Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade
Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade
by Assia Djebar
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in Algeria from 1830 to 1962; published in French in 1985 (as L’amour, la fantasia), in English in 1993.
The novel interweaves three narratives: written accounts of the Algerian defeat of 1830 recorded by French soldiers and journalists; oral accounts of rural Algerian women who recall their participation in the independence struggle of 1954 to 1962; and autobiographical fragments of the author’s own experience growing up in colonial Algeria.
Assia Djebar was born Fatima-Zohra Imalayen in 1936 in Cherchell, Algeria (a small coastal town 60 miles west of Algiers), where her father was a schoolteacher. Djebar was encouraged by her father to continue her studies beyond the age at which most Algerian Muslim girls were withdrawn from school by their families. She completed secondary school in Algeria, then began her university studies in Paris, becoming the first Algerian woman to be admitted to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure de Sevres. Djebar interrupted her studies in 1956 during the Algerian student strike that affirmed student solidarity with Algeria’s independence struggle. Instead of taking her final exams, she wrote her first novel, La Soif (1957; The Mischief, 1958), which was followed by Les Impatients (1958). Both works deal with a young Algerian girl’s coming of age in colonial Algeria. Her two subsequent novels, Les Enjants du nouveau monde (1962) and Les Alouettes naives (1967), which describe women coming to political awareness during the Algerian war, established her position as a leading Algerian novelist. Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade was the first volume to be released in a projected quartet that encompasses both historical and autobiographical themes.
Conquest of Algeria
Before the nineteenth-century French invasion, the Turks of the Ottoman Empire ruled Algeria indirectly through indigenous leaders and urban aristocratic families. A council of notables elected Algeria’s dey, or Ottoman ruler. On April 29, 1827, the French consul in Algiers paid a visit of protocol to Hussein Dey, who reminded the consul that the king of France owed him an unpaid debt. Apparently when the French diplomat replied that the king would not lower himself to correspond with the dey, the dey struck the consul with a fly whisk. Although the dey later explained that he was angry with the diplomat and not with the French king, Charles X seized upon this pretext to send a fleet of French ships to blockade the port of Algiers. The dey retaliated by destroying two French trading posts. By 1830 the French primeminister, Prince Jules de Polignac, had succeeded in convincing the monarch that an invasion of Algeria would boost his flagging popularity. Under attack, the Algerian forces launched a counterattack led by Agha Brahim, the dey’s son-in-law. The counterattack failed. On July 4, 1830, Turkish soldiers were forced to evacuate Sultan Kalassi, or Fort l’Empereur, the main fortification protecting the harbor of Algiers. They chose to destroy the remnants of their fort as they retreated rather than let it fall into enemy hands. On July 5, 1830, power was transferred from the Ottomans to the French. Any claim that the French had come to liberate the country from the Turks was meaningless in the face of the French soldiers’ destruction of Algiers. The French military sacked the city as frightened Algerians fled.
Djebar is a descendant of the Beni Menacer ethnic group. One of her ancestors, Mohammed Ben Aissa El Berkani, fought with the Algerian nationalist Emir Abdelkader in the 1840s. Her great-grandfather, Malek Sahraoui El Berkani, led a rebellion against the French in 1871 and was killed in battle.
Algerian resistance following the conquest
Although the dey of Algiers surrendered, resistance against the French continued from 1830 through 1871. The population, however, was widely dispersed, and antagonisms and suspicions proliferated among various factions, which made the resistance less than unified. Yet nationalist heroes did emerge in this period. In the late 1830s, Emir Abdelkader rallied the populations of western and central Algeria, and Ahmed Bey managed to block French expansion in the east. But these two nationalist leaders clashed with each other, divided in part by personal ambitions, in part by conflicting ideology. The son of an Ottoman Turk, Ahmed Bey stood for a reformed hierarchy dominated by an aristocracy, whereas Emir Abdelkader had a more egalitarian vision. After both had been defeated, the struggle for Algeria continued in the cities, in smaller interior towns, and in distant regions: the mountains, deserts, and oases. The French military proceeded to seize the best Algerian lands for French settlers, pushing Algerians off their holdings and into the less fertile interior. A major Algerian uprising in 1871 ended in defeat, which led to further expropriation of lands by French colonizers, and a period of extreme poverty and hardship for the indigenous population. With Algerian resistance crushed, the country’s former Turkish elite was silenced.
