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Béji, Hélé (1948–) - PERSONAL HISTORY, INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS, BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS, PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

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A Tunisian author of several essays, books, and articles, Hélé Béji (born Ben Ammar) uses writing to explore some of the problematic circumstances of her country: a nation in the process of politically, socially, and culturally rebuilding itself since its independence from France in 1956. In Désenchantement national: essai sur la décolonisation (1982) and L’imposture culturelle (1997), she addresses the crises that Tunisia and its citizens face in recovering national and cultural identities. Then in Une force qui demeure (2006), she focuses on the social issues that touch Tunisian women at the start of the twenty-first century. On top of offering such critiques, she demonstrates poetic sensitivity in her books L’oeil du jour (1984) and Itinéraire de Paris à Tunis (1992) comparable to that of Marcel Proust.

PERSONAL HISTORY

Born in Tunis in 1948 when Tunisia still remained under French regime, Béji grew up with her younger brother, her anticlerical mother of Christian background, her liberal Muslim father, and her devout Muslim grandmother. Due to the theologically unimposing attitudes of her parents, Béji explains in Une force qui demeure that she enjoyed freedom from any fear, torment, or intimidation concerning religion. In turn, her grandmother modeled the life of a dedicated believer who resisted hypocrisy. The neighborhood community of Béji also mirrored her family’s multidimensional tolerant religious perspective, sustaining nonjudgmental amicable relationships between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Unlike the dogmatic theological mentalities that Béji notices at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the friends of her youth made no distinctions of differences between beliefs and considered everyone blessed.

While appreciating this religiously harmonious environment, Béji had never felt predestined for a domestic existence. In order to ensure that Béji could fully focus on her studies and partake in leisure activities, the grandmother saved her from all domestic duties. Therefore, rather than envisioning the home as a prison of an archaic lifestyle, Béji favorably remembers her childhood residence. It remained a place where she could embrace a modern existence while simultaneously cherishing its rich and poetic qualities.

Liberated from the burden of customs, Béji ambitiously pursued her intellectual endeavors. She spent time in Paris in literary studies and obtained her professorship title (agrégée) before working at the University of Tunis as a professor of literature. Subsequently, she worked as an international official for United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Maintaining a global outlook, she founded the Collège international de Tunis in 1998: a literary society that hosts meetings and debates. While presiding this association, she continues to write and make trips to Paris for academic projects.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

Three major influences on Béji include her religiously and intellectually tolerant home, her exposure to Tunisian and French academic institutions, and the experience of watching her nation transition from a colonized territory to an independent state. In the home, Béji first learned to develop progressive views on social customs and religion. Observing the rebellious personality of her blond-haired, blue-eyed mother, she associated this parent with moral disobedience. Béji claims to have acquired her own insubordinate disposition from this maternal figure. She developed both pity and aversion to submissive women, questioning their reason for accepting their subservient role. Submission signified the only and true image of sin and incited Béji to aggressively fight against cowardice and injustice.

Béji’s father differed from her mother by exemplifying a gentle personality. He demonstrated benevolence toward humankind rather than acting as a domestic dictator. Carrying himself with poise and nobility, he charmed even the most misanthropic or troubled of individuals, changing them into friendly and generous people (Béji, Une force , 2006, p. 22). With respect to Islam, the father rejected extreme ritual practices linked to fury, punishment, and suffering. Such zealous conduct appeared superstitious and disrespectful to God by minimizing divine authority to a childish comedy fabricated by humans.

In addition to supporting these liberal attitudes of her parents, she also respected the committed faith of her Muslim grandmother. She felt fascination rather than alarm when watching the devotions of this grandparent. While observing her grandmother deep in prayer, the narrator in L’oeil du jour notices an order and clarity in the spiritual elsewhere to which this woman prays. During this ritual, the granddaughter discovers an unexplainable source of nourishment: Inspired by the metaphysical aura, she abandons herself to all sorts of daydreams. Like the narrator of this novel, Béji appreciated her grandmother’s spirituality as an outside observer.

Béji’s educational and work experiences at universities in Paris and Tunis formed an intellectual position that combined the two academic perspectives. With this binational instruction, Béji explains that she thinks in the Orient but expresses herself in the Occident. In her opinion, these two figurative territories of her mind resemble inseparable twins who would perish if divided. Each reflects both the image of the other and also of the self. With this double standpoint and comparative insight, Béji recognizes the challenges and inconsistencies within her society and within the theoretical assumptions of other scholars.

With her cross-cultural awareness, Béji makes perceptive sociopolitical critiques of decolonized Tunisia. Désenchantement national and L’imposture culturelle focus on exposing the tensions and paradoxes in a country seeking to reinstate its collective identity. In the former text, Béji notes the irony of how her nation endures yet another form of oppression while seeking freedom. The government imposes a national ideology upon its people and uses this patriotic mentality as an instrument of power. This circumstance perpetuates the same civilizing message of the colonizer by subjecting the citizens to another system of domination for the sake of establishing a national identity. Although state authorities re-create a sense of nationalism based on the common people, effective communication lacks between the two groups. The resulting gap of misunderstanding that separates the governing from the governed adds to the nation’s discontentment.

