Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Egypt and Tunisia: a few thoughts

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Egypt and Tunisia:  a few thoughts

Egypt and Tunisia

While I’m Writer-in-Residence I’ll be mostly blogging about writing and reading, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to write a bit about North Africa this morning.

Over the past several years I helped run a mentoring scheme for writers based in Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. These young adults were all writing in English, their third language (after Arabic and French and sometimes Berber as well); the scheme, Medi-Café, was run by the British Council. They were a mix of students, teachers, and academics, and they were united by their passion for reading and writing, and their desire for knowledge and experience. Our work online was supplemented by a series of three day workshops in both Tunisia and Morocco.

My role of mentoring these creative writing students gave me an invaluable opportunity to spend time in these countries in private consultation and conversation. Tunisia was by far the more difficult place to work in, as the police state was riddled with informers and spies, both covert and overt. Our workshop was visited by the not-so-secret police, and one of our Tunisian hosts was questioned for several hours about what, exactly, we were doing, and we definitely had informers in our midst. As I got to know the Tunisian participants the reality of what it meant to live in a hugely oppressive, though outwardly calm and fairly affluent, state became clear to me: visiting a place where there was absolutely no intellectual freedom, where you could be sent to jail indefinitely for making a joke about the president’s family at a private gathering (this had happened to a friend of one of the participants), made me very happy indeed to scuttle back home to the UK where everyone giggled when protesters recently stopped Prince Charles’ car and shouted ‘Off With Their Heads!’ at the future King and his wife.

You’d think that a creative writing mentoring scheme would not attract much interest from the authorities, but it did. For instance, when I wrote this rather naive and bland blog post about the fact that YouTube was banned in Tunisia, to my embarrassment it created no end of trouble for the workshop organisers. We take our freedoms for granted, as we should; here’s hoping the Tunisians are soon able to do the same.

My most recent novel, ‘The Mistress of Nothing’, is set in Egypt in 1863. I won’t pretend to know much of anything about current Egyptian politics, but there are interesting parallels between the period I researched and the present day. In the 1860s Egypt was ruled by a despotic leader, Ismail Pasha, who saw the country as his own personal fiefdom, and who forced the people to bend to his will. Ismail was imposed on Egypt by a foreign ruler who propped him up so that he would serve their interests, and he bankrupted the country – literally – with his grandiose building schemes. He was useful to western interests, until he stopped being useful.

In my research I kept coming across historians who compared the Egyptian people to scorpions and crocodiles. Scorpions and crocodiles have two things in common: they like to lie in wait, pretending to be slumbering, and then, when you least it expect it, they rise up and bite. Despite the rather alarming and possibly racist nature of this metaphor - and the truth is I have never met an Egyptian who isn’t friendly, funny, and welcoming – I can’t help but think of it now, as the Egyptian people turn out in their thousands to give their obstinate old ruler a big bite on his complacent backside.

Unlike in Tunisia where political discourse was so restricted that not even jokes were allowed, Egyptians are famous for satire. Here’s a great blog post about Egyptian political jokes that I came across via The-Wonder-That-Is-Twitter this morning: ‘Three Decades of a Joke That Just Won’t Die’ by Issandr El Amrani


Thanks, Kate! It's easy to take the freedom of expression that writers have here in Canada for granted, but I bet that having the secret police sneaking in to your writing workshop would keep it in the forefront of anybody's mind...

Hello Erin -

I affected me in lots of different ways, but the most profound impact it had on me was that it made me think about how people around the world have their freedom of speech curtailed by their governments. It was a shock to me to meet intellectuals who lived in a country where they could not say what they thought about most topics with any real importance. Although it sounds naive, before this project I had never really had to think about that before in real terms, only in the abstract.

Also, my next fiction project has as a main character a young Pakistani who has stowed away on a plane to get into Europe. The theme of desperate young men trying to leave their country for a better life elsewhere often came up in the fiction these North Africans were writing, so I gained some insight into that as well.

I learned a lot - probably more than they learned from me - and as you know, all learning feeds into one's writing.


Kate, your work as a creative writing mentor in Tunisia and other North African countries sounds like an amazing experience. What a unique opportunity. How did your involvement in this program affect you as a writer?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Kate Pullinger

Kate Pullinger writes for both print and digital platforms. In 2009 her novel The Mistress of Nothing won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Her prize-winning digital fiction projects, Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths: A Networked Novel, have reached audiences around the world.

Go to Kate Pullinger’s Author Page