Mildred Mortimer (review date October 1987)

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SOURCE: Mortimer, Mildred. Review of Ombre sultane, by Assia Djebar. French Review 61, no. 1 (October 1987): 145-46.

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[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). In that work she exclaims, “le dehors et le risque au lieu de la prison de mes semblables”.

Whereas L'amour, la fantasia combines Djebar's autobiography with episodes of the French conquest of 1830 and the Algerian Revolution (1954-1962), this novel [Ombre sultane] juxtaposes the lives of two women in contemporary Algeria. Although they do not meet until the end of the novel, they share a common experience. Isma, a modern woman who resembles Djebar's earlier emancipated heroines and indeed the writer herself, and Hajila, a traditional woman, cloistered and veiled, have been married to the same man. Indeed, Isma, who left her husband because he could not tolerate her independent spirit, secretly chose Hajila as his second wife. Through Isma's efforts, the two women, victims but not rivals of the same man, establish a sense of solidarity. Significantly, their friendship is sealed at the hammam, the Moorish bath, where the two women, whose lives have followed distinctly different paths, perform the traditional ritual of bathing together in the hot vapors. In Djebar's work, the hammam is presented as an enclosure that promotes comfort and healing in contrast to the harem, the male-dominated prison.

In this novel, Djebar depicts a traditional woman, first passive and submissive, who begins to take control of her life. Hajila does so by secretly leaving the apartment in which she is a prisoner and walking unveiled through the streets of her city. Her exploration, an act of defiance, leads to a break with her husband and eventually a new bond, an alliance with Isma. The appropriation of space traditionally reserved to men in Muslim society is crucial to Hajila's development. Having removed her veil and discovered the city, Hajila cannot renounce her new freedom and move back to her earlier passive role. For Djebar, this conquest of outer space is the first step towards emancipation.

With the possession of space comes the appropriation of language. Hajila's voice expresses her pain and sorrow as she experiences the man's brutality. In counterpoint to Hajila's suffering, Isma recalls memories of her earlier and yet fleeting happiness. The reader notes that the alternating voices of Isma and Hajila are complementary; together they record a story of failed communication within two successive marriages. Isma never excuses her husband nor tries to renew ties with him; her intent is to help the second wife escape. Her final gesture is to give Hajila the keys to her apartment.

Djebar also explores relationships across the generations—between mothers and children. She condemns Hajila's mother for upholding the traditions that enslave and imprison her daughter. By moving Hajila towards sunshine, to the freedom of open spaces, and by forcing Isma to enter the dark recesses of her memory, Djebar has created a work that is lyrical, passionate, and one that conveys a new intimacy among Algerian sisters “en rupture du harem” (10).

Elaine Williams (review date 24-30 June 1988)

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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 bride, begs her sister, Dinardzade, to accompany her into the nuptial chamber, hiding beneath the bed to wake her before dawn. The idea of sisterhood resonates through both these novels.

In Djebar's A Sister to Scheherazade, the second in a quartet of novels portraying the life of Maghribi women past and present, the liberated Isma offers an escape route to the timid and pregnant Hajila, the new wife of the husband Isma has rejected. For El Saadawi, the Nights tale, told through the character of a grandmother, offers an opportunity to the heroine of The Fall of the Imam. Bint Allah, to question the infidelities of the Sultan himself. The grandmother is shocked by such precociousness. Doesn't the girl know that the treachery of men is allowable by divine law, that of women inspired by Satan?

Both novels are intensely lyrical in their portrayal of women as innocent victims under patriarchal regimes, and both take the sea as a central symbol of freedom. For Hajila, slipping the confines of her husband's house and taking her first illicit walk in the streets alone, it is a vision of the far-off sea which sparks serious longings for solitude and independence, away from the daily demands of matrimony. For Bint Allah, who halts in flight at the top of the hill where she was born to feel the sea air on her body and to breathe in its perfume of nostalgia, it represents an act of realization which leads to death, her ultimate liberation. Water is significant in other ways. In both books the ablutions of the women are seen as expressing a desire to wash away the sins of the man.

The chapters of Djebar's novel alternate between Isma's descriptions of her own life and of Hajila's, between a strong, sensuous creature and one who lives in fear. Isma, who was sent away by her father to boarding school and so escaped at an early age from the constraints imposed on her by society, fell in love, married and loved freely, but in the end chose to leave her husband. (Her ecstasies and discords are poignantly portrayed—Djebar maintains a fine sense of tension and restrained eroticism in some of these passages.) For Hajila, a village girl who becomes the replacement wife for Isma's husband, and whose family regards the marriage as an honour, there is no love and no choices, but only rape and confinement. She swaps the limited boundaries imposed by her village life for the cocooned, luxurious but deadening existence of marriage to a wealthy man who uses her as both governess and whore. The story unfolds as a chart of her daily escapes into the outside streets where she wanders without a veil—her only possible act of rebellion. Djebar's account of her unveiling is compelling. Without the veil Hajila feels part of the world for the first time, and experiences a revelation of sense, sight and touch. The novel is neatly woven together, and saved from sentimentality by the disciplined and rhythmic qualities of Djebar's language.

Mildred Mortimer (review date winter 1989)

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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 have been married (at different times) to the same man. Isma, who chose Hajila as the second wife for her ex-husband, observes and describes the traditional woman's transformation. Curiosity motivates Hajila to explore her city, discard her veil, and reject passivity. When she defies her husband and claims the right to circulate freely in public spaces, she breaks with him and forms a new bond of friendship with Isma. Significantly, the women meet for the first time at the hammam (traditional steam bath), an enclosure depicted here as a refuge from patriarchal domination: “Hammam, seule rémission du harem.” Using space metaphorically, Djebar represents Hajila's journey as a variation of Isma's inner quest. Hajila moves into sunlight and open space, whereas Isma enters dark recesses of memory, recalling enclosures of her past—the Moorish patios of her childhood, the bedrooms of her married years—in an attempt to define her own identity.

The two narratives converge in a new dialogue between traditional and emancipated women who discover common bonds. They have experienced failures of communication in marriage and share the desire to move freely in the world. Still, they require places of refuge such as the hammam, into which to withdraw at times. Lyric and passionate, Ombre sultane affirms female bonding as a force against patriarchal oppression. Djebar provides a positive response to a pertinent question: what if Algerian women were to support and protect one another instead of competing for illusory patriarchal favors?

Ivan Hill (review date 13-19 April 1990)

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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 blandishments are devoid of passion. The angular writing is cold. Yet she has chosen to weave together incidents from her childhood and the French invasions of her country in the less intimate language.

In Fantasia, she treats historical reports by French soldiers, sailors and observers such as Fromentin as being rather like love letters. Alongside them, she places testimonies of women whose homes were burnt in the War of Independence because they were reported to be harbouring freedom fighters. The memories of growing up in an Arabo-Berber village while attending a French-style school, and the continuing cultural confusion, are used as counterpoints to these eyewitness accounts. Djebar also speculates about the unspoken suggestions that women in rebel villages were raped, and not always without complicity. The result is a complex fabric which is organized in three sections. Each is structured like a musical composition, returning to the same themes and varying them. It is a passionate search for identity but also a cultural and historical exploration of thought and literacy. The style is highly elaborate, and this translation successfully conveys the richness of Djebar's linguistic spree. (This book is the first of a quartet; the second, A Sister to Scheherazade, an examination of the subjugation of women in contemporary Algeria, was the first to be published in English. However, since the links between the volumes are tangential, the order of reading them does not matter at all.)

Evelyne Accad (review date winter 1992)

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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. Fiction allows freedom in reestablishing and unveiling a hidden space. Through it Djebar gives voice and presence to the many women forgotten by the recorders and transmitters of Islamic tradition.

The undertaking is quite an ambitious one, and Djebar manages it well in her usual careful, sensual, thoughtfully considered language. In a beautiful style, she re-creates the lives of women who surrounded the prophet Mohammed and explores the influence they had on his thinking and in the debates of the times. The unofficial, myth-shrouded history of the beginnings of Islam becomes very real and present with its women through Djebar's powerful pen. Here we find Aïcha, the prophet's favorite wife, and Fatima, his proud daughter, both of whom died soon after him; also Sadjah the woman prophet, Selma the healer, and many others who seem to act freely and are not afraid to stand up for what they believe, especially when it pertains to their belief in the prophet. The prophet himself is described as someone soft-spoken and very kind to his women, whom he treats with respect and care and whose advice he takes seriously.

This is certainly a revolutionary outlook and program for women's role in contemporary Arab society, if it would take its tradition seriously as an example to follow. I have no doubt that Djebar intended it this way. Nevertheless, such a tactic raises many problems, not the least of which is to be found in the text itself. The final message is that one ought to leave Medina (hence the title of the novel): “If Aïcha, one day, decided to leave Medina? Ah, far away from Medina, to find again the wind, the breathtaking, incorruptible youth of revolt!” Actually, however, the whole novel is a song to Medina, a glorification of the prophet and of his women. This is the most problematic contradiction one finds throughout the book: if, in order to free oneself, one must leave behind tradition and its enslavement, then how can one look upon it as a beautiful past filled with role models?

The other questions raised by the novel as it inscribes itself in today's contemporary Arabic and North African literature are: what message can today's writers give and should they give one? If, like Rushdie or El Saadawy, they address contemporary issues with clarity, frankness, and irony, are they doomed to ostracism, house arrest, death threats, imprisonment, and persecution? Is there no middle way between these two ventures: glorification and reinterpretation of tradition to show how today's Islam has been twisted, or the vision of a radically transformed Islam? Are Mahfouz's realism and humor one answer to these questions?

Mary Jean Green (essay date May 1993)

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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 been a major focus of the writers of postcolonial cultures. Quebec writers made the reconstruction of their history a central preoccupation of the nineteenth century, in response to a conquering British presence which termed them, in the words written by Lord Durham in 1839, “a people with no history and no literature.”1 Similarly, the francophone literature that emerged as part of the independence struggles of the French colonies in Africa was preoccupied with the question of locating a cultural past.

Women, too, have participated in this historical project, but their task has not been easy. Even within their own culture, women have been largely excluded from history (that is, written history) and political life (that which is susceptible of becoming history). The situation of women is also accurately described by Memmi's Portrait du colonisé, and women in colonized groups may be said to experience a double colonization. Since they are, in addition, doubly barred from access to writing, these colonized women seem, as Memmi suggests, condemned to a progressive loss of memory (131).

Women writers throughout the francophone world have nevertheless persisted in their effort to establish contact with their foremothers, but texts are based on other texts, and women's lives have left few written traces. Some women writers have utilized the resources of the oral tradition, moving back through the chain of transmission from grandmother to mother to daughter, in a process that provides new meaning to Virginia Woolf's image of “think[ing] back through our mothers” (79). The Acadian Antonine Maillet and the Antillaise Simone Schwarz-Bart have both demonstrated the power of the oral tradition to give form and content to women's history. But the memory of oral transmission extends only so far, and a modern consciousness demands written records, historical documents whose truth status seems assured. Although the existing historical record has been written almost exclusively by men—and, in colonial cultures, largely by the colonizers—various francophone women writers have attempted to use the available documents as a site in which to seek the buried traces of women's lives.

The texts on which I focus here are Kamouraska, by the Quebec writer Anne Hébert, and L'amour, la fantasia, by the Algerian Assia Djebar. Hébert, writing in her native French, and Djebar, abandoning her maternal tongue for the language of the French colonizer, are positioned very differently at the intersection of race, culture, and language. Yet the strategies they adopt in their historical quest—in their common investigation of doubly colonizing texts—show uncanny resemblances. Both are engaged in exposing the textual practices through which women's voices are buried and women's bodies fragmented, and both seek to restore life and wholeness to the mutilated corpses they have unearthed. …

The procedures by which Anne Hébert dissects the text of the colonizer and uses it as a means of hearing a woman's voice and reconstituting a woman's life are similar to those used by Assia Djebar. But Djebar's self-reflexive text foregrounds the process of historical reconstruction. In L'amour, la fantasia, Djebar interweaves three different histories: the history of the French military conquest of Algeria, begun in 1830; more recent memories of the Algerian struggle for independence; and the story of Djebar's own life. It is in reconstructing the nineteenth-century French conquest that Djebar makes use of her historical training to analyze a series of documents—memoirs, letters and newspaper articles—that offer eyewitness accounts of the French invasion, documents that are, with one exception, written by European men.

Djebar employs various strategies of reading to expose the mechanisms of what is, quite literally, a text of colonization and to undermine its authority. She points up the way in which the European accounts reduce the Algerians, like women, to objects of a dominant gaze. After witnessing a military campaign that includes an enfumade, which brought about the death by suffocation of 1500 Algerian men, women, and children who had sought refuge in caves, the two privileged witnesses stress the campaign's exotic appeal, one French observer finding in it “toute la poésie possible” (67). These accounts, of course, participate in what Edward Said has identified as Orientalist discourse, and they paint a colorful picture, not unlike those of Delacroix and Fromentin, to whom Djebar refers in her text. Yet Djebar is also able to find in the accounts of this campaign an inscription of a resisting look. As the French soldiers surround a group of captured women, the sole survivors of their tribe, one of them unyieldingly returns the look of the observer, refusing the objectification contained in his gaze.

Often, however, it is only in Djebar's own text that the reciprocity of the gaze is restored. The historical documents begin by describing the city of Algiers as it appears to the arriving French fleet, but Djebar herself must imagine the residents of the city who gather on the rooftops to return the look. Only in her text does the French army “regarde la ville qui regarde” (15): this reciprocal gaze has never before been written.

In the accounts of the French observers Algerian women appear not only objectified but mutilated and fragmented in a quite literal way. They are shown being chopped to pieces by French bayonets or stabbed and stripped of their jewelry. The testimony to a woman's existence is provided by a severed foot or the hand that is found along a roadway by the artist Eugène Fromentin. Yet Djebar as narrator is capable of turning the tables on the conquerors, like the Algerian woman who has cut out the heart of an invading soldier. In the narrative constructed by Djebar the texts of the colonizers themselves appear only in fragmented citations, interwoven with her own words: the text itself thus creates the possibility of dialogue absent from the historical record.

By constantly disrupting the hegemonic perspective of the colonizing discourse, by literally breaking it apart, Djebar exposes the mechanisms of Orientalism. A short example of the process is provided by her treatment of a French account of an Algerian father who visits his wounded son. Taking her cue from the fact that the writer is a French theater director, Djebar translates the episode into titles of French theatrical tableaux—such scenes as “père et fils arabes, objet de la sollicitude française,” and, finally, “fanatisme musulman entraînant la mort du fils, malgré la science française.” And Djebar's narrator comments, “Ce dernier tableau conclut la fiction … ainsi échafaudée sous nos yeux” (44). By exposing the constructed nature of these historical accounts and by showing their similarity to the novel in which she has placed them, Djebar blurs the lines between history and fiction, implicitly recognizing the claims of Hayden White that both are narrative constructions.

Djebar also uses her French sources as an archeological site for unearthing the buried voices of Algerian women, like the European observer who strains to hear the muffled cries of the unseen victims of the enfumade. She finds in the strangely uncomprehending accounts of the French unwitting inscriptions of women's voices—the Algerian women's characteristic ululating cry, and the actual words of an Algerian woman executed for calling the French, “[c]hiens, fis [sic] de chiens” (66). These women's voices penetrate and disrupt the orientalizing unity of the French text.

Juxtaposed to the written texts of French observers are voices of contemporary Algerian women. The history of the conquest is both framed and interpenetrated by an autobiographical narrative, the story of a young Algerian girl's conquest of and by the French language. It is this narrative that ultimately provides the unifying framework of the entire text. The first-person narrator of the autobiography joins her voice with that of other Algerian women, and the novel becomes collective autobiography as she finds their story to be her own.

The long third section of the novel, entitled “Voix ensevelies,” is composed of the voices of several Algerian women who tell their stories of suffering and loss during the second era of violent French penetration into Algeria, the war of independence. By her title, “buried voices,” Djebar links these cloistered and illiterate women to the victims of the nineteenth-century enfumades. In thus reconstructing the history of the Algerian war from oral sources Djebar is continuing a project begun in her novel Les enfants du nouveau monde and continued in her film, La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua, from which, as she has told Mildred Mortimer, these voices of real women are transcribed (Mortimer 202).

Through her conversations with these older women, some of whom are members of her own family, the narrator participates in a tradition of Algerian women's story-telling and makes contact with what she calls her “mother tongue,” not only her native language but, specifically, the speech of her mother and women relatives in their women's gatherings, a language consisting of “bavardage,” of the “murmures” and “chuchotements” of sequestered voices. Early in the novel the narrator has described herself as cut off from the mother's words by her education in French—a mutilation of memory that connects her to the women mutilated by the French conquest. To enter the circle of women's story-telling is for the narrator a way of overcoming her own cultural dismemberment and at the same time of bringing these mutilated women back to life: “Ecrire ne tue pas la voix, mais la réveille, surtout pour ressusciter tant de sœurs disparues” (229). At the end of the novel she is able symbolically to seize the severed woman's hand discovered by Fromentin, which now regains its life and creative power through her touch.

The narrator's participation in the tradition of women's story-telling also, quite unexpectedly, permits her to correct the historical record left by the French and to find her own place in the story. In the tale handed down through her maternal tribe, the Beni Ménacer, the eight chiefs taken hostage by the French commander Saint-Arnaud are transformed into a group that includes children and women, one of whom is pregnant. The oral tradition enables the narrator not only to revise the historical record, which has characteristically erased women's presence, but to enter into the experience of the hostages through dialoguing with the pregnant woman, whom the narrator begins to address as “tu,” as the hostage, like the narrator herself, is forced to pass from one culture to another.

In an even stranger twist, Djebar's narrator uses her historical research to become a story-teller herself by recounting to her elderly relative an episode she has found in the French documents. By bringing these written texts into contact with the oral tradition, the narrator discovers the profound similarities between the two. “Où as-tu entendu raconter cela?” asks Lla Zohra. “Je l'ai lu,” responds the narrator, “Un témoin le reconta à un ami qui l'écrivit” (188). The historical documents are shown to be based, like the oral tradition, on transmission from one person to another, on what is often called gossip. The only difference is that the French tale-telling has been written, and this is the task the writer proposes to perform for her illiterate Algerian sisters.

She thus finds herself engaged in a double process of translation, not only from oral to written but from the maternal tongue (Arabic or Berber dialect) into French, the language given her by her father and her French education. But, ironically, in effecting this necessary translation, she inevitably places herself in the position of the French colonizers, for as Fanon has written, “Parler, … c'est surtout assumer une culture, supporter le poids d'une civilisation” (13). For an Algerian, the weight of this civilization is particularly heavy. For Djebar's narrator, as for Hébert's protagonist, the colonizer's language has essentially been one of violence, accusation, and condemnation: “Le verbe français qui hier était clamé, ne l'était trop souvent qu'en prétoire, par des juges et des condamnés” (241). As the narrator laments to Chérifa, a martyr of the Algerian Revolution, the words she has given her illiterate sister are those of the conquerors: “Les mots que j'ai cru te donner s'enveloppent de la même serge de deuil que ceux de Bosquet ou de Saint-Arnaud. En vérité, ils s'écrivent à travers ma main” (161).

Yet, in the closing section of the novel, Djebar's narrator discovers a buried text that permits her to come to terms with her own ambivalent relationship to the French language, the language that had made possible her liberation from Islamic sequestration but had never made possible the expression of love, the contact between two beings expressed in the repeated image of “corps enlacés.” The text in question consists of letters written by a Frenchwoman, Pauline Rolland, deported to Algeria in 1852 for revolutionary activity. In the letters she wrote to friends in France, Pauline Rolland speaks of her contact with Algerian women, as she shares their condition of imprisonment, homeless wandering, and menial labor. Djebar comes to see the Frenchwoman Pauline Rolland as a true ancestor of the women of Algeria whose stories she has herself been telling: “ses véritables héritières—Chérifa de l'arbre, Lla Zohra errante dans les incendies de campagne” (250). By expanding the French documentary resources to include the words of this sister in oppression, Djebar has found a gap in the hegemonic perspective which opens the possibility of real communication.

The process of re-writing history I have been examining in the work of Anne Hébert and Assia Djebar has been well described by Trinh Minh-ha in the concluding chapter of Woman, Native, Other: “She who works at unlearning the dominant language … also has to learn how to un-write and write anew. And she often does so by re-establishing the contact with her foremothers, so that … life keeps on nurturing life, so that what is understood as the Past continues to provide the link for the Present and the Future” (149).


  1. This particular statement in the Durham Report is widely quoted in histories of Quebec. See, for example, Young and Dickinson 160.

Works Cited

Djebar, Assia. L'amour, la fantasia. Paris: Jean-Claude Lattès, 1985.

Dufresne, Françoise M. “Le Drame de Kamouraska.Québec-Histoire 5-6 (1972): 72-77.

Durham, John George Lambton. Report on the Affairs of British America. Ordered by the House of Commons to be printed 11 February 1839. London 1839.

Fanon, Frantz. Peau noire masques blancs. Paris: Seuil, 1952.

Green, Mary Jean. “The Witch and the Princess: The Feminine Fantastic in the Fiction of Anne Hébert.” American Review of Canadian Studies 15.2 (Summer 1985): 137-46.

Hébert, Anne. Kamouraska. Paris: Seuil, 1970.

Lacourcière, Luc. “Présence de la Corriveau.” Cahiers des Dix 35 (1970): 229-64.

Leblond, Sylvio. “Le Drame de Kamouraska d'après les documents de l'époque.” Cahiers des Dix 37 (1972): pp. 239-73.

Memmi, Albert. Portrait du colonisé. 1957. Paris: Payot, 1973.

Mortimer, Mildred. “Entretien avec Assia Djebar, écrivain algérien.” Research in African Literatures 19.2 (Summer 1988): 197-205.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Random House, 1978.

Trinh, T. Minh-ha. Woman, Native, Other. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Vanasse, André. “L'Ecriture et l'ambivalence: entrevue avec Anne Hébert.” Voix et Images 7.3 (spring 1982): 441-48.

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957.

Young, Brian, and John A. Dickinson. A Short History of Quebec: A Socio-Economic Perspective. Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1988.

Charlotte H. Bruner (review date autumn 1993)

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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 of Algiers in Their Apartment] and enhanced by new stories, the critical essays “Overture” and “Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound,” an interpretive essay and interview by Clarisse Zimra, a glossary, and a list of works. Djebar divides the collection into “Today” and “Yesterday” and laments that the intervening war, which allowed women freedom to act for their country, immediately afterward superimposed the old traditional customs and thus re-created the “seraglio” in “the new wasteland: the law of invisibility, the law of silence.”

Part 1 includes a long story about a French woman and an Algerian woman—both wartime activists who unite to protect a downtrodden water carrier. A very short story affirms women's sexuality, denied in a traditional marriage but briefly alive in a casual encounter. Part 2 includes four interrelated stories of women's lives, from powerful mountain dynasties of matriarchal domination over young women, through guile and superstition, to present ignominies of modern urban life. The addition of the new postwar stories makes even more poignant the portrayals of traumatized Algerian women, in prison, in exile. Ever a linguist as well as historian, Djebar laments also the loss of the women's ancient ballads, epics retained only in the voices of the illiterate singers, “forgotten women” who “developed irreplaceable frescoes … and have thus woven a sense of history,” now to be lost, their sound severed, their hearers again behind the veil, forbidden to gaze upon a world outside.

Robbie Clipper Sethi (review date fall 1993)

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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 [1957]) 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 for exams. Six more novels have followed, plus a play, a collection of poetry and two films (with a third to be made after the publication of this translation). In an “Overture” to the collection, Djebar explains her choice of French. Djebar considers Standard Arabic—established as the official language upon an ethnically and linguistically diverse Algeria—the language of men, imposed on women with the Islamic veil, seclusion and patriarchal rule. “Feminine Arabic” is “an excoriated language, from never having appeared in the sunlight, from having sometimes been intoned, declaimed, howled, dramatized, but always mouth and eyes in the dark.” Like many postcolonial writers, Djebar studied the language of the colonizer at an early age. In boarding school in France, where she had been the first colonial admitted on full scholarship (only to be expelled four years after war broke out in Algeria), she discovered the French symbolists. In the postcolonial tradition, her stories write back to the empire, particularly in terms of gender, by focusing on women who have been, for the most part, the victims of war, a metaphor in this book for male domination.

The collection is a very full one, consisting of Djebar's brief introduction, two stories set in the seventies (a section entitled “Today”), four stories set “Yesterday”—before or during the war with France—an essay, translated twice before, that considers the effect of seclusion and colonialism on women (“Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound”), a brief glossary and a long afterword by Clarisse Zimra of Southern Illinois University, which interprets the stories and presents a well-worked interview with Djebar. The dust jacket conveniently reprints Eugène Delacroix's painting from which Djebar takes her title and on which she comments extensively in her essay.

The six stories represent Djebar's range. The stories of the seventies, like the title story, develop impressionistically and polyphonically through the various voices of their characters. Characterization, plot and theme emerge out of a series of memories and conversations between women. Refrains run through some of the stories, unspoken sentences that return to characters' minds again and again, pulling the narratives together. Though not as ambitious as the title story, and, like the older stories, more traditional, linear and focused on a single narrator, “There Is No Exile” illustrates the subtlety of Djebar's art. Like many of these stories, it takes place during the war (1954-62), focusing on a family that is exiled in Tunisia, as was Djebar on her return from France (1958). The story opens with the mother of three daughters complaining about having to expose herself, though veiled from head to foot, in the market, reflecting, like many of these stories, the circumstances of traditional seclusion. The story evolves through the middle daughter's impressions of a funeral that is taking place in the apartment next door. As the plot reveals the cultural phenomena of hired mourners, all of them women, chanting and ululating over the body of the dead, and Koranic verses (read by the men), the narrator remembers the loss of her two sons and her divorce. The point of view of an uneducated woman gifted with the insight to recognize the point at which grief becomes almost luxurious is utterly convincing. The story ends with the arrangement of her second marriage, which will take place despite her protest, while she recognizes that the only true exile is the woman who is lost in her own memories.

Despite the extraordinary constraints of the oppressive tradition in which they think and remember, the women in these stories emerge with an unexpected wisdom and dignity, which lifts them out of their victimization and renders Djebar's vision remarkable. She is more famous in Europe than in the United States, an “imbalance” that the University of Virginia publication hopes to change. Though the language, particularly of the essay, can be difficult at times, Zimra attributes the difficulty to Djebar's own aesthetic struggle with language, not to faults in the quite readable translation. Like her use of language, Djebar's vision is complex and contradictory, appropriate to the subject matter of a postcolonial world. Her collection appears in English as a welcome addition to the curriculum of contemporary literature.

Soheila Ghaussy (essay date summer 1994)

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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 the world and all its riches. In certain circumstances it became a dagger threatening me.

Assia Djebar, Fantasia

The question of women's bodies and women's sexuality is a highly loaded one. It has implications both for politics—that is, for the relations of power and control that govern a society—and for literature, or the production of verbal constructs that in some ways reflect and in some ways help to create those relations.

Susan R. Suleiman, The Female Body in Western Culture

In Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade Assia Djebar repeatedly states her ambivalence about language, about her (self-)identification as a Western-educated, Algerian, feminist, Muslim intellectual, about her role as spokesperson for Algerian women as well as for women in general. Particularly striking is Djebar's use of aphasia and silence, which she paradoxically employs as means of expression and of resistance against the forces of a male societal structure, forces which traditionally are said to promote both aphasia and silence as lack of expression in women. Furthermore, Djebar's specific employment of language as connected with the (female) body inevitably leads to questions concerning constructions of the female body by and within discourse as well as the construction of discourse by the body, and it leads to questions about difference, sexuality, and about what French feminists have called écriture féminine.

In this context we must ask ourselves how concepts such as that of a “feminine language” or écriture féminine can be used on behalf of feminist politics. Do they exist as strategic constructs? Who uses these feminist strategies? How does écriture féminine connect with a specific identity and self-image of a female member of society? In what way does a “feminine language” reflect the experiences of women in different cultures? What are the difficulties and limitations of positing a “feminine language?” In this essay I examine these questions as they relate to Djebar's Fantasia.

Djebar herself writes as what Linda Hutcheon has called the “ex-centric,” and “to be ex-centric, on the border or margin, inside yet outside, is to have a different perspective … since it has no centering force” (in Kauffman, 151). In Djebar's novel the polarities of, for example, subjugation and resistance, sound and silence, often merge and collapse. Her fiction is decentered, but she also avoids the pitfalls of simply making the marginal another center and therefore merely reversing instead of undoing binary oppositions. Thus, in Fantasia the marginality of a “feminine language,” associated in the text with the female body and bodily drives, is emphasized and at the same time problematized, maintaining its marginality, its “difference.” French, the original language of the novel and the language of colonization, is, moreover, both used to generate discourse—an act of empowerment—and questioned regarding its appropriateness for and appropriation of self-expression of the colonized. Thus, Djebar is undercutting the power formation of her own discourse while simultaneously creating discourse for empowerment.

Djebar's concept of “difference,” I believe, is always provisional and plural, deliberately contradictory within itself. In this I find Djebar pursuing similar goals—and facing similar problems—as her French colleagues, particularly Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray (and, to some degree, Julia Kristeva), who are perhaps the best-known advocates of a so-called feminine writing, l'écriture féminine, in the United States. Both Irigaray and Cixous have been criticized for essentializing woman in their theories of écriture féminine.1 However, these writers do not claim to posit the “Truth” and “essence” about woman, as I see it, but rather seek to remetaphorize the body, as does Djebar in Fantasia. They are aware, I believe, of constructing and at the same time “deconstructing” their own assertions about a feminine “essence.” Their aim is to open up new discourses on “femininity” and the body, and to position themselves and respond to what in The (M)other Tongue has been called a “mother-based fiction” (10) in order to promote feminist politics.2

Assia Djebar's Fantasia is, I believe, a good example of a “mother-based fiction.” Mildred Mortimer points out that “Djebar uses oral history to give voice to surviving heroines, the porteuses de feu of the Algerian revolution, and allows them to tell their own stories” (“The Fiction of Djebar and Sebbar,” 302), and she does so without constructing these stories as “truthful” accounts of the war.3 By deliberately blending fiction and experience, fictionality and language, and especially by gendering writing (ècriture) as male and orality (kaalam) as female, moreover associating the former with French and the latter with Arabic,4 Djebar creates subtle and complicated links between the “feminine” spheres of oral languages and the “male” domain of writing.

The very strategy of fusing his-story and her-story, the mixing of written narratives by men and oral accounts by women, simultaneously emphasizes the differences between “male” and “female” and undoes the male/female binary. Telling women's stories through men's instrument of writing enables Djebar to create a female voice while at the same time destroying it (or rather, destroying the orality that defines this female voice in the first place). Therefore, Djebar's method is inherently paradoxical: it blurs the boundaries of the spoken and the written by emphasizing, precisely through writing, a language that is imagined to be spoken. The language that results from this technique disrupts the logic associated with patriarchal discourses and offers an alternative “logic” of simultaneity and paradox which can be used for feminist purposes.5 In this sense, Djebar's writing can be called a “feminine language,” a “(m)other tongue,” or écriture féminine.

Theories of an écriture féminine remain highly debated (even among the pioneers of these ideas themselves), and one must distinguish carefully between their use as positing “essential truths” about feminine writing and their use as political strategy to further a variety of feminist goals. A “feminine language” is employed, for example, to disrupt and question, as Ann Rosalind Jones stresses, such fundaments of patriarchal thought as “the modes through which the West has claimed to discern evidence—or reality—and a suspicion concerning efforts to change the position of women that fail to address the forces in the body, in the unconscious, in the basic structures of culture that are invisible to the empirical eye” (“Writing the Body,” 361; my emphasis).6 The invisible structures mentioned by Jones are closely tied to the notion of an unconscious and repression. These Freudian models may be serviceable for feminist politics—albeit male—in that they emphasize impediments: those moments when one cannot see the ways in which one is identified, categorized, and classified within the discursive practices that dominate one's environment.

In a system that is shaped by masculinist practices, and in which women often have internalized many of those practices (and thus are “unconscious” of them), can we at all recognize the ways in which we might be subjugated—or liberated? What if we, as women, cannot recognize certain oppressions because of power structures that encourage repression of the very knowledge of our oppression? What, to continue this line of thought, if we inadvertently perpetuated an oppressive system that stifles not only ourselves but others as well? Luce Irigaray's almost paranoid concerns in Speculum of the Other Woman are particularly illuminating when it comes to questions of liberation politics and self-identification for women. She provocatively asks, “What if I thought only after the other has been inserted, and introjected into me? Either as thought or as mirror in which I reflect and am reflected?”

In Fantasia Djebar expresses concerns about difference, sameness, and appropriation similar to those voiced by Irigaray in Speculum. Djebar asks: if Woman is defined as Other, can she then speak? Can she express herself and her specifically female experiences? And if so, whose language, whose voice is she using in doing so? For Djebar as an Algerian woman, the question of Otherness and appropriation becomes doubly acute in the light of colonization, and especially in connection with her French education. On the one hand, Djebar's French education enables her to escape the fate of her Algerian sisters, that of cloistering, and it provides her with the means of stepping out into the public, into the male and the colonizers' sphere, by enabling her to write—moreover, to write in French.

On the other hand, however, Djebar's French education also alienates her from the female sphere of the harem. Her ambivalence becomes clear at several points in Fantasia: “Never did the harem, that is to say, the taboo, whether it be a place of habitation or a symbol, never did the harem act as a better barrier, preventing as it did the cross-breeding of two opposing worlds” (128). This barrier, this wall of protection from an appropriation through colonization, is what Djebar feels is missing from her French-oriented upbringing.

Djebar's autobiographical description in the first chapter of Fantasia already conveys a mixture of pride in and fear of Europeanization, both enabling and stifling: “From the very first day that a little girl leaves her home to learn the ABC, the neighbours adopt that knowing look of those who in ten or fifteen years' time will be able to say ‘I told you so!’ while commiserating with the foolhardy father” (3). The very fact of Djebar's French education blurs her Algerian identity with that of herself as French intellectual. Thus, Djebar experiences herself as caught, as she puts it in Fantasia, amid “this bastardy, the only cross-breeding that the ancestral beliefs do not condemn: that of language” (142).

Furthermore, Djebar's education complicates her identification as woman as well. It uproots and separates her from her confined female relatives. The transformation from childhood to adulthood, marked by the sexual maturity of the body, becomes a crucial aspect for the possibilities of self-identification and self-expression. In Fantasia this issue is emphasized through the connections drawn between language and desire, between language and the body. Again there is ambivalence. Djebar writes:

While the man still has the right to four legitimate wives, we girls, big and little, have at our command four languages to express desire before all that is left for us is sighs and moans: French for secret missives; Arabic for our stifled aspirations towards God-the-Father, the God of the religions of the Book; Lybico-Berber which takes us back to the pagan idols—mother gods—of pre-Islamic Mecca. The fourth language, for all females, young or old, cloistered or half-emancipated, remains that of the body: the body which male neighbours' and cousins' eyes require to be deaf and blind, since they cannot completely incarcerate it; the body which, in trances, dances or vociferations, in fits of hope or despair, rebels, and unable to read or write, seeks some unknown shore as destination for its message of love.


The female body and language are constructed as powerfully interconnected in Arabo-Islamic writing, as Fedwa Malti-Douglas argues in Woman's Body, Woman's Word (3-10). In metaphorically returning to the harem, predominantly a female sphere, Djebar is inevitably confronted with storytelling linked to the female body. She becomes “a sister to Shaharazâd,” the cunning narrator of the Thousand and One Nights who skillfully manipulates discourse by mediating words through her body and who mixes sexual and narrative desire.

Djebar's position, however, is more complicated than that of her fictive sister Shaharazâd, because in telling her story, Djebar chooses a language that is foreign to the very story it is to convey. Fantasia is full of contradictory moments concerning this issue. “The language of the former conqueror” offers the female narrator in one of the autobiographical passages of the novel “its ornaments, its jewels, its flowers,” but these flowers are also described as “the flowers of death—chrysanthemums on tombs!” (181). Again, Djebar expresses her reservations about having had the so-called privilege of learning “the other language,” which is both the medium of expression that empowers her by allowing for the deployment of discourse while at the same time tying her into a system of the non-Arabic discourses of the colonizers, in which the self-expressions of the colonized are mutilated and the speakers subjugated by learning to express themselves only through the desires of the Other. French is questioned in Fantasia as an adequate medium for expressing Arab experiences.

This dual issue is further complicated by the fact that, even within her own culture, woman is already the Other. In Fantasia the Arab woman is therefore doubly subjugated: in her own culture as woman, and by the French both as woman and as object of colonization. In this context, Cixous's “Write your body, your body must be heard” becomes problematic (“Medusa,” 250). Cixous implicitly addresses only white, literate, middle-class women. In Arab countries, where women are often “illiterate” and where female modes of expression are dominated by oral traditions, how can the trope of writing be successfully employed to express the self and the bodies of these women? Moreover, if writing is embedded in or is dominated by discourses of the hegemonic Other, as Irigaray so aptly observes, how can one not belonging to the dominant group find modes of expression that reflect the specificity of one's own experiences, one's own desires, one's own body?7 In Fantasia the autobiographical passages of the novel emphasize, in particular, Djebar's awareness of her own contradictory role as a Western-educated, Muslim, female Arab intellectual attempting to recreate the voices of her Arabic ancestors. Djebar asks: “Can I, twenty years later, claim to revive these stifled voices? And speak for them? Shall I not at best find dried-up streams? What ghosts will be conjured up when in this absence of expressions of love (love received, ‘love’ imposed), I see the reflection of my own barrenness, my own aphasia” (202).

Some passages in Fantasia also convey the paradox of using French, the language of subjugation, to convey experiences that are said to be narrated in Arabic. Djebar voices her concerns explicitly—“To attempt an autobiography using French words alone is to lend oneself to the vivisector's scalpel, revealing what lies beneath the skin” (156)—yet she also emphasizes the playful and imaginative aspect of using French to convey self-experience: “Autobiography practiced in the enemy's language has the texture of fiction” (216). I believe that by foregrounding the dual nature of her use of the French language, Djebar purposely creates and undoes contradiction in her novel. The act of translating Arabic into French, moreover, transcribing kaalam (the female) into écriture (the male), puts Djebar in the position of an interpreter who has the power of eradicating clear-cut boundaries. Using the French language to tell us, as readers, that we are actually hearing Arabic is not necessarily an act of appropriation, as one may assume at first reading; on the contrary, it becomes a means by which we are made aware of the existence of Arabic in the novel through French. This kind of “translation” is a disruptive and very effective practice. Nicole Ward Jouve points out in White Woman Speaks with Forked Tongue:

For many bilingual women … translation is an activity by means of which the “natural” bond “meaning-language” can be transgressed. It is a state of continued suspension, allowing, in Walter Benjamin's words, “the post-maturation of the foreign speech, the birth throes of one's own speech.” The process is therefore eminently “feminine.” When you translate, the absolute status of nouns, the “Name-of-the-Father” is shaken. Exchanges between words are no longer “full,” that is guaranteed by the law of the Father, the law of significance. Identities cease to be stable. You escape from definition, from the law which rules and partitions women, which prevents femininity from coming into being.


Though Jouve is referring in this quotation to linguistic translations, I find her comments nevertheless valid for the kind of “extended translation” employed by Djebar in Fantasia. Djebar's specific use of French in the novel is an act of transcribing her native Arabic into a disruptive language, one that defies the “proper name” or the “Name-of-the-Father.” In this, Djebar is creating a “feminine language,” expanding the borders of what has been defined by and within feminist discourses as écriture féminine.

Linking language to the (female) body is another aspect of écriture féminine that is crucial for Djebar: Arabic, for example, is described in Fantasia as “oral”: it is open and fluid, flirtatious and sensual. Pronouncing a word such as hannouni (my little liver) becomes an experience directly affecting the body: “Sometimes my lips form it silently, awakening it; sometimes it is exhumed by a caress along one of my limbs and the sculpted syllables rise to the surface, I am about to spell it out, just once, whisper it to be free of it, but I refrain” (81). Language is here connected with the physical, yet the physicality of spelling out, sculpting, and expressing is both desired and resisted in the text simultaneously; it must at once be revealed and remain a secret, because there always seems to be another presence lurking in the background, the one of the “foreign word” that distorts desire and expression.

The influence of language on the physical body, highlighted in such passages as the above, becomes even more pronounced when connections between the specifically female body, voice, and writing are revealed. Djebar writes in Fantasia:

… The need is felt to blot out women's bodies and they must be muffled up, tightly swathed, swaddled like infants or shrouded like corpses. … The voice, on the other hand, acts like a perfume, a draft of fresh water for the dry throat. …

When the hand writes, slow positioning of the arm, carefully bending forward or leaning to one side, crouching, swaying to and fro, as in an act of love. When reading, the eyes take their time, delight in caressing the curves, while the calligraphy suggests the rhythm of the scansion.


Writing and reading Arabic become physical, erotic experiences that are associatively linked to a curved and dancing female body which has escaped its confines. It is precisely for this reason that in Fantasia the female body is disembodied, transformed into liquid, scent, sound, or silenced, paradoxically, in order then to speak and relate back to its own physicality. Djebar writes, “Love ought not to give rise to meretricious words, ostentatious demonstrations of affection. … I decided that love must necessarily reside elsewhere and not in public words and gestures” (27). Here, silence becomes a powerful means of resisting a colonization of one's language and one's body; silence defies the imprint of the Other: “The message from ‘The Other’ is sometimes pregnant with desire, but has lost any power of contamination by the time it reaches me. Once passion has been expressed in writing, it cannot touch me” (59; my emphasis).

Again, however, Djebar's text is ambivalent. In a chapter of Fantasia titled “Aphasia of Love,” seduction and resistance are interwoven, even at the level of the body: Europeanization is not merely repressive in appropriating the Other, but also productive (and therefore seductive) in providing the Other with power. This duality becomes clear in such passages as the following: “I had passed the age of puberty without being buried in the harem like my girl cousins; I had spent my dreaming adolescence on its fringes, neither totally outside, nor in its heart; so I spoke and studied French, and my body, during this formative period, became Westernized in its way” (127).

Still, this “European” experience of moving freely in the male sphere also marks the domination by the colonizer. The Arab girl is uprooted from her own culture, whose customs nevertheless remain the standards by which she assesses her new situation: “I suffered from misunderstanding. … I discovered that I too was veiled, not so much disguised as anonymous. Although I had a body just like that of a Western girl, I had thought it to be invisible, in spite of evidence to the contrary” (126). Similarly, aphasia, in Djebar's novel, should not be read merely as an involuntary loss of the ability to speak, but instead as a deliberate method of protest against the “inherent fault of the European education: verbosity, an indiscreet compulsive longiloquence in [the] preambles to seduction” (126).

The resistance to a complete assimilation of self-definition, cultural identity, and desire becomes especially clear in the encounter of the (Europeanized) Arab woman with “the doubly opposite sex,” the Frenchman. In Fantasia this relationship is marked by a power struggle in which “the only possible eloquence, the only weapon that could reach me was silence. … Refusal of speech was both the starting point and the end point of our relationship” (127). Silence (conventionally seen as an effective means of maintaining the status quo in which “tradition” is used as a powerful tool for subjugation) is here redefined: the aphasia concerning sexuality/textuality can be read in Fantasia as a rebellion in which the female Arab speaker refuses to use the specific discourse of the French colonizer (a discourse that allows for love matters to be spelled out) by retreating to silence, to the traditions of her own cultural background, in which love is not verbalized. This silence is an affirmation of Arab traditions, in which the lovers, as we are told in the novel, out of decency and respect for each other, do not even verbalize each other's names, let alone love (see 35-38).

Interestingly, the aphasia in matters concerning love literally inscribes itself on the body of the speaker: there is not only a “loss of the faculty of speech” (125), but, moreover, the whole body turns physically numb, becomes unresponsive to the spoken (or written) word, which loses its communicative power, its power to affect, to arouse, to signify. This subversion of the French language, a “frigidity” concerning the French word, is thus achieved directly through the speaker's body, and through sexuality.

In Fantasia silence is not, however, simply proclaimed as protest. Silence, imposed onto women and enforced and justified by “custom” and “tradition,” is also damaging and stifling, as Djebar illustrates when she re-creates the voices of her Arabic sisters, who narrate their experiences of rape and violence during the French-Algerian war of independence.

To say the private, Arabic word ‘damage’, or at the most, ‘hurt’:

‘Sister, did you ever, at any time, suffer “damage”?’

The word suggesting rape—the euphemism. …

One or other of the matriarchs will ask the question, to seize on the silence and build a barrier against misfortune. … Rape will not be mentioned, will be respected. Swallowed. Until the next alarm.


Djebar shows that, by giving name to woman's plight or voicing protest—in other words, by unveiling woman's situation and making it public—woman becomes guilty and is stigmatized by Arab society: “To refuse to veil one's voice and to start ‘shouting,’ that was really indecent, real dissidence. For the silence of all the others suddenly lost its charm and revealed itself for what it was: a prison without reprieve” (204).

In writing the Arab women's voices, and in rebelling against childhood taboos, Djebar, for example in Fantasia, therefore makes French her accomplice; she calls it her “stepmother tongue” (214). Thus, French loses its role of the strictly paternal, superimposed language of colonization. In Fantasia Djebar's French sentences are transformed into a “feminine language”, an écriture féminine. This “feminine language” remains stolen, manifests that it is “accompanied by bloodshed! A language imposed by rape as much as by love” (216), but nevertheless makes itself heard. Djebar's écriture féminine re(dis)covers woman; it voices the protest of Arab women, it escapes the confines of the harem, it gives body to the oral accounts of women, it inscribes woman's unspoken name. In short, it “does not silence the voice, but awakens it, above all to resurrect so many vanished sisters” (204).


  1. In this respect I find Diana Fuss's essay “Essentially Speaking: Luce Irigaray's Language of Essence” as well as Naomi Schor's “This Essentialism Which Is Not One” invaluable.

  2. Feminists may ask why it is at this particular moment in our history and culture that questions about a “feminine language” or écriture féminine gain significance, and how and to what end do these concepts find their way into the variety of feminist discourses.

  3. Djebar's skepticism about and critique of “truthful” storytelling is not picked up by Mortimer, who seems to be less interested in the problematic issue of “giving voice” to the Other or narrating history as “Truth” than in looking at the enabling aspects of recording these voices. I see, however, that Djebar is foregrounding in her novel the buried female voices within Algerian history as fictive constructions instead of as “objective” historical sources.

  4. The difference between writing (écriture) as male and French-dominated and orality (kaalam) as female and Arabic is pointed out by Mildred Mortimer in Journeys through the French African Novel (150) and in “The Fiction of Djebar and Sebbar” (301-2).

  5. The language in Fantasia can well be compared to the kind of communication that Kristeva has associated in Revolution in Poetic Language with the prelinguistic, the presymbolic, which she calls the “semiotic”: a language not yet fixed by the Law-of-the-Father.

  6. It is in this, in an emphasis on theorizing the unconscious, in stressing what cannot be easily discerned and is therefore often overlooked, that I see the strength of French feminist thought. The constructs of sexuality and the body as sites of repression maintain crucial positions within such theorizing.

  7. One possibility of coping with this problem is, as Cixous and Irigaray demonstrate in their writing, to re-metaphorize the body by metonymically linking language to the female body. They create a kind of body language that should be taken figuratively rather than literally; it is employed to reconstruct the body rather than to engage it in traditional norms. Diana Fuss points out in “Essential Speaking”: “Defining women from an essentialist standpoint is not to imprison women within their bodies but to rescue them from enculturing definitions by men. An essentialist definition of ‘woman’ implies that there will always remain some part of ‘woman’ which resists masculine imprinting and socialization” (99-100).


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———. The History of Sexuality I. Robert Hurley, tr. New York. Vintage. 1990.

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Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Gillian C. Gill, tr. Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell University Press. 1985.

———. This Sex Which Is Not One. Catherine Porter, tr. Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell University Press. 1985.

Jardine, Alice A. Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity. Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell University Press. 1985.

Jones, Ann Rosalind. “Writing the Body: Towards an Understanding of L'Ecriture Féminine.” In The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, Theory. Elaine Showalter, ed. New York. Pantheon. 1985.

Jouve, Nicole Ward. White Woman Speaks with Forked Tongue: Criticism as Autobiography. New York. Routledge. 1991.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Margaret Waller, tr. New York. Columbia University Press. 1984.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. Woman's Body, Woman's Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press. 1991.

McNay, Lois. Foucault & Feminism: Power, Gender, and the Self. Boston. Northeastern University Press. 1992.

Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Bloomington. Indiana University Press. 1987.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. New York. Routledge. 1985.

Mortimer, Mildred. Journeys through the French African Novel. Portsmouth, N.H. Heinemann, 1990.

———. “The Fiction of Djebar and Sebbar.” Research in African Literatures, 19:3 (Fall 1988), pp. 301-11.

The (M)other Tongue. Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Sprengnether, eds. Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell University Press. 1985.

Sawiki, Jana. Disciplining Foucault: Feminism, Power, and the Body. New York. Routledge. 1991.

Schor, Naomi. “This Essentialism Which Is Not One: Coming to Grips with Irigaray.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 1 (Summer 1989), pp. 38-58.

Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Sexuality. Sherry B. Ortner and Harriet Whitehead, eds. New York. Cambridge University Press. 1981.

Showalter, Elaine. The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, Theory. New York. Pantheon. 1985.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. Urbana. University of Illinois Press. 1988. Pp. 271-313.

———. The Postcolonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Sarah Harasym, ed. New York. Routledge. 1990.

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Marie Ascarza-Wégimont (essay date fall 1996)

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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 and shudders, then slowly weaves the swelling modulations of a song. Song of fulfilled love. …

The child hears the voice; later, so much later, the girl will become a woman. Not the first night, not the following nights, but after crossing the desert of habit protected by wanderings and lightened by fervor. All of a sudden her voice will burst out. …

For the first time the child hears the voice under the bed. In this secret of the nest, in this nook of night, in the warmth of ignorance, we (Moslem women) got tied together, all of us, by the harem.


These excerpts are from chapter 1, part 2, of Ombre sultane, a novel published in 1987 by Assia Djebar, a renowned Algerian writer, passionate feminist, and leader in the new field of Francophone literature.2 On these pages, Djebar presents a third variation on a theme which is central to Ombre sultane: the necessity and inevitability of Moslem women's rebellion against male oppression in a patriarchal society, particularly in the harem. The variation on the theme of liberation is played here by the most emblematic and essential female couple: mother and daughter. The couple follows a path first opened in part 1 of the novel by two archetypal Moslem female couples. The first is two wives who are defying the authority of their polygamous husband; the second is two famous literary sisters, Shéhérazade and Dinarzade, whose imagination and intelligence outsmarted the bloodthirsty Sultan of Baghdad.3

The powerful revolutionary spirit of these six women springs from the long initiation of the younger ones by their elders; from a slow awakening to self-consciousness and self-expression; above all from a mysterious, indefinable and innate link, stronger than ties of blood—one could call it gender consanguinity—which translates into a silent complicity among all women. To evoke that link Djebar creates a superb metaphor: the voice.

The excerpt is a much-needed key to this somewhat enigmatic, highly poetical novel, whose central metaphor expresses the unveiling by the voice, “le dévoilement par la Voix,” tenacious and anguished, of the Moslem woman confined in the harem or veiled in the street, struggling to be free and yearning for an identity of her own in a male-dominated society.

The setting of this text is revealing in its simplicity: a bed on which an anonymous couple is making love and under which hangs a cradle where lies a child who is listening. What is she listening to? A voice. Four times the following ambiguous refrain is repeated: “The child hears the voice.” The specifying definite article in this refrain introduces a very unspecified voice, at least in most of the cases. What is this voice saying? Nothing. It “sings,” “murmurs, whispers,” “dances,” but it never says a word. Whose voice is it? It is not certain. The word mother is mentioned twice. So is the word woman. But for the rest, the main part, the voice loses its identity when it is mentioned twelve more times. Voice acts as the grammatical subject of twenty-two verbs and is six times a direct object. In other words, voice has taken a life of its own and has become the main character of this chapter. Full of energy, it makes more than sounds: it “weaves … returns … bends … unwinds … dances … exults.”

What idea or feeling is the voice expressing wordlessly? At first it conveys love's fulfillment, but not for long. Soon that love becomes a “moan … in suspense,” and seems to sink “in the darkness of anguish,” then turns hostile and combative. The voice rebels against man, the father, the horrible tyrant: “The woman's song encircles the formless man, faceless father whose weight burdening the couch renders the night indecent.” The voice comes victorious out of the confrontation: it dances in its jubilation. A future victory is announced: “Later, so much later, the little girl will become a woman. … All of a sudden her voice will burst out.” Capital victory: communication will be established between mother and daughter; better yet, the voice has recruited a proselyte who will bear testimony. Here the goal is within reach, but to get there will take time: It is only much later that the girl's voice will burst out, “later, so much later … [n]ot the first night, not the following nights, but after crossing the desert. …” She must wait first for womanhood, then for her memory to be triggered: “As soon as the body sings, memory, buried for many years, gets sharp” and “returns under the parents' bed.”

There is magic power in the voice: The young girl could only hear its sound, but her body captured its melody and never forgot it. When her memory is awakened by the body's song, immediately “the child hears the voice,” the voice of her mother at the time she was making love. In other words, the girl, now grown, hears for the second time her mother's voice and understands what she couldn't understand as a child lying under her parents' bed. The result of this belated communication is prodigious: “In this secret of the nest, in this nook of night, in the warmth of ignorance, we (Moslem women) got tied together, all of us, by the harem.” This statement, the last one in the chapter, constitutes a paradoxical litote which is capital. It implies that the harem is at the same time detrimental (“ignorance … tied”) and beneficial (“nest … nook … warmth … together, all of us).” But when taken in context it suggests strongly that every woman discovers in the harem a bond which ties her to it and unties her from it at the same time. By identifying herself with her mother and her plight, a young woman becomes tied to this community of women and feels a strong solidarity with them. Their “voice” unties her and entices her to flee claustration and the despotic male.

This is the same sacred bond that Djebar describes on the introductory page of the book, where she evokes the emblematic figures of Shéhérazade and Dinarzade who, ten centuries ago, opened the door to women's freedom. If Shéhérazade managed to keep herself alive by telling beautiful tales to the bloodthirsty Sultan, it is because she was listening to two voices: her own creative imagination and Dinarzade's call that awakened her just before dawn. “Awakened one hour before daybreak, as if she had not slept, as if she had not been possessed by the Sultan, she is liberated by her virgin imagination. … The fear of all of us has vanished today because the sultane [Shéhérazade] is double.”4 It is the magic of the harem that Djebar has beautifully expressed through her magic metaphor, the voice.

The Moslem woman's aspiration to liberate herself from male oppression could not have been better expressed than by this powerful metaphor. In fact, the beauty of expression is what lends persuasiveness to Assia Djebar's poetical voice in its call to her Moslem sisters who are today well on their way to freedom.


  1. Assia Djebar, Ombre sultane (Paris: Jean-Claude Lattès, 1987) 105-6. Djebar's novels, militant essays, and films on Algeria after independence center around the much awaited liberation of the Moslem woman from patriarchy and the identity crises that she experiences as a result.

  2. English translation of the excerpts is my own.

  3. Assia Djebar refers here to The One Thousand and One Nights by Alfi layla wa layla.

  4. Djebar 104.

Evelyne Accad (essay date autumn 1996)

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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 adolescence. Only the dry look, barely touching, of submissive beasts, of the weak.

—Assia Djebar, La soif

For Arabic women I see only one single way to unblock everything: talk, talk without stopping, about yesterday and today, talk among ourselves … and look. Look outside, look outside the walls and the prisons!

—Assia Djebar, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment

Women come and go, between Algeria and France, haunted by yesterday's war. … They come and go in their own way, … women who write, till the final adieu! Adieu I receive a little later, or much later, in the depth of today's death narrative, procession I organize, hoping thereby to unravel, in them, an irresistible flight.

—Assia Djebar, Le blanc de l'Algérie1

Fiction by women writers in North Africa and the Middle East goes back for sixty years.2 In this relatively short time we can trace a remarkable pace—and breadth—of development in theme, form, and technique. Beginning with a preoccupation with bicultural anxiety and loss of identity (especially among the North African writers), the genre progresses to a self-empowering, inward look at problems and the search for the self. Although the works often seem to reflect the most self-centered aspects of romanticism, such preoccupation is understandable: in the face of legalized oppression and social degradation, it is not too surprising that the first concern of women novelists has been their female characters' private struggles for a personal identity, seen alternately as a search for personhood or an escape from “thinghood.”

What is particularly interesting, however, is that the fiction of women writers in North Africa and the Middle East does not stop at this stage of development, even though it might be expected to do so, given the general powerlessness of the group from which the characters of the genre are drawn. Instead, the romantic egotism of the 1950s and 1960s gives way, in the works of many of these writers, to clear rebellion in the face of newly recognized oppression. Personal rebellion, however, is of little use when the entire structure of the surrounding society militates against the exercise of individual freedom. Much of the fiction of these writers ultimately escapes this impasse by universalizing the questions of individual freedom that confront the female characters in this genre. In addition, the social milieu begins to be explored with a new clarity and frankness that moves it from the background to the front of the fictional stage. It becomes clear that not only individuals but also the society in which they live must be reborn.

Because of this overwhelming concern with finding a personal identity, Djebar's early works, along with other women novelists, were not always warmly received by the critics. In the late 1950s and early 1960s there was a strong tendency to compare her works—either outright unfavorably or in an act of condemnation by association—with Françoise Sagan's Bonjour tristesse. In fact, it may well be that adolescent rebellion and the search for identity are not the stuff of the great novels of tomorrow; whether or not this is the case is irrelevant. What matters is that these works were in many ways authentic and necessary; you must know some basic things about yourself before you can begin to write about your place in the millennium.

The next stage in the evolution of the genre is rebellion in the face of the realization of the oppression that women must undergo in North Africa and the Middle East; this is a thing apart from the fairly universal human experience of rebellion on the way to maturity. The pattern is brutally simple in most parts of North Africa and the Middle East: women are born to fill the roles of daughter, wife, and mother, to be successively subservient to their fathers, husbands, and sons. Education for women is in most cases regarded as superfluous, few occupations outside the home are open to women, and in most cases the legal status of women is determined by the shari'a or Muslim religious code. In court, a woman's testimony is accorded only half the weight of a man's, a husband may divorce his wife without recourse to legal action, often merely by stating aloud that he repudiates her, and the law permits a husband or father to force his wife or daughter to remain at home, often literally under lock and key. Revolt against such customs and conditions leads to political awakening in the hope of finding solutions to women's problems through political commitment. Engagement is often mixed with a sense of nationalism and national identity, because the countries from which the women write are either struggling against foreign domination or are striving toward national identity and development.

Then comes disillusionment with the realization that political movements use women instead of serving or working together for their liberation. Those novelists who find a productive solution to this impasse usually do so by universalizing the feminist cause and expressing women's problems in the context of Middle Eastern and North African societies.

Assia Djebar exhibits all the stages mentioned above. She even goes one step further with her latest work, Le blanc de l'Algérie, in which she expresses a strong vision starting with the personal and the national to reach the political and the universal. It is because of this progression that I suggest that her fiction has achieved a true maturity, a realization that the self—and its freedom—cannot be separated from the entire social context. Obviously, this evolving vision has important political implications.

Djebar, a writer of middle-class Muslim and Algerian origins, was able to synthesize her traditional Muslim background and her European education. By the age of twenty-six she had published three novels (La soif, Les impatients, Les enfants du nouveau monde) and had obtained a licence (B.A.) in history from the Sorbonne. During the revolution she taught in Tunis and Rabat, where she completed a fourth novel (Les alouettes naïves). She went back to Algeria after its independence, in 1962, and taught at the University of Algiers. In 1969 she co-produced a play, Rouge l'aube, for the Third Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algiers, and her Poèmes pour l'Algérie heureuse was published by SNED (the National Algerian Publishing House)—all signs that she had been accepted by and was willing to make peace with the authorities of her country. In 1969 she stopped publishing and producing and fell silent for about ten years, which led many critics to speculate over the reasons for her withdrawal. Clarisse Zimra probably gives the best analysis for this silence, which she sees as “a cycle that opens on an enlarged version of the female self. The resulting figure is one of disclosure rather than closure” (Zimra, “Writing Woman”).

It was with a film, La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua (1979), that Djebar broke her silence. The film received the first prize at the Venice Film Festival. It was followed by a collection of short stories, Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement (1980), named after the 1832 Delacroix painting. She has since published three volumes of a quartet—L'amour, la fantasia (1985), Ombre sultane (1987), and Vaste est la prison (1995)—in a style increasingly worked out, refined, and perfected and in which she blends historical events with autobiographical elements in a complex sense of time and space. Loin de Médine (Far from Medina), which appeared in 1991, was an interruption, an interlude to her quartet and a reflection on the life of the Prophet Mohammed which we will analyze later. Another interruption, stirred by Djebar's desperate concern for the events in her country, was the publication in 1996 of Le blanc de l'Algérie, written after she was shaken by the death of a loved one.

The worst moment for me, the strongest, was in March of last year [1994], when a friend and relative, Abdel Kader Alloula, died. He was an extraordinary man … the only one in my opinion who, for the last thirty years, had forged an Arabic language between the popular language of the street and the literary one. … He died at the age of fifty-three. He was forging this language for us. It was a song at the crossroads of several traditions. The fact that this man was killed, a man who was also francophone, was for me—how shall I say—as if danger were being instilled, establishing itself in the heart of Algerian culture. My reaction was to close myself into my apartment for three months and to do my own anamnesia, going back into my mother's, my grandmother's memories, and into my own, of thirty years in which I lived pushed back and forth between Europe and Algeria.

