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.
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.
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.
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.
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] (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)...
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Mildred Mortimer (review date October 1987)
SOURCE: Mortimer, Mildred. Review of Ombre sultane, by Assia Djebar. French Review 61, no. 1 (October 1987): 145-46.
[In the following review, Mortimer commends Djebar's presentation of contrasting women in Ombre sultane.]
On an autumn day in the early 1940's, Assia Djebar's father, a schoolteacher in colonial Algeria, escorted his daughter to school for the first time, thus sending her on a bilingual, bicultural journey that freed her from the female enclosure but also sent her into exile away from the majority of her sisters. Four decades later Djebar was able to study her unique journey with sensitivity and objectivity in L'amour, la fantasia (1985)....
(The entire section is 576 words.)
Elaine Williams (review date 24-30 June 1988)
SOURCE: Williams, Elaine. “Angel and Demon.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4447 (24-30 June 1988): 698.
[In the following excerpt, Williams compliments Djebar's portrayal of female suffering and rebellion in A Sister to Scheherazade.]
Both Assia Djebar and Nawal El Saadawi, in seeking to evoke the suffering of women under Islamic rule, have taken a little-known tale from The Thousand and One Nights, one which offers a haunting image of sisterhood, and placed it at the heart of their stories. The tale runs as follows: knowing that the Sultan has vowed to kill a virgin every night in his bed as revenge for his wife's infidelity, Scheherazade, the Sultan's new...
(The entire section is 615 words.)
Mildred Mortimer (review date winter 1989)
SOURCE: Mortimer, Mildred. Review of Ombre sultane, by Assia Djebar. World Literature Today 63, no. 1 (winter 1989): 156.
[In the following review, Mortimer praises Djebar's juxtaposition of traditional and modern women in Ombre sultane.]
Since her debut in 1957 the novelist Assia Djebar has focused on Algeria's independence struggle and has simultaneously become the scribe for Algerian women silenced by colonialism and Islam. Her latest work represents her strongest attack yet against patriarchy.
In Ombre sultane Djebar juxtaposes the lives of two women, the modern Isma and the traditional Hajila, who share a common experience: both...
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Ivan Hill (review date 13-19 April 1990)
SOURCE: Hill, Ivan. “A Love-Hate Affair.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4541 (13-19 April 1990): 404.
[In the following excerpt, Hill offers a positive assessment of Djebar's blend of history and memoir in Fantasia.]
It is a platitude among Algerians of a certain age that the relationship between France and Algeria was a love story. Assia Djebar plays on this from a variety of angles in Fantasia. Fundamentally, there is the question of language. Endearments in her mother tongue of Arabic are full and erotic, but not to be used outside the family except in illicit missives. The curlicues of the script are sensual. French is the language for thought, but its...
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Evelyne Accad (review date winter 1992)
SOURCE: Accad, Evelyne. Review of Loin de Médine: Filles d'Ishmaël, by Assia Djebar. World Literature Today 66, no. 1 (winter 1992): 184-85.
[In the following review of Loin de Médine, Accad commends Djebar's ambition but finds shortcomings in the work's problematic position between paean and revision.]
Assia Djebar, the most well known Francophone woman writer of North Africa, tells us in a foreword that she has used the designation novel for Loin de Médine, a collection of tales, narratives, visions, scenes, and recollections inspired by her readings of some of the Muslim historians who lived during the first centuries of Islam....
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Mary Jean Green (essay date May 1993)
SOURCE: Green, Mary Jean. “Dismantling the Colonizing Text: Anne Hébert's Kamouraska and Assia Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia.” French Review 66, no. 6 (May 1993): 959-66.
[In the following excerpt, Green examines Djebar's use of history, autobiography, and narrative disjunction in L'amour, la fantasia as a mode of reinterpreting Algerian colonial experience.]
“La Carence la plus grave subie par le colonisé est d'être placé hors de l'histoire et hors de la cité” (121). These words of Albert Memmi point to a central effect of colonization and explain why the effort to recover and take possession of their own history has...
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Charlotte H. Bruner (review date autumn 1993)
SOURCE: Bruner, Charlotte H. Review of Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, by Assia Djebar. World Literature Today 67, no. 4 (autumn 1993): 881.
[In the following review, Bruner discusses the structure and thematic concerns of Women of Algiers in Their Apartment.]
Assia Djebar (b. 1936) has long been recognized in the French-speaking world for four early novels, films, and translations produced during a stay in Algeria, and now for a new series of novels, Quartet, becoming available in English. In 1980, between the sets of novels, she published a small collection of short stories, Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement, now translated [as Women...
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Robbie Clipper Sethi (review date fall 1993)
SOURCE: Sethi, Robbie Clipper. Review of Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, by Assia Djebar. Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 4 (fall 1993): 611-12.
[In the following review, Sethi offers a favorable assessment of Djebar's feminist themes and narrative techniques in Women of Algiers in Their Apartment.]
Women of Algiers in Their Apartment is Assia Djebar's only collection of short stories. Born Fatima Imalayen in 1936 in Algeria, she published her first novel, La soif (The Mischief ) under the nom de plume to prevent her family from finding out that she was writing “erotic self-indulgence” while she was supposed to be studying...
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Soheila Ghaussy (essay date summer 1994)
SOURCE: Ghaussy, Soheila. “A Stepmother Tongue: ‘Feminine Writing’ in Assia Djebar's Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade.” World Literature Today 68, no. 3 (summer 1994): 457-62.
[In the following essay, Ghaussy examines the French feminist concept of “écriture féminine” in Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, in which Djebar underscores the subjugation and marginality of Algerian women by appropriating the text-biased language of colonial France to reveal the physicality of traditional oral culture and its embodiment in female sexuality.]
Ever since I was a child the foreign language was a casement opening on the spectacle of...
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Marie Ascarza-Wégimont (essay date fall 1996)
SOURCE: Ascarza-Wégimont, Marie. “Djebar's Ombre sultane.” Explicator 55, no. 1 (fall 1996): 55-7.
[In the following essay, Ascarza-Wégimont discusses a poetical refrain in Ombre sultane that suggests the realization of female self-expression and liberation.]
[u]nder the bed where the couple is making love, at the beginning of each night, the child hears the voice. Tucked in a cradle hanging under the high bed, the little girl hears her mother's song while each night stretches its wings out. …
At the beginning of each night the voice soars; first it murmurs, whispers, hoots...
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Evelyne Accad (essay date autumn 1996)
SOURCE: Accad, Evelyne. “Assia Djebar's Contribution to Arab Women's Literature: Rebellion, Maturity, Vision.” World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 801-12.
