Djebar, Assia 1936–
Assia Djebar 1936-
(Born Fatima-Zohra Imalayen) Algerian novelist, short story writer, essayist, director, playwright, and poet.
Counted among Algeria's most prominent female writers, Djebar is often concerned with exploring issues of conflict and oppression in her writings. She focuses as much on the struggle of Muslim women in Algeria to break out of their traditional cultural and familial roles as she does on Algeria's struggle for independence from France and the aftermath of that resistance. Writing in French, Djebar uses the language of her country's oppressor to explore the lives of the oppressed. Conscious of this irony, Djebar also treats the issue of how language is employed by colonial powers as a means of shaping cultural notions of feminine roles and identity. Her writings often combine fiction with autobiographical elements and philosophical discussions of such topics as self-identity, cultural identity, imperialism, and violence.
Born in Cherchell, Algeria, in 1936, Djebar had a middle-class upbringing that included an education at the primary school where her father was a teacher of French. She continued her studies at an Algerian secondary school and then went on to the Lycée Fénélon in Paris. Djebar became the first Algerian woman to be awarded a scholarship to the elite École Normal Supérieure de Serves in Pairs, where she eventually earned an advanced degree. In 1956 Djebar, a history student at the time, joined the students' strike against the French-Algerian War. Abandoning her studies for a time, Djebar wrote her first novel (La soif [The Mischief]) in 1957 under the pen name Assia Djebar. She did so in order to protect her family, as the novel contained erotic elements, and there was potential to cause a scandal. She married Ahmed Ould-Rouïs, a member of the Algerian Resistance, in 1958. Together they had two children but later divorced. Djebar married again in 1980, to poet Malek Alloula. After living in self-imposed exile in Tunisia and Morocco with her first husband, Djebar returned to Algeria, which had recently won its independence, in 1962. She was criticized for continuing to write in French instead of using the now-official language of Algeria, Arabic. Accepting a position at the University of Algiers, she taught history, literature, and film. Having completed several novels and a volume of poetry by this time, Djebar now turned to filmmaking; she won top honors at the Venice Film Festival in 1977 for her directorial debut, La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua. Djebar has received other prestigious awards for her work as well. She received the Prix Maurice Maeterlink in 1995, the Neustadt Prize for Contributions to World Literature in 1996, and the Yourcenar Prize in 1997. In addition to her continued work as a writer and a professor in Algeria, she has also worked abroad as the director of the Center for French and Francophone Studies at Louisiana State University, and as professor of Francophone Literature and Civilization at New York University.
In Djebar's work, themes such as the social struggles of Algerian women and the effects of French colonization on the Algerian psyche, particularly on women, feature prominently. Djebar's first novel, La soif, explores these issues through the relationship of two young Algerian women, one of whom is an educated liberal; the other finds herself trapped in a marriage to an adulterous husband. Returning again to similar themes in her second novel, Les impatients (1958), Djebar focuses on an Algerian woman who seeks to escape the oppression she feels by having a secret affair. In her third novel, Les enfants du nouveau monde (1962), Djebar yokes the personal struggle for freedom with a parallel political struggle, setting the novel during the Algerian war for independence. The war is also the subject of the novel Les alouettes naïves (1967). In this work Djebar focuses on two couples with nationalist commitments who learn the true cost of their ideals. In her collection of short stories Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement (1980; Women of Algiers in Their Apartment), Djebar returns to the cause of social emancipation for Algerian women, demonstrating through the stories how little has changed over the years in the lives of these women. In a group of novels known as the "Algerian Quartet," (L'amour, la fantasia [1985; Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade], Ombre sultane [1987; A Sister to Scheherazade], Vaste est la prison [1994; So Vast the Prison], Le blanc de Algérie [1995; Algerian White]), Djebar examines in detail the social conditions of Algerian women as well as the effects of colonialism in Algeria, again emphasizing the connection between the national subjugation of Algeria and that of its women. In Les nuits de Strasbourg (1997), Djebar examines the cultural and ethnic conflicts of interracial couples in the city of Strasbourg, near the French/German border. Djebar's intense interest in the complexities of cultural and individual identities is reflected in her work in film as well as fiction. La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua offers a documentary account of the war-torn personal histories of a number of Algerian women. In her later novels, including La Femme sans sépulture (2002) and La disparition de la langue française (2003), Djebar presents an Algeria still haunted by the colonial past; in La disparition she depicts an Algeria that is likewise disfigured more recently by Islamic culture.
Praise for Djebar's work owes as much to her skill as a writer as to her chosen subject matter. While French critics lauded her first novel, La soif, Algerian scholars found that the work lacked substance. Both that novel and Djebar's second novel, Les impatients, were faulted by Algerian revolutionaries for the author's failure to address the cause of Algerian liberation. The two subsequent novels (Les enfants du nouveau monde and Les alouettes naïves) were well received by Arabic readers and critics, as the lives of the characters were intertwined with the political struggles in Algeria. The novels of the Algerian Quartet won acclaim at the time of their publication for their insightful explorations of the personal struggles of female characters, as well as for their treatment of the politics of colonial and postcolonial Algeria. Years later, the works remain the subject of scholarly scrutiny. Jane Hiddleston examines the nature of Djebar's feminist politics in the 1994 novel, Vaste est la prison. In Djebar's work, Hiddleston contends, she resists the notion of a collective feminine experience and portrays women's experiences as not only complex and varied but indefinable in the language of French colonialism. The importance of language in Djebar's works is recognized as well by Michael O'Riley, who asserts that in Djebar's 1997 Les nuits de Strasbourg the author uses the theme of translation to reflect on the cultural transformation that is attendant to literary translation. Experimenting with the study of Algerian violence within a European context, Djebar employs the dual theme of translation and transformation to underscore the sense of loss and victimization engendered by imperialist violence, O'Riley argues.
La soif [The Mischief] (novel) 1957
Les impatients (novel) 1958
Les enfants du nouveau monde (novel) 1962
Les alouettes naïves (novel) 1967
Poèmes pour l'Algérie heureuse (poetry) 1969
Rouge l'aube: Pièce en 4 actes et 10 tableaux [with Walid Garn] (play) 1969
La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua [director] (documentary film) 1977
Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement [Women of Algiers in Their Apartment] (short stories) 1980; revised edition 2002
La Zerda et les chants de l'oubli [director] (documentary film) 1982
*L'amour, la fantasia [Fantasia: An Algerian Cavacade] (novel) 1985
*Ombre sultane [A Sister to Scheherazade] (novel) 1987
Loin de Médine: Filles d'Ishmaël [Far from Medina] (novel) 1991
*Vaste est la prison [So Vast the Prison] (novel) 1994
*Le blanc de Algérie [Algerian White] (novel) 1995
Le nuits de Strasbourg (novel) 1997
Oran, langue morte (short stories) 1997
Ces voix qui m'assiègent (essays) 1999
La femme sans sépulture (novel) 2002
Filles d'Ishmaël dans le vent et la et la tempête (play) 2002
La disparition de la langue française (novel) 2003
*These novels comprise the "Algerian Quartet."
Jane Hiddleston (essay date winter 2004)
SOURCE: Hiddleston, Jane. "Feminism and the Question of ‘Woman’ in Assia Djebar's Vaste est la prison." Research in African Literatures 35, no. 4 (winter 2004): 91-104.
[In the following essay, Hiddleston examines Djebar's treatment of feminism and feminist resistance in the novel Vaste est la prison, stressing that for Djebar, the feminine experience is highly individual, complex, and varied rather than an idea that can be reduced to the notion of a collective, female solidarity against patriarchal power and oppression.]
The notion of womanhood or femininity occupies a fraught position in the work of Assia Djebar. A francophone "woman-writer" originating from Algeria, Djebar is on the one hand clearly preoccupied with Algerian women's experiences, narrating numerous scenes of female oppression and liberation occurring at different moments in the history of the country. As numerous critics, such as Clarisse Zimra, Mildred Mortimer, and Anne Donadey, have pointed out, she sets out to retrieve suppressed feminine voices, reflecting on the relation between women and writing and on the importance of creating a sense of agency through self-expression. On the other hand, however, Djebar also unsettles the very category of femininity, dissociating herself from women's writing movements and contesting the validity of any specific notion of feminine experience. She retells the history of women in Algeria while simultaneously questioning whether "woman" represents a meaningful position or a coherent mode of identification. Rejecting the term "ecrivaine" ‘woman-writer’ (Ces voix [Ces voix qui m'assiègent ] 61), she seeks to transcend conventional gender distinctions and to overthrow the attribution of divisive, classificatory labels such as "feminist." She upholds feminine solidarity and agency as a means of political resistance, but she also presents feminine experience as both endlessly variable and impossible to access and define using the French, colonial language.
Djebar is clearly a politically engaged writer; she seeks to criticize the repressive structure of the society she examines and to promote the increased emancipation and liberation of Algerian women. In embarking on such a challenge, however, she struggles to negotiate a series of complex and contradictory ideological positions. First, she is swayed by the need to emphasize feminine unity, stressing links between women in order to strengthen her own resistant voice. She participates overtly in a wider feminist movement, aware of the political necessity for solidarity and mutual support. Despite these requirements, however, she is also at pains to subvert modes of criticism that homogenize the feminine community, emphasizing individuality, mobility, and freedom of choice. This tension, then, itself ties in with the apparent division between Islamic and Western thought. While common stereotypes dictate that Islam is a collectivist religion where personal opinion is a possible threat, Western thinking has been associated with the prioritization of the individual. Djebar's strategy is to borrow from both strands of thought, anxious to trouble the conception of the individual as a coherent, self-contained agent while also disrupting assumptions regarding feminine sameness or community. She struggles to dissociate herself from the discourses of both Islam and Western secularism as they are conventionally perceived, exploring by turns both singularity and collectivity and revealing the ways in which these modes of thinking become intertwined. In this sense she refuses to present a monolithic feminist ideology derived either from individualist affirmation or from communal identification, and instead explores the multiple, divergent strategies that contribute to the process of critique.
Before embarking on a close reading of Vaste est la prison, it is worth looking briefly at the social context of Muslim Algeria to which Djebar's writing refers. Most notable here is the segregation between men and women that this society continues to command. Djebar's writing is molded, she insists, by this dichotomous structure and by an awareness of the strict division of roles. She notes that her language is marked both by a split between French and Arabic influence and by this opposition between the sexes. She differentiates "masculine" and "feminine" languages and stresses how one connotes the public domain while the other remains more elusive, consigned to the private sphere, and more difficult to access and pin down:
[Je viens] d'un monde et d'une culture profondement marques par une traditionnelle segregation sexuelle (les femmes au-dedans, separees des hommes au-dehors, le «public» masculin oppose a l'intime et au familial, le discours monotone des lieux d'hommes, different de la polyphonie feminine—murmures et chuchotements ou au contraire vociferations en societe feminine …), [je viens] donc de cene fatale, de cette mutilante dichotomie.
[I come] from a world and a culture profoundly marked by traditional sexual segregation (women inside, separated from the men who are outside, the masculine public sphere opposed to the intimate, family sphere, the monotonous speech of men's spaces different from feminine polyphony—murmurs and whispers or, on the contrary, outcries in female society …) [I come] thus from this fatal, mutilating dichotomy.
