Created by the White Fathers in 1926 in Bou Khris (near La Marsa), the Institute of Arabic Letters, IBLA, was born from the desire to know better and promote Tunisian culture in all its aspects. IBLA is interested in human and social sciences in Tunisia and, more broadly, in the Arab world. Its mission is to encourage intellectual openness in Tunisia, while developing intercultural and interreligious dialogue, with the aim of achieving mutual understanding and peace.
The IBLA moved to its present location in 1932, near the medina of Tunis, where it gradually became part of Tunisian society. The training part in classical Arabic language and Islamology was transferred to the Manouba in 1949, then to Rome in 1964 to become the Pontifical Institute for Arabic Studies and Islamology (PISAI). However, the documents remained in Tunis, where for decades it has been used for academic and intellectual purposes by academic and other researchers through a Research Library. In 2010, it had more than 34,000 titles and 600 journals, as well as 130,000 references in its catalog. In the same year, there were 430 registered researchers, mostly Tunisian university graduates in Master and PhD studies, as well as professors. At the same time, the IBLA has developed other activities, including the IBLA Magazine. Founded in 1937, it is interested in human and social sciences in Tunisia and is the oldest of the journals existing to date in Tunisia. Nowadays the IBLA maintains exchanges with about a hundred institutions in the world, which enriches the Research Library. In the 1950s, it also opened its doors to teenagers from the neighborhoods and gradually created a Youth Library. The aim was to support them in their studies, by offering them a warm space and a benevolent accompaniment.
On 5th January 2010, a dramatic fire took the life of the director of the Research Library, Fr. Gian Battista Maffi (PB); it also destroyed half of the documentation and seriously damaged the building. Then a great wave of solidarity was manifested in Tunisia and abroad, both by individuals and institutions, such as the Ministry of Culture of Tunisia, the French Institute in Tunisia, the National Library, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and various embassies. In Tunis, the National Library and the National Archives restored about 160 ancient documents. We saw this as a sign of the times, helping us to discern the importance of our action. This has encouraged us to make every effort to revitalize IBLA’s activities and respond in this way to the needs expressed by the environment in which we work. It is thanks to these multiple supports that the IBLA began its restoration and officially reopened the doors of its Research Library in October 2014. Since then, it is the action dedicated to adolescents that is gradually relaunched, through a new Youth Space, which aims at promoting the integral development of their person. As for the IBLA Review, it has continued its activities rigorously, despite the difficult times that the Institute has gone through.
The IBLA is led by White Fathers from different countries who work hand in hand with Tunisians and other people. Because of this, they learn the Tunisian dialect and some of them specialize in Islamology and classical Arabic language. The IBLA is thus a place of meeting, dialogue and exchange, an area of shared respect and knowledge, where everyone, regardless of country, culture or religion, can at the same time be actor and receiver. In this way, it responds to the mission of the Church in the Maghreb, which is committed to contributing to cultural and intellectual life and to the building of society. Through its modest presence and activities, the IBLA contributes to strengthening intellectual, intercultural and inter-religious openness and promoting living together.
At present, the IBLA wants more than ever to be this bridge between cultures and religions, between the knowledge of yesterday’s books, the richness of today’s intellectual world and the energy of the youth that prepares tomorrow. The Research Library is gradually recovering its holdings and currently contains nearly 24,000 titles as well as hundreds of periodicals. More than 500 researchers have registered since its reopening in October 2014. Conferences will soon enrich the activities of the IBLA, which intends to participate actively in the intellectual and cultural life in Tunisia. The Espace Jeunes is being launched. Approximately 80 teenagers have been taking part in English and French school tutoring since 2016. They find in the IBLA a space of calm and confidence to study, socialize and enrich their daily lives. After the renovation of the Espace Jeunes, by the summer of 2017, new activities will also be created: computer and artistic workshops, a new youth library, projections and debates. Beyond the educational dimension, these activities make it possible to forge links with the families of the neighboring districts, most of whom live in poverty and precariousness. It also serves the mission of encounter, dialogue and solidarity with people living in existential peripheries. Finally, the IBLA Magazine, under the leadership of Mr Faouzi Bedoui and his entirely Tunisian editorial committee, celebrated its 80th anniversary with a stand at the Tunis International Book Fair (held from 24th March to 2nd April 2017) and a “round table” organized
on 26th March 2017. Thanks to the voluntary and devoted work of
the committee, the Magazine continues its activities with its spirit of rigor and benevolence, thus promoting the Tunisian and Arab-Muslim culture.
Today, the IBLA team includes the Director, Father Bonaventura Mwenda (WF); the financial manager, Father Ismaël Mendez Almaguer (WF); Father André Ferre (WF); Father Robbin Simbeye (WF); trainees Calvin Akunga (WF) and Simon Ouedraogo (WF); the Director of the Review, Mr. Faouzi Bedoui; the assistant librarian and editorial coordinator of the IBLA Magazine, Nadia Jlassi; assistant librarian, Mrs Asma Dellai; the project editor, Ms. Lucie Jacquet, and the domestic worker, Ms. Arbia Alaoui.
In a post-Revolution Tunisia, the IBLA is trying to adapt and to continue supporting better the evolution of the society, as it has done since 1926. Many challenges remain: to update the documents of the Research Library, to maintain the scientific rigor of the IBLA Review despite the decline of the academic level in Tunisia, to meet the needs of a youth encountering difficulties in finding a place in society, to accompany Tunisians to live their freedom (houriyya ) and their free will (ikhtiyar), to integrate the new technologies into the IBLA’s activities and to cope with the running costs of the Institute. For this, the IBLA relies on its network and develops its relations in the neighborhood and the academic environment, while seeking partners and benefactors at national and international level. In this time of renewal, meetings and dialogues remain the rudder of the IBLA, since it is through this that its action finds its full meaning.
Bonaventura Benjamin MWENDA,
Director of IBLA.
IBLA, a new dynamism in a new Tunisia