“Misunderstandings”, by Azza Filali, depicts female portraits as rich as they are endearing

A room, chairs, a little tea and a few telephones to offer to the first arrivals, it is with this device that Emna, in her early forties, a lawyer from Tunis, hopes to lure the customer

“Misunderstandings”, by Azza Filali, depicts female portraits as rich as they are endearing

A room, chairs, a little tea and a few telephones to offer to the first arrivals, it is with this device that Emna, in her early forties, a lawyer from Tunis, hopes to lure the customer. We are in Djerba, an island known for its beautiful sunshine, its small villages, its beaches and its hotels where it is good to stay even if tourists are rare.

In this postcard setting, the lawyer on mission for the European Union has set down her bags. She has two months to “make women aware of their civil rights, such as having an identity card, going to vote, not being mistreated by men…” and writing a report with a view to a more aid plan. wide intended for all Djerbians.

The novel is called Misunderstandings. And, in fact, very quickly Emna understands that her investigation should be classified among those beautiful concepts thought up far away in the offices of international organizations, but which turn out to be false good ideas once on the ground. In Tezdaïne, women are not fooled. Some make fun of the project: “And you went all the way to tell them that? But they don't care about your stories, they live their lives! And then, with the amount of work they do, they don’t have time to chat…”

In others, it provokes anger: “You must be one of those girls who have degrees and time to waste… What do we call them again? Ah yes, civil society! You remind me of those who visited us almost a year ago: tight jeans, like you, sunglasses stuck on their blond-streaked hair, speaking Arabic as if they had a hot potato in their mouth. They questioned us about our work in the fields, our hours, our pay. They wrote down what we said to pass on to interested parties, which they claimed! But those interested weren’t interested and we didn’t see anything coming. »

A mezzo vocal tone

It takes time and patience for Emna to see the real problems emerge one by one: burdensome traditions, impossible financial autonomy, theft of inheritance, inanity or violence in marital relations... A general distress is expressed in all these women, all the more difficult to live with as it remains carefully hidden behind a “social conformism, heavier than a leaden screed”. Faced with such a situation, the question of civil rights seems totally insignificant.

As for Emna, the women's confidences inevitably end up generating in her questions about her own life. There too, the state of affairs is distressing: a job from which she cannot make a living, a depressed husband who lets his relationship fall apart while relying despite this on the financial resources of his wife who has become a nurse...

Emna needs something else, but doesn’t dare think it: “To live? I probably wasn’t given the right instructions,” she sighs. However, it would be enough for him to change his perspective somewhat, for example by taking an interest in Lotfi, this charming and interesting man he met when he arrived in Djerba. But he would have to have the audacity to defy the rumors about “this island which is an immense apple, from which nothing escapes”.

The mezzo voce tone of this novel, a subtle signature of the writer Azza Filali, of whom this is the fifteenth work, allows a gentle entry into the plot. Like Houria and the other women who, one by one, push open the door to Emna's premises, the content of the subjects discussed gains importance and seriousness.

The author thus leads us to a panorama of the condition of women, emphasizing the parity of the difficulties and trajectories of the latter, as well as the fatalism which ultimately takes hold of all, pushing them to accept their fate rather than to rebel against destiny. Because the denunciation of the injustices to which they are subject – from their undervalued salary to the violence inflicted on them – (“My husband beats me every time I express an opinion that indisposes him.”) can be prove to be too strong an awareness to bear, risking leading to tragedy. Azza Filali also has the finesse of not making Emna, the Tunisian intellectual, superior to other women: on the contrary, she makes her heroine a helpless being but who, by dint of questioning herself, will gradually emancipate herself.

Written in a fluid style where causticity peeks out from behind appearances, Misunderstandings offers the reader female portraits that are as rich as they are endearing. No revenge here, no female revolution, but murmurs, a rumor that grows, solidarity that asserts itself... and ultimately a text with a much more political content than it seems. A novel in which many women around the world, desperately waiting for change, will be reflected.