[In the following essay, Accad provides an overview of Djebar's major works and thematic concerns—ranging from La soif to Le blanc de l'Algérie—linking the progression of Djebar's personal and literary maturation with that of her feminist and political perspective.]
Young Arab women have unsuspected reserves of romanticism; too brutally thrown against men, they seldom regain their injured innocence. And their husbands will never know the exalted face of their...
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Katherine Gracki (essay date autumn 1996)
SOURCE: Gracki, Katherine. “Writing Violence and the Violence of Writing in Assia Djebar's Algerian Quartet.” World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 836-43.
[In the following essay, Gracki explores the overlapping elements of autobiography and history in L'amour, la fantasia, Ombre sultane, Le blanc de l'Algérie, and Vaste est la prison, drawing attention to Djebar's portrayal of female suffering as physically and psychically inscribed through the violence of patriarchy and colonization.]
My writing does not feed on rupture, but mends it.
—Assia Djebar, “To Write,...
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Mildred Mortimer (essay date autumn 1996)
SOURCE: Mortimer, Mildred. “Reappropriating the Gaze in Assia Djebar's Fiction and Film.” World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 859-66.
[In the following essay, Mortimer examines Djebar's effort to recast Algerian women as independent beings who see and make themselves publicly visible in defiance of Maghrebian patriarchy and French colonialism, focusing primarily on Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement, Vaste est la prison, and Djebar's film La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua.]
Although Assia Djebar is known as Algeria's foremost woman novelist, her corpus also includes poetry, theater, essays, and film. She has used the image as well as the word...
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Christopher Prendergast (review date 13 December 1996)
SOURCE: Prendergast, Christopher. “Across the Borders.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4889 (13 December 1996): 12.
[In the following review, Prendergast commends Djebar's cross-cultural juxtaposition of historical, cultural, and religious dualities in Vaste est la prison.]
In the early nineteenth century (that is, at exactly the time when literature was being theoretically and practically modelled as essentially national literature), Goethe spoke of the dream of “a common world literature transcending national limits”. Goethe's idea is just that—an idea, recorded sketchily in fragments of conversation, letters and diary. It was an important and a generous...
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John Erickson (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: 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 et al, pp. 304-20. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Erickson discusses the juxtaposition of written French language and oral Arabic language in L'amour, la fantasia as a narrative and metaphorical device for breaking the imposed silence and isolation of Algerian women, both collectively and individually.]
Assia Djebar's 1985 narrative, L'amour, la fantasia, comprises three parts, titled respectively “The Capture of...
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Patricia Geesey (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: Geesey, Patricia. “Women's Words: Assia Djebar's Loin de Médine.” In The Marabout and the Muse: New Approaches to Islam in African Literature, edited by Kenneth W. Harrow, pp. 40-50. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1996.
[In the following essay, Geesey examines Djebar's metafictional, feminist rereading of early Islamic history in Loin de Médine, drawing attention to the novel's multiple female voices and narrative structure, modeled on traditional Islamic forms of oral transmission and authentication.]
Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement....
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Martine Guyot-Bender (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: Guyot-Bender, Martine. “Harmony and Resistance in L'amour, la fantasia's Algerian Women's Communities.” In Homemaking: Women Writers and the Politics and Poetics of Home, edited by Catherine Wiley and Fiona R. Barnes, pp. 175-99. New York and London: Garland, 1996.
[In the following essay, Guyot-Bender draws attention to positive aspects of female domesticity in L'amour, la fantasia, contending that cloistered Algerian women are shown to derive a sense of solidarity and security that liberated women lack, thus adding complexity to reductionist notions of female victimization in patriarchal Arab society.]
The fate of Muslim women has been a...
(The entire section is 9226 words.)
Mildred Mortimer (essay date summer 1997)
SOURCE: Mortimer, Mildred. “Assia Djebar's Algerian Quartet: A Study in Fragmented Autobiography.” Research in African Literatures 28, no. 2 (summer 1997): 102-17.
[In the following essay, Mortimer argues that Djebar's juxtaposition of autobiography, fiction, and history in L'amour, la fantasia, Ombre sultane, and Vaste est la prison effectively challenges Algerian patriarchal tradition and colonial rule.]
The day that Assia Djebar's father, a teacher in the French colonial educational system, first escorted his daughter to school, he set her on a bilingual and bicultural journey that resulted in her development as an artist and an...
(The entire section is 7670 words.)
John Erickson (essay date fall 1999)
SOURCE: Erickson, John. “Translating the Untranslated: Djebar's Le blanc de l'Algérie.” Research in African Literatures 30, no. 3 (fall 1999): 95-107.
[In the following essay, Erickson discusses the depiction of Algeria's post-liberation unrest and fratricidal violence in Le blanc de l'Algérie, noting the connotations of the French noun “le blanc” and Djebar's effort to reconcile Algeria's post-liberation barbarism with the nation's promise of democratic self-rule.]
Je ne peux pour ma part exprimer mon malaise d'écrivain et d'Algérienne que par référence à cette couleur [blanc], ou plutôt à cette non-couleur. “Le...
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Anne Donadey (essay date winter 2000)
SOURCE: Donadey, Anne. “The Multilingual Strategies of Postcolonial Literature: Assia Djebar's Algerian Palimpsest.” World Literature Today 74, no. 1 (winter 2000): 27-36.
[In the following essay, Donadey provides a linguistic analysis of Arabic words and phrases in Djebar's fiction, most notably in L'amour, la fantasia, Ombre sultane, and Vaste est la prison. Donadey argues that Djebar's use of Arabic—ranging from specialized and obscure terms to hybrids of French and Arabic—creates an alterative, cross-cultural feminist discourse that subverts the language of French colonialism while demonstrating the problematic complicity of post-colonial francophone writers.]...
(The entire section is 7170 words.)
Adrian V. Fielder (essay date winter 2000)
SOURCE: 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, no. 1 (winter 2000): 18-44.
[In the following excerpt, Fielder discusses the problem of historical representation and fictionalized accounts of imperial conquest, as illustrated by Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.]
Pour lire cet écrit, il me faut renverser mon corps, plonger ma face dans l'ombre, scruter la voûte de rocailles ou de craie, laisser les chuchotements immémoriaux remonter,...
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Eilene Hoft-March (review date May 2000)
SOURCE: Hoft-March, Eilene. Review of Les nuits de Strasbourg, by Assia Djebar. French Review 73, no. 6 (May 2000): 1257-58.
[In the following review, Hoft-March finds shortcomings in the disjointed and unresolved narrative threads of Les nuits de Strasbourg.]
