A BOOK BUYER IN TUNISIA
Details some of the daily activities of a librarian from an American University who is endeavoring to locate book sources in North Africa. The various structural obstacles to this effort are described, along with the successes acheived. The account offers readers in advanced countries a vivid picture of the publishing and bookselling infastructure in a Third World country.
This is part one of a report of a library acquisitions trip made in June and July 1990 by the Middle Eastern Studies Librarian of the University of Texas at Austin. Mr. Sepehri’s journey encompassed Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. We begin this segment of the report on 15 June 1990, with the arrival of Mr. Sepehri in his Tunis hotel. A continuation of his account, which illuminates some of the problems of access to books in the Third World, will appear in a later issue. — Ed.
Friday, 15 June 1990
I made some telephone calls but did not go out because of an upset stomach and lack of sleep. The bookstores would not open until 9:30 on Saturday morning, so I bought a map of the city of Tunis and began marking addresses of the bookstores and institutions that I was planning to visit. I had secured these addresses from the Book World Directory of the Arab Countries, Turkey and Iran, travel reports of Library of Congress librarians to North Africa, or from the Library of Congress office in Cairo.
I visited two bookstores on Saturday morning. C.E.R.E.S. Productions (at 6, Ave. Abderrahman Azzam) is a publishing outfit with a fairly large warehouse of books in Arabic and French by Tunisian authors. They also carry books written by French authors about Tunisia. I selected about 100 books, but since it was Saturday, they would close at 12:30 p.m. and could not invoice them until early the following week. So I went to Claire Fontaine, (4, Rue d’Alger in the downtown area), mainly a French bookstore but also with good Arabic publications. Here I found 85 Arabic and four French titles pertinent to our subjects and left the store without an invoice for the same reason as given by C.E.R.E.S. Saturday afternoon and Sunday I was confined to the hotel recuperating from my stomach problem.
Monday, 18 June 1990
I had an appointment with Mr. Richard Underland at the Centre Culturel Americaine (U.S.I.S.) at 8:30 a.m. During my stay in Cairo, the Library of Congress office had sent cables to their U.S.I.S. contacts in Tunis, Algiers, Casablanca, and Rabat, asking them to accept books collected by me in those cities and send them to Cairo for forwarding to our library. We had agreed that the University of Texas would pay for shipment costs. I had called Mr. Underland soon after my arrival in Tunis and he had agreed to see me on Monday morning. When I arrived at the security–tight U.S.I.S. office, Mr. Underland received me warmly and arranged through one of his administrative aides to accept book boxes from me and to ship them via the U.S. diplomatic pouch to Cairo. I realized later on that it would have been next to impossible for me to have books shipped directly to America from Tunisia or Algeria.
Then went to see Mr. Rabii Bannouri, the U.S.I.S. library director, whom I had met at U.S.I.S. library in Cairo one day before leaving to Tunis. I asked him some questions about the state of research and publishing in Tunisia and obtained a few names and telephone numbers. He recommended that I should go to the Centre Documentation Nationale (CDN), the National Library of Tunisia, and the Institut Superieur de Documentation. I first took a taxi to CDN (at Nahj 8000, Shari’Khayr al–Din Basha) and had great difficulty finding it. The taxi driver drove up and down the side streets for quite a while and then told me there is no such place and that I should not waste his time. I got out of the taxi and asked at least half a dozen people on Shari’Khayr al–Din Basha about the address. Finally I was led by a kind person through the back alleys to the Centre. The director, Mr. ’Abd al–Baqi, was not there, but I met Mrs. Jowdah Bakir, one of his assistants, who led me into a reading room with a small reference collection and a few readers at two large tables. About five employees were busy organizing the clippings cut from newspapers. There was no brochure to describe the activities of the Centre; but obviously it was engaged in recording and organizing current information about cultural activities. I saw several clippings relating to publishing, literary forums, book distribution problems and the like.
