African Library: Return to Dar al-Basha by Hassan Nasr

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The title of Tunisian author Hassan Nasr’s Return to Dar al-Basha (first published in Arabic in 1994, with the English translation by William Hutchins appearing in 2006) refers to the homecoming of a wanderer in many lands to the area of the ancient city of Tunis where he grew up. Presented as a novel, the text can nevertheless more accurately be described as an unusual kind of autobiography (although the first-person narrative voice often switches into the third person, and occasional second-person direct address moments also) which functions against the background of a loving portrait of the old city. Beyond this lie the “biographies” of an extended family, a community and the glimpsed moments of a fraught historical era – the early to late fifties of the previous century. During this period, Tunisia freed itself (with difficulty and at great cost in lives) from tenacious French colonial rule and introduced modernisation offset by urban decay which set in during the four-decade absence of the main narrator (who focalises the entire account). The vision presented, even though oscillating and exhibiting moments of fond recall throughout the reminiscences which (loosely) structure the text, is generally coloured by the narrator’s nostalgic yet melancholy perspective – as in the following lines: “The distant past was crowned with majesty. The recent past has been soiled by filth. Here’s the present: gloomy to the edges, bounded by conspiracy” (123). Murtada al-Shamikh, the prodigal son of Tunis, takes his society’s measure by the state of the city, and the major achievement of the author is the authenticity with which he endows the damaged yet yearning and aspiring voice with which the narrator addresses us, the neighbourhood of Dar al-Basha, the city of Tunis, or himself. It is a discourse permeated with Tunisian, Arabic, Qu’ranic and Sufi references – usefully signposted by the translator.

The text opens with two epigraphs that present us with alternative ways of reading the account of Murtada’s life. The first suggests something like a rebuke to Murtada’s mostly gloomy vision of his people and country and is from the Aghani al-Hayat (“Songs of Life”) poetry collection of Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi:

It’s presumptuous to attempt to bear the world’s burdens,

Since their weight is too great for you even to budge.

Mighty existence has sunk low in the past,

But you’re not its lord to set it right.

The second is closer to Murtada’s own vision and discourse, being a rather self-pitying outcry from a poem or extract called “The Mariner and the Dervish” by Khalil Hawi, in which the speaker laments his “scorch[ing]” by the “feverish” qualities of “Western” life as well as his “asphyxiat[ion]” by the sluggish (“lifeless”) qualities of an “Eastern” existence, yet becomes but a lost and doomed “seafarer” who cannot be rescued either by “heroism” or by “servile prayer”. Murtada, too, wandered through many lands before being urged to return to Tunis, where he struggles to achieve the sense of security and belonging whose absence has haunted his existence and first drove him from his homeland and family. Even as it ends, the text leaves us still wondering whether Murtada has at last achieved the serenity his life has lacked, as the final lines contain three questions that reiterate his sense of loss and deprivation – of his “dreams”, his beloved Shama and his irretrievable childhood.

From the very beginning of Nasr’s text, the evocative and cherishing descriptions of the old city of Tunis contrast with the melancholic tone in which the narrator’s experiences and emotional responses are couched. A vivid but unobtrusive impression of the city as a living being of great beauty and value permeates the descriptive passages, which do double duty as recollections of childhood observations of the narrator as a boy or as representing the gaze of the middle-aged “returnee” Murtada. Pasha Street is evoked as “slipping through the mazes” of Tunis much like a cunning urchin, whereas the old city’s “heart throbs with souks and motion”. Perfumes and the aromas of “pungent” spices “waft in every direction” and “fill the air” as the wanderer contemplates

spaces washed by rainbow colors and the soft light that steals through gaps between the fingers of the district’s hands: peeking from the eyes of windows that overlook the street on each side, slipping through the cracks of doors left ajar and over rooftops [… and] columns topped with capitals and portals radiant with lines [and] ornamentation […] (3)

There is no inkling here of the impression of the tarnished and decaying space that sectors of the city are seen to be and of the corruption that so many of the actual inhabitants seem tainted by in the narrator’s later view; here the city in its full majesty has “Life in all its splendour pour[ing] into buildings […] through doors […] and […] windows” while walls are “smeared with sunlight” (4). The returning Murtada’s appreciative gaze mingles with and resuscitates the wondering gaze of the boy he once was, before the great blow that seemingly severed him from the possibility of achieving fulfilment. He has come back to try to pinpoint that moment of loss and its cause so as to achieve healing from it; something that his four decades of absence and aimless wanderings could never provide him with. Was his unhappiness punishment for a transgression on his part? Did he make an “error”, or was it a “curse” or “bad luck” or “an affliction that beset him”? There is a faint suggestion in the first part of the “Preamble” section that Murtada made an initial “error” (4) in the way he saw and thought about his life, as a result of which he could never flourish.

