Arabic Literary Criticism in Colonial Tunisia: Voices of Dissent

By William E. Granara
Submitted to Session P3107 (Genealogies of Dissent: The Making of the Tunisian Revolution, 2012 Annual Meeting
My paper will examine Arabic literary criticism in the early decades of twentieth century Tunisia as a fertile area of political, social and cultural dissent against both an archaic Arabo-Islamic patriarchal tradition and a racist and hegemonic French imperialism, especially in the expression of the 'Latinist' movement. My contention is that the leading intellectuals of the time established a powerful paradigm to articulate a nationalist movement for a modern Tunisian state, and that many of the constituent parts of this paradigm remain in place today. Departing from Abu al-Qasim Shabbi's notorious lectures renouncing the influence of Arabic literary tradition and all other forms of tyranny, Tunisian writers of this generation aggressively challenged the assumptions of established literary history and western style criticism to stake their claim in reforming Tunisian society.
My presentation will treat some of the seminal writings of Ali Du'aji, Zin al-Abdin al-Sanusi, and the Egyptian born Mahmoud Bayram al-Tunisi, founding members of the Taht al-Sur Group of artists and writers who flourished in the thirties and forties. In their capacity as journalists and public intellectuals,and spanning a wide spectrum of political stances toward the critical issues of their generation, they manipulated the Press- much like the Internet of our own times- as a effective weapon of resistance to both the colonial authorities and their Tunisian supporters to win over public opinion and raise the social consciousness of the masses. Their critical writings and literary scholarship, I will argue, guided a new urban readership to the issues and debates that raged throughout the Arab World during much of the colonial- and postcolonial- period.