(“Territories des langues: Entretien” 73-74)

This recall of one's relatives and of one's own memory is at the core of Vaste est la prison, but grief also inspired Le blanc de l'Algérie, which is an amazingly courageous and honest narrative that raises vital questions about Algeria's present, past, and future political and cultural situation.

Djebar now spends most of her time in France as a practicing writer, film producer, and literary critic. This year she received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature awarded by World Literature Today, a very prestigious award which, in the last twenty-five years, has seen eighteen of its laureates, candidates, and jurors subsequently receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Djebar was a Neustadt juror in 1990.) In the future we may increasingly see Djebar in the States, for she has been invited by various universities here as a lecturer and/or writer in residence.

I would like to trace the evolution of Assia Djebar's works from rebellion to maturity as expressed by the various plots and characters of her novels. Since a lot has been written on her recent works, I will dwell more on the early ones. I will trace the unifying themes of those early works which can be found again in her latest ones. I hope to show the evolution and progression into maturity of an author who can be considered one of the most important women writers in North Africa.

The central figure of Djebar's first novel, La soif (1957; Eng. The Mischief, 1958), resembles other bicultural characters in novels of that period. Nadia is the issue of a marriage between an Algerian man and a French woman. Because her mother died in childbirth, Nadia lives with her father and her half-sister's family. She has been educated in French schools, and her life-style does not appear to be circumscribed by traditional Muslim customs. She goes where she pleases, drives her own sports car, and associates with men. While the plot is often melodramatic and reminiscent of Sagan's Bonjour tristesse, at the same time the central figure espouses some of the qualities of Meursault in Camus's classic, L'étranger: her life was “placid, superficial, empty.” Nor is this all, for Nadia is also capable of displaying a striking combination of fatalism and existentialism: “I wanted to think of nothing except the wind blowing against my temples and the restless course of my life. Hussein hated me, and Jedla considered me of no importance whatever. As for Ali, he was gone and I had forgotten about him. … Rage, violence, insults—life was made up of these. I would do what Jedla expected of me. (M [The Mischief], 77-78)

Briefly, the plot goes as follows: Nadia has a friend, Jedla, who is married to a lawyer, Ali. Nadia also has a boyfriend, Hussein, but she thinks that she is in love with Ali and flirts with both of them. When Jedla manifests psychotic behavior and attempts suicide, Nadia feels she must delve into her friend's psychological background. What she discovers is that Jedla once lost a baby through miscarriage and now fears that she will be childless. Childlessness is considered the supreme curse that can be visited upon a woman in the North African Muslim culture; not only is it a cause of social mortification, but it also constitutes grounds for the husband to terminate the marriage. The problem here has become exacerbated by Jedla's discovery that Ali once had a French mistress who bore him a son, since such proof of Ali's fertility places the stigma of barrenness squarely on Jedla.

The discovery of the French mistress has another effect, however, in that it makes Jedla insanely jealous and leads her to plot a complicated revenge on Ali. Nadia is to tempt Ali into a sexual relationship, whereupon Jedla will have an excuse to free herself from him on grounds of infidelity. It is a daring scheme for an Algerian woman to attempt and is probably indicative of the gradual breakdown of the old male-dominated culture in the face of European influences. Before this plot can be put into action, however, there is yet another turn of events: Ali goes off on a trip to France, and Jedla discovers that she is pregnant. Acting in accordance with cultural expectations, she is at first overjoyed with her pregnancy, an attitude for which the more liberated Nadia despises her: “Yes, she was just like the common run of women, so easily contented, so quick to submit to convention; she was morbidly anxious to proclaim her happiness from the rooftops and see it unfold, like a poisonous plant, in front of other people” (M, 93). She introduces doubt into Jedla's heart by telling her that even her pregnancy will not keep Ali from being unfaithful to her if he wants to be. Given Ali's background, there is probably a certain amount of truth to this, however despicable Nadia's intentions may be for pointing out the fact to Jedla. In any case, Jedla is easily convinced and asks Nadia to take her to the abortionist. Nadia is frightened at the consequences of her meddling and regrets her words. She tries to reason Jedla out of her decision by telling her:

What I think is that you'd better take Ali as he is. There's no use loving him as an exception. You must show some understanding. … Almost any man, even Ali, can have his moments of … instability. …

Don't be too proud! You ought to be content with your lot as a woman. I've come around, myself, to the point of view of our mothers and grandmothers. As long as women have a home of their own where they can serve and obey their husbands, they need ask nothing more. What if their husbands do have affairs on the outside? As long as their wifely position is respected, what does it matter? Of course they know that as they grow old, other and younger wives may take their place. But they're not jealous; they remain calm and submissive, and who's to say they haven't the right idea?

(M, 99-100)

Unfortunately, this litany of the old ways does not convince Jedla; on the contrary, it drives her to furious rebellion. She goes through with the abortion and dies as a result of the operation. When Ali returns from France to find that the wife he adored is dead, he turns to drink. Nadia, on the other hand, marries Hussein and tries to forget “the tumult of that summer when I was twenty years old” (M, 111). She is no longer thirsty for rebellion and notices that, “in the lethargy of my heart there is not even a trace of shame” (111). Her marriage is calm and banal, and in its anticlimactic mood there is an unconvincing attempt to create a moralized ending with the message: “What I possess is a certain physical well-being, the companionship of Hussein, and the sensation that life is running out, drop by drop, inexorably” (110-11).

In essence, however, the novel is not as superficial as it may seem from this summary of the main plot. In addition to the valid overtones of cultural conflict, at the center of the novel there seems to be the possibility of a beautiful friendship between Jedla and Nadia, a relationship which would transcend their day-to-day banalities and desires. Passages which describe this relationship manage to evoke a peaceful security and calmness, but without slipping into the spiritual flaccidity which characterizes Nadia's marriage to Hussein: “After establishing a great calm on the veranda, where we sat together, we went off to sleep, like sisters, in the same room. We pulled the beds close to each other, and often we whispered for long hours in the dark” (M, 63).

What precludes this gentle and sisterly relationship is the “thirst” (la soif) or “craving” which pervades the novel. Jedla is “thirsty” for a child, Nadia is “thirsty” for men. “Thirst,” then, revolves around children and men, both of which are required by society before a woman can consider herself successful. Conversely, there is no social utility to prompt a deep friendship between two women. Jedla has been so well trained in her role as an Arab female that she thinks that a childless marriage is sure to drive away her husband; neither can the liberated Nadia escape the pressure to find the focus of her life through a man. But la soif also involves “rebellion” against this same slavery imposed by society. Speaking of Jedla, Nadia says: “What I had cared most for in her so far was her refusal to compromise and be like everyone else, her vaguely dissatisfied craving, which was even deeper than my own” (M, 92). But Nadia too has a “vaguely dissatisfied craving,” and therefore she understands Jedla better than she thinks she does. It is this spirit of rebellion against society's norms which attracted her to Jedla in the first place. The tragedy of the novel arises out of the fact that the two women are enemies in their struggle or thirst for independence; it is essentially Nadia's thirst for Ali that leads her to incite Jedla to rebel against her thirst for a child. Unable to see the need to unite, they only exacerbate each other's problems. Nadia, had she been more mature, would have understood the necessity of uniting with Jedla instead of either admiring her blindly or trying alternately to persuade her to rebel or submit, depending on her own capricious moods. The weakness of Djebar's novel lies in her failure to stress the possibility of unity among women, and not in the book's sexual overtones, which the Algerian revolutionaries found indecent. The revolutionaries considered La soif's subject particularly inappropriate because the book ignored the revolution precisely at a time when the country was engaged in a fierce war. This reaction was more or less to be expected inasmuch as the political activists of Algeria have never been greatly concerned with the liberation of women. In fact, the political programs of Arab nationalists frequently call for a return to ancient Muslim social customs, including the cloistering of women.

In Djebar's second novel, Les impatients (The Impatient Ones; 1958), one can see a certain oblique response to the revolutionaries' criticism of La soif. This work depicts the awakening consciousness of a young Algerian girl rebelling against tradition. Djebar still seems unconcerned with the revolution taking place in her country, and the emphasis of Les impatients is as firmly centered on the problems of women as was that of La soif. This time, however, Djebar seems to have taken care to disarm her critics by setting the novel a few years in the past, thereby sidestepping any need to mention the revolution. As the title indicates, the emphasis of the novel is slightly less personal, slightly more social. Instead of dealing with a thirst, a feeling centered entirely in the individual, Les impatients deals with an individual's “impatience” with the existing social order.

Dalila, the heroine, is similar to Nadia in that she is French-educated. Both of her parents are dead, and she lives in Algiers with her stepmother, her brother's family, and a house full of other relatives. Like Nadia, Dalila is bored, but unlike Nadia, she is not free to go where she pleases. She is cloistered like the other women in the house, but occasionally she visits girlfriends, attends weddings, and goes to the Turkish bath. This humdrum existence gives her an insight into the desperation which drives cloistered women to seek adventure even at the risk of social disgrace.

Then I understood the agitation that drives women to say “yes.” In the face of the confusion of their hearts, filled at the same time with sloth, compassion, and an inexplicable tenderness, in the face of the multiple void of their hearts, they give themselves to men, even if only by way of being raped, in order that, when the act is over they may rediscover themselves definitively, face to face with an image of themselves.

(I [Les impatients], 121)

Even the meetings with her schoolmates during which they discuss important questions such as “the problem of the evolution of the Muslim woman, the problem of mixed marriages, the problem of the social responsibilities of women” (17) are empty because they are approached without sincerity: “They discussed these questions because it was fashionable to do so.” Indeed, given the cloistered lives the girls are forced to live, such discussions could hardly be expected to have any greater effect than relieving boredom.

Dalila, however, finds a more effective means of combatting the flatness of life. Secretly, she starts dating the brother of one of her friends. Selim is an évolué, a “liberated man” who seems to share Dalila's convictions concerning the right of every girl to choose her friends and to exercise the freedom to come and go as she pleases. In order to see Selim more often, Dalila blackmails her stepmother Lella. Dalila has pieced together bits of conversations that she has overheard and has deduced that Lella was once an “easy” woman—in fact, she was Selim's mistress before she married Dalila's father. By threatening to reveal what she knows, Dalila forces Lella to lie to Dalila's brother whenever she wants to go out. It is of course heavily ironic, and indicative of the incomplete state of her “evolution,” that Dalila is in effect using the sanctions of the old order to gain her own freedom.

Dalila's blackmail is very effective, because Lella, having gained respectability through marriage, now goes to great lengths to lead an exemplary life: “In our household the image of the exemplary woman has as much charm as that of the femme fatale has in the outside world. Perhaps it is more reassuring. Unfortunately it's just another image” (I, 224). Dalila, forgetting that it is this very image that makes it possible for her to deceive her brother and leave the house, takes Lella to task for hypocrisy and adherence to a double standard: “It's prostitution. And of the worst sort. … As I understand it, you don't even want to give it up. It has its advantages: security, honor, and all the attentions of men, not only those under this roof but others whom you imagine to be forever raising their eyes to your famous virtue, as to a flag” (152). Lella, on the other hand, is quite sensible of the advantages of the orderly though limited life which she leads. She begs Dalila to think twice before destroying this order, pointing out that this order is necessary to the happiness of others, even though it may not suit Dalila's purposes at the moment: “Before spreading trouble in this way, stop and think, be prudent. Don't upset anything in this house, in this order. … You are insensible to the unhappiness and disappointment of other people. You're nothing but an egoist” (153).

In fact, Dalila is selfish. Nevertheless, the reader admires her desire to break away from restrictive conventions at the same time that he is repelled by her underhanded methods. Dalila never does actually expose her stepmother's past, and when Dalila's father dies, Lella ultimately remarries and thus can no longer serve the interests of Dalila's petty blackmail. However, it is evident in the blackmail of her stepmother that the young girl who seeks her own freedom from custom and convention is not averse to using these same conventional forms for her own ends. Like Nadia in La soif, Dalila lacks compassion for and solidarity with the other women surrounding her.

Dalila also undergoes a process of disillusionment. When she joins Selim in Paris, where he has gone on business, she discovers to her great surprise that he has become extremely jealous and possessive. He even resents her friendship with a French girl. He slaps her when she goes out without telling him and locks the door of her room to prevent her from going out during his absence. The action of the novel takes a melodramatic turn when Dalila receives a letter from home informing her of Lella's remarriage. Selim leaves to meet secretly with his former mistress, and both are killed by her new husband. Dalila then realizes that she is at last alone but free.

Escape, freedom, what can that mean? Nothing. Suddenly there had been a scene which only a few days ago I would have found degrading. Now I accepted it the way one accepts something that happened several years ago. Even if that tempest should return, what did it matter to me, seeing that, immediately afterward, I could be perfectly happy in spite of it? Seeing that I could seize that pure, immobile exaltation by the throat and thus feel alone, sure of myself.

(I, 230)

An inherent weakness of the novel arising from the melodramatic resolution of the plot is that Dalila gains her freedom through the fortuitous exercise of the very conventions against which she is rebelling. Not only was it possible for her to see Selim in the first place through the agency of blackmail arising from the sexual cloistering of women, but her final “freedom” from Selim is achieved when he leaves her to visit his former mistress and is murdered by Lella's new husband as an affair of honor. Like Nadia, Dalila achieves her ends primarily by negative means, by profiting from the misfortune of others. Even though the ends in Les impatients are more worthy and less selfish than those in La soif, the means the two women use are similar, and they both end up alienated from the other women around them. They are both stubborn, independent, and selfish, and both finally resolve their conflicts with society by submitting to life on a plane of reduced expectations.

Selim's death, while it is convenient for Dalila, constitutes a weakness in the novel because it overextends the reach of coincidence and thereby significantly reduces the meaning of Dalila's resulting “freedom.” Djebar herself may have been conscious of this shortcoming, because she does not end the novel with Dalila's attainment of freedom but instead adds another event which substantially modifies and extends the meaning of the novel. In the closing scenes Dalila appears to move out of her egotistical isolation and toward a new consciousness of the world around her. She has returned home, and one day as she walks the streets of Algiers she sees a boy being arrested by the French police and hears him screaming out his innocence in Arabic, joyfully rebellious: “I asked myself whether it was only youth which lent to this joy overtones of hate, of despair. If it was not rather a kind of grace reserved for certain beings, certain people. … Had I lost that grace?” (238). She compares herself to the boy—perhaps guilty, perhaps innocent, but nevertheless screaming in revolt, “the chant of a child victorious under the strokes of the cane” (239). “Impatience,” then, which was at first merely an expression of selfish desire, takes the form of courage and willingness to speak in the midst of injustice.

Assia Djebar's third novel, Les enfants du nouveau monde (The Children of the New World; 1962), moves further in the direction of the developing consciousness indicated at the end of Les impatients. Here she shows the awakening of a new nation and its people by describing the growing awareness of several women. Stylistically, in Les enfants du nouveau monde Djebar makes use of a circular technique reminiscent of the male Algerian writer Kateb Yacine.

Unlike Djebar's previous novels, this work deals directly with the Algerian Revolution. Not only does the action take place during that conflict, but the focus is upon the various reactions to the revolution in a small town adjacent to a guerrilla-held mountain range. In particular, Djebar focuses on the role of women under these circumstances. There are, for instance, certain necessary social adjustments to the fact that many of the men are off fighting: “In every house where, ordinarily, four or five families were living, one family to a room, there is always one woman, young, old, it doesn't matter, who takes charge” (E [Les enfants du nouveau monde], 14). Some insight is also given into the attitude of the Algerian male, who, oppressed by the French, exhibits his helpless frustration by oppressing his wife at home. At the same time, returning to his cloistered wife provides the Algerian with a source of cultural identity.

Yes, to forget the French oppressor, that's almost easy, he thinks as he comes back home in the evening and looks at his wife which the other, the all-powerful master of the outside, will never know; “cloistered” they say of her, but the husband thinks “liberated.” … That body which he embraces, a body which gives itself without flinching because it is unfamiliar with the language of glances.


Although a number of women are described, Djebar focuses on Chérifa, the uneducated wife of Youssef, a merchant and also a member of the underground. Because she cannot have children, Chérifa is bored with her life and passes the time playing with the children of her neighbor Amna. Amna, also uneducated, is married to a police inspector, Hakim, a traitor to the Arabs who is also distrusted by the French police for whom he works. Chérifa's consciousness was awakened through the experiences of her first marriage. She had lived for three years with a man who had been forced upon her, “a man whom everything in her had rejected” (23). Every night for three years she had given herself to him like a cold statue, a possession worse than rape. Her decision to break away from him was not only her first act of rebellion but also the first manifestation of the consciousness of her own existence: “‘I should leave,’ and she thought with vehemence that it would be a lie to continue living there. This impetus which had pushed her, she felt it also as an awakening; yes, all her life before today had been only a long slumber” (27).

A second significant step in Chérifa's awakening takes place during the revolution. When she discovers that Youssef, her second husband, is in danger because of his clandestine activities with the underground, she leaves her home alone for the first time in her life and crosses town on foot to warn him of the imminent danger of his capture. This one act gives a significance to her life which it had never had before.

She herself had forgotten the danger; perhaps it was not the danger, in fact, which had driven her, but rather a cunning desire to know at once whether she could not perhaps consecrate herself to something besides waiting in her room, to patience and love. Besides, she had crossed town forthrightly, despite feeling so many hostile eyes upon her, and at the end of her walk she had discovered that she was not merely a target for the curiosity of males, a form which passes, a veiled mystery which the first glance solicits, a fascinating weakness which one ends up hating, spitting upon. … No, she did exist; a driving obsession had possessed her and thereby made her unstoppable. “Get to Youssef! He is in danger.”


Once Chérifa sees herself as an active agent, capable of taking initiative outside the home, she is a changed woman.

Djebar depicts another type of awakening through the character of Lila, a highly educated young woman whose husband Ali has left her to join the guerrillas in the mountains. Lila is sympathetic to the Arab cause, but she is too tied to her French education to be totally committed. In both personality and situation the twenty-four-year-old Lila resembles Nadia and Dalila in Djebar's previous novels. Like them she is an orphan, and like them she is bored, selfish, and lazy. Her friend Suzanne, a Frenchwoman married to an Arab lawyer who has left for France, thinks of Lila, “She conceived of friendship the same way she did of love: egotistically” (83). But unlike the central figures of Djebar's previous novels, Lila's selfishness and boredom are turned into positive action and courage. She is arrested because she hides Bachir, a relative who has just performed an act of sabotage. Significantly, instead of feeling sorry for herself because of her arrest, she rises above such selfish concerns and accepts her lot as the price she must pay for the honor of participating in the struggle for her country's independence. She forgets about herself and feels fulfilled: “What wonderful luck to finally be just anybody on an earth, in an age that will never be repeated” (217).

Another woman who exhibits a similar involvement in the national cause is Salima, a thirty-one-year-old teacher who is imprisoned for her participation in the underground. She too feels lucky to have been able to participate actively in the revolution. In prison, her past unfolds before her eyes: “Was it really just yesterday, that epoch? Here it is fifteen or sixteen years ago. … Then she was the only Muslim girl in town who pursued her studies. A father who just happened to die when she was at the age where she should have been cloistered, like the other girls; in other words, a stroke of luck” (128). During the night she cannot go to sleep because the guards are torturing a man in the next cell and she can hear him screaming. She shivers with horror, but she listens with all her might: “‘This is the song of my country, this is the song of the future,’ she murmured” (128).

To round out the picture of women in the revolution, Djebar also depicts Hassiba, a girl in her early teens who joins the guerrillas, and Touma, a “loose” girl, semi-educated in the French schools. The portrayal of Touma is particularly significant because her fate reveals the degree to which the “new order” of the revolutionaries is merely a continuation of the old order of Muslim Algeria: Touma's younger brother Tewfiq is required to kill her in order to clear the honor of his family before the guerrillas will permit him to join their organization.

Overall, in Les enfants du nouveau monde Djebar's orientation toward the condition of women is markedly different from her attitude in the previous novels. Here the female characters are made to feel that they should seek solutions to their problems within themselves. Their rebellion should be directed toward political goals, and such qualities as commitment, independent thinking, and decision-making are desirable for the sake of political change. While directing criticism at women's personal goals in life, Djebar makes it clear that society is no longer to be considered the culprit with respect to the condition of women, as was the case in her previous novels.

Critics generally praised Djebar for Les enfants du nouveau monde, which they found sensitive in its inner prise de conscience or grasp of the awareness of a people, of women as well as men. Further, this is the first North African novel in which a woman writer focuses on the inner conflicts of some of her male characters. Khatibi found that, whereas in other women's novels the heroines are occupied with private self-realization, the women in Les enfants du nouveau monde are seen to unite among themselves and with their menfolk for group solidarity, to create not a Third World society but a new society entirely, where women work beside men, though within their own roles (64).

Assia Djebar's early novels reflect a progression in her ideas from an insistence upon the necessity of self-preoccupation in a world hostile to women, to a recognition of the importance of awareness of others, to the resolution of personal problems through immersion in a national cause. Her first novel reveals a selfishly unhappy woman preoccupied with herself; her second shows one more aware of society but still bored and selfish; and finally, her third depicts women who lose themselves to gain their country's independence. This reflects the approximate path of women's liberation in Algeria, which lost almost all its impetus after national independence was gained. According to Fadéla M'Rabet, women were simply used during the revolution, only to be pushed down to a lower level after independence. Reflecting occurrences in Algeria, Djebar's early novels indicate a simultaneous—and perhaps related—progression in the cause of nationalism and regression in the cause of women's rights. The nationalism which was so necessary for the revolutionaries to oust the French colonialists turned counterrevolutionary after the oppressor had been evicted. As part of this counterrevolution, traditional laws were reinstituted which deprived women of the rights they had enjoyed under colonial rule. Although Djebar's first novels give us the impression that she is revolutionary in her ideas of women's role and their liberation, her theoretical ideas presented to us at that time, in an introduction to a book of photographs called Women of Islam, showed her to be a moderate.

Djebar believed then that it was dangerous to speak of the Muslim woman, because she could be seen in so many contexts throughout the Islamic world. Even within the confines of Algeria, attitudes toward the liberation of Algerian women varied widely, often reflecting what the individual stood to gain or lose by such liberation. For example, there was the French-educated Muslim man who deplored the seclusion of women but married a European, or the Muslim father who was in favor of having his daughter receive a bicultural education but then became alarmed when she gained a wide knowledge of the world and began to behave like a European. Finally there was the feminist who decided that the dominating male to whom she happened to be married really possessed only illusory power! Neither did Djebar find true liberation to be an unmixed blessing. She pointed out, for instance, that the Eastern mindset tended to emphasize and value private rather than public life, in contradistinction to the Western approach, which tended to value the public display and outward control of others. Essentially, this was the difference between being and doing. Thus, according to Djebar, liberating a woman in an Eastern culture often resulted in thrusting her into a cruel and competitive world for which she was unprepared and in which she might have no wish to participate.

Djebar denied that in Islam women were inferior to men. Instead she insisted that they were complementary. Furthermore, she emphasized that women were in fact becoming emancipated as the traditional family disintegrated, a process which had reached the point where women were beginning to hold jobs outside the home. Djebar also noted, however, that this emancipation as a result of the disintegration of the family structure was creating problems rather than solving them.

In his study Women of Algeria David Gordon saw a similarity between Djamila Debèche's and Djebar's directions: if women were to be emancipated, the process had to be accompanied by harmony with society as a whole, for the liberating of women demanded the liberation of men as well from the framework of traditional Muslim thought (Gordon, 49). In short, while Djebar was acutely aware of and poignantly depicted the plight of the Algerian woman, she was far from convinced that total liberation of women—say by legislative fiat—would be a wise course of action for her country. Indeed, since she saw liberation primarily as a process of individual mindset adjustment, she would probably have viewed “legal” liberation as irrelevant.

In contrast to the few novels written by women in the Mashrek and the Maghreb which lashed out against brutalizing social conditions, the majority presented, in the first decades of women's literary production, a more moderated view. Often pampered and bored, the women writers of North Africa and the Middle East frequently began their careers by imitating the West. Djebar and Ba'labakki, for example, imitated Françoise Sagan in drawing melancholic characters and featuring plots filled with sudden outbreaks of violence and frequent violations of normal fictional causality. Later they tried to grasp more of themselves through increased sensitivity to their Eastern heritage, producing self-searching, introspective literature which revealed the inward turn of their rebellion. The critic Abdelkebir Khatibi tried to explain the reasons for this inwardness which characterized so many of the women writers of that period: “Considered, and perceiving herself, as an object, the woman is more sensitive, more centered on her own psychological problems. Bullied, obliged to be always on the defensive, she interiorizes her complexes and neuroses. This is why one finds in feminine literature this constant taste for introspection, this obstinate search for the other, this feverish puritanism” (Khatibi, 61-62). This preoccupation with the self may account for the writers' inability to engage themselves in political and social problems outside their own immediate environment. Thus it was that the writers of that period, while dwelling on their own oppression in some detail, generally lacked sympathy for and awareness of the sufferings of women from the lower strata of their own societies. A number of cultural problems which directly affected women found no expression in the fiction of women writers of that period. Little attention was paid to crimes of honor, for example. Djebar mentioned them in Les enfants du nouveau monde but passed no judgment on the act itself. It was merely mentioned in passing as evidence of traditional thinking among political revolutionaries.

The inability to express women's problems and to be heard by the public she wanted to reach, combined with personal problems and the dilemma over which language to use, rendered more acute through a search for cultural and national identity, can probably account for Djebar's long hiatus from writing and publishing after the release of Enfants. In a recent interview with Lise Gauvin she stated:

It seemed to me I could have been a poet in the Arabic language. Vaste est la prison starts with an introduction called “The Silence of Writing.” I talk about why I went almost ten years without publishing. I show what I had not yet perceived in L'amour, la fantasia. In that book I was in a relationship between French and Arabic. French had liberated me from my body at the age of eleven. But it was also a Nessus tunic—meaning that I had been able to escape from the veil thanks to the French language, thanks to having a father in the French language. It was evident that at the age of sixteen, seventeen, I conceived of myself, externally, as much a boy as a girl.

(“Territoires des langues”)

Language is a dilemma Djebar reflects upon in many instances. Like many North African novelists who have been outspoken on the topic,3 Djebar also experiences bilingualism as a problem which “enriches only the one who truly possesses two cultures. And this is rarely the case in Algeria.”4 But unlike many of her male counterparts who express this dilemma in violent terms, Djebar has a more tender relationship with language.

I started by writing one day, on the first page of a notebook, a rule of behavior to myself: “To recover the Arab tradition of love in the language of Giraudoux.” Then, after a few trials, I chose, as a defiance to myself a kind of: “Even though I write in French, can I be as Arab as possible?” … Each time I find different justifications, the least of evils being to re-create in French a life lived or felt in Arabic. This movement from one language to another has probably helped some North African writers of French expression achieve a certain lyricism, others a tone of aggressiveness or, on the contrary, of nostalgia. As for me, my desire is to find, in spite of this movement, a profound fluidity and intimacy—which seems difficult.

(“Le romancier dans la cité arabe”)

Ten years of silence were broken with the film La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua (1979). Like the Senegalese writer and director Sembène Ousmane, Djebar felt she could reach her people at last, and especially the women, in a language understandable through spoken Arabic and through sounds and images. The film is a very beautiful one, with reflections on memory and portraying the gaze. A young woman plunges into her past and allows women to speak out, giving them a voice and telling their stories mixed with the stories of their ancestors and flashbacks of war. In it one already finds many elements of her future novels.

With the short stories of Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement (Eng. Women of Algiers in Their Apartment), an offshoot from Djebar's film turned into narratives, women's voices come out even more strongly. It is as if millennial oppression had been finally unleashed, veils dropped, and bodies restored to their beauty and full integrity: “New women of Algiers, who have been allowed to move about in the streets just these last few years, have been momentarily blinded by the sun as they cross the threshold, do they free themselves—do we free ourselves—altogether from the relationship with their own bodies, a relationship lived in the shadows until now, as they have done throughout the centuries?” (WA [Women of Algiers in Their Apartment], 2).

L'amour, la fantasia (Eng. Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade) is a carefully worked-out narrative that functions on two levels, reflecting two journeys: one into the author's inner self, partly autobiographical, the other historical, tracing the history of Algeria from the conquest of 1830 to the liberation of 1962. It is also a reflection on language. These two themes, the autobiographical elements mixed with history and the reflection on language, are crafted beautifully within the narratives. They can be found again in the next two volumes of Djebar's quartet. In addition to these two levels, Djebar gives us interwoven narratives through various voices set into different time frameworks. For example, her reflections on language are in one voice, lyric passages in praise of Algerian women are in another. She successfully constructs a polyphonic narrative resembling a symphony; hence the allusion to Beethoven's Fantasia and her division of the novel into five parts, like a symphony. The condition of women is also very much present and continues in the line of her preceding works with more strength and determination to give them a greater voice and visibility. Djebar studied the archives and looked for women's achievements and participation in political and historical events. She demonstrates that women were active participants in the resistance against the French. As Mildred Mortimer has well analyzed:

By alternating historical accounts of the French conquest, oral history of the Algerian revolution, and autobiographical fragments, Djebar sets her individual journey against two distinct and yet complementary backdrops: the conquest of 1830 and the Algerian Revolution of 1954. The former introduced the colonial era; the latter brought it to a close. In this way, the narrator establishes links with Algeria's past, more specifically with women of the past whose heroism has been forgotten. Giving written form to Algerian women's heroic deeds, Djebar as translator and scribe succeeds in forging new links with traditional women of the world she left behind.

(“Fleeing the Harem,” 156-57)

In Ombre sultane (Eng. A Sister to Scheherazade) Djebar continues on the musical theme she started with L'amour, la fantasia, alternating the voices of two women—one traditional, the other liberated, married to the same man. The inner and outer journeys are still present but are reflected by the two women. Hajila, the traditional woman, decides to leave the confinement of her home and explore the city, whereas Isma, the emancipated one, embarks on a reflection of her past, her childhood as well as her married life. She resembles the heroines of Djebar's earlier works. It is almost as if La soif were being repeated in this novel, with Isma, like Nadia, choosing Hajila, who is submissive, as a second wife to her husband and then pushing her into a revolt that is bound to end in tragedy. But here the complexity of the narrative gives way to various interpretations, one of which is that Hajila could be the double of Isma or her subconscious. The intermingling of Scheherazade's story adds to this complexity and gives yet another reading of the tale. Specifically, it recalls the Arabian Nights, in which Scheherazade, a princess, tries to escape the fate a cruel sultan inflicts on all the virgins of the town. He has sex with them and at the end of the night kills them. Scheherazade succeeds in saving her life by inventing tales that never end, thereby keeping the sultan interested in hearing the next one every night. In order to do so, Scheherazade calls upon her sister Dinarzade for help. Dinarzade sleeps under the nuptial bed and helps her sister remember stories: “To throw light on the role of Dinarzade, as the night progresses! Her voice under the bed coaxes the story-teller up above, to find unfailing inspiration for her tales, and so keep at bay the nightmares that daybreak would bring” (SS [A Sister to Scheherazade], 95).

As for Vaste est la prison (So Vast the Prison), it is probably the most obviously autobiographical work by Djebar, who recalls the memories of her mother, her grandmother, and herself, who talks about her father, who recalls her childhood and her adolescence. It is also a novel on Algeria's present situation with its frightening war. Djebar tells us:

The true interrogation of my last novel, and in which I have found myself for at least two years, is how does one explain, or give an account of blood. The conclusion of Vaste est la prison is called “The Blood of Writing.” How does one explain violence? Autobiographical writing is necessarily a retrospective writing where “I” is not always “I.” It is an “I/us” or a multiplied “I.” But in Vaste est la prison there is a regression into autobiographical and historical time; the impetus of this book was the death of someone close, inscribed in the present, a violent death, an assassination. The last few pages of the novel bear on this interrogation: to know if, writing in Berber or in Arabic, I would be able to explain better, give an account of this violence, if I could inscribe it. … I would convert within six months to any language if it could account for blood. … Throughout the book, I have lived an interrogation I would call ethical. In writing, there is a sort of impossibility; writing runs away, it is replaced by screaming, it is silence.

(“Territoires des langues,” 87)

In a foreword to her narrative Loin de Médine (Far from Medina; 1991) Djebar tells us why she applies the label “novel” to this 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. Fiction allows freedom in reestablishing and unveiling a hidden space. Through it, Djebar gives a voice and a presence to the many women forgotten by the recorders and transmitters of Islamic tradition. This is quite an ambitious undertaking, and Djebar does it well in her usual careful, sensual, well-worked-out language. In a beautiful style, she re-creates the lives of women who surrounded the Prophet Mohammed, the influence they had on his thinking and in the debates of the times. The unofficial, occulted history of the beginning of Islam becomes very real and present with its women through Djebar's powerful pen. There is Aisha, the Prophet's favorite wife, and Fatima, his proud daughter. They both died soon after him. There is Sadjah the woman prophet, Selma the healer, and so many others. They all seem to act freely and are not afraid to stand up for what they believe, especially when it pertains to their belief in the Prophet. The Prophet himself is described as soft-spoken and very kind to his women, whom he treats with respect and care and whose advice he takes seriously.

This is certainly a revolutionary outlook and program for women's role in contemporary Arab society, if it would take its tradition seriously as an example to follow. And I have no doubt Djebar intended it this way. Nevertheless, such a tactic raises many problems, not the least of which are to be found in the text itself. The final message is that one ought to leave Medina (as implied in the title of the novel): “If Aisha one day decided to leave Medina? Ah, far away from Medina, to rediscover the wind, the breathtaking, incorruptible youth of revolt!” (300). But actually, the whole novel is a paean to Medina, a glorification of the Prophet and of his women! This is the most problematic contradiction one finds throughout the book: if, in order to free oneself, one ought to leave tradition and its enslavement, then how can one look upon it as a beautiful past filled with role models?

Other questions raised by this narrative as it inscribes itself in today's contemporary Arabic and North African literature are: what message can today's writers give, and ought they give one? If, like Rushdie or El-Saadawi, they bring out the contemporary issues with clarity, frankness, and irony, are they doomed to ostracism, house arrest, threats of death, imprisonment, and persecution? Is there no middle way between glorification and reinterpretation of tradition to show how today's Islam has been twisted or radically transformed?

Djebar must have been aware of or unconsciously gripped by all these questions, because her latest work, Le blanc de l'Algérie (The White of Algeria; 1996), inscribes itself into the most daring, courageous, outspoken reflections of today's world problems and pressing conflicts, most specifically as enacted in the Algerian War. It dares look at the roots of the conflict and raises vital questions on the works and deaths of well-known writers, intellectuals, thinkers (Frantz Fanon, Albert Camus, Mouloud Feraoun, Jean Amrouche, Jean Sénac, Malek Haddad, Mouloud Mammeri, Kateb Yacine, Anna Gréki, Taos Amrouche, Josie Fanon, Bachir Hadj Ali, Tahar Djaout, Youssef Sebti, Said Mekbel, Mahfoud Boucebci, M'Hamed Boukhobza, Abdelkader Alloula), and others. Djebar associates the destiny of Algiers in 1957 with the present, noting that violence and carnage are taking the same form: “On both sides, death launchers, one in the name of legality, but with mercenaries, the other in the name of historical justice—or ahistorical, transcendental, therefore illuminated and with ‘demons.’ Between these two sides … a field is open where a multitude of innocents are falling, too many humble people and a number of intellectuals” (134). Djebar is not afraid to attack the powers that be: “Those who continue to officiate in the confusion of the hollow political theater … the well-kept, more firmly established every year, with their bellies, their self-righteousness, their ever larger spaces, their swelling bank accounts. … This is how the caricature of a past is amplified, with indistinctly sublimated heroes and fraternal killings all mixed together” (150). She wonders who is going to talk about all this now and in which language, noticing that the two who could have done so with irony, humor, and strength, Kateb Yacine and Abdelkader Alloula, are now dead and much missed. Indirectly, Djebar is setting herself in their place by giving us this strong, beautiful text.

Le blanc de l'Algérie is also a reflection on death, and on the yearning, the possibility/probability of her own demise. The grief and sadness she feels over the death of loved ones and the destruction of her country leads her to express a death wish: “Desire takes hold of me, in the middle of this funeral gallery, to drop my pen or my brush and to join them, to dip my face in their blood (the blood of the assassinated)” (162). She barely resists the temptation, finally noticing that the earth calls her, that other countries invite her. She will heal, forget. I agree with Clarisse Zimra, who says:

The White of Algeria marks a turning point in Djebar's career, because it is the first time she has come publicly, in voice as well as in print, to an openly political position regarding current events in her country. … She indicts the official governmental policy that would render the complex and multilayered ethnicity of past and present-day Algeria into a single entity. But she also indicts a whole generation of writers and thinkers, herself among them, who have not spoken soon enough and loudly enough. Not any more.

(“Introduction to Assia Djebar's The White of Algeria”)

The blunter and more open treatment of the oppressive aspects of North African societies that we find in the more recent literary inscriptions by Assia Djebar are not simply a more daring exercise of literary freedom—although we must never lose sight of the courage she has shown. Rather, the increasing clarity and frankness with which the social context is presented suggests that it is no longer merely a backdrop for the action of the story. In these works, North African society itself emerges as a character in the play, a character complete with principles of choice and action, and with both trivial and tragic flaws.

It is not necessarily the role of fiction to provide blueprints for concrete social action—and much bad fiction has resulted from attempts to do so—but the recent fiction of Assia Djebar, with its greater openness and its integration of individual struggle into the larger social context, may well become a force for positive and creative change in the Arab world and in her native Algeria, which so much needs it at this time and at this point in history.


  1. Citations from La soif, Femmes d'Alger, and Ombre sultane are taken from their respective published translations: The Mischief, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, and A Sister to Scheherazade. All other translations from French sources are my own.

  2. Fiction, the novel, is a relatively recent genre in the Arab world for both men and women. Its origins are usually traced back to the Egyptian Muhammad Husayn Haykal's Zaynab (Cairo, 1914). For more information on Arab literary history, see my book Veil of Shame.

  3. See my articles on the topic: “Writing to Explore (W)Human Experience,” Research in African Literatures, 23:1 (Spring 1992), pp. 179-85; “L'écriture (comme) éclatement des frontières,” Postcolonial Women's Writing in French: L'Esprit Créateur, ed. Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boyi, 33:2 (Summer 1993), pp. 119-28.

  4. Interview, L'Afrique littéraire et artistique, no. 3 (February 1969).


Accad, Evelyne. Contemporary Arab Women Writers and Poets [with Rose Ghurayyib]. Beirut. Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World. 1965.

———. Sexuality and War: Literary Masks of the Middle East. New York. New York University Press. 1990.

———. Veil of Shame: The Role of Women in the Contemporary Fiction of North Africa and the Arab World. Sherbrooke, Québec. Naaman. 1978.

Adnan, Etel. Sitt Marie Rose. California. Post-Apollo. 1982.

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, Ct. Yale University Press. 1992.

Altomah, Salih. “The Contemporary Arabic Novel.” The Cry of Home. Knoxville. University of Tennessee Press. 1972.

———. “Westernization and Islam in Modern Arabic Fiction.” Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, 20 (1971).

Ba'labakki, Layla. Ana Ahya. Beirut. Al-Tijari. 1958. Published in French as Je vis, Paris, Seuil, 1961.

———. “Nous, sans masques.” Orient (Paris), 11 (1959).

Barbot, Michel. “Destinée de femmes arabes.” Orient, 17:1 (1965).

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. London. Cape. 1968. (Original French published in 1949.)

Beck, Lois, and Nikki Keddie. Women in the Muslim World. Cambridge, Ma. Harvard University Press. 1978.

Bittari, Zoubeida. O, mes sœurs musulmanes, pleurez! Paris. Gallimard. 1972.

Boullata, Kamal. Women of the Fertile Crescent. Washington, D.C. Three Continents. 1978.

Chedid, Andrée. Cérémonial de la violence. Paris. Flammarion. 1976.

———. La maison sans racines. Paris. Flammarion. 1985.

———. Le sommeil délivré. Paris. Stock. 1952. (Reissued by Flammarion in 1976; translated as From Sleep Unbound.)

Cooke, Miriam. War's Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War. Cambridge, Eng. Cambridge University Press. 1988.

Debèche, Djamila. Aziza. Algiers. Imbert. 1955.

Déjeux, Jean. Assia Djebar: Romancière algérienne, cinéaste arabe. Sherbrooke, Québec. Naaman. 1984.

———. La littérature féminine de la langue française au Maghreb. Paris. Karthala. 1994.

Djebar, Assia. “Ecrire, sans nul héritage.” Trans-européennes, 5 (Winter 1994-95), pp. 25-29.

———. “Fugitive, et ne le sachant pas,” L'Esprit Créateur, 33:2 (Summer 1993), pp. 129-33.

———. “Le romancier dans la cité arabe.” Europe, 474 (October 1968).

———. Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement. Paris. Des Femmes. 1980.

———. Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Marjolijn de Jager, tr. Charlottesville. University Press of Virginia. 1992. [WA]

———. “Introduction.” Women of Islam. London. Deutsch. 1961. Pp. 1-25.

———. L'amour, la fantasia. Paris. Lattès. 1985.

———. La soif. Paris. Julliard. 1957.

———. Le blanc de l'Algérie. Paris. Albin Michel. 1996.

———. The Mischief. Frances Frenaye, tr. New York. Simon & Schuster. 1958. [M]

———. Les alouettes naïves. Paris. Julliard. 1967.

———. Les enfants du nouveau monde. Paris. Julliard. 1962. [E]

———. Les impatients. Paris. Julliard. 1958. [I]

———. Loin de Médine. Paris. Albin Michel. 1991.

———. Ombre sultane. Paris. Lattès. 1987.

———, with Lise Gauvin. “Territories des langues: Entretien.” Langue et Littérature en Suisse Romande, 101 (February 1996), pp. 73-87.

———. Vaste est la prison. Paris. Albin Michel. 1995.

Donadey, Anne. “Assia Djebar's Poetics of Subversion.” L'Esprit Créateur, 33:2 (1993), pp. 107-17.

El-Saadawi, Nawal. The Hidden Face of Eve. Boston. Beacon. 1981.

———. Women at Point Zero. London. Zed. 1983.

———. Memoirs from the Women's Prison. London. Women's Press. 1986.

———. Searching. Shirley Eber, tr. London. Zed. 1991.

Fanon, Frantz. Peau noire, masques blancs. Paris. Seuil, 1952.

Farraj, ‘Afif. Al-Huriyyat Fi Adab Al-Mar'a. Beirut. Dar Al-Farabi. 1975.

Gadant, Monique. “La permission de dire je: Réflexions sur les femmes et l'écriture à propos d'un roman de Assia Djebar, L'amour, la fantasia.Peuples Méditerranéens, 48-49 (July-December 1989), pp. 93-105.

Ghaussy, Soheila. “A Stepmother Tongue: ‘Feminine Writing’ in Assia Djebar's Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade.World Literature Today, 68:3 (Summer 1994), pp. 458-62.

Gracki, Katherine. “Assia Djebar et l'écriture autobiographique au pluriel.” Women in French Studies, 2 (Fall 1994), pp. 55-65.

Johnson-Davis, D. Modern Arabic Short Stories. London. Oxford University Press. 1967.

Khatibi, Abdelkebir. Le roman maghrébin. Paris. Maspero. 1968.

Khoury-Ghata, Vénus. Au sud du silence. Paris. Saint-Germaindes-Près. 1975.

———. La maîtresse du notable. Paris. Seghers. 1992.

———. Vacarme pour une lune morte. Paris. Flammarion. 1983.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. Woman's Body, Woman's Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press. 1991.

Marx-Scouras, Danielle. “Muffled Screams / Stifled Voices.” Yale French Studies, 82 (1993), pp. 172-82.

———. “The Poetics of Maghrebine Illegitimacy.” L'Esprit Créateur, 26:1 (Spring 1986).

Mechakra, Yamina. La grotte élatée. Algiers. SNED. 1979.

Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil. Cambridge, Eng. Shenkman. 1975.

Mikhail, Mona. Images of Arab Women. Washington, D.C. Three Continents. 1979.

Mortimer, Mildred. “Fleeing the Harem: Assia Djebar.” In her Journeys through the French African Novel. Portsmouth, N.H. Heinemann. 1990.

———. “The Evolution of Djebar's Feminist Conscience.” Contemporary African Literature, 1983, pp. 7-14.

———. “Entretien avec Assia Djebar, écrivain algérien,” Research in African Literatures, 19:2 (Summer 1988), pp. 197-205.

M'Rabet, Fadéla, La femme algérienne, suivi de Les Algériennes. Paris. Maspero. 1969. Pp. 97-142.

Murdoch, H. Adlai. “Rewriting Writing: Identity, Exile and Renewal in Assia Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia.Yale French Studies, 83 (1993), pp. 71-92.

Page, Andrea. “Rape or Obscene Copulation? Ambivalence and Complicity in Djebar's L'amour.Women in French Studies, 2 (Fall 1994), pp. 42-53.

Rezzoug, Simone. Cited by Winifred Woodhull in Transfigurations of the Maghreb. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press. 1993. Pp. 78-79.

Roche, Anne. “Women's Literature in Algeria.” Research in African Literatures, 23:2 (Summer 1992), pp. 209-15.

Tahon, Marie-Blanche. “Women Novelists and Women in the Struggle for Algeria's National Liberation (1957-1980).” Research in African Literatures, 23:2 (Summer 1992), pp. 39-50.

Taos, Marguerite Amrouche. La Rue des tambourins. Paris. Table Ronde. 1960.

Tuèni, Nadia. La terre arrêtée. Paris. Belfond. 1984.

———. Liban, vingt poèmes pour un amour. Beirut. Zakka. 1979.

———. Archives sentimentales d'une guerre au Liban. Paris. Pauvert. 1982.

Turk, Nadia. “Assia Djebar: Voix au féminin.” Constructions, 1988-89, pp. 89-98.

Yetiv, Isaac. Le thème de l'aliénation dans le roman maghrébin d'expression française. Sherbrooke, Québec. CELEF. 1972.

Zimra, Clarisse. “Afterword” [including a 1991 interview with Djebar]. In Assia Djebar's Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Marjolijn de Jager, tr. Charlottesville. University Press of Virginia. 1992. Pp. 159-211.

———. “Writing Woman: The Novels of Assia Djebar.” SubStance, 69 (1992), pp. 68-84.

———. “Introduction to Assia Djebar's The White of Algeria.Yale French Studies, 87 (1995), pp. 140-41.

———. “Disorienting the Subject in Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia.Yale French Studies, 87 (1995), pp. 149-70.

Katherine Gracki (essay date autumn 1996)

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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, Disinherited”

In the opening pages of the after word following Marjolijn de Jager's translation of Assia Djebar's Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement, Clarisse Zimra recounts an interesting anecdote about Djebar's hasty selection of a pen name when her first novel, La soif, was accepted for publication (WA [Women of Algiers in Their Apartment], 159-60). After asking her fiancé to recite the ninety-nine ritual modes of address, Djebar selected djebbar, a phrase praising Allah, as her pen name. In an instinctive gesture, Djebar reached back into Arabic, part of her oral heritage, in order to select a sort of veil, a pen name, which would protect her family from the scandalous act of an Arab woman writing an erotic story. When Djebar hastily transcribed this oral Arabic recited by her fiancé into French script, however, she inadvertently changed the word and its meaning in the process of translation: djebbar became djébar,1 which means “healer” in vernacular Arabic according to Zimra. Hence Assia Djebar's complex relationship to different languages and cultures enables her to (re)invent herself as a healer. This identity construction as healer of past, present, collective, and individual wounds ultimately foretells Djebar's journey into the subterranean realms of both a buried collective history and a buried story of the self. In this essay the first three novels of Assia Djebar's projected Algerian Quartet provide the material for mapping these subterranean realms within which Djebar writes in order to mend the myriad ruptures between self and other.2 As Djebar's intricate weaving of plural autobiographies and histories in the novels will reveal, these multiple ruptures between self and other are emblematic of both the past and present violence ripping Algeria apart today.

In order to mend ruptures and heal wounds, Djebar embarks on a novelistic journey of self-discovery in the quartet and finds that writing within the space of rupture and division means putting herself in mortal danger (WA, 171). Like her Algerian sisters who unveiled and threw their vulnerable bodies literally into the front lines of battle during the Algerian War, Djebar's commitment to and quest for liberation for herself, for her sisters both past and present, and for her country render her painfully exposed and vulnerable. This exposure occurs on two intrinsically connected levels, as Djebar discovered while writing Les alouettes naïves (1967): “I felt as if … as if I was exposing myself doubly. First, because as an Algerian, but one living—or so it seemed—as a Westerner, I was somewhat exposed already. Second, because writing about my innermost self felt like exposing myself further” (WA, 169). Living as a Westerner exposes Djebar, since this form of liberation, while it gave her the chance to study, also alienated her from the protective and nurturing traditional realm of her childhood. The matrons of Djebar's youth—we learn in Vaste est la prison (279)—recognize that although a French education will spare the young girl from a life of seclusion, it will also serve to exclude her from their company. This initial expulsion and exposure is complicated by another, which has its roots in the very culture from which Djebar was progressively alienated. Her upbringing taught her never to use the first-person-singular pronoun “I” to talk about herself, since the singularity represented by the “I” transgressed the traditional anonymity surrounding any confessional discourse.3 Transgression of this taboo has far-reaching symbolic consequences particularly for women, since revealing intimate details about oneself with the first-person pronoun “I” without adopting traditional circumlocutions is akin to unveiling or denuding4 oneself.

This double exposure, and the inevitable vulnerability it implies, is incessantly articulated in Djebar's work through images of women's wounded bodies: bleeding, suffering, and mutilated bodies often described in meticulous detail. It is through this intensely corporeal imagery that Djebar weaves together her own stories of wounds and mutilated memories with those of her Algerian sisters, and ultimately with those of Algeria herself.5 For example, in Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade she describes the autobiographical experience as a painful wounding process which causes not only her blood to flow, but that of others as well: “To attempt an autobiography using French words alone is to lend oneself to the vivisector's scalpel, revealing what lies beneath the skin. … Wounds are reopened, veins weep, one's own blood flows and that of others, which has never dried” (156). Before attending to these reopened wounds caused by the dissection of the self implicit in autobiography, Assia Djebar felt she first had to settle the score with the French language. This internalized, individual war mirrors the collective struggle against the colonial power dominating Algeria. In Fantasia Djebar explores how the French language, a language indissociable from the official conquerors who killed as they wrote,6 structured her identity: “After more than a century of French occupation—which ended not long ago in such butchery—a similar no-man's-land still exists between the French and the indigenous languages, between two national memories: the French tongue, with its body and voice, has established a proud presidio within me, while the mother-tongue, all oral tradition, all rags and tatters, resists and attacks between two breathing spaces” (F [Fantasia: An Algerian Calvacade], 215). Instead of allowing this psychic battle to continue tearing her apart, Djebar redefines her problematic relationship to the French language in Fantasia not by reconciling herself harmoniously with French but by taking it as one would take “war booty” (“DF” [“Du français comme butin”], 25).

Therefore, in Fantasia Djebar appropriates the language of conquest and death not to kill, but rather to revive the dead and bear witness to their mortal combat. By throwing herself into the battlefield and appropriating the colonizer's weapons, she is able to turn these same weapons against the adversary.7 Djebar's redefined relationship to the language of conquest and death is perhaps best embodied by the mutilated hand of an anonymous Algerian woman that Fromentin threw away during his travels at the time of the conquest. In Fantasia Djebar imagines herself picking up this hand and bringing it the qalam so that it may testify to its own mutilation as well as to the historical violence its mutilation represents (F, 226). The wounded female body comes to represent an Algeria raped and left bleeding in the dust by the conquering soldiers as Djebar presents her reading of the letters written by French soldiers in Fantasia. Far from collaborating with their discourse of exoticism when recuperating the image of Algeria as a woman, Djebar subverts this discourse by ripping the veil which masks the overt violence of colonial invasion.8 By appropriating the gendered historical relationship between colonizer and colonized, Djebar is ultimately able to reveal the resistance and the screams of refusal muffled by the colonial discourse of conquest. Fantasia represents therefore the rewriting of Algerian history from a feminine stance so that these screams will be heard and so that a collective oral history transmitted by women may also be inscribed into the fabric of Algeria's past. Women's bodies become monuments and privileged sites in this reinscription process at the heart of Djebar's work. These bodies testify to, and can be read as, the story of women's active presence in history. This (her)story writes against and contests the representation of women as passive odalisques by both colonial and patriarchal discourses.9 The body of the protagonist Sarah in the first short story of [Women of Algiers in Their Apartment] provides an excellent example of how women's bodies can be (re)read. Her courage during the Algerian War is literally inscribed on her body with a blue scar that starts above one of her breasts and stretches down to her abdomen. This scar bears witness to the torture she endured in the colonizer's prison and inscribes women into the Algerian struggle for liberation.

However, not all women's bodies bear a scar like Sarah's which suggests that the wound has healed. In the same short story Leila's relationship to her used body provides a contrapuntal image of wounds which are not healed. Leila was one of the heroic fire carriers in the Algerian War who hid bombs under their veils when passing from the Arab zone into the French quarter of Algiers. Like Sarah's body, the bodies of these fire carriers bear witness to the war's violence and its gruesome price. Leila reminds Sarah of this price in the following passage from Women of Algiers: “In the streets they were taking pictures of your unclothed bodies, of your avenging arms in front of the tanks. … We suffered the pain of your legs torn apart by the rapist soldiers. And it is thus that the sanctioned poets evoked you in lyrical divans. Your turned-up eyes … no, worse. … Your bodies, used only in parts, bit by little bit” (44). Leila not only evokes the image of vulnerable, sacrificed bodies during the war; she also talks about how these bodies still suffer after independence is won. Leila concludes by reminding Sarah and the reader that the bombs are still exploding in Algeria, since the brothers are no longer fighting alongside their sisters but rather against them: “The bombs are still exploding … but over twenty years: close to our eyes, for we no longer see the outside, we see only the obscene looks, the bombs explode but against our bellies and I am—she screamed—I am every woman's sterile belly in one! … Were there ever really any brothers?” (WA, 44-45). The brothers' betrayal exemplifies the conflicts and ruptures which did not end, as the women warriors believed they would, when independence was won.

These women fighters threw themselves into danger and bore wounds testifying to this instead of staying in their traditional place during the war. As a result of their courageousness, however, they found they had no place in a postwar society which preferred to repress the memory of their participation rather than face the difficult task of integrating this new type of woman into the social fabric. Assia Djebar had predicted this new rupture in Les alouettes naïves (1967), as Clarisse Zimra points out in her afterword to Women of Algiers (203). The collection of short stories Women of Algiers confirms Djebar's earlier prediction and attempts to explore various forms of disillusionment by reminding us that war wounds are far from healed. Yet it is at the close of Fantasia that Djebar earns the reputation of soothsayer, when she predicts more violence and death to come for her Algerian sisters. In this first novel of the quartet she uses a story of death and rupture from the past to predict and warn against the flow of blood in the future. The story centers on Haoua, a young woman who was fed on the sound of fighting between the Hajout tribe and the French during her adolescence. Like Djebar, whose adolescence is indelibly marked by an internal war reproducing Algerian history on a psychic level, Haoua possesses an identity that is structured by war and violence. In a characteristic move, Djebar reveals in Fantasia how this collective, historical violence ultimately permeates personal and individual lives. Haoua, who has come to watch the cavalcade of the Hajouts, is mortally wounded by her lover, one of the riders. In the middle of the festivity, Haoua's rejected lover wheels around on his horse and bears down on her until his charger kicks her in the face (F, 225).

Through her retelling of Haoua's story in Fantasia, Djebar is effectively revealing another frightening story. Within the collective tale of a festivity celebrating Algerian resistance to the French there lies hidden a tragic story of internal division pitting one Algerian against another, namely a man against a woman. Djebar's reading of the nineteenth century therefore brings her to the painful realization that there is more internal division to come and that the destiny of any woman standing up freely is intrinsically linked to Haoua's destiny. By listening to the muffled stories of the women of her native land in Fantasia, Djebar foresees “the inevitable moment when the mare's hoof will strike down any woman who dares to stand up freely, will trample all life that comes out into the sunlight to dance” (227). Moreover, the last poignant lines of Fantasia confirm this prediction: “Yes, in spite of the tumult of my people all around, I already hear, even before it arises and pierces the harsh sky, I hear the death cry in the Fantasia” (F, 227). The tragic end to this nineteenth-century love story provides a clue as to how to read the comma which appears between L'amour and la fantasia in the title of the first novel of the Algerian Quartet.10 This comma may be read as the blood of rupture and division etched into Djebar's corpus, a mark of violence which has not loosened its grip on both Algeria's past and its present. As the final image of Fantasia demonstrates, this past and present violence will continue to inscribe itself on women's bodies in the next two novels of the quartet, A Sister to Scheherazade (1988) and Vaste est la prison (1995). Since Djebar has intertwined Algeria's destiny with that of the wounded female bodies in her text, one is forced to ask the question, “Will Algeria be left to bleed and ultimately die of its wounds like Haoua, or will its wounds be attended to so that they may heal?” Further exploration of the subterranean territory of history and autobiography in the second and third novels of the quartet will attempt to chart the ways Algeria is still bleeding and how Djebar's courage to continue writing with this very blood despite her own personal pain promises the beginning of a healing process.

Djebar's courage in facing this violence in the quartet so as to heal wounds includes facing the violence of writing her autobiography in Fantasia. Although autobiographical elements found their way into her texts before Fantasia, Djebar felt she had to wait until Fantasia to be able to take charge of her autobiography (WA, 171). Before the writing of this first novel of the Algerian Quartet, if parts of Djebar's life and self found their way into her fiction, it was a way of hiding from herself: “Unlike the usual schema of female writing in the Western tradition, which is all subjective, I started writing as a wager, almost a dare, to keep as far away from my real self as possible” (WA, 168). Yet, while writing Les alouettes naïves, Djebar realized that her fiction had literally caught up with her and that she could no longer hide from self-discovery. The fear of exploring the deep recesses of her own psyche was so great that, in her interview with Clarisse Zimra printed in the afterword to Women of Algiers, she likened writing about herself to committing suicide (WA, 169). The temptation to flee autobiography and the violence it entails (since it amounts to submitting oneself to the vivisector's scalpel) led Djebar to choose silence and to stop writing for a decade.11Fantasia demonstrates, however, that Djebar is no longer afraid of this scalpel which dissects her identity, since she has wedded her destiny to Algeria's. In Les femmes dans le roman algérien Hafid Gafaiti claims that the joining of individual and collective destinies in Fantasia marks a turning point in Djebar's writing, since she defines autobiography as a struggle and reveals the intrinsic link between writing and violence (171). In Fantasia Djebar joins her destiny to Algeria's by being reborn in 1842,12 the year that General Saint-Arnaud destroyed the zaouia of her tribe, the Beni Menacer (F, 217). By exploring her own past in autobiography, therefore, Djebar ultimately explores Algeria's past, since the two destinies have been wed.

Despite this new commitment to autobiography that represents a struggle against violence, the flight from the self and from writing remains a very real temptation, especially as violence in Algeria worsens. This temptation to flee reappears in the third novel of the quartet, Vaste est la prison, which is written in the midst of fundamentalist violence after the bloody riots of 1988 in Algeria: “Je ne peux pas. Je ne veux pas. Je veux fuir. Je veux m'effacer. Effacer mon écriture. Me bander les yeux, me bâillonner la bouche” (I can't. I don't want to. I want to flee. I want to efface myself. To erase my writing. To blindfold myself, to gag myself; VP [Vaste est la prison], 331).13 The testimony to Yasmina which follows this passage, however, demonstrates that the need for a writing which bears witness to violence overrides the fear of writing. If Djebar does not write this violence—or, better yet, write within this violence—who will testify for Yasmina? Yasmina gave her life for her sister, a Polish woman whose flight from violence already calls into question whether or not Yasmina's story will be heard. Out of solidarity for Yasmina, Djebar must write her story and the story of other sisters in Vaste est la prison and A Sister to Scheherazade. It is in the name of this solidarity that Djebar continues the painful process of writing autobiography and history in A Sister, the novel of sisterhood and solidarity par exellence.

Djebar weds her destiny to those of her two heroines in A Sister, just as she wedded her destiny to Algeria's in Fantasia. Although A Sister appears to depart from the inscription of autobiography in the quartet, this novel ultimately demonstrates once again how Assia Djebar's fiction and the feminine narrators she creates reveal the surge of autobiography underpinning Djebar's work. In her Anthologie de la littérature algérienne de langue française Christiane Achour notes the autobiographical undercurrents of A Sister to Scheherazade when she describes how the narrator is so involved in this story of violence that Isma and Djebar's voices are mixed together throughout the novel (244). Autobiographical material appears primarily in the chapters of A Sister in which Isma is recalling her past. Instead of addressing Hajila in her interior monologues, Isma seems to be addressing the woman she used to be, or the Isma of the past who is the shadow of her current self. Isma's exploration of the self through interior dialogues mirrors Djebar's own exploration of her past in Fantasia. For example, in a chapter titled “L'adolescente en colère” (Eng. “A Young Girl's Anger”) Isma tells a story of double alienation from French students and from traditional Algerian women:

I continued my studies in the capital. To do so I had to be a boarder; a few exceptional girls like myself, spared from a life of seclusion, while still haunted by its proximity or its threat, felt themselves doubly alienated from their European schoolfellows, the daughters of colonials settled on the plain.

My aunt had hidden neither her tears nor her helpless distress at my departure.

‘Study?’ she had muttered. ‘Is she a man?’

(SS, 130)

Isma's story mirrors Djebar's in Vaste est la prison when she describes how her father sent her to French schools against the wishes of her grandmother, who reacts like Isma's aunt by claiming that the young girl will be made into a boy by a French education.

