Throughout Arab history, passion for literature was pervasive, and libraries were a labor of love and the pride of many a ruler. The libraries of Arab capitals earned a worldly reputation; it was said that Córdoba, Andalusia held the largest number of books the world had seen. Outside of libraries, books had a vivid role in kings' courts, and in particular during informal gatherings, which figured throughout Arab cultural history.
Today, with the quickening pace of life and the digital revolution, books and libraries have become things of a nostalgic past, recalled with a bittersweet hint of loss. All over the world, books are rapidly losing their appeal, and libraries are trading in their books and spaces for virtual alternatives.
But a number of young Tunisians had an idea to begin to counteract this trend. In various cities across Tunisia, an initiative has cropped up, where groups of young people have begun launching book clubs. Organizers made use of social media to promote their ideas, and soon enough, these materialized and the groups arranged meetings over books they deemed worth discussing. At the beginning, they focused on recent releases, with the majority of the members preferring paperbacks, rather than their digital counterparts.
These book clubs initially took off in the capital Tunis, before spreading to other large cities, such as Nabeul, Sousse, Kairouan, Bizerte, Kebili, Gabes, and Djerba. They began with bestsellers, such as Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Perfume by Patrick Süskind, and The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak.
Later on, they expanded to include books from the Arabic literary canon, as well as English and French classics.
The phenomenon marks a unique experiment, independent of any state bodies or initiatives that have tried and failed to encourage public reading. Moreover, the rising popularity of these book clubs paradoxically coincided with the diminishing role of publishing and distribution companies in Tunisia, due to the high costs of printing books, and the difficulty of getting readers to purchase them.
The clubs gather in public spaces, gathering book lovers in discussion in an informal setting, shunning the rigid literary sessions held in other, closed contexts. This inspired readers to pay attention to the book club meeting, as a platform where they could expand their reading in an atmosphere more akin to friendly banter than formal discussion.
The first attempt to establish the book clubs date back to 2007 and 2008, though these attempts initially failed to arouse the support of readers, according to AbdelKarim Ben Abdallah. However, a later attempt in 2014 proved a success.
Moreover, the books that were vital to kicking off the book clubs’ popularity were international bestsellers that had been translated into Arabic, such as the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series. Alongside these, a number of meetings were held to discuss Tunisian books, written by young Tunisian authors.
Sahar benHazem (28), one of the organizers of the Tunis Book Club, explains that the meetings take place the first Sunday of every month, inviting all readers to discuss the books they have read. She notes that Stephen King novels are widely read, including The Green Line and 11/22/63, both of which have been translated into French. She further singles out Khawla Hamdy’s In My Heart Is A Jewish Girl, Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, and The Italian by Shukri Al-Mabkhout, winner of the ‘Arab Booker’ Prize in 2016, as well as Les rêves perdus de Leyla by Mohamed Harmel.
BenHazem affirms that the purpose of the book clubs is to build a creative environment with an innovative approach to books. Though most of the book clubs discuss books that have already been published, there are a few that have ventured to explore unpublished books, such as the Medina Book Club.
The Arab world's long history of literary passion is being reignited today by young Tunisians.
As libraries around the world gather dust, Tunisian cities are bringing books back to life.
The Ariana Book Club, which was established by AbdelKader al-Fattnasy, is among the most active clubs in the suburbs of Tunis. Ultimately, it aims to provide artistic and cultural appearances that draw the attention of young people in the area.
Ali Mabrouk (18), a university student and member of the book club and the Ignite Ariana initiative,says that the purpose of reading and discussing the books is to break down the traditional barriers that prevent young people from joint communication and discussions over their favorite books. Thus, the book club also sought to include live music and singing sessions, and even single-actor performances and monologues inspired by the books.
Moreover, the Ariana Book Club is open to participants from beyond the geographical boundaries of Ariana, such as resident of El Menzah, Ennasr, and La Soukra. Mabrouk notes that the city of Ariana suffers from a severe lack of youth and cultural initiatives, forcing them to make efforts to counteract this sense of stagnation by holding meetings in Old Tunis to introduce people to their activities.
The club has organized events inviting members to partake in arts that run parallel to literary creation, such as slam poetry sessions, as well as musical and singing performances. Moreover, they organized a literary retreat in Borj Cédria, in the southern suburbs of Tunis, including creative writing and playwriting workshops. Following its success, another retreat was held in the same location, overlooking the sea, including about 130 participants. The second iteration added photography and art workshops.
Old and New Literatures
It is worth noting that the organizers of the book clubs are usually students of the sciences, with great literary interests and passions. Asmaa al-Saasie, an engineering student in the Nabeul Book Club, explains this by stating that it is simply a matter of passion for books, irrespective of the members’ educational background, noting that it was the Tunis Book Club that marked the inspiration for the Nabeul club, which was established by university student Mahdy Jama’a.
The first Tunisian book club began in a school, when a group of friends in high school met over a book they had read. Later on, the idea developed and spread to include book lovers of all ages and backgrounds.
The network of book clubs that was launched by AbdelKarim benAbdallah aims to hold book discussions over books that center around distinguished events for the readers, or that have prompted wide discussions internationally. The first Nabuel Book Club session was held to discuss the works of Tunisian philosopher Youssef Seddik, who specializes in the anthropology of the Quran.
Moreover, on the coasts of Tunisia, similar clubs were established in Sousse and Mahdia, as well as the Monastir Book Club, which was established in 2015, following a series of meetings held in cafes and public squares. The club was established by Hamed Qam’oun, who also established the Sousse club. Among the most notable works discussed by the clubs were those of Algerian author Yasmina Khadra, as well as French philosopher Albert Camus and plays by Shakespeare.
Since its early days, the phenomenon has only continued to spread throughout Tunisian cities, including the more isolated ones in the south, such as Kebili, which is neighbored by deserts. The book clubs span vast expanses of land, that book publishers often neglect to cross. Thus, these young members seek to fill the void left behind by the lack of bookshops by building their own libraries, rather than seeking out electronic books.
Notably, these clubs have reshaped the existing structures by providing support to private bookshops, and not the other way round. Many of these bookshops were on the verge of shutting down, but have now turned to profit due to the replenishing book sales and growing interest in contemporary writers of the Maghreb.
Further, in addition to the renewed interest in books, the past few years in Tunisia have given birth to growing trends to democratize and publicize the arts through street music and graffiti initiatives in public spaces, many of which are sponsored or supported by the book clubs.
Moreover, the clubs have played an operative role in building a sense of community among literature aficionados, as evidenced by their support of young Tunisian writer Ayman al-Daboussi, who was threatened with prosecution by officials from Razi Hospital for his damning account of the psychiatric health-care offered there.
Literary salons constituted one of the most important vestiges of public life in Arab history, and this legacy is being reborn and reformulated through these clubs, each beginning with its own thrilling story, and maintained by a youthful passion for the written word.