Assia Djebar Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Assia Djebar 1936-

(Born Fatima-Zohra Imalayen) Algerian novelist, short story writer, essayist, director, playwright, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Djebar's career through 2003.

As Algeria's leading female literary figure, Djebar has earned international attention for her poignant, sophisticated portrayals of female subjugation and French hegemony in Islamic North Africa. Her semi-autobiographical fiction, set against the historical backdrop of Algeria's struggle for independence, focuses on the intricate lives and experiences of ordinary Algerian women who strive to liberate themselves from the oppressive bonds of traditional Muslim family roles and social norms. Her acclaimed “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), and Le blanc de l'Algérie (1995; Algerian White)—is a complex hybrid of autobiography, literary meditation, fictionalized documentary, and revisionary history in which Djebar attempts to reclaim the voice and freedom of Algerian women. Though writing in French, the language of Algeria's colonial government until 1962, Djebar often reflects self-consciously on the problem of language as a tool of ideological conditioning, particularly in matters of female self-identity and sexuality.

Biographical Information

Born Fatima-Zohra Imalayen in Cherchell, Algeria, a Mediterranean seaport west of Algiers, Djebar was raised in a middle-class family. Her father, a French teacher, ensured that she received a formal education, a privilege not accorded to many Algerian women of the era. Djebar's francophone acculturation at the French schools she attended set her apart from the other women in her family, whose education was either denied or cut short by the imposition of domestic responsibilities. Upon completing high school, Djebar became the first Algerian woman to earn a scholarship to the elite École Normal Supérieure de Serves in Paris. There she studied history and participated in the Algerian students' strike of 1956 during the French-Algerian war. Djebar left her studies to write La soif (1957; The Mischief), adopting the pen name Djebar (djebbar means “intransigent” in Arabic) to protect her family from the potential scandal that erotic elements of her work might cause. After a decade of self-imposed exile in Tunisia and Morocco with her husband, Walid Garn, whom she later divorced, Djebar returned to the newly independent Algeria in 1962. Upon her return, Djebar was criticized by some Algerian scholars for continuing to write in French instead of switching to the official national language of Arabic. In Algeria, Djebar found work with several media outlets and began a long-term teaching career at the University of Algiers, where she taught history, literature, and film. In 1969 she published a volume of poetry, Poèmes pour l'Algérie heureuse, and coauthored a play, Rouge l'aube. During the 1970s, Djebar abandoned writing to turn her attention to the study of classical Arabic and filmmaking. Her first film, La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua (1977), won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. Following a ten-year hiatus from publishing, Djebar returned to writing with the short story collection Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement (1980; Women of Algiers in Their Apartment). In addition to teaching at the University of Algiers, Djebar has also served as the director of the Center for French and Francophone Studies at Louisiana State University and as a professor of Francophone Literature and Civilization at New York University. Djebar's work has been recognized with several prestigious awards, including the Prix Maurice Maeterlink in 1995, the Neustadt Prize for Contributions to World Literature in 1996, and the Yourcenar Prize in 1997.

Major Works

Djebar's first novel, La soif, focuses on the complex relationship between two young Algerian women—Nadia, who is educated and liberated, and Jedla, who is trapped in a childless marriage to an unfaithful husband. The psychological interest of the novel, which evinces strong European influences and emphasizes sensual aspects of the women's lives and friendship, lies in Jedla's tragic demise and Nadia's transformation from an egocentric modern girl to a reflective woman trapped in a loveless, traditional marriage. Djebar's second novel, Les impatients (1958), centers upon a young Algerian woman who chafes against her cloistered life and seeks liberation through a clandestine affair with a man whom she discovers is her stepmother's former lover. Exploiting this knowledge to gain her freedom, the heroine is finally liberated, ironically and melodramatically, when her lover and stepmother are murdered in an honor killing. Les enfants du nouveau monde (1962) focuses again on the lives of Algerian women, but unlike Djebar's previous novels, is placed within the context of the Algerian war for independence, linking the struggle for national liberation with that of women's liberation. The narrative depicts various women, including the uneducated wife of a traitorous French informant, the educated wife of a guerrilla fighter, an imprisoned teacher, and an adolescent guerilla, all of whom cope with the uncertainty and danger of the Algerian revolution and their desire for self-determination. In Les alouettes naïves (1967), Djebar returns to the political struggle for Algerian independence, this time viewed through the lives of two couples. Although both of the couples involved are committed to nationalist goals, Djebar stresses the personal costs of this commitment. Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, Djebar's first short story collection, takes its title from an 1832 Delacroix painting that depicts three beautiful Algerian women cloistered in a room, glimpsed beyond a raised curtain. A twentieth-century reinterpretation by Picasso depicted the women nude and sitting in an open setting. Djebar's ten stories, categorized under the divisions “Yesterday” and “Today,” express her conviction that conditions for Algerian women have scarcely changed since Delacroix's time. This belief and her stories were based on her own discussions with Algerian women between 1958 and 1978. The tales show the officially unrecognized contributions women made to Algerian liberation and the lack of dialogue between the sexes.

