Survival and Laughter in Tunis

by Allen Hibbard

At first I could not make out the messages on the signs, for the writingwas faint and small. I had seen ten or twenty students enter the room andseat themselves at the back of the hall just as I was wrapping up mydiscussion of Moby Dick, and had welcomed them. When the signs popped up, Istopped my speech, saying that I was sorry but I couldn't read thesemessages that were so obviously meant for me. The audience turned to takein the larger scene, and the conference organizer, Hechmi Trabelsi, rose,moved closer to the students, and read the signs, written in English:


I acknowledged these messages and said that I too had serious problemswith official U.S. policies and that I would be glad to talk with themsometime later if they liked. Professor Trabelsi went on to tell thestudents that if they had been at the opening of my talk they would haveheard me address these issues, and that if they had heard my talk, theywould have felt more fully my critical stance.

I had prefaced my talk at the University of Tunis's survival conference,"'And I only am escaped alone to tell thee': The Rhetoric of SurvivalNarratives," by stating that I, like many academics in the U.S., objected tothis war and feared that it would have disastrous consequences for all. Iwent on to say that what concerned me most was that the wall of fear anddistrust between Arab/Islamic countries and the U.S. was becoming thickerand firmer, making it at once more difficult and more necessary to crossthese boundaries. I then began to lay out the characteristics of survivalnarratives, beginning with the Book of Job and continuing with a discussionof Moby Dick in which I offered a critique of Ahab's motives for risking thelives of a whole boatload of people just to fulfill his own personal agendaand noted that the Pequod never would have been out tracking down andslaughtering whales had it not been for a demand for whale oil back in NewEngland.

"Shall we move on to Heart of Darkness?" I asked after a briefmoment of silence.

After presenting my case that Conrad's novel could be considered asa survival narrative, I went on to talk about various other works, such asJohn Hersey's Hiroshima, Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, Toni Morrison'sBeloved and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra's In Search of Walid Masoud.

Early in the fall of 2002 when I began to make arrangements to participate intwo conferences in Tunisia (one on laughter at Manouba University as well asthe one on survival at the University of Tunis), I could not have foreseenthat my stay would coincide with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, though certainlythe war juggernaut had by then gained an almost irrevocable momentum. AsU.N. weapons inspectors scoured the Iraqi landscape looking for weapons ofmass destruction and U.S. leaders rattled sabers, amassed troops, and warnedof war, I wondered whether my trip would become one very small casualty ofthese planned actions. About a month before my scheduled departure (April9, 2002), the State Department, which was sponsoring my trip, proceeded to makefinal arrangements, asking me to acknowledge that I had read posted traveladvisories and reminding me that the trip could be cancelled at 24 hoursnotice. Meanwhile, during this time of uncertainty I continued preparingthe talks I was slated to deliver.

Throughout the fall and spring I was in touch with Tunisian colleaguesby e-mail. Their responses were always prompt, positive and professional.To one of the organizers of the conference on laughter, Sadok Bouhlila, Iwrote of my previous experiences in the Arab world—four years teaching atthe American University in Cairo (1985-89) and two years as a Fulbrightlecturer at Damascus University (1992-94), as well as a number of trips toMorocco and Jordan. I believe I also mentioned that my grandfather, aQuaker, had worked with the American Friends Service Committee and the U.N.with the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in 1948. Once the war brokeout, I assured my Tunisian colleagues that I still planned to come, unless Iwas told otherwise. "We will consider your visit a sign of peace andfriendship," Professor Bouhlila wrote back. Still, as I prepared for mytrip I couldn't help wonder how the war would affect my time in Tunis.

Despite overwhelming, strong opposition to U.S. actions in Iraq, I waswarmly welcomed. One planned engagement in Sousse, however, had beencancelled because of the tense political atmosphere. And, efforts to get meto lecture in Kairouan were finally abandoned out of concerns that my talkswould either trigger demonstrations or be boycotted. As a tangible,accessible symbol, my presence was apt to act as a lightning rod forpeople's outrage, frustration and anger.

