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Five great books set in Tunisia

4th July 2018

Five great books set in Tunisia – the country is the latest destination in our ‘Five great books set in…’ series.

Tunisia occupies 165,000 square kilometres in north-west Africa, and is home to almost 12 million people. Bordered by Algeria to the west and Libya to the south-east, the country also claims the Mediterranean as a northerly neighbour and the vast Sahara desert to the south. With a host of conquerors and occupiers through the ages, and most recently a French colony, Tunisia only obtained independence in 1956.

The country’s recent history has been dominated by revolution and terrorist attacks, badly affecting its tourism industry.

Tunisian literature exists in Arabic and French, with Arabic dating back as far as the 7th century.

Here are five books set in this intriguing country.

Five great books set in Tunisia1. A Tunisian Tale by Hassouna Mosbahi

After ne’er-do-wells spread rumors about a widowed mother’s weak moral character among the people of a slum on the outskirts of Tunis that festers with migrants who have come to the metropolis from the heartland in search of a better life, her twenty-year-old son takes matters into his own hands and commits an unspeakable crime.

An imaginative and disturbing novel told from the alternating viewpoints of this unrepentant sociopath, as he sits and fumes on death row but willingly guides us through his juvenile exploits and twisted memories, and his murdered mother, who calmly gives an account of her interrupted life from beyond the grave, A Tunisian Tale introduces the narrative talents of Hassouna Mosbahi to an English-language audience for the first time, as he confronts both taboos of Tunisian society and the boundaries of conventional storytelling.

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Five great books set in Tunisia2. The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah – set in Tunisia and Morocco

Writer and film-maker Tahir Shah – in his 30s, married, with two small children – was beginning to wilt under brash, cramped, ennervating British city life. Flying in the face of friends’ advice, he longed to fulfil his dream of finding a place bursting with life, colour, history and romance – somewhere far removed from London – in which to raise a family. Childhood memories of holidaying with his parents, and of a grandfather he barely knew, led him to Morocco and to Dar Khalifa’, a sprawling and, with the exception of its jinns, long-abandoned residence on the edge of Casablanca’s shanty town that, rumour had it, once belonged to the city’s Caliph.

And so begins Tahir Shah’s gloriously vivid, funny, affectionate and compelling account of how he and his family – aided, abetted and so often hindered by a wonderful cast of larger-than-life local characters: guardians, gardeners, builders, artisans, bureacrats and police (not forgetting the jinns, the spirits that haunt the house) – returned the Caliph’s House to its former glory and learned to make this most exotic and alluring of countries their home.

The Caliph’s House is a story of home-ownership abroad – full of the attendant dramas, anxieties and frustrations – but it is also much more. Woven into the narrative is the author’s own journey of self-discovery, of learning about a grandfather he hardly knew, and of coming to love the magical, multi-faceted, contradictory country that is Morocco.

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3. The Tremor of Forgery by Patricia Highsmith

Howard Ingham finds it strange that no one has written to him since he arrived in Tunisia – neither the film director that he is supposed to be meeting in Tunis, nor his lover in New York who is, he hopes, missing him.

While he waits around at a beach resort, unable to get going on the film script he is there to write, he starts work on a new novel, about a man living an amoral double life. Howard also befriends a fellow American who has a taste for Scotch and a suspicious interest in the Soviet Union, and a Dane who appears to distrust Arabs intensely.

When bad news finally arrives from home, Howard thinks he may as well stay and continue writing, despite the tremors in the air of violence, tensions and ambiguous morals.

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4. Tunisian Dreams by Ivor Rawlinson

Celia, an ex-BBC journalist turned film director, is in Tunisia a year before the Arab Spring with her archaeologist boyfriend, Sam, looking for locations for her next film. She comes across a story she cannot resist. She does not know that it will change her life, blunt her emotions, but make her name.

Whilst Celia is out of contact for weeks following her story, Sam thinks she’s found someone else and falls for the attractive and rich Alison Grainger. Sam, who has always been money conscious, has his own lucrative project: to turn one of Tunisia’s most interesting Roman ruins into a living Roman-era town, with actors in togas, nudes in the public baths and gladiators – financed by the cynical, immensely rich Mr Ayeb.

But Sam has a dilemma: he’s uncovered something sensational at the site. It needs excavating but to do so would hold up the project – and Mr Ayeb’s projects are never held up. In a beautiful country ripe for revolt, this is a story of a man and two women: secrets suppressed, feminine curiosity, an epic quest and migration from Africa – the problem no one wants to face.

Readers are given fascinating insights into the rites of the citizens of Roman Africa in 200 AD, and engaged in the debate about commercialising our heritage and the plight of sub-Saharan Africans looking for a better life. The characters are true to life: interesting but flawed. Suspense is maintained to the very end when the threads are drawn together in an unexpected, spectacular and profoundly moving ending.

Written by an ex-Ambassador to Tunisia, with an assured style and great sensitivity, this is an exceptionally readable and thoughtful page-turner.

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5. Daughter, Disappeared by Fiona MacBain

Love, death, culture clash, escape.

1994: Jane has no idea of the horrors in store when she plunges into a new life in North Africa with her recently discovered sister, Crystal. When she falls in love with Ali, she believes happiness is within her grasp. But Ali persists in digging into secrets that Crystal and her brutal husband have been hiding, and Jane’s idyllic life starts to crumble. How far will Jane go to save herself and her sister?

2013: Almost twenty years after rebuilding her life back in London, Jane’s fragile peace is destroyed when her daughter, Anna, disappears to Tunisia in search of her father. Jane follows, desperate to prevent her falling into the clutches of the people Jane escaped from all those years ago.

Daughter Disappeared…an emotional roller-coaster for anyone who loves a hard-hitting drama.

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Andrew for the TripFiction Team

Which titles would you add to this list? Any you would like to add to our database?. Please leave your thoughts in the Comments box below.

Other posts in our ‘Five great books set in…’ series:

Five great books set in Naples

Five great books set in Dublin

Five great books set in Dubai

Five great books set in Portugal

Five great books set in San Francisco

Five great books set in Guernsey

Five great books set in Mexico 

Five great books set across the Alps

And our ‘Ten great books set in…’ series includes:

Ten great books set in Paris

Ten great books set in New York

Ten great books set in London

Ten great books set in Rome

Ten great books set in Berlin

Ten great books set in Russia

Ten great books set in Spain

Ten great books set in Amsterdam

Ten great books set in Thailand

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