Les nuits de Strasbourg distances itself from the author's usual Algerian haunts, planting itself and a North African character or two squarely in a cosmopolitan European setting. Exile is one of the themes, although cultural isolation is not: as Djebar reminds us, Strasbourg has historically been a site of culture wars and cultural hybridism. To this interesting Franco-German mix, the novelist adds...
(The entire section is 764 words.)
Mildred Mortimer (review date summer-autumn 2001)
SOURCE: Mortimer, Mildred. Review of So Vast the Prison, by Assia Djebar. World Literature Today 75, nos. 3-4 (summer-autumn 2001): 107.
[In the following review, Mortimer notes that So Vast the Prison embodies Djebar's career-long thematic preoccupations, particularly the efforts of Algerian women to free themselves of patriarchal oppression.]
So Vast the Prison (orig. Vaste est la prison, 1995) conveys the overarching theme of Assia Djebar's work: Algerian woman's struggle for empowerment in defiance of patriarchal constraints. The Algerian novelist reminds her readers that as French colonialism once sought to stifle voice and memory,...
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Richard Murphy (review date fall 2001)
SOURCE: Murphy, Richard. Review of So Vast the Prison, by Assia Djebar. Review of Contemporary Fiction 21, no. 3 (fall 2001): 202.
[In the following review, Murphy commends the intellectual and aesthetic depth of So Vast the Prison.]
The fragmented narrative of So Vast the Prison offers spaces of light—views between the bars, the breaks between segments. Ostensibly, Isma, called “the name,” narrates the novel, which relates her autobiography, her family history—especially the women's side—and Algerian/Islamic history. The narration begins with the platonic love Isma has for a young journalist, “the Beloved.” This story serves as the seed for...
(The entire section is 312 words.)
Nancy von Rosk (essay date December 2001)
SOURCE: von Rosk, Nancy. “‘Exhuming Buried Cries’ in Assia Djebar's Fantasia.” Mosaic 34, no. 4 (December 2001): 65-84.
[In the following essay, von Rosk draws upon French postcolonial theory to elucidate Djebar's efforts in Fantasia to recover the voice of Algerian women while writing in French, the masculine language of Algeria's colonial oppressor.]
Described as “the most threatening person to Algeria's political chieftains” (Kadir 777), Assia Djebar has been hailed by many critics as the most important woman writer in North Africa, “the most gifted woman artist to come out of the Moslem world in our century” (Zimra 160). When she...
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Michèle E. Vialet (essay date fall 2002)
SOURCE: Vialet, Michèle E. “Between Sound and Fury: Assia Djebar's Poetics of ‘L'Entre-Deux-Langues.’” Symposium 56, no. 3 (fall 2002): 149-62.
[In the following essay, Vialet examines how Djebar's “Algerian Quartet” works to redefine the boundaries of literature that is written “l'entre-deux-langues”, or, “between-two-languages.”]
Mots torches qui éclairent mes compagnes, mes complices; d'elles définitivement, ils me séparent. Et sous leur poids, je m'expatrie.
Assia Djebar, L'amour, la fantasia (161)
Alors, le meurtre surgit, le sang gicle, le refus de l'entre-deux des paroles et des langues en mouvement fait plonger dans un antre obscur.
Assia Djebar, Ces voix qui m'assiègent … (33)
From 1992 to 1994, as her native Algeria rapidly collapsed into lawlessness and civil war, Assia Djebar was completing Vaste est la prison, the third volume of her “Algerian Quartet,” a projected set of four novels interweaving episodes of Algerian history from the conquest of 1830 to its independence in 1962, autobiographical materials, and reflections on language and the erasure of women from history. L'amour, la fantasia and Ombre sultane had appeared respectively in 1985 and 1987, the latter earning her a literature prize for fiction at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1989. She had also published Loin de Médine: Filles d'Ismaël (1991), a work of fiction retracing the origins of Islam and Muslim traditions.1
At the time, the news coming out of Algeria was grim. The interruption of the 1991-92 legislative elections was followed by the assassination on 29 June 1992 of Mohamed Boudiaf, the chair of the Haut Comité d'Etat, which was created to bring Algeria back to the rule of law. The Algerian government could not maintain public order. By the end of 1992, 8,000 people had been killed, and an equal number wounded (Stora 19). In 1993 the situation worsened. One Islamic group, the Front islamique du Djihad armé (FIDA), terrorized urban areas, assassinating intellectuals, journalists, political and union leaders, physicians, writers, and popular singers, while other groups, among them the Mouvement de l'Etat islamique (MEI), controlled the mountains. News of civilian massacres by masked assailants became frequent; accounts of attacks against families and entire villages reported repeated scenes of grim barbarity (Stora 19-22). Nineteen ninety-four saw no signs of respite. With the closing of embassies in 1995 and in the absence of any foreign observers, the cycle of assassinations and reprisals which the Algerians prudently refer to as “les événements” increased (14).2 Four years later, in July 1999, the new President of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, ostensibly attempted to end the eight-year war during which an estimated 100,000 people had been killed, tens of thousands mutilated, and some 4,000 men and women missing.
Few escaped being personally touched by the horrific violence. By June 1993, Djebar was mourning many victims, including the young novelist Tahar Djaout, and two close friends: psychiatrist Mahfoud Boucebei, murdered in Algiers on 15 June, and sociologist M'Hamed Boukhobza, murdered in his bedroom on 21 June. Less than a year later, on 14 March 1994, she learned that playwright and director Abdelkader Alloula, the brother of her first husband, had been gunned down in front of his Paris apartment. For Djebar who had been living in Paris for thirteen years and had recently persuaded her daughter to turn down a teaching position in Algeria and join her, France was a second home, an elected “terre d'accueil,” but Algeria indisputably remained her country. With the escalation of the Algerian crisis and commandos murdering intellectuals living abroad, her status as a prominent female writer, critical of her government cultural policies, exposed her as a likely target. The risks were such that she had to forego hope of returning home in any foreseeable future and to take appropriate personal and administrative measures to insure her safety and her daughter's. Both had become de facto fugitives.
