Assia Djebar

The Clear but Fragile Force of Writing

Algerian novelist Assia Djebar is one of North-Africa's best-known and most widely acclaimed writers. In her books she explores the struggle for social emancipation and the Muslim woman's world in its complexities.

A portrait of the writer by Gabriele Stiller-Kern

photo: AP
Assia Djebar

​​Born in 1936 in Cherchell in Algiers, Assia Djebar (the pen-name of Fatima-Zohra Imalayène) is thought by many critics to be the most gifted writer to have emerged from the Moslem world over the last hundred years.

She is a militant feminist, the voice of her sisters at home under lock and key, a fearless critic of her traditional brothers, a self-confident writer and an equally confident international speaker, yet no tough fighter but a gentle and effective rebel.

By now 65 years old she reaches her goals through persuasive words, as a writer of novels, dramas, poems and essays, as a filmmaker, historian and journalist. She is a celebrated symbol of freedom and reconciliation in her homeland Algeria, though being still scandalous to many Algerians.

Giving Arab women a voice

Her central themes are the fate of the Arab Muslim woman, travel between the Arab and the western world and confrontation with the French colonial past.

In growing up in Algeria as the daughter of a teacher, Assia Djebar had the privilege of being able to visit not only the Koran school but also the French primary school, without which she would never have become a writer.

As she said in her speech of appreciation for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade 2000, her father was "a man of our times who broke with Muslim conformity, which would otherwise almost certainly have kept me in seclusion as a marriageable maiden", and unlike other Muslim fathers was willing to let her go out at will.

"Likewise I would not have taken the path of literature five or six years later without (though it sound surprising) having wandered passionately and anonymously through the city streets as a passer-by, an observer, a disadvantaged boy and, till the present day, as a pedestrian. To me this is the primary freedom - the freedom to move, to be underway, the ever surprising freedom to decide about one’s coming and going, from indoors to out of doors, from the private to the public domain and vice versa... Here in Europe this seems to go without saying to girls growing up. To me at the start of the 50s it was an unbelievable luxury."

In 1955 Assia Djebar was the first Algerian woman to study history at the École Normale Supérieure of Sèvres, though she was expelled only two years later for having joined Algerian students in Paris in striking for Algerian independence.

First novel published at the age of 21

At the same time she was celebrated in the French press for having published at the age of 21 her first novel, "La Soif" (Thirst), in which she protests for the first time in book form against the treatment of women in Islam. She was already claiming that women’s freedom is hampered not by the writings of the Prophet but by the ensuing tradition.

Afraid that her novel, written in two months during the student unrest, might offend her father, she was loath to have it published under her own name, so on being taken with her fiancé Ould-Rouis, an Algerian nationalist, who was soon afterwards checked by the police, to the publisher by taxi, she asked her fiancé to repeat the 99 ritual appeals to Allah, in the hope of being able to use one of them as a pen name.

She chose ‘djebbar’, a word which Allah praises as meaning ‘irreconcilable’, but on being in a hurry misspelled it as ‘djébar’, thus inadvertently changing the classical Arabian into the word for ‘healer’ in her own language.

While "La Soif" was being compared in France with Françoise Sagan’s "Bonjour Tristesse", Algerian reviewers averred that it did not mirror the actual political situation.

This was surely due to no lack of political interest on her part, since she worked during the war of liberation for the newspaper of the anti-colonial FLN, El-Moujahid and interviewed Algerian refugees in Morocco. As an assistant at the University of Rabat she continued this work by taking part in many Algerian cultural initiatives.

Her second novel "Les Impatients" (The Impatient, 1958) is set within the war of liberation and is about the young Dalila, who feels imprisoned within her family of dominant men and stifled women.

"Les Enfants du nouveau monde" (Children of the New World, 1962) is about Algerian women with demands of their own. The leading woman takes part in collective actions for political change. The themes of love and war, past and present, are continued in her fourth novel "Les Alouettes naïves" (Naiv Larks, 1967) about a young women’s rejection of the patriarchy.

