A Tunisian Tale
By Hassouna Mosbahi
Translated by Max Weiss
The American University in Cairo Press, 2011.
“A Tunisian Tale” is a succinct and skilfully written novel that takes its readers into the darkest corners of Tunis and of the human mind. The “tale” is narrated in alternating first-person monologues by a dead mother (Najma) and a son (Alaa al-Din), who awaits his impending execution in his prison cell.
Najma’s narrative captures the dark reality of a woman trapped by the perverse taboos of Tunis. She hopes to escape her suffocating life in the village by accepting a loveless marriage, but only finds herself inside another prison: her new home in M Slum – a dark and wretched slum situated on the outskirts of the modern capital of Tunis. Gradually, despite her husband’s disapproval and resentment, she finds freedom in work. Rebelling against cultural taboos, she ends up performing on stage as a belly dancer.
Paralleling Najma’s story, Alaa al-Din, born to a mother who resents him, is a product of a cruel fate. Throughout his 21 years of life, he is deprived of his mother’s love. He also feels betrayed by her as he blames her for the death of his beloved father. Eventually, his hatred drives him to burn her alive. With a disturbingly stoic and cold voice, he narrates the sequence of events that lead him to commit a most horrendous and haunting crime.
Throughout the novel, the reader is continually exposed to the evil hidden within human beings. And the most alarming part is that, as the stories of other prisoners are revealed, the reader comes to understand why one would murder another human being.
“A Tunisian Tale” is a novel that takes its readers to places that are rarely visited by the human mind.
This review appeared in Al Jadid Vol. 17, No. 65, 2011.
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