To become a stranger to one's own country—practically overnight—and be labeled an undesirable intellectual stands as a defining moment in one's personal and sociopolitical identity. How did this radical displacement of identity find expression in Djebar's writing? In analyzing the representation of this turning point in her career, I identify some of her strategies of cultural identification and discursive address as an expatriate writer committed to the Algerian people and yet writing in French. At the core of Djebar's strategies, I submit, is her redefinition of the space, function, and poetics of what she calls “l'entre-deux-langues”—‘between-two-languages.’ Beyond designating the intermediate space that links Arabic and French in an uneasy, sometimes antagonistic, sometimes complementary relation, “l'entre-deux-langues” has become the central concept of her ars poetica. Anchored in women's voices and embodying the recollection of Algeria's history through the most tenacious and compelling “parole plurielle des femmes” (Ces voix 37), it is the writing space that enables Djebar as an “écrivaine algérienne” to answer the paradox of writing in the language of the colonizer. Anne Donadey recently pointed out that Djebar's Vaste est la prison (1995) can be viewed as the author's rewriting of her “female genealogy,” her géné/elle/logie (“Multilingual” 28). Similarly, her poetics of “l'entre-deux-langues” can be described as a “poétique géné/elle/logique” in the sense that it traces its filiation through the logos of women, more specifically, as she once observed, the logos of the women of her mother's tribe (Ces voix 38). In this essay, I examine the mutations of her ars poetica during the 1990s as it appears in her lectures collected in Ces voix qui m'assiègent … en marge de ma francophonie (1999).3
In the 1980s, Djebar's use of “l'entre-deux-langues” remained rather imprecise, pertaining mostly to her dual linguistic and cultural heritage and her sense of alienating marginalization in belonging to neither Algeria nor France. An abstract and flexible concept, its reference to cultural in-between-ness could simultaneously refer to the marginal position that she held in other polarized spheres of expression: spoken Berber and Arabic dialects versus the language of the Qur'an and classical Arabic; women's songs, whispers, and oral traditions versus men's privileged access to the written word. Moreover, the emphasis on in-betweenness was felicitous and theoretically well founded, as it meshed with much of Jacques Derrida's critique of essentialism and theorization of the margins. It also linked Djebar's work directly with Abdelkebir Khatibi's attempts to portray himself as a decolonized subject in his autobiographical novel La mémoire tatouée. Autobiographie d'un décolonisé and his book of essays Maghreb pluriel, dealing with the cult of unity and homogeneity with which the Maghreb identifies. More significantly, “l'entre-deux-langues” signaled Djebar's literary and intellectual solidarity with postcolonial writers who use the language of the former colonizers as their literary language while celebrating their own national heritage.
Initially, in Djebar's metalanguage, the term “l'entre-deux-langues” had a largely personal application. The metaphor emerged when, upon completing L'amour, la fantasia in the course of two summers in Venice, her memory experienced what she calls a “remission” (Ces voix 112). Soon after, her inner conflict between her Arab genealogy and her French literary identity subsided. She was working on “Les voix ensevelies,” the third and longest part of the novel, when she felt a sudden liberation: “[J]e sortis enfin de mon propre labyrinthe!” (Ces voix 112). She realized that she was “livrée à un ‘entre-les-langues’, où l'italien s'insinuait, où les sons purs, le bruit de l'eau, le rire d'un enfant me procuraient enfin le havre dont j'avais besoin pour surmonter, avec mes seules forces, ma propre guerre intérieure, mon partage douloureux d'autrefois—entre le français qui m'avait ouvert son espace, et ses fantômes du siècle passé […]” (112; my emphasis). Djebar's sudden insight that life went on around her in a diversity of sounds, voices, ways of life, dialectal inflections immersed in her childhood memories (“bruits revenus de mon enfance,” 112), enabled her to surmount her inner war (“ma propre guerre intérieure,” 112). Through the contrasts, she understood that she had isolated herself artificially while writing L'amour, la fantasia, acting as her own “inquisiteur sourcilleux” (112). Subjected to France's colonization of Algeria—she was twenty-six when Algeria became independent in 1962—she had been living in the confines of her country's struggle for independence, convinced that her loyalty as a writer required smothering the legacy of colonization, and sacrificing the vibrant multilinguism that historically identified Algerian life to contribute to her nation's rebirth.
In a 1998 lecture “L'entre-deux-langues et l'alphabet perdu,” Djebar muses on her metaphor of “l'entre-deux-langues” and draws a fundamental distinction between literacy and orality:
Pourquoi l'entre-deux-langues? Pourquoi pas l'entre-langues, au pluriel?
Pourquoi pas “sur les marges” de la langue (de n'importe quelle langue, celle qu'on prend à la va-vite, celle qu'on a sous la main), sur les marges donc et refuser d'aller jusqu'à son centre, à son moyeu, à son feu …
Rester sur les marges d'une, de deux ou trois langues, frôler ainsi le hors-champ de la langue et de sa chair, c'est évidemment un terrainfrontière, hasardeux, peut-être marécageux et peu sûr, plutôt une zone changeante et fertile, ou un no man's land, ou …
En tout cas, c'est ce qui sépare, ce qui lie et divise à la fois dans chaque langue, l'écrit et l'oral.
(Ces voix 30; Djebar's emphasis)
As she demonstrates in Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement and in L'amour, la fantasia, the primary responsibility of the writer is to transcribe the amorphous medley of orality. At stake is the function of the translator and/or a writer who turns the sounds, cries, and silences suffocating the people of Algeria into a written text. Djebar has often made this point clear.4 However, “l'entre-deux-langues” also serves as a connection.
A little later in the lecture, Djebar redirects her metaphor to underscore the bridge that the writer's words, spanning the expanse of the “no man's land,” establish between the two cultures. She seems to return to Derrida's concept of the “margins” to expand the meaning of her metaphor: “‘Sur les marges’ de la langue à traverser et à inscrire, ce serait la seule démarche, notre seul mouvement profond, au creux même de la langue-en-action: les mots qui s'écrivent et qui se crient au-dessus du vide, du vertige, de la catastrophe tout contre nous, ou si proche, si visible là-bas …” (Ces voix 30-31). With this semantic shift from a place of mutilated or defective identity to bridge building, Djebar extends the usefulness of the concept to the process of literary creation in times of historical upheaval. As the last part of this quotation testifies, the outbreak of the civil war in 1992-94 made “l'entre-deux-langues” a privileged space from which to act, “au creux même de la langue-en-action.” From this awareness, Djebar redefines the role of the writer from historical witness and healer to facilitator of the passage from colonization (still present in the culture, the languages, and everyday life) to an authentic postcolonial independence. In effect she will transform “l'entre-deux-langues” into a tool of analysis addressing the relevance of her writing vis-à-vis Algeria's transition to a postcolonial nation.
