Interview with the novelist Slah BARGAOUI

This post is also available in: Arabic French

Interviewed by the academic 

Kamilia Ben Ayed 

Sousse, 25 February 2020

Translated into English by 

Hatem Laouini

University professor

  • Who is Slah Bargaoui? Could you tell us more about Slah, the lawyer?

I was born in 1959 in the village of Ain Boussaadia in Bargou, Siliana. I went to school in the city of Siliana and I graduated from high school there in 1978. In 1983, I got a degree from the School of Law and Political and Economic Sciences in Tunis. Thereafter, I was appointed a judge in October 1983 before I started practicing as a lawyer in 1995 in Siliana.

In 2011, the Siliana electoral constituency elected me to the Constituent Assembly and I served as a member of the Tunisian parliament until 2019.

  • Why did you choose to be a novelist and not a poet for example? Does this have to do with your job as a lawyer? 

Well, I should say that my professional activities left me with very little time to start an early career as a writer. And as you may know, my first novel was published when I turned sixty, which is quite exceptional for most writers.

Regarding your question on why I chose the novel and not poetry, I have no specific answer. Maybe I have never been happy with my very humble attempts at writing poems, which has deterred me from going further down that road.

I feel, however, that the novel is the closest genre to my heart as it brings together all other literary forms and expressions. My job as a lawyer has had little impact on my preference for the novel because literary production is something that stems from inside a person’s soul.  

  • Have the judicial files you dealt with left their mark on your novels?

In spite of the fact that Kasma makes reference to some judicial files, I cannot honestly say that these files, in their strictly technical sense, have any presence in the novel. On another hand, I cannot claim to be completely detached from my professional life during the writing process, because, in the final analysis, we are only writing about our own experiences, the ones we have gone through during our lifetime. 

We write only about ourselves. And even if some people might think that there is a sense of empathy for the hero, we should only see it as empathy for the human being and not for the character of the terrorist.

  • Does your choice of the topic have anything to do with a real experience of empathy for the character in the novel?

In reality, I can neither confirm nor deny it. What I can say, however, is that when I write aboutthe terrorist attacks in our country, I feel the same pain that the majority of Tunisians have felt, and I believe that each of us must do what we can to shed light on the scourge of terrorism and help to eradicate it.

On a personal level, writing gives me the tools to contribute to this endeavor.

Furthermore, Bargou, my hometown, has experienced events during which a terrorist was eliminated, and it is perhaps the interaction of all these events in my mind that gave birth to “Kasma”.

Some people may think that I have some empathy for the protagonist of the novel. But this can only be empathy for the human being in general and not for the character of the terrorist.

  • Do you and any of the characters of the novel mirror one another?

Actually, I permeate all the characters of the novel, female and male characters, in an uneven manner. Perhaps I was only the luckiest of most of them, no more and no less.

While important, the topic of terrorism serves as an alibi to speak about other evils plaguing our country.

  • We feel through the choice of “Salah”, the protagonist of the novel, a willingness to deal with many of the issues the town suffers from: poverty and deprivation, marginalization, underdevelopment, ignorance; however, you focus on terrorism. To what extent is the terrorist phenomenon a priority of yours?

I am one of those who think that terrorism is a consequence and not a cause. The root causes of the phenomenon are many: some are objective, others are more personal. Therefore, we cannot tackle terrorism in a way that is detached from reality and of the phenomenon’s underlying and immediate causes.

In spite of its importance, however, terrorism was not the only theme of the novel. Rather, it has served to shun the spotlight on the other evils from which our homeland suffers.

The act of reading often gives rise to a misunderstanding between the reader and the writer.  However, this should not be a cause of concern for either of them.

  • Isn’t there a danger in making the reader develop a sense of solidarity with the main character of the novel, even though the character has committed despicable crimes?

To my mind, the real threat is terrorism itself and not the character in the novel. The most serious danger also lies in the root causes of terrorism and not in an individual who has gone astray and who now represents a danger to his community and to society in general.

That the reader shows solidarity with the main character of the novel is the sole responsibility of the reader as the final text belongs to him or her, the reading act often giving rise to a state of misunderstanding between the reader and the author, which should not be a matter of concern for either of them.

In the dramatic events we live, we are half victims, half agents

  • In your novel, the terrorist is both a victim and a manipulated individual. In this case, who should bear the responsibility?

Regardless of how different the situations are, people who go through dramatic events are half victims, half responsible for what happens to them. There is always something in the way they behave that makes them partly responsible, except if they are mentally incapacitated subjects in a clinical sense who cannot make decisions through the exercise of free will. I think that if we go way too far in considering that criminals are victims, then we may end up with criminals enjoying impunity.

  • In your novel, the village seems not to be able to give birth to positive individuals. Even the one person who has succeeded (the narrator) is presented by the author as an opportunistic journalist. Isn’t there a touch of injustice in all this?

In my novel, the village cannot be encapsulated in the characters of Salah and Taoufik. These two characters are seen as negative characters simply because they have deviated from the set of values that prevail in the village. As such, they represent two examples of negative heroes in a village where life is patterned by positive values.

