Gretchen Head

Gretchen Head holds a PhD in Arabic literature from the University of Pennsylvania and is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities and Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. At Berkeley, she teaches upper level undergraduate and graduate courses that widely address the issue of how the Arabic tradition can be incorporated into new paradigms of world literature with a particular focus on the intersection of geography and narrative. While she is completing a monograph on space and belonging in Moroccan narrative in Arabic (15th-20th centuries), her interest in the relationship between space and literary representation has led to an additional coedited volume in progress on the city in premodern and modern Arabic literature. She has published articles and reviews inAlif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Akhbār al-adab, Arab Studies Journal, The Journal of Arabic Literature, Jadaliyya_ Ezine, Portal 9, Warscapes, Women’s Studies Quarterly,and The Lebanon Daily Star and has a book chapter on Tunisian women’s narratives of resistance under Ben Ali forthcoming in Gender Politics and the Arab Spring (UNEP/Brandeis University Press). She has been a contributor to Words without Bordersand is the translator of Mohamed Choukri’s Paul Bowles, the Recluse of Tangier, published by Telegram Books in 2008.

Gretchen Head’s project:

Contesting the City: Dissident Writing in the Final Decade of Ben Ali’s Rule

This work represents a preliminary investigation of what role literature may have played in undermining governmental authority in the decade leading up to the massive demonstrations in Tunisia in 2010. While literature lacks the highly visible quality of many of the acts of resistance that we commonly associate with dissent – demonstrations, riots, insurrections – it nevertheless gives voice to injustices that are otherwise suffered unheard; it contributes to a genealogy of resistance, to a peoples’ preparedness to act when the catalytic moment arrives. Here I will address two specific novels and their use of urban space as a form of contestation. Fadilah alShabbi’s al-Adl(Justice) and Fathiyah Hashimi’s Maryam tasqut min yad Allah(Maryam Falls from the Hand of God) offer two representations of the Tunisian capital written in the final decade of Ben Ali’s rule. Like many authors working in countries peripheral to the world literary system, these writers are in the paradoxical position of being both consistently recognized as important literary figures in their home context of Tunisia while receiving little attention in the rest of the Arab world and beyond. For the most part, their works remain untranslated, and their choice of Arabic over French has undoubtedly served to restrict their novels’ potential for circulation. Though it is regrettable that these works have not been read more widely, the limited readership of these texts allows us to interpret their content as a direct, if abstract, challenge to the Tunisian government designed for an unquestionably localized audience rather than foreign consumption. Al-Shabbi’s al-Adl, written in 2005 and banned for three years by Ben ‘Ali’s government before it was available to the public, is a merciless political invective veiled only by its use of direct allegory taken from traditional modes of storytelling; it is an accusation targeting both the State’s symbolic strategies of surveillance and its failure to bring justice to its people.

Al-Shabbi, the cousin of revolutionary poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi, uses the space of the city to show the severe restrictions of lived authoritarian rule. In Hashimi’s 2009 Maryam Falls from the Hand of God, the novel turns around a dialectic of division between a restricted outside space of protests and police crackdowns in Tunis and an equally claustrophobic inside space (a literal brothel). The text’s heterotopic spaces – the brothel, a cemetery, a shantytown, and echoes of saints’ shrines past and present – are sites that simultaneously represent, invert, and contest the real localities of contemporary Tunis. Tunisia’s police state before the political transformations of 2010 is depicted through the dual tropes of claustrophobia and agoraphobia; though the line of demarcation between outside and inside remains intact, both spaces bear the marks of prison and the text’s significance lies in the subtle forms of dissent embedded in its inscribed spatial relations.




OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Barbara Bishay (July 17, 2014). Gretchen Head. eume-city. Retrieved July 20, 2024 from

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