“Barg Ellil”, by Béchir Khraïef: a moral tale in Barbarossa’s Tunis

This is a disconcerting and exhilarating novel, the kind of literary surprise that leaves you deliciously groggy

“Barg Ellil”, by Béchir Khraïef: a moral tale in Barbarossa’s Tunis

This is a disconcerting and exhilarating novel, the kind of literary surprise that leaves you deliciously groggy. The story of a little man, dry and gnarled, mischievous enough to throw off a sheikh, pupils rolling "like tops" and calves ready to dance, who never stops sliding down the slopes of the medina of Tunis. We are in the middle of the 16th century, at a time when the fortified city trembles with a fierce crash, that of the collision between the Turks and the Spaniards, the two powers of the Mediterranean at the time.

In the shadow of the event, the little man, a young black slave named Barg Ellil ("lightning of the night"), therefore pants without respite in the alleys and leaps from refuges to hiding places, sometimes disguised as a notable or a huckster. He seems to be fleeing adversity, as if doubly hunted by his servile condition and the convulsions of great history. Yet, even when his tricks and his mischief free him from danger, he continues his escapade in a perpetual quest for movement. “He wanted to go with all sails to the wind. »

On this plot, Béchir Khraïef (1917-1983), a major author of Tunisian literature, composes a picaresque story served by colorful writing. A real bonfire where colors, sounds and smells burn in a backfiring blaze. It was high time that the masterpiece – written in 1960 – of this Arabic-speaking novelist, native of the oases of southern Tunisia, was finally brought to the attention of the French-speaking public thanks to a subtle and masterful translation by Samia Kassab-Charfi , a great pioneer of Tunisian literary heritage, which has just been published.

Political libel and adventure stories

From the first pages, the reader is caught up in the baroque of Khraïef: Barg Ellil, a slave assigned to a learned alchemist, breaks the boredom of an evening by making the shelves of vials jingle with hammers, a percussionist carried away in a trance until it devastates the laboratory. In the disaster a light emerges, the brilliance of the gaze of a beauty who furtively observed him through a skylight. From then on, Barg Ellil will not stop looking for the pretty stranger while fleeing her occultist boss launched after her in a Tunis in turmoil at the landing of the pirate Barbarossa (Khaïr-Eddine Pasha) flanked by his legions of janissaries. Over the course of his tribulations, he will link his fate to Chaâchou, a Tunisian galley slave earning his stripes as a musketeer in the service of Barbarossa, an ally of the Turks. Emancipatory friendship: “You, the slave,” said Chaâchou to Barg Ellil, “you are better than four free men. »

Béchir Khraïef's novel brilliantly combines registers. It is a moral tale, even a political libel, with its empathetic look at the marginalized people of society at the time. Enslaved Africans like Barg Ellil (a useful reminder of the importance of the slave trade on North African soil), former convicts like Chaâchou, white captives of the corsair industry or city dwellers immured in the patriarchy: so many outlaws and relegated workers working to to thwart fate or to insolently defy the upholders of the established order. Then the text becomes epic when it turns into an adventure story, with its characters enlisted in the gesture of Barbarossa crossing swords with the army of Charles V and its auxiliaries. Atmosphere of cape and dagger on the battlements of the citadel and spy intrigues in the alcoves and dungeons: Bashir Khraïef knows how to dress gravity with panache or mystery.

The narration finally becomes an urban stroll with a carnal dive into the mysteries of the medina of Tunis. Barg Ellil wanders through the caravanserai taverns ("fondouks") to Rabelaisian clients, the patios of patrician residences, the slave souks and the dark vaulted passages. We come away a little dazed from this literary cavalcade as august as it is treacherous. And we leave, melancholy, Barg Ellil rushing towards a new beginning, unable to relax despite the obstacles overcome: "He took off in the breeze of dawn. »