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“The Calamity of the Nobility” by Amira Ghenim is an extremely powerful novel capable of making you experience the tragedies of two noble Tunisian families from the 1930s, the years in which the foundations were laid for Bourguiba’s reforms, to the present day
The Calamity of the Nobility
Tunisia, 1930s. Against the backdrop of a country in turmoil, in search of its identity, the lives and destinies of the members of two important upper-class families of Tunis intertwine: the En-Neifer family, with a rigid conservative and patriarchal mentality, and the Ar -Rassa‛, liberal and progressive. The nucleus around which the events narrated in the novel revolve is a terrible night in December 1935, when life in the en-Neifer house was turned upside down by an event which condemned Zubaida ar-Rassa‛ to unhappiness forever, the young wife of Mohsen en-Neifer, suspected of having had a clandestine love affair with Taher al-Haddad, an intellectual of humble origins known for his activism in the union sphere and in favor of women’s rights. The events of that night are told in the first person by eleven different narrators, members of the two families, in different historical moments (from the 1940s to the present day), in an interweaving of secrets, memories, accusations, regrets and emotions that drag the reader in an exciting journey through the stories of individuals and in the history of the country. As in a game of Chinese boxes, each story contains others, and the reader has the task of putting the pieces together and reconstructing the whole story in an attempt to find out what happened to Zubaida and how things really went.
Family fresco in a crucial era
“The Calamity of the Nobility” by Amira Ghenim is a well-written and extremely fascinating fresco about an essential historical period for understanding the evolution of Tunisian society, which in those years posed the basis for its transformation during the era of Bourguiba; a text that, following the events of the revolutionary (and unfortunate) Taher al-Haddad from afar, takes us inside the houses of the local aristocracy, showing us the key steps of a path that still continues today and which above all involves freedoms and rights of the Tunisian woman. Like a well-crafted theatrical piece, the author will make each of the eleven narrators speak, exposing her truths and the thousand contradictions of a country which, while desiring innovation, remained anchored to the past and its internal problems, linked above all “to honor” and “women’s issues”. Not surprisingly, one of the turning points of the novel will be the publication of “Our woman in sharia law and in society” which will decree the civil death of the great revolutionary and the beginning of the tragedies within the family. From that moment on, Taher will in fact be removed both from public life and from the al Rassa’ house, dying just 5 years later.
In desperation and total discouragement, the intellectual will write a last letter to his beloved, the text of which will prove to be a catastrophe of enormous significance for both families, leading them to experience decades of suffering and words never said, which will consume them slowly but surely. In this story all are losers and all are executioners in their own way, but the character who will suffer misfortune most of all will be Zubeida, the only protagonist not to tell us his story, who in a single evening will lose his legs, his fame and the right to happiness.
“What is ‘honor’ in the face of all this suffering?”
A poignant novel that strikes deep into the soul, forbidding anyone to remain impassive in the face of these stories of ordinary tragedy; a text which, while giving everyone their reasons and the right to defend themselves, cannot fail to leave the reader with an imperative question: was all this really necessary? Are we really willing to sacrifice our lives and our happiness just to safeguard this ancient concept of “honor”? But above all: what is “honor” in the face of all this suffering and the total destruction of families? Whoever is writing has the privilege of doing so since 2022, but it is important today to understand the consequences of certain gestures and certain actions so that they never happen again and no one has to experience unnecessary pain by sacrificing their lives in the face of absolutely accessory principles.
“The Calamity of the Nobility”, however smooth and pleasant in terms of style, is a very painful book to read, but precisely for this reason it is necessary; one of those books that in suffering brings reflection and that in me gave birth to two words that shouldn’t be united: never again. That no one will ever again be accused of a crime they have not committed, that they will never again continue relationships in pain to safeguard their honour, that they will never again be judged by skin color, gender or sexual preferences and that they put themselves at the center of everything the joy of seeing happiness in the other and that the hope for change is exalted and not demolished by virtue of a pale but stable present. When I finished this book I wanted to embrace the ghosts of all the various characters and finally give them the affection they deserved but have never found in this land. A beautiful book capable of arousing powerful and at the same time indescribable emotions.
Text kindly given to me by the E/O publishing house which I thank deeply for the wonderful opportunity.
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