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A Tunisian Tale

A Tunisian Tale

Hassouna Mosbahi
Translated by Max Weiss
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 152
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt15m7n5h
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  • Book Info
    A Tunisian Tale
    Book Description:

    After ne’er-do-wells spread rumors about a widowed mother’s weak moral character among the people of a slum on the outskirts of Tunis that festers with migrants who have come to the metropolis from the heartland in search of a better life, her twenty-year-old son takes matters into his own hands and commits an unspeakable crime. An imaginative and disturbing novel told from the alternating viewpoints of this unrepentant sociopath, as he sits and fumes on death row but willingly guides us through his juvenile exploits and twisted memories, and his murdered mother, who calmly gives an account of her interrupted life from beyond the grave, A Tunisian Tale introduces the narrative talents of Hassouna Mosbahi to an English-language audience for the first time, as he confronts both taboos of Tunisian society and the boundaries of conventional storytelling.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-172-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. THE SON
    (pp. 1-2)

    Now my soul has calmed, and its volcanoes have quieted down. Those conflagrations that for many years used to eat away at my body have been extinguished and nothing remains of them but clumps of ash. Here I am now, as cold as the dead. This cell is as narrow as a tomb, and just as cold. Everything on the inside and on the outside suggests I’ve already crossed over that bridge to the other world, the unknown world that everyone fears even though we all know we’re going to wind up there sooner or later. Before they ever threw...

  3. THE MOTHER
    (pp. 3-7)

    I speak from beyond the grave. Can you believe this, O living people? Your response doesn’t matter much to me because I can’t hear it anyway, but let me assure you that just a short while ago the merciful angel whispered to inform me that I can address you from the furthest reaches of eternal darkness. What a treat for you, and for me, too! I had always believed that speaking to you would become impossible once I departed your world and turned into a clump of ash. So listen up, and I’ll tell you my story from start to...

  4. THE SON
    (pp. 8-11)

    When the judge handed down his guilty verdict after long and difficult deliberations, I breathed a sigh of relief because that was just what I had been hoping for with all my heart. There was nothing left in the world that could attract me or delight my soul. I whispered to myself, “Welcome, O beautiful death!”

    All eyes were fixed on me, the eyes of those who had decided my fate and those who happened to be present in the courtroom. Many people had come for one obvious reason, as my lawyer informed me, namely, that my case had riveted...

  5. THE MOTHER
    (pp. 12-15)

    It’s better if I start with my mother. My mother—may God have mercy upon her—who used to tell me I was born in a hard year, one that was destabilized by upheavals and painful events. The earth was parched, the water wells had run dry, and the olive and almond trees were all shriveled up. Famine had begun to threaten the country. Despite the sacks of flour the state provided for the needy, many people would go to sleep hungry. My mother also used to tell me how in the hotter-than-average summer of the year I was born,...

  6. THE SON
    (pp. 16-21)

    The cops barged in on me while I was fast asleep in a Hammamat hotel that I can’t remember the name of right now because I had shown up there drunk late at night and only just barely found my way to the room booked for me. By nine a. m., I was in custody in the capital. But first they had a taxi driver take us to the arches on the road to Zaghouan.

    After staring at me for a long time the driver looked at the policemen circled around me one after another, and with absolute confidence in...

  7. THE MOTHER
    (pp. 22-25)

    Now I’m neither dust nor a clump of ash. I’m that little girl they named Najma, which means star, possibly because I was born in the middle of the summer, at that moment when night is just starting to divide from day and when the morning star shines with its marvelous light that has enticed travelers through empty desolate lands. From the very beginning they used to say I was the spitting image of my mother. So my grandmother would sigh deeply from time to time and then whisper, as if talking to herself, “I hope to God she doesn’t...

  8. THE SON
    (pp. 26-28)

    I forgot to mention that while I was sipping my coffee at Hammamat Bay late in the afternoon on the day before I was arrested I heard an old man telling a young man about a torched corpse found by a shepherd out in a ravine not far from the Arches of Zaghouan. The old man, as red-faced as a European and wearing a swish white robe, commented, “Something like that, Rafiq my boy, is unmistakable proof that people are turning into wild beasts. No morals. No religion. Nothing of the sort anymore. Just robbing and looting and thievery and...

  9. THE MOTHER
    (pp. 29-32)

    I was older, and our village was changing at an astonishing speed. Girls began going to school as if it were the most natural thing to do and nobody tried to stop them. Even those who were known for their extreme conservatism and for their staunch refusal to let women out of the house lowered their heads and remained submissively silent in the face of all the new things that suddenly intruded into their lives. Radio infiltrated most houses, putting an end to the long chatting soirees that were filled with stories and tales told by elders. As a result,...