They had two publications of their own that interested me. Guide des services d’information en Tunisie (GIT) is a useful guide to both domestic and foreign institutes disseminating information about Tunis, with personal and corporate name indexes at the end. The work needs to be updated, though, as none of the institutions I visited was at the address given. A new edition is in fact under compilation and I was promised to be sent a copy as soon as it appears — “God willing” (“Insha’ Allah” as she said in Arabic). Mrs. Bakir kindly let me have the second copy of their old edition free of charge although she jokingly added that I could not have it free if it were an updated edition and a useful one. Another publication I saw there could not be purchased, since it was the only remaining copy: a guide, in Arabic, to Tunisian books and serials that were published in 1985. This bibliography had been issued by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. She then suggested that I see Mr. Mustapha Ben Soyah, Directeur de l’Edition et de la Diffusion, Ministere de l’Information, 39, Rue Asdrubal. I took a taxi there and was given free copies of several government publications including the Constitution of Tunis, collections of the Tunisian presidential speeches, and several maps of the city of Tunis and the country. I took these acquisitions in two packages to the hotel.
Stores did not open until 3:00 p.m. After taking some rest I went by taxi to Claire Fontaine bookstore to collect the books I had selected on Saturday with an invoice. I paid the bill, called a telephone service taxi (it was impossible to find an empty one on the street) and carried the boxes to U.S.I.S. Since I had arrived there a few minutes later than 4:30 p.m., their normal closing time, the security checking at the gate was extraordinary. But I was finally allowed to leave the book boxes in the small guardhouse to be passed on to the responsible person the next day.
From there, I took a taxi to Dar al–’Arabiyah lil–Kitab, one of the major publishing houses in Tunis. The taxi driver assured me that he knew the address I showed him on a piece of paper. When we got to Al–Manar, the district where the publishing house is located, he stopped in front of a building with a sign and insisted that was the place I was looking for. I inquired inside the building and was made fun of by two men and three women who were having a small party. They pointed to another building nearby. However, the taxi driver still insisted that this was the place. Being in no mood to argue with him any more, I paid his fare and walked to the building that had been pointed out to me. There was a bookstore in that commercial building, but not the publishing house I was looking for. The owner of the bookstore thought my address was about 50 meters down the road from his store. I walked for ten minutes and still could not find it. A young man, seeing the sweat and dust on my face, came out from his cigarette kiosk and walked with me a few steps, pointing to a gas station about three blocks away. He was not sure, though, where the Muhi al–Din al–Qilibi street was. I walked to the gas station and checked the street around it. Finally I saw Dar al–Arabiyah lil–Kitab in nice Arabic calligraphy on the face of a new apartment building. Unfortunately, the entrance gate was locked. A man from the other end of the street came and told me that I was late by two hours.
Tuesday, 19 June 1990
At 8:30 a.m. I went to the bank, cashed some travelers’ checks, and took a taxi to Dar al–Arabiyah lil–Kitab. This time, I had no difficulty telling the taxi driver how to get there. I showed a staff person the photocopies of some title pages that I had brought with me from Cairo, including a few Libyan publications. However, I discovered that this was not a bookstore but a publisher that sells only its own publications. Nevertheless, one of their employees agreed to search for the titles I was looking for and call me the next day. Then I was introduced to Mr. Habib, the marketing officer who led me to a room where sample copies of their publications were on display. I selected 86 titles, mostly relating to literary criticism and modern literature. Then it took them until 1:30 p.m. to prepare an invoice. I paid the bill and took the books to U.S.I.S.
As I was leaving U.S. I. S., Mr. Bannouri, the librarian, saw me and we had another informative meeting. He called a few people from different institutions and informed them of my mission and my interest in visiting them. Among them, he called Dr. ’Abd al–Jalil al–Timimi, a faculty member at the history department, University of Tunis, at his newly established center for Ottoman studies in Zaghouan, about 60 kilometers from Tunis, and made an appointment for me to see him at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday.
