An Interview with Kamel Riahi on the banning of his book "Tunisian Frankenstein: Reflections on Tunisian Political Affairs During the Time of Kais Saied"

Kamel Riahi is an author, activist, critic, broadcaster and guest lecturer at the University of Toronto's Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies and Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. Below read our interview discussing the banning of his book "Tunisian Frankenstein: Reflections on Tunisian Political Affairs During the Time of Kais Saied" and what this means for freedom of expression and censorship in Tunisia.

Can you tell us what your book "Tunisian Frankenstein" is about?

The book's subtitle is "Reflections on Tunisian Political Affairs During the Time of Kais Saied," and it compromises a collection of satirical political articles with a cultural and literary background. These pieces examine the circumstances surrounding the end of the Arab Spring and the setback of the Tunisian revolution, which dates back to the revolution in January 2011 and the post-revolution period. The book illustrates how ideological conflicts paved the way for the return of dictatorship and the rise of populism, which brought Saied to power. On July 25th, 2021, Saied carried out a coup and demolished all the gains of the revolution, including freedom, democracy, and freedom of speech.

Why are the messages in your book so important?

Amidst the repression exercised by the authorities in Tunisia today and the dictatorship, many have resorted to silence out of fear of persecution. However, a voice has emerged to confront the coup regime and challenge its denial of restrictions on freedom. My book served as this challenge, and I sacrificed to expose this tyrannical regime. Through this book, I sought to test the limits of freedom of expression and expose the regime's oppressive nature.

How has your book caused controversy in Tunisia?

Shortly after I posted the book cover on social media, supporters of dictator Kais Saied began attacking me, calling for my arrest, persecution, and banning of the book. This led to a surge of interest in the book among my readers, who rushed to purchase it on the first day of the Tunis International Book Fair. However, the fair's administration and the Ministry of Culture secretly planned to ban the book from being sold at the fair, as we learned from some employees of the Ministry. This decision was made just two days before the fair began.

On the 28th, shortly after President Kais Saied left the fair, a security team confiscated the book and closed the entire publishing house's booth. The publisher released a statement on the publishing house's page, explaining what had happened and announcing that the book had been confiscated by security, and the booth had been closed.

(video in Arabic of the publisher discussing banning)

In response to this injustice, the publisher announced that all other publishers would close their booths and withdraw from the fair in solidarity. This stance forced the authorities to retract their decision the following day and allow the publishing house's booth to open. However, "Frankenstein Tunis" remained banned in the book fair until its last day.

What is the position of the book fair administration currently?

Faced with the large international solidarity campaign for me and my publisher, the book fair administration committee, representing the authorities, devised a trick to mislead the people and the media. After days of banning my book, they confiscated some other books that had been published for years, just like mine, giving the impression that they were not only targeting my book. Then, a day later, they held a conference and claimed to the public that they had returned all the confiscated books on April 29, so people thought that the matter was resolved, and my book was permitted for sale again. However, my book was published on the opening day of the fair, April 28, so it is not covered by the decision to return the books.

After the committee's statement, the public failed to notice the detail that my book was not covered by the decision to return the books. This forced the publisher to issue a statement on their Facebook page, urging followers and journalists to carefully verify the committee's statement. The publisher confirmed that they contacted the book fair director, Zahiyya Jwiru, and asked about the confiscated book, but she had no answer and refused to provide a confiscation receipt.

In its statement, the committee accused me of tarnishing Tunisia's image abroad. This accusation is reminiscent of the tactics used by former President Ben Ali to persecute his opponents before the 2011 revolution. It is a dangerous charge that could lead to the security forces targeting the writer.

Consequently, my book "Frankenstein Tunis" remained banned from the book fair until its last day.

How do you interpret what President Kais Saied said when he went to al-Kitab Bookstore and held the book in his hand?

After the director of al-Kitab Bookstore, Salma Jabbas, announced the harassment her bookstore faced from the political police and their demands for the names and addresses of individuals who had previously purchased the book, international media outlets reported on her statements. As a result, the authorities were embroiled in a scandal and could not find a way to circumvent public opinion except by taking a proactive stance.

