was an active fighter on many fronts. I don’t think anyone else has combined these different battles as he did, either in Tunisia or the Arab world.
The two main characters, El-Taher El-Haddad and Zubeida, do not express themselves. All that we know about them is what we hear from other characters who tell their story. Why?
It’s true that there is no narrative space given to El-Taher and Zubeida in which to tell their stories, unlike the rest of the characters, who witnessed the calamity. This was for two reasons: the first was to preserve the delightful ambiguity between imagined and real events. If the text of the novel included one of their accounts, it could be interpreted as a re-writing of the historical story of El-Haddad and a disclosure of real events. This wasn’t one of the aims of the novel and I don’t think this is useful for literature. The second, more important, reason relates to the artistic goal which I hoped to achieve from using multiple voices. I wanted to increase the reader’s uncertainty as he weighed up different versions of the truth. Through fragmenting the events told by different narrators, a variety of different points of view is preserved, and the narrative does not side with any one of them. The choice is left to the intelligent reader about which to believe. Building on this, if Zubeida or El-Taher’s versions had been included, they would have detracted from the value of the previous accounts. It would have meant an abandonment of that fragile, slippery ground upon which the text moves, where the reader is made to participate in constructing the story, deducing what did and did not happen. Certainly, El-Taher and Zubeida possess the truth, which is obliterated in the mouths of the narrators who take it in turns to tell the story of the calamity. This truth could show the other testimonies to be false or change them, thereby demonstrating its value; but this is not the aim in The Calamity of the Nobility. What was desired was an equal balance in viewpoints, variety and relativism.
You have said that the story of El-Taher El-Haddad and Zubeida is secondary and that the main theme of the novel is “the historical struggle between two conceptions of existence and two visions of the world, revealed by the testimonies”. Can you tell us more about this theme?
Yes. The imagined love story between El-Taher El-Haddad and Zubeida al-Rasaa’ is a pretext for the novel, nothing more. For this reason, the reader of The Calamity of the Nobility doesn’t find details of this relationship because the logic of the imagined structure deliberately conceals much of it, leaving it to guesswork from passing references. The main driver of the plot is following the contradictions witnessed by Tunisian society in the thirties. This was a rich period of our national history, with fruitful clashes in various fields: political, social and intellectual. The novel tries to recall these contradictions and show their historical roots, hinting at their effects and how they are reflected in Tunisia of the present day. It does this through these characters in conflict, who may have lived together in the same environment and sometimes under the same roof, yet each one embodies a moral and ethical vision fiercely opposed to another, contrasting one. This struggle is the kernel of the story and knowledge of it is essential for understanding the social changes happening in the Tunisian environment and similar Arab contexts. As for specifying what the two competing visions are, I will leave that to critics. Recently, I read an article by the Moroccan critic, Mohammed Berrada, which deals with the matter at length, and I liked it.
What do the testimonies of the two maids, Luisa and Khadouj add to the story? Was it important for the reader to hear the testimonies of women from this class?
Although Luisa and Khadouj belong to the same downtrodden class and share more or less the same moral values of loyalty, trustworthiness and devotion to those they serve, they are also drawn into the intense conflict. Throughout the book, they are bitter enemies, whose common sufferings and troubles due to slavery and racism do not help to bring them together. This shows that sympathy between individuals in the same class is not inevitable. Yes, the logic of the story demanded that the servants should have a voice, just like their masters. Indeed, the character of Luisa, who witnesses everything that happens and lives to an old age, has a stronger and more attractive presence, in my opinion, than most of the characters with nominal power. It is as though she is a character/woman in whom is reflected the ugliness of the class which thought for a long time - and still thinks – that its authoritarian capital, in breeding and wealth, entitled it to treat the weak just as it liked, unconstrained by morality. For this reason, I think that including the testimonies of the two maids and having every single one of the other characters talk about them was essential to achieve something significant: making the forgotten margin the centre. At this centre, a light reveals a beauty which we normally do not celebrate.
In the novel, Muhsin al-Naifar says about Zubeida: “What toughness did this feeble body conceal at the very moment when it appeared to be broken and cast down? Isn’t it remarkable that the expression of weakness can be an exhibition of ultimate strength?” (page 373). Can you comment on this?
I am happy that you picked out this quotation. When I wrote some sentences in the novel, a shiver went right through me, and this is one of them. I will leave readers to comment and will just give a gentle hint about the symbolic dimension of what is said, although I think the perceptive reader doesn’t need it. Yes, these words do not just describe Zubeida, nor do they just refer to women in general…they describe, with huge admiration, all the downtrodden who defeat the defeat and emerge from under the rubble like giants, at the moment when their executioners believe they have yielded and given up the fight.