I went back to the hotel expecting a message from C. E. R. E. S. Productions about the books I had selected from their warehouse on Saturday. Sure enough, the message was there. So I had my lunch and called them at 3:00 p.m. to tell them that I would be there shortly to pay the bill and pick up the books. It was a very busy time of the day and I waited 45 minutes at the street corner to take a taxi to C. E. R. E. S. without success. Only three taxis stopped but they did not know the address. I went back to my hotel room, called C.E.R.E.S. and asked them if they could bring the books to me in the hotel since I could not go to them. The man in the warehouse said he could and that I should meet him at the hotel entrance door in half an hour. I waited for about 50 minutes outside the hotel door but he did not show up. I went back to my room and called Mr. Karim Ben Smail, a graduate of the University of Minnesota in computer science, whom I had met at C. E. R. E. S. on Saturday, and asked him to clarify the situation for me. He checked around and found the boxes with an invoice. I asked him to leave a message stating that I would pick the books up Wednesday afternoon.
It was already 6:00 p.m. too late to visit another bookstore. So I called Mr. ’Abd al–Hafeez Mansour, the Library of Congress representative in Tunis, and asked him for a meeting in the hotel. He came at 8:00 p.m. with his son. I was hoping that he could collect Libyan publications on the Tunisian market for us. But he said that was not so easy and that only through a special trip to the Libyan–Tunisian border and through an authorization from the Ministry of Culture could he acquire Libyan publications. Political differences between the two countries are a hindrance to their cultural exchanges. In the meantime, he sold me several scholarly publications that either he had authored himself or were published by Bayt al–Hikmah, a research and translation institution he is affiliated with. He also gave me a list of the publications he had sent to the Library of Congress office in Cairo and asked me to select titles from it. We would meet Wednesday afternoon at his institute to discuss the list and tour the place.
Wednesday, 20 June 1990
I got up at 6:00 a.m., had my breakfast, and took a taxi to Bab al–Fallah, a station where one takes a shared rental car to Zaghouan. The trip took about one hour and it was smooth except for the part from the Car–Bus Station in Zaghouan to the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Ottomanes, Moriques, de Documentation et d’Information (CEROMDI). When I left the rental car in Zaghouan, I could not find a public pay phone to call Professor ’Abd al–Jalil al–Timimi, and ask him to pick me up. There are no taxis in Zaghouan. So I made a deal with a pick–up truck driver who was sitting idly by to take me to the Center, the name of which I had on a piece of paper in both Arabic and French. He assured me he knew where it was and drove through narrow streets for about 15 minutes, finally stopping at the entrance of a hotel overlooking the town. When I protested that I was not looking for a hotel, he tapped his head as a sign of his stupidity. Then, as if something had inspired him, he said this time you will be driven to the right place. After driving toward the town for a few minutes, I asked a passerby about the Center, and he said he knew the address. So I let him ride in the front seat of the truck and lead us to the place. He took us to a newly built house with its large wooden gate open and a big wolf dog in the yard. There was no sign of the Center, but he insisted that the man that I was looking for was here. After a few honks and knocks on the gate, a short bespectacled man looked out from behind the window. When he saw the three of us at the gate, he came out and asked me to go in. He offered me a drink of bottled mineral water and began describing his Center. Then he drove me to it in his Mercedes.
In the middle of a vast, scenic and partially walled area, a white–domed building looms more like a mausoleum than a research center. But inside, with a computer, a few typewriters, and stacks of reference books and archival materials, the nucleus of a research library for supporting the goals of the Center is taking shape. Dr. al–Timimi has transferred some three to four thousand volumes of his own private collection, and has divided them up by country. He has also subscribed to a number of specialized periodicals related to Ottoman–Arab studies and Morisko culture. There is a planning blueprint that envisages a number of additions including offices, dormitories, study rooms, etc., which Dr. al–Timimi hopes will be completed in the next three to five years.
The Center organizes conferences every other year and invites scholars from all over the world, publishing their proceedings no later than one year after the date of the conference. So far, the proceedings of four conferences in Zaghouan plus one in Cambridge, England, have been published. These publications are only available from the Center and cannot be purchased from commercial vendors. The first issue of an in-house publication relating to the Center's activities has just appeared. I acquired a set of all the publications for our library.