At the turn of the twentieth century, however, resistance assumed a different tone, influenced by Algerian exposure to European education. Now convinced that French colonialism was there to stay, Algerian families began to enroll their children in French schools. Only 2 percent of the school-age Muslim children were in French primary schools in 1882, but the figure climbed to 5 percent by 1914. With education in the French school system came a developing political consciousness. A group called the Young Algerians emerged at the turn of the century, forming cultural clubs and founding newspapers. Its first collective action consisted of sending a delegation to Paris in 1908 to negotiate compensation for Algerians who had completed their military service and were awaiting pensions from the French government. As economic conditions worsened in the country, the budding Algerian nationalist movement grew. An Islamic reform movement developed under Shaykh Ben Badis, a leader whose early 1900s slogan, “Islam is my religion, Arabic is my language, Algeria is my nation,” became Algeria’s official motto decades later at independence. Ben Badis and his followers called for a revitalization of Islam in Algeria. In their search for cultural authenticity, they were critical of Algerians who had espoused French culture and values, and of the Islamic brotherhoods, who, in their view, promoted ignorance and superstition. Other leaders of the period include the most widely heard voice for assimilation, that of Ferhat Abbas. In time Abbas would shift from advocating full integration of Algeria into France to promoting a Muslim Algeria in close cooperation with France. He championed for the moment greater equality between Algeria’s Muslims and its European colonists. Messali Hadj, a leader of Algerian workers in France, in 1926 formed a pro-independence political organization, the Étoile Nord-Africaine. Committed to independence and opposed to capitalism, Hadj’s revolutionary party forged links to the French communist party. Algerian political groups remained divided and, for the most part, ineffective until World War II’s Allied landing in North Africa in 1942. France was dependent upon the United States in this landing. The weakened status of the French nation gave nationalist movements the hope that Algerian independence would follow Allied victory in Europe.
Uprisings of Sétif and Guelma
On May 8, 1945, Ferhat Abbas’s political organization, AML (Amis du Manifeste de la Liberté), led mostly peaceful protest marches throughout the country in the attempt to improve economic conditions. In two cities in Eastern Algeria, Guelma and Sétif, violence erupted when national flags, which had been banned by the French colonial government, suddenly appeared. Although the French government counted 1,500 Algerian lives lost in the violence, Algerian nationalists contested the figure as a gross understatement, claiming 45,000 dead. The French-controlled government promptly disbanded the AML, after which the French and Algerian communities grew further apart.
The Algerian Revolution: 1954-62
By 1954 Algerian political activists were committed to fighting for independence from France. They launched the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), initiating armed rebellion throughout Algeria on November 1, 1954. The most successful operation took place in the Aurés, a mountainous region in eastern Algeria, where the rebels killed several Europeans and attacked French military installations. The French Army and French colonial civilians responded by violently repressing the indigenous population.
The Battle of Algiers, a campaign waged by Algerian militants in the colonial seaport capital in 1957, began when three Algerian women successfully placed bombs in strategic locations in the European section of the city. The struggle between the French military and Algerian militants is well presented in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1968), a film that reveals the importance of women’s participation in the liberation movement.
FROM OFF-SCREEN INFERNO TO ON-SCREEN SENSATION
Produced in 1965 in black-and-white by Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers opens in 1957. A prisoner tortured by the French informs on a member of the FLN resistance. Surrounding the member’s residence, French authorities threaten to blow him and his colleagues up unless he surrenders. The film then flashes back to 1954 and the onset of the conflict. Shot at actual locations in Algeria, The Battle of Algiers uses local Algerians as actors. The motion picture won an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film of the year.