The text is constructed of a series of memories mostly associated with particular areas of the city of Tunis through which Murtada makes his way as he walks, pausing frequently to reminisce, towards his childhood home in Dar al-Basha. Actually, his father’s home – as we are soon made to realise – was his second home and represented (to the terrified and confused child) his expulsion from the house of his mother’s uncle, where she had lived with him until he was summoned back to (or perhaps given up to) his father’s house. The boy is aged five and old enough to sense some deception as Aunt Munjiya “herd[s]” and drags him along with her on a seemingly endless walk to a supposed wedding party, at the end of which he is delivered up to the paternal family, his parents having been divorced after a mere two months of marriage. The boy had once previously been summoned to his father’s home, where his “welcome” had been so fierce and punitive (because he made no secret of his desire to remain with his mother instead) that the thought of going back there inspires tremendous anxiety in the child. The “bitterness of this experience”, we are told, in its injustice and profound unkindness “cast an all-embracing but silent shadow over his soul” (19) from which he never recovered, even though he was temporarily returned to his mother from the end of 1942 until 1945 when World War II, which had forced thousands of Tunisians to flee the city, then overrun with soldiers whose violent conduct destabilised and threatened their lives, ended. The city also suffered bombardments during this period. On now being returned yet again to this unhappy home (of his father’s, as he recalls it), the boy feels “betrayed” by his mother’s having “surrendered” him. Later, when he runs away in an attempt to return to her, he discovers that she no longer lives with her uncle and has remarried.

In viewing the area of the city to which he has returned, Murtada subtly emphasises its layered communality and long-established edifices, noticing how “over the towers of forts and at the gates of palaces, waves of light collide, dispersing colours, which are then diffused down alleyways and through the windows that overlook this landmark” (26). Still, this was what he had left behind to seek peace of mind in the desert plains and “wasteland” (27) of Mauritania, where the desert dwellers treated him with welcoming kindness. Its silence and seeming emptiness paradoxically allowed him to sense “the splendour of existence” since “nothing matches the desert’s labyrinth: that huge treasure trove of secrets, of the moon, of lying awake by night under a tent’s flap till dawn breaks” (28). As these citations make clear, Nasr has an especial talent for conveying a sense of place in his understated yet richly evocative descriptions.

In contrast with the desert’s serenity we are allowed a glimpse of how the Qu’ranic school (the only educational establishment he attended as a boy) had affected him with its “goal” to “memorize without understanding”, something Murtada describes as a “treacherous operation” that “cost him so much suffering, effort, and concentration that his young soul was oppressed and his spirit perplexed” (37). Nasr himself was a high school teacher for many years and clearly has a different sense of how a child’s education should proceed; as an erudite Muslim known for his scholarly expertise he gives hints elsewhere in the text that in adult life, elsewhere, Murtada would achieve more profound insights into his faith and the vast body of Arabic scholarship and its fascinating intricacies. In his boyhood he has only the day-by-day memorisation of the Qu’ran not only in the school, but also in the recitation groups of the Sufi community of which his father is a member and which the latter obliges him (on pain of punishment) to attend. Later in the text Nasr provides some beautiful examples of the Sufi chants (here translated, of course):

The Mighty who is exalted, there is no god but God,

The Wise who is beautiful, there is no god but God,

The Great who is perfect, there is no god but God,

The Proximate who is gracious, there is no god but God,

The Responsive who is righteous, there is no god but God,

The Merciful who is benevolent, there is no god but God. (76)

Murtada believes that there are correspondences between the maze-like patterns of his city’s web-like streets and alleys, the elaborate dress code of Islamic scholars and notables, “and their grammar, jurisprudence, theology, and literary works, which mix concision with pomp and haphazard accumulation with gravity” (64) – a description not entirely inappropriate to his own text! Yet the protagonist acknowledges that while his learning did not alleviate his problem of lingering melancholia and psychic isolation, it did equip him with tremendous spiritual strength.

