Tunisian Frankenstein? Strongman President Accused Of Censorship At Book Fair
The recently completed 37th International Book Fair in Tunis became a flashpoint of growing concerns that Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed is cracking down on freedom of speech.
TUNIS — In the final days of the International Book Fair of Tunis, the aisles of the Kram Exhibition Center were buzzing with publisher stands overrun by readers in search of new works and young attendees checking out the latest board games. At first glance, it was difficult to imagine that the 37th edition of Tunisia's top literary event was embroiled in a major censorship controversy.
Two books — Le Frankenstein Tunisien (Tunisian Frankenstein) and Kaïs Ier président d’un bateau ivre (Kaïs I, President of a Drunken Boat) — had been removed days before from the stands, for so-called "administrative reasons."
On Friday, April 28, less than an hour after the inauguration of the Fair by Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed, who had declared his support for "freedom of thought," all copies of Le Frankenstein Tunisien, the latest novel by Kamel Riahi, illustrated by a caricature of Saïed on the cover, were withdrawn. The next day, Kaïs 1er, président d'un bateau ivre, an essay by journalist and author Nizar Bahloul, also disappeared from the shelves.
"Officials from the Ministry of Culture along with the Fair's security guards came to collect the inventory of the book. They told us that it was for inspection," said the head of the stand that publishes Bahloul’s work, the Maison tunisienne du livre. Their stand remained open, unlike, publishing house Dar Al Kitab’s, which was shut down by security agents. The stand was covered with a black tarpaulin, on which the publisher pasted a poster explaining that the closure was "an arbitrary decision.”
In an attempt to quench the fury sparked by the incidents, described as "censorship" by many Tunisian publishers, Kaïs Saïed went to the Al Kitab a bookshop in downtown Tunis to check if Le Frankenstein tunisien was being sold.
"They say that this book has been banned and yet it is sold at the Al Kitab bookshop in Tunis. They are lying," he declared. "It is impossible to talk about censorship in Tunisia, unless you are in an intellectual coma."
President Saïed’s visit, published on the official page of the Presidency, stands in contrast to Selma Jabbes experience. When contacted, the director of Al Kitab bookshop said that on Saturday, April 29, her bookshop had indeed been visited by security agents whose aim was to confiscate copies of Le Frankenstein tunisien.
"There were two or three of them with cameras. They showed us a picture of the book on one of the phones and they asked us, 'Do you have this book? We'd just like to take a picture of it.’”This immediately aroused the director's suspicions. "They also asked us who we sold it to."
We didn't do it in Ben Ali's time, we won't do it now.
"We do not answer those kinds of questions. We didn't do it in Ben Ali's time, we won't do it now," she said, referring to the Tunisian strongman toppled during the 2011 pro-democracy Arab Spring movement.
With the bookshop owner's testimony, it's clear the controversy around this title was not limited to the confines of the Book Fair.
Authorities had justified the withdrawal of the book from Dar El Kitab’s stand by its absence on the list of books allowed during the event. But in this case, how can we explain the intervention of the police in Selma Jabbes' bookshop?
Lists and checklists
A source close to the case told Inkyfada that the two heads of the targeted publishing houses received a phone call from the President of the Republic to retract their statement, and say that the issue was due to an oversight with the book list.
Unlike Le Frankenstein Tunisien, Nizar Bahloul's essay was later authorized to be presented by the organizers of the Fair.
In a telephone interview with Inkyfada from his home in Canada, Kamel Riahi the author of Le Frankenstein tunisien, also brought up an inconsistency concerning the list sent to the organizers of the fair.
"The book in question was proposed by the publishing house in a supplementary list presented to the management of the Book Fair. The director of the Fair learned about it as early as April 25, three days before the opening," Riahi said. "It is amazing that when they removed the books and closed the booth, only my book was removed from the supplemental list, which had over 19 titles." Kamel says this is proof that Le Frankenstein was indeed targeted.
A woman selects books at the 36th Tunis International Book Fair
The list was set up under Habib Bourguiba, to prevent the display of "Salafist and fundamentalist" books. Under Ben Ali, the lists were maintained, with a focus on dedicated committees censoring literature and cinema. The situation has remained unchanged since the 2011 Revolution.
Having been appointed director of the coordinating committee of the Fair in December, Zahia Jouirou told Inkyfada that these lists are intended for the public, in order to simplify the organization of the fair, but also to prevent the exhibition of books that constitute attacks against humanity, which she considers " intolerable."
The only things the lists of submitted books are checked for are "fanaticism, terrorism, discrimination against minorities, or respect for the physical and moral integrity of human beings."
For Karim Ben Smail, director of Ceres Publishing, the case is unprecedented. "It is to my knowledge the first time that a Tunisian stand has been closed," he said in a social media post.
The director of the FILT committee vehemently denied this claim: "We have closed down stands quite a few times, for example [stands] that were not declared, that were linked to zealotry or that were not suitable for children... We closed down a stand selling children's books at a previous event.
For Zahia Jouirou, there is no censorship in this case, despite the criticism. She also hailed President Saïed's "master stroke" when he visited the Al Kitab bookshop.
"There is no censorship," insists Al-Adel Khaeder, a member of the cultural committee. "The president is a man of law."
Press freedom failing
This "master stroke" is part of a growing trend towards authoritarianism. On World Press Freedom Day, last week, Reporters Without Borders dropped Tunisia from 94th to 121st place in its world press freedom index. The reason is Kaïs Saïed's policy, which is increasingly open to restrictions on individual freedoms.
An alarming situation, condemned by Nizar Bahloul, author of Kaïs 1er, president of a drunken boat. In an interview with Inkyfada, he explained that he is one of the journalists threatened by a law passed last September by the Tunisian president that condemns disinformation.
He's tightening his grip
In Bahloul's office, there are several summons from the criminal brigade mounted in frames on the wall. "There are my summons from the criminal brigade. Three summons under the three regimes. Under Ben Ali before the revolution, then under Moncef Marzouki, then under Kaïs Saïed, a complaint from the Minister of Justice, on the basis of the decree law 54. "I could face 10 years in prison," he says.
After being called to court because of an article published in his media outlet Business News, Bahloul takes a critical view of Kaïs Saïed's claims that no journalist has been prosecuted for their "opinions".
"Kaïs Saïed's power is more and more strained, he's tightening his grip," he said. "Freedoms are more and more repressed, and I think there was a desire to silence writers."