  • In your novel, women are present both economically and socially despite the fact that they are hardly visible in a space riddled with tradition. How do you account for this presence?

There are different categories of women in my novel despite the weight of tradition and the male-dominated culture. Take for example Salah’s mother who stands for patience and who is the gatekeeper of traditional values. Another example is the cousin of the hero who got a job in a factory owned by a foreign investor in a context of social and economic changes in the country.

The last example is Hania who refused to get married to a man she didn’t love. Years later, when she came back to the village with a new social status, she was accepted by the same people who had blamed her for the way she had behaved.

The novel raises the question of what the society and the institutions have done to root out the phenomenon before the use of arms becomes necessary

In your novel, the psychological changes that Salah experienced are accounted for by objective factors that ultimately turned him into a terrorist. Why didn’t these same factors help make of him a fighter of terrorism?    

The changes that a person experiences are in reality the result of the interaction between objective and subjective factors. However, the same objective factors do not necessarily always lead to the same effects across the board. I have therefore taken another stand on the very idea underpinning the fight against terrorism, namely that this fight is an all-out war with multiple cultural, educational, judicial or security aspects. The novel raises questions about what the society and institutions alike have done to curb the spread of terrorism before resorting to weapons.    

To answer the question of why the objective elements did not make of Salah a personality that fights terrorism, it is clear that terrorist groups systematically involve new recruits in acts of assassination in order to preclude any attempt at redemption or repentance.   

Prisons are not ready yet to play their correctional role

How do you account for the fact that neither the prison nor the maquis helped the hero to get rid of his rancor?

This is mainly because the prison system is not yet prepared to play its correctional role, with the exception of a few prison institutions for young offenders. On the contrary, prisons have become places where some ordinary criminals turn into terrorists because of logistical deficiencies. The situation is compounded by the errors and excesses that mar the investigation, prosecution and judgment procedures, thus leading to cohorts of former inmates who experience a strong feeling of resentment against the prison system and who do not show the slightest remorse for the crimes they committed.

On the other side, the maquis can’t produce this transformation because the type of company one has in the bushes would often fuel resentment, terrorism being more often than not linked to feelings of hatred towards everyone else.

*Regardless of the professions of faith, we know all too well that the prison institution plays a major role in fuelling the terrorist phenomenon. We note however that the author only holds prisons responsible for the polarization of terrorists.

As I said earlier, poor prison logistics is the main obstacle precluding the proper fulfillment of the correctional role of the prison institution.

However, claiming that the novel holds these institutions as the sole responsible for the regimentation of terrorists fails to take into account the “training” that Salah LAMZARI received before joining the maquis as well as the role of some television channels and that of the head of the brigade in this regimentation process.

I am one of those who believe that religion can only be an individual matter:

It is a vertical relationship between the individual and the God he worships.

Therefore, religion ceases to be religion and turns into politics when it is used collectively to satiate the appetite for power

To what extent does political Islam entail a greater danger through targeting children? What does the statement “it is their offspring we are interested in” reveal about the intersection between the terrorist way of thinking and the way of thinking of the Ennahdha movement?

I am one of those who believe that religion can only be an individual matter; it is a vertical relationship between the individual and the God he worships. Therefore, religion ceases to be religion and turns into politics when it is used collectively to satiate the appetite for power. And despite the fact that the parties that use religion to achieve power through the ballot box use means that are different than those used by terrorists, the theoretical foundations and goals remain almost the same. Suffice it to deconstruct the discourse of the Ennahdha movement in the period after 2011 and the opportunities they provided to extremist groups at that time to understand this.

To refresh our memory, let us recall the now famous “they remind me of my youth”, a sentence uttered with a touch of nostalgia by the leader of Ennahdha during a meeting with the leaders of the “Ansar Shariaa” group.

The fight against terrorism should not be the responsibility of the armed forces alone

*To what extent could we support the project to reclaim those who have been abused?

No one can deny the role of the military and security institutions in the fight against terrorism, nor question the legitimacy of the state’s use of force against those who jeopardize the security of people and institutions even if this cannot be used systematically to justify the violence committed by the State against its own citizens. However, the fight against terrorism should not remain the sole responsibility of the military and security institutions. You may neutralize a terrorist by eliminating him or sending him to jail, but this does not put an end to the problem. Given this observation, it is essential to include the various parties concerned by the study and treatment of the terrorist phenomenon, most notably psychologists, sociologists, educators, magistrates, security personnel, the military, etc.

* Was the narrator able to talk about Salah and present him properly despite the changes in the latter’s personality? Did he really know him?

I remember the lyrics of a Lebanese song “palavering is so easy, but no one can guess what is in the other’s person’s heart”

This is to say how difficult it is to identify all the interactions and interferences that impact the human psychology because of all the pressures and events it goes through. And that explains why it was not absurd for the narrator to discover in the end that he does not know his friend well, particularly since the latter had distanced himself from him and abandoned him for years on end. 

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