Djebar, Assia (1936–)
Assia Djebar (born Fatima-Zohra Imalhayen) is an Algerian writer and filmmaker. The author of numerous novels, collections of poetry, plays, short stories, and essays and director of two critically acclaimed films, she is one of the most important literary and cultural figures of the Arab and Francophone worlds. For over half a century, she has been a vocal advocate of the emancipation and advancement of women in Arab Muslim societies. She is also a pioneer for a better appreciation of the culture and history of Islam and a promoter of the dialogue between the Arab world and the West.
Djebar was born in Cherchell, Algeria, on 30 June 1936 (some sources say 4 August). She studied history in Paris—she was the first Algerian woman to study at the École Normale Superieure—and published her first novel in 1957. At a young age, she participated in the Algerian war of liberation against French colonialism. After the independence of her country in 1962, she combined her activity as a novelist with that of a teacher. In this capacity, for many years, she taught history at the University of Algiers. In the late 1960s, she moved to France where she worked in the Algerian Cultural Center, while continuing to publish. While living and traveling extensively in the West and the Arab world, she maintained her affiliation with Algeria, where she resided regularly, set her books, and made two documentaries on the condition of women. In 1996 Djebar won the prestigious Neustadt Prize for contributions to world literature. In 1997, she received the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize and in 2000 the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels. In 1997, Djebar was appointed professor and director of the Center for French and Francophone Studies at Louisiana State University. Since 2001 she has been Silver Professor of Francophone Literature and Civilization at New York University. Djebar is also a member of the Académie Royale de Langue Française de Belgique. Her major novels have not been translated into Arabic, but most are available in several languages, including English. She has become a widely read and studied author in North Africa, Europe, and North America. In June 2005, she became a member of the French Academy, the first person from a former French North African colony to be elected. In recent years, Djebar has been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Name: Assia Djebar (born Fatima-Zohra Imalhayen)
Birth: 1936, Cherchell, Algeria
Family: Married and divorced twice; one daughter.
Education: Sorbonne, Paris; École Normale Superieure, Paris; Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier; University of Algiers
- 1957: Publishes first novel, La Soif, under pen name Assia Djebar
- 1958: Studies at École Normale Superieure, Paris
- 1977: Directs first film, La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua
- 1980: Appointed to Algerian Cultural Center in Paris
- 1985: Publishes L'Amour, la fantasia, first novel in planned tetralogy
- 1996: Receives Neustadt Prize for Contributions to World Literature
- 1997: Receives Yourcenar Prize; takes up appointment as professor and director of Center for French and Francophone Studies, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge
- 2001: Appointed Silver Professor of Francophone Literature and Civilization, New York University
- 2005: Elected to French Academy
INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS
In order to measure the full meaning of Djebar's enterprise, it is necessary to establish its broader historical, social, and political context. During the Algerian War (1954–1962) and, more particularly, following the Soummam Congress (1956), military oligarchs seized control of a revolutionary movement that began with widespread popular support. After the independence of their country in 1962, they sought to legitimate their own rule in the name of nationalism and patriarchy, a gesture which culminated in 1980 when the Algerian government launched a campaign to write the modern history of Algeria. While most writers complied, Djebar responded with a double transgression. In her work, she challenges the dominant discourse of nationalism by denouncing the structural and fratricidal conflicts within the Algerian Revolution and regime and by presenting a more subtle and complex analysis of the relationship among Algeria, France, and the West. At the same time, she constructs the modern history of Algeria from the perspective of those whom the official ideology excluded by reducing them, against all evidence, to a secondary role: women.
In regard to her novel L'Amour, la fantasia (1985; Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, 1993), in an interview published in 1988, Djebar declared that
In Fantasia, which is the first of a novelistic series, history figures as a quest for identity. It concerns not only the identity of women, but also that of the country as a whole…. I approach the nineteenth-century past through my research on writing, on French language writing. In this way a relationship is established between the history of the nineteenth century written by French officers and the oral narrative of today's traditional Algerian women. (Mortimer, 1988)
On this same occasion, when asked about the objective of Ombre sultane (1987; A Sister to Schehrerazade, 1989), intended as a sequel to L'Amour, la fantasia, she added: "I posed the question: 'What does it mean, in a Muslim country, to have four wives?'" (Mortimer, 1988, p. 205).
THE SILENCES OF A WOMAN IN EXILE
Desert, or solitude, of which, I think, every new beginning partakes: suddenly to start writing—too young, I expect—during the Algerian war (the other one, the war of my twenties); and what is more, not nationalist essays, no lyrical or polemical profession of faith (this was the kind of witness expected of me), no, but novels, which seemed gratuitous, and which I considered a form of verbal architecture. To me they brought, along with the pleasure of their conception, the parenthesis of a few months; a change, in short, from my seriousness of the time, that of a student algérienne, and later from the silences of a woman in exile.