The boy Murtada’s home with its (to him) constantly threatening, coldly disciplinarian atmosphere (not alleviated by weird night-time encounters when his father and others of their Sufi group expect the child to provide revelations – for example, about the location about supposed hidden treasure) presents a clear contrast with the exuberant, warm and happy family of their neighbour, Uncle al-Arabi (as the boy refers to him). Here, the parents’ joyously loving and playful relationship and the three children thriving in their affection present something like an oasis for the troubled boy, who loves visiting them. He plays most often with Shama, who in his adolescence will be the adored beauty whom he nevertheless leaves behind in his urge to flee his oppressive paternal home.

Before his lengthy sojourn in Mauritania, where his job is to research the wild horses of the region, Murtada sees many of the world’s great cities: he mentions Paris, London, Geneva, Bonn, Rome, Belgrade, Athens, Sofia, Istanbul, Baghdad, Tehran, Damascus, Beirut, Cairo, Madrid, Moscow, Leningrad, Minsk, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Nouakchott and Dakar. He travels, Murtada says, “from urban centres to nomadic peoples, […] from popular republics to conservative caliphates, from minarets to cabarets, and from obscene splendour to crushing poverty” (65). Though elated to have got away from the city of his birth and his tyrannical father, he finds that he remains crushed by and trapped in the shadow of Dar al-Basha wherever he goes.

Murtada nevertheless does provide some happier reminiscences of his childhood that presumably surface as he traverses the neighbourhoods of Tunis upon his return. He recalls a visit to a fair where he was brought by his favourite relative, Uncle Mansur al-Shamikh, his father’s widowed brother, who occupied a room in the house with them. The fair, full of the childish “marvels” that enthral a little boy, is the kind of delight a generous-minded man like this uncle realised would alleviate this sad child’s gloom. This uncle, who had to suffer through a two-year spell of military conscription by the French colonial authorities, is a committed Tunisian patriot and exudes a quiet strength despite his relatively humble status as a man employed in a series of quite menial jobs – in which he never lasts very long, because he refuses to submit to injustice or bullying. He is a man of good cheer that inspires great affection in Murtada – especially, one is led to believe, because he is so different from the boy’s dour father: “a different type of man, totally unlike anyone else in that household” (70). The father’s other brother is a modernist who had left the house years before. Uncle Mansur’s put-upon (only) daughter is another of Murtada’s allies: the boy relates a terrible incident when his father, for some trivial transgression, tied him up in chains and took him to a dark and isolated roof room, where he locked him up. Uncle Mansur’s daughter, who is more or less the unpaid servant to the large household, rushed up after the boy and freed him, bringing him down into the living room with her where she stood, trembling and mute, waiting for Murtada’s father’s terrifyingly violent temper to be unleashed on her for this defiance of his will to aid the boy. When the man did rush at her, the young woman fell into the worst ever of the epileptic fits to which she was often prone, in this way escaping the man’s punitive wrath. The boy, terrified that he was the cause of all this, began screaming hysterically and so he, too, was left alone.

It is through his Uncle Mansur that the boy Murtada becomes aware of the Tunisian struggle for independence and of the fierceness with which the French are suppressing it:

Reports streamed in, from the north of the country and from the south, east, and west: door-to-door searches, police raids on homes, evictions, and arrests, people tortured and many killed, the wounded wherever you looked. News reports arrived from the eastern regions including Beni Khallad, al-Ma’mura, Kelibiya, Hammamet, and Nabeul.