(Ces voix 72)
In investigating this duality, Djebar also criticizes the subjugation of women and the oppression of feminine revolt resulting from the recent Islamist resurgence. It is worth observing, however, that Djebar specifically notes the effects of segregation and does not denounce Islam for affirming female inferiority. Certainly, the much debated verse 4.34 of the Qu'ran1 seems to advocate male superiority, but as many thinkers affirm, this is not moral or religious superiority, but rather part of an economic system instructing men to support their wives financially? Furthermore, according to the Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi, whose sociological work ties in closely with Djebar's literature, Muslim society is not based on a conception of female inferiority, but on an understanding of the specificity of gender roles. Mernissi reminds us that women in Muslim society are seen as powerful, but men have the authority to regulate that power, enforcing the subordination of women within the family structure. It is men, therefore, who make decisions and engage in public life, while women occupy the domestic sphere. Muslim society is also territorially divided, and the intersections between masculine and feminine space are carefully administered. The sexes, then, are separated by a rigid frontier that can be traversed only in abidance with accepted rules. Oppression results from this strict social segregation and from the limitations placed on female activity, rather than from moral subordination.
Both Djebar and Mernissi describe specifically the postcolonial societies of Algeria and Morocco. Although on one level they recuperate Islam and denounce misinterpretations that associate it unequivocally with oppression, the stress on the harmful effects of social division offers a particular, politicized angle on modern North Africa. It should be emphasized that they are reacting to the specific forms of the religion enlisted in the construction of Maghrebian societies at present and not to Islam as a whole. Mernissi's analysis provides a helpful gloss to Djebar's thinking, but the rigidity of her depiction should not be seen as freely applicable beyond the contemporary North African context. Social division is not inherent in Islam everywhere, but has become particularly emphasized in modern Algeria, and it is the violence and oppression that have grown out of this doctrine that Djebar wants to denounce.
Challenging this divisive structure presents a number of difficulties. Muslim societies, such as those of Morocco and Algeria, perceived colonial intervention as a threat to their Islamic identity, and modern changes are seen to collude with the imperialist project to undermine the religion. As a result, the position of women comes to be regarded as a symbol of tradition to be upheld at all costs.2 As Marnia Lazreg points out, Algerian society still clings to apparently "traditional" customs in order to guard against the infiltration of Western and neo-colonial modes of thought. Lazreg cites the Family Code of 1984 as an example, since this further institutionalized the unequal status of women, reinforcing male authority and restricting female autonomy. The strict Muslim understanding of femininity came to epitomize the religion's much treasured difference from encroaching neocolonial ideologies, and this was reinforced in response to the increasing advancement of Western models. Significantly, Islam is also a collectivist religion, and struggles for female agency were seen to participate in "Western" individualist ideology. Women's rebellion is feared in these Muslim societies because its implications are so far-reaching, disturbing not merely the family structure but communal harmony more generally, and championing the agency of the individual.3 The subordination of women, then, continues not necessarily because of Islamic decree but because the very gesture of female rebellion is associated with the individualist psychology of Western secularism and capitalism.
The question of the individual's relation to the community remains a complex one in Djebar's work, and in particular in Vaste est la prison. The author sets out to resist the oppressive structures she observes operating in Algerian society, but hesitates between privileging feminine solidarity or community and individualist revolt. Anxious not to glorify the individual to the detriment of communal relations, she seeks connections between women of different epochs and laments on their common plight. She traces similarities across generations and constructs a sort of genealogy of Algerian women, in order the better to challenge the inegalitarian structures with which they contend. Despite this project, however, she also reveals her scepticism regarding notions of a unified feminine identity, distancing herself from modes of thinking that restrict the freedom and particularity of the individual and stressing variability. Concerned to criticize the oppositional structure of the segregated society, she troubles the possibility of conceiving "woman" as a particular group starkly differentiated from "man." Moreover, what is shared by the women of Djebar's work is not their position but their experiences of evasion or flight, their resistance to containment. Feminine community connotes not sameness but common currents of self-affirmation and resistance. Djebar is therefore reluctant to privilege a single ideology but explores the tensions between the singular and the collective that feminist struggle involves. She fights against the restrictions experienced by Algerian women only to throw into question the very possibility of defining or categorizing those women.
Djebar's Vaste est la prison is the third novel in her "Algerian quartet," coming after both L'amour, la fantasia and Ombre sultane. While the first volume focuses on the complex relations between colonizer and colonized, the following two examine the more intimate interactions between men and women. Building on the depiction in Ombre sultane of the complicity between two wives of the same man, one having achieved liberation while the other continues to suffer from his authoritarianism and aggression, Vaste est la prison broadens the focus to explore the transepochal genealogy of Algerian women. The novel also develops the concerns of Loin de Medine, where Djebar sets out to represent the agency of female characters during the early days of Islam in a gesture of protest against the oppression and violence of the nineties. Both texts investigate the similarities and divergences between Algerian women, upholding both communality and singularity in their juxtaposition of diverse narratives of self-affirmation. These novels respond directly to the silencing of women in contemporary Algeria as a result of the struggle between resurgent Islamism and the corrupt, entrenched FLN government, and indeed, just as Loin de Medine "reclaims Woman's verb" (Zimra, "Not So Far" 833), so Vaste est la prison both explores and deconstructs the possibility of a feminine language of resistance. Djebar uses the literary form in these texts to explore the hesitant transmission of some form of feminine idiom from one generation to another, and she supplements more politicized or sociological discourses by investigating precisely the flickering recurrence of linguistic traces over time.
Djebar on one level uses these resurgent traces to create links between the women of the past and those of the present, evoking a shared sisterhood that transcends apparent divergences. The fourth-century legend of Tin Hinan, narrated at the center of the novel among fragments from the present, serves as a focal point for this genealogy. Djebar recounts the flight of the Berber princess from the North, the trials of her journey, and her death at Abalessa. Most significant, however, is the discovery in 1925 of archaeological remains, including the stele with inscriptions in the tifinagh alphabet that had been presumed lost. This writing, which we are told was maintained and guarded by the women while the men were occupied on the battlefield, becomes for Djebar a sort of feminine language that she connects with the rhythms of women's voices in the present. Djebar hopes to gather together these linguistic traces in order to revive the past and to establish its renewal in modern Algerian life. Her own writing constitutes "[un] reve tenace qui tente de rassembler les cendres du temps, de s'agripper aux traces autour des sepulcres par miracle conserves" (163) / "my stubborn dream [that] attempts to reassemble the ashes of time, to hold on to the traces around these miraculously preserved tombs" (166)], building a bridge between epochs and drawing out common traits. The sounds and texture of Tin Hinan's writing are for Djebar replicated in contemporary women's idiolects, linked to the past not so much through meaning as through musical echoes and reflected images. Djebar concludes with the following description: "notre ecriture la plus secrete, aussi ancienne que l'etrusque ou que celle des «runes» mais, contrairement a celles-ci, toute bruissante encore de sons et de souffles d'aujourd'hui, est bien legs de femme, au plus profond du desert" (164) / "Our most secret writing, as ancient as Etruscan or the writing of the runes, but unlike these a writing still noisy with the sounds and breath of today, is indeed the legacy of a woman in the deepest desert" (167). This notion of a common women's language consisting of transported echoes announces the establishment of some form feminine communion. It is also significant that the modern, male archaeologists struggle to decipher this language, implying that it contains a feminine idiom beyond their grasp.
This emphasis on sharing means that Djebar's work can be seen to explore from a more literary perspective the thinking of the Arab feminist Nawal El Saadawi, who similarly insists on the importance of solidarity and asserts that individual agency will only be obtained through collective action. El Saadawi, an Egyptian novelist trained as a doctor, has campaigned for women's rights since the sixties, and though she champions self-affirmation and self-expression (to the extent that she was imprisoned for her beliefs), she also argues repeatedly that unity between women will help to create a more formidable force of resistance. Although she is sharply aware of the differences between oppressed women, her emphasis is on collaboration and the creation of links. She therefore asserts that "freedom for women will never be achieved unless they unite into an organised political force powerful enough and conscious enough to truly represent half of society" (El Saadawi xv), and while she alludes to the significance of feminine diversity, she stresses the unity that can be created over and above particular differences.4
The risk with stressing unity in this way, however, is that femininity can start to appear as a homogeneous category. El Saadawi is aware of this danger, and she emphasizes collaboration and collective action rather than similarity. Nevertheless, when she advocates the alliance of all women regardless of their differences in the name of universal liberation, it can seem that patriarchal oppression is conceived as a single and unchanging force. Similarly, when at other times she focuses on Arab (and also African) women, these seem to form a deceptively unified group.5 Some degree of collective action may be necessary, but the notion of a collective feminine identity needs to be treated with suspicion.
Crucially, then, while solidarity is important to Djebar, the sharing she evokes consists in the transfer of reso- nances across history rather than in the establishment of a unified identity. Unlike El Saadawi, she is interested not in "Arab women" as a unified group but in the partial transmission of traces from diverse origins and in the recurrence of echoes across temporal and cultural frontiers. She explores the passage of idioms from one generation to another without suggesting that this linguistic exchange signifies homogeneity. In the section following that of the legend of Tin Hinan, Djebar presents a series of fragments narrating women's flight and describing the fleeting, partially preserved languages they spoke. The first of these fragments relates to Zoraide from Don Quixote, who frees a slave and flees her own captivity, and whose writing, used in the escape plot, is described as ephemeral and largely obscured. This feminine evasion, and the accompanying loss of Zoraide's language, prefigures, according to Djebar, the plight of contemporary Algerian women. Furthermore, the narrator's mother remembers and passes on traces of feminine dialects that weave unsettlingly in and out of the centuries. As suggested, these consist not of a coherent system of signification but of disparate remnants:
Quelques details dans les broderies des costumes feminins, quelque accent deformant le dialecte local et garde comme seul residu, parler arabo-andalou maintenu le plus long possible … Surtout la musique dite «andalouse» et que l'on nomme «classique», elle que de simples artisans—savetiers, barbiers ou tailleurs musulmans et juifs—pratiquaient avec conscience dans les veillees.
A few details about the embroidery of women's costumes, some residual accent distorting the local dialect, Arabic-Andalusian speech kept as long as possible … Above all, the music known as andalouse that was called "classical," the music that simple artisans—Muslim and Jewish cobblers, barbers or tailors—practiced conscientiously whenever they gathered in the evening.
Fragments of images and musical cadences carry through history and re-emerge in modern practices. Djebar herself writes, she affirms, in the light of these influences, inflecting her modern histories with the language of the past.
The text of Vaste est la prison itself connects a series of diverse narratives and moments without assimilating those moments into the framework of a coherent identitarian discourse. Djebar's own work is situated at a crossroads, highlighting links that may not previously have been identified and constructing a multifaceted genealogy out of the traces that she finds during her research. This feminine collectivity is consciously built using disparate fragments, figuring as a result not original membership or belonging but common threads. Arabic, Berber, and francophone influences all become interwoven to form a patchwork history variously conjoining multilingual and multicultural resonances. If Djebar uses the term "genealogy," in this case it does not connote a rooted structure or an organic, homogeneous community. Rather, it denotes a means of tracing how past events subtly come to inform present experiences and modes of speech. Critics have emphasized this collective construction in Djebar's work, describing the feminine genealogy as an alternative form of community that does not rely on plenitude or organic identity but on suppressed echoes and hints of affinity. As Katherine Gracki points out, Djebar's collectivity transcends blood ties and ethnicity, exploring partial links that traverse diverse spaces and epochs. Even more radically, Miriam Cooke argues that Djebar's feminine language escapes some of the difficulties experienced by writers such as Derrida, Khatibi, and Memmi when analyzing their disjunctive relationship with their mother tongue.6 For Djebar, unlike for the male writers, language is dissociated from a desire for self-presence or possession, and the traces of feminine language that transcend the epochs are treasured for their creative power rather than for their ability to evoke any originary communality.