My visit to the Center took about one hour but the trip back to Tunis took more than three and a half hours. Dr. al-Timimi gave me a ride to the Car–Bus Station where I had to wait for more than one hour before I could get a seat on the bus going to Tunis. I could not go back to the city in a rental car, because for every five-seat rental car there were at least 20 passengers competing for places. With a briefcase and a box of the Center's publications with me, it was not easy to run and throw myself in before the cars were filled to capacity. So, after an hour of pacing up and down between the car and bus riding points, I felt lucky to secure a seat on a bus that had just been fixed for a flat tire and some electrical problems. The bus was driven at a low speed and stopped all along the way to pick up passengers on signal. When the bus, absolutely packed, was about halfway between Zaghouan and Tunis, a transportation company official stopped it to make sure that each passenger held a ticket. Two of the passengers could not readily find their tickets, and consequently, a fist fight took place in the tightly packed aisle that made the situation even more intolerable. Finally, thanks to the mediation of a whitebearded old man, the combatants were separated and the commotion ended with the two passengers buying new tickets.
It was a great relief when the bus arrived at the terminal in Tunis. After a quick snack, I went to the C.E.R.E.S., collected my purchases and headed to U.S.I.S. Next on the agenda was my 4:00 p.m. meeting with Mr. Mansour at Bayt al–Hikmah in Carthage, about 18 miles away from Tunis; fortunately the taxi driver took me to the institute without any problem. As I walked in, a receptionist gave me the bad news that Mr. Mansour had already left his office and would not return before the next morning. Luckily, I had asked the taxi driver to wait outside for me in case I needed to go back. I was back in the hotel at 5:00 p.m. and called Mr. Mansour to find out what had gone wrong with the appointment. He was apologetic but blamed most of the mishap on his old German car that needed some repair. He then invited me to his house to see some more publications. At 6:30 p.m., he picked me up, drove me to his house in Aryanah, and showed me several boxes of Tunisian books. I selected a number of these and paid for them, after which Mr. Mansour drove me to the hotel.
Thursday, 21 June 1990
I visited Sharikah al–Tunisiyah lil–Tawzi’ (Societe Tunisienne de Diffusion) at 5 Ave. de Carthage, one of the three major bookstores in Tunis. They had a fairly good display of Tunisian imprints, many of which I had already acquired from C. E. R. E. S., Claire Fontaine, or others. The National Library at Souk El Attarine was the next stop. Mr. Ibrahim Shabbuh, the director, was ill but I met Mr. Rida Atiyah, the general secretary, who gave me a brief introduction to the library. The building had been made into a public library by the French in 1910, and after independence (1956) it continued to serve as a public library until 1972 when it became the National Library. It has since become a depository for Tunisian publications. Also, manuscripts from al–Zaytunah Mosque and other institutions have been transferred there.
One of the library’s major roles is the preparation and publication of the Tunisian National Bibliography, the most recent being the volume for 1987 printed in 1988. The volumes for 1988 and 1989 publications are both being edited and prepared for publication. Another project is the preparation of a regional bibliography for Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, and Morocco to be divided into five–year periods. The volumes for 1985–1989 are, according to Mr. Atiyah, almost completed and should be published in the near future. Then they will go back by five years to cover 1980–1984. I was given a tour of the bibliography section by Ms. Samia Bedoui–Kamarli, who is the head of the publications department. Interest was expressed in having an exchange program with our university. I was given a list of their publications from
which we could select and request on exchange. On the way out, I took a look at the library’s temperature–controlled manuscripts collection room where some 20,000 manuscripts are shelved.
Within walking distance was the University of Tunis, where I visited the publications department at the faculty of social sciences and humanities. The department head showed me a number of publications, most of them in French. Their hope is that Arabic will be emphasized both for instruction and research in the future and that the ratio of their French and Arabic books will eventually be reversed. Finally, I visited two more bookstores on Habib Bourguiba Street but they were more concentrated on popular reading,and had few scholarly publications. In any case, I had already exhausted my book allocation for Tunisia and was ready to go to Algeria. I took the last batch of books to U.S.I.S., and checked out of my hotel.
About the Author
Abazar Sepehri is Middle Eastern Studies Librarian at the University of Texas at Austin.
© 1991 Abazar Sepehri.
Top of Page | Table of Contents