Fantasia, the first installment of Djebar's “Algerian Quartet,” is both autobiographical and historical in scope. As in previous works, Djebar focuses on the culturally proscribed roles and personal experiences of Algerian women. The novel's first scene, in which a young girl is being taken to school by her father, comes directly from Djebar's childhood, while other parts of the book incorporate Djebar's historical research on the 1830 conquest of Algeria and the Algerian revolution of 1954-62. In French documents and letters, Djebar offers hints of how women were involved in these events and, to counter patriarchal textual evidence, she presents examples of oral history as told by Arab women. While retracing and reconstructing the history of Algerian women, the shifting, polyphonic narrative represents a sophisticated meditation on language as a tool of conquest and subjugation. In A Sister to Scheherazade, the second installment of the “Algerian Quartet,” Djebar contrasts the lives of two women, one traditional and one modern, in contemporary Algeria. Despite their different backgrounds, the two women develop a friendship while engaged in ritual bathing and forge an alliance to help the traditional woman escape the confines of an oppressive marriage. The title alludes to the Arabian Nights storyteller Scheherazade, whose endless tales save her from execution by a misogynist king. In So Vast the Prison, the quartet's third volume, Djebar further explores themes of colonialism and gender dynamics in Algeria. The novel follows the story of a young Arab woman, Isma, through her French schooling, into an abusive marriage which nearly results in her blindness, and finally to her career in filmmaking. Though one of Djebar's most obviously autobiographical works, the fragmented narrative draws broadly upon personal experience, family recollections, and the history of Algeria from the Roman conquest of Carthage to modern French colonialism, creating parallels between the subjugation of Algeria and that of Algerian women. In Algerian White, the concluding volume of the quartet, Djebar examines the bloody history of post-liberation Algeria, during which internecine violence claimed the lives of many, including several of Djebar's friends who were murdered by radical Muslim activists. Linking such atrocities with those perpetrated by the French, Djebar laments the destructive cycle of retribution and repression that continues to undermine the development of Algerian nationhood.

In Loin de Médine: Filles d'Ishmaël (1991; Far from Medina), Djebar reconstructs the lives of seventeen notable women mentioned in medieval Muslim religious texts. Focusing on the women who surrounded Mohammed, Djebar draws attention to their significant but unacknowledged influence on Islam's founding prophet and the early history of that religion. In Les nuits de Strasbourg (1997), Djebar traded her usual Algerian setting for the European city of Strasbourg, located along the contentious border of France and Germany. The novel, which opens during the start of World War II, follows the stories of several intercultural couples—Algerian Jew and German, French and Algerian Muslim, etc.—as they struggle, often unsuccessfully, with their ethnic, generational, and religious differences. Like her fiction, Djebar's major cinematic work, La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua, deals with the trauma of patriarchal oppression and the historically invisible experiences of Algerian women. The film, which recounts the journey of a woman returning to rural Algeria fifteen years after the Algerian revolution, documents the war experiences and personal histories of the various local women she encounters.

Critical Reception

Djebar's literary career began with a flurry of praise from French critics for her debut novel, La soif, which some have compared to Françoise Sagan's scandalous 1954 novel Bonjour tristesse. However, Algerian scholars have faulted both La soif and Djebar's second novel, Les impatients, as self-absorbed and bourgeois—Algerian revolutionaries of the period argued that neither work made a contribution to the struggle for national liberation. Unlike her first two novels, Les enfants du nouveau monde and Les alouettes naïves have received considerable praise from Arabic audiences for their attention to the Algerian battle for independence and the inner personal struggles of both men and women caught up in the political tumult. The stories in Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, Djebar's return to writing in 1980, have been warmly received by critics, who commended their vivid use of language and skill in portraying the complexity of women's lives within a postcolonial context. Among the volumes of Djebar's “Algerian Quartet,” Fantasia and So Vast the Prison have received perhaps the most praise and scholarly attention. However, A Sister to Scheherazade has been highly regarded for its polyphonic exploration of intergenerational female relationships, and Algerian White, considered the most political of Djebar's later works, has earned critical appreciation for its eloquent tone and astute examination of the costs of building a unified nation. Djebar has also received praise for her careful use of language and delicate style in Far from Medina, though some have questioned the relevance of repressive religious history to progressive politics. Les nuits de Strasbourg has received a mixed reaction from readers, with reviewers faulting the book's lack of narrative focus, but lauding Djebar's deft use of language and strong aesthetic sensibility. Though she is best known for her literary work, Djebar's film La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua has received international acclaim for its skillful evocation of the hardships suffered by Algerian women.