This Tilting World [Pièces détachées] by Colette Fellous | Book Review

“I say, too: could all of us, perhaps, without knowing it, the French, the Italian, the Maltese, the Jews, the Greeks, the Muslims of this country, we who watch and play together at the café, in this small nowhere-town, yes could all of us already be refugees, already hostages or prisoners, or even disappeared?”

“In Tunisia I was in exile, something rang false, I couldn’t put my finger on it, yet it genuinely was my native country (…). I learned young to be torn in two, not to be shocked by the feeling, to breathe through it. To love leaving and then returning, to be always between two or three cities, to keep several languages equally in play and even not to understand everything of a place in order better to grasp the sensations, the nuances.”

The Tilting World by the Tunisian – French writer, Colette Fellous is a beautiful, enriching book, an ode to the author’s home country, Tunisia, infused with lyricism, engulfed in a veil of melancholy and sadness, full of profound reflections on the meaning of home, forced exile, belonging, multiple identities, and loss as well as trauma, violence and history shaping one’s life.

As another atrocity is committed, the narrator of this book decides “to disengage” with her home country by leaving Tunisia behind. Reflecting on her own life, that of her parents and ancestors and drawing inspiration from many French literary masterpieces, the narrator pens down a story of resilience which takes shape of a love letter to her ‘home’ and her sense of belonging. Colette Fellous invites us to learn about Tunisia’s Jewish community and its exodus as a result of numerous political turmoils starting in the 1950s and lasting throughout 1960s. The exploration of anti-Semitism occurs throughout the entire book, even though the word: anti-Semitism or discrimination is not mentioned even once.

The form in which This Tilting World is written is unique; it is a combination of an autobiography and a novel, but it is neither just a novel nor just an autobiography. It is an elegy, a witness statement, a memoir, a passage from the history book where the narrator emphatically scrutinises different stages of her life – childhood, adolescence, adulthood – while living in Tunisia, and then in the exile in France. Through giving the voice to people who are already gone, Colette Fellous takes us on a Proustian journey of self-reflection on the meaning of home as well as individual and generational trauma.

The Tilting World is also a portrayal of various cultural, social and political changes in Tunisia taking place over the period of a few decades which forced the narrator’s Jewish – Tunisian family (and most if not all Jewish families) to leave Tunisia and seek the place they can call home somewhere else. The author reflects on the Jews’ great exodus from the Muslim countries starting around 1956 through 1967, with each political turmoil, the increase in tensions between communities was noticeable in addition to administrative hassles, the unjust imprisonment, the small but regular humiliations of the Jewish members of the society. This book constitutes an exploration of the immense impact that exile can have on the ones who are forced to leave their home, their cultural heritage.

Colette Fellous invites the reader to accompany her in this exploration. The reader is a silent but listening participant in this conversation between the narrator and her past, providing the foundation for creating almost a cathartic experience for all the parties.

Tunisia of the narrator’s childhood is the land of beauty, enchantment, light,  warmth, vibrant colours, delicious dishes which is juxtaposed with Tunisia of her adulthood, the land of political turmoil and deterioration, a surge of radicalism, terrorism, emotional suffocation. France, even though far from perfect, is portrayed as a guarantor of safety and dignity for the Jewish community in Tunisia.

Following the attack on the beach in Sousse (Tunisia) in 2015 where the terrorist killed thirty-eight tourists, the narrator of The Tilting World is compelled to say a farewell to Tunisia through recalling memories of her childhood and those of her parents and passersby’s on the street, her ancestors who lived in this land for centuries.