In this way I entered literature, through the sheer joy of invention, of opening out around me—I was outwardly rather constrained, in company, because of my Muslim upbringing—a space leavened by the imagination, a breath of pure oxygen….
While I sketched out the beginning of my writer's life, Algerian literature flowered in the shadow of a quartet of elders: Feraoun, Mammeri, Dib and Kateb….
All the same, this is how I would have liked to begin: to recall the moment when I felt that I—witness, gaze, or scribe—might, in the world outside, be truly commingled with my folk, "my own"—tribes, fractions, generations dead and alive of my far-off land (in short, "my nation"; rather, my community of origin)—yes, be mingled and lost among them and imagine that I might leave some trace … for them, for us.
To write, not exactly at first onset: to grow wakeful above all by looking—a wholly neuter gaze, neither man nor woman's, rather that of a woman bursting forth into the sunlight-a voracious gaze….
I remember … I had just turned forty (at the time, I would sing out, insolently—in a society where at forty you are marrying off your eldest sons, where you settle into the respectability of matriarchy)—forty, for me, was being twenty a second time round!
ASSIA DJEBAR, FROM THESE VOICES THAT BESIEGE ME. TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH BY CHRIS MILLER.
Djebar's work is deeply informed by the condition of women in Arab Muslim societies, colonial and post-colonial history, and the problematic relationship between woman and writing. It is through writing that Djebar asserts her freedom. And it is on the basis of writing, conceived as a junction between the individual and the community, that she feels committed as an Algerian to revisit the history of her country and as a woman to rewrite it from a feminine point of view, with and for all other women. As a consequence, in her work the process of writing, reading, and rewriting becomes the very motor of the text. Fantasia represents this tripartite process by embedding Arabic idioms in a French-language text. When asked why her fourteen-year-old daughter is not veiled, for example, the narrator's mother answers, "She reads," an expression that, in Algerian dialect, designates simultaneously the practice of reading and that of going to school. In the novel, then, on the basis of this process, the reading of history corresponds to the progressive mastery of the text by women.
Writing and History
Since Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement (1980; Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, 1999) Djebar has continued to describe the structure of the harem and to produce new representations of Arab Muslim women. For her, the situation of women in the Arab Muslim world has not fundamentally changed. Despite the loosening of restrictions against women during the anti-French Resistance and the promise of the first few years of independence, women in the present are again subject to the repressiveness that plagued women in centuries past. Djebar's reading of the contemporary situation accounts for the prominence in her more recent works of dualistic oppositions such as man-woman, shadow-light, and exterior-interior. It also accounts for their mirrored structure. Finally, Djebar's view of the present corresponds to the social, ideological, and theoretical fields to which the second period of her production is linked: the struggle of women at the national and international levels. To challenge the reimposition of conservative norms that restrict the position of women—both in Algeria and in the Arab Muslim world more generally—Djebar's own textual strategies have evolved.
The exploration of the relationship between writing and history is pursued further in Ombre sultane, where the author deepens her use of intertextual strategies, namely through the technique of the palimpsest and the structuring of her narrative in counterpoint with the classic The One Thousand and One Nights. However, this novel published two years after Fantasia does not approach this central theme as directly. The emphasis of Ombre sultane is rather on the structure of the harem and on female enclosure, and on the principle of solidarity between women. It is with Vaste est la prison (1995; So Vast the Prison, 2001) the third book of Djebar's Algerian tetralogy, that the inherent link between writing and history is more intensely pursued. This time, it is experienced as even more tragic because of the immediacy of the bloody conflict in Algeria. In this novel, the autobiographical project is renewed with less reserve and the meditation on the historical genesis of Algeria as a country and as a nation is carried out with the same systematic dissection of facts and reinterpretation of decisive events as in the previous books, and more critical accounts of the fates of its major protagonists. Every page is a painful expression of the division, the dismantling, and the despair of this country with which the writer identifies not only her life but also her practice as a writer. Describing Fantasia in Transfigurations of the Maghreb, Winifred Woodhull writes: "Djebar's novel is a work of painstaking and often painful excavation" (Woodhull, 1993, p. 81). In comparison, Vaste est la prison is an incommensurable expression of loss in which the author wonders whether her own writing itself has not always been marked by blood. From this perspective, Djebar compares her practice as a writer to that of the archaeologist who unveils the hidden zones of the past, with the difference that she cannot distance herself from the violence eroding her country's present.