Lorsque je revenais, chaque été, à sa ville et à sa demeure, moi, alors âgée de dix ans ou un peu plus, sans voile, trop tôt grandie, je devenais pour elle, à vrai dire encombrante: il lui arrivait, la vieille, de m'examiner les traits du visage de près, elle murmurait sur un ton âcre, pourquoi, à propos de quoi, en tout cas avec un étonnement méfiant et comme en soudaine ennemie: “Ces yeux, ah, ces yeux!” puis elle détournait de moi son regard, elle protestait cette fois en direction de ma mère:—Eh bien quoi, vous en ferez un garçon peut-être?

(VP, 303-4)

(When I used to return to her city and her home for the summers, I was about ten years old, without a veil and too grown-up, so I became a real nuisance to her. The next day she used to scrutinize my facial features closely, murmuring in an acrid fashion with distrustful surprise and suddenly hostile: “These eyes, oh, these eyes!” Then she used to avert her gaze away from me, protesting this time against my mother: “Well maybe you're going to make a boy out of her?”)

Intertextualities such as these between Isma and Djebar are important not so much because they prove the masking of autobiographical material within the story of a fictive narrator, but because the doubling and the merging of feminine identities is central to the elaboration of sisterhood and solidarity in A Sister.

The confusion between Isma and Djebar14 provides a central key as to how to read feminine identity in A Sister. This confusion between women is often read as part of the patriarchal seraglio structure of interchangeable women-objects whose individual identities are effaced.15 The seraglio structure is subverted by Djebar when she redefines the multiplicity of women as a weapon to be used against patriarchy. She reveals a woman who is able to stop the substitution of women and who turns patriarchal law against itself by bringing Dinarzade out of the shadow of her mythical sister, Scheherazade. Scheherazade is able to bring her sister with her into the sultan's chamber on her wedding night, since women who are blood relations of the bride are forbidden to the polygamous man (SS, 103). Since Dinarzade is protected from the sultan by this rule, she is able to watch over her sister and wake her before dawn.

In any case, Dinarzade, the sister, will be keeping watch near at hand: she will be close by while they embrace; she will look on at their carnal feast, or at least give ear to it. And the sultan's bride will be reprieved for one day more, then for a second; to be sure, the tales she spins help save her, but first and foremost it is because her sister has kept watch and woken her in time.

Assured of the sister's collusion in keeping sleepless watch, Scheherazade has been able to indulge in erotic transports, then yield to sleep. Awakened one hour before dawn, as if she had not slept, as if she had never known a man, she will give free rein to her virgin imagination.

To throw light on the role of Dinarzade, as the night progresses! Her voice under the bed coaxes the storyteller up above, to find unfailing inspiration for her tales, and so keep at bay the nightmares that daybreak would bring.

And all the fears haunting women today are dispelled, because of the two faces of the sultan's bride.

(SS, 95)

In the last sentence of this passage Djebar interprets the importance of this age-old sister to women today who fear the violence of the dawn. Every woman needs a sororal double whose destiny is wedded to hers and who will watch over her like Dinarzade watched over Scheherazade.

In the opening pages of A Sister, which serve as a prologue to Hajila's and Isma's stories, Djebar inscribes the Hajila-Isma duo into the mythic frame story of the Thousand and One Nights. Their modern story becomes mythic as well, since it transcends the particular context within which it is set: “Isma, Hajila: an arabesque of intertwining names. Which of the two is the shadow who will become the sultan's bride? Which one is to be the bride at dawn, only to dissolve into a shadow before noon?” (1). The indeterminacy of their identities will ultimately become a powerful tool against a patriarchal order which pits women against each other as rivals in order to divide and conquer. In the third part of A Sister, titled “La sultane regarde,” (Eng. “The Sultan's Bride Looks On”), Isma is haunted by the realization that women have always been turned against one another, and she begins to understand how this rivalry is perpetuated by mothers like Touma (Hajila's mother): “Now, the mothers keep guard and have no need of the policeman's badge of office. The seraglio has been emptied, but its noxious emanations have invaded everything. Fear is transmitted from generation to generation. The matriarchs swaddle their little girls in their own insidious anguish, before they even reach puberty. Mother and daughter, O, harem restored!” (145). With the realization that Touma perpetuates the seraglio structure by imprisoning her daughter, Isma recognizes that she too has participated in this seraglio structure. She knows she has failed her sister Hajila by not watching protectively over her like Dinarzade watched over Scheherazade. Isma's feminist awakening prompts her to invite Hajila to the hammam, where Isma will consummate their sisterhood and commitment to solidarity by giving Hajila the key to leave her prison at the end of A Sister.

Despite this positive ending, Isma's initial complicity with the seraglio structure must be explored, since its tragic consequences are inscribed on Hajila's raped and beaten body. At the beginning of A Sister Hajila is not assured of Dinarzade and Scheherazade's complicity, since she has no sister to protect her when she is sent to the master's bed. Despite her apparent liberated ways, Isma participates in, and is complicitous with, the seraglio structure when she selects a wife for her husband. Djebar's explanation of the ambivalent meaning of derra illustrates the violence involved in the rivalry between wives.

Derra: the word used in Arabic to denote the new bride of the same man, the first wife's rival; this word means ‘wound’—the one who hurts, who cuts open the flesh, or the one who feels hurt, it's the same thing!

Is not the second wife, who appears on the other side of the bed, similar to the first one, almost a part of her, the very one who was frigid and against whom the husband raises avenging arms? At which the first wife smiles, an ambiguous smile.

(SS, 91)

One can imagine Isma's own ambiguous smile as she sends Hajila into a war zone by proposing Hajila as her husband's next wife. As the ambivalence of the word derra suggests, the second wife, who is supposed to be the wound for the first wife, actually becomes the one who will be wounded in A Sister. Like Haoua, who is wounded by a lover furious about being rejected, Hajila becomes the victim of the husband's16 wounded pride, since he is rejected by his first wife, Isma.

In A Sister a woman's body will again testify to rupture, division, and war. This time the Algerian War for Independence is explicitly absent, yet its structuring presence still hides beneath the story. It could be argued that A Sister elaborates the warning emitted in Les alouettes naïves that the war for independence was reborn within the couple (WA, 190). In A Sister Isma describes her relationship with her husband in terms of war (barricades, defiance, confrontation) as she recounts her past (66). Likewise, Hajila, through Isma's narrative voice,17 describes her first sexual experience with the husband in terms of struggle, battle, and resistance.

Rape! Is this rape? People assert that he is your husband, your mother always refers to ‘your master, your lord’ … He has forced you down on to the bed, you try to fight him off, finding unsuspected sources of strength. You are crushed beneath his chest. You try to wriggle free from under the weight, you stiffen your arms convulsively against your sides, bracing yourself as he clasps you to him. The man's arms tighten around you, then relax their grip, you bend your legs, not daring to kick, not trying to escape. A battle fought out on a mattress in a tangle of crumpled sheets … The man has switched out the lamp, taking advantage of a temporary let-up, a brief breathing space. You were already closing your eyes. The climax is near, you resume your resistance.

(SS, 57-58)

Isma experiences jouissance and erotic fulfillment despite the antagonism between herself and her husband, whereas Hajila only suffers from the sexual act forced on her by a man she loathes, a man with whom she wages nightly battle. Powerless yet anything but submissive, Hajila describes sex as another form of slavery: “‘Is this what coitus really is for every woman? this physical pain?’ Has no woman ever rebelled? Do the other forms of slavery not suffice?” (63). Hajila's reaction to this violent appropriation of her body is to declare war on the husband and to name him the enemy: “‘Every night this searing burrows deeper into you, you clench your teeth for minutes on end, waiting for the male to finish puffing and panting above your head!’ Not one of these women revealed that, the following morning, your only defence is defiance! You take your time washing yourself, oh so slowly! you show your hostility by the way you stand against a door” (63-64). Hajila's resistance is reminiscent of an Algeria whose screams of refusal and resistance are made audible by Djebar's version of the colonial conquest in Fantasia.

Hajila's revolt takes the form of her daily walks in the city without her veil, therefore naked and exposed. In Maghrébines: Portraits littéraires Denise Brahimi points out that these walks are not free promenades, but rather panic-stricken revolts through which Hajila deliberately exposes herself to the violence of the masculine gaze in the streets in order to send out a call for help (120). For Hajila, who was brought up in a traditional environment and who has veiled most of her life, these anonymous male looks in the street violate her entire being, and her continued walks represent a betrayal of her husband: “How could you tell him that it was even more serious, that you were deceiving him with the faces of strangers?” (SS, 86). Hajila has felt justified in this “betrayal” ever since her rape by her husband: “This morning, the day after the rape, you are no longer afraid of him. You only have to remember the times you stroll at liberty through the sunlit spaces of the town, with no stench between your legs” (62). Yet Hajila loses this battle against her husband when he finds out about her daily revolts. One is reminded of Scheherazade's fear of the dawn when the husband begins beating Hajila at daybreak, punishing her for her “infidelity,” since she has let herself be devoured by male gazes every day by walking through the city unveiled. As punishment for letting herself be gazed at and, conversely, gazing back, the husband attempts to blind Hajila (87). This image of a man attempting to blind his wife as he beats her prefigures a certain identification between Hajila and Djebar. Like the duo Isma-Djebar, whose destinies are inevitably intertwined by their common past, Hajila and Djebar share the same wound. Hajila begins her healing process in the hammam when Isma reaches out to her as sister, daughter, and mother and a bond of solidarity is established between the two; Djebar's healing process is charted in Vaste est la prison.

A certain continuity between A Sister to Scheherazade and Vaste est la prison, as well as a merging of Djebar's, Hajila's, and Isma's identities, is established by the symbiotic atmosphere of the hammam18 which appears at the close of A Sister and at the beginning of Vaste. Hence the autobiographical element in the quartet surges forth in full force, going beyond the mere similarities of Isma's and Djebar's adolescence. Djebar courageously reveals and writes about her own wound at the hands of her husband in the first part of Vaste. Like Hajila, Djebar protects her eyes from a furious husband who wishes to punish her with blindness (85). Djebar inscribes herself into the age-old story of sororal bonds by becoming not only Isma's double but Hajila's as well. This merging of authorial identity with the identities of other women is a strategy already present in Fantasia. For example, in an excellent analysis of Djebar's project, Hafid Gafaiti, in Les femmes dans le roman algérien, notices how the autobiographical “I” which announced itself in the scandal of its singularity gradually effaces itself in order to merge with and to privilege the anonymous voices of Algerian women in Fantasia (171). Ultimately this initial inscription of a plural autobiography (Abdel-Jaouad, 25) in Fantasia will be put into practice in Vaste est la prison according to the solidarity and sisterhood principle developed by A Sister to Scheherazade.

Although sororal bonds promise to heal wounds at the end of A Sister, solidarity and sisterhood are not easy to come by in a society which persists in setting women against one another as rivals. In A Sister Isma suddenly awakens to this realization as she watches her ex-husband's son Nezim—a son who is perhaps Hajila's only consolation in her domestic prison—learn society's rules from Touma, who is the guardian of this modern-day seraglio: “From earliest childhood males learn to detect the breach in our defences caused by indecision—the moment of weakness which, in a flash, sets women in wrangling confrontation with each other. What they see as children will serve to slake their appetites as adults. To widen eventually the gap between us. With their bodies, their sex, their perfidy! Forcing us more and more to lose hope” (146).

Hajila's mother, Touma, enforces the seraglio's primordial law, and therefore this mother-daughter bond must be severed before Hajila can begin her healing process. The importance of renewing the matrilineal bonds of the past, a common theme in Djebar's work since Women of Algiers, should not be interpreted as the daughter's submission to mothers who cloister their daughters. In “To Write, Disinherited” Djebar explicitly refuses this particular mother-daughter transmission and does not accept this heritage, which is ultimately a heritage of lamentation that would render writing impossible.

For women … the ancient song just injected rhythm into their sterile inner ferment, their offended pride—and even this only on the condition that the body was forgotten—the hair of course, the eyes, the breasts, the carriage, the gait, the sheer movement. … Only provided the voice subsisted without the gaze—women's voices floating off somewhere or else entombed. Weeping, mainly. … Tears can't be written; they claw the body, they torture it. At best, they turn into a gale, a storm; not a flow of writing. Rage, if it grabs you by the throat and knots up your voice, at least it causes your words from here and there to tumble madly onto the page. Did I say I'll write no lamentation? My writing never has accepted such a heritage.


Djebar rejects this heritage in order to restore both the sound and the gaze to her work and to be reborn as a new feminine subject in her work as a filmmaker, which is documented in the chapters titled “Femme arable” in the third part of Vaste est la prison. It is not surprising that these chapters alternate with chapters which rewrite the stories of Djebar's feminine ancestors. Djebar demonstrates here how women can renew their relationship with the matrilineal figures from their past without being subsumed within a heritage of cloistered women like Hajila.

This argument is supported by Djebar in the sixth movement of the third part of Vaste est la prison. When her daughter tells her of the new job offered to her in her father's city, Djebar remembers how the women of this region refer to their husbands as “the enemy” (l'e'dou) and fears that her daughter will not be able to fall in love among such enemies (320). When Djebar discourages her daughter from taking this job and encourages her to go to Rouen instead, she realizes that she is disinheriting her daughter and making her a “fugitive” (320). At the same time Djebar is bequeathing another heritage, one passed down through a feminine genealogy of mythical women, all of whom were fugitives in one way or another because they dared to keep moving despite the mortal risk involved. In Vaste est la prison this new symbolic genealogy can be traced back to Tin Hinan, the fugitive princess of Tuareg legend.

After recounting the history of Berber struggle and resistance (Yougourtha is the emblem of this struggle) through the loss of the Berber alphabet in the second part of Vaste est la prison, Djebar conjures the image of the legendary Tin Hinan, who brought the archaic alphabet with her in her flight from the Tafilalet to Hoggar.

J'imagine donc la princesse du Hoggar qui, autrefois dans sa fuite, emporta l'alphabet archaïque, puis en confia les caractères à ses amies, juste avant de mourir. Ainsi, plus de quatre siècles après la résistance et le dramatique échec de Yougourtha au Nord, quatres siècles également avant celui, grandiose, de la Kahina—la reine berbère qui résistera à la conquête arabe—, Tin Hinan des sables, presque effacée, nous laisse héritage … notre écriture la plus secrète, aussi ancienne que l'étrusque ou que celle des “runes” mais, contrairement à celles-ci, tout bruissante encore de sons et de souffles d'aujourd'hui, est bien legs de femme.


(So I imagine the princess of the Hoggar who, in bygone days, brought the archaic alphabet with her in her flight, then entrusted its characters to her female friends on her deathbed. So, more than four centuries after the resistance and the dramatic defeat of Jugurtha in the north, also four centuries before the grandiose defeat of Kahina—the Berber queen who resisted against the Arab conquest—Tin Hinan of the desert sands, almost forgotten, bequeaths her legacy to us … our most secret writing, as ancient as Etruscan and runic writings, but unlike these writings, ours, which is still humming with today's sounds and breaths, is a woman's legacy.)

Like Tin Hinan, Zoraidé is also a fugitive who takes a message written in her native language, Arabic, with her in her flight from her homeland. Djebar establishes a bond with Tin Hinan and Zoraidé in Vaste when she inscribes herself in the constant movement of previous feminine fugitives: “Je deviens de plus en plus transfuge. Telle Zoraidé, la dépouillée. Ayant perdu comme elle ma richesse du départ, dans mon cas, celle de l'héritage maternel, et ayant gagné quoi, sinon la simple mobilité du corps dénudé, sinon la liberté. Fugitive donc, et ne le sachant pas” (More and more I become a renegade like Zoraidé, who was stripped of her inheritance. Like Zoraidé, I've lost my original riches, in my case the wealth of maternal legacy, and what did I gain, save the simple mobility of the denuded body, save freedom. A fugitive, therefore, without knowing it; 172). Djebar in turn passes the legacy of these fugitives down to her own daughter, and in doing so, she reinvents a feminine genealogy which transcends blood lines and ethnicity. Like this new feminine genealogy, feminine sisterhood must also transcend these same categories in order to embrace all women threatened by the mare's hoof in the Fantasia.

In the fourth and final section of Vaste Djebar presents us with a model for this type of sisterhood which transcends divisions between women and is based on the common condition of flight. In the chapter titled “Yasmina” a Polish woman becomes a sort of fugitive in an Algeria that has become too dangerous due to the outbreak of fundamentalist violence. When this Polish woman is stopped by false police officers and then taken away by them, Yasmina courageously defends her “sister.” She pays the ultimate price for her solidarity, which transcends any limited definition of sisterhood. Yasmina dies for a foreign woman, a woman whose life is in danger and for whom Yasmina unhesitatingly redefines kinship by watching over the Polish woman like Dinarzade watched over Scheherazade. Since the Polish woman has disappeared, Djebar inherits Yasmina's legacy of resistance and solidarity. Djebar writes Yasmina's story in order that Yasmina's mutilated body, like so many mortally wounded bodies in Djebar's work, will testify to the present violence and rupture in Algeria.

Djebar's response to the current violence in Algeria is quite clear as Vaste draws to its close: writing violence and courageously facing the violence of writing enables Djebar to renew age-old sororal bonds, which in turn empower her to bear witness to a beloved Algeria whose wounds are far from healed. Although it is modeled on sisterhood, Djebar's solidarity is not gender-specific, since it embraces all the victims of the current violence, as Le blanc de l'Algérie (1996) demonstrates. It therefore seems only fitting to conclude this essay with a lyric passage written by Djebar in 1994, since this passage evokes her commitment to a writing which will not feed on rupture, but mend it.

So from now on, in response to the blood gushing in / my country, / is it a program marked feminine I'm to write / to live / to write in order to live, / and in the debility of my childhood tongue, / the depletion of my inherited tongue, shall French, transmitted by / no genealogy, sow itself instead / in what solitude / of elsewhere, / of another land elsewhere / to start from scratch / to let the silence stream / and mend the rip? / Did I say I'll write only in life, which means in life's void, too, in the / solitary flight which, at its furthest point, turns into solidarity lest it / freeze over? / The writing of a disinherited daughter, in order to speak, still, of / sunlight.

(“TW” [“To Write, Disinherited”], 188)

The mere fact that Djebar surmounts the temptation to flee writing in the first three novels of the Algerian Quartet and continues to write of violence, in violence, and despite violence is ample testimony to her commitment to affirming life and to healing wounds.


  1. The accent in djébar has subsequently been dropped.

  2. The first three novels of the Algerian Quartet are L'amour, la fantasia (1985), Ombre sultane (1987), and Vaste est la prison (1995). In an interview with Clarisse Zimra titled “Woman's Memory Spans Centuries” in Women of Algiers, Assia Djebar suggests that the title of the fourth novel in the quartet might be Les oiseaux de la mosaïque (186).

  3. In La littérature féminine de langue française au Maghreb Jean Déjeux points out that this attitude toward the use of the first-person-singular pronoun “I” is characteristic of Maghrebian society in general, among both men and women (66). Despite the reticence of both men and women, the stakes are higher for a woman who “unveils” intimate details about herself. Nada Turk, in her article, “L'amour, la fantasia d'Assia Djebar: ‘Chronique de guerre, voix des femmes,’” comments on these higher stakes for women who use the first-person pronoun. Djebar has pointed this out as well in “Du français comme butin.”

  4. In vernacular Arabic, “unveiled” means “denuded,” as Djebar points out in her essay “Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound,” in Women of Algiers (149).

  5. In Fantasia: An Algerian Calvacade Djebar refers to Algeria's rape by the colonial conquerors. Although Djebar no longer calls Algeria a woman but rather a goule (a type of female vampire in Oriental legend) in the final chapter of Vaste est la prison, she still identifies Algeria as feminine.

  6. Djebar often describes writing as a violent process which threatens the writing subject with suicide and death. Writing and death remain intertwined throughout the quartet, especially in part 4 of Vaste est la prison, when Djebar evokes the recent deaths of her compatriots.

  7. In an insightful article titled “Assia Djebar's Poetics of Subversion” Anne Donadey uses Luce Irigaray's theory of mimicry to show how Djebar's repetition of colonial discourse is a retaliatory reappropriation of language.

  8. In one of her most important essays, “Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound” in Women of Algiers, Djebar overtly condemns this exotic tradition which masks violence when she describes how the “orientalizing gaze turns in circles” around the closed Algerian society “stressing its ‘feminine mystery’ even more in order to hide the hostility of an entire Algerian community in danger” (146).

  9. See in particular Djebar's analysis of Delacroix's representation of Algerian women her essay “Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound” in Women of Algiers.

  10. The original title published in French by J. C. Lattès in 1985 is L'amour, la fantasia.

  11. Djebar at first claimed that her silence was caused by a problematic relationship to the French language, as Marguerite Le Clézio's interview with her demonstrates. Djebar then reconsiders this explanation for her silence while being interviewed by Clarisse Zimra in 1990. Djebar says: “I know I've told many others before that my silence had to do with my problematic relationship to language. That's what I claimed largely to be left in peace. But your questions force me to reconsider, and I am persuaded that there was something else at the bottom of it—at the bottom of me. I know, for instance, that I had to wait until L'amour, la fantasia to be able to take charge of my writing, to be able to inscribe my innermost self in my work” (171). Rather than read this reassessment as a denial of the importance of language choice in Djebar's decision to choose silence, I would argue that the two dilemmas are intrinsically linked, because the fear of autobiography is symptomatic of the same fear of exposing oneself in the language of the colonizer: both activities imply a wounding by and in language and writing.

  12. Djebar's actual date of birth is 30 June 1936 (WA, 159).

  13. This and all subsequent translations from Vaste est la prison are mine.

  14. Djebar explicitly becomes Isma's double in Vaste est la prison when, interrupting herself as narrator during a particularly traumatic scene, she asks herself, “Appellerai-je à nouveau la narratrice Isma?” (331).

  15. See, for example, Alain Grosrichard's reading of women in the seraglio in Structure du sérail.

  16. The husband in Ombre sultane is never named.

  17. Isma narrates the passages which describe Hajila's feelings and actions throughout the novel. Although it is not within the scope of this essay, the occultation of Hajila's narrative voice merits close analysis, especially in relation to the theme of silence present in most of Djebar's work.

  18. In “Espaces humides féminins dans la ville” Traki Bouchrara Zannad claims that feminine complicity often occurs in the hammam due to the effect that the hammam has on women's bodies and imaginations. In Assia Djebar: Romancière algérienne, cinéaste arabe Jean Déjeux also claims that the hammam is a place where women descend into a maternal, uterine environment, where memories of origins and collective unity prevail over feminine rivalries (51).


Abdel-Jaouad, Hédi. “L'amour, la fantasia: Autobiography as Fiction.” CELFAN Review, 1:1-2 (1987-88), pp. 25-29.

Achour, Christiane. Anthologie de la littérature algérienne de langue française. Paris. Enap-Bordas. 1990.

Brahimi, Denise. Maghrébines: Portraits littéraires. Paris. L'Harmattan-Awal. 1995.

Déjeux, Jean. Assia Djebar: Romancière algérienne, cinéaste arabe. Québec. Naaman. 1984.

———. La littérature féminine de langue française au Maghreb. Paris. Karthala. 1994.

Djebar, Assia. Le blanc de l'Algérie. Paris. Albin Michel. 1996. [BA]

———. “Du français comme butin.” La Quinzaine Littéraire, 436 (1985), p. 25. [“DF”]

———. Fantasia: An Algerian Calvacade. Dorothy S. Blair, tr. Portsmouth, N.H. Heinemann. 1993. [F]

———. A Sister to Scheherazade. Dorothy S. Blair, tr. London. Quartet. 1988. [SS]

———. “To Write, Disinherited.” Ann Smock, tr. Re/mapping the Occident. Bryan Joachim Malessa, John Jason Mitchell, eds. Berkeley. University of California Press. 1995. [“TW”]

———. Vaste est la prison. Paris. Albin Michel. 1995. [VP]

———. Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Marjolijn de Jager, tr. Charlottesville. University Press of Virginia. 1992. [WA]

Donadey, Anne. “Assia Djebar's Poetics of Subversion.” L'Esprit Créateur, 33:2 (Summer 1993), pp. 107-17.

Gafaiti, Hafid. Les femmes dans le roman algérien. Paris. L'Harmattan. 1996.

Grosrichard, Alain. Structure du sérail: La fiction du despotisme asiatique dans l'occident classique. Paris. Seuil. 1979.

Le Clézio, Marguerite. “Ecrire dans la langue adverse.” Contemporary French Civilization, 10 (December 1986), pp. 230-44.

Turk, Nada. “L'amour, la fantasia d'Assia Djebar: ‘Chronique de guerre, voix des femmes.’” CELFAN Review, 7:1-2 (1987-88), pp. 21-24.

Zannad, Traki Bouchrara. “Espaces humides féminins dans la ville: Le dar el Arbi et le hammam, étude de cas: la Médina de Tunis.” Espaces maghrébins: Pratiques et enjeux. Actes du colloque de Taghit (23-26 November 1987), pp. 233-39.

Mildred Mortimer (essay date autumn 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7104

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 to chronicle Algeria's transition from colonialism to independence and to foreground Algerian woman's struggle to redefine her role in postcolonial Algeria. Portraying Algeria's women as victims of dual oppression, French colonialism and Maghrebian patriarchy, Djebar claims subjectivity for herself and her Algerian sisters by reappropriating language, history, space, and the gaze. She reminds her public, readers and viewers, that as French colonialism once sought to stifle voice and memory, denying the colonized the right to their own language and history, Maghrebian patriarchy still attempts to restrict movement and vision, denying Algerian woman her right to circulate freely in public space where she may see and be seen.

Despite the fact that Djebar's first novel, La soif (1957), represents a flight from the harsh realities of the Algerian War by depicting a love triangle set against the backdrop of Mediterranean beaches, her subsequent works chart woman's transformation from passive object under patriarchal and colonial rule to active subject of her own discourse. Her feminist commitment first emerged in Les enfants du nouveau monde (1962) and Les alouettes naïves (1967), novels depicting woman's coming of age through direct or indirect participation in the Algerian War, and developed further in her film La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua (1977) and subsequent collection of short stories Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement (1980).1 The writer's appropriation of the camera to film La nouba, followed by her meditation on Delacroix's painting in the postface to the short stories, an essay entitled “Regard interdit, son coupé,” confirms the importance she attributes to woman's vision in a Maghrebian society in which patriarchy controls the female gaze. Finally, her most recent probing of the female gaze—and probably not her last word on the subject—occurs in Vaste est la prison (1995), the penultimate volume of her Algerian Quartet.

Although Djebar's resistance to colonialism and patriarchy is multifaceted, involving language, history, space, the gaze, and (by extension) the female body, I will focus primarily on the gaze in this study, because it informs Djebar's conception of individual and collective identity on the one hand and concerns the relationship between the female artist and her craft on the other. Not only does this focus of inquiry cross genres, finding expression in Djebar's pertinent essay, her first film, and the latest volume of her quartet, but it also probes connections between the image and the word, both problematic for women under the sway of patriarchy.

For Djebar the gaze is crucial, because the prohibition against woman seeing and being seen is at the heart of Maghrebian patriarchy, an ideological system in which the master's eye alone exists; women challenge the patriarchal system by appropriating the gaze for themselves. She writes:

Qu'est-ce que le regard de l'Autre dans une culture où l'œil a d'abord été des siècles durant mis sous surveillance? Un œil unique existait, celui du maître du serail qui interdisait toute représentation visuelle et qui invoquait le tabou religieux pour conforter ce pouvoir.

(“Un regard de femme,” 35)

(What is the gaze of the other in a culture in which the eye has been under surveillance for centuries? Only one eye existed, the harem master's, which forbade all visual representation and invoked religious taboos to enforce this power.)

Thus, when the novelist temporarily abandons the novel for the cinema, recounting this experience in the second half of Vaste est la prison, written two decades after the film, she is fully aware of the significance of her transgression, her revolt against the dominating gaze.

The act of placing her eye behind the camera's eye elicits the novelist's meditation on Delacroix's painting Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement, and more specifically the French painter's regard volé or stolen glance that resulted in the painting of an Algerian harem. Evoking the closed female space of the seraglio, the painting represents a Moorish interior with four Algerian women, one leaning against a set of cushions, two seated before a narguilé (water pipe), and the fourth standing as she lifts a heavy curtain. By lifting the curtain, the fourth woman, a servant, allows the painter to gaze upon the odalisques and their cloistered chambers.2 Reflecting upon the portrait more than a century after the French painter first viewed the cloistered women, Djebar writes:

Prisonnières résignées d'un lieu clos qui s'éclaire d'une sorte de lumière de rêve venue de nulle part—lumière de serre ou d'aquarium—, le génie de Delacroix nous les rend à la fois présentes et lointaines, énigmatiques au plus haut point.

(FA [Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement], 170)

Resigned prisoners in a closed place that is lit by a kind of dreamlike light coming from nowhere—a hothouse light or that of an aquarium—Delacroix's genius makes them both near and distant to us at the same time, enigmatic to the highest degree.

(WA [Women of Algiers in Their Apartment], 135-36)

She acknowledges Delacroix's talent, evident in his remarkable rendering of the sad and distant gaze of the captives of the enclosure and in his reproduction of the exotic interior with its luxuriant colors and textures, but categorizes the French painter's visit as a transgression. In her view, Delacroix, despite his genius, remains an emissary of colonial conquest, and the women whom he painted are victims of the patriarchal domination that preceded, then accompanied, and now postdates the French conquest of Algeria. Djebar states clearly that the man who agreed to allow Delacroix to enter his home was a chaouch, an Algerian in the employ of a French colonial official and therefore in a subservient position. Delacroix would never have been able to see these quarters before the French conquest of Algeria in 1830. Arriving two years later, the painter joins in France's colonial venture; his gaze is therefore inextricably linked to the colonial conquest.

Recognizing Delacroix's genius and yet sensitive to his transgression, how does Djebar respond to the painting? An Algerian woman and therefore indirectly a descendant of the odalisques, she nevertheless conserves the role of spectator, not participant, and writes: “Entre elles et nous, spectateurs, il a eu la seconde du dévoilement, le pas qui a franchi le vestibule de l'intimité, le frôlement surpris du voleur, de l'espion, du voyeur” (FA, 173; emphasis mine); “Between them and us, the spectators, there has been the instant of unveiling, the step that crossed the vestibule of intimacy, the unexpected slight touch of the thief, the spy, the voyeur” (WA, 137). Djebar positions herself not only as viewer who, like the painter, participates in the “stolen glance,” but as informed art historian. Citing the progression in Delacroix's perspective from the first canvas of 1834 to the second exhibited in 1849, she explains that the women in the second version become more distanced and isolated, their universe more oneiric, their confinement more apparent. She also reflects upon Picasso's series of paintings and lithographs inspired by Delacroix and undertaken in 1954, when the Algerian War began. Picasso's Femmes d'Alger marks a radical departure from Delacroix's painting by opening the cloistered chambers to sunlight and the outdoors.

Contextualizing Delacroix's painting within the historical framework of French colonialism's encounter with an Islamic world that refuses figurative representation but finds artistic expression in architecture, calligraphy, and decorative arts, she explores the links between Delacroix's stolen glance and the Maghrebian patriarch's controlling gaze.3 She notes that as the Algerian nation became further dispossessed under colonial rule, Algerian men tightened their control over Algerian women. Colonial rule and colonialist dispossession joined to imprison Algerian women doubly, a domination conveyed graphically via le regard orientalisant, the orientalizing look. Djebar writes:

Le regard orientalisant—avec ses interprètes militaires d'abord et ses photographes et cinéastes ensuite—tourne autour de cette société fermée, en soulignant davantage encore son “mystère féminin” pour occulter ainsi l'hostilité de toute une communauté algérienne en danger.

(FA, 183)

The orientalizing look—first with its military interpreters and then with its photographers and filmmakers—turns in circles around this closed society, stressing its “feminine mystery” even more in order thus to hide the hostility of an entire Algerian community in danger.

(WA, 146)

Thus, the stolen glance of a remarkably gifted nineteenth-century French painter is transformed by a series of lesser artists, first painters and then photographers, into the “orientalizing look” that reifies the Algerian woman and her world; she, oppressed by French colonialism as well as by Algerian patriarchy, becomes all the more vulnerable to constraints and confinement.4

The title of Djebar's essay, “Regard interdit, son coupé” (“Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound”), foregrounds Delacroix's stolen glance on the one hand and the inaudible conversation of the cloistered women on the other. By granting importance to the muted conversation, to women's silence, Djebar assumes the task completely beyond Delacroix's realm of competency, that of restoring sound to this silent study of Orientalist imagery. Moreover, by linking the reappropriation of the gaze to the word, the right to see (and be seen) to the right to speak (and be heard), the essay marks an important stage in Djebar's personal quest and explains her decision to become a filmmaker. On the one hand, her work will restore the lost sound of her maternal language; on the other hand, it will defy and oppose the male dominating gaze. Yet, by undertaking this task, Djebar is forced to think through her own position with respect to Delacroix's Orientalist representation.5 In addition, the circumstances surrounding the painting and the canvas itself set up a tension between disclosure and dissimulation—what to show versus what to hide—that occurs in the filming of La nouba and in Djebar's writing, particularly as her work has become increasingly more autobiographical in the volumes that comprise her Algerian Quartet.

When she films La nouba, Djebar views her appropriation of the camera as a challenge to colonial and patriarchal domination, an important political and symbolic event in the liberation and empowerment of Algerian women. It is, for her, the logical outcome of her rejection of the dominating gaze. If the project is crucial to the collective enterprise, it is also deeply personal as she undertakes the quest of reestablishing links with the maternal world of her childhood. In the attempt to restore severed sound, the maternal language of her past, she returns to her native region of Cherchell, revisiting the city situated approximately sixty miles west of Algiers and its neighboring countryside, the rocky coast, fields, and hills surrounding Mont Chenoua. There she captures in image and sound the oral history of rural women and, via Lila, the film's fictional protagonist, charts the process of self-discovery and self-affirmation of a modern Algerian woman troubled by a war-scarred past and an unsatisfactory marriage.

In La nouba Djebar's camera follows Lila on her dual itinerary: an exterior trajectory leading to a rediscovery of traditional rural life and an internal trajectory that becomes a meditation on memory. Returning to Cherchell fifteen years after the end of the Algerian War, Lila is obsessed by painful war memories: prison, torture, the loss of members of her family. Through encounters with rural women, following their daily lives, listening to their accounts of their own war experiences, and eventually recording their narratives, she finds the comfort she seeks and her psychological health is finally restored. Yet, despite her spiritual renewal, Lila is unable to repair her marriage. She remains saddened by the failure of her marriage and the pervading weight of patriarchy in postcolonial Algeria.

As Lila renews her contact with the rural Algeria of her childhood, her gaze encompasses landscapes, faces, architecture. Following Lila into the countryside, the camera's eye takes in panoramic views of Mont Chenoua and the hills overlooking the Mediterranean. It lingers on landscape, capturing the reddish and golden hues of the rocks along the coast, and on the female collectivity, focusing on the rural women working in the fields. When the camera follows Lila home, however, to film the interior of the small house she shares with her husband and young daughter, it bears witness to tension, solitude, and the lack of communication within the couple. Thus, Djebar uses visual elements to convey Lila's double itinerary: one path toward the outdoors, her encounter with rural woman's life and traditions; the other path introspective, the protagonist's meditation on intimacy and personal memory.

The importance of Lila's gaze is evident from the beginning of the film. In one of the first sequences the protagonist, her back to the spectators, her face pressed against the wall, cries out in anger: “Je parle, je parle, je parle” (I speak, I speak, I speak), then pauses to address Ali, her husband, who is in the room: “Je ne veux pas que l'on me voie; je ne veux pas que tu me voies” (I don't want to be seen; I don't want you to look at me). Thus, Lila comes before the camera proclaiming her right to speak and be heard and refusing the dominating gaze. Ali does not understand his wife's desire to see and speak for herself, her rejection of his control; the woman filmmaker does. In a close-up of Lila's head turned toward the wall, Djebar films Lila's revolt. Her eye behind the camera moves from Ali's gaze upon Lila to focus directly on Lila, recording the young woman's progressive journey to self-affirmation.

When she later describes the filming of La nouba in Vaste est la prison, Djebar explains that she attributed her own words and gestures to her protagonist, who exclaims, “Je parle, je parle, je parle” (VP [Vaste est la prison], 297). Lila's struggle for empowerment, her desire to speak coupled with her refusal to be gazed upon, reflects the filmmaker's personal identity quest and, as she explained in an interview preceding the publication of the novel, attributes importance to the appropriation of speech.

J'aboutis à cette évidence, ou à cette interrogation: que le cinéma fait par les femmes—autant cette fois du tiers monde que du “vieux monde”—procède d'abord d'un désir de parole. Comme si “tourner” au cinéma représente, pour les femmes, une mobilité de la voix et du corps, du corps non regardé, donc insoumis, retrouvant autonomie et innocence.

(“Un regard de femme,” 37)

(I have reached this conclusion, or this inquiry: that women's cinema—as much in the Third World as in the “Old World”—begins with the desire for the word. As if “to film” means for women a mobility of voice and body, the body not gazed upon, but unsubmissive, retrieving its autonomy and innocence.)6

By affirming that the struggle to break the silence is a central concern of women's cinema, Djebar transforms an individual quest, her attempt to restore severed sound to her own world, into a collective one, thereby situating her personal struggle within a larger context, joining the common concerns of the community of women filmmakers.

Charting Lila's struggle for empowerment, Djebar introduces a later sequence that bears an important relationship to the first. Situated in the couple's bedroom, it foregrounds the importance of woman's eye behind the camera as it reveals the weakening of patriarchy. In this scene, Ali, temporarily confined to a wheelchair because of an accident, gazes intently upon his sleeping wife from the bedroom doorway. Asleep, Lila cannot refuse the erotic glance of which she, in effect, is totally unaware. Although his gaze expresses desire, Ali, infirm, is unable to rise from the wheelchair to approach her. Recording his failed attempt to lift himself from the chair, the camera, as the only mobile eye in the room, moves in his stead. Turning slowly around the room, its eye envelops the sleeping woman. In this way, the camera effects an important transfer of power, appropriating the control that eludes Ali, revealing the man's impotence. Her eye behind the lens, the woman filmmaker successfully challenges the patriarchal gaze.

Although Lila at first seems at peace in this scene, recurrent nightmares of war atrocities disturb her sleep. Thus, the tension apparent in the first scene, as Lila rejects Ali's gaze and he responds with mute silence, is reinforced in the second sequence, in which the wife's inability to bury the past is coupled with the husband's inability to act. Yet, as the couple founders, female bonding strengthens. Fleeing her unhappy home, Lila turns to the rural woman and their world for her cure. As the camera shifts its focus away from the somber interior space where Lila and her husband live in silence and misunderstanding to the bright outdoors, it again follows Lila's eyes rediscovering peace in the rural world of her childhood as she exchanges glances and then words with the women of Mont Chenoua.

By reaching out to the rural women, Lila is invited to join in their world. This participation takes the form of an evening of traditional dances held in a local cave. Dancing with the women, Lila confirms her sense of belonging to the group. Moreover, the space in which the festivity takes place is significant. Dark, humid, mysterious, the cave where the women have assembled suggests a maternal womb and conveys a past history of tribal origins and earlier matriarchal power. Joining in the Berber women's oral tradition of music and dance, Lila accomplishes the task that Djebar as writer and filmmaker set as her goal; she restores severed sound to her maternal past.

Although Lila's trajectory includes a voyage inward, a return to female space and to the female collectivity, it concludes with a solitary outward journey as Lila, alone in a fishing boat, sails out to sea. With a last glimpse of the shoreline, her eyes take in the beauty of the rocky coast and the blue expanse of the open Mediterranean Sea. Thus, she leaves behind both the house that conveyed unhappiness and the women of Mont Chenoua who helped her move past painful memories.

Having filmed Lila's evolution, her coming of age by learning to see, Djebar later tells her readers of the impact of her protagonist's maturation upon her own evolution. In Vaste est la prison she writes:

Au cours de ces mois de tâtonnements, à la suite de mon personnage, j'apprenais que le regard sur le dehors est en même temps retour à la mémoire, à soimême enfant, aux murmures d'avant, à l'œil intérieur, immobile sur l'histoire jusque-là cachée, un regard nimbé de sons vagues, de mots inaudibles et de musiques mélangées. … Ce regard réflexif sur le passé pouvait susciter une dynamique pour une quête sur le présent, sur un avenir à la porte.

(VP, 298)

(In the course of these months of probing, following my protagonist, I learned that the gaze on the outdoors is at the same time a return to memory, to one's childhood, to earlier murmurs, to the interior eye, immobile on a history until then hidden, a clouded gaze of vague sounds, inaudible words, and blended music. … This reflexive gaze on the past could initiate the dynamic process for a quest in the present, and the future at hand.)

By filming Lila's story, the camera becomes a conduit to the filmmaker's maternal past. Moreover, in a subtle reversal of images, the eye of the camera that offers panoramic views, opening the world by filming vast expanses, transforms itself into the interior eye probing the hidden, the immobile, the indistinct, the inaudible. When Djebar returns through memory to closed space and indistinct murmurs, she hints at sharing some common ground with Delacroix. However, in a reflection reminiscent of Picasso's response to Delacroix's canvas, Djebar turns to the past to vitalize the present, conceiving of a future where women are mobile and doors open to sunlight exteriors and not to darkened hallways.

If Delacroix's painting remains ever present in Djebar's consciousness, it is also because she, as an Algerian filmmaker, must come to terms with the question of interdiction: what to disclose, what to dissimulate. Critical of Delacroix, whom she termed a robber, a spy, a voyeur, she avoids transgression. Thus, she is careful to show respect for her hosts, for whom she, her actors, and her camera crew, all visitors from Algiers, are potential intruders. Her intent is to discover and explore without disturbing daily lives. For example, she knows that were she to film adolescent girls and young women without the consent of their fathers or husbands, she would cause serious problems within traditional Muslim families. The filmmaker decides, therefore, to sacrifice certain images rather than attempt a stolen glance. Djebar later recounts in Vaste est la prison that she was unable to film a young woman she called “the Madonna” because the latter's husband was not available to grant permission. We may argue that she submitted to patriarchy rather than oppose its constraints, but for Djebar this woman came to represent those who, in the name of privacy, should be allowed to escape the camera's eye. In contrast, Djebar does not hesitate to film the very young and the elderly, the prepubescent girls and postmenopausal women who are free from Muslim society's restrictions upon women's enclosure. However, her camera skillfully acknowledges interdiction by capturing glimpses of veiled women slipping into the shadows of a doorway as well as houses with their windows shut tight.

Thus, Djebar's response to Delacroix and the painters and photographers he inspired is to eschew transgression and reject the Orientalist's attraction to darkness and immobility. Her only indoor footage is of actors and their fictional world; she films Algerian women outdoors and in movement. In this way, she distances herself from the regard orientalisant, the controlling gaze of the Other that Delacroix's painting Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement has come to represent.

It is important to note that Djebar's deconstruction of the regard orientalisant points to a dual origin: Maghrebian patriarchy on the one hand, French colonialism on the other. If at first one eye alone existed, the harem master's, it was forced by political events, the conquest of Algeria, to make room for another, the colonizer's. Significantly, Djebar is charting the process of woman's empowerment in the postcolonial era. She herself has witnessed the dismantling of colonial empire and, with it, the departure of the colonizer. Yet, keenly aware of the presence and power of patriarchy throughout the Maghreb, she warns that although one controlling eye is gone, the other remains an active force in some areas of public and private life and risks being restored in others. Hence, as an Algerian writer and a feminist, she calls for the transformation of domestic space into a locus of positive relationships, a space no longer controlled by the male patriarchal gaze. In other words, she calls for an end to all vestiges of the closed and oppressive system of domestic organization Orientalists termed a harem.

An analysis of La nouba has shown that as the filmmaker distances herself from Orientalism, from Europe's intrusive and distorting eye, in her fictional world she foregrounds her protagonist's struggle to break free from the controlling gaze of Maghrebian patriarchy. Her exploration of both forms of domination continues in Vaste est la prison. Incorporating several strands of narrative, the novel begins with a first-person narrative that reworks aspects of Lila's struggle for empowerment and later turns to Djebar's reflections on her experience as filmmaker. Briefly, the first-person narrative (part 1 of the text) recounts a thwarted liaison between an Algerian woman—wife, mother, university professor—and the younger man to whom she turns in the belief he will rescue her from a stale marriage. However, illicit passion triggers violence. The wife's confession to her husband of her desire for this other man results in her brutal beating and their eventual divorce. The narrator ultimately achieves independence, freeing herself from both husband and lover. She, like Lila, moves on alone and empowered.

Thus, the tension pervading domestic scenes in the earlier film explodes as violence in this text. To her exploration of the psychological mechanisms of passion and jealousy, the novelist adds the factor of domestic violence, an issue she had addressed once before, in Ombre sultane. However, she now gives the theme of violence against women yet another dimension by including in this text incidents of attacks by Islamic fundamentalists against Algerian women whose dress and/or comportment they deem disrespectful of their religious tenets. Hence, the violence Djebar had depicted in earlier texts—Les enfants du nouveau monde, Les alouettes naïves, L'amour, la fantasia—as brutality inflicted upon Algerians by an external enemy, the European colonizer, is refigured. Turned inward and self-destructive, this violence harms society and family life, transforming the Algerian nation into a divided society and the Algerian home into a prison where interrogation and intimidation replace communication and understanding.

Although the plot summary bears certain melodramatic elements, it nevertheless conveys the overarching theme of Djebar's work: Algerian woman's struggle for empowerment in defiance of patriarchal constraints. Woman's right to see and be seen is again at the heart of the struggle; Isma's beating is crucial in this regard. When the irate husband attacks his wife, wielding a broken whiskey bottle, he aims for her eyes. Isma, the narrator, recalls:

Protéger mes yeux. Car sa folie se révélait étrange: il prétendait m'aveugler. “Femme adultère”, gronda-t-il, la bouteille de whisky cassée en deux à la main; je ne pensais qu' à mes yeux, et au risque que représentait la baie trop ouverte.

(VP, 85)

(Protect my eyes. His madness is strange: he wanted to blind me. “Adultress,” he mumbled, the broken whiskey bottle in his hand; I could only think of my eyes, and the danger of the wide-open bay window.)

Beaten ostensibly for initiating an illicit relationship, Isma is in fact punished for daring to review her life and redefine it. Her husband claims the dominating gaze for himself alone. Threatened by his wife's gaze upon the world and others, he inflicts violence upon her body in his vain attempt to control her.

In her effort to fill an emotional void, Isma had entered into a game of seduction with her potential lover. By dancing seductively before him, she captures his attention, and then feels validated by his presence, empowered by his gaze.7 She states: “Ainsi un homme m'avait regardée danser et j'avais été ‘vue’” (Thus a man had seen me dance and I had been “seen”; VP, 64). Isma further admits that she is prisoner of the male gaze when she exclaims:

… moi regardée par lui et aussitôt après, allant me contempler pour me voir par ses yeux dans le miroir, tenter de surprendre le visage qu'il venait de voir, comment il le voyait, ce “moi” étranger et autre, devenant pour la première fois moi à cet instant même, précisément grâce à cette translation de la vision de l'autre.

(VP, 116)

(… me gazed upon by him and promptly looking at myself in the mirror to see myself through his eyes, trying to seize the face he had just seen, as he saw it, this “me,” the stranger and the other, becoming me for the very first time, at this very instant, precisely because of this displacement of the other's vision.)

By accepting the “displacement of the other's vision,” Isma conforms to John Berger's analysis of the construction of a female identity that depends upon woman's internalization of the male dominating gaze. The art critic writes: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves” (46-47).

After the relationship has ended, however, Isma is able to reexamine her relationship to the gaze of the man she had previously desired. Then, with the understanding that her self-image has depended upon his gaze mediating the process of her self-validation, and that this dependency had in fact turned her, the female subject, into a passive object of male desire, she has the perspective necessary to free herself from his hold. Breaking the dependency, she reappropriates the gaze. No longer prisoner of another's projection, she is free to shape and articulate her own experience, serve as her own mirror, see and be seen without the mediation of the Other.

Thus, Djebar situates Isma's reevaluation of the male dominating gaze within her evolution toward emotional maturity. For Isma, the process of selfhood begins with the recognition of a sterile marriage followed by a futile romance and concludes with her rejection of the controlling gaze. Although Djebar considers the “displacement of the other's vision” a legacy of Maghrebian patriarchy, originating with the controlling eye of the master of the harem, Berger's comments concerning female dependency upon the male gaze are directed initially to the Occident, not the Orient. They become all the more pertinent, however, in Algeria, a society that has traditionally cloaked its women in veils and barred their entrance into public space.

Neither veiled nor cloistered, Isma never encounters the full weight of patriarchy. The protagonist retraces the novelist's trajectory and, like her, is separated through schooling from the traditional world of the women of her childhood—her grandmothers, aunts, cousins, and mother—and from experiences of enclosure that mark their lives. At the age at which her cousins were veiled, Djebar's father sent her as a boarding student to a colonial secondary school. The break was not conclusive, however; she returned to her extended family every summer, reentering a world from which she became further distanced as she grew older. In the third part of the novel Djebar uses memory to bridge the gap between traditional women's lives and her own. Isma, her voice and life story merging with Djebar's recalls episodes in the lives of her mother and grandmother that were clearly subversive and successfully challenged patriarchy and colonialism.8 As Isma expresses Djebar's struggle for self, she reveals that her female forebears were not resigned prisoners of the enclosure. She is following a path that earlier generations of women had already begun to trace.

First, Lla Fatima, Djebar's maternal grandmother, given in marriage at the age of fourteen to a wealthy, aged patriarch. As the narrator imagines the wedding night, she studies the child bride's eyes for signs of submission or revolt.

Elle garde les paupières baissées, lorsque l'homme—son maître—soulève, des doigts, la voilette, approche son visage gris des yeux de la jeune mariée … sa main tâtonne, frôle les pommettes, les yeux de Fatima qui, lentement enfin, regarde.

(VP, 210)

(She keeps her eyes lowered, when the man—her master—raises the veil with his fingers, his gray face approaching the young wife's eyes … his hand fumbles, strokes the cheek, the eyes that finally slowly look up.)

Although the girl's eyes convey submission on her wedding night, she subsequently, as the old man's wife, establishes control and, still an adolescent, manipulates the aged patriarch. Upon his death a few years later, she refuses to remain with his family. In later years, twice more widowed and then divorced, Lla Fatima secures autonomy and standing in Cherchell, where she is an important elder known for her wisdom and independence, and becomes a property owner as well.9

As Lla Fatima subverts patriarchal domination, her daughter Bahia challenges colonial authority. When the latter's son is sent to prison in France during the Algerian War, she sets out to persuade French authorities to allow her a private visit with her son. Traveling from Algiers to the prison in Alsace, she knows that the fate of her mission depends upon a successful encounter with the French administrator. She will succeed if, under the scrutiny of the prison director's gaze, she is able to affect a certain “Europeanness.” Isma explains:

Elle parlait maintenant sans accent; ses cheveux châtain clair, sa toilette de la boutique la plus élégante d'Alger la faisaient prendre (quarante ans, elle en paraissait dix de moins, un peu raidie dans son air “chic”) pas tellement pour une Française, plutôt pour une bourgeoise d'Italie du Nord, ou pour une Espagnole qui serait francisée.

(VP, 188-89)

(She now spoke without an accent; her light brown hair and her clothes from the most elegant boutique in Algiers made her appear [at forty she seemed ten years younger, a little stiff in her “chic” appearance] not so much as a French woman, but rather an Italian bourgeoise, or perhaps a Spaniard who had become quite French.)

The Algerian mother is granted the visit to her son, an Algerian “rebel,” because she meets criteria that place her outside indigenous space. In truth, the French prison director does not quite know where to situate her and asks himself as he looks her over: “Une Mauresque, cette jeune femme si bien habillée?” (A Moorish woman, this young woman so well-dressed? VP, 195). Her only trace of former veiling is the pair of dark glasses shielding her eyes.10

In this episode that foregrounds visual representation, Djebar conveys as well the importance of language skills to the performance, a test in assimilation. The Algerian woman must speak the colonizer's language flawlessly at the same time that she undergoes the scrutiny of his gaze. Yet when Djebar becomes narrator and scribe, using the French language to record her mother and grandmother's subversion of patriarchy and colonialism, she enters linguistic space they do not share. Delving into the past to bridge the gap between their lives and hers, the novelist encounters the barrier of language. In colonial Algeria, her grandmother was not taught to speak French; her mother was not taught to read or write it.

In this regard, having examined the ambiguous nature of the French colonial educational experience in L'amour, la fantasia, the text in which she recalls the crucial event of walking to school for the first time accompanied by her father, Djebar, in this work, recounts an equally significant episode: a scene constructed not from memory but from an image. At the age of four, the novelist is photographed with her father in his classroom with his male pupils. On the one hand, the photo reveals the schoolteacher's intent to educate his children, to break social and cultural barriers and move his daughter into space formerly reserved for men and boys. On the other hand, it confirms the child's response, a steady and resolute stare back at the camera's eye; she accepts the challenge. The photo does not show—and cannot predict—either the subsequent process of social and cultural dislocation (the price one pays for challenging prevailing norms) or the powerful promise of discovery, formerly an exclusively male prerogative, that a move into new realms makes possible.

Finally, by combining narratives, adding her memories of childhood and adolescence to biographical fragments of her mother and grandmother's lives, Djebar retraces a collective trajectory away from the enclosure. The writer reveals that although her father, deeply committed to educating his children, made her individual journey possible, women family members provided collective support.11 Interweaving several strands of narrative and fusing the voices of protagonist and novelist, Djebar widens the scope of autobiography to embrace the collective female voice.12 Situating her discourse within the community of Algerian women, she, with their help, restores severed sound, the task she assumed from Delacroix, and in the process creates collective autofiction. Hence, when Djebar recalls her experience of filming La nouba, she clearly defines her individual mission as a shared endeavor.

J'ai dit: “Moteur.” Une émotion m'a saisie. Comme si, avec moi, toutes les femmes de tous les harems avaient chuchoté: “Moteur.” Connivence qui me stimule. D'elles seules dorénavant le regard m'importe. Pose sur ces images que j'organise et que ces présences invisibles derrière mon épaule aident à fermenter.

(VP, 74)

(As I said “Begin,” I was seized with emotion. It was as if with me all the women of all the harems had whispered, “Begin.” This complicity urges me on. What only matters to me from now on is their gaze upon the images I am organizing and which their invisible presence peeking over my shoulder helps develop.)

As Djebar's pen brought Algerian women's muted voice and veiled presence into public space, so does her camera; hence the symbolic value of giving the camera to a sequestered sister. Before concluding Vaste est la prison, Djebar states:

Cette image—réalité de mon enfance, de celle de mon enfance, de celle de ma mère et de mes tantes, de mes cousines parfois du même âge que moi, ce scandale qu'enfant j'ai vécu norme, voici qu'elle surgit au départ de cette quête; silhouette unique de femme, rassemblant dans les pans de son linge-linceul les quelque cinq cents millions de ségréguées du monde islamique, c'est elle soudain qui regarde, mais derrière la caméra, elle qui, par un trou libre dans une face masquée, dévore le monde.

(VP, 174; emphasis mine)

(This image—reality of my childhood, that of my mother and my aunts, my cousins who were often my age, this scandal that for me as a child was considered normal, here she is at the start of my quest; woman's unique silhouette, gathering in the folds of her drapery-shroud the five hundred million segregated women of the Islamic world; suddenly she is staring at us, but from behind the camera, and through a free hole in a masked face she is devouring the world.)

Djebar's gesture of handing the camera to her sister is an attempt to encourage the latter's subjectivity at a time when any effort to reappropriate the gaze is considered by Islamic fundamentalist groups a provocation to be met with violence and oppression.13 However, too long a victim of colonial and patriarchal oppression, the Algerian woman is in movement, engaged in the process of liberation.14 As writer and filmmaker, Assia Djebar represents an important voice of resistance. In her rejection of the controlling gaze—be it individual or collective—she reminds her fellow Algerians that her nation must remain committed to pluralism; she claims for herself and her sisters the right to see and be seen, as they circulate freely in open space.


  1. For the historical background to woman's participation in the Algerian War, see Amrane-Minne.

  2. Aas-Rouparis interprets the role of the servant as a sign of confrontation with tradition. Zimra views her as the spy, the proxy of the master (WA, 209).

  3. Beaugé and Clément's edited work provides a series of interesting articles on the image in the Arab world as well as portraits of the Arab world by European travelers, painters, and photographers.

  4. For a study of photographs as postcards of the exotic Algerian woman, see Alloula.

  5. For a thorough and well-documented study of Orientalism, see Said. For an important study of Djebar's “dialogue” with Orientalists Delacroix and Fromentin in L'amour, la fantasia, see Zimra (1995).

  6. This translation and the translations from Vaste est la prison are mine.

  7. Chikhi notes the importance of the dance in Djebar's work, particularly for its importance to say or hide certain things (105). For a detailed study of the role of women's dance in the Arab world, see Henni-Chebra and Poché.

  8. For a theoretical discussion of the autobiographical pact, the promise to the reader that the textual and referential “I” are one and the same, see Lejeune and Lionnet.

  9. Djebar dedicates a short story, “Les morts parlent” (Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement), to her grandmother, Lla Fatma Sahraoui.

  10. Djebar's mother customarily wore the voile mauresque of urban Algerian women. See Gauvin, p. 78.

  11. When the child goes off the school, she wears a “protecting eye,” an amulet containing Koranic verses given to her by her grandmother (287).

  12. In her study of L'amour, la fantasia Geesey provides an informative essay on collective autobiography.

  13. Djebar's latest work, Le blanc de l'Algérie, is devoted exclusively to the theme of violence and death in Algeria. She and her family members have close friends and relatives who have been assassinated by Islamic extremists.

  14. For a further study of women in contemporary Algeria, see Lazreg.

Works Cited

Aas-Rouparis, Nicole. “L'esthéthique d'une mémoire dans Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement d'Assia Djebar: Reconstitution et traduction.” Revue Francophone, 8:2, pp. 5-17.

Alloula, Malek. Le harem colonial. Paris. Garance. 1981.

Amrane-Minne, Danièle Djamila. Femmes au combat. Algiers. Rahma. 1993.

———. Des femmes dans la guerre. Paris. Karthala. 1994.

Beaugé, G., and J.-F. Clément. L'image dans le monde arabe. Paris. CNRS. 1995.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London. BBC/Penguin. 1972.

Chikhi, Beïda. “Les espaces mnemoniques dans les romans d'Assia Djebar.” Itinéraires et contacts de cultures; Autobiographies et récits de vie en Afrique. Vol. 13/1. Paris. A.P.E.L.A./L'Harmattan. 1991. Pp. 103-8.

Djebar, Assia. La soif. Paris. Julliard. 1957.

———. Les enfants du nouveau monde. Paris. Julliard. 1962.

———. Les alouettes naïves. Paris. Julliard. 1967.

———. La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua. 1978. (Film)

———. Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement. Paris. Des Femmes. 1980. [FA]

———. Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Marjolijn de Jager, tr. Clarisse Zimra, afterword. Charlottesville. University Press of Virginia. 1992. [WA]

———. L'amour, la fantasia. Paris. Lattès. 1985.

———. Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade. Dorothy S. Blair, tr. London. Quartet. 1985.

———. Ombre sultane. Paris. Lattès. 1987.

———. A Sister to Scheherazade. Dorothy S. Blair, tr. London. Quartet. 1987.

———. “Un regard de femme.” Courrier de l'UNESCO, no. 910 (October 1989), pp. 34-37.

———. Vaste est la prison. Paris. Albin Michel. 1995. [VP]

———. Le blanc de l'Algérie. Paris. Albin Michel. 1996.

Gauvin, Lise. “Territoires des langues: Entretien avec Assia Djebar.” Littérature, no. 101 (February 1996), pp. 73-87.

Geesey, Patricia. “Collective Autobiography: Algerian Women and History in Assia Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia.Dalhousie French Studies, forthcoming.

Henni-Chebra, Djamila, and Christian Poché. Les danses dans le monde arabe ou l'héritage des almées. Paris. L'Harmattan. 1996.

Lazreg, Marnia. The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question. New York/London. Routledge. 1994.

Lejeune, Philippe. Le pacte autobiographique. Paris. Seuil. 1975.

Lionnet, Françoise. “Métissage, Emancipation and Female Textuality in Two Francophone Writers.” In Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography. Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck, eds. Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell University Press. 1988. Pp. 260-78.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York. Random House. 1979.

Zimra, Clarisse. “Disorienting the Subject in Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia.Yale French Studies, 87 (1995), pp. 149-70.

Christopher Prendergast (review date 13 December 1996)

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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 idea, reaching out across divided peoples and cultures (often divided by war and, more frequently, by sheer ignorance) towards commonalities and shared experiences.

“We hear and read everywhere”, wrote Goethe, of the progress of the human race, of the wider prospects in world relationships between men. How far this is the case is not within my province to examine or to determine: for my part I seek only to point out to my friends my conviction that a universal world literature is in process of formation.

What Goethe imagined here was a kind of grand cosmopolitan gathering of the literatures of the world to engage in what an influential commentator on Goethe called “an international conversation”. Nevertheless, although Goethe's aspiration is to reach beyond the “national” (“national literature has not much meaning nowadays”), the parties to / participants in the imagined conversation are essentially national literatures; world literature concerns “the relationship of nation to nation”. There are also the limiting implications of the central, even privileged, place assigned by Goethe to Europe in his account; in several of the fragments, there is what appears to be a virtual equation of world literature with European literature (“a European, in fact a universal, world literature”; “European, in other words, World Literature”). In our own times, the ideal of Weltliteratur has become more authentically global, as a consequence of the pressures of colonial and postcolonial history, the great movements of emigration and diaspora, the contraction of the “world” brought about by transport and communication. In the late twentieth century, Goethe's idea can accordingly be redefined in terms of an observation by Carlos Fuentes to the effect that “reading, writing, teaching, learning, are all activities aimed at introducing civilizations to each other”. Such introductions do not, of course, necessarily constitute a polite get-together; the terms on which civilizations meet, both in and out of books, are not always, or even generally, those of equal parties to the conversation. There is indeed the fundamental issue of who actually gets invited to the meeting in the first place. Moreover, the effects of such meetings can range widely, from exhilaration to anxiety and vertigo, as identities are challenged in the process of discovering the possibilities and limits of intercultural transaction (the Rushdie affair being one of the more spectacular manifestations of these complexities).