Fleeting visions of created unity are constantly threatened by fragmentation. While the writing of the past is partially refigured in present discourses, its resurgence is also fragile and tenuous, connoting rupture as much as continuity. The constructed community between women is dispersed and fractured, and the writing that it is hoped will serve as a point of connection is for the most part obscured or extinct. Linguistic resurgence emphasizes continuity and sharing, but the language of the present is simultaneously always marked by the absence of the past, its eradication from modern narratives. Damaged and pillaged during the Algerian war, the narrator's mother's Andalusian music is consigned to oblivion, and she can remember only curtailed phrases that become impossible fully to reconstruct. Furthermore, this loss colors Djebar's language even as she strives to accomplish its revival. Written in French, the text is immersed in the culture of the colonizer, and the traces of an alternative feminine language murmur tacitly beneath this imposing edifice. Djebar reflects: "J'ecris pour me frayer mon chemin secret, et dans la langue des corsaires francais qui, dans le recit du Captif, depouillerent Zoraide de sa robe endiamantee, oui, c'est dans la langue dite «trangere» que je deviens de plus en plus transfuge" (172) / "I write to clear my secret path. I write in the language of the French pirates who, in the Captive's tale, stripped Zoraide of her diamond-studded gown, yes, I am becoming more and more a renegade in the so-called foreign language" (177). The French narrative evokes the absence of that which the author set out to recapture, and the feminine community represented by linguistic resurgence falters and breaks down.
The narrative both seeks and undermines the communication between past and present.
Djebar's evocation of the fugitive as a common motif itself troubles notions of a stable collective identity. The women of Djebar's narrative share not a fixed position but the experience of evasion, as they question the notion of a secure home in favor of personal reinvention. Feminine identity is not rooted in a specific place but is endlessly mobile and subject to renewal. Characters derive a sense of self not from habitation and belonging but precisely from their ability to break away from home and roots. If there is any broader feminine community evoked in Djebar's text, then this is not a genealogy that is securely located and positioned, but one that champions self-invention and rebirth. As Chandra Mohanty and Biddy Martin argue in their essay on feminist politics, with reference to an autobiographical narrative by Minnie Bruce Pratt, the desire for a secure place from which to speak is constantly undercut by an awareness of the limitations that such a position would impose. Similarly, despite the search for a feminine collective voice, Djebar's characters ultimately refuse to be contained within static social and cultural structures, asserting movement and choice in a multiplicity of different ways. Furthermore, feminism itself is not a "home" for Djebar, as she does not argue for a single cause or present a particular set of issues, but focuses rather on the dynamism of interpersonal relationships.
If Djebar is depicting any form of feminist community, then this is not one that privileges resemblance, membership or belonging. Allegiances can be multiple and changing, as feminist women engage with contradictory forces without affirming a fixed, collective stance. This form of allegiance recalls the modern organizations analyzed by Cooke, who describes the new virtual networks run by Islamic feminists, where hierarchy and partisanship are replaced by a more open-ended system of connection. Unlike official organisations, which are more usually constricted by frontiers such as nationality and class, Cooke notes that "cybernetworks construct virtual links that connect isolated individuals in a process of vital information exchange" (Cooke 121). These networks are only starting to emerge, but the mode of interaction that they promote does suggest that notions of singularity and collectivity are being rethought so as to allow women of divergent backgrounds to produce a political stance without homogenizing the members of the community. As for Djebar, the term "Islamic feminism," used provisionally by Cooke, could as a result itself be seen as misleading, implying a specific movement rather than a set of possibly contradictory concerns.
The middle section on the fugitives of the past is both preceded and succeeded by extracts of women's lives in the modern era. In the first part of Vaste est la prison, the narrator traces her thoughts and emotions during a brief love affair with a younger man and her subsequent separation from her husband. Here, the focus echoes once again the analysis of the action of departure and reinvention in the "historical" sections, yet it is personal identity and agency that are foregrounded, despite the obvious affinity between the narrator's liberation and the flight of the women recorded in the other sections. As proposed earlier, comparable experiences link different generations of women, but here the highly introspective and self-analytical reflections of the narrator suggest that her emancipation is an intensely private process. Significant here is also the intimacy of the first-person narrative, since Djebar writes directly against the particular convention that has at times barred Islamic women from the privilege of self-expression. As Mortimer has pointed out, in rather stark terms, "the novelist comes to autobiography aware that subjectivity in life and fiction are transgressions in Algerian culture."7 In this case, however, Djebar's narrator scrutinizes her own affects and emotions with such precision that other characters appear as hazy outlines, apprehended only through the movements of the narrator's own psychological trajectory. In the first scene, for example, the narrator minutely charts the sensations she experiences on awakening from a siesta into a new life, and there are no other characters present. The scene takes place after the conclusion of the events of the following pages, recording the narrator's restoration of a sense of self and agency. Even her environment is bathed in an atmosphere of regeneration—"tout apparait irise d'un eclairage vierge" (21) / "everything seems lit by some pure iridescence" (21), and she notes the overflowing of the sensation of revival onto surrounding objects. Other characters remain foggy and indistinct—"ils pourraient etre des simulacres, projections funambulesques, mouvantes, se complaisant dans l'ephemere" (21) / "they could be simulacra: bizarre projections, moving along and reveling in some ephemeral realm" (21-22). Her heightened awareness of her own condition makes her focus on physical sensations, sounds, and visual details rather than on social interaction.
This self-affirmation arises from the liberation she experiences when falling in love. The object of her affections is himself indistinct, referred to simply as "l'Aime" ‘The Beloved,’ as if to foreground the importance of her perception of him rather than his particular individuality. The episode is formative because it helps the narrator to reintegrate self and body, building a sense of harmony with herself more noticeably than with the other. She frequently speaks of a return to childish sensations, for example, as she seeks to release herself from the constrictions of self-consciousness and allows her body a form of autonomy. In the section on the dance, she forgets social norms and expectations, allowing herself to be carried by the music and using that rhythm to suspend consciousness and artificial control. Cutting herself off momentarily from her companions, she remembers: "Je me croyais en meme temps seule, surgie d'une longue nuit, et abordant enfin, sous ces projecteurs rougis, le rivage" (60) / "At the same time, I felt I was alone, suddenly bursting out of a long night and, under these red spotlights, finally reaching shore" (59). This communion between mind and body, and the self-expression reflected in the dance symbolize the transcendence of ordinary divisions between the mental and the physical, conscious mind and unconscious affect. The passage recalls one of the early sections in Le blanc de l'Algerie, where the narrator describes not only a similar corporeal liberation but also the trace of the connection between her movements and those of Mahfoud. Here again, the complicity achieved does not connote fusion but the partners' synchronized communion with their own bodies. The dance is bound up with communication with the other, but also with a more general search for wholeness and with a refusal of artificial separations between expression and the body. In turn, writing itself, for Djebar, is situated "entre corps et voix" ‘between body and voice’ (Ces voix 86).
The interpenetration of writing with corporeality ties Djebar's work in closely with that of Helene Cixous. As she writes in Rootprints, Cixous grew up in Algeria, but her migrant, hybrid origins differ considerably from those of Djebar. The descendent of European Jewish immigrants, Cixous has both German and Spanish roots, and her relationship with the Algerian community is one of exile and nonbelonging. Nevertheless, her particular critique of communal identification recalls the passages in Djebar championing feminine self-expression, and certainly her call for the reintegration of mind and body seems to be answered by Djebar's corporeal descriptions in the passage cited above. Cixous's pamphlet "Le rire de la Meduse" addresses itself to women as a collective group, but the author repeatedly attacks any notion of typical femininity, emphasizing endless singularity and variability: "[C]e qui me frappe c'est l'infinie richesse de leurs constitutions singulieres" (39) "[W]hat strikes me is the infinite richness of their individual constitutions" (245-46). This singularity manifests itself through the construction of a feminine voice, which she urges should surge forth in writing, uniting mind and body and exploding the confines of conventional, "patriarchal" discourse. Crucially, however, this voice is not self-same but follows the endlessly changing rhythms of the body. Women should express themselves, without adhering to a fixed subject position and revealing all the mobile affects of corporeal experience. This mode of writing is deeply tied up with a reintegration of self and body, advocating a sense of harmony with the unconscious and transcending the divisions of writing that is deemed "patriarchal." Certainly then, Djebar's dance scene mimics this fusion with corporeal movements, and she frequently describes the physical action of writing as if to incorporate into language the actual, sensual movement of the hand across the page.
In this early section of Vaste est la prison, a sense of selfhood and agency is equally achieved through the narrator's appropriation of the gaze. If Algerian Muslim women have at times been sequestered behind closed doors, in this novel the narrator revels in visual description, surreptitiously savoring the details of her loved one's face and appearance. This description again recalls the work of Cixous in that it aims at an exact transcription or incorporation of the other's body into language, though in this case the gesture also connotes a curious seizing of possession. Keeping herself at a discreet distance, she secretly delights in noting "le dessin de ses sourcils, l'ourlet de l'oreille, la legere pomme d'Adam, la levre superieure un peu en avant, et je remarquais comment le reflet du vert, ou du bleu-vert de la veste, de la chemise, de quoi … peu importait, comment ce reflet pouvait jouer sur la peau du visage epie" (26) / "the precise line drawn by his eyebrows, the helix of his ear, his slight Adam's apple, his somewhat projecting upper lip, and how reflected glints of green or blue-green on his jacket, his shirt—it mattered little what—played across his face" (26). Lingering longingly on his features in the way that the camera often dwells on the heroines of French films, the narrator manages to place herself in the position of the controlling viewer. This domination achieved through the visual results in a drive for more power, again reversing male and female roles and privileging feminine agency: "Une violence me saisissait de devoir controler son existence, par mes yeux, en primitive et quasiment sur-lechamp" (30) / "I was seized by a violent compulsion to verify his existence in the original and almost that very instant with my own eyes" (30). By seizing control of the gaze in this way, Djebar rebels directly against feminine subordination and masculine authority. If women have repeatedly been objectified by the male viewer, Djebar turns the tables and regards the object of her affections in a similar, consuming manner.
The second half of Djebar's text recounts her experiences as a filmmaker, developing further the notion of the female gaze and its role as a symbol of resistance. Here the very gesture of controlling the camera signifies self-affirmation and rebellion. Significantly again, however, self-expression is paradoxically a collective project, undertaken explicitly in the name of all the women who suffered repression in the harem. Asserting "Ce regard, je le revendique mien. Je le perqois «notre»" (174) / "This gaze, I claim it as mine. I see it as ‘ours,’" (179), Djebar uses the camera to break down the walls that she perceives divide Muslim Algerian society and that try to keep women cloistered away from the light. The photographic lens is compared to the small gap in the veil that is otherwise used to mask the woman's face, though in this case Djebar's professional use of the camera asserts the power of her gaze openly and regardless of social taboos. Her filmmaking is concerned with expanding and broadening the woman's field of vision, tearing back the curtains of the veil and releasing the viewer into the light. Furthermore, the role of director itself implies power, the active creation of images and the invention of a woman's narrative that subverts accepted versions of history. Unlike the traditional patriarchal gaze that objectifies its subject, and indeed unlike the sections where she seeks to control "l'Aime," however, Djebar is concerned to remain open to the women that she photographs, asserting the importance of receptivity and the ability to see a scene anew. The filming of women's stories is bound up with self-assertion but also with cooperation as opposed to appropriation.