  10. THE SON
    (pp. 33-39)

    Contrary to what you might expect, I wasn’t sad and didn’t despair when I was arrested and thrown in jail. That might be attributed to the fact that for three straight days I had been satisfying some of my previously restrained and repressed desires. People in my country say that it’s better for a person to live as a rooster for just one day than to be a chicken for an entire year. I was a virile rooster for three straight days, so now I can face the gallows at ease and at peace, without the slightest regret or sadness...

  11. THE MOTHER
    (pp. 40-42)

    I never got to see the film, but because the village children talked about it so much, I got to know its details from beginning to end. I won’t deny the fact that some measure of vanity and self-importance overcame me when the children started whispering to me that in a few years I was going to be an exact replica of the actress who played the lead role in the Egyptian film they had watched on the back wall of our school. That’s right, I’ll be just like her. I’ll have her stunning body, her beautiful eyes, her pleasant...

  12. THE SON
    (pp. 43-46)

    They brought me dinner a few minutes ago, but I don’t want to eat. Even if I tried, I would throw up the first bite before it ever reached my stomach. How can anyone who knows as I do that he no longer belongs to the world of the living crave food? It seems better for me to go on hunger strike so that they might then hurry this along and take me to the gallows before my appointed time, for fear that I may die a simple easy death, one that is unfitting for the abominable crime I perpetrated....

  13. THE MOTHER
    (pp. 47-49)

    Please allow me to describe for you my condition when I reached six-teen years of age. Gloomy angst had sunk its claws into every part of my body. The world around me was all smoke and dust, cheerless melancholy, as malicious, angry, and cruel eyes monitored my every move. I was in agony walking across the thorns of despair and frustration and impotence all night and all day. With the exception of Aunt Warda who maintained our friendship and mutual affection, everyone else turned against me, right down the line, and they remained doubtful about me, as if I was...

  14. THE SON
    (pp. 50-53)

    A little while back I told you about an American film. I mentioned how affected I was by it, how attracted I was to its hero, that unemployed young man who killed a lot of people in cold blood after running off with his eccentric girlfriend, away from that small town where the two of them used to live. I also mentioned how that film was powerfully present in my mind when I perpetrated the monstrous act that brought me here to death row. I used to love movies more than anything else. I had a particular taste for Westerns,...

  15. THE MOTHER
    (pp. 54-58)

    Please allow me to take you to another chapter of my life. As I have assured you from the start, I’m going to tell you everything with the utmost sincerity and honesty and clarity, because I’m now in a world where I no longer have any need for symbolism or secrecy or dissimulation. I must point out that I didn’t mean to make fun of them or mess with their minds as they thought I did when I responded to that question they asked me on that blazing-hot morning in the early summer of 1978. But why else would they...

  16. THE SON
    (pp. 59-73)

    You can ask me about the person or about the people whom I’d like to meet and speak with during these last weeks, or these last days of my life. It’s within your rights because it’s natural to ask such a question of someone like me, whose departure from this world is imminent. Let me begin with those who aren’t kin or relatives. I’ll be straight with you and say that the only person who I really want to sit with out of all of them is my friend Aziz; rather, let me say, my brother Aziz, because he was...

  17. THE MOTHER
    (pp. 74-77)

    Please don’t insult me and say that I was delusional, that I was only imagining Mansour would give me the life I had always desired and dreamed about, a life that was all softness and comfort and convenience, that he was going to install me in a beautiful house in a respectable neighborhood, and that he was going to do this or that for me. That’s why I married him in such a hurry and without any hesitation, as though I were a young lady who remained anxious about being unmarriageable. No, no, no. Shame on you for thinking such...

  18. THE SON
    (pp. 78-90)

    Before I was transferred to death row, the prison director asked me with all good grace and manners if I wanted anything in particular, on the condition that it didn’t violate the laws of the country, so I asked for theRihlaof Ibn Battuta. Maybe he thought that the young man standing before him, who presented such a request, couldn’t possibly be the same man who committed that monstrous crime near the Arches of Zaghouan, and so the prison director stared at me for a few moments, astonished, before muttering his approval of my request. Nevertheless, the features of...

  19. THE MOTHER
    (pp. 91-93)

    In my nightmares a raven and an owl are cawing atop ruins, and abandoned houses that have no doors or windows are filled with the dust of the yellow desert. Giant rats with their stomachs split open are strewn about the desolate wasteland, as hideous bald men run after me cackling loudly, exposing their repulsive genitals, and women with their eyes gouged out, without any hair, teeth, or breasts and with talons like birds of prey threaten to kill me, howling like starving wolves. Sometimes I see myself naked, my hands and feet bound, as the people of M Slum...