Then came the tragedy of Tazarka. (84)

It is Uncle Mansur who describes this atrocity in vivid and horrifying detail: how the occupants of this rural village were pounced upon at dusk on suspicion of having anti-colonial militants among them and how the French soldiers who swarmed in on them subjected them to acts of terrorism for three days running, with three successive occupations (85–7), till this small community’s spirit was (and many lives were) destroyed. Uncle Mansur arrives home in a deep depression, profoundly perturbed by the awfulness of the events he evokes, which began with the unexpected arrival of the heavily armed foreign soldiers that scattered the villagers and even their livestock in panic while “gunshots resounded down the lanes”. The village men were herded into a central square, with machine guns trained on them from all around, even from the rooftops. They were threatened to “produce” the supposed militants among them and when they could not the soldiers immediately started “razing, demolishing, and destroying” as explosions, fires and gunshots erupted all around. Then all the men were locked up overnight in a house with guards posted all around it; from inside they could hear the agonised screams of their womenfolk and girls being raped, assaulted and shot if they resisted. The few men who were driven to attempt an escape from their lock-up were simply shot down. Some babies were even slaughtered, the men discovered the next morning when the soldiers left, while the soldiers had “terrified the children, tortured the old men, spoiled stocks of grain and oil, plundered the villagers’ possessions, and stolen their livestock. They had demolished dwellings, set fire to huts, and razed the school” (86). Unimaginably to the dazed villagers, a second lot of soldiers appeared to continue perpetrating their horrors on the second night, and yet another on the third. Not long afterwards, Murtada and the family hear that Uncle al-Arabi their beloved neighbour’s son was shot down during an anti-colonial demonstration, and Uncle Mansur burns his papers and himself flees their home in fear of being tracked down by the colonial forces.

In a following interlude there is a short passage describing the young woman who was (it seems) not only Murtada’s first, but his only love – the above-mentioned Shama, who clearly returned the love that had grown out of their childhood affection and association. She is evoked sitting by a window in the house, embroidering her wedding dress and dreaming of her nuptials and the man she might marry, while Murtada occasionally catches her eye and exchanges glances with her. Yet he was obscurely aware, he indicates, that a person as given to depression and as cowed by life as he was could never give her the equivalent of her own parents’ happy, cheerful and fulfilled married and family life. Also urging him to leave her behind was his increasingly powerful urge to get away from Dar al-Basha to try to escape his father’s malign, constricting influence.

Some descriptions of Murtada’s early working life are provided: initially in an establishment owned by one of his father’s Sufi associates, a shop making and selling the traditional Tunisian round cap of pressed red wool, the shesheya (which his own father always demanded he wore, as if this was the outward sign of compliance with his patriarchal rule). After this Murtada worked in a large, thriving tailor’s establishment owned by a man he clearly felt great admiration for and whose well-rounded, dignified and accomplished nature he contrasts with his own father’s narrow and rigid world view. The owner is referred to only as Mr al-Tayyib – he is described as “a commercial powerhouse”, as a tolerant yet vigilant employer of workers of a range of nationalities, skills and ages and a very public-spirited man, “one of the founders of many of the athletic associations in the country” in addition to suffering “deportation and punishment” for his “opposition to colonial exploitation”, despite which he “remained steadfast and defiant” (100). At Mr al-Tayyib’s establishment Murtada becomes firm friends with an older youth, Farid. His home life resembles Murtada’s and, like him, he dreams of escaping to “freedom” (109). Farid suggests that they enlist in the navy to effect their escape and they send in their applications, but while Farid’s is accepted, Murtada’s is rejected, since he is still under-aged. After Farid’s departure Murtada leaves the tailoring establishment; he wants something else and also wishes to preserve his eyesight “for whatever other tasks awaited [him] in future days, like reading books” (111).