The cross-cultural collage remains, however, very much the literary order of the day, and has found institutional recognition in the prestigious Neustadt Prize for contributions to World Literature. Assia Djebar (whose L'amour, la fantasia was reviewed in the TLS, September 13, 1990) is its latest recipient (previous winners have included Giuseppe Ungaretti, Francis Ponge, René Char, Gabriel García Márquez, Max Frisch, Raja Rao and Kamau Brathwaite). The prize is in some respects a rival to the Nobel Prize, in that it acknowledges forms of writing that have not only an international reputation but also boundary-crossing properties.

Djebar is in many ways a natural for this kind of recognition. A modern Algerian writer, with roots in Berber society, who writes in French, she lives in and across multiple cultures and histories. She is a teller of many stories and, even within the frame of the same book, of many different kinds of story, ranging heterogeneously, though always coherently, over complex worlds of memory and desire. For someone writing in French in the late twentieth century, it takes a degree of literary courage to begin a novel, as she does her latest, Vaste est la prison, with the word “Longtemps” (to my knowledge no one since Proust has done so, precisely because of Proust and the weight of the opening word of A la Recherche du temps perdu). But Djebar's “prison” is not the claustrophobic prison of La Prisonnière with its narrator trapped in a memory-laden and desire-frustrating nightmare. It is the very different nightmare of the violent history of Algeria. Her questions are: what happens to memory and desire in that nightmare, and what the obligations of the writer, in particular the writer of narratives, to them might be.

The manner and tone of Djebar's engagement with this legacy are captured by a scene in her recent book of memoirs, Le blanc de l'Algérie (1996), where she recounts a scene at a morgue in Algiers during the period of OAS (Organisation de l'Armée Secrète) assassinations: a young doctor accidentally stumbles on the corpse of his father, murdered that day; a hospital worker asks him which flag should be laid on his father's coffin, the French tricolour or the green and white Algerian flag, explaining that French and Arab bodies have to be distinguished so as to avoid “disputes”. The grotesque pathos of this incident speaks of both the inadequacy and the dangers of images, symbols and the narratives of identity that accompany them. Djebar dislikes image and symbol, at least of this sort, and mistrusts narratives that lock you in the prison-house of fixed representations. Her stories disintegrate, often very smoothly, into multiple plot-lines, fluid compounds of personal and collective history which reach across what divides and arrests, dispersing rigid oppositions although never forgetting the realities of conflict and confrontation.

The oppositions include Algeria/France, Rome/Carthage, Islam/Latinity and, crucially for a North African writer, French/Arabic (and Berber). L'amour, la fantasia opens with the 1830 military expedition undertaken to subject Algeria to colonial rule. Its dust-jacket carried a reproduction of Delacroix's painting “Exercice des Marocains”; the epigraph is a quotation from the North African journal of that painterly writer, Eugène Fromentin, and the scene of the siege of Algiers is in part written as if it were a painting by a French artist. But what the French invaders see is not so much the city of Algiers as the “Orient”, the distanced aesthetics of vision being but a prelude to the brute facts of slaughter and conquest.

Djebar's novels scramble the rigid logic of these antitheses, not as literature of protest but as a search for some room for manoeuvre beyond the grand narratives. Vaste est la prison is a mixture of genres and idioms. It is the story of a young Arab girl passing through a French-based educational system in Algeria into womanhood, marriage and breakdown. It is thus a private tale, but one embedded in a vast history, the intimacies of the love story superimposed on a web of literary reminiscence, notably of Cervantes, and historical evocation reaching back to the sack of Carthage, as the writer scrabbles among the debris and fragments of the past for tokens of survival. At the intimate level, the history is registered on the body, sometimes in ways simultaneously droll and distressing, as in the moving yet comic account of what we might call, were it not so preposterous, the cultural politics of underwear:

Avais-je alors six ans, en avais-je sept? J'avais quitté, il me semble, le cours préparatoire. La dernière des filles du caïd s'était mise, à ma suite, à fréquenter l'école française. Durant les visites que je lui rendais, ses soeurs s'étaient lancées dans une curiosité étrange à mon égard: elles m'emprisonnaient dans un coin, me relevaient ma jupe ou ma robe pour examiner … ma combinaison! Une pièce de lingerie qu'elles n'avaient jamais vue: ma mère, si coquette ellemême, tenait à m'acheter des habits de fillette européenne. … A peine me retrouvais-je livrée à elles et dans leur maison que, dans une contrainte hâtive, toutes excitées, elles tâtaient sur moi le satin de la combinaison, éventuellement sa broderie. Je me débattais. Je sentais bien que leur avidité de savoir, à travers ce linge féminin, se portait sur toute la société des Françaises: elles auraient voulu, à travers moi, à cause de la fréquentation scolaire qui me déguisait en fillette française, caresser, palper le corps entier de ces dames lointaines qui leur paraissaient arrogantes, mais si précieuses: “savoir”, s'exclamaient-elles, alors qu'elles m'encerclaient et qu'elles ne me vouaient pas, moi, “savoir ce qu'elles portent, comment elles s'attirent, en dessous! …” Cet “en dessous” ardent qu'elles exhalaient me donnait un haut-le-coeur.

This is underwear fetishism with a difference, encompassing childish curiosity and desire; a history of gender, sexuality, class, race, culture, colonialism, commerce and modernity. This movement from the particular into a wider frame of reference is what sustains the momentum of the writing, often with strange and suggestive identifications. A long flashback takes us to Carthage. Djebar's retelling of the story of Carthage figures as its true hero Polybius, the Greek historian come from Rome as the exile-witness who records the destruction of the city. He ends his life recording the destruction by the Romans of his native Corinth, his writing itself surviving for us in bits and pieces.

Polybius is aligned with a retelling of Cervantes's story of Zoraida, an Arab woman incarcerated by her father, who, by means of a secret message, escapes with a captive Spanish soldier to Spain. The fugitive Zoraida is seen by Djebar's narrator as “la métaphore des Algériennes qui écrivent aujourd'hui, parmi lesquelles je me compte”. For Djebar's own situation as a writer, this act of multiple boundary-crossing involves the question of the French language. There is a good deal of reflection in her books on what it means for an Algerian woman to write in French, as both a condition of exile and an escape route. French writing contrasts with an indigenous Arabic and Berber oral culture, which is generally associated with female forms of solidarity (a whole section of the novel deals with Berber songs collected by the narrator's mother). On the other hand, this is a woman commemorating the oral in writing, and specifically in written French. If French is exile, however, it is also gain, and in her stories it typically (though not always) comes to daughter from father, complicating the scenario beyond a simple notion of Islamic-patriarchal entrapment of woman; male/female, maternal/paternal are posed as categories in the swirl of history, language and culture, and are not reducible to the polemical pieties of certain brands of “post-colonial studies”.

Djebar's dual vision in Vaste est la prison finds its appropriate emblem in a remnant of the destruction of Carthage. For centuries, scholars were puzzled by a double inscription on a stele at Dougga. One of the inscriptions was in Phoenician; the other remained a mystery until the nineteenth century, when it was discovered to be an ancient form of Libyan, a dead written language that survived in the spoken forms of Berber. Here, then, is something both lost and regained, facing two ways, a meeting-point of cultures and languages. It is, in her book, a beautiful moment of remembrance, entirely untouched by sentimentality (not least because, as the narrator notes, the British stole the monument), Djebar's version of what Khatibi called “l'amour bilingue”.

As the Algerian nation continues to suffer trauma, its writers are in a dilemma. Many are stranded indefinitely in a familiar but tensely lived experience of exile (in Djebar's case, in France), unable to return home for fear of their lives (several have already been killed). “Djebar” is a nom de plume, and there are difficulties over the translation of some of her works into Arabic. The difficulty, then, is also, from these conditions, how to write the perspective of exile, to remember (say) Berber songs in contemporary literary French. This is, of course, quintessentially the stuff of border-crossing, a reflection of the terms on which the idea of a “world” literature makes sense today. It is also a reminder that the pleasures of border-crossing do not come cheap, or at least only to those for whom the “hybrid” is little more than a form of cultural tourism. Marx (a great admirer of Goethe) wanted to be a “citizen of the world”. Listening to Assia Djebar's torn yet majestically flowing voice gives us some sense of what is involved in that admirable aspiration.

John Erickson (essay date 1996)

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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 the City, or Love-letters,” “The Cries of the Fantasia,” and “Voices from the Past.”1 The titles of these parts suggest the main story: the clash of aggressor and aggressed during the colonial period from the fall of Algiers to the French in 1830 through the Algerian Revolution; and a concomitant story: the shrouding of voices in opposition (the French title of part 3 is “Les voix ensevelies”). The military-political struggle between French and Algerians allegorizes the struggle of Algerian women to inscribe themselves in a space they can identify as theirs: for the woman whose story the narrator tells, social-sexual-historical space in a society gendered for men; for the narrator (and for Djebar herself), a space of writing inscribed in the written language of the adversary (la langue adverse).2

From the juxtaposition of nineteenth-century written commentaries of French military officers and soldiers, writers, and artists who described the taking of Algiers and the action of colonization following, and oral commentaries of Algerian women who participated in the Algerian Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, arises a tension between the word of the oppressor and the oppressed, between the written (French) and the verbal (Arabic and Berber).

In L'amour, la fantasia the narrator, an Algerian woman of the post-revolution generation, recounts how her experience in learning to speak and write French leads her to become the amanuensis for the collective voice of her Algerian sisters of the present day as well as of her women ancestors. She is especially mindful of the “révoltées” (rebels) among her veiled Algerian sisters, those who cried out: “La seule qui se marginalisait d'emblée était celle qui ‘criait’” (228) (“The only one who put herself straight away beyond the pale was the [one who ‘cried out’]” [203]). For a woman to refuse to “veil” her voice as well as her physical aspect and to cry out left her accused of indecency and dissidence. Her cry, in fact, revealed the lie of other women's existences: “Car le silence de toutes les autres perdait brusquement son charme pour révéler sa vérité: celle d'être une prison irrémédiable” (229). (“For the silence of all the others suddenly lost its charm and revealed itself for what it was: a prison without reprieve” [204].)

She who cries out thus breaks the silence of all Arab women immersed in anonymity. The narrator likens her act of writing in French to that cry:

Ecrire en langue étrangère, hors de l'oralité des deux langues de ma région natale—le berbère des montagnes du Dahra et l'arabe de ma ville—écrire m'a ramenée aux cris des femmes sourdement révoltées de mon enfance, à ma seule origine. Ecrire ne tue pas la voix, mais la réveille, surtout pour ressusciter tant de sœurs disparues.


[Writing in a foreign language, not in either of the tongues of my native country (mountain Berber and Arabic) … writing has brought me to the cries of the women silently rebelling in my youth, to my own true origins. Writing does not silence the voice, but awakens it, above all to resurrect so many vanished sisters.]


Here, in crux, lies the generating principle of Djebar's narrative. Writing and vocalization hold the power to counter the aphasia that renders Algerian women silent. The space of writing so painfully carved out by the narrator offers to Algerian women the space of identity they seek.


How is the state of women in Algerian society represented by Djebar? After listening to stories of the brutal French occupation of Algeria, handed down by the ancestors of the old women who recount them to her, the narrator concludes: “Chaîne de souvenirs: n'est elle pas justement ‘chaîne’ qui entrave autant qu'elle enracine?” (201). (“Chains of memories: is it not indeed a ‘chain,’ for do not memories fetter us as well as forming our roots?” [178]) The past shackles as well as secures the women to their past. The stories whispered, while preserving a collective memory of the past, relate another side of the women's heritage, a collective state of bondage and submission in a society dominated by the male. The remark that follows in the text illustrates this negative side:

Pour chaque passant, la parleuse stationne debout, dissimulée derrière le seuil. Il n'est pas séant de soulever le rideau et de s'exposer au soleil.


[For every passer-by, the story-teller stands hidden in the doorway. It is not seemly to raise the curtain and stand exposed in the sunlight.]


The adverb “seemly” thrusts us into the shadow of another's discourse. “And in fact,” as Jean-François Lyotard says, “we are always spoken by another's narrative, somebody has always already spoken our words to us, and we have always been already said.”3 The adverb here marks the umbrella presence of the male magisterial discourse that gives word to what is acceptable conduct for women.

The women are shackled to their past, incarcerated, out of sight of the male world, immured in their own private and invisible suffering.4 In a traditional setting Algerian women spoke out only when they attained an advanced age. They never referred to themselves in the singular, “puisque ce serait dédaigner les formules-couvertures qui maintiennent le trajet individuel dans la résignation collective” (177) (“since that would be to scorn the blanket-formulae which ensure that each individual [woman] journeys through life in a collective resignation” [156]). The women to whom the narrator listens do not, moreover, speak aloud but whisper their stories: “Toute parole, trop éclairée, devient voix de forfanterie, et l'aphonie, résistance inentamée” (201). (“Words that are too explicit become such boastings as the braggard uses; and elected silence implies resistance still intact” [178].) The reverse side of the coin may lie in the fact that elected silence leaves resistance intact, but elected silence is still silence. Absence or loss of voice marks their existence, reduces them to whispers, broken only by the occasional cry of a révoltée.

The woman in traditional Maghrebian society is silenced and silent. The veil (haïk) folds her into a space of feminine enclosure.5 “To be a female Mussulman is to live incognito.”6 The sole gaze permissible emanates from the male, whereas the woman's gaze is strictly legislated by religious belief. The Prophet called her gaze “the zîna of the eye [zîna ul-ayni].”7Zîna ul'ayni, often translated as “the capital sin of the eye,” literally means illicit sexual intercourse. An unabashedly direct translation might be “fornication of the eye.”8 Hence, despite the absence of a direct injunction against veiling in the Qur'an, the nature of the moral imperative for veiling lies in the fact that “the eye is undoubtedly [considered] an erogenous zone in the Muslim structure of reality …”9—even more apparently than the body.10

The women's position is entangled in oppositions that transcend their state, vis-à-vis the Arabo-Berber male, in Algerian society. The juxtaposition of the written accounts of the European colonizers with the oral accounts of the Algerian women projects these oppositions onto a screen: that of the relations of power obtaining, past and present, between France and the Maghreb. The former has historically served as the Sartrean “conscience néante” of the latter and has posited the latter as object and constituted itself as subject through the latter's negation. Such a process evinced itself in the phenomenon of colonial rule.

In its historical encounter with Maghrebian society, the West has often in fact tried to inflect and control the particular constitution of gender difference, of male/female being and relation.11 Tahar ben Jelloun points out in his study of North African immigrant workers in France the special role of the mother in Muslim society: “Her body censored, her desire repressed, her word forbidden, her image veiled, her reality denied under the mask and by tradition: woman in the Maghreb generally ceases to undergo oppression by male society only when she becomes mother.”12

He speaks of how the male immigrants are not only deprived of the figure of the mother but confront “a perpetual phallic aggression: it is the repressive and foreign father who imposes himself on his ‘imaginaire’ in the form of the police, the boss, the foreman, the unreadable technical manuals [la technique illisible].”13 That same condition prevailed under colonial rule in the Maghreb, where the French male assumed the figure of male authority.

In the power relations existing between France and the Maghreb, the Maghrebian male resembles a boy child if not a eunuch, emasculated and shamed in face of the supreme male figure of Gallic authority. The campaign by French colonial authorities to unveil the Arab woman rested on the breaking down of traditional indigenous mores. Writing of the Algerian revolution, Frantz Fanon asserted that “To convert the woman, to win her from her [traditional] status, is at the same time to obtain a real power over the man and to possess practical and efficient means to destructure Algerian culture.”14

However, women of the Maghreb face obstacles to self-affirmation infinitely more pronounced than that of their male confrères. They exist in a double bind, not only oppressed by Western aggression against the Maghreb that has used them as a weapon against the Algerian male, but also repressed by the male in Islam and by Islamic tradition. That same double bind confronts the Algerian woman writer seeking an alternate language in French, for her discourse faces repression as postcolonialist discourse by the Western magisterial discourse of power as well as repression by the Islamic discourse of the male and by Islamic tradition.

As Abdelwahab Bouhdiba remarks, “the great taboo of Islam is not so much the failure to respect a parental relationship as to violate the order of the world, the sexual division and the distinction between the feminine and the masculine.”15 In Islamic society, “The primacy of man over woman is in effect total and absolute. The woman proceeds from the man. [As the Qur'an asserts,] God ‘has created us out of a single [unique] person (nafs) from whom he has drawn his female counterpart [son épouse].’ The woman is chronologically second. It is in the man that she finds her finality.”16

In a real sense, woman in traditional Arabo-Berber society occupies a non-state. Nor does the concept of the couple exist, for the woman is invisible, without name, without identity other than as chattel. The narrator describes her Algerian sister as

fantômes blancs, formes ensevelies à la verticale, justement pour ne pas hurler ainsi continûment: son de barbare, son de sauvage, résidu macabre d'un autre siècle!


[white walking wraiths, shrouded figures buried upright, … to prevent them uttering such a constant howl: such a wild, barbaric cry, macabre residue of a former century!]


Customarily Algerian women addressed their spouses in the third person, such that the men were “confondus dans l'anonymat du genre masculin” (47) (blended in the anonymity of the masculine gender [my translation]). The narrator describes how she marveled at a postcard sent by her father to her mother, addressing the mother by name: “Ainsi mon père avait ‘écrit’ à ma mère” (48) (Thus my father had actually written to my mother [my translation]), and the reader realizes what special power and significance the act of writing holds. Normally the father would address letters to the son, no matter how young he might be!


The first chapter of part 1 is preceded by an introductory section opening with a scene that will become a primal scene in the narrative: the narrator as a young Arab girl setting off for school for the first time, her hand in that of her father, who is a teacher at the French school in a village of the Algerian Sahel. The neighbors observe, thinking of the unhappiness (“malheur”) that will befall the family: “Viendra l'heure pour elle où l'amour qui s'écrit est plus dangereux que l'amour séquestré (11). (“For her the time will come when there will be more danger in love that is committed to paper than love that languishes behind enclosing walls” [3].) This scene fixes the two poles of the narrative: setting forth into the outer world (learning to write) versus sequestration. The voice of male-dominated Algerian society speaks:

Voilez le corps de la fille nubile. Rendez-la invisible. Transformez-la en être plus aveugle que l'aveugle, tuez en elle tout souvenir du dehors.


[wrap the nubile girl in veils. Make her invisible. Make her more unseeing then the sightless, destroy in her every memory of the world without.]


The space traditionally designated for the female child is that of the inside. To go to the French school, to learn to write as an outside-directed activity constitutes an act of liberation from the inside.

Near the end of her narrative, the narrator returns to the scene of her father leading her by the hand. She speaks of the “voile-suaire” (“veil-shroud”), which she, unlike her cousins, escaped. When she had the occasion later to don a veil at a wedding, it became for her, unlike for the other Arab women, a mode of disguise. For the other women the veil signifies loss of identity. For her it merely hides from view an identity already affirmed by her exit from the enclosed space of sequestration, the harem.

When the mother was asked why her daughter, in her early teens, remained unveiled, she replied: “‘Elle lit,’ c'est-à-dire, en langue arabe, ‘elle étudie’” (203) (“‘She reads!’—which meant in Arabic, ‘she studies’” [179-80]). The narrator understands by the verb to read, used by Gabriel in the Qur'an, that “writing to be read” is a source of revelation and liberation. Young girls of her generation, she says, used four languages: French for secret writing, Arabic for their “stifled aspirations” directed toward Allah, Libyco-Berber to revert to the mother-gods of pre-Islam, and that of the body, whose language society attempted to silence. The first “réalité-femme” for the Algerian woman is the voice; but writing in Arabic, likened because of its sinuous tracings to an act of sexuality, suggests woman even more than the voice.

The potential for liberation the narrator will discover in the act of writing, however, does not mean that writing in Djebar's narrative always conveys the prospect of liberation. Part 1, which describes her childhood summers spent with three young female Arab cousins, cloistered in a small village in the Sahel, compares the extensive correspondence of the young women with Arab males, contacted through the columns of a women's magazine, to the numerous writings of the French conquerors. The narrator speculates on the motives of the French chroniclers, who perhaps savored “the seducer's triumph, the rapist's intoxication” and for whom the written word became “their weapon” par excellence. She observes:

Mes jeunes amies, mes complices du hameau de vacances, écrivaient la même langue inutile et opaque parce que cernées, parce que prisonnières; elles estampillaient leur marasme, pour en surmonter plus ou moins le tragique. Les comptes rendus de cette intrusion d'hier décèlent a contrario une nature identique: envahisseurs qui croient prendre la Ville Imprenable, mais qui tournoient dans le buissonnnement de leur mal d'être.


[The girls who were my friends and accomplices during my village holidays wrote in the same futile, cryptic language because they were confined, because they were prisoners; they mark their marasmus with their own identity in an attempt to rise above their pathetic plight. The accounts of this past invasion reveal a contrario an identical nature: invaders who imagine they are taking the Impregnable City, but who wander aimlessly in the undergrowth of their own disquiet.]


The comparison exemplifies the failures of writing that establishes no praxis, effects no escape, does not allow one to enter into contact, true dialogue. With the confinement, the language of the prisoner written by both the girl cousins and the French occupiers is “[a] futile, cryptic language” because it opens no real relation, because each remain prisoners of language, confined by words that stand between the writer and the unpossessable object. What can the written language become on the other hand for someone who emerges from confinement?


The narrator concedes that the love letters of the young cousins, though providing no escape from confinement, are a means of affirming their self-identity: “Ecrire, n'est-ce pas ‘me’ dire?” (72) (“Is not writing a way of telling what ‘I’ am” [58]). Writing is, moreover, the equivalent of unveiling: “Le dévoilement, aussi contingent, devient, comme le souligne mon arabe dialectal du quotidien, vraiment ‘se mettre à nu’” (178) (“Such incidental unveiling is tantamount to stripping oneself naked, as the demotic Arabic dialect emphasizes” [156-57]). In a somewhat cryptic passage, the narrator compares the act of unveiling/stripping-bare of the Algerian woman writing in the language of the former conqueror (who, she says, for more than a century possessed everything he desired except the bodies of Algerian women) to the sacking of Algeria in the previous century. We are left to surmise that, through the writing-unveiling of women, the magisterial discourse will be plundered and the Impregnable City of male-dominated society will fall as women come to repossess their own spiritual and physical being.

When the narrator receives her first letter from her classmate, written in French, she observes that French places her under a double and contradictory sign. She feels herself cut off from the words of her mother by “une mutilation de la mémoire” (12) (“a mutilation of memory” [4]). The danger of using the language of the oppressor is revealed in an anecdote concerning the French Commander De Bourmont, who gives letters to an old Algerian to carry to the Arab army, but the latter is assumed to be a spy and is put to death: “Toute écriture de l'Autre, transportée, devient fatale, puisque signe de compromission” (44). (“So, the first written words, even while promising a fallacious peace, condemn their bearer to death. Any document written by ‘The Other’ proves fatal, since it is a sign of compromise” [33].) Writing for Djebar, as for Duras, is touched with death: “To write, I believe, is actually an activity that puts us in the presence of death each day.”17

The narrator's apprenticeship in French and Arabic in her youth, before her father chose for her the former over the latter (“light rather than darkness”), placed her, she says, in a “dichotomy of location,” between two spaces (the closed space of the harem and the open space of writing), in which she does not comprehend the consequence of her father's option: “le dehors et le risque, au lieu de la prison de mes semblables” (208) (“the outdoors and the risk, instead of the prison of my peers” [184]). French, whose lexicon refers to objects not experienced by the narrator, objects existing in a country across the sea, offers her a vocabulary of absence, exoticism without mystery. Referentiality would be lost to her until she crossed the sea.

She calls French her stepmother language, as contrasted to her mother tongue, which she has lost except for Arabic love songs. She alludes to Spanish occupiers who, even before the French in the nineteenth century, established posts (presidios) and fought following the tactic of the rebato, which was a space, a no-man's-land, between the indigenous peoples and the aggressors from which the latter launched their attacks and to which they retreated during breaks in the fighting, either to seek refuge or to replenish their supplies. For the narrator a similar no-man's-land exists between French and Arabo-berber languages. French has become for her a presidio, while the indigenous languages resist and attack: “Le rythme du ‘rebato’ en moi s'éperonnant, je suis à la fois l'assiégé étranger et l'autochtone partant à la mort par bravade, illusoire effervescence du dire et de l'écrit” (241) (“In time to the rhythm of the rebato, I am alternately the besieged and the native swaggering off to die, so there is seemingly endless strife between the spoken and written word” [215]). She describes the space to which writing in French relegates her:

Sur les plages désertées du présent, amené par tout cessez-le-feu inévitable, mon écrit cherche encore son lieu d'échange et de fontaines, son commerce.

Cette langue était autrefois sarcophage des miens; je la porte aujourd'hui comme un messager transporterait le pli fermé ordonnant sa condamnation au silence, ou au cachot.

Me mettre à nu dans cette langue me fait entretenir un danger permanent de déflagration. De l'exercice de l'autobiographie dans la langue de l'adversaire d'hier …


[On the deserted beaches of the present, washed up by the inevitable cease-fire of all wars, my writing continues to seek its place of exchange, of fountains, of commerce.

That language was formerly the sarcophagus of my people; I bear it today like a messenger bearing a sealed letter ordering his condemnation to death, to the dungeon.

To strip myself bare in that language makes me chance a permanent danger of being consumed by fire. As a penalty for undertaking to write an autobiography in the language of yesterday's adversary … (my translation)].


At one point, the narrator compares her situation with that of Saint Augustine writing in Latin, the language of the conquerors, or Ibn Khaldun writing in Arabic, the language of those warriors who conquered the Maghrebian Berbers. Both languages imposed themselves as much by rape as by love, she remarks. Although she likens writing to unveiling, to being stripped bare, she also acknowledges that her writing rests on self-deception, for in believing that she was writing of herself, in choosing the language of the enemy, she was simply choosing another veil:

Voulant à chaque pas, parvenir à la transparence, je m'engloutis davantage dans l'anonymat des aïeules!


[While I intended every step forward to make me more clearly identifiable, I find myself progressively sucked down into the anonymity of those women of old—my ancestors!]


In speaking of her childhood, the narrator switches from the third person to the first as she describes the penetration of her enclosed space by a letter written to her by a male classmate:

J'ai fait éclater l'espace en moi, un espace éperdu de cris sans voix, figés depuis longtemps dans une préhistoire de l'amour.


[I blew the space within me to pieces, a space filled with … voiceless cries, frozen long ago in a prehistory of love.]


The mention of “voiceless cries” calls to mind the distinction Maurice Blanchot makes between what he defines as the narrative voice and the narratorial voice.18 Each, as virtual narrator, enunciates by means of (I quote Blanchot) “a neutral voice that utters [dit] the work from the placeless place where the work is silent” (143). In his essay “Living On,” Jacques Derrida glosses Blanchot's words in this way: “The placeless place where the work is silent: a silent voice, then, withdrawn into its ‘voicelessness’ [‘aphonie’]. This ‘voicelessness’ distinguishes it from the ‘narratorial voice,’ the voice that literary criticism, or poetics or narratology strives to locate in the system of the narrative, of the novel, or of the narration. The narratorial voice is the voice of a subject recounting something, remembering an event or a historical sequence, knowing who he is, where he is, and what he is talking about.”19

The narrator's words not only allude to the woman as excluded third in the dialogue of society (“To hold a dialogue is to suppose a third man and to seek to exclude him”20), buried within and by language and speech, but prefigure the role that writing will play in exploding the inner space of the Arab women who shriek voicelessly in a prehistory of love, that is, love never or not yet realized. Her narrative will externalize, give voice to those silent voices of her claustrated sisters.

The narrator recounts the events of 1842-43, when the French occupiers under their commandant, Saint-Arnaud, burned the zaouia (the center for Islamic brotherhood) of the Berkani, the tribe from which she descends. They drove out the women and children, who wandered the mountains in the winter. When the Berkani returned the next year, Saint-Arnaud decided to take as hostages members of the caliph's family. Saint-Arnaud wrote to his brother that he had seized eight leaders and their families. The women ancestors of the tribe (the “aïeules”) passed their version of the story down to their children, and their children down to their grandchildren: there follows a description of the oral history transmitted from mouth to mouth (by what Djebar calls “chuchotements,” whispers):

L'héritage va chavirer—vague après vague, nuit, les murmures reprennent avant même que l'enfant comprenne, avant même qu'il trouve ses mots de lumière, avant de parler à son tour et pour ne point parler seul …


[The legacy will otherwise be lost—night after night, wave upon wave, the whispers take up the tale, even before the child can understand, even before she finds her words of life, before she speaks in her turn and so that she will not speak alone …]


The women who whisper correct the details of the French version. Among these women is one who told the narrator of another story, from another war (the Algerian Revolution), of how she gave her fourteen-year-old son a silver jam spoon handed down to her from her father. When the French soldiers raided their house, her son fled with the maquisards, the resistance fighters, carrying away with him the spoon. Several years later, he returned safe and sound. For the narrator, the silver spoon, symbol of the heritage passed down, appears as a heraldic object:

Les vergers brûlés par Saint-Arnaud voient enfin leur feu s'éteindre, parce que la vieille aujourd'hui parle et que je m'apprête à transcrire son récit. Faire le décompte des menus objets passés ainsi, de main fiévreuse à main de fugueur!


[The fires in the orchards gutted by Saint-Arnaud are finally extinguished, because the old lady talks today and I am preparing to transcribe her tale. To draw up the inventory of the tiny objects passed on thus, from febrile hand to fugitive hand!]


The narrator surmises that she was born in 1842, the year Saint-Arnaud put fire to the zaouia of her tribe. That same fire lights her emergence from the harem (claustration) a century later, (en)lightens her and gives her the strength to speak. Her chant is accompanied by the sounds of all her Algerian sisters who suffered in the past.

La langue encore coagulée des Autres m'a enveloppée, dès l'enfance, en tunique de Nessus, don d'amour de mon père qui, chaque matin, me tenait par la main sur le chemin de l'école.


[The language of the Others, in which I was enveloped from childhood, the gift my father lovingly bestowed on me, that language has adhered to me ever since like the tunic of Nessus, that gift from my father who, every morning, took me by the hand to accompany me to school.]


The story of Nessus tells of how Hercules slew the centaur Nessus, who attempted to rape his wife, Deianira. The dying Nessus gives her a potion mixed with his blood under guise of it being a love potion. Later, Deianira, attempting to reclaim Hercules's affection, gives him a cloak soaked with the potion containing Nessus's blood. The cloak burns him horribly, giving him such agony that he causes himself to be immolated. The story of Nessus's cloak invoked the myth of the fire ritual associated with fertility. On one level we can analogize the narrator's own situation, in which writing at once produces agony and gives birth to her potential as amanuensis for her sisters. It is for the narrator simultaneously a gift of love from her father and the cause of her painful exile. We might further note, however, that the male-female relationship is reversed. It is this reversal that strikes us as most important, for it is paradigmatic of the reversal of the male-female role through women's writing.

As the narrator describes the hostages of Saint-Arnaud being put aboard a ship for transport to France in 1843, she addresses a narrataire in the second-person singular. The story of the “unknown woman,” the “invisible woman,” as she calls her, has been passed down among the women from storyteller to storyteller. She is one of the nameless hostages, the “ancestress of ancestresses,” who holds special significance for the narrator, for she is on the one hand the prototype of the silent and invisible Algerian woman and on the other “the first expatriate” in whose footsteps she (the narrator) follows.

Paradox lies at the heart of the narrator's destiny as amanuensis for her silent sisters. To draw near to them in telling their story, she must exile herself in a foreign tongue. When she describes Chérifa, one of the Algerian women whose story of the revolution she recounts, she relates how the very words in French—“torch-words” (“mots torches”) that bring light to the lives of the women whose story she tells—definitively separate her from her Algerian sisters: by the stigmata of foreign words she finds herself, like the nameless narrataire, expatriated from them.

Part 3 closes with a soliloquy where the narrator speaks of how she is called an exile, but “La différence est plus lourde: je suis expulsée de là-bas pour entendre et ramener à mes parentes les traces de la liberté” (244) (“It is more than that: I have been banished from my homeland to listen and bring back some traces of liberty to the women of my family” [218]). In attempting to execute this task, she flounders, as she says, “dans un marécage qui s'éclaire à peine” (244) (“in a murky bog” [218]). In writing, she creates a fiction, for the story of her past is unwritten in the mother tongue, and her imagination, like a woman beggar in the streets, crouches in absences and silences.

In speaking of veiling, the narrator says that during her childhood the women would don their veils whenever a male approached, unless he was a foreigner, a non-Arab, because, if a non-Arab looked at them, he did not really see them—he only imagined he saw them. And, at a distance, behind a hedge, his glance failed to touch them. The narrator cites a Westerner enslaved by the Algerians in the seventeenth century who spoke of how the women were indiscreet in the presence of a Western captive because they considered him blind, themselves “invisible,” in contrast to the vilest of Arab males of the “dominant society,” who felt himself to be their master. The narrator compares to this relation between the Algerian woman and the foreign captive her reaction to the French language, which served her as a recess from which she could spy on the world and into which she could withdraw from the unwanted attentions of a Western male. But she discovered that in so doing she became a veiled woman, “not so much disguised as anonymous,” and that her imagined invisibility was an illusion. With the French language, she found herself unable to control her body presence—it signified more than she intended to signify. Moreover, with French she experienced an “aphasia of love” (“aphasie amoureuse”), an inability to express intimacy, which she could do only in her mother tongue. She had described herself earlier as seeking her mother tongue's “rich vocabulary of love,” of which she had been deprived.

Such antimonies lying at the heart of writing, reflective of its force to destroy as much as to create, are paradigmatic of the intimate union of love and war signified in the original French title of Djebar's narrative: L'amour, la fantasia. “Fantasia,” deriving from the Arabic fantaziya, literally “ostentation,” refers to the equestrian maneuver in which Arab or Berber horsemen gallop full tilt and at a given moment rein up and discharge their rifles in the midst of fearsome cries—a custom that has been recorded in a painting by another nineteenth-century artist-visitor to Algeria, Delacroix, in his “Fantasia” (1833).

In the closing part, titled “Tzarl-Rit (Finale),” an epigraph gives two definitions of the term “tzarl-rit,” the women's cry that accompanies the fantasia: one denoting a cry of joy and the other a cry of unhappiness. Again, the act of breaking the silence, of crying out, betrays the mixed emotions attending liberation, writing, unveiling. In the last of three sections of this closing part, titled “Air de Nay” (a musical air played on a flute), the narrator brings together the time of the artist-novelist Eugène Fromentin's visit to Algeria in 1852-53 and the period twenty years earlier than the present moment of the narrative, at the end of the Algerian Revolution, when she visited the Algerian diseuses, who recounted stories of the war. Fromentin had described how, alongside the path, he found the severed hand of an unknown Algerian woman. The narrator remarks that she writes with that mutilated hand. She concludes her story by evoking the death of another young woman, Haoua, witnessed by Fromentin in 1852, as she was struck down by the hooves of a horse ridden in the fantasia by an angry lover she had spurned. The narrator envisages the threat against any woman who, like Haoua, dares to demand freedom:

Oui, malgré le tumulte des miens alentour, j'entends déjà, avant même qu'il s'élève et transperce le ciel dur, j'entends le cri de la mort dans la fantasia.


[Yes, in spite of the tumult of my people all around, I already hear, even before it arises and pierces the harsh sky, I hear the death cry in the Fantasia.]


Joy/suffering, love/war—antimonies of considerable importance to Djebar's narrative.

Early in her narrative, the narrator remarks on how the women prisoners of the French rendered the French victory a pseudo-triumph by refusing to look at the enemy, refusing to “recognize” him, to “name” him. She asks, “Qu'est-ce qu'une victoire si elle n'est pas nommée?” (69) (“What is a victory if it is not named” [56]). In describing letters sent by the French soldiers from bivouac in the nineteenth century, the narrator mingles the terms of love and war. The soldiers write home of an “Algérie femme” that is impossible to tame. And the narrator interjects: “Fantasme d'une Algérie domptée: chaque combat éloigne encore plus l'épuisement de la révolte” (69) (“A tamed Algeria is a pipe-dream, every battle drives further and further away the time when the insurgency will burn itself out” [57]). In the terms of the narrator's discourse, the French invaders are to Algeria what the man is to the woman in Algerian society—an Algérie femme ostensibly tamed to accord with the male phantasm but ultimately untamable.


The two perceptions of woman's space come together: the collective social-historical space in which Algerian women struggle to inscribe themselves and the personal-written space in the adversary's language in which the author struggles to inscribe herself—the plural chronicle and the singular autobiography. The tension between oppressor and oppressed, written and oral, is resolved through the narrator's assumption of the role of amanuensis in her writing, which renders written what was oral, vocal what was silent.

In traditional Algerian society, as we see in Djebar's narrative, women possess no enabling dialogue. Their speechlessness, their aphasia, presents an otherness that is characterized by a hermeneutical aporia (that inclines one to doubt the possibility of interpreting that otherness). To be without speech in its broadest sense (including body language) is to be without possibility of dialogue. In effect, writing permits the narrator to create an enabling dialogue between women, between present and past, between singular and collective, allowing the women to recuperate their historical consciousness, giving them a sense of common purpose. The narrator's initiation into writing and realization of its potential is tantamount to discovering the other in oneself as well as oneself in the other.

It is nonetheless true that by using the Euro-logo-phallocentric language of the adversary to recount the history of the Algerian women, the chronicle of their otherness, there is no unmediated access to what is passed down orally. Her telling manages, nevertheless, to transcend these ideological limitations through an allegorical process that operates as a distancing factor. Distancing or disengagement is advocated by most proponents of dialogical thinking “as a necessary precondition for the dialogical engagement.”21 But a cost is also exacted on the narrator, for she becomes alienated, exiled through her use of French.

Luce Irigaray, who speaks of how woman has been viewed negatively as a “place,” a space that has been colonized, occupied by the aggressor, man, holds out the possibility of a third possible space, which woman and man may commonly share: “A world to be created or re-created so that man and woman may again or finally cohabit, meet each other and live sometimes in the same place.22 This position seems overly optimistic, however, for it ignores the distance between Self and Other, the incommensurability between them. It repeats the ethnocentric tendency of ethnography, which functions as “an intertextual practice which, by means of an allegorizing identity, anaesthetizes us to the other's difference.”23 Woman's space, suggested in Djebar's scheme of things, will derive not from mere reversal or displacement of man's space but rather from the creation of a space that will express what Todorov calls “difference in equality” and Theodor Adorno “distinctiveness without domination.”24


  1. Assia Djebar, L'amour, la fantasia (Paris: Ed. Jean-Claude Lattès, 1985). Dorothy Blair has rendered it into English, Fantasia: An Algerian Calvacade (London and New York: Quartet Books, 1989). I shall avail myself of her sensitive translation though my occasional modifications of it will be indicated in the text. Translations of other French texts referred to are mine unless otherwise noted.

  2. For the notion of a “space of writing,” see Abdelkebir Khatibi, “L'orientalisme désorienté” in Khatibi, Maghreb pluriel (Paris: Denoël, 1983), 141. Also, see my article, “Writing Double: Politics and the African Narrative of French Expression,” Studies in 20th Century Literature (winter 1990): 101-22. The subject of writing in terms of space in Djebar's work has been treated rather extensively: see Djebar herself, “Du français comme butin,” La Quinzaine littéraire, 16-31 March 1985, 436, as well as her interview with Mildred Mortimer, “Entretien avec Assia Djebar, écrivain algérien,” Research in African Literature 19, 2 (summer 1988): 197-205. Mortimer has approached the subject in several of her own works, notably “Language and Space in the Fiction of Assia Djebar and Leila Sebbar,” Research in African Literature 19, 3 (fall 1988): 301-11; also Assia Djebar (Philadelphia: CELFAN Edition Monographs, 1988) and Journeys: A Study of the Francophone Novel in Africa (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1990). I must also mention the article of Marguerite Le Clézio, “Assia Djebar: Ecrire dans la langue adverse,” Contemporary French Civilization 19, 2 (summer 1988): 230-44.

  3. Jean-François Lyotard, Instructions païennes (Paris: Galilée, 1977), 2.

  4. Harems were abolished in Turkey in 1909. The practice continued for several years in other Muslim countries. Although they do not exist as such in present-day Algeria, the social and psychological attitudes they expressed persist. The word harem (haram in Arabic) means “‘unlawful,’ ‘protected’ or ‘forbidden.’ The sacred area around Mecca and Medina is haram, closed to all but the Faithful. In its secular use, haram refers to the separate, protected part of a household where women, children, and servants live in maximum seclusion and privacy.” Alev Lytle Croutier, Harem: The World behind the Veil (New York: Abbeville Press, 1989), 17. The author is a Turkish Muslim woman.

  5. See Fatima Mernissi, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society (New York: Schenkman, 1975), esp. chapter 8, “The Meaning of Spatial Boundaries.” Also see Mortimer, Journeys, and my essay, “Veiled Woman and Veiled Narrative in Tahar ben Jelloun's Sandchild,boundary 2 20, 1 (spring 1993): 47-64. It should be noted that the custom of veiling does not originate in the Islamic religion (the closest thing to a direct injunction against veiling in the Qur'an is Surah 24) but is secular in origin. As Germaine Tillion notes, “The harem and the veil are infinitely older than the revelation of the Qur'an.” Le Harem et les cousins (Paris: Seuil, 1966), 22.

  6. Abdelwahab Bouhdiba, La Sexualité en Islam (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1975), 53. Also see Ghadah al-Samman, “The Sexual Revolution and the Total Revolution” in Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak, ed. Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and Basima Qattan Bezirgan (Austin/London: University of Texas Press, 1977), 393-99.

  7. Bouhdiba, La Sexualité en Islam, 53.

  8. Mernissi, citing al-Ghazali, Beyond the Veil, 83.

  9. Mernissi, citing al-Ghazali, Beyond the Veil, 83. Mernissi maintains that veiling the gaze is as much to protect men from themselves as from women, for the Qur'an bears out the notion that “seclusion in Islam is a device to protect the passive male who cannot control himself sexually in the presence of [the] lust-inducing female …” (ibid.). See also Nawal El Saadawi, The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (London: Zed Press, 1988), 99-100.

  10. “In traditional Islamic cultures, most women would sooner stand naked in a market-place than uncover their faces. For the face is inviolate.” Croutier, Harem, 77.

  11. Mernissi asserts with reason that “the political and the sexual are closely linked: people's body image and self image are cards which the ruling classes have manipulated brilliantly throughout human history, which is unfortunately a history of exploitation. Seen in historical context, sexual relationships are a field which the class struggle appropriates and through which it expresses itself.” “Virginity and Patriarchy” in Women and Islam, ed. Azizah al-Hibri (Oxford/New York: Pergamon Press, 1982), 191.

  12. Tahar ben Jelloun, La Plus Haute des solitudes: Misère affective et sexuelle d'émigrés nord-africains (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1977), 92.

  13. Ibid., 64-65.

  14. Frantz Fanon, Sociologie d'une révolution (L'An V de la révolution algérienne) (Paris: François Maspéro, 1972), 20. Ironically, the attempt by colonial authorities to unveil the Algerian woman miscarried, for the unveiling of women facilitated their assimilation into the revolution to work beside men. And eventually the strongest force for the eroding of role differentiation between the sexes in Algeria was not the French but the revolution itself. In fact, the veil or its absence became a revolutionary weapon: “The veil removed and then put on again, the instrumentalized veil, was transformed into a technique of camouflage, into a means of battle” (44).

  15. Bouhdiba, La Sexualité en Islam, 45-46. The sexual exploitation of women in Islamic society has been described by several authors. See Fadela M'Rabet, La Femme algérienne (Paris: François Maspéro, 1954), and Evelyne Accad, Veil of Shame (Sherbrooke: Naaman, 1978). As Bouhdiba indicates, while the Qur'an speaks of a difference in degree between the sexes, the figh speaks of a difference in nature, such that “groups of facts institutionalize the repression [l'écrasement] of the woman, her derealization, her negation” (260). See also Ben Jelloun's chapter on “Une sexualité conçue par et pour l'homme,” in La Plus Haute des solitudes, 57-97 (esp. 57-59).

  16. Bouhdiba, La Sexualité en Islam, 20.

  17. Marguerite Duras, “Ecrire,” in L'Esprit Créateur 30, 1 (spring 1990): 6.

  18. Maurice Blanchot, L'Entretien infini (Paris: Gallimard, 1969).

  19. Jacques Derrida, “Living On: Border Lines,” trans. James Hulbert, in Harold Bloom et al., Deconstruction and Criticism (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 76.

  20. Michel Serres, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, ed. J. V. Harari and D. F. Bell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982).

  21. R. Lane Kauffmann, “The Other in Question: Dialogical Experiments in Montaigne, Kafka, and Cortázar,” in The Interpretation of Dialogue, ed. T. Maranhão (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 179-80. I am indebted to Kauffmann for certain terms and references I make in the following paragraph.

  22. Luce Irigaray, Ethique de la différence sexuelle (Paris: Minuit, 1984).

  23. Stephen A. Tyler, “Ethnography, Intertextuality and the End of Description,” American Journal of Semiotics 3, 4 (1985): 83-98.

  24. Cited by Kauffmann in “The Other in Question.”

Patricia Geesey (essay date 1996)

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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.

Hélène Cixous

Born in the coastal city of Cherchell in 1936, Assia Djebar is Algeria's most renowned and prolific woman novelist and filmmaker. Her literary career began in 1957 with the publication of La soif; three more novels followed and then, a ten-year period of near silence. Djebar returned to public life in 1977 with the production of her first film, La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua. Her return to fictional narrative in 1980, with Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement, heralded a change in the thematic and stylistic nature of her writing. Clarisse Zimra quite rightly observes that the key to understanding the significance of the hiatus in Djebar's trajectory lies in the work that signaled her return to writing (1992, 69). Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement is a collection of short stories, followed by a meditation on Eugène Delacroix's painting of the same name. The story that shares the volume's title clearly presents a thematic turning point in Djebar's work. The new concern is with women's words and women's voices: the aural manifestation of a feminine solidarity. As a character in “Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement” observes:

I see only one way for Arab women to release everything: to speak, to speak without stopping about yesterday and today, to speak among ourselves, in all the gynecia, the traditional ones and those of the housing projects. To speak among ourselves and to look. Look outside, look out from the walls and the prisons! The woman-gaze and the woman-voice. … The voice that searches in the open tombs!

(p. 68)1

This passage sets the tone for Djebar's subsequent narratives in which women speak out not only as individuals, but also blend their voices to form a polyphonic chorus that will resist the pressure to return to what Djebar has elsewhere identified as a state of silence imposed by the heritage of cultural traditions and colonialism.

One of Djebar's most recent narrative works is Loin de Médine (1991), subtitled “Filles d'Ismaël.” This novel marks a transition from her previous works as the primary concern is no longer women in contemporary Algeria, but rather women's lives in seventh-century Arabia—more specifically the women in the Prophet Muhammad's circle. Islam has never before been closely studied in Djebar's works. Indeed, even in Loin de Médine, the focus is not on the religion introduced by Muhammad at this historical moment; rather Djebar concentrates on depicting the experiences and relaying the testimonials of women who were in contact with the Prophet and his close followers. As Zimra points out, the work is not only a “meditation on history” (1992, 69), but a carefully orchestrated “re-reading” and “re-phrasing” of historical chronicles of the early years of Islam, written by men such as Tabari, Ibn Hisham, and Ibn Saad.

Djebar's objective in undertaking this re-reading may be linked to Adrienne Rich's comments on gendered reading in “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” still a seminal essay on feminist interpretation: “Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival” (1972, 18). Djebar's goal in looking at these male-authored histories is to first uncover women's obscured presence and then highlight their voices in the construction of early Islamic historiography. Her narrative covers a two-year period, from the last days of the Prophet, through the first caliphate of Abu Bakr, ending with the installation of Umar as the second caliph (632-34 A.D.). The process of “re-vision” will enable her to perform an act of “resuscitation” and “exhumation.” Both terms are key notions for Djebar: “In the course of the period evoked here, which begins with the death of Muhammad, multiple women's destinies have stood out for me: I have sought to resurrect them … (p. 5).2

In Loin de Médine, Djebar's project of re-reading highly regarded historical chronicles of the first centuries of Islam and then performing an interpretive act that elaborates on the glimpses of women's presence and women's words demonstrates a conscious manipulation of the discourses of both historiography and fictional narration. Given this technique, Djebar's text may be categorized as what Linda Hutcheon describes as “historiographic metafiction” in A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988). Hutcheon's work on historiographic metafiction underscores the “theoretical self-awareness of history and fiction as human constructs,” thereby establishing a narrative framework for “rethinking and reworking the forms and contents of the past” (1988, 5).

Djebar's choice of quotes from historical chronicles as epigraphs to introduce the prologue, illustrates her awareness that her efforts to resurrect women's words from the first century of Islam links her narrative to an established historical tradition. As Anne Donadey suggests, Djebar's use of epigraphs has the purpose of legitimizing her text in relationship to the works existing prior to her own, while at the same time subverting that very relationship (1993, 109-110), In Loin de Médine, epigraphs are used only on two occasions; at the very beginning of the work, and once again to present the section dealing with the caliphate of Umar. To introduce the entire work, two epigraphs are cited. The first is from the Persian author Firdawsi's (c. 940-1020 A.D.) Shah-nameh [The Book of Kings]. Her choice of citation indicates that she is seeking to ground her own text in a tradition of epic and legendary narration that knowingly covers familiar territory: “All that I will say, all have already recounted; all have already covered the garden of knowledge” (p. 7).3 The second epigraph is from the nineteenth-century French historian Jules Michelet: “And then there was a strange dialogue between him and myself, the one who revived him, and the old time put back on its feet” (p. 7).4 The notion of a dialogue, particularly one that takes place among women, is crucial to Djebar's project in Loin de Médine. Dialogue is present as her characters—historically accurate as well as fictional ones—converse with each other, recounting events and conversations that have linked them to the Prophet's presence. As an example of historiographic metafictional narrative, Loin de Médine problematizes the notion of how the past has been transmitted in and through the earliest extant texts—oral and then written—of early Islam. The use of Michelet's suggestion that the historian resuscitates the past through narration, reveals the interpretative nature of historical discourse.

According to Hutcheon, “Postmodern fiction suggests that to re-write or to re-present the past in fiction and in history is, in both cases, to open it up to the present, to prevent it from being conclusive and teleological” (1988, 110). Djebar's re-reading of the early history of Islam provides an understanding of the role played by women and their discourses in the transmission of historical accounts during Islam's first century. Loin de Médine challenges the reader to reconsider the notions of fact and fiction, as well as oral and written transmission of women's words. Djebar notifies the reader in the preface that fiction will be the material used to fill “the gaps of collective memory” (p. 5). The objective of this essay is to analyze the blurring of boundaries between historical fact and fictional creation, and to assess her use of women's voices to accomplish this reconstitution. The key to Djebar's project lies in her technique of mixing fictional with historical narrative, and in her insistence on the role of oral transmission in the early years of Islam.

In the avant-propos, Djebar observes that the voices of several rawiyates (sing. rawiya) interject their commentaries into the reconstitution of the period she examines. The rawiyates are female transmitters of statements made by Muhammad and his companions. Their testimonies appear as threads in the tapestry of women's presence and women's words that the author weaves in Loin de Médine. Djebar states that she is most concerned in this text with “reviving” the voices of these women transmitters because their presence has been fragmentary, only momentarily evoked in the male-authored chronicles of the first decades of Islam. These individuals were: “Scrupulous transmitters of course, but already naturally inclined by habit, to occult all feminine presence …” (p. 5).5 The figure of the rawiya, the woman who is an active agent of oral transmission, becomes the crucial figure in Djebar's reconstructive project.

Djebar uses the symbolic and literal structure of isnad and Hadith transmission as her discursive models. The Hadith are sayings attributed to Muhammad and brief narratives about his life and those of his companions, transmitted orally and then written down after the death of the Prophet. Women's relationship to the Hadith are unique as they appear both as the subjects, and authors of these attributed sayings. In her study Women and Gender in Islam (1992), Leila Ahmed contrasts the later absence of women's discursive power with the fact that in the early years of Islam, women were the “authors of verbal texts,” later transcribed by men and instituted as some of the founding discourses of Islam (p. 82). In Loin de Médine, there are several instances in which the narration is directly modeled on the Hadith paradigm: “Twenty or so years later, Abderahmane son of Hassan ibn Thabit will report to Mondir ibn Abid, who will report it to Osaïma ibn Zeid who will report it to Mohammed ibn Omar—and it is in this very precise transmission that the isnad, or Islamic chain will be accepted by the tradition experts …” (p. 194).6

The chain of women's words portrayed in Loin de Médine consciously evokes the isnad, or chain of transmission that must be established to authenticate a Hadith. After the Prophet's death, the science of isnad was crucial because it was one of the most important sources of spiritual and temporal guidance for the community of believers. Employing techniques comparable to a modern-day interviewer, Hadith transcribers and collectors had to verify the sources of every Hadith. By clearly establishing the chain (isnad) of transmitters back to a close companion of the Prophet, subsequent believers could be assured of the Hadith's validity. In The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam (1987), the Moroccan feminist-sociologist Fatima Mernissi observes that what makes the isnad's authenticity so vital, is the fact that in the early centuries of Islam, believers were expected to judge for themselves the credibility of the Hadith in question (p. 35). Therefore, all pertinent information regarding the chain of transmission, including the biographies of those individuals who formed the links of the chain, was required in order to allow the faithful to reflect upon and to interpret the Hadith's relevance and validity. In the introduction to The Veil and the Male Elite, Mernissi herself exercises this fundamental right of the individual believer to evaluate a Hadith when she performs a detailed reconstruction of the isnad of a certain Hadith regarding the incompatibility of women and secular power. She observes that the significance of the Hadith for women's status in Islam is immeasurable. Many Hadith, for example, deal with issues that closely affect women and their rights and duties as believers. Mernissi notes, as do other Muslim feminists, that many of the Hadith authenticated in Al-Bukhari's (b. 810-870) collection may be originally attributed to the Prophet's wives, to Aisha in particular (1991, 35). The historical reality of the women in the Prophet's circle as sources of these traditions is the inspiration for Djebar's project. In order to authenticate Hadith, it is inevitable that numerous accounts of the same incidents or communications of Muhammad will surface. According to the historian Albert Hourani, throughout the first centuries of Islam, the method of distinguishing false Hadith from authentic ones was considered to be an important science. He points out that false Hadith were dangerous as they might be created in order to serve political ends (1991, 70-71). It may be said that the authentification process was a “reading” or interpretative strategy that sought to distinguish “fact” from “fiction.” In this way, Djebar's appropriation of the Hadith model as a paradigm for re-reading women's words in early Islam entails the problems of separating fiction from fact, as well as enjoining an act of reading that is also an act of reconstitution of the chain of women's voices.

In her discussion of the Hadith and women's status, Mernissi notes that these traditions provide a “veritable panorama of daily life in the seventh century, a vivid panorama extremely varied because there are various versions of the same event” (1991, 34-35). The recognition that the Hadith present a multiplicity of narrations, or “readings” of the same events, parallels the polyphonic nature of Djebar's presentation and “re-visioning” of events that are discussed in the Hadith and in the chronicles by Tabari, Ibn Saad, and Ibn Hisham.

In Loin de Médine, Djebar uses a plurality of narrative voices, an isnad to represent the multiplicity of points of view and voices. The entire narrative is structured around the theme of “la voix.” Introduced by a prologue and concluded by an epilogue, the four main divisions of the novel are further broken down into accounts of individual women, several of whose stories are narrated in the first person. Alternating with these narrative segments are italicized passages, rawiya, entitled first, second, and third, and passages entitled “voix.” The fourth transmitter is Aisha, wife of the Prophet, whose story is narrated in third-person, and in her own, first-person narration. In the passages entitled “voix,” and rawiya, the use of italics and first-person narration underscore the presence of direct transmission, seemingly transcribed from the oral. In the segments that detail the lives and specific incidents of certain women, the third-person narrating voice is that of the author herself, performing her “re-reading” and “recounting” of the women whose presence is momentarily remarked in the chronicles of early Islam. In an interview with Clarisse Zimra, Djebar explains her dedication to the project of reviving and re-interpreting women's history and presence in early Islam. She states that her purpose in Loin de Médine is to “answer back,” to give a response to “official history.” Djebar points out that this text is evidently a “piece of committed literature” (Zimra 1993, 126). Consequently, the author's own voice may be “heard” in those passages in Loin de Médine where the third-person narrator comments upon the role played by the women of the Prophet's entourage and the relevance of their actions and words in the history of Islam. It is this same voice that comments upon the incidents related in the historical texts and offers alternate interpretations and possibilities for the women's actions and words recounted. In these narrative passages, the author's voice opens a dialogue between “factual” and “fictional” readings.

The first re-reading presents the account of a Yeminite queen, Islamized with her people during the Prophet's lifetime. Shortly before Muhammad's death, the woman is widowed and captured by a rebel Bedouin leader who has set himself up as a false prophet. At her people's surrender to the rebels, the woman is a part of the spoils of war and becomes the wife of the false prophet. History, according to Djebar, does not make it clear whether the queen is a victim or the one who seduced the conqueror of her tribe. From the chronicles of the era, it is known, however, that the young queen helped assassins to gain access to the sleeping rebel. “The fiction would be to imagine this woman as cunning, since the weapons of femininity remain, in these circumstances, the only ones left intact” (p. 20).7 The conscious evocation of fiction in completing the portrait of this woman's nearly eclipsed role in history, demonstrates that Djebar's “re-visioning” and resuscitation is ultimately linked to an attempt to rewrite history. Djebar insists on the ambiguity surrounding the Yeminite queen's actions as this uncertainty about the women's role in authenticated history allows for a “re-reading” of her words and actions: “Ambiguity above all envelopes the character of the Yeminite with the lamp. She disappears into oblivion: without honors, without other comments. No trail prolongs her. Her candle has gone out: silence closes over her” (p. 28).8

The entire structure of Loin de Médine, reflects a careful attention to a harmony of patterns, alternating third-person “recounting” with first-person “transmission.” The resulting textual orchestration of women's voices and women's narratives echoes the format of Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia (1985), and, like this preceding work, creates a fantasia-like medley in which the voice of each single narratrice derives strength from the collective.

In “Ecritures féminines algériennes: histoire et société,” Simone Rezzoug observes that the portrayal of women's solidarity through collective speech is a frequently occurring literary device in contemporary Algerian women's writing. The act of women writing, she notes, is seen as one that transgresses women's socially and culturally defined limits in much of the Maghreb. Rezzoug suggests that women who speak out or who write must therefore foreground their texts in a commitment to participation with the mainstream community: “contemporary Algerian production […] solicits the recognition of the feminine voice within and not against a masculine community” (1984, 80). It may be suggested, then, that Djebar's effort to establish a link between her “revision” project and the pattern followed by Hadith transmission and authentification, seeks legitimization in retracing the narrative steps back to the original women's words and presence. In this fashion, Loin de Médine is not a “subversive” re-reading that overturns any patriarchal limitations or interpretations on women's status in Islam, but rather it posits a relationship between her fictional narrative and an established body of texts—oral and written—whose interpretation has normally been controlled by men, that is, by the masculine community referred to in Rezzoug's study.

If, as Rezzoug believes, many Algerian women writers prefer to blend their voices with those of a collective and not to appear to be speaking out alone, then the multiple voices that narrate Loin de Médine create a chain of transmission that is strengthened with the addition of each rawiya.

The strongest voice of the women from the past who are resurrected to recount their stories in Djebar's work is Aisha, the Prophet's favorite wife, who is generally considered to be one of the most reliable voices among the first transmitters of Hadith. Djebar creates a portrait of Aisha, who, like the author herself, performs “… a slow exhumation which runs the risk of appearing dusty, flimsy fog” (p. 300).9 She gives consistency to her memories by and through their telling to an audience of children: nieces and nephews included. In Djebar's description, Aisha recognizes the necessity of her reconstitution to offset the growing testimony of “eux” [masculine them] who are already relating their version of events and statements. “What can she, all alone, do against so many words, so many speeches that will flow? She evokes. She relives. She remembers. First for herself and for her audience of children …” (p. 300).10 The triple gesture of evoking, reliving, and remembering signifies the character's affirmation of her own discourse, made public through recitation. Aisha's recounting will eventually lead to her becoming a source for Hadith and a most important link in the isnad (it should be remembered that the root of the word Hadith is the verb haddatha, to recount). By preserving and transmitting her accounts of the past, Aisha, as portrayed by Djebar, ensures that her vision of history will be recorded as a counterweight to later reinterpretations and revisions.

As a historical character, Aisha's presence in the novel is characterized by a sense of factual, not fictional development. A great deal is known about the historical Aisha since accounts of her deeds and words survive in Hadith and chronicles of the period. In Loin de Médine, all but a very few of the speeches, comments, and gestures attributed to her character are read as “fiction.” However, not all of the female characters in the novel are representations of individuals who truly existed. In the list of characters and their relationships that is included as an appendix to the narrative, an N.B. is added to indicate that among all the major characters portrayed, only that of Habiba, referred to as the second rawiya, is “totally imaginary” (p. 311).