The theme of survival was of more than mere academic interest to thosewho organized the conference. It spoke to real conditions they endured dayafter day. Professor Trabelsi, in his opening remarks, had proclaimed thathe saw no place for himself in this New World Order. Others, in informalconversations, echoed this sentiment, noting that they felt squeezed betweenU.S. global capitalism and repressive Arab governments—Islamic or secular.

Especially to the point was a paper entitled "Survival in the Kingdom of'Publish or Perish'" presented by Professor Tahar Labassi, head of theEnglish Dept at the University of Tunis. He addressed the particular,pressing conditions third world intellectuals face: low salaries, hugeclasses, unwieldy bureaucracies, inadequate library resources, etc. Hespoke of the difficulties he and his colleagues have keeping up with trendsin their fields, and competing with scholars in the West to publish in themost prestigious journals. I learned more about their challenges as I talkedwith Tunisian colleagues informally at a favorite watering hole, a placecalled Shilling in downtown Tunis. I learned that there was a publicationrequirement of 180 pages for professors seeking promotion to the rank ofmaitre conference. Two conference participants were facing promotion thisyear. In their desperate scramble to acquire the requisite number of pages,they were betting that their papers would be published in the conferenceproceedings. And, I soon learned that I would be expected to play a role inthis.

At one point I was told that Michel Foucault had taught at theUniversity of Tunis in the mid-sixties. That would have been just a decadeafter independence. I tried to imagine what the place would have been likethen. Likely there would then have been a mood of optimism and possibility.

Late in the evening, I would return to the Hotel Belvedere, turn onthe television, and catch up on news of the war. U.S. forces were closingin on Baghdad. I flipped back and forth between CNN and Al Jezira. It wasas though I was seeing two different wars, or at least the same war throughvery different, opposing vantage points. On CNN, the story of a young Iraqiboy, maimed for life, concentrated on how the Americans had helped him getmedical treatment in Kuwait. Al Jezira focused on the causes of hisinjuries—U.S. bombing—and the fact that he had lost his whole family inthose attacks.

One evening I saw the footage of Iraqis looting the priceless treasuresof the Baghdad National Museum and nearly cried. I knew that my wife, backhome, would be in tears, for she is a passionate lover of art. I rememberhow enthralled she was with the ancient Assyrian sculptures in the museum inAleppo, Syria.

And on April 14, the libraries went up in flames: first the NationalLibrary and Archives, then the library of Korans at the Ministry ofReligious Endowment. (Robert Fisk's fine article "Library books, lettersand priceless documents are set ablaze in final chapter of the sacking ofBaghdad," in The Independent, April 15, 2003, relates this sad, sad story.)American soldiers simply did not act. Meanwhile, we were shown pictures ofU.S. forces standing guard to protect the Ministry of Oil.

The next day, one of my Tunisian contacts who had been regularly sharingwith me contrasting pictures in the U.S. and Arab press showed me a photothat had appeared that day in an Arab newspaper. An Iraqi ruffian sittingon the shoulders of what appeared to be a U.S. soldier was vandalizing whatappeared to be art treasures in the National Museum. I didn't want tobelieve it. I knew, however, that those who saw it would believe it. And,even if the photo was not authentic, it spoke a kind of symbolic truth.

What would survive? I wondered, and thought of another cataclysmic clashbetween two cultures that had taken place just a stone's throw away, inCarthage. The Romans decided to attack and eliminate the city in 146 BC. Abook I had brought along, Carthage: The Punic City by M'hamed HassineFantar, quotes Cato, arguing for war before the Roman senate: "I indicateto the Senate the wars which need to be undertaken: seeing the evil designsnourished by Carthage for many years now, I would declare on that city wellin advance, for I will always fear Carthage as long as I have not heard thenews of its destruction." Then, we have words of the Roman general Scipio:"Rome did not want to reveal her resolve to destroy Carthage until the daythe Carthaginians were completely incapable of putting up any opposition."Indeed, the Romans sacked the city, leaving few traces but in legend andhistory. Rome managed to secure and maintain its position as the undisputedhegemonic power around the Mediterranean and beyond for several centuriesbefore its empire began to wane. Perhaps the waning begins with the kind ofbrute exercise of force seen in Carthage.