In the three decades since Algeria's independence, Djebar primarily viewed herself as a historical witness whose research and attentive listening resurrected the “voix ensevelies” of the victims of colonization. She saw her work as contributing to the process of remembrance and healing, enabling the Algerian people to reclaim their role as agents of their own history. When Djebar researched her film La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua and returned to writing with Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement, “l'entre-deux-langues” designated the linguistic space allowing the postcolonial writer to sense and record the tensions between colonized and colonizer:
Entre-deux-langues, pour un écrivain ne pouvant pas être autrement qu'écrivain, c'est se placer dans l'aire nerveuse, énervée, désénervée, douloureuse et mystérieuse de toute langue: situation souvent fréquente pour les écrivains ex-colonisés, des terres de l'Empire français, anglais, espagnol, hollandais ou portugais d'hier …
(Ces voix 30)
As H. Adlai Murdoch has shown, cultural and subjective duality tends to exacerbate the necessity for postcolonial authors “to devise strategies which will mediate the demands of a colonial legacy which, inter alia, compels them to inscribe subjectivity in the language of the colonizer” (71). As a writer, Djebar focuses on the disjunction between the master narrative of the history of Algeria—official history written from the point of view of the French—and the history of the Algerian people from the perspective of the colonized, especially the women. To express what writing history from the Algerian perspective means to her, Assia Djebar resorts to a series of metaphors. In a 1998 essay “L'enjeu de mon silence,” recalling how she conceived of her film La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua (1978), she admits to becoming aware that a full-fledged poetic theory (“un véritable art poétique,” Ces voix 38), unbeknownst to her, had informed her work precisely when she decided to utilize her recordings from previous summers. She underscores the fact that she identified the vitality of her writing with the recovery of the sounds and voices of the women in her mother's tribe, the Beni Menaçer. Nourished with the “parole plurielle des femmes,” she would strive in her writing to reach a point in “l'entre-deux-langues” where, echoing Baudelaire's theory of correspondances, “graphie et oralité se répondent” (38). Looking back, she emphasizes the productiveness of hearing women's most pertinacious sounds:
Ainsi je décidai entre 1975 et 1977 d’“écrire pour le cinéma,” et ce à partir d'un son enregistré, d'un son écouté, réécouté—en somme une présence hyperbolique de la parole féminine, une parole plurielle des femmes—[…] me transmettant sa tonalité, son “bruit” le plus tenace, le plus profond … Oú la voix rejoint la langue, en la portant, en lui donnant naissance! …
[…]Un “entre-deux” certes, entre littérature écrite et cinéma, mais surtout une immersion totale en généalogie féminine …
(Ces voix 37-38; my emphasis)
More difficult to transmit in literary writing than in film writing, the primacy of the sounds and voices requires a different approach. In “L'entre-deux-langues et l'alphabet perdu,” Djebar uses the metaphor of childbirth to underscore the confused and primitive groans as though they were coming from within her and were inducing a process of labor, until at last a language soothing the pain is born: “C'est le grondement de la parole vive (de soi, ou en soi à partir des fantômes des morts, ou en soi dans le grondement informe du sang des nôtres …). Ce gargouillis de la colère, de l'impuissance, de la blessure—l'informe qui cherche sa forme […] et qui, par chance, devient langue” (Ces voix 31).
The journey from orality to writing, writes Djebar, consists of transforming these sounds, “le bruit de la parole pas encore discours” (31), first into articulated words and then into speech by means of sentences that can be deployed in a fixed, written form that paradoxically returns the initial sounds to silence: “le bruit de la parole […] devient phrase liée et déliée, écrite, fixée enfin, et silencieuse” (31). To a Muslim audience, Djebar's imagery recalls the founding enigma of the revelation of the Qur'an to the prophet Mohammed. In “Du message prophétique (argument),” Abdelkebir Khatibi analyzes the narrative of the Revelation in the hadith (Mohammed's reported speech) and biographies of the Prophet and notes the texts' insistence on the sounds, apparitions, and oracular voices coming from the rocks, murdered animals, and the desert hills that Mohammed alone could capture (Par-dessus l'épaule 77-89). Khatibi also underlines three topoi: the primacy of speech over writing, the pain of the ordeal of the Revelation, and the Prophet's sacrifice of himself as an agent in bringing the book forth.5 His summary of the extraordinary passage—from signs and sounds voiced by the angel to the words and verses that finally become a book—provides insight into the sacred foundation of writing implicit in Djebar's description of the labor of working in “l'entre-deux-langues”:
Dès qu'il y a de l'écrit, il y a de l'illisible. Or, s'identifiant au Message et au Livre qui n'a été écrit par personne, Mohammed en devient habité. Il est, dans ce sens, le Livre qu'il ne peut ni lire ni écrire. Le livre, il l'attribue à l'autre. Ainsi Mohammed se sépare de toute signature. Signature blanche puisque Dieu ne signe pas. Mohammed signe sa mort en tant que signataire, et nous dirions, pour survivre dans la foi du livre que le musulman porte en lui. Il faut donc accepter cette mort de soi, ce sacrifice, pour devenir un prophète, un texte de la survie.
Long after transcending her own linguistic conflict, Djebar asserts that the choice of the language is unimportant in recalling Algeria's buried voices. What matters is the flow of language and its therapeutic effect, not the ability of any particular language to transmit the message.
Langue mais ni gel, ni glace, ni même encre Langue qui coule Et qui coud les blessures …
N'importe laquelle des langues après tout—la maternelle avec son lait, celle des autres avec sa mémoire amère, ou une autre de hasard, comme une fille légère […]
(Ces voix 31; Djebar's emphasis)
Using a powerful image of healing (“Langue […] qui could les blessures”), and rejecting the primacy of her mother tongue, Arabic, as the language in which, as an Algerian Muslim, she ought to write, Djebar places herself within literary traditions that define poets as beings inspired by forces, visions, and voices not shared by most laypeople. She also draws attention to her own erasure as a speaking subject (in Khatibi's words: “Mohammed signe sa mort en tant que signataire”), stressing her role as a conduit for the words of the victims whom she strives to reestablish as speakers. More importantly, in confirming the power of any language to unveil and reestablish the victims' buried voices, Djebar not only acknowledges the primacy of voice and parole over language, but also opens up the field of healing through historical recollection to an infinite number of writers.
The power to appease the “bruit de la parole pas encore discours” is specifically that of written language. Transforming inarticulated sounds into words is both therapeutic—written words heal the wounds—and cathartic: “[l]e bruit se calme soudain quand l'écrit en rend compte, et le boit, et l'éteint” (31). By bringing the repressed sounds into the open and inserting them in the context of the colonial conflict, the written text legitimizes the suffering and in the process transcends or surmounts the confusion and sense of shame attached to memories of defeat, indignities, and barbarity. As memories of suffering are inscribed in the temporality of Algerian history and given meaning in the tale of Algerian independence, the amorphous corpus of groans, sighs, isolated remarks, and repressed memories acquires a form that enables collective memory to be reclaimed. The question of form is of critical import. Djebar frequently asks herself: “[C]omment témoigner en écrivant?” (Ces voix 215). Her vision of the writer enabling catharsis entails two seemingly conflicting requirements: the discipline of the witness and the inventiveness of the poet. As a conduit of the “voix ensevelies,” the writer must sacrifice her own voice and persona, but as a poet, she must forge a language that elevates her writing to the level of literature. Djebar's answer to this apparent dilemma lies in the flexibility of her concept of “l'entre-deux-langues.” Transcribing the suffering of a people par “l'écriture littéraire” (Ces voix 171) means experimenting with discursive and aesthetic forms. It requires the invention of new means of expression capable of negotiating with existing languages and types of discourses. For Djebar, it is in the various levels, interstices, and echoes between these languages, in the uncharted spaces of “l'entre-deux-langues” that writers should dignify suffering with historical meaning.