Habiba's story is narrated in an italicized passage entitled “Deuxième rawiya,” and it begins the second major division of the text, “Soumises, Insoumises.” The oppositional notion of “submissive, unsubdued” used in the feminine form highlights the thematic development to come in the women's narratives presented in that division. The character of Habiba is relayed by an anonymous, first-person female narrator. Her sister, another rawiya, has just died and the anonymous narrator feels incapable of continuing in her late sister's role as a transmitter. Soon, Habiba arrives in Medina; she is a woman in her fifties, without either a home or close male relatives to shelter or supervise her. She asks that she be called Habiba, a friend, since she prefers to make no claim to any other name. She establishes her position as a marginalized woman, without either family or a name in a society that highly values both. The anonymous narrator declares that Habiba will become the second rawiya and that “it will be she who will continue the chain, I sensed it right away: a woman arriving in Medina without children, without a husband, and without a nephew” (p. 93).11 To prepare for her role as rawiya, Habiba visits the women of Medina who have the most recollections to relate to her. She eventually stays two years in the company of the Prophet's wife Maïmouna, the one married most recently before his death, because she especially knew how to “evoke the past” (p. 98).

Given the fact that, according to Djebar, Habiba occupies the unique position of being the only totally imaginary principal character in Loin de Médine, it is significant that her words and deeds are depicted as transgressing established precepts for women's behavior. She is described as “the wanderer,” free to move about, even at night, to visit homes and the tomb of Fatima, the Prophet's beloved daughter. As Djebar does not have to account for “facts” related by the chronicles, Habiba's behavior is a recreation of how the process of becoming a rawiya might have been undertaken. Habiba's position as a marginalized woman even within the feminine circle of Medina, empowers her to take on the role of a collector and a transmitter of other women's life-stories and of Hadith precisely because of her marginal status. As Hutcheon notes, “the protagonists of historiographic metafiction are anything but proper types: they are the ex-centrics, the marginalized, the peripheral figures of fictional history …” (1988, 113-14). The character of Habiba occupies critical space in the factual versus fictional history paradigm. As she has no family ties, she can be seen as having no political scores to settle in her collection and transmission of Hadith. The neutrality of this imaginary rawiya guarantees that her accounts, if she had truly existed, would have been above reproach.

The transgressive, ex-centric, and even “powerless” (in the temporal sense) position of the fictional character of Habiba prefigures the marginalized role to be assigned to women in general in the centuries of Arab-Islamic history to come. Her character portends the fate of the Algerian author Assia Djebar herself: exiled, living alone, collecting women's words to be preserved and recounted to a larger audience and to succeeding generations. As a fictional character, Habiba the second transmitter, bridges the gap between the historical discourse of the chronicles Djebar is “re-reading,” and the fictional elements that enter into a dialogic relationship with both of these forms of narrative. Creating a kind of intertextual tapestry of women's real and imagined words, and women's historical presence, Loin de Médine operates on a level of intertextuality that Hutcheon identifies as being unique to historiographic metafiction. It reveals “a formal manifestation of both a desire to close the gap between past and present of the reader and a desire to rewrite the past in a new context” (1988, 118).

In the epilogue to the work, Djebar consciously evokes the ties between present-day Arab—Muslim women and those whose lives are recounted in the work. Indeed, the author has declared in her interview with Clarisse Zimra that the true inspiration for Loin de Médine, may be found in the tumultuous events in Algeria in the late 1980s, including the riots of 1988 and the Muslim reaction to the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses in 1989, (1993, 123). During these incidents, men and women protested in the streets in Algerian cities, many falling victim to the army's violent repression of the demonstrations. In the novel's epilogue, Djebar emphasizes the two distinct tendencies of women's words as they have been represented and relayed in the narrative: “parole de la contestation” (Fatima) and “parole de la transmission” (Aisha) (p. 299). The overall future of “la parole féminine” is assured through the two veins. But what if, Djebar suggests, the “voice of transmission” one day encounters and fuses with the “voice of rebellion” (p. 300)? The resulting fusion would be an Arab—Muslim woman who both speaks out and who has recourse to direct action. In “Filles d'Agar,” dit-elle—the second part of the epilogue—Djebar presents a final, free-verse chorus of voices—those of yesterday harmonizing with those of today. By choosing this heading for the epilogue instead of “filles d'Ismaël,” Djebar evokes Hagar, the Egyptian servant and concubine of Abraham, exiled into the desert with her infant son Ishmael, ancestor of the Arabs. Her objective here is to create a link between all descendants—the daughters of Hagar—who have originated in the deserts of Arabia. As Djebar points out in a footnote, the root of Hagar's name is the same word in Arabic for “hegira,” or emigration. Hagar was “She who emigrated”—Ishmael's mother and hence the first woman “from Medina.” The chain of words, transmitted generation to generation, parallels that of the birthright of exile and wandering, extending back through “celles de Médine,” those women who left that city with the Prophet, all the way back to Hagar, and continuing today in those women who make the return journey—the haj—back to Medina.

Does Djebar's writing in Loin de Médine, then, represent a kind of pilgrimage back to the earliest sources of women's voices in Islam? In resurrecting the voices and stories of women who played important roles in families, society, and even in politics during the first several decades of Islam in Arabia, Djebar has sought to fill in the gaps of collective memory through a fusion of historical and fictional sources. The resulting polyphonic orchestration provides for the creation of a chain of women's voices stretching through many generations, across the varied lands that now make up what is often collectively referred to as the Muslim—Arab world. The chain of voices in her narrative derives its legitimacy and authenticity from its appropriation of the Hadith paradigm, preserved through the science of isnad, retracing the path of the spoken words back to their original source. Djebar's project in Loin de Médine re-enacts the triple gesture of Aisha, rawiya par excellence: “she evokes. She relives. She remembers” (p. 300).


  1. “Je ne vois pour les femmes arabes qu'un seul moyen de tout débloquer: parler, parler sans cesse d'hier et d'aujourd'hui, parler entre nous, dans tous les gynécées, les traditionnels et ceux des H. L. M. Parler entre nous et regarder. Regarder dehors, regarder hors des murs et des prisons! … La femme—regard et la femme—voix … La voix qui cherche dans les tombeaux ouverts!”

  2. “Au cours de la période évoquée ici, qui commence avec la mort de Mohammed, de multiples destinées de femmes se sont imposées à moi: j'ai cherché à les ressusciter …”

  3. “Tout ce que je dirai, tous l'ont déjà conté; tous ont déjà parcouru le jardin du savoir.”

  4. “Et il y eut alors un étrange dialogue entre lui et moi, entre moi, son ressusciteur, et le vieux temps remis debout.”

  5. “Transmetteurs certes scrupuleux, mais naturellement portés, par habitude déjà, à occulter toute présence féminine. …”

  6. “Vingt ans plus tard, ou davantage, Abderahmane fils de Hassan ibn Thabit rapportera à Mondir ibn Abid, qui le rapportera à Osaïma ibn Zeid, qui le parrortera à Mohammed ibn Omar—et c'est dans cette transmission bien précise que l'isnad, ou chaine islamique, sera accepté par les traditionnistes …”

  7. “La fiction serait d'imaginer cette femme rouée, puisque les armes de la féminité demeurent, en ces circonstances, les seules inentamées.”

  8. “L'ambiguïté enrobe surtout le personnage de la Yéménite à la lampe. Elle disparaît dans l'oubli: sans honneurs, sans d'autres commentaires. Nul sillage ne la prolonge. Sa chandelle s'est éteinte: le silence se referme sur elle.”

  9. “… une exhumation lente de ce qui risque de paraître poussière, brume inconsistante.”

  10. “Que peut—elle, et toute seule, contre tant de mots, tant de discours qui vont affluer? Elle évoque. Elle revit. Elle se souvient. D'abord pour elle, et pour son public d'enfants …”

  11. “Ce sera elle qui continuera la chaîne, je l'ai aussitôt pressenti: une femme arrivant à Médine sans enfant, sans mari, sans neveu.”

Martine Guyot-Bender (essay date 1996)

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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 subject of great concern for feminist activists inside and outside Islamic countries. Islamic laws consider women inferior to men and not deserving of equal status: sequestration, illiteracy, inheritance laws, and repudiation are only some issues that have prompted sympathy and closer examination of the lives they live (Achour 227-249). In 1959, Frantz Fanon linked the indignation of the French public at women's second class status as a means to justify the French expansionist and missionary agenda in Algeria. Commenting on the French urge “[de] faire honte à l'Algérien du sort qu'il réserve à la femme” [(to) throw shame on the Algerian man of the type he reserves for the woman] (19), Fanon considered encouragements made by the colonists to Muslim women to reject the “sujétion séculaire” [century-old servitude] an obvious strategy for breaking down the originality and the integrity of the Algerian people and culture (19-20).

Similarly, a number of contemporary critics interested in the way westerners envision non-western cultures warn all observers again about the tendency to analyze non-western situations according to western values.1 They point out that general accounts of Muslim cultures, well-intentioned as they might be, rarely present the true variety of social contexts and situations, and instead offer sets of cultural stereotypes. In particular, broad statements still typically reduce the complexity of Muslim women's position in society to overwhelming dissatisfaction and suggest, for example, that rivalry and power struggles are unavoidable among women forced, because of traditional family structures, to live under the same roof.2 Recently, however, scholars have recognized that those women have, over the centuries, found their own strategies to manage confinement and forced cohabitation.

Rather than producing homogenized generalizations, recent studies of Muslim women's struggles for survival and empowerment de-emphasize the Islamic cultural determinant in favor of a focus on individual experiences. The recent volume Muslim Women's Choices, for example, challenges “public opinion in the West [which] generally ignores this diversity and is largely influenced by deep-rooted assumptions that Islam is a monolithic religion controlling all aspects of its adherents' lives” (1). The authors focus on variety and individual experiences, rather than on stereotypical assumptions and group experiences, ultimately exploring how “Islamic women in diverse Muslim communities and societies live out their lives” (19). In her study of polygamy in two narratives written in French by Algerian novelists, Ombre sultane by Assia Djebar and La Chrysalide by Aicha Lemsine,3 Denise Brahimi suggests that feminine sorority coexists within competition. This approach is, I believe, a valuable one to counter reductionist examinations in which women appear completely powerless and sometimes lifeless. I will follow a path similar to Brahimi's, observing, in another of Assia Djebar's books, L'amour, la fantasia, the strengths women derive from a life mostly devoted to homemaking.

This narrative is commonly regarded as a harsh criticism of the sex-segregated society in rural Algeria. Winifred Woodhull, for example, recently wrote: “Without question, Djebar's novels are feminist and highly critical of women's situation in Algeria” (79). This affirmation does not take into account the complexities of women's positions in Muslim societies. Without minimizing the oppression to which they are subjected, I want to suggest that a series of episodes in L'amour also illustrates ways in which women have resisted oppression both from Algerian men and from the French colonists through mutual support and collective strength. My reading constitutes a limited case study rather than yet another generalization on the status of “the Algerian woman.” Contrary to previous analysis of L'amour, la fantasia, I will focus on textual instances where home-related issues of the Sahel rural setting of the text are presented in a more positive way than is most often pointed out by Djebar's critics. I will also examine the main narrator's tension between the desire for, and the rejection of, a traditional Muslim mode of life for women; while illustrating the women's confinement in the rural setting of her childhood, she also exemplifies longing for the support these women's groups offer. Yet, before doing so, I want to highlight some important issues of representation found in L'amour.

“Homemaking” is not the primary topic of L'amour, la fantasia. The ostensible subject of this non-linear text is the integration of past histories, both historical and personal: historical in the evocations of the invasion of Algeria by the French in 1830 and the Independence War in the mid-twentieth century, and personal in the evocations of the main narrator's childhood in Algeria, along with reflections on her position as an immigrant in France. The complex and overlapping “plots,” the absence of linearity, and the play among different narrative voices make the task of summarizing L'amour an arduous one. For Brahimi who wrote the post-face, it is a “tissage subtil” [subtle weaving] (261). Indeed, this “tissage” materializes in the multiple textual subdivisions: “parties” [parts], “chapitres” [chapters] (alternatively numbered and unnumbered, titled and untitled), and “movements” [movements]. Despite this visible fragmentation, the text is highly structured. In the first two parts, which constitute half of the book, chapters alternate between autobiographical and historical storylines. The autobiographical chapters focus on the narrator's childhood in the Sahel and memories of her first years in France, and the historical chapters relate episodes of the invasion of Algeria in 1830. The third part, which constitutes the second half of the book, is composite as well. It interweaves transcriptions of interviews made by the main narrator of two women's oral recollections of the Algerian revolution which ended on Algeria's independence in 1962, together with additional reflections of the same narrator's status as a resident of France with a traditional Arabo-Berber background.

The first person of the autobiographical chapters shares many features with the author, although no autobiographical claim is made by her until the very end of the text: “L'autobiographie pratiquée dans la langue adverse se tisse comme fiction” [autobiography practiced in the adversary tongue weaves itself as fiction would] (247).4 Throughout the text, the anonymous narrator examines her place as a bilingual speaker. On the one hand, she benefited from the French presence by gaining independence as well as by accessing the world of writing closed to many Algerian women. On the other hand, this independence separated her from her family's women. She was sent at an early age to a French school by her father who himself taught there, then went to a French boarding school, and eventually moved to France where we understand she is now residing. Her visits to her native region and memories of her adolescent life lead her to ponder her own childhood, her status as an “outsider” to the society she evokes, as well as the status of those women who, unlike her, remained in the village.5

In one part of the text, autobiographical reflections alternate with fragmented recollections of the Independence War gathered by the narrator from Chérifa and Djennet, two women witnesses of and actors in this historical period. The two testimonies are the result of many layers of interpretation from the two speakers' memory (by definition affected by the action of time), from their oral discourse in Arabic, from the main narrator's double translation into both written discourse and French. Here, Djebar provides what Fanon wanted to see happen: “donner sa voix au peuple algérien” [to give one's voice to the Algerian people] (5). Yet, she goes beyond the claim made by the sociologist for whom the Algerian voice remained essentially male: in L'amour, the Algerian voice is exclusively a woman's voice.

This multiplicity of voices gives the reader access to an equal multiplicity of points of view, although the narrator makes clear that she manipulates each one of them. The dominant discourse of victorious French officers' written testimonies projects the mythical and romantic representation of Algeria's physical and cultural traits, the “produit d'imaginations fumeuses et pétries de fantasmes” [emerging from hazy imaginations and built on fantasies] (Fanon 12), found in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century orientalist painting, as the opening citation from painter and novelist Fromentin announces. Numerous descriptions implicitly attributed to the French officers indicate the effects of imagination and fantasies on observation, and how art influences the way a reality is perceived, thus altering the vision of one's environment. As Fanon in particular had already remarked about the colonialist vision of Algeria, the whole country was, for these soldiers, clearly associated with a woman's body (16):

Devant l'imposante flotte qui déchire l'horizon, la Ville Imprenable (Alger) se dévoile, blancheur fantomatique, à travers un poudroiement de bleus et de gris mêlés. Triangle incliné dans le lointain et qui, après le scintillement de la dernière brume nocturne, se fixe adouci, tel un corps à l'abandon, sur un tapis de verdure assombrie. La montagne paraît barrière esquissée dans un azur d'aquarelle.

[Facing the imposing fleet that reaps the horizon, the Invincible City (Algiers) unveils itself, ghostly whiteness, through a powder of mixed blues and grays. A leaning triangle in the distance and which, after the last glimmering of the nocturnal haze, fixes itself smoothed, in the manner of an abandoned body, on the rug of green vegetation. The mountain appears, a sketched wall in a pastel-blue horizon].

(Djebar, 18, my translation throughout)

This French officer's vision (or is it the one the main narrator imagines?) is inscribed in the context of the orientalist fetishist painting. On the one hand, terminology associated with art appreciation such as the “poudroiement de bleus et de gris,” “verdure assombrie,” “azur d'aquarelle,” detaches the landscape from its physical boundaries and makes it a mere subject of representation. On the other hand, the way in which the author of the quotation refers to the female body frames the status of the allegorical Muslim woman: “la Ville Imprenable se dévoile” [the Invincible City unveils herself] assimilates the city to the assumed mystery (thus desirability for the European man) of the veiled woman who makes herself available to men; “blancheur fantomatique” [ghostly paleness] refers to its mysterious purity and quality (she is the unknown to be explored and conquered); “tel un corps à l'abandon” [like a body in abandon] gives the vision of the city (and the implied woman) the erotic connotation of an act of possession to be consummated soon. Fanon saw in this type of representation “l'attitude dominante … un exotisme romantique, fortement teinté de sensualité” [the dominating attitude … a romantic exoticism, tinted by sensuality] (25). The French soldier who wrote this description was clearly influenced by the familiar representation of harem women of orientalist painting: Algiers was a place / woman ready to be taken by him.6

Counterbalancing such romantic and dominating views found in the historically oriented chapters of L'amour, Djebar's interviews and transcription of women's testimonies supply an alternative voice to the written voice of history books, most commonly a male colonizing voice. Indeed, Chérifa's and Djennet's tales about the Independence War provide rare insiders' point of view, which take into account the daily experience and struggles of a population dominated by a foreign power. There, we discover a new dynamics of home: a marginal yet effective means of resistance and empowerment.

In the intersecting of discourses between the French soldiers' view of Algeria and the narrator's own view of her culture, “homemaking” is a strong but ambivalent leitmotif in L'amour, la fantasia. It appears throughout the text in the narrator's reflections and questions about her cultural background and her own place on the margin of this culture. It also emerges from the narrator's informants' recollections. Both discourses point to the restrictiveness of Algerian women's place in society, while simultaneously revealing their strengths (Woodhull 5). My examination concentrates on two kinds of episodes: on the main narrator's hesitation between rejection of and attraction to a traditional mode of life she criticizes and has abandoned and on illustrations of the power arising from confinement during the colonial period and the Revolution. I will first focus on the connotations of home and on the dynamics among women within that home, before taking a closer look at the narrator's place as an outsider to these communities. In Djebar's fragmented portrayals, support among women exists. In the autobiographical segments, the women's community emerges as an autonomous functioning structure while in historical testimonies women use women's specific tools to support men's wars. In both cases a community of women constitutes a solid wall against outsiders, be they Algerian males of the tribe, or the French invaders.


In the background of the text stand the equivocal women's communities of rural Algeria. Readers of L'amour get glimpses of these communities through the eyes of the French soldiers both during the invasion of Algiers in 1830 and during the Algerian Revolution in the 1950's; through the eyes of the adolescent and later the adult main narrator; and through the eyes of the women witnesses and resisters during the Revolution. Perceptions vary greatly depending on the observer's position vis à vis the wall separating women from men. In their testimonies, the French officers commonly relegate women to the position of belongings of the village, “les tribus se réfugient en cas de nécessité, avec femmes et enfants, troupeaux et munitions” [tribes take refuge when necessary with their women and children, herd and munitions] (83). On the other hand, women refer to themselves as a “people” (51), a social group whose strong identity reflects the common definition of the term: “an entire body of persons who constitute a community or other group by virtue of a common culture, religious, or the like” (Random House 1000).

The communities evoked in L'amour, la fantasia seem to share many features with the traditional rural tribal Muslim societies historian Albert Hourani discusses in his History of the Arab Peoples, even those of two or three centuries ago.7 “The basic unit,” Hourani writes, “was the nuclear family of three generations of women: grandparents, parents and children living together in village houses or in the woven tents of the nomads” (105). According to Fanon they were “homogène[s] et quasi-monolithique[s]” [homogenous and quasimonolithic] (83). Hourani adds that men were in charge of outside work and transactions, and women were in charge of cooking, attending to the house and to the education of young children, and were under the protection of the male head. What the historian refers to as “the tribe” closely resembles L'amour's social structures built on the regrouping of several families with a common name or a common ancestor. “The house, a microcosm organized by the same opposition and the same homologies which order the whole universe, stands in a relation of homology with the rest of the universe” remarked sociologist Pierre Bourdieu about this setting (143). Indeed, within the “tribe,” each home was a reflection of the others, thus creating a mirror-like effect where repetition of the same basic family model reinforced the accepted cultural standards: a prominently hierarchical and monolithic social model where gender specificity and segregation dominated (Ahmed 116-17).

This system of gender segregation based on the separation between men's spheres and women's spheres has complex ramifications. Segregation restricts women's field of action in the outside world, while creating a rather homogeneous society within the individual homes, as well as homogeneity among the collective village. In fact, with the exception of the narrator and her mother, women in L'amour seem rather accepting of a social model that protects the specificity of their culture.8 While these restrictions obviously deny women access to the outside world, to the world of transactions, and economical and political dominance, separation also acts as a means of preserving a traditional style of life from outsiders, as it did during the colonial period. It constituted “un garde-fou” (149) [a parapet] according to Djebar's discussion of the harem.

Indeed, L'amour suggests many ways in which women inside homes empowered themselves, both in regard to Algerian men and to the French. The physical space of the home, its rituals, and the mingling of generations participate in the making of the “people” of women. The privacy of the homes where adult women spend most of their time constitutes a clearly confining space in the narrator's perception, a limitation which translates in the physical depiction of women in the narrator's childhood rural environment. Spatial limitation appears throughout the text: “trois jeunes filles [qui] sont cloîtrées au milieu d'un hameau du Sahel que cernent d'immenses vignobles” [three young women cloistered in the middle of a hamlet of the Sahel surrounded by endless vineyards] (22). In addition, references to the invisibility of women, those “frêles fantômes” [fragile ghosts] (23) alternate with mentions of the institutionalized inferiority of the “femmes reléguées” [relegated women] (53). The main narrator's own memory of childhood days spent in the courtyard carry the feeling of being a “fugitive,” for instance when she and her cousin transgressed the allowed boundaries on their way to the communal bakery. The home is beyond doubt a prison.

Yet, life exists within these boundaries, and the text counterbalances such visions of confinement with suggestions that the same space is nonetheless a productive one. Central to this double value of the home is the evolution of the narrator's emotions from initial relief, when her father sent her to the French school, to explicit regret for the community she had left, when she realizes she has lost some of her heritage. Leaving the village first meant gaining a freedom probably coveted by many girls of her age. At an adult age, this separation meant isolation from the support group this family initially constituted. Spatially and linguistically removed from her familiar and tight community in the Sahel, she remembers having first appreciated the concrete rupture with the all-women environment which would infringe on her freedom. Her father provided her with greater independence and formally freed her from “le cercle des aïeules” [the circle of elder women] (36), often considered as the embodiment of the cultural and religious pressure on women. Furthermore, this separation allowed her to substitute writing for the oral means of communication most common for rural women of the narrator's childhood (Fanon 83). But, since everything is a “trade off,” this initially liberating separation later gives way to a nostalgic longing for the “ambiance” of the house and the courtyard she was once eager to leave.

The narrator soon comes to realize that a house is not unlike the soul, as the considers the pleasure that can arise from the quaintness of a home, then or now. All parts of the text, autobiographical, historical and oral testimonies, offer scattered but repetitious illustrations of paradise-like homes, centers for harmony and/or power. While in the historical chapters she imagines the bliss women enjoyed during evenings spent on the terraces before the invasion, “leur royaume” [their realm] (20), she also remembers her own ecstasy when finding relief from the heat inside the cool house: “la demeure est spacieuse. Multiples chambres fraîches, ombreuses, encombrées de matelas empilés à même le sol, de tentures sahariennes, de tapis tissés autrefois par la maîtresse de maison. …” [the house is spacious. Numerous cool rooms, shady, encumbered by mattresses piled up on the floor, Saharan curtains, rugs once hand-woven by the lady of the house …] (22). Such comfort is a source of unmixed feelings shared by the whole community:

Pour moi comme pour mon amie, il restait évident que la plus belle maison, par la profusion des tapis, par la soie chatoyante des coussins, était sans conteste ‘la nôtre.’ Les femmes, chez nous, issues de la ville voisine célèbre pour ses broderies, s'initiaient à cet art à la mode déjà au temps des Turcs.

[For me and my friend, it was obvious that the most beautiful house, by the profusion of rugs, by the shiny silk of the cushions, was obviously ‘ours.’ Women in our community originally from the nearby town were initiated to this art already fashionable under the Turks].


Within the walls, she sees the marks of her cultural background, untouched by the French. She is fully conscious of the reassuring decor in which art and functional objects mingle, a decor elaborated by hands of the past to which contemporary hands are still adding on for the future, thus creating a tangible link between the generations of women. The pride she and her community take in their specific skills and in the timeless impact they have on their physical environment leads to the visible condescension with which women of the narrator's family often commented on “le coin reculé de la campagne française” [the corner of the French back country] (38), the original home of one of their French visitors.9 The careful management of the Arabo-Berber space the narrator now mourns constitutes the manifestation of women's specific knowledge and creativity, a realm of sharing and teaching of skills. This space develops a coherent and harmonious continuum, thus becoming the metaphor for achievement and success of women within their limited role in society.

The adolescent narrator was raised in a community where homes are cultural markers. Her curiosity about the difference between her culture and the French colonial culture focuses not so much on the individual colonists who lived in her village, but on the interior of the French homes she could sometimes glimpse through the window (she remembers that she was never invited inside the house, while the French woman walked into her family's courtyard quite freely). For her, objects truly revealed the presence of an Other in the heart of her native village:

Je regardais le corridor qui ouvrait sur d'autres pièces. Je devinais le bois luisant des meubles dans la pénombre; je me perdais dans la contemplation de la cochonnaille suspendue au fond de la cuisine; des torchons à grands carreaux rouges semblaient, ainsi accrochés, un pur ornement; je scrutais l'image de la Vierge au dessus d'une porte. … Le gendarme et sa famille me paraissent soudain des ombres de passage dans ces lieux, et par contre ces images, ces objets, cette viande devenaient les vrais occupants.

[I would look in the hallway that opened on other rooms. I guessed the polished wood of the furniture in the dark; I would sit there contemplating the hams hanging from the kitchen ceiling; towels with large red checkers seemed, hanging this way, pure ornamentation; I observed the Virgin Mary picture over one of the doors. … The policeman and his family are suddenly no more than passing shadows in these places, and on the contrary these images, these objects, this meat were becoming the real occupants].


The girl is intrigued by objects foreign to her native culture and religion. While the accumulation of furniture and wood floors mark a mere aesthetic difference, the ham hanging from the ceiling and the Virgin Mary picture both emphasize the incompatibility of cultures based on such different beliefs as Islam and Christianity. Such culturally marked spaces were the real intrusion in the village. Thus, when the French were expelled from Algeria in 1962, their houses were dismantled and emptied of the hidden and unfamiliar objects, the very symbols of cultural colonization and violation of the local culture. A real cultural exorcism took place: “tout ce décor, autrefois tapi dans l'ombre de demeures à la fois ouvertes et inaccessibles, se trouva déversé sur les trottoirs” [the whole decor, once hidden in the shade of homes both open and inaccessible, was thrown out on the sidewalks] (38). The victory over the colonizing forces and the return to political independence are, in L'amour, symbolized by the reclaiming of spaces and homes.


As suggested in L'amour, rural life was considered “regressive” (51) both by the French colonists and by urban Algerians who more readily accepted French modes of life and the comforts of modernization. Yet, the closed rural homes constitute a protected locus for preserving the local culture and traditions from the outside world. This protection has been pointed out by observers of the Muslim world outside the Maghreb, such as Rosemary Ridd who has described Muslim women's communities which, in the apartheid system of the Cape in South Africa, “provided people with substance, self-respect and a refuge from the apartheid” (92) as well as Deborah Pellow's similar observations in her essay, “Solidarity among Muslim Women in Accra, Ghana.” Members of gender-segregated environments, both critics observe, have the potential to develop strong support systems, similar to the one the adolescent narrator of L'amour experienced during animated women's celebrations:

Dans les fêtes de mon enfance, les bourgeoises sont assises écrasées de bijoux, enveloppées de velours brodé, le visage orné de paillettes ou de tatouages. Les musiciennes développent la litanie, les pâtisseries circulent, les enfants encombrent les pieds des visiteuses parées. Les danseuses se lèvent, le corps large, la silhouette tranquille. … Je n'ai d'yeux que pour ma mère, que pour mon rêve sans doute où je me représente adulte, moi aussi dansant dans cette chaleur. Les rues de la ville sont loin; les hommes n'existent plus. L'éden reste immuable: danses lentes, visages mélancoliques qui se laissent bercer. …

[In the celebrations of my childhood, the bourgeois women are sitting covered with jewels, wrapped in embroidered velvet, their faces decorated with sparkles or tattoos. The women musicians slowly start the litany, pastries circulate, children run around the decorated guests. The dancers get up, with their wide bodies, and a tranquil figure. … I cannot detach my eyes from my mother, from the dream where I see myself as an adult, also dancing in this heat. The town streets are far way; men do not exist anymore. Paradise is timeless; slow dances, melancholic faces that allow themselves to be rocked …]


The everlasting edenic and magical atmosphere of such exclusively feminine events protected the young observer from the outside threats of streets and men, and reassured her, at least temporarily. Although some of the autobiographical episodes of women's celebrations are not as heartwarming as this one, many illustrate equally comforting associations between home, harmony and resistance. In addition, typically feminine home-related activities like milking the goat or preparing meals are not, in L'amour, insignificant or merely laborious chores. Whenever mentioned, they reveal a valuable savoir-faire that only the women from within the community can achieve. Such expertise applies, for example, to evocations of the nanny's secret herbal remedies, embroidery and weaving, the mixing of the henna, ritual songs for important occasions and, of course, cooking.

Yet, harmony among women is more apparent in their human relationships. Complicity between women of all ages is a major factor in L'amour. Within the structure of small nuclear families most common in western cultures, one rarely finds two individuals of the same age. On the contrary, in an extended family like the one in L'amour, la fantasia, the daily proximity of women of the same age under the same roof allows for shared experiences. The main narrator's memories are filled with women functioning in groups: “jeunes filles et femmes de la famille, des maisons voisines et alliées, rendent régulièrement visite quelque sanctuaire. … Des groupes piailleurs se répandent dès lors, dans la campagne proche” [young girls and women of the family, of neighboring or allied homes, regularly render themselves to some sanctuary. … Chirping groups invade, then, the nearby countryside] (146). Indeed, women's communities in L'amour constitute microcosms of all the cycles of life, a space where the cohabitation of several generations render the different phases of life visible and public. In western homes, daily contact is usually restricted to, at most, two generations, parents and children. Quite contrarily, in homes where extended families cohabit, privacy is replaced by more extensive contact, and, at night, one can hear: “[Les] chuchotements des aïeules aux enfants dans le noir, aux enfants des enfants accroupis sur la natte, aux filles qui deviendront aïeules” [(the) whispering of the elders to the children in the dark, to the children of children squatting on the grass mat, to the girls who will become elders] (203).

The most pleasing memories for the narrator are of her grandmother, who is synonymous with security and stability. She carries with her images of times she and the older woman spent comforting each other, through, for example, intimate rituals like evening feet rubbing. She remembers the impact her companion's death had on her and a recurrent dream, a nightmare in reality, in which the loss of the loved one translated into the loss of a home: “Je cours, je dévale la rue cernée de murs hostiles, de maisons desertées” [I run, I rush down the street surrounded by hostile walls, by deserted houses] (221). The dreamer sees herself escaping in the streets of the town, as if the whole notion of a home had collapsed with the disappearance of the older woman. Other women of her lineage who marked her childhood include the warmhearted aunt with whom she seeks tranquility:

Un refuge me restait: quitter la maison bruyante, dédaigner l'arbitrage de ma mère et de ses amies, occupées le plus souvent à des travaux de broderie. Je me réfugiais chez ma tante paternelle. … Elle me cajolait et me faisait entrer dans sa plus belle pièce où un haut lit à baldaquin de cuivre me fascinait. … Elle me réservait confitures rares, sucreries, parfums déversés sur mes cheveux et sur mon cou.

[I had one refuge left: to leave the noisy house, leaving behind the discussions between my mother and her friends, most often busy embroidering. I took refuge with my paternal aunt. … She would comfort me and let me in her most beautiful room where a high canopy brass bed fascinated me. … She would keep for me rare jams, sweets, perfumes poured on my hair and my neck].


Such explicit bonds between women of different generations also arise from alliances between women of the same generation.

Indeed, each generation constitutes its own community. In the intimacy of closed rooms, secrets are shared and education takes place at all ages: “les jeunes filles cloîtrées écrivaient des lettres; des lettres à des hommes; à des hommes aux quatre coins du monde; du monde arabe naturellement” [the cloistered young women wrote letters; letters to men; men from all over the world; the Arab world naturally] (24). The solitude usually attached to the writing of letters becomes a joint enterprise in which the young women combine ingenuity in a common effort to reach the outside world, to overcome their confinement. But this process goes beyond the imaginary seduction of foreign men. It embodies a shared thrill of bending rules, surmounting danger and obstacles, a sort of seduction of one another: a complicity that only a shared experience can build.10 Living together, the cousins have similar questions, desires for exploration, and together construct answers to the “mysteries” of the outside world. Growing up and slowly discovering adult life in such a communal setting will bring these girls a life-long complicity. They prepare, in their endeavor, to become the next group of adult women dancing in unison at celebrations, and later perhaps, the “cercle des aïeules” for the next generations of girls, insuring the continuity of the community.

In some cases, the text makes feminine complicity a factor of cross-cultural exchange. Although contact between Arabo-Berber households and French households was limited, L'amour, la fantasia illustrates mutual respect that women from both backgrounds had for their homemaker's role and their savoir faire. When the narrator's mother and her French friend, the policeman's wife, trade recipes, it is more than the technique or the practical aspects of cooking a meal they exchange, it is expertise in comparable domains. When they share their disappointment with their respective husbands, “ces hommes” [these men] (38), inept in choosing the right knitting needles or the ideal fruit and vegetables when shopping for their wives, they affirm domination in the space they are given to rule as well as men's status as outsiders and amateurs. But then, when they are back in their own homes, protected by their own walls, they resume their conversations about cultural differences.

Le cercle des femmes often transforms the courtyard into a forum where not only home-related but also cultural identity topics are discussed because “les conversations importants étaient féminines” [the significant conversations were among women] (51). While Djebar's narrator remembers standing on the doorstep of the French house, halfway between desire and rejection, she also carries in her memory bits of conversations affirming Arabo-Berber cultural pride and the inferiority of French women:

La plupart [des femmes] que notre pays asservi a tentées savent seulement traire une vache à leur arrivée ici! Si ensuite elles se civilisent, c'est parce qu'elles trouvent ici force et richesse.

[Most (women) tempted by our dominated country only know how to milk a cow when they arrive here. If then they become more civilized, it is because here they find strength and wealth].


The Algerian way of life must have had a stronger impact on the “uncivilized” French women who settled there than on themselves, the women nurtured in Algeria's rich culture and religion. Displacement and exile did not apply to them, but to the French women who had lost some of their identity in their home country and were in search of a community. The notion of civilization, as the quotation indicates, is a relative and subjective one. Contrary to the European tendency to look down upon non-western ways of life, the village women are unambiguously proud of their heritage, and see how the French women try to imitate it. Such pride emerges, for instance, when they discuss young women's behavior regarding men. It also appears in the “la pureté ‘Arabe’” [‘Arabic’ purity] (39) the elders were always seeking which enticed the narrator's mother to switch back to the “purisme traditionnel” [traditional purism] (51) when she was in their presence. Because their world remained rather closed to the foreign eye, women preserved a mode of life very similar to the one before the colonial period. During the years of French domination, the home was a space of passive resistance, hardly altered by contact with another culture. The relative stability of Algerian rural homes during the 130-plus years of colonial domination illustrates the misconception in the notion of change introduced by the French presence. As L'amour shows, women kept away from the written language and from extensive contact with the French, and were consequently less affected than men by the imposition of another language and the transformation of society. Closed walls preserved a traditional way of life, thus supporting the relation between seclusion and nationalism.

Confinement within the house does not, however, translate into a lack of interest in public affairs, as the fragments on the Independence War, especially Djennet's testimony, suggest. There, we see homes used as political resistance centers, and women transforming their traditionally housebound functions into tools of opposition against the French colonists, an opposition that did not involve carrying weapons and physically fighting other soldiers, but rather the strength found in collective energy. Gender segregation did not prevent solidarity between men and women when it came to fighting for the community at large. Djennet prides herself on having served the revolution by providing shelter, food, and comfort to warriors. There is no ambiguity in her tale about the significance of her role: “la ‘révolution’ a commencé chez moi, et elle a fini chez moi” [the Revolution started in my home and was concluded in my home] (170) she affirms twenty years after the end of the conflict.11 Although she lived in fear because of the consequences that the presence of revolutionaries in her home could bring her, she considered her farm, her bread wood-stove, the very walls of her home, as the ultimate space of resistance. Her patriotic determination made her accept the pain of seeing her house burnt three times by the French, and, responding to the sarcasms of a neighbor's criticism, to profess her role as resister: “J'accepte d'aller jusqu'à la mort” [I am ready to die for it] (172).

Homemakers like Djennet used the skills they knew best to support the war. They sewed uniforms to give the maquisard group the appearance of an army and they fed the refugees: “Nous allions apporter la semoule aux Frères. Nous cherchions dans la forêt où l'entreposer. Il fallait aussi trouver où la prétrir, où la préparer” [we took grain to the Brothers. We had to find a place to stock it. We also had to find a place to knead it, to prepare it] (187). She prides herself on the meaning her home had for the maquisards, and turns the room where they find refuge into a sanctuary:

Ils prirent l'habitude de venir, de dîner, de veiller, puis de repartir pour la nuit. Dans la journée je gardais cette pièce vide. Il m'arrivait de me dresser sur son seuil et de me dire: ‘Cette chambre où entrent les fils de la Révolution deviendra verte, verte, verte, comme une pastèque fermée, et les murs, un jour, ruisselleront tout entiers de vapeur rosée!’

[They used to come, to dine, to stay, then to leave in the night. During the day, I kept this room empty. It happened that I stood on its doorstep and thought ‘This room where the sons of the Revolution come will become green, green, green, like a closed watermelon and one day, a pink haze will stream down the walls!’]


All layers of the past retold, the narrator's and Djennet's, focus at some point on women and their homes, or on women and other women. In doing so, Djebar has constructed a vision of Algerian homes that contains enviable parts. Women's lives are not seen only through the lens of oppression, but also through the lens of a liveable reality. These lives include harmony and solidarity among each other and toward the Algerian community, a harmony and solidarity that the narrator seems to be lacking in her Western experience.


As an adult observer, Djebar's narrator feels she has lost crucial everyday contact with this community, and has herself participated in the slow dissolution of such ancestral social structures. The sense of liberation she first felt when breaking away evolved, over time, into a sense of loss. Often she implicitly compares her life as a resident of France to women's lives in the communities of her childhood. As Fanon had warned in 1959, and as theories of post-colonialism now accept, she recognizes the conflict from which she issues. The French presence allowed her to break away from a system that did not permit women access to the economical and political world. It allowed her to gain an education, freedom to go about as she pleases, to benefit from modernity and obviously to become a scholar able to cast a potentially dominating outsider's gaze on a culture that was once hers. On the other hand, the French presence has also caused her family environment to change greatly, and to reject a traditional way of life (Tucker 195).

Retrospectively, as an adult narrator, she realizes the significance of even small deviations from the communal codes she knew as an adolescent. She remembers the confusion caused among the women of the family when the father, gone on a business trip, addressed a letter directly to the mother instead of to the son, and the elders' disapprobation when her mother used her husband's first name when referring to him instead of using the traditional third person masculine pronoun. Her parents, connected to the French community through the father's profession, tried in their way to bend some of the oppressive customs of their “tribe.” Such transgressions, she understands now, contained an element of danger and disgrace for the other members of the community. The “culprits” (her parents), adopting foreign customs, put the whole community in danger of disintegration, by rejecting aspects of a community that functioned mainly on auto-reinforcement. Needless to say, the narrator's voluntary displacement to France, the colonizers' home, constituted an indisputable transgression and created a gap between her and her family that would only grow wider with time.

And yet, life in France, where the narrator now resides, has not completely erased the family traditions still echoing in her mind. Celebrations are particularly reminiscent of the dynamics of women's home communities. As the narrator rushes through the stages of preparation for her own wedding in Paris, everything, from the decor to the composition of the assembly, draws on images of the past, or of how things would have been, had she not left Algeria. The tension between rejection of, and desire for, traditional customs emerges from the juxtaposition of two wedding ceremonies, a juxtaposition which implicitly invites the reader to establish a comparison between the two events. The first one, entitled “La mariée nue de Mazouna,” [The Naked Bride of Mazouna] is the imaginary tale of an 1845 sumptuous traditional ceremony with its “cortège de plus d'une centaine de cavaliers,” [retinue of over one hundred horsemen] its “fantasia des cavaliers berbères,” [fantasia of berber horsemen] its “cortège nuptial,” [wedding retinue] the “palanquin de la mariée, précédé de cinq ou six cavaliers” [the bride's litter, preceded by five or six horsemen] (107), with the profusion of rituals, preparations, costumes, decoration, voices and joyous confusion. It contrasts sharply with the austerity that surrounds the simple ceremony of the narrator's own wedding in the Paris of the 1960s, in the midst of the Independence War.

The freedom of movement she enjoys in her student life in France, so unlike the confinement of the women of her native village, does not, at the time of the wedding, compensate for the constraints of her Parisian environment. The spacious rooms of the Sahel village have been replaced with the small and somber rooms of the couple's new apartment. The books that cover the walls constitute a mere decor that obscures the home and do not evoke the fulfillment of having mastered the written world and being an intellectual. At this moment, her new status as a Westerner does not seem to provide any sentiment of satisfaction. The “cri collectif, the you-you multiplié” [collective call, the echoing ‘you-you’] (109) that accompanied Brada, the Mazouna bride, has disappeared and given way to “ces épousailles [qui] se dépouillaient sans relâche: de la voix stridente féminines, du brouhaha de la foule emmitouflée, de l'odeur des victuailles en excès” [these weddings (which) were indubitably stripped: of the strident feminine voices, of the humming of the muffled crowd, of the odor from the food in excess] (126). All the physical marks of communal activity, of group solidarity and of enjoyment emerging from group experience seem to have vanished. At that moment, Paris constitutes a very restricted space: for the nostalgic narrator, freedom has the taste of solitude.

The very notion of a home seems to have evaporated in her flight from house to house with a fiancé hiding; the freedom of movement she gained by leaving the Algerian village now resembles fleeing. The traditional dowry patiently created piece by piece by a whole community in Algeria is, in her case, a mere mercantile act: bought “en une fois, dans les Grands Magasins” [all at once in department stores] (121). This “semblant de trousseau,” [a poor excuse for a dowry] will not constitute the symbol of other women's support as the bride enters the unknown of a new life; it will not be the shared gift of time and patience attached to the traditional dowry. The “ensemble pied de poule bleu-ciel” [the light blue checkered suit] she wears for the ceremony replaces the layers of elaborate costumes and jewelry Brada wore, and the institution for deaf and dumb located across from one of the fiancé's apartments emphasizes the couple's isolation and distance from the resounding voices of the village and is a metaphor for her overwhelming loneliness. The ceremony itself attracts a few guests: the mother, one sister, and a few friends exiled in France, pale token of the past ceremonies. The bride's nostalgia goes beyond the loss due to geographical displacement. The weight of French influence, she realizes, had, even in Algeria, slowly dissipated traditional rituals, such as the father carrying the bride over the doorstep, or the women's dance with the blood-stained sheet on the morning after the wedding night.

The sense of estrangement from her community so manifest in the evocations of the wedding is also felt by Djebar's narrator whenever she is in contact with her family in Algeria. Never integrated to the harem, she remembers that her body “s'occidentalisait à sa manière” [occidentalized itself in its own way] (148). Her emotions appear ambivalent when she realizes that “dans les cérémonies les plus ordinaries [elle] éprouvait du mal à s'asseoir en tailleur” [in the most banal ceremonies she had trouble sitting cross-legged] and that the ancestral call of Arab women “ne sortait de [sa] gorge que peu harmonieusement … il [la] déchirait” [came out of (her) throat with but little harmony … it tore (her] (148). She is now a nostalgic outsider to the women's people, forever unfit to the life that was designed for her by generations of continuity: “Sous le poids des tabous que je porte en moi comme héritage, je me trouve désertée des chants de l'amour arabe.” [Under the weight of the taboos I carry in me as my heritage, I find myself deserted by the Arab love songs] (244). But from this feeling of desertion, from what she often perceives a helplessness, rises a new kind of communication with this heritage. L'amour is in many ways her own love song for this lost heritage.

Ironically, writing, a skill the narrator directly acquired from the French colonists (212), constitutes for emigrant privileged Algerian women like Assia Djebar a means to reconnect with the community.12 She finds in the French language a way to subvert the colonialist's agenda of breaking down the Algerian coherence. In this way, “La langue adverse” [the adverse tongue] (245) becomes the very tool for a new coherence: “Cette langue était autrefois le sarcophage des miens; je la porte aujourd'hui comme un messager transporterait le pli ordonnant sa condamnation au silence, ou au cachot” [This language was once my people's sarcophagi; I carry it today as a messenger would transport an envelope containing his condemnation to silence, or to jail] (245). Highlighting the distortions made by French soldiers and colonialist discourse in general on Algeria, and on the historical events they in which they were involved, she now allows the voice of women, “la première réalité-femme” [the primary woman-reality] (207), the forgotten actors of Algeria history, to be heard. She gives them visibility, makes them alive for herself and for her readers, casting a new light upon them by praising, not denouncing, the customs and specificities of their life in Muslim environment. Indeed, in L'amour, writing, which has empowered the narrator and the author, also empowers and gives voice to Algerian women.

Djebar is conscious, though, of her privileged position as sole translator of all the voices contained in her text, and perceives a real danger in her written manipulation of women's experiences. The danger of betraying her community and her sisters lies in great part in the fact that now she writes in French for a French audience. Indeed, examining and representing these communities, even in fragments, both in her past and in other women's past, puts her in danger of doing what the colonial gaze did: romanticizing a life she would not want to live. One wonders if this specter of betrayal has not been the reason why the critics of Djebar's texts have kept away from examining the significance of the different aspects of women's group lives that the novelist includes in L'amour, la fantasia.

However, textual fragmentation and the revelation of ambiguities attached to Muslim women's communities constitutes an important alternative to the colonizing gaze Djebar is in danger of casting upon her own cultural background. No one gaze, no one voice, the text implies, can account for the complexity found in Muslim homes which have so often been objects of monolithic readings from Western observers. L'amour, la fantasia deconstructs this kind of reductive reading by de-victimizing women and recognizing the control they have been able to have over their lives.

L'amour, la fantasia can therefore be read as an evocation of harmony among women's communities in rural Algeria. The narrator's evident nostalgia for a way of life Westerners like to describe only in confining terms, a nostalgia which seems to echo a common concern in many Arab women now exiled from their traditional communities, clearly invites approbation and recognition of values the Western world has been slow or reluctant to accept. Readers of texts like L'amour, la fantasia are able to consider these communities—so different from our own—in a different light, and to recognize that the dynamics of Arab women's communities were not just repressive. The narrator's compassion for her women ancestors' and mother's contemporaries' restricted field of action combines with the evocations of pleasurable moments of group harmony, and weaves itself into a vision of relative contentment. Djebar's ambiguous gaze upon women's lives in rural Algeria thus enables readers to trade pity for more esteem toward the not-so-silent members of the communities she introduces to us.


  1. Among the numerous scholars who examine this notion, see Mireille Rossello; Lisa Lowe; and Leila Ahmed. Ahmed's historical approach focusses on various discourses that Arab women have been subject to and corrects some Western misconceptions (including feminist ones) of Islamic customs. Of particular interest to the issue discussed are the introduction, “Discourse on the Veil,” and “Divergent Discourses.”

  2. One will recognize such stereotyping in the following statements found in books separated by twenty-two years. According to Harold Nelson's edited collection, Algeria: A Country Study: “The bride then often goes to the household, village, or neighborhood of the bridegroom's family, where she lives under the critical surveillance of her mother-in-law. A great deal of marital friction centers on the difficult relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law,” (100). John Ruedy mentions that “men knew their mothers as parents who doted on them and derived pride and status from the fact of their existence; later, they knew women as wives, who satisfied their sexual urges and produced sons for them. Other than in these two relationships, there was little communication between the sexes” (126).

  3. Denise Brahimi, recognizing the value of texts like La Répudiation by Rachid Boudjera which denounces polygamy, proposes “de faire émerger ce que (d'autres textes) nous disent un peu mystérieusement, des liens qui se créent, contre toute apparence, entre des femmes dont on a longtemps résumé la situation d'un seul mot: rivalité” [to bring out what [other texts] tell us, a little mysteriously, about links which are created, against general assumption, between women whose situation has, for a long time, been summarized with one word: rivalry] (125).

  4. For the purpose of this study, I have chosen not to formally identify the main narrator with Assia Djebar, the author.

  5. The ambiguity between tradition and modernity regarding the Islamic Law has been discussed by Issa J. Boullata. Her chapter “Voices of Arab Women” (119-137) overviews three different positions of Arab women scholars on this issue.

  6. One thinks, for example, of the series of postcards representing women in harem situations which Malek Alloula has collected and annotated in The Colonial Harem.

  7. Albert Hourani, 105. Also helpful regarding the physical configuration of the home is the chapter “The Kabyle House” in Pierre Bourdieu, Algeria 1960, 133-153.

  8. Moroccan feminist activist Ghita El Khayat reproaches Arab women's compliance with century-old ways of life as a major obstacle to the Maghreb's progress in Le Maghreb des femmes: “La précarité de la condition féminine des maghrébines est très largement tributaire de pratiques, de colportages et d'à-priori féminins, je dis bien féminins, qui empêchent l'ensemble de la nation maghrébine d'avancer, d'être heureuse et d'accueillir bébés garçons et bébés filles dans la même bénédiction et la même allégresse.” [Precariousness of the feminine condition is greatly dependent on practices, gossips and feminine a-priori, I insist on the fact that they are feminine, which prevent the Maghreb nation to advance, to be happy and to welcome baby boys and baby girls with the same grace and the same joy] (99).

  9. The vision of backwardness found in this French comment concerning the Arab population, is examined in Ahmed as a justification of colonialism. For her, “anthropology, as is often said, served as a handmaid to colonialism” (155).

  10. Seduction between the same sexes in sex-segregated social structures is analyzed by Fatima Mernissi in Beyond the Veil: “in a country like Morocco, in which heterosexual encounter is the focus of so much attention, seduction becomes a structural component of human relations in general, whether between individuals of the same sex or between men and women” (140).

  11. The English translation of “chez moi” into “at my home” does not account for the association of a place with the person, since in French “moi” is a reference to the speaker, and “chez moi” a reference to his/her home.

  12. The narrator's reflections of writing in the colonizing tongue would be worth a separate and specific study.

Works Cited

Achour, Yadh Ben. Politique, religion et droit dans le monde arabe. Casablanca: EDDIF, 1992.

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven: Yale UP, 1992.

Alloula, Marek. The Colonial Harem. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

Boullata, Issa J. Trends and Issues in Contemporary Thought. Albany: State U of New York P, 1990.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Algeria 1960. Cambridge: Maison des Sciences and Cambridge UP, 1979.

Brahimi, Denise. Appareillages. Paris: Deuxtemps Tierce, 1991.

Djebar, Assia. L'amour, la fantasia. Casablanca: EDDIF, 1992.

El Khayat, Ghita. Le Maghreb des femmes. Casablanca: EDDIF, 1992.

El-Sohl, Camillia Fawzi, and Judy Mabro. Muslim Women's Choices. Providence, RI: Berg Publishers, 1994.

Fanon, Frantz. Sociologie d'une révolution: l'an V de la révolution algérienne. 2nd ed. Paris: Maspero, 1982.

Hourani, Albert. History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991.

Lowe, Lisa. Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalisms. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.

Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

Nelson, Harold, ed. Algeria: A Country Study. Washington, DC: American UP, 1979.

Pellow, Deborah. “Solidarity among Muslim Women in Accra, Ghana.” Anthropos 82 (1987): 488-495.

Random House Webster's College Dictionary. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991.

Ridd, Rosemary. “Separate but More than Equal: Muslim Women at the Cape.” El-Sohl, Muslim Women's Choices 85-107.

Rossello, Mireille. “Du bon usage des stéréotypes orientalisants: vol et recel de préjugés anti-maghrebins dans les années 1990.” Esprit créateur (Summer 1994).

Ruedy, John. Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992.

Tucker, Judith, ed. Arab Women. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.

Woodhull, Winifred. Transfigurations of the Maghreb. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Mildred Mortimer (essay date summer 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7670

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 intellectual. Djebar recalls the scene in L'amour, la fantasia: “Fillette arabe allant pour la première fois à l'école, un matin d'automne, main dans la main du père” (11) ‘a little Arab girl going to school for the first time, walking hand in hand with her father’ (3). More than four decades after the event, Djebar considers her personal experience an ambiguous one. Liberated from the female enclosure of her Algerian sisters, she reached maturity haunted by the weight of exile. Other Maghrebian writers have acknowledged the same ambiguity vis-à-vis the French colonial school. In Le polygone étoilé, Kateb Yacine equates his educational experience with being thrust into “la gueule du loup” ‘the jaws of the wolf’ (181). Abdelkébir Khatibi uses autobiographical fragments combined with poetry and parable in La mémoire tatouée to express his uneasy alliance with the French language and culture. Yet Djebar's experience, in contrast to theirs, is distinctly gendered. She came to believe that the process of Western acculturation, resulting in her mastery of the colonizer's language and access to public space, excluded her from most, if not all, aspects of traditional woman's world.

The sentiment of exclusion led Djebar to her “Quatuor algérien,” a writing project to reestablish links with the maternal world from which she felt distanced—but in fact a realm she never lost—when she first grasped her father's hand to walk with him to school. To date, three of the four projected volumes of the Algerian quartet have appeared: L'amour, la fantasia (1985), Ombre sultane (1987), and Vaste est la prison (1995). All three are polyphonic texts that combine personal and collective memory. The first and third juxtapose autobiographical fragments with Algerian history; the second replaces history with myth, recalling the legendary Scheherazade. By delving into her individual and collective past, Djebar adds her own voice to those of her maternal ancestors, both historical and legendary.

With the publication of L'amour, la fantasia, the novelist announced an autobiographical project: “Dans mes premiers livres, j'avançais voilée. Dans le quatuor je me montre” ‘In my first books, I went veiled. In the quartet, I expose myself’ (Gardenal 40). Yet initial traces of her narrative “unveiling” had already appeared in Les alouettes naïves (1967), a novel depicting the sexual and political awakening of a young woman during the Algerian war. Reflecting upon the earlier text, Djebar has acknowledged her uneasiness with self-representation at the time: “J'y ai intégré un tel apport autobiographique que cela m'a gênée comme femme arabe” ‘I had included such an autobiographical component that it bothered me as an Arab woman’ (“Dossier: Assia Djebar à Heidelberg” 75).

The novelist comes to autobiography fully aware that subjectivity in life and fiction are transgressions in Algerian culture. Unlike Western civilization which, Foucault reminds us in his Histoire de la sexualité, delights in the public airing of all private matters—desires, sins, suffering—Islamic culture is bound to the non-dire, or unspoken, in other words, to silence; it prohibits personal disclosure. If a Muslim woman is to be neither seen nor heard in public and divulges private matters, revealing in public the secret world neither men nor women should ever reveal, she is, in effect, involved in a double transgression.1 If the female writer dares to preserve for posterity the very secrets not be revealed in public, is she not committing a triple transgression? As a woman writer of the Arab world, a novelist whose quest for self-definition encompasses self-revelation, Djebar is forced to come to grips with the thorny issue of the non-dire.

Uneasiness with autobiography led Djebar to autofiction and collective autobiography. In L'amour, la fantasia, she interweaves autobiographical fragments with other strands of narrative (colonial history, oral narrative, lyric poetry), using polyphonic discourse to blur the boundaries between fiction and experience. And she widens the scope of autobiography to embrace the collective voice, inserting her discourse within the community of Algerian women.2 Autobiography becomes Djebar's way back to the cherished maternal world of her past, where she seeks healing and reconciliation for a self fragmented by the colonial experience. At the same time, her writer's pen allows Algerian women's muted voice and veiled presence to emerge into public space.

Because the writer's own experience of Western acculturation gave her mastery of the colonizer's language as well as access to public space (neither of which were available to most Algerian women of her generation), she foregrounds language and space in the three texts. Djebar uses French, the colonial language, to chart her own life story and to recover—via translation—her oral tradition, the maternal legacy of song, legend, and women's stories. And she reinterprets traditional female space so that it is no longer controlled by the male patriarchal gaze but is transformed instead into the locus of relationships.3 Finally, her appropriation of language and space leads to a confrontation with two patriarchal discourses, one French, the other Maghrebian. On one hand, the novelist explores French colonial archives in order to rewrite the history of France's conquest of Algeria by reinserting women into the pages of history. On the other hand, she challenges the Muslim patriarch's dominating gaze so as to empower Algerian women and restore their subjectivity. However, Djebar's distinct approach to self-representation raises several questions: Does the autobiographical process comfort and heal the fragmented narrating self? Does it effectively challenge patriarchal structures and ideology or merely create nostalgia for a lost Eden in which women are the jealous guardians of tradition?4 In other words, does Djebar achieve her goals?

Before beginning the quartet, Djebar, trained as a historian, undertook an oral history project that involved probing Algerian women's collective memory. In the mid-1970s, she interviewed women in her native region of Cherchell who had participated in the independence struggle. The majority had been young women during the war, facing danger and hardship with male soldiers in the maquis.5 Djebar used selections of their narratives in L'amour, la fantasia, juxtaposing women's oral history of the Algerian war with historical accounts of the French conquest of Algeria taken from French archives.6 As scribe and translator of oral history, she writes: “Dire à mon tour. Transmettre ce qui a été dit, puis écrit” (187) ‘It is now my turn to tell a tale. To hand on words that were spoken, then written down’ (164). Through her efforts, rural women whose contribution to the independence struggle had been overlooked, forgotten, or simply not known emerge as active participants in the Algerian war.

By combining “herstory” (oral narrative) with “history” (colonial military and administration reports, memoirs, correspondence), Djebar links kalaam, “word” in Arabic, to écriture, “writing” in French, expressing the relationship between colonized and colonizer in terms of language and gender. The oral narrative is female and Arabic (or Berber); the written narrative is male and French.7 Yet, as Soheila Ghaussy aptly notes, by transcribing into French those conversations spoken or imagined to be spoken in Arabic (or occasionally in Berber), she not only uses her acquired paternal language to give voice to Algeria's maternal tongues, but appropriates men's instrument of writing to tell women's stories, thereby blurring the boundaries of the spoken and the written (458). An Arabic speaker who never learned her ancestral Berber language, Djebar acknowledges two maternal languages: Arabic, spoken in the city of Cherchell where she was born, and Berber, spoken in the neighboring rural region of Mont Chenoua.

In L'amour, la fantasia, Djebar links her personal quest for woman's oral narrative to her historical search for occulted written text, a project Winifred Woodhull considers the significant counterpoint to colonial violence (82). For example, as historian, Djebar uncovers the barbarous act of enfumade. In 1845, the French military officer Pélessier set fire to caves in the vicinity of her native Cherchell, smothering to death 1500 rebellious Berber men, women, and children. Revealing a macabre respect for detail, Pélessier, in the administrative report Djebar finds more than a century later, explains how he meticulously carried out a body count, forcing his men to extract all the corpses from the cave. Rejecting the role of objective historian, Djebar describes the incident with subjectivity and emotion, affirming her ties to the victims. Their agony is hers:

Pélissier, l'intercesseur de cette mort longue, pour mille cinq cents cadavres sous El Kantara, avec leurs troupeaux bêlant indéfiniment au trépas, me tend son rapport et je reçois ce palimpseste pour y inscrire à mon tour la passion calcinée des ancêtres.

(93; emphasis added)

Pélissier, speaking on behalf of this long drawn-out agony, on behalf of fifteen hundred corpses buried beneath El-Kantara, with their flocks unceasingly bleating at death, hands me his report and I accept this palimpsest on which I now inscribe the charred passion of my ancestors.

(79; emphasis added)

Here the search for occulted historical truth, forcing the historian to delve into Algerian collective memory, and the individual identity quest, inciting the writer to probe personal memory, come together. As Pélissier's soldiers once dragged out the bodies, Djebar now excavates the elements of the female self, buried under colonial and patriarchal myths. More than a century after the French military commanders Pélissier and Saint-Arnaud had defeated the Berber tribes, Djebar, a descendant of those buried in the caves, returns to the site in the attempt to metaphorically bring to light Algerian women's experience—her own and those of her Algerian sisters. This act of unearthing hidden history compels her to write near the end of her text: “Je suis née en dix-huit cent quarante-deux, lorsque le commandant de Saint-Arnaud vient détruire la zaouia des Beni Ménacer, ma tribu d'origine …” (243) ‘The date of my birth is eighteen hundred and forty-two, the year when General Saint-Arnaud arrives to burn down the zaouia of the Beni Ménacer, the tribe from which I am descended …’ (217).

By interweaving autobiographical fragments with historical accounts of the French conquest and oral history of the Algerian revolution, Djebar contextualizes her own life story within the framework of her nation's history: the evolution of a Third World woman writer from childhood in colonial Algeria, when she was first given a pen, to adulthood during the independence struggle, when she began to exercise the craft of writing. The resulting text attests to the violence of two eras: the French conquest of Algeria, 1830-71, introducing colonial occupation; the Algerian Revolution, 1954-62, bringing it to a close. Djebar captures the brutality of the first period by rereading colonial archives and that of the second by recording Algerian women's voices.