Once the survival conference had concluded, I turned my attention to mypresentation for the conference on laughter, "Laughter as a Mode of CulturalTranscendence: The Homsi Jokes of Syria." As I began to think about mytalk, I became anxious. How appropriate was it for me to be sharing Syrianjokes with Tunisians? Would it seem as though I was laughing at, not with,the other? As we know, group or ethnic humor is a delicate matter. Ishared my anxieties with a newly-made friend and colleague, Abdennebi benBeya, whom I had first met the evening of my arrival at the hotel receptiondesk. He had met and brought another guest speaker for the survivalconference, Lieve Spaas, who had been on the same flight I was on, fromParis. Abdennebi and I hit it off immediately, sensing a kind of innatesympathy and potential connection. He had given a very lyrical, poetic talkat the survival conference. As I talked more with him, I learned that hehad studied at Lille, then Emory in Atlanta with Cathy Caruth, one of thecentral figures in trauma studies.

Abdennebi invited me over to his home and we shared our respectiveanxieties. I met his charming young son and lovely, bright wife, who hadprepared a spicy lamb stew. He read portions of the paper he was planningto deliver for the laughter conference, "The Diverse Faces of Laughter."One of the first sections was titled "Why I am so tactless and unfunny," aparody of Ecce Homo that would likely be lost on most if not all. Helaunched into a provocative challenge of the keynote speaker, SimonCritchley, and myself, representing the "coalition" and the sanctified, holytraditions of the West.

Like other great satirists, Abdennebi spared no one from his poignantjabs. He challenged his own colleagues, particularly their stubbornadherence to the western literary canon, invoking the names of various thirdworld writers and their critiques.

Abdennebi invited me to spend the night and kindly offered me use of hiscomputer, library and office at home so that I could revise my paper. Ichose, instead, to go back to the hotel and pen my words in private. "Ah,you Americans and your need for private space!" he ribbed.

The night before the conference was to begin I returned to thehotel and found a note from Simon Critchley (now of Essex University, soonto move to the New School in New York) asking me if I would like to join himfor drinks later in the evening. He had just been to a conference inIsrael where the intellectual atmosphere had been so vibrant, despite orbecause of the impossible moral conundrums lying at the very basis of thatstate. In various conversations interspersed in and around the conference,we shared impressions of the Tunisian scene, noting the uneven quality ofpapers, the backbiting and petty jealousies, the lack of organization, theposition we were in as Western academics, and so on.

Manouba University is situated to the west of Tunis, surrounded byagricultural lands. As I walked through the campus I saw signs for aBaudrillard speech ten days later, titled something like "The event whichwas not an Event." I thought of his essay on the Gulf War. How timely andappropriate. Simon delivered his talk, "Why the Super Ego is Your Amigo,"drawing from the concluding chapter of his recent book On Humor. When itcame my turn, Abdnabbi whispered in my ear, "Make us laugh!" To my relief,people did laugh--with me, not at me, it seemed.

And, when it came his turn, Abdennebi dramatically moved to thepodium, consciously playing Caliban against a symbolic Prospero: "Youtaught me, a poor backward peasant, to read and write your language. Now Iwill fling it back to you, with curses and biting criticisms." In amarvelous parody of Shelley's "Ozymandias" he proclaimed:

My name is Abdennebi ben Beya.
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

I sensed a palpable uneasiness as he proceeded through his talk. Peoplesquirmed, likely worried as much about how Simon and I would take it asanything else. The person sitting next to me left in the middle of thespeech. Abdennebi cut his talk short, sensing the nervousness of hisaudience. Truth and honesty are often hard to swallow. It is often so mucheasier to lie, to smile, to keep on the mask.