Murtada evokes a street procession in honour of the Bey and describes how his father’s closest friend in the Sufi association was “overtaken by a sense of ecstasy that reflected off everything around him. Its sway over him was prolonged and submerged the souls of those near him. Eventually it encompassed the surrounding walls, doors, arches, windows, all the lights and shadows, and finally the earth and the sky” (113). Yet when Murtada attempts to immerse himself in this state, “contort[ing] his body in an effort to reach heaven’s secrets”, he feels a stirring of acute uneasiness – the press and “stench” of bodies around him becomes so “stifling” that he nearly passes out; “the world became a blur” so that he had to flee, ending once again in a state where he is “weighed down by doubts and anxieties”. Reflecting on his “peers” who “went to government schools, carried schoolbags, and read books”, living cheerfully and sociably, he feels himself isolated, alienated and constrained, “shackled by chains: the Qu’ran school, the shop, and the Sufi recitation circles” (115). His one accomplishment is his memorisation of the Qu’ran. What decisively propels him away from Dar al-Basha, however, is (predictably) an assault by his father; the final straw (or blow). All of a sudden detesting his own appearance, Murtada yanks the shesheya cap off his head and tosses it into a corner. Forgetting that he had done so on his later return home, he remembers only when his father is evidently aroused to fury by such “insubordination”, casting the boy a “terrifying” glance before striking him a huge blow followed by a kick – an act that propels Murtada into the mirror on his grandmother’s bedroom wall, shattering it into shards. Finally, the man puts his hand on the pocket of the youngster’s new vest (a garment he had sewed himself) and rips it to shreds. Murtada reports: “For the first time in my life, I found myself looking up at him, for my fear had totally left me. I was healed from my malady. I gazed at him steadily, without saying a word. In his eyes I seemed to detect this message: ‘Perhaps you’ve become a man now’” (117).

Almost strangely, the reader turns the pages to the opening of the next and final section of the text where the returned, middle-aged Murtada re-enters his family home for the first time and finds his now aged father at prayer, is welcomed back quite matter-of-factly and settles down to chat to the old man in an affectionate manner as if all his past sorrows and anger and the years of struggling with depression have been forgotten or erased. What Murtada focuses on is the somewhat decayed state of the family home, and he begins to raise the topic of necessary restoration of the building. This chapter is followed by and juxtaposed with another that opens on a view of ugly modern urban sprawl:

The vast stretches of agricultural land and the lush gardens that once surrounded the city, acting as its lungs, became agglomerations of steel and reinforced concrete as apartment blocks crept everywhere, shooting up, crammed together like devil’s heads. Villas were stacked beside each other like crates of vegetables, and tangled masses of streets twisted like the arms of an octopus. The way vehicles sped down the narrow, rutted streets, day and night, without interruption, was enough to make you faint. The city flowed out, oozing in every direction like fresh dough […] (127)

Lest one think him opposed to urban renewal per se, Nasr (or is this Murtada?) shows his approval of attractive, well-laid-out modern suburbs and “the geometrical clarity of their streets”, where “you find fountains, glamour, and much more” (128).

It is nevertheless clear that Murtada’s (or, to reiterate, Nasr’s) preference lies entirely with the “old ways” of Tunisians which are evoked as follows:

[T]hey were self-confident and knew exactly what to do. They found ways to support themselves and to control the stages of production. Men and women were gainfully employed in agriculture, ceramics, textiles, and spinning wool. They worked side-by-side in rural areas and the cities. The artisan would undertake his craft with love and dexterity and perform it with extraordinary skill and talent. The result was a wealth of tools, styles, products for many different uses, and creative innovations of many different kinds.

This was an exuberant world of inner strength with boisterous activity and vibrant colours. People had a clear vision of life. They performed their necessary tasks in exactly the same way that they recited verses of the Qu’ran. They understood and believed these intuitively and spontaneously, not wearing themselves out with exegesis. (129)

This passage, however appealing its vision, is unmistakably a glorification of the past as a supposedly unproblematic existence, especially as it is so much at odds with what Murtada has shown us of his childhood experiences. Perhaps one should read it as the romanticising vision of a recently returned Tunisian who yearns for an undiluted, unpolluted pre-modern or pre-colonial Tunisia. Certainly his view of contemporary Tunisians is unforgiving and probably jaundiced. The narrator states:

People nowadays, however, do not know what they are doing. They plunder anything they can grab, whether antique or recent, from the East or the West. They speak every language. The clothing they wear comes from many different cities. […] They employ devices they have not helped invent. They spend money they do not possess, and they explain the meaning of the Qu’ran however the spirit moves them. […] [T]hey impose laws that they have not […] drafted. They import everything, even freedom, the air they breathe, and the water they drink. They offer everything for sale to the highest bidder […] (129)

