Mother, daughter grapple with Tunisian uprisings

Hope Has Two Daughters is a story about the awakening of political consciousness in two women.

Nadia is a Tunisian high school student who becomes involved in the 1984 Bread and Couscous Riots. Forced out of school, she abandons her parents and flees her homeland for a new life in Canada. More than 25 years later, Lila is a recent Canadian high school graduate who reluctantly moves to Tunis for several months of intensive Arabic language training. Bored with her classes and looking for meaning, she becomes involved in the 2010 Jasmine Revolution that launched the Arab Spring.   Nadia and Lila are mother and daughter, and they take turns narrating their separate but converging experiences in alternating chapters throughout this novel.  Nadia elaborates openly about her struggles with her authoritarian teacher, her adventures with her best friend Nelia, and her unexpected introduction to political activism through Nelia’s boyfriend Mounir.

Lila, on the other hand, recounts her initial reluctance to visit Tunisia, the gradual discovery of her mother’s unspoken history, and her own unlikely friendship with a budding activist named Donia.  Like Nadia, author Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and moved to Canada as a young adult. She is the author of one other work of fiction as well as the memoir Hope and Despair, but her name may be most familiar to readers as the wife of Maher Arar. In 2002 Arar, a dual Canadian-Syrian citizen, was returning to Canada from vacation in Tunis when he was detained by the U.S. government and deported to (and imprisoned in) Syria on suspicion of terrorism. Mazigh was instrumental in pressuring the Canadian government to gain his release and clear his name.

In reading this novel, which has been translated from French to English by Fred A. Reed, it becomes evident that Mazigh is a social activist first and a writer second. While the novel has many strong points — including two formidable female protagonists — and certainly covers an important and timely subject, it reads like a young adult novel and ultimately lacks a certain gravitas.

The dearth of civil liberties, the widespread corruption and unemployment, and the soaring food prices that are critical to Nadia and Lila’s alternating narratives are often alluded to but never clearly illustrated or observed. As well, too much of the action is glossed over or over-simplified and, unfortunately, even the most critical elements of the plot lack tension and plausibility.

While Lila concedes “things weren’t always easy to understand” and that she felt trapped “somewhere between black and white, and Tunisian and Canada,” the ease and haste with which she catches the revolutionary fever and immerses herself in the uprising simply does not ring true.

Yet even when Mazigh falters, she is still effective in capturing the sights, sounds and unique culture and customs of Tunisian life, as well as the chronic push and pull between religious fundamentalism and secularism, rich and poor and oppression and freedom.

Ultimately, her fiction may be flawed but is nonetheless both readable and relevant, especially since the reverberations of the Jasmine Revolution are still being felt today.

Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.

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