During the entire seven years of the conflict, war was waged simultaneously in the city and the countryside. The Algerian revolutionary organization divided the country into six wilayas (districts), which were further subdivided into zones, regions, sectors, and circles. The goal of this form of organization was to mobilize the entire Algerian population and generate guerrilla activity everywhere. Violence did indeed spread throughout the country, as evidenced, for example, by the Philippeville massacre of August 20, 1955, in which approximately 80 Algerian guerrillas attacked and killed 100 European civilians in the mining town of El-Halia. The French army responded with overwhelming violence, killing approximately 12,000 Algerians (Ruedy, pp. 162-63).
Although Algerian activists failed in military campaigns against the professionally trained French army, French public opinion turned against the war. In France, people began to question this protracted war waged at the expense of so many young French lives and reacted with outrage to reports that the French military were torturing Algerian civilians. The official French figures for casualties were 13,000 French lives lost, and 100,000 Algerian (Kraft, p. 99). At its high point, the number of French soldiers in the field is said to have reached 500,000 (Smith, p. 173). In the face of growing opposition, French president Charles de Gaulle called for a referendum to be held on January 8, 1961, asking the French if they approved of self-determination for Algeria. Although only 60 percent of the French population went to the polls, 75 percent cast affirmative votes (Ruedy, p. 179). As Algerian independence appeared inevitable, an extremist group of French colonists, the OAS (Organisation de l’Armée Secrète) became more and more destructive. On March 15, 1962, for example, a group of OAS militants stormed into the École des Instituteurs de Bouzaréah, a teacher training school in Algiers, and murdered the writer Mouloud Feraoun, a teacher in the school, along with several of his colleagues. (Feraoun’s diary, published posthumously, records his daily struggle to maintain a life of normalcy and dignity as the war drew to a close and France was preparing to negotiate Algerian independence.) The OAS campaign of violence was a last desperate attempt to forestall what the majority in France now desired. On July 5, 1962, 132 arduous years after the French first captured Algiers from the Turkish dey, Algeria gained its independence from France.
Role of women in the Algerian War
The women who participated in the Algerian War were of different ages, social origins, and geographical regions. Most remained anonymous, although a few became well-known historical figures. Djamila Bouhired, Zohra Drif, Djamila Boupacha, and Hassiba Ben Bouali are familiar to Algerians as women who contributed to the struggle for independence.
When the war broke out in 1954, the majority of Algerian women lived in villages and most were illiterate. There were 10,949 women in the war effort, 3.1 percent of all those taking part in active combat (Amrane-Minne, “Women and Politics,” p. 62). About 2,000 Algerian women joined the maquis, the armed national resistance. These women, half of whom were less than 20 years old, lived and worked side-by-side with male resistance fighters and, by doing so, broke the bonds that fettered women who remained subject to a traditional way of life (Amrane-Minne, “Women and Politics,” p. 63). Female activists mostly cared for the needs of the freedom fighters—cooking meals; transporting water, food, medical supplies, and weapons; and tending to the wounded. Women also became advisors, informing other women in the civilian population about the political situation, and participated in the fighting. Historian Daniele Amrane-Minne cites a note, for example, from one woman’s journal: “At 4PM we learned of the death of my dear sister Ghanoudja. After having killed two soldiers, she died for the country” (Amrane-Minne, Femmes au combat, p. 73, trans. M. Mortimer).
While most women worked in rural areas, where the majority of Algerians lived, others worked in urban areas under heavy French military control. Some were veiled, but others dressed as Europeans to infiltrate French sectors of Algerian cities. During the Battle of Algiers, the French military campaign waged in that city from January through September 1957, Algerian women became key figures in transporting weapons and supplies to guerrillas in the city and the surrounding countryside.