This exhibition of anti-modern prejudice meets its opposite when Murtada meets a wealthy cousin to try to interest him in helping to pay for restorations of the old family home (a shared inheritance which the cousin views as having potential financial value and Murtada thinks of as a symbolically, culturally and familially valuable heirloom). In this cousin’s eyes the past is a time “befouled by dishonour and catastrophes, […] based on exploitation and tyranny, on slavery and the oppression of women, on the expropriation of workers’ rights, and on the denial of liberties” (135). While Murtada’s past is, hence, a nostalgic vision of a long-lost, long-ago wholesome society, his cousin’s more closely resembles the period and circumstances of Murtada’s Tunis childhood. Those old neighbourhoods, his cousin tells him, “were built on injustice” and “if we are to root out tyranny […] we must substitute new neighbourhoods for the old ones” (135).

Perhaps it is his cousin’s ruthless attitude that the old house “wants to fall down” (134) and should be allowed to do so that leads to a series of nightmares that Murtada dreams that very night. There is a “frame” nightmare of the old house collapsing on and around Murtada, who dreams that he survives slightly injured, but trapped in a small space under tons of old masonry. In the sequence of dreams (in which he repeatedly imagines himself waking up while actually still dreaming, as one sometimes does), he has a series of apparent epiphanies and frequently exhorts himself. At one point he “told himself in a loud voice: ‘You must search for a way out of this impasse’” (146) and at another point he arrives at the so-called “City of Light”, supposedly described by his alcoholic ex-soldier grandfather, also a wanderer who had left Tunis and the family, but the place turns out to be the abode of plagues and of threatening, aggressive blind people (a sarcastically “transformed” version of his cousin and his misguided insistence on the undiluted advantages of modernity?) since, even though there are “assembled marvels and wonders” in “every nook”, many “pains and refuse were stockpiled there as well” (151). In the dream sequence Murtada is also led into a self-confrontation that Nasr evokes in the oxymoron “you have ascended to the depths” (153).

In an extended passage (still in the dream), Murtada reminisces concerning his more recent ascetic way of life:

I renounced the world and everything in it and turned my back on all its spurious attractions and whatever shimmered before me – on account of my failures and weakness. I felt such despair about myself that people said [still evoking the closeness between the man and his city], “You’re a pale, muted replica of those congested areas in Dar al-Basha with their dilapidated, leaning walls, broken-down doorways, and cracked terraces from which dry grass spouts beside swelling, cancerous tumours and other deep scars. Moreover, you are totally lacking in will, are absolutely incapable of coping, antisocial, unable to forge ties to other people or to focus your energies weighed down by anxieties, suffering from crushing fear and ill-health, extremely depressed and nervous and so introverted that you seem a hedgehog. Besides that, you don’t know the difference between profit and loss.” (156)

The above unrelentingly dismissive description of Murtada seems to emanate imaginatively from his profit-minded, successful cousin. Murtada’s own vision of things resurfaces when in the following paragraph he states, “The neighbourhood may well show signs of old age, but allowing its landmarks and characteristic features to be obliterated would be inexcusable” (156). Then there is a “roar of silence” in his ears:

The roar rocked his ears ever more violently and his ravings reached fever pitch. Suddenly a serene calm descended upon him. He was flooded by a brilliant light, which filled his heart. Happiness coming from an unknown source affected him, and he was filled with determination and hope. Summoning all his strength, he released a resounding yell [and] dealt the boulder confining him a single blow, shattering it […] He rose, shaking the dust from himself. (159)

This symbolic resurrection (which ends his dream) is (in the brief final chapter) followed by the scene to which he wakes, and which he enters, at last rejoining his family, seated at breakfast in the courtyard. Now he engages in a playful, joyous romp with his brother’s three young children. Nevertheless, Murtada (typically of the to-and-fro pattern of his emotional life, and of this text as a whole) still feels some regrets. This is shown in the novel’s ending (as was mentioned at the outset of this account) on three final yearning questions, asked in the last three lines:

Who will restore my beautiful dreams to me?

Who will restore Shama to me?

Who will restore my childhood? (162)

Sadly, we know that, unlike a building or a city suburb, these three things cannot ever be “restored” or retrieved, though they can be cherished forever in the memory. The conclusion is apt for this fine, unusual text, with its haunting, melancholic lyricism.

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