Shukri Mabkhout’s first novel starts with a bizarre tomb scene in which the main character beats to the ground an elderly imam reading the Quran at his father’s funeral. Shockwaves radiate through the Tunisian neighborhood in which our protagonist, Abdel Nasser (known as “the Italian” for his good looks), grew up.
The novel, which won the 2015 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, is a settlement of accounts with Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia. After a rather tiresome first 50 pages in which the reader warms up to the main characters, and becomes accustomed to what seems like yet another childhood narration of a rebellious boy growing up in the Tunisian capital, the author introduces a flamboyant female character, Zeina. Then the plot starts to evolve.
Abdel Nasser is a leftist student union leader who challenges Islamists and the security apparatus at university, but soon recognizes that he’s merely a puppet in the hands of a much mightier force that overshadows and uses all parties for its purposes. He thus becomes tragically embedded in the regime of Ben Ali. Yet Al-Talyani (The Italian) is not a simple rise-and-fall kind of story, as Abdel Nasser forfeits his romanticism, becomes a forlorn foot soldier in the government’s propaganda machine, and succumbs to endless sexual affairs and alcoholism.
Mabkhout, an academic, translator and literary critic, masterfully depicts the difficulties of leading a poor student life in the Tunis of the 1990s and offers interesting insight in the psyche of his characters, particularly Abdel Nasser. The focal point is Abdel Nasser’s failed relationship with Zeina, who studies Hannah Arendt and possesses the repartee to challenge a whole arsenal of macho patriarchs, who all want to get rid of her. She and Abdel Nasser engage in a romance that culminates in a kiss during a violent clampdown by police at the university campus, then marriage.
At one point, Zeina receives a grant and decides not to alleviate their dire financial situation by contributing to their strained budget or taking Abdel Nasser to dinner to celebrate. Such little incidents are skillfully piled up by the narrator to cause estrangement and bitterness. The reader almost sympathizes with, or at least expects, Abdel Nasser’s first affair.
Zeina, initially depicted as a woman of wit and erotic power, grows increasingly pale. This is one of the novel’s few flaws, as the reader cannot but wonder how such a lively character becomes solely entrenched in a study niche by the kitchen table. Another flaw, perhaps, is the author’s decision to focus solely on the evolution of Abdel Nasser. Other characters remain unexplored supporting actors dwarfed in Abdel Nasser’s shadow.
But Mabkhout’s real intention, one could argue, is portraying demoralized Tunisian society, particularly the world of the media and intellectuals to which Abdel Nasser is drawn — and is offered a plush job in a state newspaper that he accepts due to financial instability. In order to not betray his ideals, he refrains from writing about politics as that would mean keeping in line with the newspaper censor, so he circumvents that problem through the culture section.
Mabkhout’s novel doesn’t just settle scores with Ben Ali, but also with the intellectuals spawned by his regime. It shows how they were bolstering a dictator while having no doubt about his intentions, as the editor of a state magazine reveals to Abdel Nasser.
“The true dictatorship was on its way. No doubt about that,” says the editor, describing Ben Ali as “dangerous, trying to appease everyone. He was ready to become an Islamist leader, an Arabist, or even a Marxist, a Leninist even. What mattered was that he remains in power and secures the throne he violently snatched.”
Mabkhout’s subject is how the demise of morals and education manifests itself, and how an idealistic man is compromised in his beliefs and the effect this compromise has on him. The names of the main character and his successful brother, Salah El Din, clearly refer to the symbolic leaders who have shaped the fate of the Arab world. Salah El Din, who is both loathed and admired by his brother, emigrates to France to strive for a better life, whereas the leftist Abdel Nasser, with his idealistic dreams, becomes actively involved in a corrupt, despotic regime that betrays everything he stands for. An allusion, perhaps, to the real Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was hailed in the 1950s and 1960s as a new Salah El Din, yet failed to unify the Arab people.
One of the most profound scenes is Abdel Nasser’s reaction to the coup led by Ben Ali in November 1987 and the ouster of Habib Bourguiba, the nation’s first president, after the former had doctors report that the latter was unable to fulfill his presidential duties. Since Ben Ali’s regime was successfully ousted by the Tunisian revolution, the first of the 2011 Arab uprisings, the reader senses a rare honesty here — a space for sincerely coming to terms with a despotic, tyrannical regime whose claws have stretched into all levels of society. Abdel Nasser must acknowledge that a new, thuggish elite reigns.
“Abdel Nasser soon became aware that what he was witnessing in his neighborhood was already reflecting similarly in the world of the journalists and intellectuals with whom he was acquainted,” Mabkhout writes. “They were operating like mobs and gangs, taking possession of whatever they could get hold of, fighting with words and fists. A world of gossip and immorality, libel, lies and hypocrisy, offended and striking vanities. A world without inherited, traditional morals. Without new morals, worthy of people who write.”
Mabkhout’s own writing is somber and simple. He renounces debauched sentences and descriptions, and the reader senses a fine sensibility for words. Some of his socio-political depictions, not without wit, are essay-like, yet his oscillation between narration and dialogue (written in standard Arabic in order to be broadly understood) tautly maintain our curiosity.
At the end of The Italian, he comes a full circle back to the beginning of his story, using simple language and structure to intrude deeply into a dark era from which Tunisians are still struggling to emerge. It would be interesting to read a similar work on Egypt one day.
For another take on The Italian, see here.