Plot summary: an overview
This nonlinear novel weaves together three components: autobiography, the conquest of 1830 (as recorded in French historical archives), and the war of liberation (as told in oral narratives of Arabic-speaking Algerian women whose voices Djebar recorded and translated into French). The novel is organized into three parts:
“Part One: The Capture of the City or Love Letters” weaves chapters devoted to childhood memories with chapters that draw upon French historical documentation—military reports, journals, letters, and the memoirs of French colonial soldiers, officers, and journalists of the conquest of 1830. Djebar begins to explore her relationship to the French language, which she calls her “step-mother tongue” (Djebar, Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, p. 214). “Part Two: The Cries of the Fantasia,” foregrounds the destruction during the early years of French conquest. In this section, the novelist describes in graphic detail the horrible acts of enfumade, or fumigation, during which French colonial forces set fire to caves that served as refuge for Algerian families, asphyxiating the men, women, and children that sought shelter there.
“Part Three: Voices from the Past,” weaves Djebar’s autobiography with the testimony of women who participated in the Algerian war of independence. Djebar constructs this third section as a five-part symphony: First Movement: The Two Strangers; Second Movement: The Trance; Third Movement: The Ballad of Abraham; Fourth Movement: The Cry in the Dream; Fifth Movement: The Tunic of Nessus. At the end is a coda, “Air on a Nay” (an ancient flute), which is followed by a chapter entitled “Tzarl-rit,” the Arabic term for ululation, the piercing sound women make to mark important events, both joyful and sorrowful. This conclusion draws upon the dual meaning of fantasia, a term signifying both a North African cavalry charge (with traditional battle cries and rifle shots) and a Western musical composition that allows for improvisation.
Plot summary: the story in detail
This summary follows in sequence the narrative strands of the novel to render its effect in brief:
“Part One: The Capture of the City or Love Letters.” A Little Arab Girl’s First Day at School The novelist recalls the day her father walked her to school, linking that memory to a later souvenir when, at the age of 17, she received her first love letter; it was written in French.
Subsection 1. The next few pages describe the arrival of the French fleet on June 13, 1830, and the beginning of the French conquest.
Three Cloistered Girls. The novelist recalls a family of three sisters in her hometown who wrote secretly to male pen pals abroad.
Subsection 2. Baron Barchou, a participant, describes the Battle of Staouéli on June 19, 1830.
The French Policeman’s Daughter. The novelist recalls the time the eldest daughter of a French family introduced her French fiancé to the three cloistered sisters.
Subsection 3. Fort Emperor explodes on July 4, 1830. The event is recorded by J. T. Merle, a French war correspondent at the time.
My Father Writes to My Mother. The novelist’s father writes a postcard directly to his wife, thereby breaking with Algerian tradition, which would have him address the entire family, never his wife directly.
Subsection 4. These pages give a historical account of the fall of Algiers as witnessed by a Turkish religious figure, Hajj Ahmed Effendi.
“Part Two: The Cries of the Fantasia.” Captain Bosquet Leaves Oran to Take Part in a Razzia. The French military campaign is recorded in letters received by the mother of Field Marshall Bosquet.
Subsection 1. The narrator recalls again the first love letter she received and her own letters written in French.
Women, Children, Oxen Dying in Caves. The Berber uprisings in the spring of 1845 lead to French retaliation. Under the command of French General Pélissier, French soldiers set fires to caves in which the Berbers had sought refuge.
Subsection 2. The novelist recalls a chance meeting with her brother in Algiers during the 1954 Algerian War, when he had become a militant nationalist.
The Naked Bride of Mazuna. In 1845 rivalry among indigenous factions leads to betrayal. The only daughter of Si Mohamed Ben Kadruma sets out for a wedding that ends in ambush, her capture, and the death of her father.
Subsection 3. The novelist recalls her wedding night in Paris during the Algerian War.
Sistrum. The title denotes a “jingling instrument or rattle used by ancient Egyptians” (Fantasia, p. 109). The one-page text constitutes poetic meditation of sound, word, and memory.
Part Three: “Voices from the Past.” First Movement: The Two Strangers. The novelist recalls two chance encounters with strangers that marked her life. In the first, a tramway motorman’s quick reflexes save her from a possibly fatal accident. In the second, a stranger’s kind words reach her at a moment of emotional crisis.
Voice. Cherifa, a rural Algerian woman who participated in the Algerian War in the countryside, recalls her brother’s death during the war.
Clamour. Cherifa drags her brother’s body to a safe place.