The narrative structure of the text mirrors Djebar's dual preoccupation with the singular and the collective. The filmmaking scenes, tracing the narrator's own experience of self-assertion, are interwoven with fragments of women's narratives from recent years. Djebar's own process of self-discovery is interspersed with histories of women's resistance and flight, again continuing the genealogy that started with Tin Hinan and Zoraide. In this sense, Djebar's work explores alternative forms of collectivity more expansively than Cixous, for example, since although the latter champions openness to alterity, nurturing, and complicity, her emphasis on individual liberation neglects to account for the benefits of collaborative critique. As Toril Moi points out, Cixous can be seen to be guilty of reproducing a (Western?) myth of individualism while failing to analyze the importance of interactive networks.8 In Vaste est la prison, however, the preoccupation with personal reinvention is broken up by testimonies from other women, unsettling the self-conscious, introspective tone of the first section and drawing attention to the ways in which individual histories overlap with and echo one another. Djebar traces a mother's journey to see her son Selim in prison in Metz, noting her courageous departure from the familiar and her challenge to the French soldiers who guard him. In another passage, we learn of the grandmother Fatima's marriage at the age of fourteen, her subsequent departure, and her attempts at remarriage. The emphasis is on the courage and independence of Fatima, her ability to care for her children, and her endurance in the face of adversity. Finally, moments of the narrator's own childhood are juxtaposed with the present, as Djebar picks up on the image of the young girl walking to school with her father, familiar from the opening pages of L'amour, lafantasia. Common and divergent experiences of self-affirmation are narrated one on top of the other, underlining individual agency as well as communality between women.
On one level, then, Djebar's own text is a force of connection, setting up links and narrating common experiences between singular women. Writing serves as a unifying force, integrating past and present and establishing an alternative, feminine history. Nevertheless, the text concludes by lamenting its own failure, alluding to absence and lack rather than creativity. The singular violence of the past stifles the narrator's voice, disabling reconstruction and excluding women once again from language and history: "La voix me quitte chaque nuit tandis que je reveille les asphyxies douceatres de tantes, de cousines entrevues par moi, fillette qui ne comprenait pas" (337) / "Every night my voice leaves me as I awaken the sickly sweet suffocations of aunts and girl cousins that I, a little girl, glimpsed and did not understand" (348). In this way, the text revolves around the desire for a collective feminine voice and the failure to locate and access such a voice. The narrator seeks to recount the histories of the women of Algeria, but these women are also deprived of self-expression, lacking at the same time the self-presence and coherence that a particular voice would allow. Equally, Djebar is interested in the actual concerns of women while continuing to perceive these women as singular shadows, impossible to access using language. A political drive to reinvent history is coupled with a sense of defeat before the intransigence of French narrative, as the women of the text remain faded outlines even as Djebar struggles to fight their common cause.
Recalling both Loin de Medine and Le blanc de l'Algerie, Vaste est la prison associates writing both with communication or translation, and with effacement. Bearing witness to the violence committed against women both through history and during the confrontations of the nineties, the final passages seek at once to rewrite the deaths of Algerian women or to narrate their shared history, and to stress the resistance of such moments of singular violence to any form of linguistic explanation. Writing connotes silence as well as communication, and spilt blood fails to offer any lasting commemoration, dissolving before it leaves a mark: "[L]e sang, pour moi, reste blanc cendre / Il est silence / Il est repentance / Le sang ne seche pas, simplement il s'eteint" (347) / "Blood for me remains ash white. / It is silence. / It is repentance. / Blood does not dry, it simply evaporates" (358). It is in the face of violence, then, that Djebar's search for a common language of resistance falters in the most crippling manner; the pallor of "l'Algerie exsangue" whites out its victims rather than accounting for their scars. The feminine genealogy sketched out by the text is severed by ellipses, caused by the recent, literal eradication of women's resisting voices.
Djebar's relation to feminist resistant politics, then, is complex. She has no specific agenda, charting instead the difficult process of creating a concrete cause.
Though interested in feminine language, she does not propose a particularized form of introspective "feminine writing" in the manner of the French feminists of the seventies, and neither does she buy into the contrasting strands of Arab feminism that either reject or recuperate Islam. She wants to affirm female solidarity and to sketch a coherent history of feminine oppression, but she also finds that the women about whom she writes resist straightforward forms of community, privileging individual agency and evasion. Her work seems to modulate between the perspectives of Cixous and El Saadawi, since it upholds by turns both singularity and mutual support. Furthermore, narrative is perceived as an unreliable construct, excluding as much as it reveals and failing to capture and encapsulate the traumatic experiences of any particular group of women. The novel serves to thread partial connections between women of different epochs while also stressing the uncertain, incomplete status of the stories it constructs.
Djebar's project therefore does not consist in criticizing wholeheartedly the position of women in Islamic society or in advocating an alternative set of norms, but in drawing attention to the tensions involved in the creation of collective narratives. Rather than denouncing "Islamic tradition" as a whole, she explores its varying effects through different epochs and champions multiple different forms of liberation as opposed to simplistic ideological revolt. Djebar charts the fraught process of creating solidarity and linking threads, revealing the contradictions of feminist resistance and highlighting the conflicting forces with which women in Islam must engage. Women's resistance consists of a continual process of convergence and divergence, solidarity and dissociation. Vaste est la prison modulates between these contrasting movements.
1. The verse in the Qu'ran states: "[Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior over the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them" (370). While some have interpreted this as a comment on moral hierarchy, many feminist critics argue that the Qu'ran is egalitarian, prescribing specific social roles in order to protect women and ensure that they are provided for. See, for example, Leila Ahmed's Women and Gender in Islam, where she argues that Islam provides both an ethical and a social vision, and women's position is subordinate only in the latter.
2. The postcolonial critic Anne McClintock makes a similar, more general point about the association between women and nationalism. Women are often constructed as "symbolic bearers of the nation" insofar as they signify national difference and reproduce boundaries through marital relations.
3. For more on this see Mernissi, Women's Rebellion and Islamic Memory.
4. Another feminist critic, Haideh Moghissi, emphasizes collectivity even further: she asserts the importance of identifying women's common struggle, arguing that certain forms of oppression are universal, and the exclusion of Islamic women from Western feminist discourses means that feminism becomes the privileged domain of the West.
5. This need for scepticism regarding holistic labels is expanded in Chandra Mohanty's much cited article "Under Western Eyes," where she criticizes the notion of the "Third World woman" and argues that the nature of women's oppression in different societies is highly variable.
6. Cooke argues that Derrida, Khatibi, and Memmi all continue (perhaps unwittingly) to perceive the mother tongue as the site of an authentic identity, lamenting the loss of that origin and conceiving the acquisition of a new language as a threat. For Djebar, on the other hand, language is not associated with ownership in this way. While Cooke's argument is intriguing and informative in the context of Djebar's work, her reading of Khatibi in particular could benefit from more nuance, since he too seems at times to challenge the connection between language and identity, championing instead plural participation.
7. Mortimer explains that personal disclosure is prohibited in Islamic societies, in particular for women. It should be stressed, however, that this sort of prohibition is again context-specific and is not necessarily the rule in all societies. See "Assia Djebar's Algerian Quartet." Another useful reference here is Magda Al-Nowaihi's "Resisting Silence in Arab Women's Autobiographies," which stresses that not all Arab societies have encouraged women to be silent, noting the achievements of a number of female Arab writers. Al-Nowaihi also argues how writers such as Djebar, Tuqan, and al-Zayyat criticize the mechanisms that forced them into silence by staging their own self-silencing.
8. Moi writes: "the paucity of references to a wider community of women or to collective forms of organisation is not only conspicuous in the work of a feminist activist, but indicative of Cixous's general inability to represent the non-Imaginary, triangulated structures of desire typical of social relationships" (125).
Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of the Modern Debate. New Haven: Yale UP, 1992.
Magda Al-Nowaihi. "Resisting Silence in Arab Women's Autobiographies." International Journal of Middle East Studies 33.4 (2001): 477-502.
Cixous, Helene. "Le rire de la Meduse." L'Arc 61 (1975): 39-54.
———. "The Laugh of the Medusa." New French Feminisms: An Anthology. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. New York: Schocken, 1981: 245-64.
Cixous, Helene, and Mireille Calle-Gruber. Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing. London: Routledge, 1994.
Cooke, Miriam. Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Fundamentalism through Literature. London: Routledge, 2001.
Djebar, Assia. Loin de Medine. Paris: Albin Michel, 1991.
———. L'amour, la fantasia. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.
———. Le blanc de l'Algerie. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.
———. Vaste est la prison. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.
———. Ombre sultane. Paris: Lattes, 1997
———. Ces voix qui m'assiegent. Paris: Albin Michel, 1999.
———. So Vast the Prison. Trans. Betsy Wing. New York: Seven Stories, 1999.
Donadey, Anne. "Assia Djebar's Poetics of Subversion." Esprit Createur 33.2 (1997): 107-17.
El Saadawi, Nawal. The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World. London: Zed, 1997.
Gracki, Katherine. "Writing Violence and the Violence of Writing in Assia Djebar's Algerian Quartet." World Literature Today 70.4 (1996): 835-43.
The Koran. Trans. N. J. Dawood. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.
Lazreg, Marnia. The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question. London: Routledge, 1994.
McClintock, Anne. "No Longer in a Future Heaven: Gender, Race, and Nationalism." Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives. Ed. Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. 89-112.
Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. London: Al Saqi, 1994.
———. Women's Rebellion and Islamic Memory. London: Zed, 1996. Moghissi, Haideh. Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The Limits of Postmodern Analysis. London: Zed, 1999.
Mohanty, Chandra. "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses." Feminist Review 30 (1988): 61-88.
Mohanty, Chandra, and Biddy Martin. "Feminist Politics: What's Home Got to Do With It?" Feminist Studies/Critical Studies. Ed. Teresa De Lauretis. Bloomington: Indiana up, 1986. 191-212.
Mortimer, Mildred. "Assia Djebar's Algerian Quartet: A Study in Fragmented Autobiography." Research in African Literatures 28.2 (1997): 102-17.
Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Methuen, 1985.
Zimra, Clarisse. "Writing Woman: The Novels of Assia Djebar." SubStance: A Review of Literary Criticism 21.3 (1992): 68-84.
———. "Not So Far from Medina: Assia Djebar Charts Islam's ‘Insupportable Feminist Revolution.’" World Literature Today 70.6 (1996): 823-34.
Michael O'Riley (essay date 2007)
SOURCE: O'Riley, Michael. "Haunting Translations in Les nuits de Strasbourg." In Postcolonial Haunting and Victimization: Assia Djebar's New Novels, pp. 101-18. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.
[In the following excerpt, O'Riley studies Djebar's exploration of the violence of imperialism and the resulting cultural transformation and loss in the novel Les nuits de Strasbourg.]