But is historical meaning clear to would-be writer-healers? Can they escape their own personal and professional entrapments? Djebar seems to acknowledge this problem when, several years into the Algerian civil war, she speaks of the writers' failure to appease suffering. In “L'entre-deux-langues et l'alphabet perdu,” she admits to her earlier illusions. Reflecting anew on the role of writers, she suggests that they more modestly aim at writing in all the “languages” in use in their countries and at creating passages among these languages: “[D]ans chaque pays ou dans chaque culture qui refleurit à l'air libre, après une période de grandes violences ou de tempêtes meurtrières, il s'agit d'expérimenter le passage entre les langues …” (Ces voix 32). Perhaps to emphasize the openness and fluidity necessary to understand her metaphoric use of “langues,” Djebar chooses fluvial images (fords, locks, flow, current) as well as the word “métissage” in reference to Edouard Glissant's concept of cultural interbreeding. If the passage “entre les langues,” she says, “ne permet pas le flux, le courant, la navigation des corps, des voix, des yeux, des musiques, alors l'échec est là, qui coagule, qui bloque, qui pousse à la destruction” (Ces voix 32). The imperative is clear. Only the continuous and free flow of languages and memories can prevent social sclerosis and subsequent violence. The price for failing to heed this warning and do justice to the fundamental polyphony of any society is a second outburst of violence, more extreme than the first occurrence because self-annihilating. Using her country as an example, Djebar denounces the blind, or rather the deaf, cultural politics that Algerian authorities have conducted since independence:
C'est [l'échec], hélas, de mon pays, l'Algérie pantelante: par phobie de la deuxième langue, de la troisième, par déni d'un multilinguisme inscrit dans notre culture depuis l'Antiquité (culture populaire et culture savante), 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! …
Alors le meurtre surgit, le sang gicle, le refus de l'entre-deux des paroles et des langues en mouvement fait plonger dans un antre obscur. La goule—c'est-à-dire la mort vorace—rejoue son rôle funèbre.
Un tel pays, dès lors, se plombe et s'obscurcit—pays soudain muet et aux yeux vides.
Whether her personification of death conjures images of the macabre vampire of North-African legends, the “ghoûl,” or recalls Jacques Callot's hallucinated etchings of Misères de la guerre (1636), Djebar specifically draws our attention to Algeria's failed transition from a colonized country to an independent, postcolonial nation no longer living under the linguistic, cultural, and political confines of its war against France. Her denunciation of the government's strategy of equate postcolonial independence with the enforcement of a strict politics of Arabization and the eradication of French and Berber languages from school programs and public life is to be understood in this light. She assigns full responsibility for present-day massacres to Algerian leaders' phobic denial of the country's long tradition of multilinguism and multiculturalism. As she makes clear a little later, the brutal repression of the Berber culture epitomizes the fratricidal violence underlying monolinguism. She metaphorically uses the disappearance of the “tifinagh” alphabet to further stigmatize Algeria's destruction of its rich cultural patrimony and to mourn the loss of a written culture and what it represents for both the Berbers and her own heritage. Always attentive to cultural anthropology, she also reminds us that when a language's alphabet is forced into oblivion, the very means to recover traces of the civilization that thrived in this language have also been destroyed.
What remains of “l'entre-deux-langues” and the writer's task to experiment with languages when violence returns as civil war, marking “l'échec [du] passage entre les langues” in the blood of one's relatives and neighbors? Can one still write? Have the failures of writing demonstrated the irrelevance of all writing? Djebar's answer is tentative. Raising questions rather than offering concrete suggestions, she points to the dangers of retreating into literary autism. With today's terror and fury deafening the sounds of the past, the “bruit,” the writer, she maintains, has to continue experimenting with writing and finding new ways of inventing an in-betweenness and then patiently cultivate them. She clearly insists on the necessity for the writer to work in the “between”—the English term is Djebar's—that is, to find a written language capable of mediating words and building bridges. Autism, defeatism, fear, figuratively introduced, would be tantamount to confusing and mistaking the “antre” (cavern) for the “entre” (between), exchanging the dark lair for the search for a passage: “[…] si cet “entre-between” devient “antre”, […] comment s'enfantera peu à peu un écrit pour les créateurs? Comment la langue écrite, s'avançant dans le between, mais évitant l' “antre/cave”, pourrait-elle se calmer, vivre dans l'aventure des possibles?” (Ces voix 33; Djebar's translation and emphasis).
To reject the writers' temptation to retreat into autism, Djebar plays on the homophony of the two words “entre” and “antre.” In adapting her imagery of giving birth to inarticulate sounds to finding ways to keep writing while the war rages, she also reappropriates her own metaphoric use of “antre obscur” that we observed in the preceding quotation (32-33) in reference to Algeria's plunge into dark barbarity. Such apparently carefree semantic transfers and reappropriation are characteristic of Djebar's free linguistic play, a means by which words are associated with other key words in a rather disquieting fashion, much as in a Lacanian psychoanalytical exchange. Djebar's point, however, is to use the power of figurative language to outline the challenge facing writers from countries in the throes of postcolonial civil wars, particularly Algerian writers. What should literary writing be to quench self-annihilating furor? Can writing, deemed so fundamentally necessary, still aspire to build bridges, to sketch visions of possible futures? Implicit in Djebar's questions is the rejection of silence that she equates to the writer's autistic retreat into the cave.
Although Djebar's capacities to develop her theoretical position and envision venues of invention through the productivity of her concept of “l'entre-deux-langues” seem to have sustained her writing during the early 1990s, she publicly admitted to her distress and paralysis. In Ces voix she offers three interesting accounts of such moments. The earlier one appears in her October 1994 lecture in which she analyzed her need to return to the medium of cinema (“mon besoin d'une écriture de cinéma,” Ces voix 168; my emphasis). For two years, she said, writing had become impossible: “Je me débats depuis deux ans dans l'impossibilité de dire le sang, la mort, la haine—de dire, c'est-à-dire de l'inscrire par l'écriture littéraire. (Ce n'est pas par hasard que mon dernier roman, Vaste est la prison, commence par un prologue ‘Le silence de l'écriture’ et se termine par ‘Le sang de l'écriture’)” (171; my emphasis). She remarked that only through the language of film could she counter the television images that the Algerian government had deliberately used as “a weapon to destroy identity” (“cette image a fonctionné comme arme de destruction identitaire, délibérément,” 171). A little later in her lecture, she very emotionally summoned artists to rally before Algeria dies, by paying tribute to life: “[L]'écriture—de cinéma ou de littérature—doit rendre présente la vie, la douleur peut-être mais la vie, l'inguérissable mélancolie mais la vie …” (172).