Colette Fellous takes us through the stages of personal and family trauma. She recalls the recent death of her close friend as well as other recent atrocities including a terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan massacre, the hostage taking in the Jewish supermarket, people killed in the Parisian cafes: Belle Equipe, Carillon, Petit Cambodge, the terrorist attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, the chaos in Libya, the war in Syria, killings in Bamako (Mali) and in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), the brutal murder of the Jewish – French boy, Ilan Halimi in France which was ethnically, racially and ideologically motivated, the Toulouse and and Mountauban 2012 killings of the Jewish children, rabbi, French soldiers by the Islamic extremist. When reflecting on the attack in Sousse, the narrator remembers that the terrorist told the Tunisians that he was going to kill ‘only foreigners‘ – she recalls that the Jews of Tunisia were also referred to as ‘foreigners‘ during the previous political turmoil despite having lived in this land for centuries. The narrator also recounts the assassination of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist who was murdered by the Islamic extremists in 2002 and was forced to say “I am Jewish my father is Jewish my mother is Jewish” before his life was taken away by his captors.

The narrator asks how we as a human race came to these acts of barbarity and chaos. She questions her own upbringing and the innocence of her father resulting in her lack of preparation to witness the atrocities being committed in the world. Her father insisted on relying on kindness, morality, beauty, and justice.

“About barbarity and human chaos, about ugliness. You told us nothing of this, never a thing, not a word even about the camps, you did not want to hurt or frighten us, but your innocence – that too you passed on to us, and now we too are trapped, without arms or protection.”

Terrorist attack on the beach is Sousse which left thirty eight people dead was a culmination. The constant threat that the author had felt since her early childhood and explores it in depth in the book materialised into forty minutes of terror in 2015.

The narrator asks herself what terror and violence do to the society and its impact on the individual physical and emotional health? She contemplates the lives lost in all the terror attacks, people in the office, a supermarket, relaxing on the beach. She also remembers the lives lost in the Mediterranean sea and the recent death of her closed friend in the accident. How the ones who still live relate to the death of those who used to live around them?

Throughout This Tilting World the question on the meaning of History and its role in shaping and creating our lives is explored. The narrator reflects on the impact of becoming ‘a foreigner’ in your own country, a place of your birth, and the realisation that your ethnicity, religious denomination can define you as an enemy, in the eyes of some of your countrymen, despite you being born in the same place like they were.

“(…) I’d like to escape it, Id like to be elsewhere. I am not from here and I know that only by leaving will I save everything that lies before me now. (…) Why am I not one of them? No one explains this to us, we can only be there and understand (…). There I learned to read this alien land, alien, to the one where I thought I belonged, this land where we were in fact merely guests, though we only half realised it.”

The meaning of language is also addressed in the book. ‘Language’ is depicted as a mirror of the arduous journey the individual and their forebears had to make in search for the place called home. The narrator recalls memories of her grandparents in Tunisia speaking Italian and Ladino, her parents speaking Arabic as their first language, the narrator and her siblings speaking French. There is a beautiful passage on the narrator’s father’s ability to speak multiple languages with distinct accents reflecting the history of his life and that of his ancestors.

“ My father grew up here [Tunisia], without a true mother tongue, for his main language was Arabic yet he had to give that up to learn French at school, he then used it only to speak to his parents and, later on, his works and clients. Hebrew made its appearance only at the important ceremonites and Friday evenings (….). He never had any one whole language. They are all slightly contorted, his Arabic, his French, his Italian, he moves between languages with ease but often confuses them, and worse, they all come out in his own odd accent”.

Antisemitism is not mentioned by name in the book – but the narrator shares with us memories of times when as a child she heard appaling story of a Jewish person being beaten or attacked which resulted in the Jews vanishing from the public sphere of the Tunisian towns, streets; they made themesleves unnoticeable – once the anxiety dispearsed they would go out again and be a part of the Tunisian public. The narrator admits that as a child and adolescent in Tunisia, she lived in fear, ‘fear of an invisible violence’ – this is what shaped her. She sensed her parents’ fear and fragility in Tunisia that they inhabited since their birth and ‘perhaps even long before’. The author refers here to the generational trauma of her family and families similar to hers.