Begun in 1993 and completed in 1997, the writing of Les nuits de Strasbourg was interrupted by the deaths of Djebar's friends, the occasion for which Le blanc de l'Algérie, Djebar's personal narrative about the long death march in Algeria, was written as an interim project. Djebar explains that the writing of Les nuits de Strasbourg was framed and inspired by the violence in Algeria: "Vous le devinez, j'ai écrit ce roman en 1997, en Louisiane, alors que, si loin, j'avais connaissance des massacres de villageois dans mon pays … ma seule réaction était d'écrire de plus longues pages encore sur les neuf nuits d'amour imaginées à Strasbourg." ‘You can figure it out: I wrote this novel in 1997 in Louisiana while, although so far away, I was aware of the massacres of the villagers of my country … my only reaction was to write even longer pages about the nine imagined nights of love in Strasbourg’ (1999, 237). The author's attention, in Les nuits de Strasbourg, to the conventions and antagonisms of three "multicultural" couples representing Franco-Algerian, Judaeo-Germanic, and Franco-Germanic relations informed by the history of imperialism in Strasbourg suggests a transposition or attempted translation of the violence of Algeria through another narrative situated in France. Writing of Les nuits de Strasbourg, Djebar remarks,
Dans ce roman, je crois que j'ai, à ma manière, repensé (et peut-être pour faire un jeu de mots facile en français où penser peut être aussi panser, tanter d'adoucir des blessures), oui j'ai repensé à partir des blessures du passé, une ville comme Strasbourg: ville frontière …
In this novel, I believe that, in my own way, I thought again (and, perhaps—to make an easy pun in French where "to think" [penser] can also be "to bandage" [panser], to try to alleviate wounds), yes, I thought again starting from those past wounds about a city like Strasbourg: a border town.
In many ways, given the contextual circumstances of the text's creation, the novel's attempt to confront the wider ideological implications of translating or situating the destruction occasioned by imperialist mentalities can be seen as the author's own further attempts to situate the narrowed personal dimensions of death and cultural destruction treated in Le blanc de l'Algérie. 1
The author's continuing preoccupation with the thematics of imperialist violence, ethnic tension, and disappearance in Les nuits de Strasbourg suggests that the return to the site of cultural violence and personal loss treated in Le blanc de l'Algérie remains, as the title suggests, a contingent and unresolved problem.2 I begin this chapter with an evocation of the contextual circumstances of the writing of Les nuits de Strasbourg because it is my contention that Djebar's text plays on the question of how a history of violence and imperialist ideology remains a haunting point of reference, even in circumstances where postcolonial subjects have seemingly little relationship to the legacy of colonial violence. Les nuits de Strasbourg provides insight into how we might transcend that history of loss. In transposing histories of colonial violence and loss, Djebar's text serves as an experiment, both personal and, in a larger sense, conceptual, in how the haunting loss related to imperialism might be confronted through a thorough experience of plotting and retracing its historical dynamics. By focusing on the performative aspect of cultural translations or transpositions of violence and loss related to imperialism, Djebar's text reflects her own authorial attempt to relate the violence experienced in Algeria to the European context. Her text examines the vicissitudes of transposing loss onto other contextual and historical dimensions when that loss is largely informed by a paradigmatic sense of victimization.
The text demonstrates how a focus on the specters of imperialist loss and violence as a central point of reference ultimately leads to a repetition of loss; it reinforces this point by leading us through the emplotment of imperialist history only to end on a symbolic reincarnation (ironically here, reincarnation in death) of the colonial-era martyr figure tortured at the hands of Western imperialism.3 Like the texts discussed in the previous two chapters, Les nuits de Strasbourg ends on the disappearance of its protagonist, a disappearance that seemingly reiterates the conflicts of the Algerian War as a haunting and intransigent point of reference. What is most interesting, perhaps, in Djebar's text is the implication that the martyr figure of Western imperialism (the tortured and damaged colonial subject) looms in the postcolonial imaginary, his/her memory generating new martyr figures. Djebar's commentary on this form of victimization takes place through a circular structure of narrative and thematic emplotment. The beginning and ending of her text both center on the martyr/victim and on the memory of imperialist practice, suggesting that the looming specter of the martyr figure haunts the narrative attempt to break out of the history of victimization.4 This point is rendered clearer by the novel's historical perspective, its tracing of imperialist practice suffered by Europe during World War II and the Prussian War, contextual reflections which ultimately lead to the memory of the Algerian War. Moreover, the novel's contemporary setting and its Algerian protagonist suggest the haunting shadow of the current civil war in Algeria as well. Given that the novel returns to the history of imperialist victimization and ultimately ends on the spectral reincarnation of it, the text suggests the uncanny way that the specters of colonial victimization simply lurk within the attempt to break out of a history of victimization. Djebar's text will ultimately suggest that the only way to break this cycle is to be wary of the way that the memory of colonial loss operates for both perpetrator and victim.
The Hauntings of Cultural Authenticity
The novel establishes the central question of the haunting memory of imperialist loss through the protagonist's relationship to a medieval text, Horticus delicarum or Jardin des délices, written by l'abbesse Herrade de Landsberg. The novel uses the theme of translation to demonstrate how the cultural transformation that is a part of translation and that is caused by imperialism often provokes dangerous sentiments of loss, affiliation with victims, and vengeance. Translation, cultural reference, and the history of imperialism inhere when Thelja, the Algerian protagonist and scholar of history, comes to Strasbourg to study the Latin version of the text, "Une copie? Certes pas l'original," ‘A copy? Definitely not the original’ (101). Thelja is dismayed to learn that the original Latin version of the text was destroyed during the Prussian siege on the night of 24 August, 1870. Commenting on the complex history of cultural and political Franco-Prussian tensions that define Strasbourg and its World War II legacy, Thelja relives the imperialist past:
Comment me consoler de ne jamais pouvoir tenir entre mes mains l'original du livre d'Herrade? Est-ce que, à force d'avoir lu tant de documents sur le siège terrible de Strasbourg, je vois, oh oui, comme si j'y étais, j'assiste physiquement à la révolte des Strasbourgeois, sortant peu à peu des caves où ils s'étaient terrés durant quarante-huit jours de bombardements: ils apprennent avec stupéfaction l'abdication finale de la ville, certains se mettent à appeler à l'émeute patriotique! … Vraiment cet acharnement désespéré, comme il me plaît, comme il me paraîtrait familier.
How could I console myself over never being able to hold Herrade's original book in my hands? Could it be that, as a result of having read so many documents about the awful siege of Strasbourg, I see, yes, as if I were there, I am physically present at the revolt of the citizens of Strasbourg, emerging slowly from the cellars where they had been holed up for 48 days of bombings; stupefied, they learn of the final abdication of the city, some of them begin calling for patriotic rioting. Truly, this hopeless devotion, how it pleases me, how familiar it seems.
Although the translated text exists as a "postcolonial" remainder, it ultimately solicits a wider history of imperialist loss for Thelja. Relegated to the copied simulacrum in French, the translated and transformed original text bears the memory of the war and its historical legacy; it illustrates that the transformation of the "cultural original" is frequently an effect of an imperialist tendency which haunts intercultural relations. More importantly, the longing for the "original" narrative and subsequent patriotic identification premised upon its loss that Thelja experiences suggest how the concept of the original cultural narrative is frequently organized around the violence of cultures, a violence that sustains the notion of a cultural original as it links it to the concept of a cultural origin.
Thelja's inability to accept the loss of the original, indeed of one version of the cultural origin, introduces the problem of understanding and situating revolt and cultural violence after their occurrence.5 The protagonist's identification with the destruction of cultural reference embodied by the destroyed book and the besieged citizens of Strasbourg superimposes suggestively her memory of the Algerian War upon the problem of understanding nationalism and cultural destruction in the wake of war. Thelja's uncertain relationship to the loss imposed by nationalist antagonism poses the text's central question of how historical distance mediates the problem of translating cultural tensions. The empathy Thelja expresses over the cultural loss suffered by the Strasbourgeois establishes the link between different cultures and histories of imperialist violence and demonstrates how the memory of one war can easily become translated into that of another, producing and reproducing exclusionary nationalist sentiments. Thelja's own confusion regarding her response to the cultural devastation occasioned by the Prussian war questions the post-war legacy of conceiving of cultural identity in singular patriotic terms, predicated on the possession or loss of a shared cultural origin or original essence. By underscoring the loss of one version of the cultural origin, the text demonstrates how the notion of an original can easily produce a climate of exclusion and antagonism that becomes implicated in the conception of cultural identity.6 Placing this scene within the wider historical context of the Algerian civil war, we see how the text speaks directly to the tendency to view cultural transformation in terms of loss, a tendency which leads to dangerous sentiments of nationalism and the search for cultural authenticity.
Moreover, the notion of irredeemably transformed cultural reference and displacement establishes the relationship between Thelja's own feelings regarding her decision to leave Algeria to embark on a nomadic passage within Europe which offered its own points of reference because of the colonial past. Of her stay in France she remarks,
… plus je me sens ainsi passagère dans une ville d'Europe, plus je reconnais l'élan violent qui m'a saisie, il y a plus d'un an: quitter à la fois ma terre de soleil, un amour brouillé … oui, partir d'un coup à trente ans, cela me paraissait jaillir d'une tombe! D'une tombe ouverte au ciel certes, d'une tombe quand même! Oh Dieu, l'ivresse de déambuler, de goûter l'errance, plongée dans une telle intensité. Jamais, pourvu que je marche, je ne cesserai de me sentir légère …
… the more temporary I feel in a European city, the more I recognize the violent impulse that gripped me more than a year ago: to leave at the same time my sunny country, a confused love … yes, suddenly leaving at the age of 30, it was like jumping out of a grave! From an open grave, of course, but still, from a grave! Oh, God, the intoxication of strolling, of the taste of wandering, plunged into such intensity. So long as I'm walking, I'll never stop feeling light …
To be sure, Thelja's nomadic experience is intoxicating but it is also couched in the language of haunting, a tone that permeates her nomadic existence. Cultural nomadism, whether signified by the translated and disseminated text or by nomadic existence within the former metropolitan center, not only poses the question of translating or confronting the imperialist history which engenders the loss of a cultural origin, but also poses the question of how we come to understand the origin and what constitutes it. Preoccupied with the origin in the form of the translated novel later in the text, Thelja evokes "l'original, détruit à jamais." ‘The original forever destroyed’ (72). Confused by Thelja's fixation with the original, Hans, the German lover of Thelja's Algerian Jewish friend Eve remarks, "pourquoi s'attarder sur la disparition? Autant dire sur le vide … Pourquoi pas sur ce qui se transforme, sur ce qui s'est maintenu ou modifié, malgré les guerres?," ‘Why linger on the disappearance? In other words, on the void … Why not on what is transformed, on what is maintained or changed despite the wars?’ (172). While Hans' response appears to celebrate uncritically the cultural transformation caused by imperialist violence, the question remains unanswered and contingent in this passage, implicitly questioning the idea of an absolute, unadulterated cultural original formed outside the processes of transformation and violence. In this way, the text dissociates victimization from the process of cultural transformation; it suggests that all cultures are, at one point or another, victim of a loss of authenticity so frequently associated with the idea of an unadulterated origin. Moreover, by avoiding a hasty response to the question, the text also implicitly questions whether war and histories of cultural antagonism can themselves be translated and transformed into other forms of cultural relations or whether they and their memories remain the fixed, haunting element in the midst of cultural transformation.