The second representation of Djebar's distress occurs at the end of “L'entre-deux-langues et l'alphabet perdu,” the lecture she delivered in Vienna. About to conclude her redefinition of “l'entre-deux-langues” by suggesting its role in present-day Algeria, she abruptly turns to Mallarmé, whose rendition of a lighter occurrence of shattered hopes she appropriates:
Et pour finir, je pense aux vers de Mallarmé:
Indomptablement a dû
Comme mon espoir s'y lance
Eclater là-haut perdu
Avec furie et silence.
L'entre-langues, aujourd'hui, en Algérie, ce serait vraiment “avec furie et silence”.
(34; Djebar's emphasis)
As the mere evocation of the Algerian disaster chokes Djebar's capacity to develop her final thought, a literary image that she presumably memorized as a student affords her an escape from too-intense emotions. Like her audience, the reader is left to imagine what is so compelling, so relevant, in Mallarmé's lines to readily capture the essence of civil war. Is it that Mallarmé's violent truncations and ellipses give the measure of the tragedy of her people? Or is it the cathartic effect of the oxymoronic doublet of the last line “Avec furie et silence,” which Djebar repeats as if captivated by such a vision of concomitant fury and silence? Paralleling Mallarmé's dissolution of French syntax, her final attempt to imagine “l'entre-langues” in present-day Algeria aborts when she leaves out the attribute necessary to complete her sentence.
The recourse to Mallarmé's stanza intimates Djebar's readiness to use literary language to both represent and surpass the paralyzing effects of distress. Indeed, using the images and vocabulary of a common cultural patrimony opens the literary space of “l'entre-langues” and may help her forge her own language of disaster out of existing languages of loss and cataclysmic events. Looking to writers of earlier cataclysms, especially the wars and concentration camps of the twentieth century, she acknowledges rereading Francis Ponge, René Char, and Maurice Blanchot, among others.6 Witnessing the powerlessness and vulnerability of other writers, if only to discover that they too struggled to find an idiom capable of expressing the depth of such human calamities, enlightens her and partakes of her “métier d'écrivain.”
In “L'écriture de l'expatriation,” a lecture she gave in Munster in 1995, Djebar admits to one of the most striking results of her reflection on the role of writers in times of unspeakable violence: whether they strive to be spokespersons or bridge builders, writers are irrelevant. The powers that be have no use for their mediation offers. Djebar movingly reverses her view on two of the most tenacious tenets to which she had held:
Je dirais qu'au moins, en ces années de difficiles transitions, de ce passage à gué dans l'obscurité et l'éphémère de la fuite et du danger, une illusion est définitivement écarté. Trouée; mise à mal.
L'écrivain maghrébin—comme dans tant d'autres pays du tiersmonde—ne peut plus jouer son rôle de porte-parole, ou même de passeur.
(Ces voix 214-15; my emphasis)
Have the promises embedded in Djebar's redefinition of “l'entre-deux-langues” proved invalid? While the persisting fury of Algeria's “second” war—as many call it (Stora 51-56)—has destroyed Djebar's illusion of the writer's capacity to facilitate the process of decolonization, it has also forced her to accept herself primarily as a writer and secondarily as an Algerian writer: “Vous avez à comprendre—alors que vous auriez dû le savoir dès le début—que votre seul véritable territoire était bien la langue, et non la terre …” (215). Her conclusion proceeds not only from the humbling insights she gained from her journey and her personal resilience, but also from a somber assessment of the status of contemporary writers from Muslim countries:
[E]tre écrivain, être né pour l'écriture […] être donc ainsi écrivain pour la trace, pour la vertu de la trace, c'est évidemment, depuis dix ans au moins, et pour cinquante ans encore, être voué à l'expatriation. [… L'] écrivain du Sud ne sera jamais plus porte-parole dans sa communauté, mais davantage le remords—vivant ou mort—d'un monde voguant sur l'océan des ténèbres.
(Ces voix 216)
Djebar's constant reflection on “l'entre-deux-langues” reveals an impressive mutation of her poetics and her views on the role of contemporary Algerian writers. Her trajectory parallels her double journey as an Algerian citizen whom the civil war has made a political refugee, and as an Algerian woman writer whose literary project to remember Algeria's struggle for independence through women's voices has placed her life in jeopardy. From a metaphor initially figuring her dual cultural heritage and her conflicted relationship with the French language, to the central concept of a poetic theory that she had to constantly revise, “l'entre-deux-langues” has framed her relentless quest for words capable of mediating between the past and the future and “rendre présente la vie” (Ces voix 172). As she suggests in the closing text of Ces voix, what is needed is a “programme au féminin” able to “faire ruisseler le silence / et couturer la rupture” (264). A product of adjustments and cleared-up illusions, her analysis of Algeria's failed transition to postcolonial independence constitutes a strong indictment against cultural dictatorship and the illusory construction of national identity based on monolinguism. However, beyond the highly personal price paid for her commitment to Algeria, her newly-found identity as a writer whose voice is unwelcome by the powers that be may prove to be as empowering and liberating as the moment when she transcended her own cultural war. This time, it may be the phantom of the prominent intellectual or écrivain engagé that she releases.7 On a theoretical level, her admission to waging a cultural war within herself and her recognition of the multiplicity of languages surrounding her suggests that Djebar may yet hold faith in the future of the Algerian people. Through her advocacy of inventing “l'entre-langues” among all languages, she holds out the hope that Algeria will surmount its cultural war and reject the self-destructive politics of monolinguism and monoculturalism.
Assia Djebar (1936-) is one of the most important figures of francophone Maghrebian literature. A prolific writer, she has published ten novels, several books of short-stories, essays, and poetry. She has also written and directed two feature-length films and, more recently, two musical dramas. For a more comprehensive introduction, see Chikhi, Mortimer (“Assia Djebar's Algerian Quartet”), and Vialet.
This war has raised a real “problème de vocabulaire” that Benjamin Stora examines (11).
A follow-up of this study will examine the extent to which Djebar carries out her poetics of “l'entre-deux-langues” in Vaste est la prison (1995).
