After Censorship, Tunisian Bookseller Faces Dilemma

The tables have turned for one bookshop owner in Tunis, who had to operate under censorship during the dictatorship of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. After having to fight for decades to sell the books she wanted, there is now one volume she doesn't particularly want on her shelves. The former dictator's hated wife, Leila Trabelsi, has come out with her version of the facts, called My Truth.

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In Tunisia, the tables have turned for one bookseller who was long constrained by censorship. Under the former dictatorship, many books were banned. Now, she can sell whatever books she likes. But, as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, that freedom has also created a predicament that the bookseller never would have imagined.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: I first met bookstore owner Selma Jabbes on January 14, 2011. She was out on the streets of Tunis with tens of thousands of other protesters demanding that President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali step down. No one knew then that his 23-year-long reign would end that very evening. When I spoke to Jabbes, she told me how difficult it was to run a bookstore under a dictatorship.

SELMA JABBES: To import books from any country, we have to have a visa from the authorities. No books can be sold in our country if you don't have a visa. To have one book, we have to many times to wait months. And there are - so many books are forbidden.

BEARDSLEY: A year and a half later, Jabbes' bookshop, Al Kitab, is open and full of books and customers who browse titles in French and Arabic from around the world. But now, Jabbes has a new problem. The wife of the now exiled dictator, Leila Trabelsi, will soon publish her memoirs called "My Truth." And Jabbes is in a quandary over whether she should sell the book in her shop.

JABBES: Because this person is really - is a very bad person that made so bad for Tunisia, how could we sell her book? It was really, really problematic for me. So what I did is we put on our Facebook a debate with all our customers, asking them, what shall we do with this book?

BEARDSLEY: Inside the bookshop, the mere mention of Leila Trabelsi gets customers riled up.

AMEL CHEHIMI: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: She put her claws into Tunisia and thought the whole country belonged to her, says Amel Chehimi. Her family owned everything. You just can't imagine. While Chehimi talks, another customer interjects, she's a Dracula.

MOHAMED BENNOUR: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: At an outdoor cafe across the street, 66-year-old Mohamed Bennour says there were those who thought Ben Ali might have gone the democratic route before Trabelsi got her hooks into him.

BENNOUR: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: The hopes of a whole generation were destroyed by this fickle woman, he says. Today, Tunisians joke about their ex-first lady, a former hairdresser, 20 years younger than her husband. She's often called the Imelda Marcos of the Arab world. But it wasn't so funny when Trabelsi and her 10 corrupt brothers ran the country, says English literature professor Mounir Khelifa.

MOUNIR KHELIFA: At the end of Ben Ali's dictatorship, I think there was more animosity and hatred towards her and her family and her clan than towards Ben Ali.

BEARDSLEY: Back in her third floor office above the Al Kitab Bookstore, Jabbes looks out over the avenue where she protested a year and a half ago. She says the Facebook debate lasted a month before she made her decision about Leila Trabelsi's book.

JABBES: I don't have the right to censure. I don't have the right to censure. But, you know, bookshelves, we have selection of books. We select titles for our customers.

BEARDSLEY: So Jabbes says she won't put Trabelsi's book in her display window or even on her shelves, but customers will be able to order it. Another reason Jabbes says she'll make it available: She wouldn't feel right denying her customers a book she plans to read herself. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News.

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