The text's portrayal of the issues of translation that confront the nomadic Algerian scholar concerning the cultural original and its transformation in the context of imperialist history functions as a mise en abyme, or mirroring of the extra-diagetic, or authorial, context. As Djebar notes in Ces voix qui m'assiègent, the issue of translation, in both the larger cultural sense and within the context of contemporary Algeria, is haunted by a violent history of imperialism: "… nous croyons parler de langues, de bilinguisme, de multilinguisme. Or dès que nous scrutons ‘l'entre-deux langues’, nous rouvrons les fosses, nous découvrons les fondrières, nous bousculons les tombes, nous éparpillons les cendres," ‘We believe we speak of language, of bilingualism, of multilingualism. As soon as we turn our attention to ‘the in-between languages,’ we reopen the pits, we rattle the graves, we scatter the ashes, "[L]e passage entre les langues," ‘The passage between languages’ (1999, 32), common to translation and its cultural transaction, for instance, inevitably evokes for Djebar the history of French colonial occupation and contemporary civil warfare which haunts, "l'Algérie violente et sanglante d'aujourd'hui," ‘today's violent and bloody Algeria,’ and impedes its transformation—its translation—of the legacy of imperialist violence (32): "L'entre-langues aujourd'hui en Algérie, ce serait vraiment avec furie et silence," ‘The in-between of languages in today's Algeria would truly be with silence and fury’ (34). For Djebar, translation and its attendant issues of cultural authenticity and origin remain haunted by the specters of colonial history and its culture struggles. The reference to translation in Les nuits de Strasbourg reflects the problem of the loss of perceived cultural authenticity in Algeria during French colonialism and its aftermath. It thus mirrors the larger struggle in Algeria between Western cultural forms such as the French language and Arabic because such issues of cultural translation remain at the very heart of current politics within Algeria today.7
Cultural Performance and Victimization
The contradictions of translation as a haunted marker of cultural violence and its potential transformation continue to emerge as the text unites the historical subtext of warfare and the imperialist tendencies of love and its legacies. Pregnant with Hans's child, Eve remarks that she has transgressed the cultural interdictions of her Jewish heritage by choosing a German lover, her long-standing image of the historical Other transferred through cultural apprenticeship. Commenting on her antagonistic relationship with the figure of the German, Eve remarks,
… je suis demeurée fidèle au serment de l'enfance: c'était après avoir pleuré à la lecture du Journal d'Anne Frank—Jamais, jamais moi née d'un père juif andalou et de mère juive berbère, jamais je ne mettrai les pieds en Allemagne … Me préserver! … Depuis mon coeur a battu d'effroi, de malaise, de honte …
I remained faithful to the childhood oath: it was after having cried while reading the Journal of Anne Frank—Never, never would I, born of an Andalousian Jewish father and a Berber Jewish mother, never would I ever set foot in Germany … To save myself! … My heart has since beaten in dread, in sickness, in shame …
Having transgressed the enemy line Eve explains, "je me retrouve au coeur même de ma zone interdite, pour ainsi dire en terre ennemi … En avant de ma ligne Maginot, nouvelle version!," ‘I find myself in the very heart of my forbidden zone, in other words, in enemy territory … Before my Maginot line, new version!’ (68-69). Eve's use of the Maginot line as a figure for the hybrid, antagonistic zone shared by cultural enemies incorporates and translates the novel's larger historical subtext of World War II into the more microcosmic cultural relations of the scene. Beginning with the novel's opening scene of the World War II exodus of Strasbourg citizens under German siege, the novel stages the complexities of cultural displacement, enmity, and the interstices of cultural contact zones in relation to the imperialism, territorial contest, and inevitable cultural hybridity that mark the history of Strasbourg. Remark- ing that her child will be "ni juif algérien, ni allemand, [mais] enfant alsacien," ‘neither Algerian Jew nor German, [rather] an Alsatian child.’ Eve casts the problem of translating historical antagonisms in genealogical terms while underscoring the hybridity of Alsace, itself marked by a long history of warfare (71). Implicit in this framing of cultural antagonisms and their potential transformation through the hybridity of "translation" is the presence of the genealogy of war and territorialism in the construction of hybrid identity.
In a critical scene of translation between Hans and Eve the text continues to underscore the contradictions of cultural transformation and imperialism. In a symbolic attempt to assure the translation of imperialism's legacy, Eve proposes that she and Hans recite the 842 declaration of the Sermon of Strasbourg by the sons of Louis le Pieux, the grandsons of Charlemagne, which she found in a book on the history of the French language (235). Eve argues that the symbolic linguistic performance of the contract between the brothers represents a means of forging alliances out of past imperialist antagonisms:
L'important … l'important aujourd'hui, l'important pour nous … C'est que vois-tu leur serment d'alliance … Louis va prononcer le serment en français, ou plus exactement en roman, dans la langue du frère, et que Charles, va l'épeler, lui dans la langue de l'autre. Et vois-tu, les deux armées font pareil.
What's important … what's important today, important to us … is their oath of allegiance … Louis will pronounce the oath in French, or more precisely, in Romance, in his brother's language, while Charles will speak it in the other's language. And mind you, the two armies do the same.
Eve's celebration and reiteration of the Sermon of Strasbourg is predicated on her understanding of the performative political and linguistic dismantling of the imperialist legacy that engenders it: "C'est un acte politique, c'est surtout un échange linguistique," ‘It is a political act, most of all, a linguistic exchange’ (236). Speaking in the other's language, and the translation such an exercise requires, represent a means of forging cultural alliances despite cultural, linguistic, and ethnic differences. Eve tells Hans, "je suis prête … à te parler dans ta langue," ‘I am prepared … to speak to you in your language’ (236). Eve's ability to transgress the linguistic interdiction of German represents to her the dissolution of the oppositional culture of war she shares with Hans, the same culture shared by Charles le Chauve and Louis le Germanique: "Avant que l'enfant n'arrive, nous avons éteint tout souvenir de généalogie," ‘Before the child's arrival, we extinguished any memory of genealogy’ (238). Yet, performed by Charles, chief of the Frankish army and Louis, commander of the army "au-delà du Rhin" for the purpose of constructing and consolidating an empire, the political strength of which would preclude Lothaire, the third brother in the family, from achieving power, the sermon and its transformative power turn complex and contradictory.
As a symbol of translation and cultural transformation intended to dispel imperialism, the Sermon of Strasbourg is inherently contradictory on many levels that Djebar's text exploits. As an historical symbol, the sermon's initial performance and gesture toward cultural and linguistic hybridity are rooted in the perpetuation of imperialism and territorialism, in what Jacques Derrida has termed a "hyperbolic fraternity" that seeks to define itself in the formation of allegiances that ultimately redraw boundaries of former exclusionary politico-cultural climates (1997, 239). Derrida argues that this exclusionary movement is itself the origin of a sui generis ethnocentric nationalism. Echoing Derrida's formulation of nationalist genealogy, the sermon's legacy illustrates, as the novel itself underscores through its reference to Strasbourg's devastation during the Prussian and Second World Wars, the impossibility of translating the culture of war and imperialism using the fundamental principles of territorialism and fraternal exclusion upon which it is based. Contextualizing the scene of postcolonial translation between Eve and Hans within the larger framework of imperialism within and outside Europe, Les nuits de Strasbourg reveals how the untranslatable element in acts of translation frequently represents the intransigent history of imperialism that haunts intercultural relations.8 Djebar thus demonstrates the impossibility of using imperialism as a fundamental point of reference for the establishment of a "postcolonial" politics. Here, as above, the backdrop of contemporary Algeria enters into view as the reflected context where State politics and fundamentalist ideology are predicated on reference to imperialist history. Djebar's text demonstrates the difficulty of using a paradigm of victimization and its imperialist history as the generator for performances of a new "post-imperial" ideology.
The renouncement of the haunting paradigm of victimization can be seen as well in attention to the subconscious ways that it often becomes a subconsciously embedded and generationally transferred pattern. Using Alsace and its complex history of hybrid relations as a backdrop, the text narrows in on the contradictions of hybridity between East and West, primarily between Algeria and France and the translation of the memory of their colonial antagonisms. The example for this interweaving of East and West is embodied in a second-generation Maghrebian youth group's attempt to perform Antigone. Directed by Jacqueline, a French woman and the former lover of Ali an Algerian immigrant, the group, known for its theatrical productions of immigrant Algerian life in the Hautepierre neighborhood of Alsace translated into Alsatian dialect, decides to stage a version of Sophocle's work they will call "Djamila-Antigone." The goal of the actors' project is the translation of a Western cultural text through its representation by actors of Maghrebian heritage. The resultant project is conceived as a blending of cultures captured in the hyphen marking the translation between Eastern and Western heritages. Trinh Minh-Ha celebrates such aesthetic endeavors, arguing that they represent the "cultural translation" and transformation of postcolonial culture in their "crossing of an indeterminate number of borderlines, one that remains multiple in its hyphenation" (107). In a similar manner, the objective of the hyphenated production here is to bear witness to the heritage of violence to which Antigone's death attests and to thereby illuminate the imperialist ideology that seeks to eradicate the Other and maintain a genealogy of the same. As Jacqueline tells the actors: "… la mort d'Antigone, dans sa tombe, est là pour tenter d'éclairer la vérité de toutes ces morts en marche … Dans cette pièce prenez conscience de cette loi terrible …," ‘Antigone's death in her tomb is there to try and cast light on the truth of all these deaths. In this play, be aware of this awful law …’ (210-211). The contradictions of the group's endeavors to translate the culture of violence become immediately apparent, however, in the actor's choice of "la Smala" as a name to designate their group. Celebrating the designation as "un des mots arabes qui est passé dans le français … Comme le souk," ‘one of those Arab words that has slipped into French … like ‘souk’ [‘marketplace’],’ the group is not wary of the historical implications of the name as a sign of imperialist antagonism between East and West in the Maghreb (216). Taken from an imperialist defeat, the storming of the Smala or "la prise de la Smala," the Arabic term for the encampment of Algerian Emir Abdelkader in 1843 by the cavalry of Duc d'Aumale in the French conquest of Algeria, the group's name becomes the iconic and, we might say, subconscious carrier of imperialist history. Anne Donadey has noted the semantic value of Djebar's use of Arabic which, she argues, enables her to create an "Algerian palimpsest" of richly layered histories: "Djebar provides concrete reminders of the historically violent process she's retracing" (31). The historically violent process retraced by Djebar here through the use of Arabic recalls the violence of colonial translation. This overlooked history reveals the hidden imperialist underpinnings of the performance and becomes a harbinger of the genealogy of violence to which the text later bears witness; it also demonstrates that what is frequently overlooked in East-West relations—or translations—is the haunting genealogy of cultural violence.
The tragic dimensions of this past surface when the group's performance is precluded by the death of Jacqueline, the play's director, at the hands of her Algerian lover Ali. Dependent on Jacqueline to the point of possessing her through murder, Ali shoots her in the center of Strasbourg. In her examination of the role of violence in Djebar's work, Katherin Gracki has noted "how women's bodies become monuments and privileged sites in the reinscription process at the heart of Djebar's work" (837). In a similar manner, Jacqueline's body becomes a monument that links diverse memories of violence and imperialism in history even though it cannot ultimately escape or "translate" them. Murdered on "rue du fil" and covered by "un linge blanc sur la face," ‘a white linen on the face’ Jacqueline embodies the image and memory of violence represented by the dead figure of Antigone (325).9 The failed presentation of the translation of Antigone constitues a mise en abyme of the novel itself in that both texts demonstrate the indelible mark of the heritage of violence in the translation of diverse ethnic and cultural memories. As Thelja remarks later in the text, "… à Thèbes ou à Strasbourg, l'impuissance devant la mort n'est-elle pas aussi aride?," ‘… in Thebes or in Strasbourg, isn't impotence in the face of death just as arid?’ (368).