In neither political struggle is woman a passive bystander or an odalisque in a harem. French colonial officers' reports of 1830 attest to her presence on the battlefield, and taped interviews of the 1970s confirm her participation in the liberation struggle. Examining written and oral accounts to uncover hidden truth and forgotten events, Djebar reconstructs incidents of terror and brutality, never flinching from the violence. For example, describing two women whose deaths were graphically depicted in Baron Barchou's memoirs, she writes: “Je recueille scrupuleusement l'image …” (29) ‘I scrupulously record the image …’ (19), placing herself on the battlefield with the dead and dying. As Patricia Geesey notes, Djebar reads Algerian woman's body metonymically. Fallen in battle, she represents the conquered Algerian nation, dismembered and then distributed as trophies for French soldiers and colonists (163).

Given the legacy of colonial violence, it is not surprising that Djebar approaches the colonizer's language with ambivalence. Although French represents personal liberation for the writer trained in the colonial school, it carries the weight of repression for the Algerian nation defeated in 1830 and subsequently subjected to 132 years of French colonial rule. Clearly, she appropriates la langue adverse not only to recuperate the maternal world and forge her personal links to it, but to inscribe the suffering and injustice inflicted upon Algerians by the colonial conquest. She concludes: “Cette langue était autrefois sarcophage des miens; je la porte aujourd'hui comme un messager transporterait le pli fermé ordonnant sa condamnation au silence, ou au cachot” (241) ‘This language was formerly used to entomb my people; when I write it today I feel like the messenger of old, who bore a sealed missive which might sentence him to death or to the dungeon’ (215)

In contrast to L'amour, la fantasia, in which interwoven strands of history and autobiography allow the narrator to examine her own relationship to Algeria's past, Ombre sultane combines a first- and second-person narrative of parallel lives and female bonding, creating links between autobiography and fictional narrative. In this study, Isma, an emancipated Algerian woman who has found her own voice and begun to tell her own story, helps liberate her traditional sister, Hajila, using the latter's revolt as support in her own quest for self-understanding. Djebar reminds her readers that Scheherazade, storyteller of the Arabian Nights, needs the complicity of her sister Dinarzade, the voice under the bed announcing each dawn, to succeed in telling tales so inventive that the Sultan spares her life. The novelist reconfigures the legendary complicity between sisters in the relationship between Isma, the autobiographical self, and Hajila, the fictional self.

Having foregrounded history and language in L'amour, la fantasia, Djebar highlights space in Ombre sultane. The text is structured in large measure by an opposition between open liberating space and confined enclosures. Hajila, cloistered and veiled, forms a new relationship to the world when she traverses spatial boundaries. She escapes her confining kitchen to discover the “frémissements du dehors” (94) ‘thrill of the outdoors’ (85), to physically encounter the outer visible tangible world from which she has been excluded by traditional patriarchy. Experiencing freedom by venturing unveiled into the sunshine in Algiers, Hajila cannot resume her former passive role. Moreover, with the liberty to circulate in new space comes the progressive discovery of language. Her words are recorded by Isma, who captures each scene and interprets each stage of Hajila's trajectory, with its physical and psychological dimensions. Yet once Isma realizes that she and her cloistered sisters are all constrained by the patriarchal order and that the dialogue between men and women—fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters—founders because of the imbalance of power within patriarchal social structure, she is able to speak with Hajila, not merely write for her.

Isma's recognition of the constraints upon her comes in the form of memory as she recalls a confrontation with her father when she was barely an adolescent. Accompanied by a young male cousin to a fair in one of the European quarters of her town, they take a ride on one of the fair's attractions, a huge metal swing. Experiencing an exhilarating feeling of weightlessness as she is lifted into the air, the young girl stands up, her pleated skirt whirling around her bare legs. At that very moment, her father emerges from the crowd to take her home. He is filled with rage because “sa fille, sa propre fille, habillée d'une jupe courte, puisse, au-dessus des regards des hommes, montrer ses jambes!” (147-48) ‘his daughter, his own daughter, dressed in a short skirt, could show her legs to all those men staring up at her, down below!’ (136). By supporting a young woman's right to education, the father frees his daughter from some, but certainly not all, of Algerian society's conventions. The ambiguous position of the indigenous schoolteacher in colonial Algeria is all too evident. On the one hand, he assumes the role of progressive educator, a catalyst for social change; on the other hand, he is still capable of collaborating with the Muslim patriarchal order. Bringing to mind the scene of her painful humiliation, Isma states: “Ce jour-là, je m'exilai de l'enfance; les mots paternels m'avaient projetée ailleurs, plus haut que la balançoire des forains, ou au plus profond d'un gouffre étrange” (148) ‘That day, I left my childhood behind for ever; my father's words had projected me into another world, higher than the fairground swing, or into the depths of a strange abyss’ (137).

Thus in the process of speaking for Hajila, Isma articulates her own story. As she recalls memories of her own struggle against social proscriptions that confine woman's body, restrict her physical presence in public space, and support the patriarch's refusal of any other masculine gaze, she now identifies with her traditional sister. Moreover, by responding to the lure of the outdoors—“des frémissements du dehors”—both women incur punishment. Isma, an adventurous adolescent, is ordered by an angry father to take her meals in seclusion. Hajila, a timid newlywed, is beaten by a husband convinced his wife's desire for the outdoors is a cover for marital infidelity.

Whereas Hajila's story is a fictional representation of the woman Djebar might have been had she not pursued a European education, Isma's narrative bears distinctly autobiographical traces. Djebar grew up in Cherchell (which she calls Césarée, alluding to its Roman origins), attended high school in Blida, and completed her education in Algiers and Paris.8 By constructing “I” (Isma) and “you” (Hajila), both an autobiographical self and a fictional self, Djebar shows the latter influencing the former; Hajila, the fictional narratee, allows the self-referential narrator to come to terms with her buried past, her hidden self. Isma and Hajila, one existing beyond the pages of the book, the other dwelling exclusively within the text, both express the struggle of the female self to become the subject of her own discourse. Together they dramatize the process that Françoise Lionnet calls the emancipation of the “I” being triggered and actualized by the voice of the “she” taking shape on the page (263). Hence, Isma and Hajila mirror the pact between the legendary sisters Scheherazade and Dinarzade. Isma needs Hajila just as the narrator of the Arabian Nights requires Dinarzade's presence, the muffled voice under the bed that Scheherazade alone will hear and heed.

Bonding between Isma and Hajila occurs in the traditional ritualized space of the hammam, where women bathe together free from the masculine presence. There Isma gives Hajila the key that will allow her to come and go freely from her apartment and with this gesture participates in her liberation. In Djebar's fiction, the Moorish bath is a refuge from patriarchy, a space for female bonding and eventual liberation. The hammam also serves to link her two most recent texts: a scene at the public bath concludes Ombre sultane and opens Vaste est la prison. In the most recent text, Isma, the narrator, recalls an episode when, having accompanied her mother-in-law to the hammam, she overhears the latter's friend say of her husband, “L'ennemi est à la maison!” ‘the enemy is at home!’ (13).9'E'dou, a word the narrator had never before heard applied to one's husband, initiates her narrative quest:

Ce mot, l'e'dou, que je reçus ainsi dans la moiteur de ce vestibule d'où, y débouchant presque nues, les femmes sortaient enveloppés de pied en cap, ce mot d' “ennemi”, proféré dans cette chaleur émolliente, entra en moi, torpille étrange; telle une flèche de silence qui transperça le fond de mon coeur trop tendre alors. En vérité, ce simple vocable, acerbe dans sa chair arabe, vrilla indéfiniment le fond de mon âme, et donc la source de mon écriture. …


This word 'edou that I thus received in the humid vestibule where women entered practically naked and left covered from head to toe, this word “enemy” uttered in this relaxed heat, struck me, a strange bomb; it was like a silent arrow that pierced the depths of my still tender heart. In truth, this simple word, bitter in its Arabic skin, attacked indefinitely the depths of my soul, and thus the source of my writing. …


For the narrator, a frequent visitor to the world of traditional women, but a visitor nonetheless, the Arabic word 'edou resounds ominously, disturbing a tranquil realm: “la langue maternelle m'exhibait ses crocs, inscrivait en moi une fatale amertume …” ‘the maternal language bared its fangs, inscribing a fateful bitterness upon me …’ (15). Isma fears that her husband, like her father, may one day collaborate with the patriarchy, and she is aware that the hammam remains merely a temporary refuge for secluded women living under patriarchal rule.

The text that follows, a first-person narrative that spans the first third of the work, recounts an unconsummated love affair in which narration—the wife's confession to her husband of her desire for another man—results in separation and eventual divorce. Unlike Scheherazade who, by spinning imaginative tales skillfully recounted and artfully interrupted, manipulates the Sultan's desire and thwarts his impulse toward violence, Djebar's narrating “I” incites her husband's violent rage by confessing to love and desire for another man. Hence, 'edou takes on new significance as the husband, beating his wife, inscribes its meaning on her flesh.

Violence in the form of wife-battering is a theme Djebar had not touched upon before Ombre sultane. For example, conforming to the notion of violence inflicted by the colonizer upon the colonized, the first short story in the collection Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement (1980) begins with an Algerian doctor's recurrent nightmare of his wife's torture at the hands of French soldiers during the Algerian War. Similarly, in L'amour, la fantasia, the novel published five years later, violence is contextualized historically in power struggles between the French colonizer and the colonized Algerian. However, beginning with Ombre sultane, in which Hajila is beaten for leaving her apartment without her husband's permission, Djebar reconfigures violence as domestic abuse, exploring this theme in Vaste est la prison when Isma is beaten by her husband following her confession of love for another man. Finally, violence inflicted upon Algerian women by Algerian men assumes another even more sinister configuration in Vaste est la prison, as the text concludes with Islamic fundamentalists' murder of women they judge to be defying religious tenets.

Since husbands may use corporal punishment to “correct” their women's behavior in Algeria, it is unfortunately all too clear that brutal attacks upon women by Islamic fundamentalists originate in a form of behavior that has been allowed to go largely unpunished in this patriarchal society (Lazreg 187). From the destruction of Fort l'Empereur, which, in 1830, opened the capital to rape and plunder by conquering colonial soldiers, to present-day incidents of domestic and political violence, aggression depicted in Djebar's texts bears sexual connotations: Algiers was taken by force, as were—and are—Algerian women.

Consequently, in contrast to the hammam, a locus of nurturing relationships among women, homes scarred by domestic abuse become frightening prisons where interrogation and intimidation replace communication and understanding between husbands and wives. As Hajila and Isma face drunken brutality, Hajila recalls that her father never struck her mother; she therefore does not experience this battering as a ritual of marriage, but rather as a traumatic transgression. Isma, despite the pain and fright of her beating, experiences a form of psychological liberation from the husband she knows will no longer be able to keep her in his prison.

When Hajila's husband attacks her in the kitchen, he threatens to blind her with a broken bottle, shouting: “Je t'aveuglerai pour que tu ne voies pas! Pour qu'on ne te voie pas!” (96) ‘I'll put your eyes out and you'll never see again! And no one will ever see you either!’ (87). The same elements—drunken rage, a broken bottle, vulnerable eyes—compose the scene of Isma's beating in her Algiers apartment in Vaste est la prison:

Protéger mes yeux. Car sa folie se révélait étrange: il prétendait m'aveugler.

“Femme adultère,” gronda-t-il, la bouteille de whisky cassée en deux à la main; je ne pensais qu'à mes yeux, et au risque que représentait la baie trop ouverte.


Protect my eyes. His madness is strange: he wanted to blind me. “Adultress,” he mumbled, the broken whiskey bottle in his hand; I could only think of my eyes, and the danger of the wide open bay window.

acing the terrified woman's eyes, Djebar foregrounds the importance of the gaze. Isma is not only beaten for initiating an illicit relationship but for daring to review her life and redefine it. Similarly, Hajila is not punished solely for strolling unveiled in the city but for appropriating the right to see and be seen. In both passages, the husband claims the dominating gaze for himself alone and, threatened by his wife's gaze upon the world and others, inflicts violence upon her body in order to control her.

For Djebar, the gaze is crucial: the prohibition against women seeing and being seen is at the heart of Maghrebian patriarchy, an ideological system in which the master's eye alone exists. Women challenge the phallocentric system by appropriating the gaze for themselves. Thus, when the novelist temporarily abandons the novel for cinema (an experience she recounts in the second half of Vaste est la prison), she emphasizes again the importance and necessity of her transgression, the revolt against the masculine gaze.

Through the scenes of domestic violence, Djebar's readers are made aware of a social problem plaguing Algeria—as well as other nations—today. In my view, her exploration of domestic violence also counters Marnia Lazreg's judgment that the Algerian novelist lacks political awareness: “The litany of complaints about ‘tradition’ and Islam stifles her characters' voices and turns them into pitiful, empty-headed puppets” (201). Although published in 1994, Lazreg's The Eloquence of Silence does not cite any volume of the Algerian quartet, thus overlooking Djebar's foregrounding of domestic abuse as an issue creating common ground, touching women of all social backgrounds.

If the repetition of domestic violence in Ombre sultane and Vaste est la prison informs readers of an acute social problem, it also reveals textual parallels and doubling in the novels. We learn that Isma, the autobiographical self, and Hajila, the fictional self, fall victim to the same man's fury; he had been married to both women, but at different times. In addition, in Ombre sultane, Isma specifically acknowledges Hajila as her replacement: “Le soleil te regarde, ô Hajila, toi qui me replaces cette nuit” (94) ‘The sun is watching you, O Hajila, as you stand in for me tonight’ (85). Yet because their relationship to space and language differs significantly, so do their forms of transgression and expressions of revolt: Hajila struggles to claim public space; Isma attempts to recover her inner world of affect, imagination, spirituality. Hajila is neither articulate nor self-assured; Isma, in contrast, articulates every step of her psychological journey, analyzing her feelings of desire, love, pain, and guilt with clarity and insight.

When Isma's marriage reveals an emotional void, she turns to a man she believes will rescue her and restore her sense of self. Capturing her lover's gaze by dancing seductively before him, Isma feels validated by his presence, empowered by his gaze: “Ainsi un homme m'avait regardée danser et j'avais été ‘vue’” ‘Thus a man had seen me dance and I had been “seen”’ (64). Her behavior confirms John Berger's analysis of the interplay between the masculine gaze and the construction of female identity; it depends upon woman's internalization of the dominating gaze:

Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.


Isma further confirms her imprisonment in the male gaze when she exclaims:

… [M]oi regardée par lui et aussitôt après, allant me contempler pour me voir par ses yeux dans le miroir, tenter de surprendre le visage qu'il venait de voir, comment il le voyait, ce “moi” étranger et autre, devenant pour la première fois moi à cet instant même, précisément grâce à cette translation de la vision de l'autre.


… [M]e gazed upon by him and promptly looking at myself in the mirror to see myself through his eyes, trying to seize the face he had just seen, as he saw it, this “me,” the stranger and the other, becoming me for the very first time, at this very instant, precisely because of this displacement of the other's vision.


Only after the relationship has ended can Isma reexamine the gaze of the man she had previously desired. Then, with the understanding that her self-image has depended upon a masculine gaze mediating the process of self-validation, and that this dependency in effect turns the female subject into a passive object of male desire, Isma frees herself. She does so by moving the memory of her former lover to a new and different space; the masculine “other” becomes her closest relative—le plus proche parent. By reclaiming “l'Aimé” as a member of the family, she places him in the maternal world, in the imaginary space of her buried past where, as a child, before awakening to sexual desire, she felt the initial desire for freedom.

Djebar contextualizes Isma's problematic relationship to the dominating gaze within her evolution toward emotional maturity. The process of emerging self-awareness encompasses the protagonist's recognition of a sterile marriage followed by a futile romance and concludes with rejection of the masculine gaze; the latter ceases to be the mirror for woman's self-validation. Moreover, as a quester whose journey to self-knowledge requires a voyage out and a series of trials before reintegration, Isma completes her journey to selfhood by returning to her initial point of departure. Thus, a year after the rupture, she awakens one afternoon from a long nap, serene and restored in her parents' home. The interior journey has brought her back to her initial point of departure, the home from which she first ventured forth, “[f]illette arabe allant pour la première fois à l'école, un matin d'automne, main dans la main du père” (11) ‘a little Arab girl going to school for the first time, walking hand in hand with her father’ (3).

Has Isma regained the intimate space of childhood, Bachelard's espace heureux, where memory and imagination recreate a lost Eden as an anchor against a painful present? Has she, in effect, retreated to paternal protection? Her words confirm the contrary as she announces a new beginning: “Je suis moi-même, pleine de vide, disponible et tranquille, affamée du dehors et sereine … Pas comme avant!” ‘I am myself, filled with emptiness, ready and tranquil, hungry for the outdoors and serene … Not like before!’ (22). As a woman “filled with emptiness,” Isma claims the “empty” space that Claudine Hermann defines as woman's space, where respect for personal boundaries is encouraged, in contrast to “full” space—the locus of male domination, hierarchy, and conquest. Hence, with the eclipse of her lover, Isma is free to shape and articulate her own experience.10 No longer prisoner of the male gaze, Isma may serve as mirror for herself.

Awakening in her father's library, a room containing his Muslim prayer rug and French texts, Isma identifies with a parent who, like herself, negotiates between East and West, and pays tribute to her father, the teacher who launched his daughter on the bicultural journey that resulted in her appropriation of language and space. At the same time, Djebar's autobiographical self reopens the space of narration to paternal language (although not necessarily to the patriarchal order), using la langue adverse to recall and record instances in which the women of her maternal lineage challenged traditional patriarchy and colonial domination: first, her grandmother's defiance of patriarchal order by refusing to remain with her husband's family upon his death and insisting upon returning home; then, her mother's successful struggle against French colonial administrators unwilling to grant her permission to see her son, a prisoner in France during the Algerian war; finally, her own experience of making her first film, La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua. Djebar views her appropriation of the camera as a challenge to colonial and patriarchal legacies and an important political and symbolical event in the liberation and empowerment of Algerian women. It is clearly the logical outcome of her rejection of the dominating gaze.

Although Djebar's decision to work in cinema originates in her quest to reappropriate the patriarchal gaze, it involves her relationship to language as well. It followed her failed attempt to write in Arabic:

J'ai pensé sincèrement que je pouvais devenir écrivain arabophone. Mais pendant ces années de silence, j'ai compris qu'il y avait des problèmes de la langue arabe écrite qui ne relèvent pas actuellement de ma compétence. C'est différent au niveau de la langue de tous les jours. C'est pourquoi, faire du cinéma pour moi ce n'est pas abandonner le mot pour l'image. C'est faire de l'image-son. C'est effectuer un retour aux sources au niveau du langage.

(Qtd. in Fanon 3)

I sincerely thought I could become an Arabic writer. But during these years of silence, I understood there were problems relating to written Arabic that went beyond my competency. Everyday language is different. That is why for me filmmaking is not abandoning the word for the image, but creating a sound image. It is a return to the source via language.

Thus, as L'amour, la fantasia explores links between personal and collective history, and Ombre sultane blends autobiography with fictional narrative, Vaste est la prison probes the relationship of autofiction to cinema. Evoking the filming of La nouba … in a series of chapters interspersed in the novel, Djebar shares with her readers her thoughts concerning cinema and her role as director as she recalls, 20 years later, the experience of working with the actors and film crew as well as her rapport with the rural population.

In La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua, her camera follows a young Algerian woman on a dual itinerary: an exterior trajectory leading to a discovery of traditional rural life; an internal trajectory, a meditation on memory. Having returned to her native region fifteen years after the end of the Algerian war, Lila is obsessed by memories of the war. Through encounters with rural women—following their daily lives and listening to their accounts of their war experiences—the woman's psychological health is eventually restored. Yet despite this spiritual renewal, Lila is saddened by the failure of her marriage and the pervading presence of patriarchy in postcolonial Algeria.

The importance of the gaze is evident from the beginning of the film. In one of the first scenes, Lila, her back to the spectators, her face pressed against the wall, states angrily: “Je parle, je parle, je parle” ‘I speak, I speak, I speak’ (197), then pauses to address the man in the room: “Je ne veux pas que l'on me voie; je ne veux pas que tu me voies” ‘I don't want to be seen. I don't want you to look at me’ (197). Thus, Lila comes on stage proclaiming her right to speak and be heard and refusing the gaze of the Other—husband and camera. Her husband does not understand her desire to see and speak for herself; the woman filmmaker does. In a close-up of Lila's head turned to the wall, Djebar films Lila's revolt. Her eye behind the camera moves from Ali's gaze upon Lila—“I'image de la femme pour l'homme arabe” ‘the image of woman for the Arab man’ (297)—to focus directly on Lila, the first step in charting the young woman's progressive journey of self-affirmation.

In the text, Djebar explains that except for one detail (the husband in the room), this scene is autobiographical; she is attributing to her protagonist her own words, gestures, and frustration, when Lila exclaims: “Je parle, je parle, je parle” (297). Significantly, in an earlier article, Djebar had already linked her désir de parole to the woman filmmaker's quest:

J'aboutis à cette évidence, ou à cette interrogation: que le cinéma fait par les femmes—autant cette fois du tiers monde que du “vieux monde”—procède d'abord d'un désir de parole. Comme si “tourner” au cinéma représente, pour les femmes, une mobilité de la voix et du corps, du corps non regardé, donc insoumis, retrouvant autonomie et innocence.

(“Un regard de femme” 37)

I have reached this conclusion, or this inquiry: that women's cinema—as much in the Third World as in the “Old World”—begins with the desire for the word. As if “to film” means for women a mobility of voice and body, the body not gazed upon, but unsubmissive, retrieving its autonomy and innocence.

By situating the individual désir de parole within the larger context of woman's cinema, Djebar opens autobiography to embrace the collective voice; she shares the concerns of other women filmmakers.

Responding to Lila's solitude within her marriage, Djebar's camera shifts its focus from somber interior space where Lila and her husband live in silence and misunderstanding to the bright outdoors. There, amid sunlight and rugged expanses, the camera's eye follows Lila's eyes as she rediscovers the natural beauty of the rural world of her childhood and exchanges glances and words with the rural women of Mont Chenoua. Filming Lila's evolution, her coming of age by learning to see, Djebar discovers the impact of her protagonist's evolution upon her own life. In Vaste est la prison, she writes:

Au cours de ces mois de tâtonnements, à la suite de mon personnage, j'apprenais que le regard sur le dehors est en même temps retour à la mémoire, à soi-même enfant, aux murmures d'avant, à l'oeil intérieur, immobile sur l'histoire jusqu-là cachée, un regard nimbé de sons vagues, de mots inaudibles et de musiques mélangées. …


In the course of these months of probing, following my protagonist, I learned that the gaze on the outdoors is at the same time a return to memory, to one's childhood, to earlier murmurs, to the interior eye, immobile on a history until then hidden, a clouded gaze of vague sounds, inaudible words and blended music. …

Filming Lila's story, the camera becomes a conduit to the cherished maternal world of the writer's past. Just as Djebar's pen brought Algerian women's muted voice and veiled presence into public space, so does her camera; hence, the symbolic value of giving the camera to a sequestered sister. She writes:

Cette image—réalité de mon enfance, de celle de ma mère et de mes tantes, de mes cousines parfois du même âge que moi, ce scandale qu'enfant j'ai vécu norme, voici qu'elle surgit au départ de cette quête; silhouette unique de femme, rassemblant dans les pans de son linge-linceul les quelque cinq cents millions de ségréguées du monde islamique, c'est elle soudain qui regarde, mais derrière la caméra, elle qui, par un trou libre dans une face masquée, dévore le monde.

(174; emphasis added)

This image—reality of my childhood, that of my mother and my aunts, my cousins who were often my age, this scandal that for me as a child was considered normal, here she is at the start of my quest; woman's unique silhouette, gathering in the folds of her drapery-shroud the five hundred million segregated women of the Islamic world; suddenly she is staring at us, but from behind the camera, and through a free hole in a masked face, she is devouring the world.

The filmmaker's gesture repeats a process begun in the first text, the giving of a gift. In L'amour, la fantasia, the young child entering school receives her first books and school supplies, including a pen with which to challenge colonial and postcolonial discourse. Isma, in Ombre sultane, gives Hajila the key to her apartment so that the sequestered woman may leave the enclosure for free and open space. Finally, in Vaste est la prison an Algerian filmmaker passes a camera to a veiled silhouette, the cloistered sister who, by peeking through the lens, may reclaim her subjectivity. Each object, in effect, is an important signifier in the quartet, a corpus which, we have seen, first foregrounds language and history, then space, and then the gaze.

I noted earlier in this study that Djebar's approach to self-representation raises two important questions: Does the autobiographical process heal the fragmented narrating self? Does it effectively challenge patriarchal structures and ideology or merely create nostalgia for a lost Eden in which women are jealous guardians of tradition? I believe both questions have been answered affirmatively. All three texts have revealed that the process of placing an individual autobiographical project within a collective experience has resulted in the successful maturation of the individual and the artist. Moreover, by reevaluating the past colonial experience with honesty and probing the complexities and contradictions of present day Algeria with lucidity, Djebar, an outspoken critic of oppressive forces endangering Algerian women, has become a major voice of francophone Maghrebian literature.

Djebar's polyphonic texts containing autobiographical fragments mark a new approach to autobiography as they blur the boundaries between fact and fiction, and ignore the autobiographical pact, the promise to the reader that the textual and referential “I” are one and the same.11 However, as Lionnet explains:

To read a narrative that depicts the journey of a female self striving to become the subject of her own discourse, the narrator of her own story, is to witness the unfolding of an autobiographical project. To raise the question of referentiality and ask whether the text points to an individual existence beyond the pages of the book is to distort the picture.


Djebar's narrative “unveiling” will surely continue and lend itself to new scrutiny with the publication of the next volume. Until then, readers can only speculate as to how the writer will negotiate the path between self-revelation and concealment in the concluding text of her Algerian Quartet.


  1. Nilüfer Göle explains in Musulmanes et modernes: Voile et civilisation en Turquie that the veil, symbolizing what is private as well as forbidden, expresses the difference between Western and Islamic social organization (see 40-45).

  2. For an excellent study of collective autobiography in L'amour, la fantasia, see Patricia Geesey.

  3. Gillian Rose's discussion of the masculine gaze and landscape provides important insights for Djebar's writing on the gaze of the Other. See Feminism and Geography, ch. 5.

  4. Noting that Djebar tends to promote her mother's maternal lineage, which through the illustrious Beni Menacer gives the writer national authenticity, Monique Gadant asks whether Djebar is assuming too conservative a stance, portraying women as the mainstay of tradition (100-04). Marnia Lazreg criticizes the Algerian novelist for promoting a nostalgic view of colonialism (201).

  5. For detailed documented studies of Algerian women's participation in the liberation struggle that also includes oral interviews with women participants, see Djamila Amrane-Minne.

  6. Djebar used selections of the oral histories in her first feature-length film, La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua, before including them in the novel.

  7. Djebar notes that the accounts of the conquest recorded in Arabic by the conquered disappeared, and written records only reach us through European archives.

  8. Djebar prepared “hypokhâgne” (preparation for the “grandes écoles”) in Algiers and was the first Algerian female student admitted to the prestigious Ecole National Supérieure de Sèvres in Paris.

  9. All translations of the text Vaste est la prison are mine.

  10. Hermann writes: “Physical or mental, man's space is a space of domination, hierarchy and conquest, a sprawling, showy space, a full space. Woman, on the other hand, has long since learned to respect not only the physical and mental space of others, but space for its own sake, empty space” (169).

  11. For studies of the autobiographical pact, see Philippe Lejeune.

Works Cited

Amrane-Minne, Danièle Djamila. Femmes au combat. Alger: Rahma, 1993.

———. Des femmes dans la guerre. Paris: Karthala, 1994.

Bachelard, Gaston. La poétique de l'espace. 1957. Paris: PUF/Quadrige, 1984.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcast Corporation and Penguin, 1972.

Djebar, Assia. Les alouettes naïves. Paris: Julliard, 1967.

———. La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua (film). 1978.

———. L'amour, la fantasia. Paris: Lattès, 1985. Trans. in English by Dorothy S. Blair as Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade. London: Quartet, 1985.

———. Ombre sultane. Paris: Lattès, 1987. Trans. in English by Dorothy S. Blair as A Sister to Scheherazade. London: Quartet, 1987.

———. “Un regard de femme.” Courrier de l'Unesco 910 (Oct. 1989): 34-37.

———. “Dossier: Assia Djebar à Heidelberg.” Cahier d'Etudes Maghrébines 2 (1990): 65-70.

———. Vaste est la prison. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.

———. Le blanc d'Algérie. Paris: Albin Michel, 1996.

Fanon, Josie. “Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua.Demain L'Afrique 1 (1977): 3-5.

Foucault, Michel, Histoire de la sexualité. Paris: Gallimard, 1976.

Gadant, Monique. “La permission de dire ‘je.’ Réflexions sur les femmes et l'écriture à propos d'un roman de Assia Djebar, L'amour, la fantasia.Femmes et Pouvoir / Peuples méditerranéens 48-49 (1989): 93-105.

Gardenal, Philippe. “Assia Djebar dévoilée.” Libération 6 May 1987: 40.

Geesey, Patricia. “Collective Autobiography: Algerian Women and History in Assia Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia.Dalhousie French Studies 35 (1996): 153-67.

Ghaussey, Soheila. “A Stepmother Tongue: ‘Feminine Writing’ in Assia Djebar's Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade.World Literature Today 68.3 (1994): 457-62.

Gole, Nilüfer. Musulmanes et modernes: Voile et civilisation en turquie. Paris: La Découverte, 1993.

Hermann, Claudine, “Creations.” New French Feminisms: An Anthology. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1980. 168-73.

Kateb Yacine. Le polygone étoilé. Paris: Seuil, 1966.

Khatibi, Abdelkébir. La mémoire tatouée. Paris: UGE, 1971.

Lazreg, Marnia. The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Lejeune, Philippe. Le pacte autobiographique. Paris: Seuil, 1975.

Lionnet, Françoise. “Métissage, Emancipation and Female Textuality in Two Francophone Writers.” Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography. Ed. Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988. 260-78.

Rose, Gillian. Feminism and Geography. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Woodhull, Winifred. Transfigurations of the Maghreb: Feminism, Decolonization and Literatures. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

John Erickson (essay date fall 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6869

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 blanc, sur notre âme, agit comme le silence absolu”, disait Kandinsky. Me voici, par ce rappel de la peinture abstraite, en train d'amorcer un discours en quelque sorte déporté.

For my part I am able to express my malaise as a writer and an Algerian woman only with reference to that color (white), or rather to that noncolor. Kandinsky said, “White, on our soul, acts as absolute silence.” Here I am, opening a discourse in some way deviant and exilic.

—Djebar, Le blanc de l'Algérie (271)

Two nouns often meet in tandem in Assia Djebar's recent writings, particularly those writings profoundly concerned with the blood-letting that has plagued recent-day Algeria and that finds it roots in the Algerian War of Liberation. Those nouns are le blanc (“the white,” “the blank,” etc.) and la voix (“voice”)—the former signifying among other things death, unfulfillment, absence, and unwrittenness, the latter the often silenced voice of the innumerable victims of the repression and recrimination occurring in the years since the revolution.

The work central to this essay is Djebar's Le blanc de l'Algérie, a perplexing memoir published in 1995. The problematic I address is that of Djebar's impelling motive to lend voice to the sufferings of her fellow Algerians and to those who have struggled to bring about a just and integrated society. Her deep solicitude in regard to the individual tragedies of those of whom she writes projects ultimately onto the question of nationhood.

Djebar seeks to bring forth the power of the voice incarned in the words of Albert Camus that serve as one of the two epigraphs to Le blanc de l'Algérie: “Si j'avais le pouvoir de donner une voix à la solitude et à l'angoisse de chacun d'entre nous, c'est avec cette voix que je m'adresserais à vous” ‘If I had the power to give voice to the solitude and the anguish of each of us, it is with that voice that I would speak to you.’

The noun blanc carries multiple connotations in Djebar's memoir. The Grand Robert dictionary offers a profusion of meanings: that which reflects light, symbolizes purity and innocence, is exsangue (emptied of blood), an interval, an empty space as on a written page, the center of a target (a bull's-eye) or the target itself, to name but a few. Djebar rings a refrain on these multiple meanings: le blanc for her suggests the paleness of a nation that has seen the blood of so many of its people shed, but above all perhaps it suggests the unwrittenness of the blank page yet to be marked, the story of the absent dead to be told, the silence to be broken—in short, the interval between past and present to be filled.

That Djebar links the noun le blanc in her title to the name of Algeria suggests to us the stillborn, unrealized state of Algerian nationhood promised by the War of Liberation that claimed more than a million lives during eight years of bloody conflict against the French (1954-62). In the time following, the Algerian nation, as we know, has undergone dictatorial rule and internecine conflict, culminating in the annulment by the military government of the elections of 1991 that would have put power into the hands of the Islamists. From that event has ensued civil war and mass murder.1

The noun blanc, among other things, then, signifies the blank page of a failed revolution, yet to be written upon, as well as, on a personal level, the stories of Djebar's friends, acquaintances, and fellow Algerians who have died, stories that remain to be voiced. At the close of Le blanc de l'Algérie, Djebar says:

Le blanc de l'écriture, dans une Algérie non traduite? Pour l'instant, l'Algérie de la douleur, sans écriture; pour l'instant, une Algérie sang-écriture, hélas!

Comment dès lors porter le deuil de nos amis, de nos confrères, sans auparavant avoir cherché à comprendre le pourquoi des funérailles d'hier, celles de l'utopie algérienne?

Blanc d'une aube qui fut souillée.

The whiteness of writing, in an Algeria untranslated? For the moment an Algeria of suffering, without writing; for the moment an Algeria written in blood, alas!

How then can we wear mourning dress for our friends, for our confreres, without first having sought to understand the reason for yesterday's burials, those of the Algerian utopia?

Whiteness of a dawn that was soiled.


Djebar thus calls for a new language to give voice to the nation and its dead, to translate the unrealized dream of Algeria:

Dans la brillance de ce désert-là, dans le retrait de l'écriture en quête d'une langue hors des langues, en s'appliquant à effacer ardemment en soi toutes les fureurs de l'autodévoration collective, retrouver un “dedans de la parole” qui, seul, demeure notre patrie féconde.

In the brilliance of that desert, in the retreat of writing in quest for a language outside of language, in applying oneself ardently to erase within one all the furors of the collective self-devouring, to find again an “innerness of the word” which, alone, remains our fertile country.


Despite seeming otherwise because of her concluding remarks that imply an as yet unrealized quest for a language to describe the conflict and suffering of her fellow countrymen, the question arises whether or not Djebar's memoir does succeed in providing us with a key to understanding the causes of the self-devouring conflict the Algerian people are undergoing? to understanding the failure to translate the years of conflict and turmoil of the Algerian Revolution into an equitable and harmonious society? These are questions for which we shall seek answers adumbrated in Djebar's own writings.

Le blanc de l'Algérie is an elegiacal narrative that attempts to fill in the unwritten blanks in the recent history of Algeria through the creation of a discourse of and with the dead and disappeared. Djebar dedicates her book to the memory of three close friends, the psychiatrist Mahfoud Boucebci, the sociologist M'Hamed Boukhobza, and the dramatist Abdelkader Alloula—all assassinated in 1993 in the campaign in Algeria against intellectuals led by the intégristes, the Muslim Brotherhood, or radical activists, as John Esposito has called them.2

Djebar speaks to the solitude and anguish of her three friends, the “chers disparus” ‘cherished missing ones,’ during their life, to their last moments and assassination, to the shock and grief of those left behind, and to what the three represented to their kin, to their native birthplace, and to their tribe (11). Her elegy goes beyond these three, however, and in her preface she speaks of setting out in search of a liturgy, of spiritual communion with numerous dead poets, novelists, and journalists, and an unnamed “directrice de collège”—all of whom died in a grievous accident or illness or at the hands of assassins between the years 1960 and 1994. Their names comprise a litany for well-known and well-loved writers, poets, and journalists: Albert Camus, Frantz Fanon, Mouloud Feroun, Jean Amrouche, Jean Sénac, Malek Haddad, Mouloud Mammeri, Kateb Yacine, Anna Gréki, Taos Amrouche, Josie Fanon, Bachir Hadj Ali, Tahar Djaout, Youssef Sebti, and Saïd Mekbel. They all, like her three friends, were integrally involved with the cultural life and recent history of Algeria, and their writings and tireless efforts towards reform and the realization of nationhood—from those of a Nobel prize-winner (Camus) to those of an unnamed “directrice de collège”—tell the story of postliberation Algeria.

In regard to the dead with whom she communes, Djebar raises the question of the similarities between their individual deaths—some by accident, others by illness and assassination. She speaks of the suddenness and prematurity of their death that makes it “inachevée” ‘incomplete,’ and of the double death they undergo, for the first death that cuts short their work is seconded by another, that of falling out of memory (which she describes as a plunge into the forgotten—“la plongée dans le trou,” 96). She speaks of how “l'écrivain une fois mort, et ses textes pas encore rouverts, c'est autour de son corps enterré que s'entrecroisent et s'esquissent plusieurs Algéries …” ‘the writer once dead and her or his texts not yet reread, it is around her or his buried body that several Algerias intersect and sketch themselves …’ (12).

The fact that the intégristes began by singling out writers, journalists, and intellectuals as victims underlies Djebar's exclamation at the outset of her elegy honoring individual writers and the nation: “Une nation cherchant son cérémonial, sous diverse formes, mais de cimetière en cimetière, parce que en premier, l'écrivain a été obscurément offert en victime propitiatoire: étrange et désespérante découverte!” ‘A nation seeking its ceremonial, in different guises, but from cemetery to cemetery, because, to begin with, the writer has for some unintelligible reason been offered as a propitiary victim: strange and despairing discovery! (12).

Through what Djebar sees as their senseless death, the writer becomes the object of national atonement, of national expiation. On behalf of what? of whom? Why have they become propitiary victims? Those are questions her narrative raises. But her narrative also provides the reason for the victimization of the writers, artists, and intellectuals. They were targeted precisely because they threatened the aims of the radical revivalists, the intégristes, because their project for national “integration” was to include all Algerians, believers as well as dissenters, and to build bridges to other cultures—as opposed to engaging in a holy war against all those who resisted making Islam an exclusive way of life. They were targeted as special threats because they created a multicultural discourse. Because their writings and actions were an overt and powerful expression of a search for a more liberal and progressive Algeria free from the restraints of the past.

Djebar's narrative weaves together inextricably several threads: those of elegiacal mourning for the death of her fellow writers, of the reenactment through the recounting of their lives and deaths of episodes of the War of Independence and the political and religious turmoil since embroiling Algeria in a fratricidal crisis, and of an autobiographical metanarrative redolent of many of the concerns (particularly the absence or loss of voice) she has emphasized in her earlier works, from L'amour, la fantasia (1985) to Vaste est la prison (1995), as well as in later works such as Oran, langue morte (1997).

Death and loss are intricated in the recent history of the nation. Le blanc de l'Algérie is divided into four parts: “The Language of the Dead,” “Three Days,” “Unfulfilled Death,” and “Writing the Blank [le blanc] of Algeria.” Djebar's work alludes continually to events underlying the history of the war and its aftermath, such as the mass executions at the Barberousse prison in an attempt by the French authorities to put down the intégristes that resulted, not in their suppression, but in a multitude of individuals going over to the “islamiste” camp (37). And, during and after the war, the recriminations by the Algerians against their own: “Sans doute, disje. Le sang appelle le sang, nous retrouverons cette loqique, mais que dire quand ceux qui s'instituent gardiens de la loi appliquent, eux, la loi du talion?” ‘Undoubtedly, I say, bloodletting calls forth bloodletting, [and] we'll see that logic repeated, but what can we say when those who became guardians of the law apply the law of retaliation?’ (37). That retribution and vengeance arise after heated conflict and suffering is understandable, but that the very government of the Algerian nation should trample the notion of justice by retaliatory actions against its own people for Djebar defies understanding.

Djebar speaks of her return to Algeria at the time of independence, and how someone in the casbah cried out, “Sept ans, cela suffit!” ‘Seven years, that's enough!’ During that same July month, however, near Algiers, the “so-called national and popular army” fired on Algerian maquisards (underground fighters) (121). No, she says, seven years are not enough: “[L]e sang reprend, coule à nouveau et noir, puisque entre combattants supposés fraternels!” ‘[B]loodletting begins again, blood runs again, black blood, because it's between fighters supposedly brothers.’

Djebar speaks of four of the writers who died during the closing years of the war—Camus in an automobile crash in 1960, Fanon dead of leukemia in 1961, Feraoun murdered by the OAS (the Organization of the Secret Army, a paramilitary group led by the French General Raoul Salan) in 1962, and Amrouche who succumbed to cancer in 1962—as well as of the million or so Algerians who perished in the war. She calls the four “Ces quatres morts de la première espérance”—those who held out hope—and imagines them filing along the road with the war dead, pen in hand. She asks why those Algerian dead are called chahids or chouhadas, literally, “les martyrs au nom de Dieu” ‘martyrs in the name of God,’ and not simply abtals, heroes of the war. She questions the hyperbole and the suspect consensus to which Fanon would have objected (122). She cites Feraoun, who had written a few months earlier about the coming end of the war as promising to be the most banal but the only end possible, that would displease everyone but allow the survivors to begin living again, and begin forgetting (122).

But the survivors did not forget and the bloodletting continued unabated. Various groups now turned against each other. Djebar calls upon the four writers “quatre annonciateurs—j'allais dire les abtals de l'écriture inachevée—, je les tire à moi aujourd'hui, je les installe, eux mes confrères exemplaires, sur les bords de la fondrière: scrutons au fond de la fosse, questionnons ensemble d'autres absents, tant d'ombres dérangeantes!” ‘four voices—I was going to say heroes of unfinished writing—, I draw them to me today, place them, these my exemplary brothers, on the banks of the quagmire: let us look into the abyss, let us question together the other absences, so many disturbing shadows!’ Together, she urges, even if it is thirty years late, “ramenons les asphyxiés, les suicidés et les assassinés dans les langes de leur histoire obscure, au creux de la tragédie” ‘let us bring back the suffocated, the suicides and the murdered in the winding cloths of their obscure stories, at the heart of the tragedy’ (122-23).

She thus calls upon those who have disappeared to help her answer the question why so many of the people have turned against each other, why the nation remains untranslated and the destiny of Algeria remains unfulfilled. Her narrative is fraught with allusions to things missing, disappeared, hidden: the cover of conversation with friends that hid another cover of anxiety and distress (nappe, 16), their dialogue whose invisible knot (le noeud invisible) caused their intersecting words to deviate (21), objects like the winding cloth (21), diaphanous white light that veils/half veils the days (22), etc. In her very narrative the absence of dates results in events and times fusing together into a general tragedy that encompasses all of the people and the country itself over four decades. In succeeding parts of her narrative she links the theme of absence to the need to question the dead, to call upon them to help her solve the enigma that shakes Algeria. With her absent writer friends, she would recover the lost stories of the Algerian dead, bring them back to help the living to understand.

The central enigma Djebar seeks to answer has to do with the passage of power from the French occupiers to her fellow Algerians after independence. Torture and murder mark the most violent and graphic aspects of this passage. Under the French, torture and murder of both Algerians and Frenchmen had become institutionalized, just as torture and murder of Algerians by their own (notably by the Algerian National Liberation Front, the FLN, against those they branded counterrevolutionary—a code word for members of the opposition, and most usually communist or anarchist maquisards) were becoming institutionalized even under French occupation. With the Liberation and the formation of its own government Algeria failed to come to terms with its divisions. A question at the center of Djebar's concerns and that I shall look at in some detail is how passage from the French torturers to the Algerian torturers could have taken place, how the very persons who were tortured could themselves become torturers.

The answer is found, at least in part, in the testimony of those who underwent torture by their own countrymen and lived to write about it. Two such persons mentioned by Djebar wrote about just such a phenomenon in Algeria: the Frenchman Henri Alleg and the Algerian Bachir Hadj Ali. Henri Alleg had edited, since 1950, the communist paper Alger Républicain, which the French authorities banned in 1955. Alleg was arrested in June 1957, imprisoned and tortured at El-Biar, before being transferred to an internment camp at Lodi. His book, La Question, relates the gruesome ordeal he underwent.3 Jean-Paul Sartre's introduction compares the torture committed by the French army against its own people in Algeria to the torture of the French by the Gestapo at their headquarters in France during World War II. One would have thought it impossible, he says, that the victims of the Gestapo could themselves be transformed into executioners.

Sartre asks the question, What makes torturers? A partial response is that “torture makes torturers” (22), that is, they do not suddenly become what they are but undergo a gradual transformation. The “Centre de Tri,” where the prisoners were sorted out to be tortured or executed, “was not only a place of torture for Algerians,” Alleg says, “but a school of perversion for young Frenchmen” (105). At basis, Sartre remarks, “torture is a systematized form of hatred that creates its own instruments” (24). It is spawned by fear—of someone concealing something, holding power that could be used against one. In its final stages, it leads to “the hatred of mankind” (30).

The belief of the French in Algeria that they were backed by divine right and that their opponents were subhuman, as Sartre insists, was to become translated later into the divine right of the intégristes, or “fous de dieu”: as Mourad, a journalist in Djebar's short story “L'attentat” in Oran, langue morte, writes, “Chaque leader intégriste s'appelle ‘cheikh’ chez nous, en ces temps présents! Il se veut ainsi, par ce vocable (que les véritables maîtres autrefois n'osaient se donner), le père des jeunes chefs de bande qui se sont, quant à eux, autoproclamés ‘émirs’, autant dire ‘princes’” ‘Every intégriste leader calls himself “cheikh” in these times! He designates himself thus, by this title (that the true masters in past times dared not assume), the father of the young heads of the armed groups who have proclaimed themselves “emirs,” that is, “princes” (Oran, langue morte 143).

As those designated and treated as subhuman, the tortured, become the torturers, one system of values replaces another. Sartre speaks of how we have learned that “it is not a question of punishing or re-educating certain individuals, and that the Algerian war cannot be humanised. Torture was imposed here by circumstances and demanded by racial hatred” (36). That hatred will, under the intégristes, later become religious hatred and intolerance (as one of them, Abu Mohammed, unequivocally states: “According to Islamic Law you cannot negotiate with apostates”4).

Alleg's closing words call to mind those of Djebar. He speaks of his difficulty in writing, “But it was necessary for me to tell what I know. I owe it to [Maurice] Audin who ‘disappeared’, and to all those who are being humiliated and tortured, and who still continue the struggle with courage. I owe it to all those who, each day, die for liberty” (121). The last scene he describes is that of young Algerians led out to be hanged in the courtyard of the prison. As they mounted the scaffold, one of them cried out: “Tahia El Djezair! Vive l'Algérie!” And from the women's side of the prison voices sang as one the Algerian anthem (min djeballina): “Out of our struggle / Rise the voices of free men: / They claim independence / for our country. / I give you everything I love, / I give you my life, / O my country … O my country.”

In Le blanc de l'Algérie, Djebar also speaks of Bachir Hadj Ali, a poet, musicologist, and secretary of the Algerian Communist Party, who underwent prolonged torture after his arrest by his own countrymen in September 1965. His account of his prison experience, entitled L'arbitraire, was written in 1965 and smuggled into France to be published there in 1966 (it was suppressed in Algeria until 1991).

Mohamed Khadda, whose preface, written in 1965, appears in the 1966 French edition, says that through both his militant writings and his poetry Bachir Hadj Ali “projette la cité du rêve et travaille à l'édification de la cité de l'équité” ‘projects the city of dream and works to build the city of justice’ (6)—a reference to the utopic nation so many Algerians expected to arise from the ashes of the War of Liberation, and reminiscent of Djebar's own description of the unrealized quest for such a utopia.

In a second preface, also written in 1965 for the French edition of the following year, Hocine Zahouane remarks that torture is inseparable from the social-political system and is bound up with the contradictions existing in Algerian society. The barbarism of colonial rule is perpetuated in Algerian society in the aftermath of the War of Liberation (12). Zahouane argues that as long as the masses are excluded from the political and social system, torture will continue. The sole remedy is a “true,” popular democratic power (14).

In his introduction to the original French edition, Mohamed Harbi, along with Zahouane a fellow prisoner of Hadj Ali, describes the source of the contradictions mentioned by the former, that account for a supposed struggle on behalf of a popular democracy, leading to a divided nation and a despotic government: “Nos structures sociales continuent à véhiculer des comportements et des pratiques … perpétués par des couches dirigeantes forgées dans la violence, exclusivistes, rompues aux méthodes du centralisme bureaucratique, hantées à tous les échelons de la hiérarchie par la peur des lendemains” ‘Our social structures continue to call forth behavior and practices … perpetuated by the ruling classes forged in violence, exclusivist, disciplined in centralized bureaucratic methods, haunted at every level of the hierarchy by the fear of what is to come’ (18). Harbi alludes to the same fear-driven motives for torture and murder mentioned by Alleg. He argues that the oppression that has come about is not merely the result of present-day administrators taking on the roles of those who came before. But that those roles have grown out of the experience the Algerians lived during the war (18). He speaks of the new ruling classes in whose very development injustice (the “arbitrary”) has been inscribed.5 They seek to counter their “anarchist” opponents “par la violence en leur propre sein comme à l'égard du peuple exclu de la gestion de ses propres affaires” ‘by their innate violence as holds true as well for the exclusion of the people from self-administration’ (19). He is speaking of course about the repressive military regime of Algeria, whose later actions in cancelling the elections of 1991 will give rise to the retributive violence of the radical Islamic activists.

As the oppression of the military government in the early years led to the amalgamation of local and regional groups that worked against the development of any sort of unified national entity, so the oppression of the later years leading to the annulment of the 1991 elections has spawned religious coteries that have turned to violence and resolutely oppose national unity, unless it be on their exclusionary terms. Harbi concludes that the belief that administrative measures and repression can solve the problem of divisiveness is illusory (19). The word exclusion comes up repeatedly in the forematter of Hadj Ali's book, particularly the exclusion of the people. Like Zahouane, Harbi feels that only a popular democratic society can bring about change—otherwise the state will continue to wither and undergo “permanent crisis” (21).

The opening page of Hadj Ali's narrative refers to a man or a woman who in a moment is going “to be submitted … to the question.” And he describes the “cry of a beast, strangely human,” that arises outside his cell (23). What he wrote in 1965 is fresh today: “We are in independent Algeria, still marked by the suffering and crimes of the Faulques and the Charbonniers. The Algerian Faulques and Charbonniers have succeeded them” (24). He points out that, even while Alleg, Audin, and others were being tortured by the French, men in the name of the FLN were torturing their Algerian opponents. He asks who will bring together the popular democratic forces to lead to national independence (30)—ironically, the revolution was to be taken up not by the Algerian populace but by the Islamic activists who were deprived of a freely elected government and whose radical offshoots like the GIA have committed terrorists acts of murder against the Algerian people at large.

Hadj Ali describes the bitingly ironic episode of the Algerian torturers posting a sign saying “One sure way of getting out is to speak the truth.” The “truth” meant for them of course to inform on one's comrades. But for Hadj Ali, on the contrary, speaking out was, as it is for Djebar, to give voice to those who suffer or are dead. The torturers' injunction to tell the “truth,” which for Hadj Ali represented the “marriage of truth and cowardliness,” signified for him precisely its opposite—the need at that moment to remain silent, “to live for tomorrow, to bear witness [témoigner]” (33). Is it not precisely of bearing witness that Assia Djebar speaks in Le blanc de l'Algérie?

Like Assia Djebar, Hadj Ali speaks for the fallen but also for the living who seek to understand what has happened to the promise of independence. Love, of those who have died, of the living who work in concert, of the Algerian nation itself, becomes a leit-motiv. Hadj Ali says, “Ces hommes et ces femmes d'Algérie et d'ailleurs, mêlés dans l'amour que je porte aux miens, je sentais et je sens leur présence invisible, malgré l'isolement” ‘These men and these women, from Algeria and elsewhere, mixed in the love that I bear to my people, I sensed and I sense their invisible presence, despite my isolation’ (33). In the midst of his worst suffering, he saw “le fil ténu, solidairement lancé de l'extérieur et par l'intermédiaire duquel je m'accrochais de toutes mes fibres au monde des hommes vivants, aux combattants de la liberté” ‘the thread held forth, extended in fellowship from the outside and by means of which I clung with all the fibers of my being to the world of the living, to those fighting for freedom’ (33-34).

In describing his torturers, Hadj Ali speaks repeatedly of their fear (39, 43, 44), just as Alleg, Harbi, and others have remarked. One day Hadj Ali told one of the torturers: “Le plus sûr moyen de perdre une cause, c'est de la défendre par la torture” ‘The surest way to lose one's cause is to defend it by torture’ (41), a thought he will repeat in his letter to the Minister of National Defense, dated 3 October 1965, in which he brings his torture and that of others to the Minister's attention, saying, “Je sors de l'épreuve avec mon honneur de militant sauf, avec cette conviction profonde qu'une cause est perdue dès lors qu'elle se défend par la torture” ‘I come through this trial with my honor as a militant intact, bearing with me the profound conviction that a cause is lost the moment it defends itself by means of torture’ (73). Djebar cites these very words of Hadj Ali in her book.

Like Sartre, Hadj Ali felt that “[l]e tortionnaire méprise profondément l'homme. En même temps qu'il le craint. Entre le mépris et la crainte, il y a un rapport dialectique. Plus il craint le torturé, moins il le méprise” ‘[t]he torturer profoundly scorns men. At the same time as he fears them. Between scorn and fear, a dialectic exists. The more he fears his victim, the less he scorns him’ (43).

In his poem “Ton example,” dedicated to Henri Alleg, Hadj Ali writes: “Et comme toi j'ai vaincu les monstres” ‘And like you I vanquished the monsters’ (86). Alleg and Hadj Ali provide in part the answer to Djebar's question, and that of many others, as to how Algerians who had themselves lived through torture, could in their turn become torturers. Those Algerians who undertook to torture their own countrymen learned torture in the training camps of the French and were like the French torturers marked by fear and hatred of those they opposed—primarily the Algerian communists, but as well all whom they feared might usurp their power. Fear drove them.

Yet another characteristic that repeats itself in the accounts of Alleg, Hadj Ali, and others who underwent torture, and in Djebar's description of the young “fous de Dieu” who carried out their assassinations, is the seeming indifference or casualness of the perpetrators. In both cases rites and ritual often cloaked torture and death in seeming ordinariness. Djebar describes the rites of death at the Barberousse prison, where each morning the French posted the names of those executed, gave to the families their clothes and the numbers of the graves where they were buried.

Such ritualistic actions call to mind what Hannah Arendt, in recounting Adolph Eichmann's trial for his role in the Holocaust, called the banality of evil. Arendt speaks of how Eichmann never realized what he was doing and of his inability to comprehend the magnitude of his crime (268-69). As Russell Burman comments, Arendt

views Eichman as a prototype, he is not everyman but rather the individual who, in bureaucratic society, surrenders individuality and thereby the ability to think, to make moral decisions, and to recognize the humanity of other individuals. Retreating from the dimension of human action, i.e., political encounters with the diversity of community, he transgresses against the community and becomes criminal. His evil is banal because it is predicated not on the decision to do bad but on the refusal to make any decisions at all, and to follow orders, and stifle the moral faculty of which justice presumes the individual capable. His banality is not a quality necessarily shared by everyone but rather the lack of quality and the lack of character that mark human behavior in societies where the valorization of conformism displaces individual autonomy.


The same phenomenon of depersonalization manifest in the actions of someone like Eichmann, who is unable “to recognize the humanity of other individuals,” evinces itself in colonial rule, under which the colonized individual is depersonalized. Franz Fanon speaks of how that depersonalization is translated onto a collective plane, onto the level of social structures. And the colonized are reduced to a group whose way of thinking and acting (“fondement”) are conditioned by and depends upon the presence of the colonizers (224). The Algerians who tortured their own during the War of Liberation, as mentioned, learned from the French occupiers and were unable to perceive the danger to the nation. Their actions were motivated by fear and hatred. The military regime that followed, under such leaders as Boumediene (“plus bonapartistes d'un Etat militaire en gestion que ‘révolutionnaires,’” ‘more bonapartists of a ruling military State than revolutionaries,’ Le blanc de l'Algérie 125) governed, as Harbi said, through violence, exclusivism, centralized bureaucratic control, and “fear of what is to come” (Hadj Ali 18). Such a process bears close resemblance to the Islamists who were later to terrorize Algeria: the same recourse to violence and exclusivism, the same tight control by a core group, and fear and loathing in regard to those they regarded as heretics.

The phenomenon of fear and hatred on the part of the oppressors is reiterated in Alice Kaplan's description of the fascist fear of the loss of national identity that led to the hatred projected onto the Jewish population (7) and the need “to define ‘outsiders’ to safeguard its own illusions” (31). Exclusionary motives once again: “The appeal of fascism has to do with its presentation as a total state—one that could reconcile the nationalism of the right and the syndicalist revolt on the left.” She alludes to Jean-Pierre Faye's description of the total state as at the same time completely revolutionary and completely conservative: “Faye remarks that the revolutionary aspects of the polarity contribute ironically to the most reactionary aspects of fascism. Faye describes a process of cross-pollination in fascism. Popular revolutionary consciousness (left) is influenced by nationalism (right) and translated into people's racial consciousness (fascistic); neither left nor right are noxious until ‘set off’ in combination” (32-33).

Interestingly, as the explosive outcome of the process leading from French liberal bourgeois democracy to fascism, such as it appeared in the period between the wars, Kaplan holds up the example of the “protofascist putsch” of the French generals in the Algerian crisis (13 May 1958) (Kaplan 58, n. 36). Of course, the torture and murder of French resistance members by the Vichy government in the metropole during World War II and that of Maurice Audin, Larbi Ben M'Hidi, Ali Boumendjel, and countless others in Algeria during the 1950s and early '60s, bore witness to what Sartre called the unimaginable crimes of the French victims turned into torturers and murderers.

The transition from French oppression to Algerian repression has a history, as Djebar points out. She recounts how Abane Ramdane, the uncontested head of Algerian resistance who worked to engage diverse and often opposing factions in concerted action, was betrayed and murdered by his Algerian opponents in 1957, and links it to the present crisis: why should we be astonished, she asks, that on the one hand the revolt and anger of the intégristes has led them to desecrate the cemeteries and graves of the chadids, “les sacrifiés d'hier” ‘yesterday's sacrificial victims’ (150), and that, on the other hand, the people in power have grown rich and fat, praising the dead without distinction:

Comment dès lors [Djebar asks], chasser de tels miasmes, comment—en quelle langue, selon quelle forme esthétique de la dénonciation et de la colère—rendre compte de telles métamorphoses? La seule question qui aurait dû s'installer au coeur d'une culture algérienne vivante resta trou béant, oeil mort.

How after all that do we disperse such noxious miasmas—in what language, according to what esthetic form of denunciation and anger—to account for such metamorphoses? The only question that ought to have gone to the heart of a living Algerian culture remained a gaping hole, a dead eye.


The theater of two writers might have answered that question, Djebar says: that of Kateb Yacine and Abdelkader Alloula—but both are now dead and amnesia rules. No one speaks out. On the contrary, Djebar herself in my view manages to translate her untranslated country, to fill the whiteness with a language beyond the language of violence, to find that “innerness of the word” that unifies rather than destroys. Her metaphors penetrate the layers of meaning, pierce the cover that hides an invisible layer of meaning beneath it.

While she asks the question of how the tortured can become the torturer, she answers it in speaking of the schooling of the French prisons and concentration camps that taught the Algerians their own torture techniques. Moreover, Djebar speaks of how the French played on the bad blood and hatred existing between different groups of Algerians, manipulation that was to help tear the nation asunder and lead to homegrown torture and murder, first by the FLN, then by the military regime that took over the government with the fall from power of Ben Bella in 1965 (one especially troubling event occurred in August 1988, when the army crushed peaceful demonstrations, resulting in the death of some 600 youths—Le blanc de l'Algérie 107)—a chain reaction leading to the mayhem committed by the radical Islamic activists. An example of the French tactic of sowing divisiveness among Algerian opponents lies in the success of the French during the War of Liberation, when, unable to “turn” youths from the maquis, they framed them to make them look like informers. Such tactics led to the purge by Colonel Amirouche, head of the Kabyle maquis, of walaya III in 1958-1959, in which 2,000, perhaps as many as 3,000, youths were executed (see Le blanc de l'Algérie 233-39). Most of the victims were urban youths whose French speech, education, and intellectual background made them suspect to the Kabyle maquisards who were mostly montagnards and peasants. Unhappily, the wheel comes around with the bloody campaign of the radical Islamist activists who have also chosen as victims intellectuals—journalists, writers, doctors, and teachers—but have more recently taken to slaughtering peasants and ordinary townspeople.

While Djebar asks the question of how to find a language of unification rather than destruction, she answers it by her spiritual communion with the dead, by the blank pages upon which she writes their stories and gives sense to their deaths, by her repeated use of the phenomenon of whiteness (le blanc) that signifies the paleness of the nation coming from the spilled blood of so many of its people as well as the lost, pristine innocence of a nation fighting for justice and longing for a more perfect nationhood. Le blanc de l'Algérie helps to translate the untranslatedness of the country and its people.


  1. As a consequence of the annulled elections, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) led by Sheikh Abbas Madani (later Sheikh Ali Bel Hadj) gained widespread support. Conflict broke out against the army but spilled over into the civilian population, of which several thousand people have perished through horrible atrocities, attributed by the FIS to its rival, the GIA, or Armed Islamic Group, led by Abu Mohammed, and by the Islamists in general to the military itself.

  2. Critics have tended to lump together the two tendencies of Islamic resurgence of the last few decades by failing to differentiate between (1) conservative or moderate Islamic revivalists who reject the liberal nationalism of the West and Marxist socialism in favor of the re-Islamization of society, of making Islam an exclusive way of life, and reinstating the sharia, Islamic law, and (2) the radical activists, who offer an extremist revivalist movement that obligates believers to undertake holy struggle against all enemies of Islam (the West, Marxism, Zionism, and heretics), in assuming Islamic law to be an imperative handed down from God. Djebar occasionally employs the oft-used term the “fous de Dieu” (the “madmen of God”) to refer to the radical activists. See Esposito; Williams; and Voll (esp. ch. 6).