Algeria's Cultural Identity
In an enterprise in which the historian supports the creation of the novelist and the imagination and sensitivity of the writer constitute the foundation of the historian's hypotheses and rigor, Djebar goes back, as a surveyor of time and space, to the remote past of North Africa. She tries to reassess the genesis of its repressed, forgotten, and nearly totally eradicated original language. In doing so, she reveals the contours and approaches the character of the culture that carried it and transmitted its message. On the one hand, this scrupulous investigation is enriching, since it allows the historian-novelist to demonstrate that her people and their culture were just as ancient, valuable, and civilized as the most sophisticated societies, a fact that contradicts colonial discourse. On the other hand, it is an account of the systematic destruction and annihilation of which her country and people have been the victims. Finally, and most importantly, in this powerful narrative, the author implacably uncovers the self-destructive dimension of her society and puts a salutary emphasis on the fact that not only colonialism, the military regime, or the various political forces, but all Algerians are responsible for the present situation, in which socio-ideological chaos and blind violence wreck one of the originally most promising developing countries.
The results of this search contribute to the rewriting of the history of the Algerian nation with, as a consequence, a redistribution of the roles in the constitution of its cultural identity. In a conjugation of the historical approach and the literary expression, Djebar proposes a new vision of her country's past in order to comprehend its present. At this point, the historical search corresponds to the autobiographical project, since the unfolding and better understanding of her country's history contribute to the lucidity of her story as a woman.
The outcome of this search and quest is a courageous and painful account of the successive invasions, oppressions, betrayals, and attempts to eradicate identity that define both Algerian history and the condition of women. Nevertheless, this personal and intellectual experience bears many positive values, since both her country and women appear not just as victims, but also simultaneously as historical actors and central elements of resistance and change.
In her recent work, Djebar meditates on the relationship between the violence of history and the meaning death gives to human experience. Books such as Le Blanc de l'Algérie (1996; Algerian White, 2001) respond to the urgency of Algeria's situation, to the necessity to remember, testify about, and pay homage to the victims of the war that factions of the political and financial elites, activists from all social classes, and Islamist fanatics have been waging against their compatriots. The population as a whole has been taken hostage, and intellectuals in particular have been targeted by terrorist commandos serving hidden and most of the time undeclared masters. In Le Blanc, taking as a starting point her immediate emotional response, the author widens her initial scope and develops a meditation on the fate of writers and intellectuals in recent Algerian history, analyzing the status of writing and culture from the 1954 revolution to the present. She concludes that in this society the writer and the educated individual in general has been singled out as the object of sacrifice of an apparently structural hatred of culture, and that his dead body has become the site par excellence for the expression of social conflict.
History and Violence
This discursive framework changes the scope of the work because the author evokes the death and life of several who were close to her, and is then led to give the same treatment to intellectuals who died in the past. This process renews Djebar's autobiographical project and links it to the history of Algerian literature, a theme rooted in the wider Algerian history. Indeed, the author ties the events of today's Algeria to the era of the resistance against French colonialism. By means of this linkage, she writes one of the first historical assessments of the relationship between, on the one hand, the revolution and the post-independence FLN (Front de Libér-ation nationale, or National Liberation Front) regime and, on the other hand, the nation's intelligentsia. Transcending her own mourning, she starts a journey into the dark zones of Algerian history. The juxtaposition of the killings, achievements, aspirations, and fates of the 1990s with the 1950s writers and intellectuals creates a new map of Algerian reality. Djebar unfolds the facts around the death of each and conducts, for most, a pitiless, nearly scientific, investigation into how they were assassinated and who killed them. In so doing she succeeds in reopening many cases that Algerian official historians had classified and closed. The result is a new evaluation of what happened in the country during the last four decades and a corrosive denunciation of the regime and its apparatchiks. Djebar reopens the scars of her people and offers them a vision of themselves that they do not want to see. The mythical foundations of the Algerian nation collapse in a dissection that reveals the revolutionary past as partly rotten and impure because of systemic and internecine struggles, betrayals, shameful sacrifices, and successive killings.
This portrait in turn seems to throw a light on the present. The author's rereading and reinterpretation of the revolution, with its divisions, power struggles, and injustice, establishes a dramatic continuity between the revolutionary attempts to eliminate those who advocated diversity and tolerance and the current attempts to eradicate all forms of free intellectual activity and a political life based on democracy. For example, she recalls one of the most tragic episodes of the Algerian Resistance. In 1956, manipulated by the French secret services, the Algerian resistance leader Colonel Amirouche Aït Hamouda and his men, who controlled the Kabylie region, were led to believe that all educated Francophone Algerians worked for the French army and that they joined the resistance in order to destroy it from inside. As a consequence, more than two thousand educated youths who had just joined the guerrilla war against French occupation were beheaded by their own comrades. In spite of this well-known event, Colonel Amirouche is still considered a national hero in official Algerian history.
