(Dates on their branches)
by Béchir Khraief
New edition published by Dar Al Janub,
Mines, men and dates
As I introduce Al-Digla fi ‘Arajiniha (Dates on their branches, 1969), by Béchir Khraief (also Al-Bashir Khurayyif), a short story by Tayeb Salih pops into my mind – Hafnat Tamr (A Handful of Dates). Both the novel and the short story share the date palm as a key aesthetic referent in an environment of greediness, violence but also self-cultivation. Salih, impressed by several similarities between his Sudan, and the Tunisian world represented in the novel, wrote a rhapsodic preface to it.
Khraief chooses as the novel’s main setting his birthplace, Nefta, along with other places in southwestern Tunisia, the Djerid region. This was an area of resistance and rebellion against the French colonizers and, after Independence in 1956, against the Tunisian governments. Its collective memory is still influenced by those important times. The events of the novel span two decades, 1910 to 1930, when outstanding intellectuals such as Tahar Haddad and the “national poet” Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi, both born and raised in Tunisia’s deep south, were leaving their indelible influence on Tunisian society.
Since the 19th century revolts, lead by Ali Ben Ghedhahem (1814–1867) and sung by oral poetry, until the recent uprisings of January 2008 in Redeyef, the entire Gafsa mining area has repeatedly been the scene of protests against unemployment, low wages and unfair recruitment.
The novel is divided into three parts, called ‘arajin, the same branches of the date palm of its title. Each is named after its main character, respectively Dija (the local diminutive of Khadija), Mekki and ‘Atra.
In the first, the divorced Dija is living in the care of her kind brother Muldi, whereas the older sibling, Haffa, has taken control of Dija’s share of the family palm grove.
Dija’s son Mekki, despite his parents’ separation, spends a happy childhood with little cousins Larbi and ‘Atra, Muldi’s sons. When their parents die, they also shift under the protection of Aunt Dija. She would like to go back to her husband but does not dare to go against Haffa’s plans. Struck down by hemiplegia, she dies.
Years go by, Larbi volunteers for the French army, while Mekki attends school in Nefta and then escapes to Metlawi, which has been turned into a big phosphate mining centre, attracting workers from even Italy, Malta and Greece. He gets a job there as a storekeeper.
In the second part, Mekki is involved in the miners’ struggle against the colonizers, together with the leader Dabanjaq, who is based on the real Mohamed Ali El-Hammi (1890-1928), who founded the first Arab union trade, the General Federation of Tunisian Workers, in 1924. Mekki organizes evening classes to educate his fellow workers, and then a general strike. All that happens in November 1928 – the French army intervenes heavily and many are killed or jailed in the capital. Thwarted by the failure of his nationalist dreams, Mekki is not even able to find consolation with prostitutes. Infected with a venereal disease, he decides to go back to his village.
In the third part, Haffa forces ‘Atra to marry his cousin Mekki when he realises Mekki is about to die. ‘Atra is then married off to her cousin Hafnawi. Travelling back from Sfax, where ‘Atra was cured of a toothache, Hafnawi has a strange quarrel with the conductor and has to leave the train. At Gafsa railway station ‘Atra runs into Gharsa, a prostitute, who invites her to her friends’ house. There she spends a crazy night with an unknown lover. Meanwhile, the husband marries a second wife, and then ‘Atra dies of consumption.
The novel can be seen in the tradition of a naturalism reinforced by the use of direct, unadorned language: all dialogue is in the southern Tunisian dialect, and that has been the source of vehement debates in the local cultural scene. It can be also regarded as a sociological document about a forgotten part of Tunisia, whose spaces and characters are described with a refined sense of humour and irony. Khraief convinces the reader that he truly belongs to that world, with all its tragic misery, hypocrisy, vices and virtues. In his preface, Salih stresses that the novel “has the Shakespearean power to mix the comic with the serious”. To date only a French translation is available for non-Arabic readers (La terre des passions brulées, translated by Hédi Djebnoun and Assia Djebar, J.-C. Lattes, 1986), but it has so many cuts and deletions as to be unacceptable. As a 3D projection of a socio-political reality, not completely out of date, this work really deserves to be translated into other languages, at least out of respect for the author’s contribution to modern Arabic literature.
Frist published in Banipal 63, Autumn/Winter 2018
Republished here with agreement