Aphasia of Love. The novelist recalls her break with the girls of her generation. They were veiled at puberty and taken out of school; she was not veiled and was allowed to continue her studies.
Voice. Cherifa recounts her own imprisonment by the French when they capture her after her brother’s death.
Embraces. Cherifa recounts her capture by the French.
Second Movement: The Trance. The novelist recalls how her grandmother’s dancing would end with the old woman going into a trance.
Voice. A rural woman recalls her house being torched by French soldiers during the Algerian War.
Murmurs. An Algerian woman pounding herbs in the doorway of her home protects another woman, a rebel fugitive, during the Algerian War.
Plunder. The novelist recalls weddings she attended as a child, at which Algerian women would talk about their lives but never expose their inner hurt directly. The novelist again returns to the theme of her break with Algerian girls of her generation. At puberty, they were withdrawn from school to be married; she was allowed to continue her education because her father, a teacher, valued the French colonial school.
Voice. A widow recalls that when her house was torched by French soldiers during the Algerian War, her hair caught fire in the blaze.
Embraces. Nineteenth-century French writer Eugène Fromentin writes of the death of two Algerian dancers/prostitutes. They were killed by French soldiers pillaging the oasis town of Laghouat in 1853.
Third Movement: The Ballad of Abraham. The novelist explains the importance of music in religious observances she attended as a child.
Voice. A rural woman recalls sheltering Algerian rebels during the war.
Whispers. The novelist’s grandmother passes down the story of the uprising of 1871 to her grandchildren.
The Quranic School. The novelist describes her dual education: French school in the village, Quranic school after the French school day ended.
A Widow’s Voice. A widow recalls how she ran away and lived in the hills after her husband was caught by French soldiers and sentenced to death.
Embraces. In 1843 a pregnant Algerian woman who is part of a group of political agitators is exiled to France. She gives birth at sea, burying her stillborn child there.
Fourth Movement: The Cry in the Dreams. The novelist recalls a recurrent dream. At the age of six, upon learning that her grandmother has just died, the weeping child runs down the street. Her cries are stifled; she is unable to give voice to her grief.
A Widow’s Voice. Having lost her husband and her three sons in the Algerian War, a widow recalls retrieving her dead brother’s body after he was killed by French soldiers.
Dialogues. Speaking with rural women about their experiences in war, the novelist asks them whether at any time they were raped.
The Onlookers. The novelist acknowledges that by writing she is able to transmit the thoughts and feelings of women she knew in her childhood, women who have rebelled in silence.
A Widow’s Voice. An Algerian widow recalls the day the French soldiers torched her house, driving her family from their home.
Embraces. French paratroopers and members of the Foreign Legion torture and kill the inhabitants of the mountain village of El-Aroub in 1956.
Fifth Movement: The Tunic of Nessus. The novelist discusses her ambiguous relationship with the French language.
Soliloquy. The novelist acknowledges that she is using fiction to write her autobiography.
Tzarl-rit (Finale).Two English translations define tzarl-rit as a woman’s cries of joy while smacking her lips with her hands, or alternatively, to shout when misfortune befalls her.
Pauline… In 1852 the French social activist Pauline Rolland is deported with other French radicals to Algeria. Although she is very ill, Rolland manages to record her impressions of the poverty and unjust treatment of Algerian women she encounters on her journey.
The Fantasia. In 1852 the novelist Eug…ne Fromentin describes the death of a dancer/prostitute. She is struck in the face by the charging horse of the French lover she has rejected.
Air on a Nay. In 1853 Fromentin describes finding the severed hand of a woman killed by French soldiers during a massacre in a Saharan oasis. The novelist seizes this hand “of mutilation and of memory” symbolically to join with the anonymous woman in writing about woman’s participation in Algeria’s violent history (Fantasia, p. 226).
From “history” to “her-story.”
