“A Tunisian Revolt” — the Rebel Power of Arab Comics

21 February, 2022
Excerpts from Une Révolte Tunisi­enne, pub­lished in an Ara­bic-French edi­tion by Alif­ba­ta, Mar­seille.

 

Released in Jan­u­ary by Alif­ba­ta, Une Révolte Tunisi­enne, la légende de Chbayah (A Tunisian Revolt: The Leg­end of Chbayah) is a new graph­ic nov­el from Seif Eddine Nechi (illus­tra­tions) and Aymen Mbarek (text) At a time in Tunisia when both the left and the right are try­ing to reclaim the bread riots of 1984, the book stands out for its impor­tant his­tor­i­cal and graph­ic research, inter­min­gled with the authors’ per­son­al mem­o­ries. It reflects the wind of protest that has been blow­ing from Arab comics for over a decade.

 

Nada Ghosn 

 

A Tunisian revolt avail­able in an Ara­bic-French edi­tion from Alif­ba­ta.

In 1984, the Tunisian peo­ple rise up fol­low­ing a gov­ern­ment deci­sion to increase the price of grain. An activist named Chbayah inter­feres in the upris­ing, sow­ing the seeds of dis­cord among law enforce­ment by inter­cept­ing police com­mu­ni­ca­tions, giv­ing con­fus­ing counter-orders, and even by singing.

Inter­viewed for The Markaz Review, Seif Eddine Nechi explains, “I want­ed to tell the lit­tle sto­ry of an unknown urban leg­end. We don’t know if Chbayah is still liv­ing among us or not, and that’s the fun­ny thing. He appeared dur­ing riots to crit­i­cize police repres­sion, and dis­ap­peared with­out any­one ask­ing ques­tions. Through this char­ac­ter, Aymen and I want­ed to con­vey cer­tain ideas about the insur­gency, the eter­nal strug­gle between pow­er and the oppressed peo­ple,” Eddine Nechi declared dur­ing a pub­lic event in Arles ear­ly in Feb­ru­ary, invit­ed by the Inter­na­tion­al Col­lege of Lit­er­ary Trans­la­tors, an asso­ci­a­tion very com­mit­ted to the trans­la­tion of Ara­bic literature.
 

A mem­o­ry of revolts
The book deals with the blurred, trans­formed, and doc­tored trans­mis­sions of his­to­ry. The bread riots refer to ear­li­er events: stu­dent union activism, the influ­ence of Ital­ian cul­ture in mod­ern his­to­ry, and the fourth reg­i­ment of Tunisian rifle­men dur­ing World War II — a third of whom fell in the ranks of the French expe­di­tionary corps against Nazi Ger­many and the Ital­ian fas­cists. These events are all recount­ed on the grandfather’s old radio. An alle­go­ry punc­tu­ates the events: a silent dia­logue between a snake, a frog and a child. 

“There are many for­got­ten sto­ries, and it would be a shame not to make them known to every­one. I hope this work will lead to more research in the fields of his­to­ry, soci­ol­o­gy or psy­chol­o­gy,” Eddine Nechi says.  A child of the ‘70s, he expe­ri­enced the tran­si­tion of pow­er from Bour­gui­ba to Benali: “There was a gen­er­al strike in 1978 that turned bad with many deaths and repres­sion. It is a poor­ly known time in the his­to­ry of mod­ern Tunisia. Many peo­ple are unaware of the peri­od of bread riots under Bour­gui­ba that took place from Decem­ber 27, 1983 to Jan­u­ary 6, 1984. I want­ed to con­vey what I expe­ri­enced dur­ing this peri­od, my fear of live ammu­ni­tion, heli­copters fly­ing at low alti­tude, sol­diers with machine guns, the dead in the streets, the deploy­ment of the army, and the state of siege.”

For the comics author, insur­rec­tions are not new in Tunisia; what tran­spired dur­ing the Arab Spring had been brew­ing for decades. “The 1984 revolt moti­vat­ed my out­ing on the streets on Jan­u­ary 14, 2011,” he says. “But this time his­to­ry must not repeat itself. Bour­guiba’s gov­ern­ment put an end to the bread riots by back­track­ing, and was applaud­ed by the cheer­ing crowd. Three years lat­er, a putsch gave rise to a new unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem, ” he points out.

Trans­la­tor Mar­i­anne Babut, Seif Eddine Nechi & mod­er­a­tor Lydie Mushamalir­wa, Feb. ’22 — Inter­na­tion­al Col­lege of Lit­er­ary Trans­la­tors  (pho­to cour­tesy Nada Ghosn).

The strug­gle for freedom
In 2008, Eddine Nechi attend­ed the first Inter­na­tion­al Fes­ti­val of Comics in Algiers (FIBDA). At the time, he was work­ing in adver­tis­ing to earn a liv­ing. The sub-Saha­ran authors he dis­cov­ered at FIBDA encour­aged him to get seri­ous about comics. “Real­iz­ing all the means I had at my dis­pos­al, I start­ed a blog, then strips and mini-comics of socio-polit­i­cal crit­i­cism. Very quick­ly, the prob­lem of cen­sor­ship arose. My blog was banned in 2010, and that encour­aged me to attack the sys­tem even more direct­ly, such that I was cen­sored again.”