  20. THE SON
    (pp. 94-97)

    My grandmother didn’t like to tell her wondrous tales during the daytime. She confidently told me that those who did so could be struck with blindness and possibly other dangerous debilities that can even be passed down to their offspring, who might be born deformed, so I would spend the length of the day on the coals of anticipation. When night fell and the village went to sleep, making it so quiet you could hear a needle fall into a haystack, I would sit down beside my grandmother as she started to caress my hair absentmindedly and then immediately took...

  21. THE MOTHER
    (pp. 98-104)

    Please don’t be too harsh with me, but don’t be too merciful either. All I ask is that you not accuse me of ever having bad intentions, of messing around or lying, as the people of M Slum used to do, especially after I started dealing with them the way a person deals with vile insects. That’s right, this is all I ask of you. Rest assured that I’ll remain true to the promise I made from the start, and I’ll never resort to fabrication, deception, changing the facts, or making things up, and I’ll adhere to that until the...

  22. THE SON
    (pp. 105-109)

    No doubt you have started to wonder, now that I’ve told you so many chapters of my life, why I have always persistently avoided talking about my mother. When I have mentioned her, it was only with extreme brevity, and mostly it was about her cunning.

    I tell you truthfully that ever since I became conscious of the world around me, my mother had no desire for me to exist at all. That’s right, this is how I felt as I took my first steps in life. Why else would my mother have left me almost every day of the...

  23. THE MOTHER
    (pp. 110-114)

    In spite of the fact that you are in the world of the living while I’m in the world of the dead, which would make it difficult, that is to say, impossible to imagine the existence of any real connection between us, I can feel how you yearn to hear my commentary, or rather, my commentaries on the matter of the numerous rumors and stories told against me by the people of M Slum. I tell you again that not a single one of those tales reflect even a shred of my personal life, as the imaginations of those people,...

  24. THE SON
    (pp. 115-119)

    That warm summer morning greeted me like a curse or a slap in the face. The news broadcast I heard upon waking up from a long deep sleep in which I was tormented by horrible nightmares contained nothing but tragedies and misfortunes, especially in the Middle East: scores of dead and wounded in the Occupied Territories, kidnapped journalists, terrorist bombings at swanky tourist hotels, children dying every day in Iraq because of the embargo, Saddam Hussein mocking American threats, Syria rejecting Israeli reports that the days of President Hafez al-Asad were numbered, the Taliban forbidding people from listening to music...

  25. THE MOTHER
    (pp. 120-124)

    No, no, no. I never wanted to be a mother, not to a girl, not to a boy, but fate had me in its sights. What could I do? The first thing I want to say to you on this topic is that I never imagined that letting Mansour’s revolting snake near my body from time to time could have any effect, so I thought nothing of the matter and I remained oblivious until my stomach started to expand. At that point, I gave the matter up to God. And so it was that after two years of being married,...

  26. THE SON
    (pp. 125-126)

    I was in a garden that may very well have been the Belvedere Garden in the capital, except for the fact that it was devoid of people and had the desolation of winter. I had been crying silently, with my head buried between my arms. Just then, suddenly, from behind the mist of my steadily falling tears, I saw a specter approaching. The specter gradually started growing clearer and clearer until it turned into my father. I jumped up and ran toward him. He embraced me warmly, just like he used to do when I was a little boy, held...

  27. THE MOTHER
    (pp. 127-129)

    The trap had been set with precision, and I fell into its snares so easily!

    A few weeks before the monstrous act, my son turned into an angel overnight. That’s right my good people, he became like a merciful angel with me, smiling in my face as I was leaving the house or coming home, treating me kindly, telling me sweet things when I got home from work exhausted, making my morning coffee and helping me clean the kitchen; he even apologized on more than one occasion for ugly things he may have done to me in the past, asking...

  28. THE SON
    (pp. 130-140)

    My grandmother named me after the hero of her favorite fairy tale, by which I mean Alaa al-Din in the Land of Terrors, perhaps thinking that it would be possible for me to prevail over the traps of the world as he had. But she was wrong. For the heroes of fairy tales are always and eternally luckier than people like me, who are destined to live a miserable life in a miserable reality. Besides, fate always and eternally grants the heroes of fairy tales the chance for salvation or victory, even in those moments when we’re certain that their...

  29. GLOSSARY
    (pp. 141-142)