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date: 28 February 2024

Vernacular Arabic Literature in Tunisia in the 19th through 21st Centurieslocked

Vernacular Arabic Literature in Tunisia in the 19th through 21st Centurieslocked

  • Benjamin KoerberBenjamin KoerberAfrican, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literatures, Rutgers University


Although vernacular varieties of Arabic—the so-called dialects—have been used in oral performance genres for centuries, they have held a much more restricted presence in written literature, which has traditionally been regarded as the exclusive domain of classical or standard Arabic (al-ʿarabīyah al-fuṣḥá). In contrast with the vernacular Arabic literatures of Egypt, Morocco, and the Levant, those of Tunisia have been scantly regarded by scholars. The first significant corpus of written texts in the vernacular Arabic of Tunisia emerged in the late-19th century, in Hebrew characters. This “Judeo-Arabic” literature was born of the intersecting currents of the Haskalah or Jewish “Enlightenment,” the Arab Nahḍah or “Renaissance,” and French literary culture, as well as trans-Mediterranean networks of trade and print technology. Although a significant portion of Tunisian Judeo-Arabic literature consisted of translations and adaptations from Hebrew, classical Arabic, and French, it also included many original works, especially in journalism and poetry. This vernacular literature, however, would decline under the impact of French colonialism and Zionism, before ceasing entirely by the 1960s. Meanwhile, a separate, but not entirely disconnected, series of vernacular literary experiments began to take shape in Arabic script at the beginning of the 20th century. From 1908, the satirical press emerged as the most significant medium for the publication of vernacular texts, which proliferated in response to the cultural, linguistic, and political changes brought by French colonialism. Printed folklore collections would constitute a second major venture in the writing down of vernacular Arabic, and became a means by which both French colonial administrators and Tunisian intellectuals “imagined” the Tunisian “nation.” The vernacular written in Arabic script would eventually find its way into short stories, novels, comics, cultural and political journalism, and internet writing. The expansion of vernacular writings in the 21st century corresponds to increasing economic and political liberalization, the foundation of organizations for the promotion of the vernacular, and new opportunities for publishing both in print and online.


  • African Literatures
  • West Asian Literatures, including Middle East

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