Marked by the blood of Jaccqueline's corpse, this scene forms a mark or stain recalling the hybrid cultural border of Alsace described in the text as "une sorte de tatouage visible—à tous les dangers du passé," ‘a kind of visible tatoo of all the dangers of the past’ (248), it serves as a memory site that encompasses the overlapping effects of imperialist legacies spanning multiple histories and cultures of violence. Multiple in its commemoration of cultural violence, this mark recalls Slavoj Zizek's understanding of the profound cultural role of the stain as a mnemonic device, "bearing witness to a certain decentered, external place" that symbolizes the arcane truth of culture (66). As an exterior mark, the stain surfaces to relay the deeply inscribed history of violence of the cultural body. The stain in Les nuits de Strasbourg thus represents what Zizek calls the "untranslatable" and elusive "decentered hard kernel" which signifies the resistant depths of multiple imperialist pasts that return to haunt the postcolonial conscious (66-67). The text suggests the existence of a relation between the violence of past colonial relations and ethnic tensions, World War II as well as prior wars conjured by Strasbourg as contextual backdrop, and the violence of contemporary multicultural relations, by staging Jacqueline's death on "rue du fil." The hyphen, translational link designed to divest cultures of their imperialist tendencies, functions here to expose the shared cross-cultural and historical tradition of violence that remains untranslated.10 Moreover, the perpetuation of this legacy through the incapacity of memory to transgress the memory of loss, violence, and victimization is accentuated in the novel through the figure of Ali's mother, an Algerian immigrant tortured by her memory of the Algerian War and "le vent de la mémoire" (145). The text thus suggests that unresolved antagonisms and the fixity of memory on prior losses might be uncon- sciously transferred in the form of a genealogy of violence. Although the focus on the memory of imperialist loss and violence is perhaps less obvious here, the novel underscores the important ways that a subconscious genealogy of victimization often returns to perpetuate itself. Here again, the context of contemporary Algeria, linked to the larger imperialist history of Western culture figured by reference to Antigone, figures as a significant backdrop for the novel's commentary on the role of embedded patterns of victimization and their eventual manifestations.
Having underscored the dangers of transposing or transferring paradigms of victimization in performative acts of cultural translation (such as the theater production), the novel turns to a blatant commentary on its own attempted transposition, or cultural translation, of imperialist wounds in its use of Alsace as a backdrop for the author's performance of the loss, violence, and victimization in Algeria. Engaging Alsace and Algeria, both cultural territories rendered hybrid by imperialist legacies, the text accentuates the difficulties of undertaking a translation of the pervasive shared culture of war. Superimposing Algeria and Alsace in a translation of their names, the text draws attention to the acoustic and imagistic resonance of the memories of war and imperialism which pass from one territory to another. Thelja remarks, "Alsace, Algérie … Non, plutôt Alsagérie!.. Alsagérie donc … une cicatrice s'ouvre dans ce vocable," ‘Alsace, Algeria … non, more like Alsageria! Alsageria then … a scab is opened in this word’ (372). The wound recalling imperialist tendencies and warfare surfaces in the attempted translation. Presented in "les mots de l'entre-deux" (386), pronounced by Thelja and her French lover François, the open wound represents the difficulty of a multicultural union through translation years after war and reinforces the essential divisions of enmity and friendship observed by Thelja when she speaks to François of the Algerian War as, "la guerre chez moi entre les vôtres et les miens," ‘the war in my country between yours and mine’ (78). The translated version of East-West relations thus remains rooted in a vocabulary of cultural antagonism as the text demonstrates the mimetic nature of imperialism through the translation "Alsagérie" which ultimately reproduces the wounds of war. Here, as elsewhere, the focus on victimization and cultural imperialism within the act of translation simply reiterates the tensions and underpinnings of an imperialist history of victimization within a new historical context.
The text underscores further the propensity for victimization from the colonial era to reappear in new historical and geographical contexts associated with the act of cultural translation in its evocation of one of its couples, Irma and Karl, she the daughter of persecuted Alsatian Jews and he the son of a "petit colon en Algérie" originally from Alsace. Coupling the diverse ethnic histories, Irma draws attention to the dissonant rupture produced in the musicality of the linkage of Alsace and Algeria: "Alsace, Algérie: les deux mots tanguaient soudain. Elle leur trouva une résonance commune, une musique qui semblait les accoupler, à moins que ce ne fût plutôt une même blessure ancienne, des cicatrices en creux qui conjuguées, risquaient de réapparaître," ‘Alsace, Algeria: the two words suddenly shift. She found in them a common resonance, a music that seemed to couple them, unless it was a common ancient wound, hollow scars which, joined together, threaten to reappear’ (285). The scene articulates the text's warning that even the translational nature of historical wounds (i.e., their ability to be transformed) can reproduce former antagonisms under new forms of memory-work that must constantly remain attentive to underlying sentiments of victimization and cultural tension.
The novel illustrates this point by binding the signs of the territories' histories through a gradual evocation of the scenery admired by Karl and Irma. Accompanying Karl on a walk, Irma remarks the stillness of "le ciel nocturne étoilé" (277). Given the novel's framing of World War II and Irma's Jewish heritage and diasporic conditions as "une émigrée, mais sans point de départ, et par là même sans espoir d'arrivée," ‘a migrant, but with neither point of departure nor hope of arrival.’ the star-crossed night evokes the Star of David Jewish citizens were forced to wear as an exclusionary marker of ethnicity during World War II (278). Not specific to World War II, however, the metonymy of the figure of the star evokes a wider history of antisemitism. Later, as the couple enters the "lacis de la Petite France," they begin to admire "le demi-croissant de lune," ‘the halfcrescent of the moon’ coupled with the star (277). Together with the figure of the star, the crescent of the moon forms the symbol of the Algerian flag, mapping and translating the image of antisemitism onto Algerian territory as the cultural memories of the two heritages overlap. Moreover, the symbol represents the overlapping histories and memories of the two very different diasporic heritages and memories that Irma as a child of Alsatian Jews and Karl as the child of colonizers must live. Assembling the symbols of multiple ethnic memories of imperialism and diaspora, the novel underscores the vicissitudes of locating the shared coordinates of the history of war—their capacity to reappear under new and translated forms—as an active memory which remains vigilant to the sentiments of loss, nostalgia, and martyrdom so embedded in the history of colonial violence.
Endings and Beginnings
As the witness and metahistorian of the history of warfare, Thelja (whose name translated from the Arabic means "snow"), disappears in the novel's last chapter entitled "Neige ou le Poudroiement," ‘Snow or the Powdering,’ ultimately remembering through the diaspora of the body the intransigent culture of imperialism. Named for the winter season in which her father, a resistance fighter during the Algerian War was killed, Thelja ultimately attests, through her dispersion and repetition of the disappearance of her father's body thrown into the snow by the enemy to a postcolonial memory of imperialism characterized by the memories of warfare shared between East and West. The father's tortured body is thus figured as a spectral martyr figure from the colonial era, one which, unbeknownst to the reader at the outset, looms throughout the text and ultimately attests to a haunted history. The spectral patriarchal body of colonialism is thus reincarnated through the body of the Algerian daughter.
The novel's ultimate scene revealing Thelja's disappearance provides a final commentary on the role of the paradigm of imperialist victimization in acts of cultural translation and historical transformation. Climbing to the summit of the cathedral of Strasbourg, the highest point in Europe, Thelja recites her disappearance: "immobilisée en plein ciel … immense doigt dressé sur le plus haut toit de l'Europe. Je ne redescendrai pas: après la nuit et juste avant le jour le vide règne là-bas, debout un cri dans le bleu immergé …" ‘motionless in the open … immense finger standing on the highest rooftop of Europe. I will not come back down: after night and just before day, emptiness reigns down there, standing a shout in the submerged blue …’ (405). While Thelja's "irrésistible pulsion vers l'espace," ‘irresistible attraction to space,’ might be read as the novel's valorization of a space outside the memory of warfare shared between groups in the New Europe, the hole of memory, "dans le vide," ‘into the void’ through and into which Thelja's body passes provides a more complex, if not equally problematic commentary on the translation of imperialist history (315). While the novel ends on a nomadic passage of Thelja into space, it also returns the body of the Algerian protagonist and its inscribed memories to the emptied memory site of World War II evoked in the text's opening chapter and its representation of the exodus of Strasbourg that took place September 2-4, 1939 and left the city empty of its 150, 000 citizens until June 1940: "La ville est immergée dans ce vide," ‘The city is immersed in this void’ (18). Referencing Djebar's Le blanc de l'Algérie, John Erickson contends that Djebar's attention to the memories of the dead enables her to "translate" the violence or what he calls the "untranslatedness" of Algeria: "While Djebar asks the question of how to find a language of unification rather than destruction, she answers it by her spiritual communion with the dead, by the blank pages upon which she writes their stories and gives sense to their deaths … Le blanc de l'Algérie helps to translate the untranslatedness of the country and its people" (106). Although Les nuits de Strasbourg also seeks to combat the destruction that is warfare through reference to its victims, it also questions the role of le blanc—white, blank, void space—of memory. The reference to snow, colonialism, and the void at the text's end, through the memory of Thelja's Father and the Algerian War, suggests that the haunting memories of the dead which fill le blanc, or void space, may not enable a translation of the history of imperialism but only return us back to its initial (original) memories (evidenced in the text's opening by le vide which signals the evacuation of Strasbourg during World War II).11
With the end of its own narrative linking diverse memories of imperialism, the text signals the dangers of the backward slip of the narrative body of memory into a retroactive state and calls for the continued translation of the memories of victimization that constitute the culture of imperialism. Translating the memories of colonialism in Algeria within the space of Strasbourg and its memories of imperialism, the text seeks a space beyond the culture of imperialism that unites the two territories. The novel thus gestures to the importance of translating an originary violence within and between cultures from a much larger perspective than that of the haunting paradigms of victimization and loss, be they personal, collective, or cultural.
Les nuits de Strasbourg is a text that is fundamentally about how we react to the specters of colonialism. In many ways, the writing of the work served as a potentially fresh piece of paper on which Djebar could deal with the violence and disappearance of close friends in Algeria. Yet, its circular nature, one loss leading to another and ultimately leading us back to the beginning of the historical narrative of imperialist occupation and its victims, demonstrates how new postcolonial narratives remain haunted by the specters of imperialism and colonial victimization. Les nuits de Strasbourg is a fitting text on which to end this study of postcolonial haunting and victimization because, ending on the specter of the martyr figure, on his/her disappearance, it forces us to return to the beginning of the history of imperialist victimization and to examine the profound sense of loss and victimization that we feel when confronted with this return. Although Les nuits de Strasbourg does not provide therapeutic closure, a sense of how we might ultimately combat the problem of today's martyr figures dying in the name of victimization or in opposition to the history of Western imperialism, it does force us to question our reaction to the spectral figure of the disappeared martyr figure. It requires us, in a gesture that mimics the working through of loss that the text represented for its author, to examine closely what the best response to the losses of history might be. As the specters of today's martyrs linger and lurk, threatening to reappear at any point in any place, perhaps the best starting point for response remains a rethinking of the paradigm of victimization and its responses.
