Mustapha Tlili’s Lion Mountain is a beautifully written book, which was banned in Tunisia due to its critique of the government and the general political situation. The novel spans the colonial times all through to the end days of the Bourguiba’s regime. This review took me a long time to write because I felt that I needed to read a bit more about Tunisian history. I have provided the links to the articles that I came across.
In 2011, after the fall of the Ben Ali regime, several previously banned books started to make an appearance on the book-shelves in stores across Tunisia. However, I was unable to find any official list of previously banned books which are now not banned anymore. So I don’t know whether or not Lion Mountain is available in Tunisia at the time of writing.
Although this book is beautifully written and it is obvious that it is a critique against the government, since I didn’t know much about Tunisian history, I didn’t quite ‘get’ the critique. It was only after I read a lot of articles online about Bourguiba and his government, did I completely understand the context of the critique. The novel is not overly harsh, in my opinion, but it was banned nonetheless.
Narrated by our protagonist’s son, Lion Mountain tells the story of Horia El-Gharib and her trails and tribulations with an ever-changing Tunisia. Horia, a widow, has two sons to raise all by herself. Her faithful servant, Saad, helps her with the fields and orchards left to her by her husband. Imam Sadek, who is Lion Mountain’s spiritual leader, also acts as Horia’s moral compass.
Our protagonist is a devout and enterprising woman, who has big dreams for her sons. Placing immense importance on education, she wants to send them abroad to become “doctors”, which she believes will help them find their way in this world.
But, as is always the case in life, things don’t quite turn out the way Horia imagines. It all starts slowly, with compulsory party-membership here, imprisonment of Saad there. With the ebb and flow of time, Horia adjusts to the new realities. As long as her view of Lion Mountain remains unchanged, the political turmoil of Tunisia almost don’t touch her. Almost.
Soon we find out that her younger son has decided on another path for himself. He longer sees the point in becoming a “doctor”, when there are things bigger than him he needs to fight for. Denounced as a terrorist by the state, Horia loses her younger son to his cause, never to see him again. With an entire ocean between her and our narrator, it is unclear if she will ever see her elder son again either.
To add to the loss of her sons, she will soon lose her lands between her home and the mountain, which would effectively obscure her view of this beloved mountain. Will this be the final straw that breaks the proverbial back? Will Horia endure these changes as she has in the past, or will they destroy her?
Further Reading on Tunisia:
BBC. (2000, April 6). Habib Bourguiba: Father of Tunisia. BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/obituaries/703907.stm
Boddy-Evans, A. (2021, February 16). A Brief History of Tunisia. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-tunisia-44600
Bopp, L. (2011, April 8). Tunisia’s Book Market After Ben Ali. An End to Visas. Qantara.de. https://en.qantara.de/content/tunisias-book-market-after-ben-ali-an-end-to-visas
Goldstein, A. (2016, February 1). Tunisia: Secularism, Political Islam, and Democracy. The World Mind. https://edspace.american.edu/theworldmind/2016/02/01/tunisia-secularism-political-islam-and-democracy/
Srebernik, D. (2014). Inequality and Corruption: Drivers of Tunisia’s Revolution. Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse, 6(10). Retrieved from http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=924