Fol­low­ing the upris­ing of 2011, Seif Eddine Nechi joined the Tunisian col­lec­tive Bande à BD, and he, Aymen Mbarek and oth­ers launched Lab619. Then the two com­rades cre­at­ed Soubia, a web­site offer­ing free access to comics. They land­ed a first award at the Cairo Comix fes­ti­val for their fanzine, and the fol­low­ing year, they won the Mah­moud Kahil Award in Beirut. In 2018, the Comics ini­tia­tive from Lebanon orga­nized a big exhi­bi­tion at the annu­al Fes­ti­val Angoulême, such that the two graph­ic nov­el­ists found them­selves on the inter­na­tion­al cir­cuit, and start­ed think­ing about pro­duc­ing a book.

In order to reach a wider audi­ence, they opt­ed for lit­er­ary Ara­bic, with­out stak­ing out the sort of pan-Ara­bism that char­ac­ter­ized the begin­nings of the Arab graph­ic nov­el. “It is nec­es­sary to go beyond region­al­ism to go towards uni­ver­sal themes,” Eddine Nechi insists. “There are no stud­ies on the mar­ket for comics in the Arab world, but many authors have giv­en up, real­iz­ing the fail­ures they faced. Even in Europe, they have a hard time mak­ing a liv­ing. Deriv­a­tive prod­ucts such as acces­sories help to make up for the short­com­ings. A film made from a com­ic book is of course a springboard.”


Why COMIX? An Emerging Medium of Writing the Middle East and North Africa, by Aomar Boum
Rebellion Resurrected: The Will of Youth Against History, by George “Jad” Khoury


Pub­lish­ing Arab comics, a challenge
Alif­ba­ta, the pub­lish­er of Une Révolte Tunisi­enne, sees its mis­sion of mak­ing Arab comics known to the French read­ers as a com­mit­ment. The project was born out in 2017 of a desire to enrich the still very poor flow of Ara­bic trans­la­tion in France. In an inter­view with TMR, Alif­ba­ta direc­tor Simona Gabrieli, not­ed that, “For me, comics are all the more inter­est­ing because they are able to reach a wide audi­ence, to make acces­si­ble cer­tain authors from the Arab world, and the view they have of soci­ety. No French pub­lish­er was inter­est­ed in [Arab] comics. The first graph­ic nov­el to be trans­lat­ed from Ara­bic was Lena Mer­he­j’s Mrab­ba wa Laban (Laban et Jam) in 2015.” [Editor’s note: The Syr­i­an-French graph­ic nov­el­ist Riad Sat­touf has been high­ly suc­cess­ful in France, and else­where, but writes in French, not Arabic.]

Seif Eddine Nechi (pho­to cour­tesy Nada Ghosn).

In fact, Alif­ba­ta launched in 2015 as a French non­prof­it asso­ci­a­tion with cross-cul­tur­al edu­ca­tion­al projects to pro­mote Arab cul­ture. Active in pub­lish­ing since 2017, Alif­ba­ta now boasts 10 titles. Thanks to the sup­port of France’s Cen­tre Nation­al du Live et la Région, the pub­lish­ing house now man­ages to work with major French broad­cast­ers and media. “The Arab com­ic is still in its infan­cy, there is not a large pro­duc­tion,” says Gabrieli. “The lack of spe­cial­ized pub­lish­ers does not encour­age authors to embark on long albums. There are many short sto­ries pub­lished in col­lec­tions or fanzines. This for­mat is quite risky in France because the col­lec­tive book sells less. There is also a prob­lem with dis­tri­b­u­tion and most of the time the books trav­el in suitcases.” 

If oth­er pub­lish­ers, such as Saman­dal in Lebanon or Al-Fan Al-Tes­sa in Egypt, are start­ing to pub­lish graph­ic nov­els for adults, the Arab mar­ket remains emerg­ing. This is why Alif­ba­ta, whose approach is part of a glob­al eth­ic of sup­port for authors, works on co-pub­li­ca­tions. Soubia, the pub­lish­ing ven­ture in Tunisia led by Seif Eddine Nechi and Aymen Mbarek, will pub­lish this spring an Ara­bic ver­sion of their opus, which will allow them to print local­ly, and sell at prices adapt­ed to the local market.

 

Ara­bic excerpt from the bilin­gual edi­tion of Une Révolte Tunisi­enne, pub­lished by Alif­ba­ta.

AlifbataArab comicsArab SpringArab uprisingsgraphic novelisJasmine RevolutionTunisia

Nada Ghosn is a Paris-based writer who has lived in the Emirates, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco, where she has worked for the press and diverse cultural institutions. These days she works as a freelance translator and journalist, having translated several essays, art books, novels, film scripts, plays, and collections of short stories and poetry from Arabic into French. She regularly covers culture and society for such publications as an-Nahar, Grazia and Diptyk, and participates in art projects, conferences and performances.

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