1.Le Blanc de l'Algérie represents a potential transformation of the fixed memory of colonialism that haunts contemporary Algeria with the history of colonial translation. In Le Blanc de l'Algérie, this haunting, untranslated violence in Algeria is figured by the blank or white space of suspension, a discursive pause which also signals the potential intervention—or translation of violence—that the author's testimonial narrative might provide. As John Erickson has noted, the ‘blank/white’ or "blanc" space of Djebar's text represents the author's personal relationship to the violence haunting Algeria: "The noun blanc, among other things, then, signifies the blank page of a failed revolution, yet to be written upon, as well as, on a personal level, the stories of Djebar's friends, acquaintances, and fellow Algerians who have died, stories that remain to be voiced" (96). Le Blanc de l'Algérie highlights the potential of translation as a culturally transformative exercise. Both texts underscore the potential of language and narrative in translation as testimonial forms to the violent history of imperialism, a violence that precludes hybrid cultural relations between groups.
2. Alluding to the civil violence in the wake of fundamentalism and political faction that has plagued contemporary Algeria, Djebar's text draws parallels between the blank, untranslated Algerian territory caught in a blood-stained reactionary anti-colonial stance and the potential power of cultural transformation held by the act of postcolonial translation in the period marking the official end of French colonial occupation: "L'écriture et l'Algérie comme territoires … Le blanc de l'écriture dans une Algérie non traduite? Pour l'instant, l'Algérie de la douleur, sans écriture; pour l'instant, une Algérie sang-écriture," ‘Writing and Algeria as territories … The white of writing in an untranslated Algeria? For the moment, sorrowful Algeria without writing; for the moment, a blood-writing Algeria’ (274-75). Here the poetry of the phonetic proximity of sans écriture and sang-écriture is lost, victim of translation.
3. On the relationship between history and narrative and the way that history can be "narrativized" or emplotted, see Hayden White's "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality," On Narrative, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981).
4. On issues of historical representation and the use of narrativity to mimic the received historical paradigm see Adrian V. Fielder's "Historical Representation and the Scriptural Economy of Imperialism: Assia Djebar's L'Amour, la fantasia and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian." Comparative Literature Studies 37.1 (2000) 18-44.
5. The idea of the original (narrative, culture, intention) is often the object of the transformative intention attributed to translation by postcolonial theories. Writing of the transformation of "Western modernity" in its contact with other cultures, for example, Iain Chambers asks, "What, in global transit, translation and transvaluation can be purified of its subsequent passage to reveal a pristine, original, and essential core? Perhaps nothing" (57). In a similar manner, Homi Bhabha relies on the foreign element in the act of translation which destabilizes Western culture as an original narrative or point of reference for other cultures "and becomes the unstable element of linkage," between groups (227). Most recently, Etienne Balibar has identified this intermediary quality of translation as an ideology capable of transforming myths of an original European essence, "mythes de la clôture et de l'identité exclusive," ‘myths of enclosure and of exclusive identity’ (35). Balibar identifies this transformative power in the "vanishing mediator" derived from "étendant l'idée de traduction de la traduction de langues à la traduction … entre les cultures," ‘stretching the idea of translation from the translation of languages to the translation … between cultures’ (60-61). This pervasive reliance upon the foreign intermediary, or what Stuart Hall and Jean Laplanche call the "third term," in the act of translation, owes a great deal to Walter Benjamin's insight that the displacement and exchange which take place in the act of translation transform both original and translation, "thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel" (Benjamin 78). Such language echoes that of Clifford Geertz's classic essay, "Found in Translation: On the Social History of the Moral Imagination," in which what is "found in translation" is an intercultural understanding that places the original in the translator's purview and causes him/her to place it into question, thus producing a "growth in range" (45). Geertz, like Benjamin, privileges the transformation of the original one encounters in the act of translation, an act which, in mediating perspectives and imaginations, relies upon the negotiation, exchange, and expansion of cultures and their registers. The evocation of the cultural original in Djebar's text seemingly critiques the idea of transformation upon which postcolonial translation is often founded.
6. It is the merit of Djebar's text to reveal that what impedes cultural transformation through transla- tion is the establishment of the very terms of cultural original and "Other" that create a third space where the haunting legacy of imperialist violence often resides. Les Nuits de Strasbourg suggests that the favorable attention accorded to the hybrid and intercultural nature of translation as a transformative act can often overlook the tendency of postcolonial translation to declare the original, or the intention to return to some putatively original culture, dismantled while privileging transformation and postcolonial hybridity. Moreover, in its portrayal of the nomadic passage between cultures in the postcolonial era, Djebar's text suggests how the postcolonial reliance on the intermediary space of cultural translation depends upon the haunting violence—and frequently violent memories—that enable and uphold the original's continuing fascination.
7. Such impasses are particularly evident in contemporary interdictions of a translational culture in Algeria based, in particular, on the eradication of French and multingualism: "… par crainte donc du multiple à l'infini des formes, mon pays, sous véritable dictature culturelle, a été harcelé par un monolinguisme pseudo-identitaire: une seule langue revendiquée comme une armure, une carapace, un mur! …" ‘out of fear of the numerous ad infinitem forms, my country under a true cultural dictatorship was harassed by a pseudo-identifying monolingualism: one language claimed as protection, shell, wall’ (1999, 32-33).
8. Beginning with her popular text L'Amour, la fantasia representing General Pélissier's massacre of a tribe of five thousand Bebers in the 1845 French conquest of Algeria, Djebar recalls that the nomadic aspect of language and the displacement of cultural reference that often accompany discussion of postcolonial hybridity are frequently a consequence of imperialist motives. In the text's historical framing of language, the cultural body of Algeria, in the form of the massacred bodies of Pélissier's conquest, is translated into traveling words after the period of colonial violence: "Les corps exposés au soleil; les voici devenus mots. Les mots voyagent," ‘Bodies exposed to the sun; now they've become words. Words travel’ (1992, 93). These traveling words eventually arrive before a court in Paris to provoke outrage and embarrassment from the French public and demonstrate how language, in its crossing of cultural borders, can bear witness to the imperialist moment in which cultural reference is destroyed. While it refuses to revert to the blame of historical polemics, Djebar's text infuses postcolonial language with historicism and signals the vicissitudes of trading the moment of the destruction of cultural reference for the underexamined celebration of hybridity. L'Amour, la fantasia draws the reader's attention to the tendencies to forget or overlook the imperialist moments and impulses which lie hidden in the construction of hybridity or might otherwise emanate from the cultural transformation that is implicit in the act of translation. Nonetheless, Djebar demonstrates that any translational act primarily focused on vengeance or victimization, rather than international justice (hence the court scene in L'Amour, la fantasia) is doomed.
9. On Antigone's death as marker of a haunting patriarchal violence related to imperialism, see Judith Butler's Antigone's Claim: Kinship between Life and Death (New York: Columbia, 2000).
10. The "fil" here is not unlike the comma in Djebar's L'Amour, la fantasia. Katherine Gracki has noted how the "comma can be read as the blood of rupture and division etched into Djebar's corpus, a mark of violence which has not loosened its grip on both Algeria's past and its present" (838). The "fil" here also serves a similar purpose, but its mark relates an even wider international legacy of violence.
11. The haunting invisibility of the colonial experience that underpins the slip of the Algerian body of memory here is similar to the haunting invisibility analyzed by Benjamin Stora that structures the relationship of colonial memories between France, Algeria, and representation of contemporary Algerian conflict. Identifying the eclipsed or invisible quality of contemporary Algerian civil strife, Stora writes of the recursive nature of the memory of the Algerian colonial experience in the lack of visual representation of contemporary civil violence in Algeria, claiming that in both the French and Algerian cultural imaginaries, it is as if the haunting memories of the deaths of one war come to inhabit the postcolonial period (2001). Thelja's disappearance and "remembrance" of the patriarchal body of colonial torture can be viewed as an index of unrepresented contemporary violence in Algeria. Moreover, her disappearance is a haunting signifier of the numerous disappearances of Algerian citizens in contemporary Algeria.
Balibar, Etienne. Les frontières de la démocratie. Paris: La Découverte, 1992.
———. "Criticism in Translation: World Borders, Political Borders." Tr. E Williams. PMLA 117 (1) (January 2002): 68-78.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Tr. H. Zohn. New York: Shocken Books, 1968.
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
———. "The World and the Home." Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, & Postcolonial Perspectives. Ed. Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Butler, Judith. Antigone's Claim: Kinship between Life and Death. New York: Columbia, 2000.
Chambers, Iain. Culture After Hum¸anism: History, Culture, Subjectivity. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.
Djebar, Assia. La nouba des femmes du mont Chenoua. 1978.
Djebar, Assia. L'amour, la fantasia. Paris: Lattès, 1985.
———. Le blanc de l'Algérie. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.
———. Les nuits de Strasbourg. Paris: Actes Sud, 1997.
Erickson, John. "Translating the Untranslated: Djebar's Le blanc de l'Algérie." Research in African Literatures 30 (1999): 95-107.
Fielder, Adrian V. "Historical Representation and the Scriptural Economy of Imperialism: Assia Djebar's L'Amour, la fantasia and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian." Comparative Literature Studies 37.1 (2000) 18-44.
Geertz, Clifford. "Found in Translation: On the Social History of the Moral Imagination." The Georgia Review, vol. 31 no. 4 (1977): 788-810.
Gracki, Katherine. "Writing Violence and the Violence of Writing in Assia Djebar's Algerian Quartet." World Literature Today 70.4 (1996): 835-843.
Hall, Stuart. "The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity." Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, & Postcolonial Perspectives. Ed. Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1997. 173-187.
Laplanche, Jean. Essays on Otherness. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.
Stora, Benjamin. La guerre invisible: Algérie, années 90. Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2001.
White, Hayden. "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality," On Narrative, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981.
Erickson, John. "Women's Space and Enabling Dialogue in Assia Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia." In Postcolonial Subjects: Francophone Women Writers, edited by Mary Jean Green, Karen Gould, Micheline Rice-Maximin, et al, pp. 304-20. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Maintains that through the novel L'amour, la fantasia Djebar explores the power of writing and speaking out and the roles of these acts in the claiming of Algerian female identity.
Hiddleston, Jane. Introduction to Assia Djebar: Out of Algeria, pp. 1-20. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006.
Offers an overview of what Algeria symbolizes in the writings of Djebar, asserting that throughout her career, Djebar struggles with the very idea of an Algerian identity; Hiddleston also places Djebar's treatment of such themes within the context of French philosophy.
Kelly, Debra. "Assia Djebar: History, Selfhood, and the Possession of Knowledge." In Autobiography and Independence: Selfhood and Creativity in North African Postcolonial Writing in French, pp. 248-333. Liverpool, U.K.: Liverpool University Press, 2005.
Studies the ways in which Djebar's writing is influenced by her position as a female Muslim educated within the French system during the time period in which Algeria remained under colonial rule. In particular, Kelly focuses on Djebar's attitudes toward writing in French.
Vogl, Mary B. "Assia Djebar." In Postcolonial African Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, pp. 135-43. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Offers a brief overview of Djebar's life and discusses the style, themes, and critical reception of her major works.
Additional coverage of Djebar's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 188; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 182; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 114; and World Literature and Its Times, Ed. 2.