The subject of writing the “voix ensevelies” of Algeria's colonial period has been treated rather brilliantly by critics like Mildred Mortimer, Jean Déjeux, Valérie Budig-Markin, John Erickson, Soheila Ghaussy, Anne Donadey, Jeanne-Marie Clere, Mireille Calle-Gruber, and Clarisse Zimra. While my perspective is different, I happily acknowledge my debt to their analyses of Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement; L'amour, la fantasia; and Ombre sultane.
Khatibi points out the tradition's emphasis on the painful process of transmission of God's word. In recurring dreams, Mohammed, who is illiterate, is physically forced by the angel Gabriel to “read” or to “recite” (commentators associate the two verbs), a message that he does not understand or see. Nightmares, delusions, and moments of insanity commonly plague him.
Plastic arts, especially painting for which Djebar has a well-known affinity, seem to be easier languages to use, as Picasso's painting, Guernica, has proved.
Djebar sees herself as following in the footsteps of many contemporary Muslim writers, among them Salman Rushdie and Nourredinne Farrah (Ces voix 216).
I dedicate this essay to Paul and Rachel Burrell whose vision of a Fernside Center for Grieving Children has helped many grief-stricken children to invent forms of “entre-langues.”
I wish to express my gratitude to the Charles Phelps Taft Memorial Fund and the University of Cincinnati for providing me with a faculty fellowship during fall 2000. I also wish to thank Susan Sadlier, Kevin Hudson, Lowanne Jones, Holly King, and Ann Santen who offered helpful comments on the revisions of this essay.
Budig-Markin, Valérie. “La voix, l'historiographie, l'autobiographie: Les dernières œuvres d'Assia Djebar.” Francophonie plurielle. Ed. Ginette Adamson and Jean-Marc Gouanvic. Québec: Hurtebise HMH, 1995, 21-28.
———. “Writing and Filming the Cries of Silence.” World Literature Today: A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma 70.4 (1996): 893-903.
Calle-Gruber, Mireille. Assia Djebar ou la résistance de l'écriture. Regards d'un écrivain algérien. Paris: Maisonneuve, 2001.
Callot, Jacques. Prints and Related Drawings. Ed. H. Diane Russell. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1975. 207-69.
Chikhi, Beïda. “Présentation d'Assia Djebar par Beïda Chikhi.”
Clerc, Jeanne-Marie. Assia Djebar. Écrire, transgresser, résister. Paris: L'Harmattan, 1997.
Déjeux, Jean. “‘Voix ensevelies’ et ‘fièvre sculpturale’ dans L'amour, la fantasia d'Assia Djebar.” Nouvelles du Sud (1991): 99-110.
Djebar, Assia. Ces voix qui m'assiègent … en marge de ma francophonie. Paris: Albin Michel, 1999.
———. Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade (L'amour, la fantasia). Trans. Dorothy S. Blair. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993. Trans. of L'amour, la fantasia. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.
———. A Sister to Scheherazade. Trans. Dorothy S. Blair. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993. Trans. of Ombre sultane. Paris: Lattès, 1987.
———. Vaste est la prison. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.
———. Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Trans. Marjorijn de Jager. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1992, Trans. of Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement. Paris: Editions des Femmes, 1980; Editions de Poche, 1995.
Donadey, Anne. “Between Amnesia and Anamnesis: Re-membering the Fractures of Colonial History.” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 23.2 (1999): 179-89.
———. “The Multilingual Strategies of Postcolonial Literature: Assia Djebar's Algerian Palimpsest.” World Literature Today 74.1 (2000): 27-36.
———. Recasting Postcolonialism. Women Writing Between Worlds. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001.
Erickson, John. “Women's Space and the Enabling Dialogue.” Postcolonial Subjects: Francophone Women Writers. Ed. Mary Jean Green et al. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996. 304-20.
Ghaussy, Soheila. “A Stepmother Tongue: ‘Feminine Writing’ in Assia Djebar's Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade.” World Literature Today 68.4 (1994): 457-62.
Khatibi, Abdelkébir. La mémoire tatouée. Autobiographie d'un décolonisé. Paris: Denoël, 1971.
———. Maghreb pluriel. Paris: Denoë, 1983.
———. Par-dessus l'épaule. Paris: Aubier, 1988.
Mortimer, Mildred. “Assia Djebar's Algerian Quartet: A Study in Fragmented Autobiography.” Research in African Literatures 28.2 (1997): 102-17.
———. “Parole et écriture dans Ombre sultane.” Francophonie plurielle. Ed. Ginette Adamson and Jean-Marc Gouanvic. Québec: Hurtebise HMH, 1995, 15-20.
Murdoch, H. Adlai. “Rewriting Writing: Identity, Exile and Renewal in Assia Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia.” Post/Colonial Conditions: Exiles, Migrations, and Nomadisms. Vol. 1. Ed. Françoise Lionnet and Ronnie Scharfman. Spec. issue of Yale French Studies 83 (1993): 71-92.
Stora, Benjamin. La guerre invisible: Algérie, années 90. Paris: P de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 2001.
Vialet, Michèle. “Assia Djebar: Bibliographical Update 1990-2000.” Bulletin of the African Literature Association 27.1 (2001): 43-60.
Zimra, Clarisse. “Disorienting the Subject in Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia.” Yale French Studies 87 (1995): 149-70.
———. “Writing Women: The Novels of Assia Djebar.” SubStance: A Review of Theory and Literary Criticism 21:3 (1992): 68-84.
Gordon Bigelow (essay date summer 2003)
SOURCE: Bigelow, Gordon. “Revolution and Modernity: Assia Djebar's Les enfants du nouveau monde.” Research in African Literatures 34, no. 2 (summer 2003): 13-27.
[In the following essay, Bigelow discusses how Djebar's subjective feminine perspective in Les enfants du nouveau monde creates a “vision of revolutionary modernity.”]
With the 1985 publication of her landmark novel L'amour, la fantasia, Algerian writer Assia Djebar moved into a position of increasing international visibility and critical attention. With its blending of history, autobiography, and fiction, this work would position Djebar alongside authors like Bessie Head (A...
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Best, Victoria. “Between the Harem and the Battlefield: Domestic Space in the Work of Assia Djebar.” Signs 27, no. 3 (spring 2002): 873-80.
Best considers the domestic confinement of women in Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement as a representation of ideologically enforced physical and imaginary space.
Camhi, Leslie. “Discovering Liberation in French.” New York Times 149, no. 51317 (4 March 2000): B11.
Camhi provides an overview of Djebar's life, work, and cultural perspective upon the publication of So Vast the Prison.
Corbin, Laurie. “Divided Selves: The Language of...
(The entire section is 571 words.)