By the last day everyone was clearly tired. At the conclusion,participants met to sum up and discuss the theme and time of next year'sconference. (Utopia seemed to generate the most interest.) I had to duckout quickly to do a radio interview. With Ann Donick and Khalid Souissi (ofthe American Embassy), who had so superbly engineered and executed allarrangements during my time in Tunis, I rode off in a black Mercedes.Friends and colleagues looked on. I thought of how the scene might look intheir eyes, and the final scene of Paul Bowles's novel, The Spider's House,set in Fez at the time of the Moroccan independence movement in 1955, cameto mind. It is given to us from the perspective of a young Moroccan, Amar.He watches on as the two Americans who have befriended him drive off in alarge automobile.

"The car moved ahead uncertainly, then it gathered speed. He knew they werelooking out the rear window, waving to him, but he stood still, seeing onlyhis feet in their sandals, and the black tar beside them. The driver turnedinto the highway, shifted gears."

Amar was running after the car. It was still there, ahead of him, goingfurther away and faster. He could never catch it, but he ran because therewas nothing else to do. And as he ran, his sandals made a terrible flappingnoise on the hard surface of the highway, and he kicked them off, and ransilently and with freedom. Now for a moment he had the exultant feeling offlying along the road behind the car. It would surely stop. He could seethe two heads in the window's rectangle, and it seemed to him they werelooking back.

The car had reached a curve in the road; it passed out of sight. He ranon. When he got to the curve the road was empty.

By this time I had received clear signals that I would likely beinvited back, for another conference or for a longer stay. The head of theEnglish Department at Manouba spoke to me about coming for at least a year,perhaps on a Fulbright. Was this what I wanted to do at this point of mylife? I'd already spent a number of years in "lesser developed" Arabcountries. Why I did these things? Was I a masochist? as Abdennebisuggested at one point.

Perhaps I should just stay home. It would certainly be morecomfortable. There are more resources, relatively little corruption, openspaces, friends and family. I would not have to account for my country'sactions on a daily basis. Nor would I be so keenly reminded that theprivileged position I have enjoyed comes at the expense of others.

No, that is precisely the problem. We in the U.S., I think, have notwanted to look at the world. Some, fearing the chaos beyond our borders,favor building ever higher walls around our country and conductingpreventative military campaigns against targets that might, in the future,pose a threat to us. There was a moment, it seems to me, just afterSeptember 11, when we began asking ourselves "Why Does Everyone Hate Us(U.S.)?" Then we began a military campaign in Afghanistan, the drum beatfor war against Iraq soon followed, silencing, indeed squelching considered,sustained reflection and soul-searching.

I am now back tending my own garden--pruning, cleaning gutters,weeding, mowing, planting. Faces and voices of those I met in Tunisia floatin my consciousness: Taher, Abdennebi, Jalel, Khalid, Ridha, Mouhiba,Lelia, Robert, Simon, Ann, Lieve and others. It's as though there has beenno war in Iraq. Gasoline prices have dropped at least ten percent, solikely most people think the war has been a success. It doesn't seem to haveaffected anyone. We see pictures of soldiers returning from the war andembracing their loved ones. CNN is on to the next stories: The ScottPeterson trial and SARS.

As I reread W.E.B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk for the Backgroundsto Modernism course I've been teaching this semester, I come upon thispassage and pause:

How little we really know of these millions,--of their daily lives andlongings, of their homely joys and sorrows, of their real shortcomings andthe meaning of their crimes! All this we can only learn by intimate contactwith the masses, and not by wholesale arguments covering millions separatein time and space, and differing widely in training and culture.

The same could be said now about our knowledge of the Arab world. I fearthat in the years to come we will pay heavily for our latest militarycampaigns on the fringes of the American Empire if we do not quicklyreassess our policies and actions in the Middle East and elsewhere.

I recall the epigraphs I had selected for my first book on Paul Bowles:

"Hear the other side, see the other side."
_St. Augustine

"Frightfulness is never more than an unfamiliar pattern."
_Paul Bowles, "Call at Corazón"

2004 - Allen Hibbard

Department of English
P.O. Box 70
Middle Tennessee State University
Murfreesboro, TN 37132