The narrator’s father had to leave Tunisia at the age of sixty to rebuild his life in France. The meaning of forced exile – it is not only leaving the geographical location – it also means leaving behind many gestures, smells, tastes, memories of one’s ancestors who contributed to this country. The narrator recounts that her father kept his suffering hidden away inside – he managed to avoid feeling too much pain or he rather pretended to hide his pain in order not to be a burden for others.

“I tried to talk too of how he left Tunisia. Was he still thinking about his shop, hadn’t he found it difficult to drop everything and leave with nothing? To leave at sixty and start all over again here? He did not reply. He said only it is fine, it’s fine. (…) My father never talked about this rupture. He came to Paris aged sixty-one, a few months after my mother, abandoning the country where his ancestors had lived for centuries. Within a few months, he had to abandon his life, his profession, his house, his habits, his music, his landscape and above all his shop, which was his whole life as he used to say. Not a word of this vital rupture, never a complaint, either from him or my mother. They both still wore the same shy smiles, so as not to trouble anyone, or lean on anyone, even when they were not all right at all (…) This is the story of so many exiles. (…) How were they able to bear leaving it all behind, for ever?”

Only the narrator struggles to leave Tunisia behind. Her parents and siblings never talk about the land of their ancestors. The author is eager to maintain this connection between her and Tunisia by visiting this country on a regular basis wanting “to set her feet back in the paths of the departed, come back to what they left in the city, in the fabric of the landscapes and the air, to talk with the thousands of names buried in the Borgel cemetery, to read the love poems inscribed in the tombs’ stone slabs, to stare at the hundred – year old eucalyptuses which were already there (…).”

The narrator further shares her feelings towards Tunisia decades after leaving and years after her parents passed away:

“Ways of seasoning a dish, of speaking and thinking at lightining speed, of savouring the briefest moment’s pleasures, of sighing, of bursting into laughter right after sighing and thinking themselves in heaven just then – yes, I wanted to feel all of this again, to feel it for them.”

Throughout This Tilting World there are many reference to literature and the larger question is asked about the meaning of literature and if a written word can merely heal a feeling of disillusionment and provide comfort for belief in meaningless utopia.

There is a plethora of references to the gentle voice of Roland Barthes, Proust, Flaubert, Maupassant, Rimbaud, Nietzche, Musil, Goethe, Borges, Zweig, Pontalis. The narrator shares her feelings on the role of books in her early life. It was The Wandering Life by Maupassant written at the end of the 19th century that allowed the narrator to better understand the diversity of Tunisia of that era and that of her youth. She recalls the music of Feyrouz, Umm Kulthum, Hedi Jouini, Abdel Wahab which was often played in the cafes and food stalls. Also, music of Beethoven, Pavarotti, and the Mexican folk singer Chavela Vargas and her famous decadent song “Somos” is used a point of reference.

Memories of traditional Tunisian food is another ingredient contributing to the narrator’s identity: “couscous with pomegranate seeds, a glass of tea, pistachios, almond biscuits”, “mint leaves at the bottom of a glass jar, warm semolina in a great Nabeul vase (…), the sweet grain is flavoured with cinnamon and orange -flower water; filling the base of the vase: pomegranate juice.”

As mentioned earlier this book is the love and farewell letter to Tunisia and meditation on connections that we create throughout our lives with places, people, food, music, literature, buildings – a sense of familiarity, belonging, simply ‘home’.

“I have also loved and still love this land that is Tunisia, with a strange and powerful love. I love the city of Tunis, the Carthage coast, La Marsa, Gammarth, the little villages of the south, the complexity of the society (…). I love to trace its history, it is unique in the Arab world.”

One comes away from this book with a profound sense of sadness and nostalgia. In This Tilting World, the narrator compassionately articulates personal and generational traumas resulting from the forced exile. This book encapsulates the meaning of home, and all the ingredients that make up one’s sense of belonging.

I can’t express enough how beautifully written this book is. I highly recommend it to everyone. This Tilting World by Colette Fellous is a literary feast.

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