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Hélé Béji (born Ben Ammar)

Birth: 1948, Tunis, Tunisia

Nationality: Tunisian

Education: Studied in Paris and received professorship title ( agrégée ) in modern literature

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1982: Publishes Désenchantement national
  • 1984: Publishes L’oeil du jour
  • 1992: Publishes Itinéraire de Paris à Tunis
  • 1994: Publishes L’art contre la culture: Nûba
  • 1997: Publishes L’imposture culturelle
  • 1998–present: Presides over the Collège international de Tunis
  • 2006: Publishes Une force qui demeure

TO BE FREE IS A CREATIVE ACT OF THE MIND

Examining the socio-political changes that Tunisian women have undergone in the past, Béji shares her vision for the future: “If the twentieth century had been [the century] of liberation for woman, the twenty-first century perhaps will be [the century] of her freedom. Liberation was the break from the former order; liberty will not fear rethinking, reconsidering the former, not as an order to which one must submit, but as an experience that one must carry. To liberate oneself is an act of sovereignty of the body; to be free is a creative act of the mind. Women must face[,] not the conquest of their liberation, but the true concept of their freedom.”

BÉJI, HÉLÉ. UNE FORCE QUI DEMEURE . PARIS: ARLÉA, 2006. P. 152.

In the essay L’imposture culturelle , Béji examines the emergence of a global culture at the turn of the twenty-first century. This anonymous civilizing entity proposes mysterious common characteristics between the Orient and Occident. Creating an ambiguous sense of international alliance in the name of modernity while maintaining a notion of tradition that evokes plurality, a new universal civilization takes form. Despite the presence of this figurative global society, individuals find themselves in a terrible condition of feeling nationless. As do many of her fellow citizens, Béji suffers from an identity crisis of feeling displaced or unrooted, even within her homeland. By pointing out these dilemmas of the modernizing society of Tunisia, Béji indicates how government leaders and intellectual figures need to reconsider their approach to rebuilding the nation.

Béji develops an insightful sociocultural perspective and also proves her artistic proficiency as a writer in L’oeil du jour, Itinéraire de Paris à Tunis , and L’art contre la culture: Nûba , a novel, satire, and essay respectively. The first two books offer critiques of conformist and superficial lifestyles that influence Tunisian and Parisian societies. Additionally, the poetic description with which Béji portrays persons and scenes in L’oeil du jour and Itinéraire de Paris à Tunis illustrates a narrative vision similar to that of Proust. For example, in L’oeil du jour Béji ascribes euphoric characteristics to the grandmother while representing the home as a havenlike intimate space of comfort. Then, in L’art contre la culture: Nûba , Béji describes stirring aspects of the musical-theatrical performance Nûba , especially regarding the interconnections between music, dance, beauty, imagination, and art, and emphasizes her passion for the arts both as a spectator and as an author. Believing art to represent the most archaic of human activities, Béji stresses its importance in expressing a spiritual message of joy by finding inspiration in beauty.

Engaging issues that touch scholars and popular culture of Tunisian and occidental societies, Béji presents a thought-provoking viewpoint in Une force qui demeure . In this semiautobiographical text, she voices the ambivalence and confusion that she observes among Tunisian women who dismiss tradition in order to adopt a modern lifestyle and mind-set. Honoring the foundation that previous generations of women have established, she insists that feminists of the twenty-first century must also recognize the archaic resistance that preceded them in fighting for their rights. Béji thus presents a unique feminist position that defends the traditional values of women in Tunisia. By preserving this continuous link between the past and present, women can effectively develop and embrace a genuine modern identity.

THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE

Literary critics analyze the book L’oeil du jour from a sociocultural viewpoint, revealing how Béji’s illustration of space can represent gender and the notion of home. Other commentators praise the mastery of descriptive detail and Proustian imagery with which Béji writes Itinéraire de Paris à Tunis and L’oeil du jour . Encouraging dialogue on the problematic notions of archaic and modern in Une force qui demeure Béji provokes feminist intellectuals to reconsider their position with respect to the modern woman. Yet despite the notable contributions that Béji makes in promoting awareness of pressing political, social, and cultural matters, she still receives insufficient recognition for her work.

LEGACY

Writing on decolonization and on identity crises afflicting the people of Tunisia, Béji already proves herself to be a politically, socially, and culturally engaged academic. Moreover, with her keen attention to aesthetic subtleties of everyday life, she demonstrates a poetic perceptiveness. Through the literary society that Béji presides, Collège international de Tunis, she proves to be an involved intellectual and citizen, ready to confront future issues that concern both her country and the world.

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