One day Assia Djebar’s father, a teacher in the French colonial educational system, accompanied his daughter, “a little Arab girl going to school for the first time, one autumn morning, walking hand in hand with her father” (Fantasia, p. 3). That day he set her on a journey that would transform her into a bilingual and bicultural intellectual, a woman whose experiences would differ greatly from those of other women of her generation. Her world, she noted, would be one of “the outdoors and the risk, instead of the prison of [her] peers” (Fantasia, p. 184). This opening scene in the novel is recalled more than 40 years after the event by a woman aware that this first school day marked her initiation into a new space and a new language. When Djebar finds herself liberated from the female enclosure that Orientalist painters such as Eugène Delacroix first depicted as the North African harem, she discovers that the price she pays for freedom is exile, specifically from the maternal sphere. As a child she becomes aware that her French education and freedom of movement in public space have moved her beyond the traditional world of her aunts and female cousins.
In Fantasia Djebar reestablishes bonds with the maternal world she left behind. She restores these bonds by assuming the multiple roles of translator, interpreter, scribe, and historian for Algerian women who had been silenced by both Algerian patriarchy and French colonialism. The small hand that grasped her father’s on the way to school was given a pen, which it learned to use as both a creative instrument and a weapon in the struggle to liberate Algerian women. Djebar would express varied components of Algeria’s female world.
The act of writing becomes Djebar’s way of forging and maintaining links with her individual and collective past as well as opposing the silencing of women’s voices throughout the Arab world today. By committing her experiences to the printed page, the writer removes the veils of privacy that some Algerians, particularly Islamic fundamentalists, consider necessary.
By including French archival documents in Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, Djebar reconstitutes the horror of two separate incidents in which recalcitrant Algerian clans were burned to death when French officers Pélissier and Saint-Arnaud ordered their soldiers to set fire to the caves in which the clans sought refuge. More than a century later, Djebar describes the scene with emotion, refusing the role of objective historian, writing history into her novel as she deems fit: “Pélissier, speaking on behalf of fifteen hundred corpses buried beneath El-Kantara, with their flocks unceasingly bleating at death, hands me his report and I accept this palimpsest on which I now inscribe the charred passion of my ancestors” (Fantasia, p. 79).
The search for hidden historical events and for Djebar’s individual identity converge. As French soldiers once dragged out charred corpses, Djebar now excavates the female self buried under colonial and patriarchal myths: “The date of my birth is eighteen hundred and forty-two, the year when General Saint-Arnaud arrives to burn down the zaouia of the Béni Men-acer, the tribe from which I am descended” (Fantasia, p. 217).
In the process, Djebar is forced to come to terms with her attitude towards the French language, which has simultaneously liberated her from the harem and brought her face to face with colonial injustice. She uses French to recall her maternal world, and to inscribe the suffering and injustice inflicted upon Algerians by the colonial conquest: “This language was formerly used to entomb my people” (Fantasia, p. 215). She uses it today, constructively, to render history through an Algerian consciousness and to give voice to silenced women.
Djebar contrasts male French narratives of the French conquest with women’s narratives of the Algerian Revolution. Combining oral narrative with colonial military and administrative reports and correspondence, she fuses narratives separated by language—French and Arabic—and by gender—colonialist male and indigenous female. More exactly, she acknowledges two languages that have informed her past—the Arabic of the town and the Berber spoken in the rural regions (Ghoussey, p. 458). Moreover, Djebar appropriates a traditionally male medium—writing—to tell women’s stories.
The rural women speak of hiding in the woods, being captured, jailed, and tortured, expressing fear, pain, and triumph as they relive these memories. Djebar has noted that “the greater the woman’s suffering, the more concise and almost dry manner she had in speaking about it” (Djebar in Mortimer, “Entretien,” p. 202). She is struck by the women’s sincerity and simplicity, and by the difference in their style from the male official discourse: men tend to construct heroic tales, women to speak of their daily lives.
Even more pronounced than the dichotomy between Algerian male and female voices is the contrast between French colonial writing and modern Algerian women’s voices. The female Arabic oral narratives appear exceptionally stark, concise, and filled with understatement when juxtaposed with highly embellished nineteenth-century French prose.