  3. The “Question” in its modern meaning refers to interrogation, but its older usage referred to torture (“infliger la question”) and it is in that sense as well that Alleg used it.

  4. Interview over radio, via internet, by an unidentified interviewer, in Arabic. Abu Mohammed is a common nom de guerre among 30,000 or so Islamist guerrillas in Algeria. This same person scathingly speaks of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) thusly: “They consider it possible to kill the entire people as Infidels. We [of the Islamic Salvation Front] have made it clear that they [the GIA] are outside Islam.”

  5. The “arbitrary” of Hadj Ali's title refers to despotism and injustice, not to the gratuitousness of action (it in fact indicates free will: “le libre aribtre,” and actions taken with settled determination).

Works Cited

Alleg, Henri. La question. Paris: Minuit, 1958. Trans. in English as The Question. New York: Braziller, 1958.

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. 1964. New York: Penguin, 1979.

Burman, Russell. “Foreword. The Wandering Z: Reflections on Kaplan's Reproductions of Banality.” See Kaplan.

Camus, Albert. Conference in Algiers, 22 Jan. 1956.

Djebar, Assia. Le blanc de l'Algérie. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.

———. L'amour, la fantasia. Paris: J.-C. Lattès, 1985.

———. Oran, langue morte. Arles: Editions Actes Sud, 1997.

———. Vaste est la prison. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.

Esposito, John L. Islam: The Straight Path. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.

Fanon, Frantz. Les damnés de la terre. Paris: Maspero, 1961.

Hadj Ali, Bachir. L'arbitraire. Paris: Minuit, 1966; reedition: Bouzareah: Dar El Ijtihad, 1991.

Kaplan, Alice Yaeger. Reproductions of Banality: Fascism, Literature, and French Intellectual Life. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota P, 1986.

Voll, John Obert. Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World. 2nd ed. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1994.

Williams, John Alden. The Word of Islam. Austin: U of Texas P, 1994.

Anne Donadey (essay date winter 2000)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7170

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.]

Je considère que la langue française nous traduit infiniment plus qu'elle nous trahit.

—Mouloud Mammeri1

I condone this bastardy, the only cross-breeding that the ancestral beliefs do not condemn: that of language, not that of the blood.

—Assia Djebar2

La question du langage, je la considère souvent comme le problème numéro un de la littérature nord-africaine d'expression française Je dirais, et certains sentiront cela comme une provocation, qu'il nous faut arabiser le français, avec une condition: en passant par la beauté, traduisons: par la poésie.

—Assia Djebar3

The question of the language of writing is overdetermined in the context of anti- and postcolonial literatures. If postcolonial authors write in “la langue de l'adversaire d'hier” (the language of yesterday's enemy; Djebar, Fantasia, 241), even writers with a clearly anticolonial agenda are regularly accused, at worst of betrayal, at best of not being able to reach their intended audience. For female writers, it is often seen as a double betrayal, both of the national language and of a nationalist ideology in which women are viewed only as allegories of the nation. These questions, which are unavoidable in the francophone context, are also foregrounded in anglophone Africa, as evidenced by the controversial arguments of Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.4 Yet the great theorists of decolonization such as Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and Albert Memmi all wrote their electrifying manifestos in the colonizer's language, using French as “une arme de combat, pour une littérature nationale” (a weapon in the struggle for national literature; Déjeux, 55). Writers and critics have treated this issue in many different ways.5

In this essay, I outline various responses to the question of language in the context of Maghrebian (North African) literature with a focus on Algeria, examining the theoretical contributions of Danielle Marx-Scouras, Réda Bensmaïa, Abdelkebir Khatibi, and Assia Djebar to the debate. The second half of the essay explores Djebar's own practice of multilingual writing in the three published novels of her Algerian Quartet. Djebar is one of the foremost Maghrebian writers, and her work on language is truly remarkable. I analyze her use of Arabic words in her texts in French to argue that she creates a multilingual palimpsest which both reflects the process of violent French colonization of Algeria and subverts it linguistically by “arabiciz[ing] French” ([“Le romancier dans la cité arabe”], 119).

In 1957, Albert Memmi predicted that francophone literature was bound to disappear after the generation of writers who went to school at the end of the colonial period (140). Today, the situation varies wildly depending on the country, even if one remains solely within the Maghrebian context. For instance, with the arabization policy in Algeria, it is likely that more people from the postindependence generations will use Arabic rather than French as the language of writing. But Memmi had not foreseen a continued Maghrebian immigration to France, which was responsible for the emergence of Beur literature (written in French by authors of Arab and Berber descent, some being French nationals and others not) in the 1980s. Only time will tell if this literature will keep growing in a unique way, contributing to the development of a truly multicultural France, if it will disappear, or if, after a few generations, it will become integrated into French literature and give it new inspiration. The emigration of North African writers to France (for political or other reasons) and, more important, the fact that Morocco has retained French as one of its two official languages and provides bilingual schooling will ensure the perpetuation of Maghrebian francophone literature. It is possible, too, that a few Algerian authors may choose to continue using French. Recently, a few arabophone writers such as Amin Zaoui and Waciny Larej have begun to write in French. Some Berber writers may use French to protest the arabization project of the Algerian government, with its monocultural nationalism that is reluctant to recognize Berber specificity. Finally, it may be easier for some authors to write on taboo subjects (such as religion or sexuality) in French rather than in the sacred language of the Quran (Tahar Ben Jelloun, in Mehrez, 131). Some writers go beyond the French-Arabic dialectic by having recourse to a third, more neutral language (such as English in the postcolonial Maghrebian context). Fatima Mernissi has done this for her 1994 autobiographical narrative, Dreams of Trespass, whereas she writes most of her other, sociological works in French. (Dreams of Trespass was translated into French a few years later under the title Rêves de femmes.)

It has been underscored by critics that, in a context where a large percentage of the population is illiterate and books are a luxury, the simple act of writing, in whichever language, is hard to justify on utilitarian grounds since there are so few readers. In order to engage broader audiences, some writers such as Assia Djebar and Ousmane Sembène have turned to cinema. Kateb Yacine turned away from the novel in French and to street theater in dialectal Arabic, incorporating in his works traces of the many languages used in the Maghreb (Bensmaïa, 170-71). Finally, other francophone authors such as Rachid Boudjedra have mastered literary Arabic and have become truly bilingual writers.

Referring to the question of the language of writing, Danielle Marx-Scouras speaks of “the poetics of Maghrebine illegitimacy.” In a context in which writing in French originates in colonial history, this literature “belongs neither to France nor the Maghreb … [and] threatens the sacrosanct idea of literary nationality” (3). Similarly, Réda Bensmaïa divides Maghrebian literature into four stages, the last being one that questions monolithic nationalist representations (173-76). Postcolonial feminist texts stage a fundamental ambivalence toward nationalist rhetoric based on its allegorizing the female body as national body. These texts foreground the complexities of decolonization and move away from binary, Manichean structures to a more ambivalent position that stresses at the same time opposition to and complicity with various forms of dominance.

According to Marx-Scouras, contemporary Maghrebian writers turn the question of the language of writing around, producing polyphonic texts based on an “aesthetics of difference” (4). They refuse the monoculture promoted by nationalist rhetoric, which places them in a decentered position of “deviation and difference” (7). In his assessment of Algerian multilingualism, Bensmaïa brings out four levels of language: the vernacular (a play of multiple languages such as dialectal Arabic, Berber, and French), the vehicular (national and regional languages such as classical Arabic, French, and, more recently, English), the referential (proverbs, literature, and rhetoric), and the mythic (mostly in literary Arabic, the language of religious and spiritual reterritorialization). It is worthy of note that each level itself is multilingual (Bensmaïa, 168-69). At the beginning of the 1980s, the Moroccan novelist and theorist Abdelkebir Khatibi reminded us of the long history of multilingualism in the Maghreb, comprising oral Berber, French, and Arabic diglossia—i.e., written/standard versus oral/dialectal Arabic (179). For the Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb, this diglossia indicates that “l'arabe … se dédouble. Nous sommes, dès l'origine, divisés” (Arabic is a dual language. We are divided from the start; 126-27). For Djebar, this division takes on a gendered aspect: standard Arabic is opposed to “un arabe populaire, ou … un arabe féminin; autant dire … un arabe souterrain” (colloquial Arabic or feminine Arabic; one might just as well call it underground Arabic; Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement / [Women of Algiers in Their Apartment,] 7/1). Because of this diglossia and because they were schooled in French, authors such as Djebar, although they speak regional Arabic, cannot write in classical Arabic and must write in French if they are to write at all. Regardless of their language of writing, then, Maghrebian writers' relationship to language is multifaceted and intricate.

For all these complex reasons, then, the simple fact of writing in French for a postcolonial writer cannot be summarily judged either as treason or as radical subversion per se. It is necessary to assess to what extent texts become subversive at the thematic, ideological, intertextual, stylistic, and linguistic levels. A single text may achieve radically subversive strategies at one level and reinscribe regressive practices at another level. A case in point would be Khatibi's Amour bilingue, a narrative whose “radical bilingualism” (Khatibi, in Mehrez, 131) is marred by a total objectification of the female character. The text's sexual politics never break free from a strongly masculinist ideology that conceptualizes the male protagonist's relationship to the female character only in the analogical mode of his relationship to the colonizer's language, a relationship marked by violence and appropriation.

By contrast, authors such as Djebar write in a fully subversive manner. Djebar uses intertextuality not only in order to subvert the French language, but also to highlight the element of complicity involved in such a practice of writing. Her imaginary is postcolonial, multilingual, and multicultural. She rewrites history from a female/feminist perspective, while making use of radical bilingualism. She reappropriates French by inscribing within it the trace of oral Arabic, creating a bilingual palimpsest: “Et l'inscription du texte étranger se renverse dans le miroir de la souffrance, me proposant son double évanescent en lettres arabes, de droite à gauche redévidées” (“I glimpse the mirror-image of the foreign inscription, reflected in Arabic letters, writ from right to left in the mirror of suffering”; Fantasia, 58/46).

In Fantasia Djebar discusses four levels of language used by Algerian women of her generation:

Le français pour l'écriture secrète, l'arabe pour nos soupirs vers Dieu étouffés, le libyco-berbère quand nous imaginons retrouver les plus anciennes de nos idoles mères. La quatrième langue, pour toutes, jeunes ou vieilles, cloîtrées ou à demi-émancipées, demeure celle du corps.


French for secret missives; Arabic for our stifled aspirations towards God; Lybico-Berber which takes us back to the most ancient of our mother idols. The fourth language, for all females, young or old, cloistered or half-emancipated, remains that of the body.


These subterranean languages constantly erupt within Djebar's texts in French. Their presence-absence at the heart of her writing completely decenters and disrupts French, taking it elsewhere. Djebar's French is fully multilingual. Not only is it “corps morcelé entre diglossie et graphie latine” (a body split between Arabic diglossia and Latin script; Khatibi, 205), but it also inscribes the female body and the Berber tradition. In Vaste est la prison the Berber language is present in the text in the form of verse from a Berber song from which the book's title is taken. The verse is given in Berber and French translation (236-37, 334). At the center of the book, the story of the rediscovery of the ancient, lost Tifinagh alphabet, a written language preserved and passed on by women, makes the link between the Berber language and that of the female body. Similarly, in Fantasia the experience of going to Quranic school connects the rhythmic movements of the body and breathing to oral repetition, memory, and Arabic writing (which Djebar reterritorializes as female).6 Both Berber and Arabic are embodied languages, whereas to write in French in the postcolonial Algerian context is to write the impossibility of love, to write in the congealed blood of massacred ancestors.

In each work, Djebar privileges one aspect of the language of the female body, a language which Soheila Ghaussy rightly links to the feminist project of writing (with) the body: whispers, ritual ululations, and the grandmother's trances in Fantasia; the rewriting of what I call her géné/elle/logie (female genealogy), especially in Loin de Médine and Vaste; the female gaze in Femmes d'Alger, La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua, and Vaste; desire, sexual pleasure, and violence, especially in Ombre sultane and Vaste; and throughout the entire oeuvre, female voices and silences.

The aspect on which I will focus in the rest of this essay concerns the relationship between Arabic and French in the three published volumes of Djebar's Algerian Quartet: L'amour, la fantasia (1985), Ombre sultane (1987), and Vaste est la prison (1995). Many Arabic words appear in Djebar's novels. Whereas critics have analyzed her use of French and of the languages of the female body, an in-depth linguistic examination of Djebar's style, especially with respect to the presence of Arabic in her texts, remains to be done. I will mostly limit myself to a lexical analysis of her use of Arabic words and will not discuss the obvious presence of Arabic proper names, although I will provide elements of a syntactic and stylistic analysis at the end of the article. It is interesting that all the Arabic words she uses are transliterated from the Arabic script into the Latin alphabet. The Arabic script “dont [elle s']absente, comme d'un grand amour” (“from which she is separated, as from a great love”; Fantasia, 204/181), is never present in its original form, only through its oral transcription into French. The total absence of footnotes or glossaries—which directly attempt to bridge the gap between the two languages—should also be noted (although glossaries have been added to the English translations of Fantasia, Ombre, and Femmes d'Alger).7

Critics have often noted the presence of certain key words in Arabic in Djebar's texts. For example, the use of the word qalam (pen, the stylus with which one writes Quranic verses on tablets in Quranic school) in Fantasia is related to the novel's theme of an Arab woman coming to writing (255; Geesey, 164-65). The word recurs at the end of Vaste (344), thus making the link between the first and third volumes of the Quartet. In Ombre the word derra (meaning both co-wife and wound) serves as a point of departure for a meditation on polygyny (100, 155; Clerc, 18). Vaste, a novel in which domestic violence plays a central role, opens with a scene in which the narrator discovers that women in her husband's region name their spouses e'dou, “the enemy” (13-14, 107, 320; Mortimer, 108; Clerc, 149). Many other Arabic words recur as well.

I discern at least five different ways in which Arabic words function within Djebar's texts. They span a continuum ranging from words that are completely foreign to French, to a blending of Arabic and French that can be hard to notice for a monolingual French reader.

1) First are translated words that appear either in quotation marks or in italics and refer to one of three possibilities: a) very specialized concepts (some of Turkish or Farsi/Persian origin such as bach, attatich, khasnadji), coming mostly from the historical archives Djebar used for Fantasia. These words are sometimes preceded by a French translation (“un secrétaire général, ‘bach-kateb’” [general secretary; 53/42]; “le palanquin … l'attatich” [the raised palanquin; 104/89]). Most often, they are immediately followed by the translation: “‘khasnadji’—le ministre des Finances” (the Minister of Finance; 55/44), “‘Ta'arif’, c'est-à-dire ‘Identité’” (242/216).8 There are only a few times when quotations taken from Arabic archives are not translated in Fantasia. Words such as tekbir (an exclamation meaning “Allah is great”; 54) or expressions such as “Etlag el Goum!” (Forward, tribe!; 64/52) can only be understood by a reader familiar with Arabic. The presence of such words has a dual effect. They defamiliarize French for a native reader and make the language more hospitable for a native speaker of Arabic. These words carry with them the historical burden of the colonial relationship between the Algerians, the Turks, and the French. By placing these words in her text in French, Djebar provides concrete reminders of the historically violent process she is retracing. b) Then there are traditional myths or cultural concepts (in Vaste): “‘voleur de mariée’ … khettaf el-arais” (bride thief; 94); “la sakina, … sérénité” (106, 331); “‘amti', c'est-à-dire tante paternelle” (paternal aunt; 226); “les kanouns emplis de braise … les braseros” (“Kanouns filled with hot coals … the braziers”; Fantasia, 163/143; Vaste, 180). c.) Also, we find translations of proper names such as “Hajila, ton nom signifie ‘petite caille’” (your name, Hajila, means “little quail”; Ombre, 16/8); “‘Isma’, j'éparpille mon nom, tous les noms” (“Isma,” I scatter my name, all names);9 “Aichoucha, littéralement ‘petite vie’” (Aichoucha, literally, “little life”; Vaste, 272). These translations allow a non-arabophone reader to appreciate the beauty and expressiveness of Arabic names.

2) Second, we have Arabic words that have become part of the specialized vocabulary of Orientalism (fewer than half of these words are in the French dictionary). These words, which would not generally be known to a somewhat educated French reader, are usually present in quotation marks or in italics and are not translated, although they can be roughly understood from context:10 from Fantasia come khalkhal (anklet; 68), chérif (tribal leader who descends from the Prophet; 77), “demander l'aman” (to surrender asking for protection; 78), “la fatiha” (the first chapter, or opening, of the Quran; 102; Vaste 43, 45, 180), and taleb (teacher in Quranic school, seeker, student of the Quran; 205); in Ombre we find “un soufi” (Islamic mystic; 117), “un fqih” (expert in Islamic law; 132), and chahadda (profession of faith; 142; Vaste, 123, 307); from Vaste are hadja (a woman who went to Mecca for the pilgrimage; 178), “le mokkadem” (chief, leader; 203), “la solta” (power; 311), and tzarlrit (women's ululations; 346; also defined in Fantasia, 247).

3) Third, Arabic words that have become more or less current in French (they all are in the French dictionary). Djebar inserts them without quotation marks or italics, blending them with French. These words often occur in Fantasia's historical chapters, and they refer to: a) titles and ranks, including dey (Turkish military leader, city administrator; 16), bey (Turkish governor, often an officer; 27; Vaste, 140, 147-48), Janissaires (Turkish infantry soldiers), agha (administrator, local militia leader; 27), pacha (regional leader; 50), spahis (Algerian soldier in the French cavalry; 63), chaouch (orderly, usher; 113), cheikh (chief; 204; Vaste, 149, 288), and caïd (administrator; Vaste, 214, 269, 280, 285). Most of these words (except for cheikh and caïd) are Turkish terms that have become part of Arabic (and of French) due to Turkish colonization of Algeria before the 1830 French conquest. b) Traditional clothing, such as burnous (long, woolen, hooded cloak; 27), saroual (baggy pants; 30; Vaste, 47, 203, 241),11chéchia (or fez, a conical hat; 62), haïk (all-enveloping white Algerian veil; 174; a recurring word in Ombre), djellaba (hooded robe; 193; Vaste, 325), tchador (a Persian word for the all-enveloping black veil from Iran; Vaste, 325). c) Geographic designations, such as djebel (mountains; Fantasia, 79), oued (a dry river bed that may flood during heavy rains; 136), medersas (schools; 206), hammam (Turkish bath; a central site in Ombre), medina (old part of town; Ombre, 109), zaouïa (Islamic compound; Ombre, 115), and douar (hamlet; Vaste, 240).12 Other such words include Roumis (literally “Byzantines,” in the Maghreb it is a pejorative term for Europeans; Ombre, 141)13 and baraka (luck; Ombre, 117), a word that became common in French after the return of pied-noirs (French settlers in Algeria) in 1962. The use of this type of Arabic vocabulary suggests that colonization not only has an impact upon the colonized, but also changes the colonizing power's culture and language as well.

4) Fourth, at times, the struggle between Arabic and French is staged to highlight the epistemic violence of colonialism, as in the first sentence of the lengthy historical chapter “La mariée nue de Mazouna” (“The Naked Bride of Mazuna”) in Fantasia: “El Djezaïr était, depuis quinze ans, tombée entre les mains de l'Infidèle” (“El-Djezaïr had been in the hands of the infidel for fifteen years”; 97/83). The use of the Arabic name for Algiers and of the term “Infidel” (kafir in Arabic) to refer to the French suggests an Algerian viewpoint. This can be contrasted with the earlier sentence “Or l'ennemi revient sur l'arrière” (“But the enemy slips back in the rear”; 68/56), in which the word enemy was used to refer to Arab fighters, implying a French perspective. Similarly, in Vaste the narrator subtly points to her family's alienation and difference through the contrast between the word indigène (native) in quotation marks (which indicates a French viewpoint on Algerians) and the very domestic French word for household, ménage: “Nous étions la seule famille ‘indigène’ à côté de cinq ou six ménages d'instituteurs français” (We were the only “native” family next to five or six households of French schoolteachers; 254). Within the same novel, Djebar can thus switch perspective, showing linguistically how a postcolonial consciousness inhabits different spaces, at the same time outsider and insider.

Toward the end of Fantasia, one of the women giving her testimony on the war of national liberation specifies that the French “appelaient ‘fellagha’ ceux que nous, nous appelions ‘frères’” (“called ‘fellagha’ those we called ‘brothers’”; 232/207). Two pages later, the word “les Frères” (with an added capital F) is repeated, foregrounding an anticolonialist stance (234/208). The same words are taken up again in Vaste: “des fellaghas, comme ils [les Français] disent” (fellaghas, as the French say) versus “les ‘frères,’” the word used by the narrator's freedom-fighting brother (185-86). To the negative connotations of the Arabic word used by the French, fellagha (bandit, highway robber), is opposed the French translation of the word used by the Algerians, “brothers.” The struggle for dominance between these two words enacted in Djebar's works mirrors the violent fight for independence waged by the Algerians and its successful outcome. The fact that the term used by the French is an Arabic word, and that the word used by the Algerians is given in French, suggests that the linguistic struggle is also waged within each camp.

In Fantasia Djebar draws a parallel between the guerrilla tactics of Algerian fighters of old and the struggle between the two languages within the space of her own body.

La langue française, corps et voix, s'installe en moi comme un orgueilleux préside, tandis que la langue maternelle, toute en oralité, en hardes dépenaillées, résiste et attaque, entre deux essoufflements. Le rythme du “rebato” en moi s'éperonnant, je suis à la fois l'assiégé étranger et l'autochtone partant à la mort par bravade, illusoire effervescence du dire et de l'écrit.


The French tongue, with its body and voice, has established a proud presidio within me, while the mother-tongue, all oral tradition, all rags and tatters, resists and attacks between two breathing spaces. With the rhythm of the rebato spurring me on, I am both the besieged foreigner and the native swaggering off to die, in the illusory effervescence of the spoken and written word.


This inner struggle is expressed by the irruption of several types of subterranean languages, especially Arabic traces, within the space of her writing in French.

The impossibility of completely translating one language into another is indicated very clearly in the second chapter of the second part of Fantasia, in which the narrator wonders how she can render the affectionate term of Berber origin, hannouni, which is used in her region. The French translations she offers, such as “tendre” (tender) or the neologism “tendrelou,” do not appear any more satisfactory than “mon chéri” (my darling) or “mon cœur” (my precious heart), two translations she rejects (95/80-81). In Fantasia the word hannouni can be placed in opposition to another term of love, Pilou chéri (Darling Pilou), which a young French woman had used to refer to her fiancé. Whereas hannouni connotes love in a very subtle, tactful way, Pilou chéri was experienced by the narrator, then a child, as an attack on modesty and self-restraint, especially since it was accompanied with taboo public kissing and touching (36-38/25-27). French words (and behavior) seem much too direct and coarse to express feelings of love in a way that would respect the modesty of expression the narrator was taught to value as a child. Words are vessels of an entire cultural baggage. Such directness, experienced almost as a violation, created an “aphasia of love” in her, a perceived inability to express love in French and to let love words in French touch her (142/125).14

Similarly, in Vaste the narrator cannot bring herself to use the French word for love in a conversation with her platonic lover because “ce mot français … m'aurait semblé obscène” (this French word would have seemed obscene to me; 41). She almost calls him hannouni: “Je fus sur le point de l'appeler ‘mon chéri’ en arabe, enfin, dans le dialecte de ma tribu maternelle” (I was about to call him “my darling” in Arabic, or rather, in my maternal tribe's dialect; 89). Perhaps because she could not say it to him, she only gives the French translation of the word. In Ombre, as in some of her earlier novels, Djebar also uses the translation of another, very common love word in Arabic, mon foie (my liver; 134). The literal translation renders the strong bond of love better than an equivalence such as mon cœur (my heart), which has lost the force of its literal meaning. A closer equivalent in French, which still retains some of the force of its literal meaning, may be “la prunelle de mes yeux” (“the apple of my eye”; Fantasia, 95/81).

5) Finally, some words are used in French to express Arabic words or concepts. Most of these words are connected to the female world through a network of connotations, and many of them are used in highly transgressive ways. a) Words in French are sometimes placed in quotation marks, such as justiciers (avengers; Fantasia, 21) to refer to brothers defending the family honor; lié (knotted; Ombre, 26, 89, 91/18, 82), meaning impotent; la maison (the house), used by men to refer to wife and children in dialectal oral Arabic (Fantasia, 48); lui (him), Il (He), or l'Homme (the Man), used by women in some regions to refer to their husbands.15 In Vaste the word lui has a variety of referents: sometimes the husband (311-12), the son (191), even a French boy (262); it is also used in a very transgressive manner to refer to the man with whom the married narrator is infatuated (84, 102). Similarly, while her highlighting of the word e'dou (enemy) used by women to refer to their husbands is already transgressive, Djebar goes further by also using the same word, in French with quotation marks, to refer to the French colonists (Vaste, 257-58). She underscores the parallels between the two relationships, insisting on the mixture of familiarity and enmity at work in both relationships. She thus creates a continuity between Fantasia and Vaste, focusing again on the dual theme of love within war and war at the heart of love.

In a different context, Djebar also uses the insult “Chiens, fis [sic] de chiens!” (Dogs! Sons of dogs!), the translation of kelb, a very common insult in Arab countries (it is hurled by jailed women to French soldiers in Fantasia, 66/54). In Ombre the same words are ironically flung by the abusive husband at his own son (97/87). Other examples highlight the familial and cultural connotations of most of these words, as well as their origin in oral dialectal Arabic: l'indécent (impropriety; Fantasia, 72/58) and dommage (damage), the understatement used to refer to rape (Fantasia, 226/202). The fact that rape is unsaid and unspoken is revealed linguistically by the absence of the Arabic word in the text (Case, 46) and by the profusion of French translations of Arabic understatements used to circumvent the term, such as dommage, blessure (wound), and “J'ai subi la France” (“I was subjected to ‘France’”; Fantasia, 226/202).

Nue (naked) is another recurring word, which is used to mean “unveiled.”16 In Vaste the word dénudée (denuded) is employed to refer to the young narrator, when her mother takes off the protective Quranic amulets she was wearing over her European school clothes so the French girls do not ridicule her when she has to undress in school (287-88). The mother does not realize that for the little girl, having the protection of the amulets ensures that she will not feel unveiled, even when undressed, whereas without them, she feels “dépouillée,” “dénudée” (stripped, denuded; 288). Ironically, it is her mother, who is supposed to guard her daughter's honor, who performs this stripping gesture.

Similarly, the verb sortir (to go out) is put in quotation marks to point to the added layers of meaning the word takes on in the original Arabic (Ombre, 27, 51/19, 43). In Vaste the narrator explains that the word connotes something different for men and for women: while it is linked to religious practice for men, it announces danger and transgression for women in dialectal Arabic (284-85). One can measure the extent of the transgression operated by the narrator's body, in motion, outside, in a sentence that brings together three of these overdetermined words, sortir, lire, and nue (to go out, to read, naked): “Elle sort, elle lit, elle va ainsi dans les villes, nue, son père, étrange, lui permet” (She goes out, she reads, she goes into the cities this way, naked; strangely, her father lets her; Vaste, 278). The staccato rhythm of the sentence emulates that of the narrator's fast walking outside and that of the other women she imagines gossiping about her.

When the narrator's mother explains why her daughter is not yet veiled by saying “elle lit” (she reads; Fantasia, 203/179-80), meaning “she studies” in regional Arabic, Djebar is also referring to the order given to the Prophet Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel, “Iqra!” (Read!), the order that founds Islam (Erickson, 309). Writing in French allows Djebar to make a highly subversive association between the sacred text of the Quran and her own, one that may have been too transgressive if made in the sacred language, Arabic (Mehrez, 131). French provides the linguistic and emotional distance, and therefore a more neutral space, making the association possible (Djebar, “Langue,” 16-17).

b) French words expressing Arabic concepts may also be used without any quotation marks. At first glance, these words may appear to be simply French. However, they translate cultural concepts important in the Arab world. These concepts have become more or less familiar to a French readership because of the media's popularization of ethnographic and sociological works. For example, the word honte (shame) is used in Fantasia in a dialogue in which it stands alone in the sentence, as an exclamation (49). This follows the structure of Arabic rather than French—the French form would be “quelle honte” or “c'est une honte!” (what a shame, it's really shameful).17 Djebar is inserting the trace of oral Arabic in her text in French, making it a palimpsest; the word takes on an added meaning as it comes to refer not only to the French concept of shame, but also to the Arabic one of hichmâ, the shame and loss of face brought onto a family, especially by one of its female members. The word also means “pudeur” (Chebel, 198), a concept which, interestingly, has no equivalent in English (a mixture of modesty, decency, propriety, discretion, and chastity). The concept, which is one of the virtues expected of Muslim women, recurs very often in Djebar's texts.18 Finally, the narrator sometimes highlights the Arabic root of a word, in order to explain its deeper meaning to a French audience that may only be aware of its figurative meaning: such is the case with “le harem, c'est-à-dire l'interdit” (“the harem, that is to say, what is forbidden”; Fantasia, 145/128).

Djebar not only deterritorializes the French language through the lexical and syntactic presence of Arabic. She creates a very rich language of writing by selecting extremely unusual and literary French words. This is especially true of the historical passages in Fantasia and Vaste, in which she uses arcane and specialized vocabulary, such as gabier (seaman), diane (reveille; Fantasia, 24/14), or cénotaphe (cenotaph, a monument to the dead; Vaste, 131). In Fantasia she models her style on the bombastic syntax of the French archives, whereas in the third part of the novel she keeps to the plain, even colloquial form of expression of the women testifying. For example, she retains their use of la France (France) for the French.19 Djebar often favors highly poetic and uncommon words such as (all from Fantasia) sistre (sistrum; 125/109), apophyse superfétatoire (supererogatory protuberances; 56/45), otalgie (earache), cinabre (cinnibar; 92/78), and, in one poetic passage, “Mots coulis, tisons délités, diorites” (“Molten words, splintered firestones, diorites”; 125/109). Such sophisticated vocabulary serves both to enrich her works and to decenter all her readers, since none of them can sustain the illusion of having complete mastery over the texts.

The complex syntax, the almost Proustian sentences with their many subordinate, coordinate, and juxtaposed clauses, also contribute to the difficulty in reading—and even more so in translating—Djebar. The fragmented narratives with their shifts in narrative voice, the nonchronological and intertwined story lines, the rewriting of historical events with which most French readers will not be familiar, all add to the complexity of her literary style. Yet, at the same time, the reading flows beautifully, and the presence of a large number of Arabic words in the text does not hamper the reading for non-arabophones. The language of writing becomes multiple, what Khatibi and others call a “code tiers” (third code; 188). French takes on a slightly foreign ring for native French readers, as Djebar pushes it beyond its limits. In her hands, it welcomes Arabic words and concepts, as she reterritorializes French to make it more hospitable for arabophone readers: “C'était … la sonorité de la langue maternelle que je tenais à retrouver constamment dans la chair de la langue française” (I was keen on constantly re-creating the sounds of the maternal tongue within the flesh of the French language; Djebar, in Gauvin, 30). Djebar's texts linguistically enact the alternative space she is trying to create in literature. French is stretched and modified, inhabited by traces of other languages, until it becomes able to inscribe a postcolonial, feminist Algerian perspective. As her writing becomes a palimpsest of different languages, Djebar achieves what Khatibi calls “l'extraordinaire”—that is, “d'écrire en quelque sorte à plusieurs mains, plusieurs langues dans un texte qui ne soit qu'une perpétuelle traduction” (to write as it were with several hands, with several languages, in a text that becomes a perpetual translation; 205).


  1. “I consider that the French language translates us infinitely more than it betrays us.” Mouloud Mammeri, cited in Déjeux, p. 122.

  2. “Je consens à cette bâtardise, au seul métissage que la foi ancestrale ne condamne pas: celui de la langue et non celui du sang.” Assia Djebar, Fantasia, pp. 161/142.

  3. “I often consider the question of language to be the main problem for North African literature in French. I would say—and some will take this as a provocation—that we must arabicize French, under one condition: we must do it beautifully, or, in other words, poetically.” Assia Djebar, “Romancier,” p. 119.

  4. For Achebe, postcolonial nations, as well as the continued use of the language of the former colonizer, are part of one and the same process. Those who reject postcolonial literature in the former colonial languages should therefore also reject postcolonial nation-states. For Ngũgĩ, in contrast, language is the vehicle of an entire people's culture; as such, colonial languages can only convey what Spivak calls the epistemic violence of colonialism and foster alienation. Ngũgĩ considers that the works of writers such as Achebe do not qualify as African literature, but rather Afro-European literature (and these are fighting words!). In other postcolonial contexts such as India, the use of the former colonial language as a medium of literary expression is not quite as politically fraught, English having become one of the two national languages. However, issues of audience, class elitism, and global access remain at the forefront.

  5. For example, in a 1994 colloquium with six francophone writers of Arab descent at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, the Moroccan writer Driss Chraibi quipped that, rather than viewing himself as a Maghrebian writer of French expression (the common terminology used in France), he was a French writer of Maghrebian expression. The question of language also extends to literary critics, who may do well to reflect on their own language of writing and intended audience before attacking postcolonial writers, as Wole Soyinka reminds us (Katrak, 157). Since my own knowledge of Arabic is rather limited, I recognize that I cannot grasp all the nuances of Djebar's texts. Having waited in vain for a multilingual critic to analyze the question of language in Djebar's works, I finally offer these preliminary conclusions in the hope that they will attract other scholars' interest in the topic. I thank Farida Abu-Haidar for her help with Arabic. I am grateful to her, Jael Silliman, and Dominique Licops for their comments and suggestions.

  6. Pages 204, 207-8/180-81, 183-84.

  7. The only book to display a few footnotes is Loin de Médine, Djebar's fictional rewriting of the presence of women in early Islam (5, 6, 62, 78, 304).

  8. Zabus terms this type of translation within the text “cushioning” (158); Ashcroft et al. call it “glossing” (61).

  9. See Ombre, pp. 20/12; also, in Vaste, 331: “‘Isma’: ‘le nom’” (Isma: the name). Djebar's interpretation of Isma is somewhat stretched. The name means “high” or “lofty,” and comes from the root s-m-u, whereas the word ism (name) comes from the root s-m-y (Abu Haidar, personal communication, July 1998).

  10. This is what Chantal Zabus calls “contextualization” (158).

  11. The word is sometimes rendered by Djebar as saroual, sarouel, or sroual, highlighting the instability of the transliteration due to the difference in vowel sounds between Arabic and French and to the fact that vowels are usually not written in Arabic. In Ombre, the novel that includes the smallest amount of words in Arabic of all the books studied here, the words saroual and haïk appear in italics (52, 68, 111; 25, 27, 39-40, 42, 80). In Vaste the words zaouia and roumi (discussed below) also appear in italics (194, 204; 231).

  12. Some of these words (djebel, oued, and douar in particular) became familiar to a French audience during the Algerian war of liberation (1954-62).

  13. The word is placed in italics in Vaste (258).

  14. Furthermore, the danger of death involved in translation in the context of the colonial wars is repeatedly thematized in Fantasia (44, 52-53, 239-43/33, 41-42, 213-17).

  15. See Chebel, p. 199; Fantasia, pp. 46, 123-24; Ombre, pp. 36, 54; 16, 24, 26, 67; 9, 15, 43, 51, 91, 143-44, 147, 159. This practice also exists in other totally unrelated communities, including among older working-class people in France and the U.K. In Japan, where personal pronouns are not usually used, one specifies “he” or “she” to refer to one's boyfriend or girlfriend (Satomi Saito, personal conversation, April 1999).

  16. See Fantasia, pp. 115-16, 178/100, 157; Ombre, 35, 40-41, 95-96, 97/26, 31-32, 86, 88. The Arabic word for “naked/unveiled” is zonta.

  17. Or in French teenage street usage, “[Oh] la honte!” (Oh, the shame!). This use of the syntax of the mother tongue in a text in a second language is what Zabus, after Loreto Todd, names “relexification” (101), and what Ashcroft et al. call “syntactic fusion” (68). A similar use of the word honte occurs in Ombre: “Honte, ma mère!” (“Shame, mother!”; 55/47).

  18. See Fantasia, pp. 46, 49, 76, 123, 142; Ombre, pp. 280, 306; Vaste, pp. 22, 112, 121, 134. Toward the end of Fantasia, in the same chapter as “elle lit” (she reads), the word is used in quotation marks to refer to the young girl's feelings about wearing shorts in gym class: “une ‘honte’ de femme arabe” (an Arab woman's “shame”; 202/179). The quotation marks and the reference to being an Arab woman indicate that there is more to the concept than the French meaning of shame and point back to the layered meaning of the word in earlier parts of the book as well.

  19. See Fantasia, pp. 133, 166, 195, 226, 231/117, 146, 173, 202, 206; Vaste, p. 235.

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Katrak, Ketu H. “Decolonizing Culture: Toward a Theory for Postcolonial Women's Texts.” Modern Fiction Studies, 35:1 (Spring 1989), pp. 157-79.

Khatibi, Abdelkebir. Amour bilingue. Saint-Clement-la-Rivière, Fr. Fata Morgana. 1983.

———. “Bilinguisme et littérature.” In Maghreb pluriel. Paris. Denoël. 1983. Pp. 179-207.

Marx-Scouras, Danielle. “The Poetics of Maghrebine Illegitimacy.” L'Esprit Créateur, 26:1 (Spring 1986), pp. 3-10.

Meddeb, Abdelwahab. “Le Palimpseste du bilingue: Ibn ‘Arabi et Dante.’” In Du bilinguisme. Bennani et al., eds. Paris. Denoël. 1985. Pp. 125-40.

Mehrez, Samia. “Translation and the Postcolonial Experience: The Francophone North African Text.” In Rethinking Translation: Discourse, Subjectivity, Ideology. Lawrence Venuti, ed. London. Routledge. 1992. Pp. 120-38.

Memmi, Albert. 1957. Portrait du colonisé, suivi du portrait du colonisateur. Paris. Gallimard. 1985.

Mernissi, Fatima. Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. Reading, Ma. Addison-Wesley. 1994.

———. Rêves de femmes: Contes d'enfance au harem. Claudine Richetin, tr. Paris. Albin Michel. 1996. Reissued in Casablanca by Fennec in 1997.

Mortimer, Mildred. “Assia Djebar's Algerian Quartet: A Study in Fragmented Autobiography.” Research in African Literatures, 28:2 (Summer 1997), pp. 102-17.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o. “The Language of African Literature.” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, eds. New York. Columbia University Press. 1994. Pp. 435-55.

Zabus, Chantal. The African Palimpsest: Indigenization of Language in the West African Europhone Novel. Amsterdam. Rodopi. 1991.

Adrian V. Fielder (essay date winter 2000)

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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, géologie sanguinolente. … Et mon corps tintinnabule du long éboulement des générations-aïeules.

[To read this writing, I must turn my body inside out, plunge my face into the shadows, scrutinize the vaulted roof of rock or chalk, lend an ear to the whispers that rise up from time out of mind, this blood-slaked geology. … And my body reverberates with the long landslide of generations from my lineage.]

—Djebar, L'amour, la fantasia

What is to be deviates no jot from the book wherein it's writ. How could it? It would be a false book and a false book is no book at all.

—Judge Holden, from Blood Meridian

In recent years, literary studies has begun to theorize the manifold ways in which the writing of history comes to be enmeshed within the complex texturology of political realities circumventing its locus of production. Part of this effort has been concerned with investigating the conditions under which the writing of history may reinforce, or at times disrupt, the mechanisms that enable those realities to gain their affective force and thus to legitimize their status as “realities” in the first place. As has been amply demonstrated by Hayden White and others, Western historiography as we know it today was conceived toward the end of the eighteenth century and flourished throughout the nineteenth,1 and as such it was a product and extension of those social processes that had consolidated the power of the modern nation-state. This same period, of course, was witness to the global spread of European colonialism, and thus also to those gargantuan ideological efforts contemporary critics have conceptualized as colonial meaning-production: a complex set of operations mobilizing various socio-political apparati of the burgeoning nation-state—not the least of which was historiography.

In order to put a name to the nation-state's appropriation of historiography in the actualization and subsequent justification of its own expansionist projections (or more precisely, to designate a set of processes of which that appropriation is an integral part), I have adapted the term “scriptural economy” from Michel de Certeau. In his work Arts de faire,2 de Certeau adopts the classic distinction between “strategies” and “tactics”—originally developed in the art of warfare—and applies it to a theorization of all manner of cultural practices. According to this formulation, social institutions can be seen as strategically-oriented “subjects of collective will” attempting to maintain territorial control over a contested space by inscribing their own order(s)—whether linguistic, spatial, technological—on the targeted area. By procuring and maintaining a “proper” place of its own (un espace propre) from which it can incorporate individuals into its own established networks, “[this scriptural enterprise] transforms or retains within itself what it receives from its outside and creates internally the instruments for an appropriation of the external space. … Combining the power of accumulating the past and that of making the alterity of the universe conform to its models, it is capitalist and conquering” (135). As de Certeau asserts, human subjects are reified by this strategic process in accordance with an entirely utilitarian logic: the body of any individual (or the land of any “foreign” region) not assimilated into this scriptural economy is seen as a blank page on which “the writing machine of the law” attempts to inscribe a sign of its own production, “so as to turn it into a symbol of the Other, something said, called, named” (140).

In this way, the scriptural enterprise attempts to compose a binding textual system in which human subjects are mobilized as signifiers with “fixed,” stabilized meanings. Like Nietzsche's metaphor of the “Roman columbarium,” this semiotic order is a conceptual edifice in which a certain vision of society (and of the world) is constructed through a hierarchical system of representations and classifications.3 From this perspective, the practice of historiography can be understood as a distinctly strategic operation.4 Indeed, the writing of history assumes an interior locus, such as the page itself, or the archives from which it accumulates information: a site of discourse on which it represents its own past while simultaneously ensuring its continuation into the future by colonizing and transforming the external (or what de Certeau rather ambiguously defines as “orality”).

Yet my intention in this paper is not to examine the machinations of this scriptural economy within historical representations of the colonial period, but rather to continue an analytic effort which has only recently begun within literary studies: that is, to investigate the narrative strategies by which contemporary writers—unwitting litagees of those colonial histories that blazoned the way toward our current world order—may attempt to subvert the received narratives granted legitimacy by “official” history.5 A productive starting point for such an analysis is provided by Hayden White's identification of the two main structuring mechanisms of historical writing. His formulation distinguishes between “a historical discourse that narrates, on the one side, and a discourse that narrativizes, on the other; between a discourse that openly adopts a perspective that looks out on the world and reports it and a discourse that feigns to make the world speak itself and speak itself as a story.6 Whereas the narrativizing discourse is limited to the past tense and must use the third person voice (except in dialogue), the narrating discourse operates under fewer constraints and thus may employ the first person (as well as its implied second-person addressee), various adverbs of time, and even present and future tenses. These two modes of discourse, then, are based primarily on linguistic/grammatical criteria, but they can also be identified by the former's feigned semblance of “objectivity” and the latter's construction of a “subjectivity.” If the act of narrativizing strives to conceal any trace of an authorial consciousness perceiving and interpreting “events” of the story, the narrating discourse insists on foregrounding the process of mediation by which an “I” comes to tell the story—and thus highlights the positionality of its own interpretation.

White does not mean to imply, of course, that elements of both discursive modes may not be present in the same text. The distinction is productive because it identifies two extremes of an entire spectrum of representational techniques in relation to which a given “historical narrative” may be analyzed. It should be noted, however, that we may read inscribed within this conceptual framework a certain species of poststructuralist suspicion concerning the “truth claims” made by putatively objectivist historical accounts. Given the tendency among state-sanctioned historians, especially in the first century and a half of Western historiography, to privilege the narrativizing end of the spectrum (with Michelet, perhaps, standing as the penultimate example of this way of writing history), such a suspicion is certainly not unfounded. Since history actually “happens” within a field of infinite complexity characterized by the simultaneity of interwoven narratives (what Carlyle calls the “chaos of Being”), the act of narrativizing historical events, White points out, necessitates a radical reduction of that complexity. It is thus through the exclusion of other narratives, and a simultaneous insistence that “it was this way” and not any other, that teleological, self-justifying fictions of national and/or ethnic belonging (or “rootedness”) come to be constructed: a narrativized territorialization enacted by what Deleuze and Guattari call the “sedentary view of history.”7

Yet I would like to suggest that this conceptual spectrum risks losing sight of the full range of discursive tactics available to contemporary authors endeavoring to intervene in the process whereby sedentary (or territorialized) interpretations of history are propagated. Writers may attempt this project, I argue, not simply by representing or analyzing the machinations involved in the construction of national narratives (an effect capable of being produced, ostensibly, only by the narrating end of White's spectrum), but also by performing or mimicking—through the very act of narrativizing—that radical reduction of the historical field subtending any teleological version of history. In order to illustrate how narrative strategies at both ends of White's spectrum may be employed to achieve similar effects, the present essay performs a comparison of two recent novels which both attempt to destabilize the process which I will call the “scriptural economy of imperialism.” Both novels appeared the same year (1985) and have both been considered “historical novels” insofar as they incorporate events reported to have occurred between 1830-1850. American Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West situates itself on the Mexican-American border during the years following the war between those two young nations, and Algerian Assia Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia treats the military campaigns concomitant with the French colonial conquest of Algeria.8

At first glance, the categories White proposes seem to map rather neatly on our texts. Although McCarthy drew on over 250 nineteenth-century sources to write Blood Meridian, nowhere in the text is there any indication of an historiographic enterprise. Indeed, it simply tells the story of an unidentified fourteen-year-old boy referred to as “the kid,” who leaves his Tennessee home and becomes embroiled in the rapacious violence of the American frontier. With the exception of the year of the kid's birth (1833) and his arrival in Texas (1849), no dates are provided to the reader, and the narrative voice remains in the third person and the past tense throughout most of the novel.9 By contrast, Djebar continually interrupts her narration of past events, drawing attention to the documents at her disposal, their dates of publication and archival locations, the language in which they are written, and even biographical information about their authors. The first two sections of L'amour, la fantasia alternate between historical chapters representing the French conquest and apparently autobiographical ones in which she incorporates events of her own life—events that allow her not only to emphasize her identity as a female descendent of those Algerians subjugated by the invasion, but also to draw parallels between the historical period under investigation and the contemporary “postcolonial” one in which she writes. The nineteenth-century events she includes span a period of fifteen years (from the “taking” of Algiers in 1830 to the 1845 massacre of the Ouled Riah [a rebel Berber tribe of the interior]), and while they are ordered more or less chronologically, they in no way constitute a comprehensive overview of the French invasion (in fact, according to some observers, Algeria was not completely “pacified” for at least another twenty-five years after the slaughter of the Ouled Riah). In the third and final section, the narration of the conquest is abandoned completely, and the chapters about the French invasion are replaced by transcribed (and translated) oral testimonies of Algerian women who participated in the final revolution against colonial rule (the war which ended in 1962 with a death toll of one million Algerians).

On one level, the very different narrative strategies employed in each novel can be understood as reflecting its author's particular relation to the practice of historiography. Djebar was trained as an historian, and her four novels written before L'amour, la fantasia all treat historical events in one way or another. McCarthy had also written four novels before Blood Meridian, but he had remained first and foremost a fiction writer. However, despite the radically different ways in which Djebar and McCarthy incorporate primary source material into their novels, both authors write in the language subsequently imposed on the territories that constitute the setting of their works, and yet they both work to subvert the process by which the inherited scriptural economy comes to inform the writing of history. Whereas Djebar attempts to subvert this “over-writing” process by emphasizing the temporal layering and essential interconnectedness of different historical moments, Blood Meridian actually performs this scriptural imposition—but performs it in such a way that the very foundations of historical representation are revealed to be a constructed and violently imposed fiction.

On some levels, the juxtaposition of these two works may seem incongruous or even counterproductive. Since the difference in geographical scope between American expansion and European (particularly British and French) imperialism during the nineteenth century is so great, and since the westward diffusion of American hegemony was not envisioned by most U.S. policy-makers in exactly the same terms as those in which European powers conceived of their respective imperial projections, it would be both fallacious and irresponsible to equate unproblematically the realization of Manifest Destiny with the contemporaneous spread of European colonial power throughout the globe. Nevertheless, a number of similarities may be observed between the Anglo conquest of the American West and the French invasion of Algeria. First, both sites were imagined by the power structures spearheading each campaign as “natural” territorial extensions of the metropolitan “center” (i.e., France and the U. S. Eastern Seaboard).10 Second, the colonization of both regions required the invading power to wrest control not only from another imperial presence already established there (the Republic of Mexico in the American West, and the Ottoman Empire in Algeria),11 but also from indigenous tribes engaged in varying degrees of struggle with those previous imperial powers.12 Third, and most important in relation to McCarthy's and Djebar's novels, both “victories” enabled the systematic imposition of the linguistic structures of the invaders (particularly through implanted educational systems) on the conquered territories and their inhabitants.13

However, my intention here is neither to argue that these two arenas of nineteenth-century history are analogous, nor to examine the texts at hand in the light of social/historical “realities” which are themselves also textually mediated. Rather, I am concerned strictly with the representational strategies deployed by each author in order to describe the mechanisms by which imperial expansion operates in each location. What I will try to demonstrate, then, is that: (1) the French conquest of Algeria and the Anglo conquest of the American West are represented in these two texts as processes enabled by the imposition (and subsequent maintenance) of a scriptural economy on the terrains targeted for expansion; and that (2) each novel attempts (with radically different narrative techniques) to subvert the historical legacies of these conquests precisely through strategic and/or tactical interventions in the (scriptural) practice of historiography.


From the beginning of L'amour, la fantasia, Djebar stresses the central role played by scriptural representation in both the military conquest of Algeria and the subsequent justification of French colonial occupation. She describes the first military confrontation, the taking of Algiers in 1830, as a moment at which two contrasting “styles” enter into violent conflict. On one level, these styles are literally embodied by the different maneuvers executed by each army. The Algerians, despite the fact that they have a strategic stronghold within the walled city itself, employ on the battlefield a series of tactical maneuvers characterized by alternating advances and retreats, and punctuated by abrupt pauses. By contrast, the French refuse to step onto African soil until they know they can establish a base of operations, un espace propre on the enemy's terrain from which subsequent advances may be strategically planned. Djebar explicitly describes this military style (in the absurd “slapstick” theater of war) as a form of graphic inscription, through which the invading army prevails by “imprinting” its own style on the bodies of the attacked: “Chaque victoire de l'envahisseur imprime sur chaque victime atteinte son style de farce discordante” [“Each victory of the invader imprints on each attacked victim his discordant farcical style”] (25).14

This first wave of violence succeeds in conquering “the Impenetrable City” and sets the stage for the subsequent invasion of the country's interior by an ensemble of colonizing mechanisms transplanted to Algerian soil from France: “l'armée précédant les marchands, suivis de leurs employés en opération; leurs machines de liquidation et d'exécution sont déjà mises en place” [“after the army come the merchants and soon their employees are hard at work, their machinery for liquidation and execution already in place”] (56). The first of these mechanisms is “la machine infernale de Gutenberg”: a printing press ordered by J. T. Merle, a Parisian theater director hoping to profit from the conflict by chronicling the first victories of the French army. As Djebar documents, while Merle awaits the arrival of the press, he dreams of being the first European to establish “ce formidable levier de la civilisation … sur le sol africain” [“this formidable lever of civilization … on the African soil”] (45). The entrepreneur's fantasy hinges on this most utilitarian metaphor: the lever embodies for Merle the role which the mass-produced written word can and should play in that master narrative of imperial justification—la mission civilisatrice. In his formulation, the locus of writing quite explicitly becomes the fulcrum from which the entire African continent will be conquered, and as Djebar tells us in the future tense, “Le mot luimême … deviendra l'arme par excellence” [“The word itself … will become the ultimate weapon”] (56).

In the ensuing months after the capture of the capital city, Algeria is flooded by representatives of a whole host of institutions which Edward Said has identified as the creators and propagators of a vast epistemological enterprise known as “Orientalism.”15 As Said suggests, the Orientalist project proceeds in the modern age on claims to scientific objectivity, but most often, those cultural and geographic spaces reified as objects of study at a given historical moment have been thus privileged because of specific political or economic interests located in Western institutions of power. In this light, we can also understand the utilitarian logic motivating the army of “interprètes, géographes, ethnographes, linguistes, botanistes, docteurs divers et écrivains de profession” [“interpreters, geographers, ethnographers, linguists, botanists, various doctors and professional writers”], which Djebar describes descending from French academies following the “opening” of Algeria, “s'abatt[ant] sur la nouvelle proie” [“swoop[ing] down on the new prey”] (56). The cultural, linguistic, topographical, and ecological complexities of the newly-conquered territory—epitomized by the episode in which the French army's Arabic and Turkish interpreters are unable to understand the colloquial speech of their interlocutors during the first “parleys” with the native residents of Algiers (44-45)—become the foci of scientific investigation insofar as they make the zones targeted for imperial expansion into “un désert d'ambiguïté” [“a desert of ambiguity”] (45) for the invading forces. The radical heterogeneity of the Algerian landscape, then, must be scripturally and cartographically mapped out, translated into institutional languages as strategically functional knowledge for the colonizing presence.

The tidal wave of scriptural enterprises accompanying the military conquest of Algeria also produces in its wake a number of written “reports” which claim to record the most significant events of the “victory.” In addition to the accounts published by Merle's printing press, many of the commanding officers of the French army—seized by “une fièvre scripturaire” [“a scriptural fever”] (56)—compose a startling amount of memoirs only months after Algiers has fallen into French control. Djebar insists on drawing our attention to the documents that represent to her the “story” she then narrates to us as historiographer; and she names this second invasion, that of writing, with some rather powerful metaphorics. The written testimonies of those who “witnessed” the conquest threaten to bury the lived experience of the vanquished beneath “la fosse commune de l'oubli” [“the mass grave of oblivion”] (50). Together with the texts produced by the Orientalist project, they constitute an organic protuberance, projected forth from the metropolitan “center” in order to eclipse from view the ignominious violence of historical “truth”: “Toute une pyramide d'écrits amoncelés en apophyse occultera la violence initiale” [“An entire pyramid of writings, like a grotesque apophysis, will eclipse the initial violence from view”] (56). The form of writing which enables and then legitimizes colonial domination, Djebar seems to suggest, is a monologic economy of the sign, one which attempts to inscribe itself on the page of “official history” by effacing the characters already engraved there, and by constructing a monumental edifice on top of those preexisting forms.

However, as Carlyle first formulates in his essay “On History” (1820), Djebar reminds us that history is in fact a palimpsest,16 on which the traces of previous narratives, while covered over by the signs of more recent inscriptions, are never completely lost.17 Immediately preceding the second section of the book—in which Djebar will explore written testimonies of the Algerian campaign, “couchés dans des volumes perdus aujourd'hui dans des bibliothèques” [“tucked away in tomes now lost in libraries”] (70)—comes a chapter entitled “Biffure” (“Crossing-Out,” or “Over-Writing”). The historian here enters a dark, cavernous space where she discovers “images érodées” [“eroded images”] which flake away from “la roche du Temps” [“the rock of Time”] to reveal previously hidden layers: “Des lettres de mots français se profilent … contre les parois des cavernes, dans l'aura des flammes d'incendies successifs, tatouant les visages disparus de diaprures rougeoyantes” [“Letters of French words are etched … on the cave walls, licked by the flames of successive fires, tattooing disappeared faces with bloodied splotches”] (58). At the same time that the flames foreshadow the fires of merciless “fumigations” which will be described in the next section, the glimmering faces tattooed with French letters resonate with the metaphor which first describes the conquest of Algeria as a bodily inscription: like the indigenous people imprinted by the invading enemy's “style,” these mottled faces have been crossed out, “over-written” by an alien chirography.

Crossed out, but not erased. In the same way Derrida observes the transubstantiation of incinerated wood—which in the form of ashes represents precisely its absence18—the vanished faces of a vanquished people, while no longer immediately present (“disappeared”), nevertheless articulate themselves as signs of another language, (in)tangible traces refracted through the lived experience of atrocity: “l'inscription du texte étranger se renverse dans le miroir de la souffrance, me proposant son double évanescent en lettres arabes, de droite à gauche redévidés” [“the inscription of the foreign text reverses itself in the mirror of suffering, offering its luminous double in Arabic letters, writ now from right to left”] (58). Playing on the different levels of meaning which intersect in the notion of the palimpsest, Djebar reveals her primary strategies of historiographic research: “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 géologie sanguinolente. … et mon corps tintinnabule du long éboulement des générations-aïeules” [“To read this writing, I must lean back, plunge my face into the shadows, scrutinize the vaulted roof of rock or chalk, lend an ear to the whispers that rise up from time out of mind, this blood-slaked geology. … and my body reverberates with the long landslide of generations from my lineage”] (58). In order to decipher this “underside” of recorded history, Djebar suggests, she must first scrupulously examine the most minute details etched into “the rock of Time” in order to then allow her own body—and her own text—to reverberate with the forgotten whispers of her dead ancestors.

In the second section of her book, Djebar seems to explore the possibilities presented by the first of these two strategies of historiography: that of interpreting the traces of lost narratives buried beneath those inscriptions superimposed on the palimpsest of history. During the course of investigating accounts written by officers of the invading army, she discovers that, “Parmi ces relations fiévreuses, des scories surnagent” [“Among these feverous reports loom subterranean lava flows”] (68). While the authors of these reports impose the forms of their own language on the historical “reality” they observe, the atrocities wrought by conquest, like molten lava hidden beneath layers of scriptural apophysis, nevertheless emerge (at certain times) to disturb an otherwise placid surface of writing. A woman's foot dismembered from the leg so as to expedite the pillaging of an anklet once proudly worn thereon; seven female cadavers executed for hurling insults at the arriving troops: these “details,” mentioned so casually by Captain Bosquet, manage to “show themselves” within the representational space of his account as monstrous traces of other narratives over-written (but not erased) by his own writing—“malgré l'auteur du récit, comme des scrofules de son style” [“despite the author's intentions, like scrofulous excretions of his style”] (68).

In order to recover these buried narratives and recuperate them for the present, Djebar insinuates herself into the institutional space of the French colonial archives, where the horrific cries of the past lay entombed. This work of exhumation takes on a double meaning when she recounts a series of military clashes between the French imperial army and the Algerian resistance in 1845. Djebar chooses to highlight one of these episodes, which comes to her through a report written by Colonel Pélissier. After having been pursued by Pélissier's outfit for a number of weeks through the mountains of the Dahra Massif, a group of Berber rebels take refuge in a system of caverns which have served such purposes for their tribe numerous times in the past. Fires are lit by the French army at the mouth of the caverns and fueled for two days. Soon smoke has filled the cavern system, and the entire tribe has been exterminated.

After Djebar recounts the fumigation in full detail, she reflects on her role as a historiographer of this episode. Confounding the distinction between the archives (as the site where this story is buried in documents) and the caverns (where the bodies of her ancestors are literally buried), she describes the research process as “une spéléologie bien particulière” [“a very particular kind of spelunking”] (91). The French words in which the event is represented are qualified as “arêtes,” a word that can mean both “bones” and “ridges” (as on a hill or mountain). Thus, even as they sketch the contours of the topography she explores (the entrance to the caverns is at the top of a ridge), the testimonies she reads as historian become for her the very ossified remains of these people for whom no funeral services have been held. Her discovery of this story allows her to enact a complete upheaval of the historical palimpsest—in both the geological and the scriptural senses of the word. Narratives once hidden and buried can now be excavated, revealed as entire landscapes to be investigated, remembered, and mourned: “Le paysage tout entier, les montagnes du Dahra, les falaises crayeuses, les vallonnements aux vergers brûlés s'inversent pour se recomposer dans les antres funèbres. Les victimes pétrifiées deviennent à leur tour montagnes et vallées” [“The entire landscape, the mountains of Dahra, the chalky cliffs, the valleys with their burned orchards become inverted and reconstituted in the funeral caves. The petrified victims in turn become mountains and valleys themselves”] (93). She even expresses a certain gratitude toward Pélissier for having frankly recounted the entire drama as it “really” happened, because it is precisely his narration which allows her to perform this exhumation through her own act of writing: “je reçois ce palimpseste pour y inscrire à mon tour la passion calcinée des ancêtres” [“I receive this palimpsest so as to inscribe it in turn with the charred passion of my ancestors”] (93).

Throughout the rest of her book, Djebar further elaborates on this notion that it is precisely by writing that she hopes to accomplish this upheaval of the historical landscape. For example, the title of the second section's final chapter, “Sistre,” designates a specific type of Egyptian percussion instrument, a word that comes from the Greek root seiein (“to shake”), which, incidentally, is also the root for seismos (“earthquake”). Collapsed into this one word seiein, we have a prototype for the power of scriptural polysemia: a signifier of a corporeal movement which, if allowed to resonate etymologically, produces both immaterial vibration (of sound waves) and geological cataclysm. This movement then becomes a central metaphor of the third and final section, in which the human voice continually elicits communication with the past. In the first chapter of the third section, the autobiographical narrator is seized by a scream which she cannot repress: “la voix explose. Libère en flux toutes les scories du passé” [“the voice explodes. Lets flow all the magma of the past”] (131). If the resurfacing of the word “scories” (“underground lava flows,” or “magma”) alerts us that what is released with the scream might have some connection to the dismembered foot and female cadavers that mottled the otherwise elegant style of Captain Bosquet's account of the conquest, it also announces that the gruesome traces of such lost narratives are not marginalized, but rather privileged, within Djebar's own text.