In brief, according to Djebar, the fact that Islamist political radicalism seeks to disrupt the process of modernization that the FLN started should not mislead one into thinking that their ideologies are opposed. The only thing that distinguishes them is that one group has the power and the other wants to wrest it from them. In fact, beyond their momentary political contradictions and their struggle over a diminished economy, there is a continuity, less evident at the level of politics, economic structures, and social policy, but strikingly clear in the realm of culture. It is this continuity which explains the regime's and the Islamists' deadly focus on women and intellectuals, and the ultimate act of censorship represented in the physical extermination of "transgressive" thinkers.
THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE
In the work of Djebar, the genealogical and historical theme is matched by another whose aim is to restore women's reality and her nation's genuine identity. To the discourse that the socialist regime and masculine power want to impose on her country, the writer opposes the voice of those who were forgotten by official discourse and the rhetoric of revolution, that is to say women and ordinary citizens. In this, her enterprise is faithful to her continuous challenge to colonial and neo-colonial ideology and the authoritarian discourses that dominate postcolonial Algeria.
At the core of Djebar's work has been a constant preoccupation with the relationship between the individual and society, the status of women, and the importance of history in producing a meaningful discourse (not only about the past). What has linked these concerns together is the role of writing, both as a discipline in its own terms and, because of its place in the construction of individual and collective memory, its status as the very basis of culture. In her recent work, Djebar radically transcends the autobiographical limits that framed her earlier novels. At present, Djebar seems to be directly committed not only to herself, her people and the fate of her country, but also to the very principle embodied in writing.
In her books, the author affirms the basic function of literature and the responsibility of the intellectual in an arena where knowledge has been declared dangerous and necessary to erase. The strength of her attempt lies in its ability to intertwine extremely personal reactions with an unsparing exploration of recent Arab Muslim history. Djebar has not tried to separate her country and her writing as if they were independent spheres. Because writing is a decisive element in the constitution of culture, a nation's very soul, for Djebar it becomes the site of memory and survival. Finally, her work is an exemplary attempt to transcend the cultural barriers between different peoples and a remarkable illustration of the humane values common to the Arab Muslim world and the West.
Assia Djebar's official Web site. Available from http://www.assiadjebar.net.
Donadey, Anne. Recasting Postcolonialism. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001.
Erikson, John. Islam and the Post-Colonial Narrative. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Hiddleston, Jane. Assia Djebar: Out of Algeria. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006.
Mortimer, Mildred. "Entretien avec Assia Djebar, écrivain algérien." Research in African Literatures 19, no. 2 (1988): 197-205.
Shirley, Edward G. "Is Iran's Present Algeria's Future?" Foreign Affairs 74, no. 3 (1995): 28-44.
Woodhull, Winifred. Transfigurations of the Maghreb: Feminism, Decolonization, and Literatures. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Zimra, Clarisse. "Writing Women: The Novels of Assia Djebar." SubStance, 21, no. 3 (1992): 68-84.
WORKS BY DJEBAR
La Soif (1957; The Mischief, 1958)
Les Impatients (The Restless, 1958)
Les Enfants du Nouveau Monde (1962; Children of the New World, 2005)
Les Alouettes Naïves (The Innocent Larks, 1967)
Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement (1980; Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, 1999)
L'Amour, la fantasia (1985; Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, 1993)
Ombre sultane (1987; A Sister to Schehrerazade, 1989)
Loin de Médine (1991; Far from Medina, 1994)
Vaste est la prison (1994; So Vast the Prison, 2001)
Le Blanc de l'Algérie (1996; Algerian White, 2001)
Oran, le langue morte (1997; The Tongue's Blood Does Not Run Dry, 2006)
Les nuits de Strasbourg (1997; Strasbourg Nights, 2003)
Ces voix qui m'assiègent: En Marge de ma Francophonie (These Voices that Besiege Me: Outside my French-Speaking World, 1999)
La Femme sans sépulture (Woman without a grave, 2002)
La Disparition de la langue française (The disappearance of the French language, 2003)
La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua (The Nouba [festival] of the Women of Mount Chenoua, 1977)
La Zerda ou les chants de l'oubli (La Zerda: Songs of Oblivion, 1979)