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Interview with the Tunisian poet Inas Abassi

Ten years have passed since the start of what is popularly called “The Arab Spring,” a series of revolutions that began in Tunisia when the vegetable dealer Mohammed Bouazizi self-immolated in protest to Ben Ali’s corrupt regime, and for better living standards. To commemorate this event the poet Sarra Anaya has interviewed the Tunisian poet Inas Abassi and asked her about her memories from the first days of the Revolution and its effects today. Anaya and Abassi came into contact via Facebook and have during the spring continued their conversation via e-mail.

Inas Abassi (born in 1982) is a Tunisian poet, writer of novels, and translator, living in France. Beside her poetry Abassi has also written a few children’s books. She is primarily acclaimed for her poetry collections Secrets of the Wind (2004) and Archive of Blind (2007), which were both influential in Tunisia. Abassi is also translated into Swedish by Jonathan Morén, excerpts from her texts can be found in Karavan 2012:3.

Credits Text: Sarra Anaya Translation from Swedish: Christina Cullhed April 21 2021

In what ways has the Revolution affected you not only as a person, but also as a poet?

- I followed the events of the Revolution from outside of Tunisia; via television, computer, and mobile screens I was updated daily as to what was happening. I followed the Revolution with mixed feelings of panic and joy; at first, I felt incapacitated and couldn’t really believe all that was going on. Everything changed though the night Ben Ali fled, that night I didn’t sleep—I don’t think anyone in Tunisia slept that night. I experienced an array of disparate feelings: joy, surprise, even a glimpse of hope. Nevertheless, the days after Ben Ali’s escape were laced with fear; I followed the news about snipers prowling on people in the streets, saw pictures of killed martyrs and wounded people falling on Habib Bourguiba Street and all the streets that branch off from it. I wanted to join the demonstrators and demand freedom, respect, and bread.

I returned to Tunisia as soon as opportunity arose, approximately one month after the fall of the regime. I remember the feeling of freedom. I could see the change in people’s faces—even the air seemed fresher than before. Everyone at the airport cheered and smiled, everyone was optimistic. The future that the Revolution had conjured looked promising. We will heal our wounds and build a democratic nation where young people will be able to find work.

Experience and development are crucial for a poet’s view of language, which also includes the surroundings where the poet is active. The Revolution affected me both as an individual and as a creative person—in many ways it released me as a poet, took away my fear and allowed me to think and express myself more freely. Earlier it was extremely dangerous to even think the thought of criticising the regime in public. We were born with that fear.

What does it mean to be a poet in Tunisia today? What challenges lie ahead? Are there networks where poets can get organised, or is it lonely work?

- Let’s be honest. Poetry has always been an elitist endeavour. Who in the world reads poetry today? Poetry lovers? Other poets? Art students? Who takes part in poetry readings? Those who appreciate poetry in Tunisia are a very limited group in contrast to the band who laude the novel. Perhaps it sounds pessimistic, but poetry no matter which continent you are on, has a small circle of readers. Before, in Tunis, the biggest hall at the city theatre could be filled to the brim of poetry lovers, nowadays poetry readings have difficulty filling even a small room. Today though, other methods of reaching out with our poetry have popped up. More people publish their poems on social media and read their poems via the live function, where anyone in the world can listen in. The need to be part of a physical poetry reading does not exist in Tunisia now. At the start of my career as a poet I also used to participate in poetry readings, but since I moved from Tunisia, my contact with other poets, especially with those of my generation, has mainly been via social media.

Have you noticed any changes in the political climate in Tunisia since the Revolution? Have poets’ ways of writing changed?

- Of course, there is a noticeable and a beautiful change. The new generation of poets is braver than their predecessors, more liberal as concerns taboos that have earlier held us hostage. What I liked the most at the start of the Revolution was the way Tunisian youth in the demonstrations used slang to express themselves. In Tunisian discourse this is a way of expression that is not appreciated by the fusha poets (poets who use a traditional/standardised Arabic). If we want to reach out to people in the streets, we must catch their attention—there is no better way than in the use of slang, which everyone understands and has a relationship to.

Has poetry had any role to play during the Revolution?

- I did not have the privilege of contributing any poems to the Tunisian Revolution.

Have you written anything about the Revolution?

- My novel The House of Bourguiba is certainly about the Revolution. It depicts the days just before the fall of the regime to the moment when the novel’s main character Jihan is informed of Ben Ali’s escape. Writing about political events demands attention, and to write about the events of January 14, could not be forced into shape. In my first novel Trouble I deal with the 90s and the regime’s process of imprisoning and persecuting students who in peaceful demonstrations criticised and resisted the regime. By meeting with the students during the time of the events and making use of their experiences, I could build my characters. In my poems I avoid writing explicitly about political events—in my first collection of poetry I have a few poems about the suppressed freedom of speech.

How do you regard the future of Tunisia in relation to poetry and politics? What are your dreams for the future?

- This is a confusing question, especially the second part of it. Like many other Tunisians today I am no longer especially optimistic, which is not strange considering how a cadre of corrupt politicians have slowly impoverished our economy. Much has happened since the Revolution ten years ago. But despite the higher degree of freedom that was achieved as a result, our individual rights are still infringed upon in Tunisia. Democracy is still an elusive dream. However, there is hope. Today we have a large number of organisations for human rights that work ardently to maintain the Revolution’s attained civil benefits—especially for Tunisian women.

Sarra Anaya is a poet and has been the artistic director and editor of the translation project Shaerat that introduces Arabic writers and poets to a Swedish audience. She is currently the Culture Editor of Kontext. Sarra Anaya has also studied a creative writing course at Biskops Arnö and worked as an editor for the magazine Glänta.

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