The years of silence

There followed 10 years of silence in the 70s. "On my path as a writer I was gripped by uncertainty, by self-doubt, which silenced me for a long time. For ten years I published nothing but was able to rove through my country – for reporting and questioning and finally for filming. My great wish was to speak with female peasants, with female villagers in regions with diverse traditions, as also to return to my mother’s family twelve years after independence."

She turned to filming for the sake of reaching a public unable to read and write. In the 70s she worked on many productions as a director’s assistant then in 1973 directed her own adaptation of Tom Eyen’s play about Marilyn Monroe "The White Whore" and the "Bit Player". Her first film "La Nouba des femmes du mont Chenoua" (Nuba from the Women of Mount Chenoua, 1979) won the Prize of the International Critics at the Biennial in Venice.

Her second film "La Zerda ou les chants de l’oubli" (Zerda or the Songs of Forgetfulness, 1982), a chronicle of life in the Maghreb in the first half of the 20th century, won the prize for the best historical film at the Berlinale in 1982. On returning to the University of Algiers she began teaching film and theatre.

After this decade of silence appeared "Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement" (The Women of Algiers in their Apartment, 1980) whose title refers to a painting by Delacroix.

This cycle of tales experiments with new stylistic means - with women’s conversation, with the sound of the language and with an editing technique taken over from filming. "L’Amour, la fantaisie" (Love, Fantasy, 1985) combines autobiography, historical reports on the French occupation of 1830 and the Algerian war of liberation.

Analysis of the colonial past

The aim of Djebar’s writing is to examine the French language for its dark colonial past and its present effects. "For the sake of this language, Arabian and Berberish were banned from school and public use," she said on receiving the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. "My aim has been to make the leaden muteness of Algerian women noticeable and their bodies visible, since concealment of the body too has come back together with a reactionary and chauvinistic tradition."

"L’amour, la fantaisie" is the first part of a tetralogy covering various facets of the Maghreb in the past and present and was continued with "Ombre sultane" (In the Sultan’s Shadow, 1987) and "Loin de Medine" (Far from Medina, 1991), which describes the role of women in the life of the prophet Mohamed.

The novel "Vaste est la prison" (So Vast the Prison, 1995) has autobiographical traits and relates the life of a modern well educated Algerian woman to those of eminent women in Maghreb history and the great civilisation of Carthage with reverberations in Berber culture of the present day.

The impact of Algerian civil war

"I must answer all questions!", explains Assia Djebar as regards her aim, "or at least show their urgency for me, for the women who like myself had to leave in order to be able to breathe freely, but also for the other women, the silent, the humbled, the ones with their hearts turned to ashes through knowledge of their humiliation. In this wrestling with history, I wrote "Fantaisie" then "In the Sultan’s Shadow" and the rest of the tetralogy about Algiers. On settling as an immigrant in a Parisian suburb I didn’t imagine that in the following years I would be concerned with the vicissitudes, outbreaks, madness and then... with the violence and daily murder featured in the daily press as distorting the face of my land! A lonely powerless search in my books, my questions became more and more desolate."

In 1997 she wrote a love-story set in Straßburg, in which she reacted indirectly to wounds left within her by the situation in Algeria, as she said in her talk Writing in Europe held on 28th November, 1998, in the House of World Cultures in Berlin:

"It will not surprise you that I wrote this novel in 1997 in Louisiana on hearing from a great distance of the massacres of villagers in my land. After two books about death ("White Algeria" and "Oran, langue morte" – Oran, dead language), my first reaction to the bloody present was to write in more detail about those nine imaginary nights of love in Straßburg! To be frank, my "Fantaisie" was in a sense pure therapy."

Therapy but not escapism, for in Straßburg Assia Djebar finds the words of Camille Claudel, the genial sculptor and Rodin’s unhappy mistress:

"There is always something absent tormenting me", she says. Assia Djebar has made it her business to conjure up in her work this tormenting absence as also tormenting elements in the memories of her European readers. The wish behind this is: "to exchange memories which sometimes weigh too heavily."

Gabriele Stiller-Kern

Previously published on culturebase.net – the international artist database

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