Djebar uses the book’s symphonic and fan-tasialike structure to blend her own voice with those of traditional Algerian women. Harmonizing with these female voices rather than imposing her own on them, she pays tribute to the maternal world of her past. As translator and scribe, giving written form to Algerian women’s heroic deeds, the writer manages to renew her bonds with the women of her past and return to the world that she left behind that first day when, as a small child, she grasped her father’s hand as he walked her to school.
Sources and literary context
As described, Djebar draws upon her own life, historical documents, and oral interviews with rural women. She embarked upon the project of recording oral narratives for her film La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua (The Music of the Women of Mont Chenoua), produced for Algerian television in 1977. The film is dedicated to a militant, Yamina Oudai, also called “Zoulikha,” who lost her life in the struggle for Algerian independence. Zoulika’s memory is kept alive by the women who fought alongside her in the countryside of the Mont Chenoua region. The narratives of rural women’s war experiences in the book are taken from oral narratives that Djebar collected for the film and then reworked for the novel. In the mid-1970s she interviewed rural women in her native region, Cherchell, who as young girls had joined the rebels fighting in the Algerian revolution. Her fusion of their story into a novel on the war as told by an Algerian made it distinctive. Among other Algerian novels about the war—for example, Mouloud Mammeri’s L’Opium et le bâton (1965), Mohammed Dib’s Qui se souvient de la mer (1962), and Yamina Mechakra’s La grotte éclatée (1986)—Djebar’s is unique in combining written history with oral history and biography to create a verbal symphony.
Status of women in Algeria in the 1980s
In the late 1970s Muslim activists conducted small offensives that manifested their desires for Algerian society. They assaulted establishments that sold alcohol and chided women who, in their view, were dressed improperly. Their activism increased in 1982, when they put forth a demand for the establishment of an Islamic government in Algeria. The government treated the activists variously—sometimes harshly, at other times respectfully, mindful of the mass support they marshaled.
The growing influence of Islamic fundamentalism was reflected in a new Family Code of 1984. Extremely conservative, the code once again made unmarried women dependents of their family and married women the legal dependents of their husbands. According to its dictates, women could not marry non-Muslims, nor seek divorce except in limited cases, nor work outside the home without their husband’s consent. The Family Code rescinded rights incorporated into the 1976 constitution. Acknowledging that women suffered disadvantages in Algerian society, the constitution had protected their right to work and prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex. In the early 1980s debates raged on television about the Family Code, shocking women because of their conservative, retrogressive nature and the reactionary comments of men. Female activists protested on their own behalf. They petitioned the National Assembly and staged demonstrations (in October, November, and December of 1981), demanding implementation of the 1976 constitution. In the end, they lost. Postponed for revisions, the Family Code was adopted with ease in June 1984.
Published in 1985, Djebar’s text, which brought to the foreground women’s participation in Algerian history, thus appeared at a time when women’s rights were being increasingly threatened by the rising tide of fundamentalism and by the government’s willingness to placate traditionalists by depriving women of their legal guarantees. Future years would see this attitude cemented with the adoption in 1989 of a new constitution, which unlike the 1976 constitution did not contain separate guarantees for women. In other words, the state chose no longer to see them as a marginalized group in need of special guarantees.
Djebar’s novel was very well received when it was published. Writing in Jeune Afrique Magazine, a Paris-based journal widely distributed in Africa, Algerian writer and critic Mourad Bourboune noted that, despite its fragmented composition, Djebar’s text achieves a subtle unity whose richness and complexity requires more than one reading. French critic Jean Dejeux’s review in the Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord observed that the text is constructed like an Andalusian musical composition, a nouba, and is deeply rooted in Algerian culture. At the same time, Dejeux seized upon the importance of the novelist’s father in her life. The text pays homage to a father’s courageous act: the liberation of his daughter. Marguerite Le Clezio’s review of the novel in the American journal French Review emphasized the poetic nature of the text while acknowledging the originality of the polyphonic voices and interweaving threads of narrative. Two more volumes of the quartet initiated by Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade have followed its publication and reception: Ombre sultane (1987, A Sister to Sheherazade, 1993) and Vaste est la prison (1995, Vast Is the Prison).
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