The President left his palace with armed security teams, including the counter-terrorism squad and the presidential guard, and went to the bookstore. This move terrified the workers of the bookstore, and he did not let them speak, especially since the bookstore director was not present. The president held the book and said, "This is evidence that the book is not banned and anyone who doubts freedom of expression in Tunisia is a foreign agent." He then left the bookstore accompanied by the Minister of the Interior and his security team.

Following this explicit incitement, supporters of the president began to launch defamatory and vilifying attacks against me.

Here is a scene showing security forces surrounding the bookstore.

The director of al-Kitab Bookstore, Salma Jabbas, did not stay silent and spoke out once again on Inkyfada, an investigative journalism site, revealing that the police had raided her bookstore and demanded the names and addresses of individuals who had purchased the book prior to President Kais Saied's visit. This news was also reported by many international legal and media figures who had visited the bookstore. As a result, President Kais Saied unintentionally revealed himself as the one behind the ban, particularly as he insisted on preventing the book's sale at the book fair until its final day.

The Presidential Guard visited al-Kitab bookstore the day before the fair's opening on April 28th and purchased a copy of the book for the president. The following day, the book was confiscated from the fair only five minutes after the security forces arrived. This evidence makes the president primarily responsible for the ban. His visit to some bookstores was a response to the resistance of civil society and al-Kitab Bookstore in particular, which has always fought against dictatorship, and even the overthrown Ben Ali regime could not prevent them from displaying banned books. The support of national and international media, as well as organizations such as PEN America  and PEN Canada,  and their condemnation of what happened, was also instrumental in bringing attention to the situation.

What is the state of censorship in Tunisia currently?

This incident is unprecedented in Tunisia's post-2011 history, and it highlights the severe threat to freedom of expression, particularly as the authorities mobilize crowds and supporters to silence opposition and dissent. As a result, I have been subjected to thousands of insults and threats from the president's supporters, a form of violence that will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on other opinion holders.

Despite this hostile environment, there are still activists who are bravely resisting. al-Kitab Bookstore, for example, has decided to display my book in its storefront, surrounded by a red iron chain and statements condemning the banning and confiscation of books. The bookstore has also included caricatures of a person burning books to make a powerful statement against censorship.

While the official media has attacked me in defense of the president and his regime, I have been heartened to see cultural and political figures standing in solidarity with me and defending freedom of expression.

How has the ban on your book impacted you and the people of Tunisia?

For years, I succeeded in building a large readership base who discovered my work, especially at book fairs where I held book signings. These readers found themselves disappointed as my book was not available at the publishing house’s booth, despite having come from all over the country to purchase my book on the opening day. The threats, insults, and false accusations of having dealings with Israel due to the translation of my novel into Hebrew led to further calls for my arrest and the burning and banning of my books. The safety of my family in Tunisia was also at risk, and I hold President Kais Saied and his regime accountable for any harm that may come to them.

On the positive side, another part of the population discovered the reality of this regime, which has become terrified of books and authors. Furthermore, the Tunisian opposition has put aside their ideological differences to defend democracy. The attack on me, despite my political independence, was clear evidence that the coup regime would not spare anyone, regardless of their leftist, Islamist, progressive affiliations, or even independence as in my case. In fact, this was another reason for the attack on me, as they could not find any charges to accuse me of, so they fabricated a story of normalization with Israel, which they had accused me of two years ago. My life was threatened, so I left my job at the Ministry of Culture and came to Canada. All of this was due to the success of my novel, which was translated into several languages, including Hebrew.

What do you hope for the people of Tunisia when it comes to freedom of expression and censorship?

That we, as free writers and artists from different places, will continue to resist this tyranny and defend our right to freedom of expression. This is why I have been working on this book for the past two years, to respond to the violations committed by the authorities against Tunisians. We can never accept this situation, and to emphasize our resistance, I included a statement from the great Canadian writer Margaret Atwood as a preface to the book: "There is a silence. But sometimes it's as dangerous not to speak." We must speak out against oppression and censorship, and stand together in solidarity to protect the freedom of expression and the rights of writers and artists everywhere.