Throughout the final section, Djebar attempts this expurgation of the “scories” of the past by including the oral testimonies of three different women, each telling a story of resistance during the Algerian War. While Djebar breaks from the conventional practice of historiography by incorporating oral sources into her account, she stresses that her gesture may find articulation only by way of written signifiers. Yet, she maintains that transcribing the voice is far from a paradox, that it is rather a subversive strategy for recording history in such a way that it writes from the body instead of on it: “Ecrire ne tue pas la voix, mais la réveille, surtout pour ressusciter tant de sœurs disparues” [“Writing does not kill the voice, but rather awakens it, especially to resuscitate so many lost sisters”] (229).

For Djebar, then, it seems that the attempt to subvert the “over-writing” process described in the first part of the book calls for another kind of writing: an economy of écriture that constantly foregrounds the scriptural mediation inherent in the historiographic process, and one that emphasizes the essential interconnectedness of different historical moments by refusing to impose its own narratological (and teleological) order on the moments it describes. …

If the gesture of narrativizing the rapacious violence of the American frontier seems to place Blood Meridian at odds with L'amour, la fantasia on a formal level, the effect produced is the same: both McCarthy and Djebar succeed in exposing not only the strategic role played by scriptural representation in the subjugation of territories targeted for colonial expansion—but also the ideological work done by narrativizing modes of historical discourse in the subsequent legitimation of the national myths articulated through that imperial control. Whereas Djebar attempts to subvert this “over-writing” process (biffure) by emphasizing the palimpsestic layering of different historical moments and then by excavating various narratives marginalized within received versions of Algeria's colonial past, Blood Meridian actually performs this scriptural imposition on a narrative itself exhumed from beneath the apophysis of the historical record—but performs it in such a way that the very foundations of historical representation are revealed to be a constructed and violently imposed fiction. If literary studies is to account for the full range of approaches contemporary writers may adopt in attempting to undermine those prevailing views of the past propagated by “official” history, it would do well to continue in its search for experimental discursive strategies which challenge the narrative conventions crystallized with the rise of the novel as the preeminent national literary form. Yet it must be emphasized, in homage to Lukács,19 that the form we now know as the modern historical novel itself emerged as a scathingly polemical commentary on the politics of its age—even as state historians were narrativizing the great national myths. Aside from this historical fact, however, there is the intuitive glue that might be said to subtend literary studies as a field of intellectual inquiry in the first place: a suspicion that the art of storytelling, while it has indeed been put into the service of erecting monolithic monuments to state power, has also been—in all ages as in our own—one of the most powerful hermeneutic tools with which to deconstruct the extant edifice of sanctioned “truths”: the architecture of Nietzsche's “Roman columbarium.”


  1. Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1973).

  2. Michel de Certeau, Arts de faire, Vol. 1 of L'invention du quotidien, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (Paris: Gallimard, 1990). Quotations will be taken from Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven F. Rendall (Berkeley: U of California P, 1984).

  3. Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” Philosophy and Truth, trans. and ed. Daniel Breazeale (New Jersey: Humanities P, 1979), 80.

  4. De Certeau elaborates on this question specifically in L'écriture de l'histoire (Paris: Gallimard, 1975); de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia UP, 1988), which he seems to have incorporated into the more theoretically comprehensive Arts de faire (note 2).

  5. An important example of work in this direction is provided by Françoise Lionnet, Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-portraiture (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989), which considers the ways in which these questions intersect in the writing of women in postcolonial societies.

  6. Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” On Narrative, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981), White's emphasis.

  7. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Vol. 2 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 2 vols., trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1987), 23; Deleuze and Guattari, Mille Plateaux, Vol. 2 of Capitalisme et schizophrénie, 2 vols. (Paris: Minuit, 1980).

  8. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West (New York: Vintage Books, 1985); Assia Djebar, L'amour, la fantasia (Paris: Albin Michel, 1985); Djebar, Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, trans. Dorothy S. Blair (Portsmouth: N. H. Heinemann, 1993).

  9. Despite McCarthy's reluctance to grant interviews or discuss his work with the scholarly community, much is known about the documentation he used in writing Blood Meridian due to the research efforts of John Sepich, who scrupulously catalogues the most relevant source material for the book but does not offer a hermeneutic interpretation. See John Sepich, “A ‘Bloody Dark Pastryman’: Cormac McCarthy's Recipe for Gunpowder and Historical Fiction in Blood Meridian,Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern American Culture 46 (1993); and Sepich, “‘What Kind of Indians Was Them?’: Some Historical Sources in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian,The Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South 30 (1992). Formalist readings, on the other hand, have maintained that the novel's incorporation of historical records is only marginal to its meaning. See Leo Daugherty, “Gravers False and True: Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy,” The Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South 30 (1992); Bernard Schopen, “‘They Rode Up’: Blood Meridian and the Art of Narrative,” Western American Literature 30 (1995); and Steven Shaviro, “‘The Very Life of Darkness’: A Reading of Blood Meridian,The Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South 30 (1992). The present essay will attempt a synthesis of these approaches, suggesting that the book's relation to historical documentation is registered precisely on the level of its formal (though not strictly linguistic or grammatical) qualities.

  10. Although the Mediterranean separates the southern coast of France from Algeria, the French populace in general and colonial advocates in particular thought of Algeria as a “natural” part of France proper. In fact, even after Algeria was militarily subdued, it was never categorized as a “colony,” but merely as another section of France; on Algeria within French colonial administration, see Robert Aldrich, Greater France: A History of French Overseas Expansion (New York: St. Martin's P, 1996). Such an appropriation can also be observed in the Western United States, with the exception, of course, that the Western region has never tried to gain even nominal independence from the Eastern Seaboard (as did Algeria from France); on American expansion as an imperial process, see Richard W. Van Alstyne, The Rising American Empire (New York: Norton, 1974); Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1963); and Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1988).

  11. Mexico's control of Western territories can hardly be considered “imperial” in the same sense of Ottoman Algeria, in that Mexican citizens actually settled in these lands, whereas the Ottoman Empire exercised only nominal control of various magisterial districts along the Algerian coast. Yet each area was located on the periphery of regions regulated by a metropolitan “center” located elsewhere (i.e., Mexico City and Constantinople).

  12. Although some tribes were actually complicitous with those previous powers, and many even formed alliances with the invading forces (especially settled agrarian ones such as the Douaïr and the Smela in Algeria, and factions of American tribes such as the Navajo and even the Apache), the majority of the autochthonous tribes in Algeria and the American West did not, of course, readily concede their domains to either imperial power.

  13. Although it should be noted that in Algeria, the Arabicization of educational and governmental institutions following independence has caused a change in the dominant language of power (the likes of which has evidently not been mirrored in the American case). For an extended exploration of the relations of power between different languages throughout Algerian history, see Assia Djebar, Le blanc de l'Algérie (Paris: Albin Michel, 1996).

  14. All italics in citations to follow are added. Because Blair's translation most often fails to convey the aspects of Djebar's prose I am trying to stress, I have opted to translate passages myself.

  15. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

  16. As the OED tells us, “palimpsest” can refer to: (1) a canvas on which many layers of images have been represented; (2) a parchment on which a succession of historical chronicles have been superimposed, each one on top of the previous one; and (3) a strata of rock which can be interpreted to reveal information about successive geological eras.

  17. Most readings of L'amour, la fantasia stress (or at least note) the importance of this notion of history as a palimpsest, especially how it resonates with the idea of the palimpsest in visual arts. For insightful interpretations of the ways in which Djebar explores this notion as a visual metaphor, see Anne Donadey, “Rekindling the Vividness of the Past: Assia Djebar's Films and Fiction,” World Literature Today: A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma 70 (1996); and Clarisse Zimra, “Disorienting the Subject in Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia,Another Look, Another Woman: Retranslations of French Feminism, ed. Lynne Huffer (Binghamton, NY: Vail Ballou, 1995). Donadey looks at the book in relation to Djebar's film work, and Zimra emphasizes the book's engagement with the Orientalist tradition of oil painting. What I will try to show below is that the manner in which Djebar mobilizes Carlyle's metaphor is itself palimpsestic, as she engages all three semantic registers.

  18. Jacques Derrida, Feu la cendre (Paris: Des femmes, 1987).

  19. Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1983).

Eilene Hoft-March (review date May 2000)

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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 Algerian and Jewish elements and a contemporary plot.

The novel opens with a moving and often lyrically phrased description of the evacuation of Strasbourg just after France's declaration of war on Germany in 1939. This backdrop will reappear as the personal memory of François, lover of the main character Thelja, a thirty-year-old Algerian who is François's junior by some twenty-five years. Between François and Thelja are two childhood memories of war—World War II and the Algerian revolution—and of all war's indelible side effects. In spite of possible resemblances in their respective pasts, Thelja and François, by dint of a generational and national distance, have just as much in their histories to place them at odds. Aware of her potential collaboration with the enemy, Thelja decides nevertheless to live nine nights of passionate love-making with François that will bridge their differences of age, culture, and experience. The nights in Strasbourg that undergird the novel's structure thus seem intended to displace those once terrible and terrifying nights of wartime France. On a smaller scale, the novel's nights, carefully juxtaposed against its days, trace the development of Thelja's and François's love affair—no ordinary thing. The couple's growing intimacy is signaled by a series of heretofore unshared revelations that they exchange as well as increasingly audacious sexual performances. (Indeed there are moments when their erotic feats distract both the lovers and readers from the story at hand, perhaps an intended effect.)

Within the novel's first hundred pages, Djebar introduces a second intercultural couple, Eve and Hans, an Algerian Jew and a German, respectively. To these newcomers on the scene the author will add other couples: Irma, who believes herself to be of Jewish origin, and Karl, an Alsatian born in Algeria; Jacqueline, a Frenchwoman sympathetic to the fate of immigrant populations in France, and Ali, her Algerian ex-lover. Djebar thickens the novel with the many subplots of these additional characters: Eve and Hans anticipating their baby; Irma discovering that her declared parentage is a face-saving front for her biological mother who, because of her reputation as a résistante, passes her daughter off as a Jewish orphan and puts her up for adoption; Ali committing a crime of passion against Jacqueline. The cumulative effect of the stories is an unidealistic and nonpartisan view of the complexities of straddling cultures.

One paragraph of this review has ended with the judgment that a few of these stories are distracting, suggesting that they pull away from some clearly perceptible main thrust. On the other hand, another paragraph of this review concludes that the stories have a cumulative effect, hinting at an underlying unity to the work. Yet were this reviewer pressed to use a term to rate the book generally, she would probably settle on “distracted,” especially to describe the last third of the novel. The several, serial narratives of the satellite couples—not to mention numerous tangential tales—interrupt the love story of Thelja and François. Indeed, the unexpected and unexplained violence of one episode effectively overpowers the days and, more importantly, the nights of Strasbourg. Some of this is meaningful design on the part of the author. Unintentional effects are, however, just as sure: this late-appearing cluster of undeveloped and unresolved stories robs the book of its potential impact. Not even the novel's last movement—in which Thelja disappears from the company of all her friends and wanders the streets of Strasbourg nightly, possessed of a mysterious and vaguely suicidal resolve—can save the book entirely from giving the impression that something vital remains just out of reach.

Is the book worth reading? Not before one has read two other works that were produced in the midst of Nuits's writing: Vaste est la prison (FR 70: 495-96) and Oran, langue morte (FR 72: 935-36). That said, Nuits should find its way into the reading repertoire of Djebar's admirers for its beautiful language, its exquisite passions, and perhaps even for its puzzling and problematic irresolution.

Mildred Mortimer (review date summer-autumn 2001)

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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, denying the colonized the right to their own history, so Maghrebian patriarchy still attempts to restrain Algerian woman's right to circulate freely in public space.

Combining several strands of narrative, the text traces the disintegration of a marriage, recounts the archeological quest for traces of Berber script, and presents biographical fragments of Djebar's maternal lineage. Beginning with a first-person narrative recounting a thwarted liaison between an Algerian woman—wife, mother, university professor—and the younger man to whom she turns as she attempts to leave a stale marriage, the text explores the psychological mechanisms of passion and jealousy that provoke domestic violence.

The theme of violence against women is given added dimension as the novelist includes incidents of attacks by Islamic fundamentalists against Algerian women whose dress or comportment they consider contrary to their religious beliefs. Thus, the violence Djebar depicted in the earlier texts as brutality inflicted upon Algerians by the European colonizer is sharply refigured. Turned inward and self-destructive, this violence harms society and family life, as it transforms the Algerian nation into a divided society and the Algerian home into a prison where intimidation replaces understanding.

Examining her relationship to Algeria, Djebar also reflects upon her experience as a filmmaker. She defines her artistic mission as a collective one which she shares with all Algerian women. As her pen brings Algerian woman's muted voice and veiled presence into public space, so does her camera; hence, the symbolic value of giving the camera to a sequestered sister: “Suddenly she is the one looking, but from behind the camera, she is the one devouring the world through a hole left in the concealment of a face.”

Neither veiled nor cloistered, Djebar's protagonist, Isma, never encounters the full weight of patriarchy. Retracing Djebar's trajectory, Isma is separated through schooling from the world of traditional women and the experience of enclosure that marks their lives. At the age at which her cousins were veiled, Djebar was sent by her father to a colonial secondary school. The break was not conclusive; she returned to her extended family every summer, reentering a world from which she became further distanced as the years passed. Djebar now uses memory and writing to bridge the gap between traditional women's life and her own. Significantly, her text reveals that her female forebears were not resigned prisoners of the harem, but had begun to trace the path away from the enclosure that she now follows.

Betsy Wing offers an excellent translation of a rich, complex, and poetic text.

Richard Murphy (review date fall 2001)

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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 first narrative—Isma's repudiation by/of her husband, who attempts to blind her by beating her badly with a broken whiskey bottle, and her life to follow—and also as the seed for the imagery, repetitive occurrences, parallels in character and action in the rest of the novel. The magic of the book presents itself first in the recollection of “the Beloved,” who is raised from the ruins of the past ten years after the brief summer of acquaintance. Then family history, moments of autobiography, and stages of the historical past rise into sharp focus in passages that detail the most minute factual matter yet fix nothing fast. The importance of movement, especially for the women of the family but also out of the Berber tradition, reflects the desire for and movement toward “freedom,” though, as the deaths of Isma's friends at home while she lives in France suggest, the prison—of consciousness, of memory—is vast. Ms. Djebar has a formidable intellect, a sure aesthetic sense, and a complex emotional involvement with the present life and history of Algeria. Reverberations of Baudelaire, references to Don Quixote, Alain-Fournier, Riviere, Camus, only hint at the fertile depths beneath this work. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in experimental, cinematic fiction.

Nancy von Rosk (essay date December 2001)

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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 received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1996, William Gass praised her for giving “weeping its words and longing its lyrics” (782). Indeed, Djebar's career has been a remarkable one and her creativity wide-ranging; trained as a historian, she is also an award-winning novelist and has written essays and poetry and also produced plays and films. By the time Djebar was in her mid-twenties, she already had three novels to her name: The Mischief, The Impatient Ones [Les impatients], and Children of the New World [Les enfants du nouveau monde]. And, while she stopped publishing for a period of ten years, she eventually re-emerged to international acclaim when her film La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua won the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1979. Her experience as a filmmaker, she believes, revitalized her literary career by bringing “a moviemaker's gaze” to her writing (Zimra 174). “This film work somehow cleansed me of any unease I had felt with respect to the French language,” she declares. “Through the camera's eye, reality no longer appears through ‘the eyes of the French language’ but through the ‘voice-eyes’ of ‘Algerian women’” (qtd. in Huughe 871).

Certainly the content of the film—a “collection of narratives” by women who lived through the War of Independence—and its approach—“the entire film tuned to the multiple voices of women”—was revisited in the fiction that followed (Huughe 871): Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, and the Quartet novels Fantasia: An Algerian Calvacade, A Sister to Scheherazade, So Vast the Prison, and Algerian White as well as Far from Medina. Beginning with Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, Djebar “applies the techniques of expression she discovered in film” by creating “a fictional space of polyphony” where we “hear” various feminine voices relate the past and present realities of their lives (871). This technique would be fully realized in Fantasia. In this novel, which has been described as her “most ambitious and original work,” Djebar juxtaposes the “polyphony” of Algerian women's voices with the written texts of the French colonizers, creating a “dialectic” between past and present, male and female, and writing and orality that examines the politics of language in an especially compelling way (Blair xvii).

The central question that Djebar asks in Fantasia—What does it mean to write in the language of yesterday's enemy?—is one that has preoccupied both Francophone and Anglophone African writers for decades (215). For Chinua Achebe, the use of the language of the colonizer is what makes a literature “postcolonial.” “A language spoken by Africans on African soil, a language in which Africans write[,] justifies itself,” he remarks (Hopes 93). Using English is also pragmatic. In his essay “The Role of a Writer in a New Nation,” Achebe focusses on Nigerian writers who write in English not because he is “underrating the importance of writers in the various Nigerian languages” but because he is considering those “whose audience cuts across tribe or clan. And these, for good or ill, are the writers in English” (12). Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane aligns himself with Achebe here:

It may well be that we should have expressed our deepest feelings and problems more adequately if we had been able to do so in our own languages, […] but our languages are legion and are not always a means of bringing us together; […] besides[,] our languages need modernizing and we need to learn to write them, we need to teach them and use them. […] But until then, we should be thankful that the languages […] we received from our colonizers can serve us as a means of expression.


Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o, however, believes that the languages received from the colonizers can never serve as a “means of expression” and that writers like Achebe and Kane belong to an Afro-European tradition rather than an African one. For Ngugi, “language is the collective memory bank of a people's experience in history” (Decolonizing 15), and writing in an African language is “part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggle” (28). “All the major African writers who emerge after World War II,” he points out, “wrote in English, French and Portuguese, but by and large all the peasants and a majority of the workers—the masses—have their own languages” (Moving 73). “Aren't these writers perpetuating,” Ngugi asks, “the very neo-colonialism they are condemning? […] For the African writer, the language he has chosen already has chosen his audience” (Moving 73).

Echoing both Ngugi's concerns for the violence implicit in the conqueror's language, and his desire to preserve a people's past as well as Achebe's and Hamidou's concerns for pragmatism and their desire to build a new nation, Djebar wrestles with the politics of language in an especially provocative way. With her feminist perspective, she complicates these debates regarding culture, community, and nation even further, addressing the recent dilemmas facing feminist theory as well: the dangers of “essentializing,” the need for agency, for solidarity in feminist practice and politics. Thus, Djebar's work has much to teach us about a critical identity politics, and about the complicated cultural and historical processes behind terms like postcolonial subject, and postcolonial identity. Indeed, as she delves into the paradoxes and dilemmas that have plagued both feminist and postcolonial theory, Djebar points to new ways of seeing in which, as Homi Bhabha puts it, we “elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of ourselves” (39).

While looking back at the “outpourings” of her youth, the narrator of Assia Djebar's Fantasia decides, “I did not write to lay bare my soul, not even for any thrill, even less to express my ecstasies, but rather to turn my back on them in a denial of my body—with an arrogance and naïve sublimation of which I am only now aware” (59). Djebar herself recalls in a interview, “I started writing as a wager, almost a dare to keep as far away from my real self as possible.” Eventually, she says, “I finally understood that writing always brings one back to oneself, to the inner core” ([“Woman's Memory Spans Centuries: An Interview with Assia Djebar”], 168). “I had to wait until L'amour, la fantasia to take charge of my writing, to inscribe my innermost self in my work” (201). In writing Fantasia, Djebar was finally able to, as she puts it, settle her “quarrel” with the French language (171).

Djebar's extraordinary novel dramatizes her negotiation of a female postcolonial identity while also dramatizing this “quarrel” with language. Indeed, the novel revolves around questions of language—the “voice” of the female body, the implications and complications in the act of writing, particularly when the colonized Other takes up the pen and writes “in the enemy's language” (Fantasia 215). The novel is particularly concerned with the psychoanalytical implications of language, its central paradox—how our initiation into the “symbolic order” frees us, yet cuts us off from the unity with the mother's body, with that preverbal sense of oneness with the world. As Jacques Lacan has stressed, all human beings' initiation into language, into the symbolic order, is an initiation that entails loss, alienation, and this sets desire in motion, desire that will never be fulfilled. This initiation, Djebar shows us, becomes all the more devastating when one is also initiated into the conqueror's language.

Caught between the claims of both her native “mother” tongue and the language of the colonizer, the “father” tongue, the narrator of Fantasia seems hopelessly divided. Both languages attempt to “fix” her identity, and both seem to alternate between enabling the narrator and disabling her. Although they each constitute her identity, they seem to pull her in opposite directions. The gender terms used to describe each language highlight this opposition, and yet it is not just a division between male and female realms that Djebar emphasizes in this novel, that is, only one binary construction, one level of opposition. We also have two different patriarchal cultures: Arab and Western. The narrator must mediate between “two opposing views of reality, two frames of reference that are culturally worlds apart” (Lionnet 21). Hence, in negotiating her identity, Djebar must bring these varied oppositions together, creating a dialogue between self and Other, colonizer and colonized, between French and Arabic, between past and present, between what is spoken and what is written, between what is representable and what haunts representation, between the law of the father, and all that “lies outside the sentence” (Bhabha 180). This bringing together of such disparate strands, this “metissage or braiding of cultural forms leads to a discovery of occulted histories […] a writing of explosions where binary impasses are deconstructed and space is opened, where multiplicity and diversity are affirmed” (Lionnet 5).

Dorothy Blair writes in the novel's introduction that Djebar makes a “conscious effort to escape the shackles of writing in the enemy's language” by “colonizing the language of the colonizers” (xviii). Winifred Woodhull points out that there is a “sonorous quality to Djebar's prose, which mediates between voice and writing, making the sounds and rhythms of her native Arabic resonate in the French of her own text, itself a “palimpsest” (80). Françoise Lionnet observes that writers like Djebar who must write “in the interval between different cultures and languages” (1), live on the “borderlines.” They use “linguistic and rhetorical structures that allow their plural selves to speak from within the straightjacket of borrowed discourse” (19). This kind of rebellious, “explosive” writing brings to mind some of the writing and theories of French feminists like Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva. Djebar's work also brings to mind the conflict all women living in patriarchy must face as they are initiated into the symbolic order, as they break away from their mothers to negotiate their identity.

In many ways, Djebar's emphasis on the politics of language and her beliefs about writing echo the ideas and concerns of the French theorist Hélène Cixous, who was born in Algeria and because she is a Jew, an outsider. Cixous too has struggled in coming to terms with her identity: “I side with those who are injured, trespassed upon, colonized. I am not Arab. Who am I? […] Which language is mine? French? German? Arabic?” (71). In her essay “Sorties,” an essay in which she explores her own sense of “self,” and women's sense of Otherness, she discusses writing and female identity. Very much inspired by Jacques Derrida, Cixous collapses the binary of speech/writing; for her, writing is a relief, a way of “inventing new worlds” (72). She believes that “there is a bond between woman's libidinal economy—her ‘jouissance,’ the feminine Imaginary—and her way of self constituting a subjectivity that splits apart without regret” (90). “In feminine speech as in writing,” she notes, “there never stops reverberating […] the first music of the voice of love […] the Voice sings from a time before law, before the Symbolic took one's breath away and reappropriated it into language under its authority of separation. […] In woman there is always something of the mother repairing and feeding” (93). Toril Moi observes that, for Cixous, “writing—textuality acknowledges the free play of the signifier, and in throwing the field of signification wide open, it breaks open the prisonhouse of patriarchy” (107). Writing as “ecstatic self-expression” (126), therefore, “casts the individual as supremely capable of liberating herself back into union with the primeval mother” (125). Indeed, for Cixous, writing is key in resisting patriarchy, and she calls on all women to take the oppressor's language and make it their own—bringing to mind what Djebar must do as she writes in the colonizer's language: “Explode it, grab it, take it into her women's mouth, bite its tongue with her women's teeth and make up her own tongue to get inside of it” (Cixous 95). Finally, her description of “feminine writing” is particularly evocative of Djebar's writing: “Femininity in writing is a privileging of voice: Writing and voice are entwined and interwoven. […] Her discourse is never linear; she involves herself in history. […] It is in writing, from woman and toward woman, […] that woman will affirm woman somewhere other than in silence” (92-93). Djebar's prose, her desires, her attitude toward writing, certainly echo Cixous's. For Djebar, writing can be liberating. At times, it also seems that writing is a way for Djebar's narrator to get back to what was lost before her initiation into French, into the law of the father. As she puts it, “My sole ambition in writing is to travel fresh pastures and replenish my water skins with an inexhaustible silence” (63). “I too seek out the rich vocabulary of my mother tongue,” she writes, “[the] milk of which I had been previously deprived” (62).

While Djebar's concerns resemble Cixous's, her relationship to the written word is much more problematic. Writing for Cixous is always a “libidinal act”; writing always brings her back to her body: “Write yourself your body must make itself heard; […] the huge resources of the unconscious will burst out—woman writing herself will go back to this body.” Cixous's “stealing the language and making it fly” (97) suggests that there is no censoring, just a delirious freedom in writing, an assurance that writing will always liberate, will always connect a woman to her body. For Djebar's narrator, however, an Algerian woman writing in decolonized terrain, writing often alienates her from her body. And I would argue, as Ann Rosalind Jones does, that this experience of alienation may be true of many women—European and American as well as North African. Perhaps “the French feminists like Cixous may make of the female body too unproblematized and totalized an entity,” for the French feminists suggest that women experience their bodies “purely” or “essentially,” outside of culture, outside of language (Jones 367).

Writing for Djebar seems to often endanger her sense of self; the relationship between body and language is more divisive. Djebar is very much aware that there is a “complicity between violence and discourse” (Spivak, “Strategy” 36). One of the “triggers” in writing Fantasia, she says, was a realization about language: “The French language for me had nothing to do with Sartre or Camus; it is the language of those people coming onto my land with colonial conquest. […] They write and they kill as they write. […] Hence[,] before diving into my present life and sounding my own inner self, I had to describe the childhood of this language that structures me. So[,] in L'amour, la fantasia, I evoke the language of the nineteenth century conquest in conjunction with that of the little girl learning to write it for the first time” (“Woman's” 184).

For Djebar, there is no wishful escaping the violent history of the French language. “Stealing” this language and making it “fly” is painful, highly dangerous. While she realizes like Cixous that language can be a liberating tool, and she hopes to reach that inexhaustible silence, that lost “silent mother,” she realizes in another very Derridean sense that writing will always bring her to the brink of incompleteness, a haunting absence. “Writing for Derrida is structure which operates and fractures knowing; it is a structure whose origins and end are necessarily provisional and absent” (Spivak, “French” 147, emph. mine). And writing in the enemy's language is particularly dangerous, since “writing, rather than merely serving as an empty vehicle waiting to transport and then discharge thought whole, adds itself to and then substitutes itself for thought” (Neel 162). “It breaks in as a dangerous supplement, as a substitute that enfeebles, enslaves, effaces, separates, and falsifies” (Derrida 247). Gayatri Spivak has pointed out that the French feminists, while inspired by Derrida, often forget some of his most important insights. Although these theorists expose the possibility of being a deconstructor of the metaphysics of identity, they forget that they, too, remain caught within masculinist ideology (“French” 147).

Djebar, however, is more self-conscious about her relationship to the written word; as a postcolonial subject, her identity is split in more obvious and profound ways, her relationship to language more problematic. She knows too well that language can imprison, that “written words can entwine invisible snares” around our body (Fantasia 13). In many ways, Djebar's novel demonstrates the kind of awareness that Spivak says the French feminists lack. The narrator of Fantasia knows that writing becomes a way to rebel against the father, a way of saying, “I exist, pulsating with life” (58), and she also knows that writing in the “father's” language may also deny her life; it may cut her “adrift” (5).

Indeed, writing and reading the colonizer's language results in profound losses for Djebar, the loss of feminine voices, a profound separation from other Algerian women, an alienation from, as she might put it, her “innermost self” (“Woman's” 201). Fantasia is a quest to recover this “self,” and to recover those lost feminine voices; indeed, the novel could also be read as a desire to return to the primeval mother. Clarisse Zimra points out that the “dark underside of the colonial conflict in Djebar's earlier work” is “the terror of severance from a primal female bond that, obliterating time and history, transcends the political” (201). Djebar's “quarrel” with language is inextricably caught up with recovering that primal female bond.

At the opening of Fantasia, Djebar dramatizes this central conflict by highlighting the initiation into French as a severance from the mother. With her hand in her father's hand, “the little Arab girl going to school for the first time” leaves behind the “cocoon” of childhood. Emphasizing its profound implications, the narrator, looking back, describes this moment in birth imagery: “Voiceless, cut off from my mother's words by some trick of memory, I managed to pass through the dark waters of the corridor, miraculously inviolate, not even guessing at the enclosing walls. The shock of the first words blurted out: the truth emerging from a break in my stammering voice. From what nocturnal reef of pleasure did I manage to wrest this truth?” (4). Throughout the novel, the narrator struggles with silence, in finding a voice; it seems she is continually struggling to be born, hesitating to break away from the mother. The imagery here dramatizes her dilemma: Passing through the “dark waters,” she does not “guess at the enclosing walls”; this womb seems comforting rather than confining, the birth into language a shock: words are “blurted out,” her voice is “stammering.” And there is a sense of confusion, of disorientation, wonder: “From what reef of pleasure had she managed to wrest this truth?” (4, emph. mine). Although she has passed through dark waters and enclosing walls (although she has been freed), has emerged “miraculously inviolate” into the light, there is also a sense that she has been tossed onto the shore, naked, vulnerable, alone. She observes: “[In] discovering the meanings of words […] that are revealed to the unveiled body, I cut myself adrift” (5).

The language the narrator's father had been “at pains” for her to learn continues to leave her divided. It becomes a “contradictory sign,” a sign of his command and a sign that enables her to rebel against him, a sign of “inexhaustible treasure” and a sign that leaves her exposed, vulnerable. French is most often associated with danger. Exchanging letters with a boy at school seems, in her father's eyes, “tantamount to setting the stage for rape” (4). Over and over again, Djebar's narrator reminds us that the French language is complicit with violence. As she reads the historical documents, she sees “their words thrown up by such a cataclysm […] like a comet's tail, flashing across the sky leaving it forever riven” (45). Words are “effective weapons” and the “protuberances of their publications” will hide the initial violence (45). Using the language of the colonizer therefore is dangerous; it can easily be used against her, and Djebar repeatedly stresses the potential violence it poses to her psyche: “Its script is a public unveiling in front of sniggering onlookers” (181). “Writing an autobiography using French words alone is to lend oneself to the vivisector's scalpel. […] Wounds are reopened, veins weep, one's own blood flows and that of others which has never dried” (156).

In highlighting the threats that the “father” tongue poses to her sense of self, Djebar also emphasizes the “maleness” of this father tongue, its access to power, its force and aggression. Although her father had prevented her from being “cloistered,” the narrator believes that by sending her to French schools he had delivered her to the “enemy camp,” and, though she cohabits with French, she is “vaguely aware of having been forced into marriage too young” (213). When describing the physical act of writing in French, her body becomes twisted, distorted, pulled away from her: “To use this alphabet involves placing your elbow some distance in front of you to form a bulwark.” It seems as if she must place this language at a distance to protect herself, as if she must construct a wall, but still the power of the father tongue cannot be pushed away: even “in this twisted position the writing is washed back to you” (215).

The poetic section entitled “Deletions” reinforces this violence as well as this male/female opposition. Djebar describes the two languages on the “rock of time,” where French words are described in phallic imagery: “flickering flames” that become “curiously elongated or expanded against cave walls.” They distort and scar, deface the cave, “tattooing vanished faces with a lurid mottling.” Words that are “flickering flames” violently inscribe themselves “against cave walls,” against the mother tongue, against Algerian history, Algerian women's voices. The narrator, however, is able to see the “mirror image of the foreign inscription, reflected in Arabic letters, […] then the letters fade into the pictures of the mountainous Hoggar in prehistoric times.” The Arabic is there, but it is fading, merging with nature; it is something spectral, something one sees only for a “fleeting moment,” just a glimpse. And the movement, the imagery associated with this mother tongue—the cave, the blood—is distinctively female, evocative of the womb: “To read this writing,” the narrator says, “I must lean over backwards, plunge my face into the shadows, closely examine […] geology stained with blood.” And there is terror involved in doing so: “What magma of sounds lies rotting there? What stench of putrefaction seeps out?” (46). It seems she must face what she once feared, calling to mind the old woman from the days of her childhood whose hidden drama frightened her, whose voice had paralyzed her (9). Groping about in this womb-like cavern, relying on her sense of smell, alone, stripped bare, unveiled, she must “face the images of darkness.” The narrator's body even seems to merge with the cave, with the voices of all her lost ancestors: “My body reverberates with the sounds from the endless landslide of generations of my lineage” (46). Confronting this language means confronting not only Algeria's terrible history but her own as well. “Unveiled, and stripped bare,” she must confront her own body, the body she had once denied with a “naïve sublimation” (59).

As the narrator explores her relationship with the French language, she continually stresses how French cuts her off from her body and splits her sense of self. Although “initiated” into French, the language in many ways cannot reach her, at times the “words defuse themselves,” “lose their power,” or “drown before reaching their destination” (126). When she explains the strangeness of the French language, its disconnection from her material world, and from the body, becomes astonishingly clear:

I write and speak French outside: the words I use convey no flesh and blood reality. I learn the names of birds I've never seen, […] flowers and plants that I shall never smell until I travel north. […] All vocabulary expresses what is missing in my life causing a kind of visual humiliation. […] Settings in children's books are nothing but theoretical concepts; in the French street, the parents walk quite naturally side by side […] so the world of the school is expunged from the daily life of my native city, as it is from the life of my family. The latter is refused any referential role.


Going to the French school complicates both her identity as an “Algerian,” and her identity as a woman. Identifying with other women becomes increasingly difficult, for at the age of twelve she is cut her off from the cloistered harem, “ejected abruptly from this theater of feminine confidences” (156). Still, there is exhilaration in cutting these gender and cultural ties. When learning French, she says her “body began to move as if by instinct; she could run headlong down every street” (181). When she reads and writes French, her “body travels far in subversive space. […] It would not need much for it to take wing and fly away” (184).

Though this language leads to a kind of freedom, this freedom is in some ways a death sentence. In addition to taking her away from her mother's world, and the wider community of women, French eventually cuts her off from her sexuality, her emotional life. As the narrator puts it, “French gives me inexhaustible treasures but it cannot give me one single term of endearment.” “All spontaneous impulses as a woman” are “stifled” (27). She calls this experience a “kind of aphasia in matters of love”; written words retreat “as soon as the slightest heart-felt emotion sought for expression” (128). When meeting with her brother, the word “hannouni—the expression of endearment—peculiar to the speech” of her tribe—that one word—makes a “gap through which damned-up speech can flow again” (81). Only with a friend or lover from her own birthplace, “swaddled in the same indigenous sounds” do language and body come together. It is only then that she finally “recovers the power of speech, where at last voice answers to voice and body can approach body” (129).

While French continually sends her body flying away from her, Arabic keeps her rooted to her body and “to be separated from this script is to be separated from a great love.” She remarks that Arabic “looks in the mirror of its scrolls and curlicues and sees itself as woman” (181). While writing Arabic, she feels its intimate connections to her body; studying the Quran, body and language, voice and writing come together: “Muscles of the larnyx as well as the torso move in harmony. Controlling the breath, to allow the correct emission of the voice […] respecting the grammar by speaking it aloud, making it part of the chant.” The narrator's description of her posture while writing in her mother tongue also suggests that she feels secure, as if she were enclosed within a protective womb: “When I sit curled up like this to study my native language it is as though my body reproduces the architecture of my native city—the medinas with their tortuous alleyways, closed off to the outside world, living their secret life” (184). While there is a unity here between language and body, a sense of bliss, there is also a feeling of restriction, suffocation—a tortured twisted body is curled inward, closed off, following meandering medina alleyways into dark silent rooms. This yearning, this desire for the mother tongue and its continual connection with the body, this language too—like the father tongue—also requires a denial; it demands that the body be still, that it be closed off, veiled.

Djebar has called feminine Arabic “an excoriated language from never having been in the sunlight—language that in turn has taken on the veil for so long a time” (Women 1). In Fantasia, she shows us how the “mother tongue” also requires that women veil themselves, never expose themselves directly. Rules of speech dictate that women refer to their husbands by the “omnipresent he,” and the “I” of first person is never used (153). When the women gather together, questions follow a “time honored formula with thanks to God and to the Prophet.” Language and its formalities force women into submitting to patriarchy's power constructs; as the narrator puts it, they are “trapped in a web of impossible revolt” (153, emph. mine). Yet they “bear witness” as best they can; “by means of understatement, proverbs, riddles and fables,” they unfold the drama of their lives while never exposing it directly (154-55).

Both languages, then, have “invisible snares,” and the tension between the narrator and these patriarchal languages revolves around the question of the body and the negotiation of a female identity. French, associated with masculinity, with movement, with flight, is also associated with being naked; it is a language that leaves a woman vulnerable. Arabic, on the other hand, is a “cloak,” a protection, connected to the body, grounded. Since Arabic veils and French strips away, the narrator is caught within irreconcilable oppositions; she too seems “trapped in the web of impossible revolt” (153). Indeed, throughout the novel, there is this tension between not wanting to be defined by the body or imprisoned by the body, and yet wanting to feel “whole,” no longer split, alienated, wanting to feel like a “woman,” connected to some feminine “essence.” Reconciling these oppositions, deconstructing those binary impasses, seems to be an almost impossible task.

As Djebar describes this problem of language, she remarks, “It was not the language per se but what I call the gap between the two languages, French and Arabic, a gap that mirrors the yawning gap between two societies that still go on functioning side by side but keep their backs stiffly to each other” (“Woman's” 172). Living in the “gap,” with both “backs” turned against her, the narrator of Fantasia “spends her dreaming adolescence on the fringes of the harem, neither totally outside nor in its heart.” This in-between space affords some freedom, but it is still painful, frightening, to be “cut adrift,” and again, most troubling and problematic for the narrator is her relationship to her body, her gender identity. As she studies and speaks French, her body becomes “Westernized in its way.” She loses “the knack of sitting cross legged,” and her “throat lends itself uneasily” to the “ancestral cry”; “instead of rising spontaneously,” she says, “it tore me apart.” Her body becomes more distant, moving in certain directions without her complete awareness: “My adolescent body imperceptibly it breaks away from this bunch of female forms—it still participates in the collective spasmodic dances, but it knows the purer joy of dashing out into the middle of a sunny sports ground” (127). And yet this joy is not really “pure,” for she fears her father might come and visit her and see her in shorts, and how could she explain (179)? Her panic is compounded by her “Arab woman's shame”: “the French girls whirl around me; they do not suspect that my body is caught in invisible snares” (179). Neither completely comfortable in the sports field nor in the cloistered harem, the narrator is cut adrift, floating in that in-between space—caught in that “yawning gap” (72).

In her desire to close that gap, to secure that primal female bond as well as her own identity, Djebar must move to the realm of body and voice, for language just leads her to this binary impasse; “mother” tongue and “father” tongue keep their “backs stiffly to each other” (“Woman's” 172). Moreover, French and Arabic are both the “tainted preserves of men” (Zimra 203). French cuts her off completely from her body, from the other women, and Arabic prevents women from talking about themselves directly. To hear the “language” of women, she must turn to the body, to the voice, to the chants, the cries, the ululations, to what perhaps “lies outside the sentence.” For Djebar, this is the language that can link her to other women: “The fourth language for all females, young or old, cloistered or half emancipated, remains that of the body: the body which male neighbours' and cousins' eyes require to be deaf and blind since they cannot completely incarcerate it; the body which in trances, dances or vociferations, in fits of hope or despair rebels, and unable to read or write seeks some unknown shore as destination for its message of love” (180, emph. mine). Perhaps most importantly, it is through the body that resistance manifests itself; therefore, its cries must be attended to, and Fantasia is filled with protesting women, women whose only form of protest is “the cry of the live body” (106).

The narrator's memory of her maternal grandmother illustrates how woman's body can be the site of resistance. As her grandmother begins to chant, the narrator remembers being fascinated, sure she was “witnessing the solemn prologue to a ritual act” (144). Intent on “reading” body and voice, she describes the cries like signs, letters: “They swelled and swirled in spreading spirals, intersecting arches, tapering to needle point” (144). This ceremonial was, the narrator says, her grandmother's “own way of protesting”: […] “For two hours the matriarch swayed her bony body from side to side; her hari came undone and every now and then she gave a hoarse grunt […] finally came the crisis: my grandmother […] went into a trance […] choking cries came thick and fast” (144-45).

It seems in watching the body, in listening to the groans, the cries, the narrator is able to conceive of a world outside the realms of French or Arabic, a realm where women protest in pure, unadulterated form. Her grandmother's voice and body give her a glimpse of what language obscures, denies, distorts, indeed refuses to signify. Voice and body give her a “glimpse of the source of all our sorrows, the half-obliterated signs which we spend the rest of our lives trying to decipher.” After her grandmother's trance, the narrator believes that “all the voices of the past […] were now set free and leapt far away from her” (145). And the cries of her grandmother do link her to the other voices of the book: to aunt Aicha's “incoherent antiphon”; to Cherifa's “rhythmic wailing”; to the “cacophony […] of the wild collective voice” (56); and finally to “all those other women whose only path to freedom was by intoning their obsessional chants” (60).

Spivak and other critics have stressed that, while it is legitimate to expose the oppression and the objectification of the female body, it is also dangerous to put the female body at the centre of a search for female identity (French 152). Although Djebar turns to woman's body as she negotiates her identity, she knows full well the dangers of being defined solely by one's body. Heeding Judith Butler's warning that “the practical task for women is to cast off the reifications of sex imposed on them” (117), Djebar also strips motherhood of its affective code as she turns to the realm of body and voice.

In the poetic section entitled “Whispers,” Djebar calls childbearing a “mere parenthesis” in a woman's life (176). Youth is described as a “dark tunnel,” a “burial pit,” a period when “women are choked with desire, when the chorus of women gaze on death and lift up shrill, convulsive voices to the blackened sky” (177). Djebar's desire for “mother” does not lead her to reify maternity. Instead, she exposes the violence implicit in the uterine norm of motherhood, stressing how it is used by the patriarchy to oppress women. Her descriptions of the body therefore are grotesque, deadening: “From the age of fifteen to thirty-five or forty, the body sags, swells, bursts open in childhood, finally the leaden years are over: the body triumphs over the twilight when mouths are gagged, features masked, eyes invariably lowered” (177).

Besides emphasizing women's victimization, Djebar's treatment of the body—perhaps more importantly—calls attention to women's “agency,” an agency not only for the silent subaltern woman but for the alienated postcolonial writer. In many scenes, the narrator, too, struggles to break the silence, and, when she does, her cries awaken her to her own voice and to that “primal female bond.” Within this context, the narrator's description of her wedding night is particularly interesting, for, rather than calling attention to a profound connection with her new husband, the emphasis in this scene is clearly on securing that “primal female bond.” Switching to the third person, the narrator detaches herself as she describes the wedding night, which is a betrayal and an awakening: “She confidently paints the picture of future of their love: he had promised that the initiation would take as many nights as need be. And yet, at the beginning of their first hurried night, she had already been penetrated. The cry, pure pain soars […] in a swelling curve […] falling and at its nadir in multi-layered sediment lurks an unspoken No!” (107). After the cry of pain, the narrator switches back to the first person, and the body “stiffens in denial”; she feels a “refusal tremble on her lips” (107). That cry seems to separate her from her husband and connect her to her own body, to the pain of other women. Like her grandmother's “choking cries,” the ululations of her ancestors, this cry is her rebellion, for “normally,” the narrator tells us, “the bride neither cries nor weeps” (108). For the next few days, she longs to reach out to other women; while she rides the Metro, she tells us, “I stare closely at all the woman I see around me”; “I am devoured with curiosity” (107). It seems as if she longs to unite with other women in some kind of solidarity, a solidarity based on the body: “Why do they not say, why will not one of them say, why does each one hide this fact: love is the cry, the persistent pain which feeds upon itself while only a glimpse is vouchsafed of the horizon of happiness?” (107).

The “cry of the live body” continues to awaken the narrator to an awareness that language either shrouds or strips away. Later, in Paris, completely cut off from her mother tongue, she describes her life as “days streaked with silence” (114). Walking alone one night, she wonders, “Where will this tunnel of interior silence lead,” when suddenly “the voice bursts forth.” The voice is alien; she wonders if it is hers and its “coal-slack cakes and clogs the palate”; its harsh deep-throated cry seems to go before her. Djebar's grotesque description emphasizes the narrator's profound alienation: “This nauseating network of sound seems scarcely to concern me; viscous syrup of rasping gasps, guano of old hiccups and choking sobs, smelling of some strangled corpse rotting within me, […] the voice cannot be suppressed.” This cry “flushes impurities from her mouth,” and, after crying out, she thinks of the women “shrouded” on other shores who are prevented from uttering a “constant howl” (115). Her cries disturb and upset an unknown man, whose reaction is a “sudden revelation to her”; she realizes these cries, her “attempted revolt” can be used to protect herself. And in this momentary connection to the past, to her native land, to the power of her own voice, she regains her “zest for life” (116). The cries, the voices of the body constitute “agency”; after the cry, there is a sense of empowerment; moreover, the cry becomes a symbolic link among all the women in the novel. Indeed, the narrator finally decides she has to take “the risk of exhuming buried cries, those of yesterday as well as those of a hundred years ago” (63).

What hurts the narrator most is what she claims earlier that she wanted to reach: silence. This is what haunts her, and this is what she wishes to “avenge” (195). The “silent mother”—her paternal grandmother—is the maternal figure that the narrator seems most intent on getting back to, the primal female bond that seems to transcend everything, something that haunts her throughout her life (195). From the age of eighteen months, the narrator tells us, she has shared her paternal grandmother's bed, and, to help her sleep, the old lady would “take hold of one of her feet in her hands and warm them” (194). This grandmother dies when the narrator is only six years old, and, with no memory of her grandmother's voice, the narrator declares, “She alone, the silent one, by this action of clasping my feet, remains linked to me” (194). In her recurring dream, the narrator reveals, “The little girl that is me runs desperately trying to find her voice” (194); her mouth gapes wider and wider, but the sound in the dream is “switched off” (193): “I am driven relentlessly onward. A scream is implanted within me, […] rasping my larnyx […], exhaled in a dense silence. […] My whole being is inhabited by these words: Mamma is dead!” (193). When the narrator sees her grandmother in this dream, the grandmother “seems to be saying: ‘They think they are burying me, they think they are coming to my death! You alone …,” and the narrator finishes her words for her: “I alone know she will be resurrected” (194). Ultimately this dream, which enables the narrator to find the “silent mother,” is a dream that does come true, a dream that also points to her own resurrection. And recovering all her silent ancestors will lead to a reconciliation with the “father” tongue; the language formally used to “entomb” her people will finally bring them back to her. As she descends into “the dark caverns” to recover those lost voices, “her only handholds” will be “words in the French language—reports, accounts, evidence from the past” (77).

In her opening description of the 1830 siege of Algiers, the narrator asks, “Which of all these silent spectators will live to tell the tale?” (7). We later learn that “thirty-seven descriptions will be published of which only three are from the viewpoint of the besieged” (44). Djebar the historian will draw on these French documents, her reading of them always focussing on the marginal, the absent. Indeed, these French accounts give her a glimpse of her ancestors, enabling her to reconstruct the stories that have been lost or ignored. As Djebar puts it, “Between the lines, these letters (of forgotten captains) speak of Algeria as a women whom it is impossible to tame” (57). These texts reveal for her the heroism of the Algerian people—in particular Algerian women—their resistance, their courage. Baron Barchou's descriptions, for example, of a fleeing Algerian woman who murders her child to “prevent it falling alive in our hands” becomes an Algerian woman who “enters recent history as a heroine” who, “in a fit of desperate courage[,] splits open the brain of her child like a pomegranate in spring before dying in peace” (18). Even the reports left by Pelissier, the captain who orders the brutal burning and fumigation of the caves the Ouled Riah tribe had taken refuge in, takes on new value:

Thanks to his too realistic description Pelissier suddenly resurrects, before my eyes, those Ouled Riah who died in their caves. […] These Islamic dead deprived of the ritual ceremonies are preserved from oblivion by the works of his routine report. […] I venture to express my gratitude—however incongruous. […] After the spectacular brutal killing carried out in all naïveté, he is overcome with remorse and describes the slaughter he has organized. I venture to thank him for having faced the corpses, […] for having looked at the enemy otherwise than as a horde of zealots, or a host of ubiquitous shadows.


Because the narrator can reread these historical documents and then weave them together with the stories of contemporary Algerian women who have lived through the War of Independence, she can now break the silence; because “the old lady talks today,” and she can “transcribe her tale,” the fires of the French occupation are “finally extinguished” (177). Indeed, since recovering this lost history, the narrator declares that Eugene Fromentin, the nineteenth-century painter who fell “in love with the light” (224) of Algeria and kept a journal of his journey, is one “who has accompanied me throughout my wanderings like a second father figure” (226). In particular, Fromentin's recording of his discovery of the severed hand of an anonymous Algerian woman at the edge of an oasis becomes a moment that resonates with symbolic overtones for the narrator, for the hand that Fromentin throws away is also the hand that he “offers” her, the hand that—as she puts it—she must “seize” and bring to the “qalam,” or pen. Djebar knows that it is “silence” that hurts women, their “erasure” in patriarchal and imperialistic languages. Indeed, she knows she must unite body with language, go back to the “father” tongue and bring the “qalam” to the woman's hand; only when women's voices resonate within the patriarchal symbolic order can they begin to speak and be heard.

Finally, in the process of using French for recovering Algerian women's voices, the narrator realizes that the “language has grown more flexible” now that the “corpses of the past have been enshrouded in words” (216). This language, too, has adhered to her, and in the end it is a gift “lovingly bestowed” by her father (217). Moreover, it is something that she finally makes her very own. As Anne Donadey reveals in a recent provocative essay, Djebar “arabicizes French” (27). “She reappropriates French by inscribing within it the trace of oral Arabic, creating a bilingual palimpsest” (29). As Donadey observes, “French takes on a slightly foreign ring for native French readers as Djebar pushes it beyond its limits; in her hands, it welcomes Arabic words and concepts” (34). One of the many examples that Donadey refers to helps illuminate this point: “The word ‘honte’ (shame), for example, is used in Fantasia in a dialogue in which it stands alone in the sentence as an exclamation. This follows the structure of Arabic rather than French—the French from would be ‘quelle honte’ or ‘c'est une honte’” (34). As Djebar describes it, “I was keen on constantly re-creating the sounds of the maternal tongue within the flesh of the French language” (qtd. in Donadey 34).

Indeed, Djebar brings French and Arabic intimately together in the rhythms, structures, and texture of her own prose, a pairing that is full of possibilities. Near the novel's end, she embraces this dual heritage, declaring that she is “forced to acknowledge a curious fact”:

The date of my birth is eighteen hundred and forty-two, the year when General Saint-Arnaud arrives to burn down the zaouia. […] It is Saint-Arnaud's fire that lights my way out of the harem one hundred years later; because its glow surrounds me I find the strength to speak. Before I catch the sound of my own voice I can hear the death-rattles, the moans of those immured in the Dahra mountains. […] They provide my orchestral accompaniment. They summon me, encouraging my faltering steps, so that […] my solitary song takes off.


Fantasia is, finally, a deconstruction of deadly binary impasses, a journey where self and Other come together, where quarrels are settled, and something once lost might now be recovered. The fires of French no longer distort the cave with a “lurid mottling”; they are now a “glow” that surrounds her. Onto this language that has erased women's voices Djebar can now inscribe the “charred passions” of her ancestors, and, as these voices find their way into her written text, language and body do seem to finally come together (79). She can now journey through herself at the “whim of the former enemy,” the enemy whose language she has “stolen” (216). That language, which once resulted in an “aphasia of love,” now becomes a language in which she can finally inscribe her “innermost self.”

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “The Role of the Writer in a New Nation.” African Writers on African Writing. Ed. G. D. Killam. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973. 7-13.

———. Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Blair, Dorothy. Introduction. Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1993. xv-xx.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Cixous, Hélène. “Sorties.” The Newly Born Woman. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986. 63-132.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974.

Djebar, Assia. The Mischief. Trans. Frances Frenaye. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958.

———. Les impatients. Paris: Julliard, 1958.

———. Les enfants du nouveau monde. Paris: Julliard, 1962.

———. La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua [film], 1978.

———. L'amour, la fantasia. Paris: Lattes, 1985.

———. A Sister to Scheherazade. Trans. Dorothy Blair. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987.

———. Far from Medina: Daughters of Ismael. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1991.

———. “Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound.” Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1992. 133-51.

———. Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1992.

———. “Woman's Memory Spans Centuries: An Interview with Assia Djebar.” Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1992. 167-87.

———. Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade. Trans. Dorothy Blair. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1993.

———. Vaste est la prison. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.

———. Le blanc de l'Algérie. Paris: Albin Michel, 1996.

Donadey, Anne. “The Multilingual Strategies of Postcolonial Literature: Assia Djebar's Algerian Palimpsest.” World Literature Today 74.1 (winter 2000) 27-35.

Gass, William. “Enconium for Assia Djebar, 1996 Neustadt Prize Laureate.” World Literature Today 70.4 (autumn 1996): 782.

Huughe, Laurence. “Ecrire Comme un Voile: The Problematics of the Gaze in the Work of Assia Djebar.” World Literature Today 70.4 (autumn 1996): 867-75.

Jones, Ann Rosalind. “Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of L'Ecriture feminine.” The New Feminist Criticism. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 361-77.

Kadir, Djelal. “Of Pencil Points and Petty Tyrants.” World Literature Today 70.4 (autumn 1996): 777.

Kane, Cheikh Hamidou. “The Writers Speak.” African Writers on African Writing. Ed. G. D. Killam. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973. 148-56.

Lionnet, Françoise. Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self Portraiture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1989.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. New York: Routledge, 1985.

Neel, Jasper. Plato, Derrida, and Writing. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1988.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1986.

———. Moving the Center: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993.

Spivak, Gayatri. “French Feminism in an International Frame.” In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1987. 134-53.

———. “Strategy, Identity, Writing.” The Postcolonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Ed. Sarah Harasym. New York: Routledge, 1990. 35-49.

Woodhull, Winifred. Transfigurations of the Maghreb: Feminism, Decolonization and Literatures. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Zimra, Clarisse. “Afterword.” Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1992. 159-211.

Michèle E. Vialet (essay date fall 2002)

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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.


  1. 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.

  2. This war has raised a real “problème de vocabulaire” that Benjamin Stora examines (11).

  3. 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).

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

Works Cited

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)

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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 Question of Power, 1974; Serowe, 1981) and Sara Suleri (Meatless Days, 1989) as a lucid critic of gender, history, and subjectivity in colonial and postcolonial contexts. Djebar's earliest works, however, in a career that stretches back to 1956, are rarely mentioned in recent critical debate.1 Her wartime novel Les enfants du nouveau monde (1962) is nonetheless long overdue for critical revival, for it reveals an early moment in Djebar's evolving interests in the problem of subjectivity, during the period of anticolonial struggle.2 My argument here is that while the novel in many ways takes part in the Weberian discourse of modernization that male francophone commentators frequently employed in their construction of an Algerian nationalism, the clear interest in female subjectivity within Les enfants finally leads the novel toward a more original, and prescient, vision of a revolutionary modernity.

In its narrative structure, Les enfants juxtaposes a number of different individual points of view. A third-person narrator moves with abrupt or sometimes nonexistent transitions from the mind of one character to another. There is no clear hierarchy among these individual perspectives, and it would be difficult to isolate one character's perceptions as central. Indeed it is the parallel experiences of many different characters that seem to be the emphasis here, in a text where various points of view are juxtaposed for our comparison. In its thematic content the novel focuses on rapidly changing self-identification and the redefinition of agency among its set of characters. Set in the small Algerian city of Blida, the novel follows the events of one day, 24 May 1956, in the early years of the fight for national independence. Thrust into radically new, often dangerous situations because of the war, characters must invent new behaviors and attitudes. For each character in turn, old habits of feeling are reevaluated and rejected, in the face of often brutal new realities. Subjectivity is set into screeching motion, provoked toward crisis, or challenged to the point of undoing, by the events of the revolution.

In its evocation of a world through consciousness, in its sketching of multiple, atomized points of perception, the novel presents on the level of its form some of its most interesting and difficult interpretive problems. How are we to understand these narrative devices, so typical of a European modernism of the preceding decades? Rather than seeing Djebar's narrative form here in terms of European precursors, however, the novel should be understood within a particular Algerian modernism of the revolutionary moment.3 The novel is modernist, I will argue here, not in the sense that it borrows aesthetic features from European artistic movements of several previous decades, but in the sense that Anthony Appiah has described: “Modernism,” he writes, “in literature and architecture and philosophy […] may be for reason or against it: but in each domain rationalization—the pervasion of reason—is seen as the distinctive dynamic of contemporary history” (145).4

The spread of instrumental reason and the decay of various received codes of behavior is pervasively shown through the novel's portrayal of working-class and professional men and both “modern” and “traditional” women. The central characters are confronted with situations that escape the categories of their earlier lives, and each must think in synthetic and critical ways to devise the best responses to desperate and often brutal events. However, it is also through these experiences of individual reasoning that characters find new social and political connections, and these new affiliations stand for an emerging set of horizontal links that will define the new Algerian national polity. It is in this way that Djebar's novel espouses a revolutionary modernism, as it seems to understand rationalization as “the distinctive dynamic of contemporary history.”

To put the matter another way, one could say that Djebar's novel narrates the emergence in Algerian society of what Dipesh Chakrabarty has called “the ‘modern’ subject of European history” (18). Chakrabarty argues that the history of decolonization has hitherto been written within a controlling metanarrative of historical development: that is, a course of civilization from the primitive to the modern, from barter to money, from tribe to nation-state. Within this mode of historical writing, Europe represents the end of political history, and the individualized private subject of the democratic state represents the final development in the history of human self-awareness. Third World history in this paradigm always construes the colony or postcolonial state as a “lack” or “failure” of modernity, stressing its “transitional” features, its slow but supposedly inevitable movement into a technological, economic, and social modernity that will break down the outmoded collectivities of precolonial lifeways and foster the emergence of the modern subject. Djebar's novel portrays Algerian society in this transition. It “h[angs] the tapestry of […] ‘history’ [in this case, Algerian history] between the two poles of the homologous sets of oppositions, despotic/constitutional, medieval/modern, feudal capitalist” (Chakrabarty 6).

The aspects of Djebar's novel that express this view of the national future can be made clear by comparing the novel with works by two other nearly contemporary francophone commentators on Algerian societies, Pierre Bourdieu and Frantz Fanon. But while Djebar's fiction participates in what I call modernism—in this particular sense—she also critiques it in important ways, substantially because of her focus on women's experiences during the revolution. Her analysis of gender systems within the political and economic changes of this period leads her finally toward a more complex analysis of cultural practices and historical change than either Fanon or Bourdieu provide.

Particularly early in the novel, characters find themselves increasingly individuated by events in their families and societies. That is, they confront new emotional or spatial kinds of isolation and at the same time are called on by events in the context of the revolution to consider their own feelings and actions in new ways. Women characters in particular, both those who are educated in French-language schools and who move about alone in public, and those who stay in the home, doing domestic work and going out only in the company of men, experience events that press the question of their individual agency. Salima, a school teacher, is arrested because of her association with a revolutionary who has escaped to the mountain—shorthand in the novel for the FLN guerrilla stronghold. In prison, interrogated for days without sleep, she hardens in her resolve to hide what she knows about her friend's activities, as she thinks of herself as a “maillon de la chaîne” ‘link in a chain’ of national resistance (108), but also as she contemplates the wholly new experience of devastation that arrest has brought her. Lila, alone since her husband Ali went to “the mountain,” is by herself in a new high-rise apartment building in an empty apartment she has just rented. By the end of the novel Lila has been arrested and placed in the same cell with Salima, where both await interrogation and possibly torture. Lila is able to determine not to talk because of a reconceived sense of her own identity. “Jusque-là,” the narrative tells us, “elle evait cru d'une façon indiscutable que, pour elle, il n'y avait moyen de se reconnaître que dans l'amour” ‘Until then she had believed, without being able to say it, that for her there was no other way to know herself other than through love’ (286).5 When her husband left to join the fighting, she lost this sense of self-recognition, passing uncounted days in the white emptiness of her high-rise apartment. Through the course of the day on which the novel is set, she finds other ways of creating the sense of self she had only felt in Ali's reflection of her, renewing connections with female friends and relations and contemplating her own commitment to national liberation.

Similar transitions are experienced by two “traditional” female characters, Amna and Cherifa, who live with their husbands in adjoining houses in the old Arab quarter of the city. These two women live in their houses “selon les traditions” ‘according to tradition’ (137), moving in the street only to go to the women's baths or to family events, then only in the company of their husbands, and with hair and face covered. Amna's husband Hakim has worked for several years as an inspector with the local French police force. When he asks Amna for information on Cherifa's husband, Youssef—secretly a member of the local revolutionary cell—she lies out of loyalty to Cherifa, calling her “ma soeur” (84). This is the first lie she has told Hakim, and her action seems to separate her from her husband's control in ways she has never experienced before. At the same time it allies her with Cherifa, and with the revolution. Cherifa eventually leaves the house alone in order to find Youssef and warn him that the police are making inquiries, but walking out alone is almost unimaginable:

Pour une épouse heureuse vivant au coeur d'une maison d'où elle ne sort pas, selon les traditions, comment prendre, pour la première fois, la décision d'agir? Comment «agir»? Mot étrange pour celle qu'emprisonne l'habitude […].

For a contented wife living in a house which she never leaves, according to tradition, how is it possible to decide, for the first time, to take action? How does one “act”? Strange word for one who's confined by habit […].


Cherifa is successful in the attempt to warn Youssef, and he manages to escape the city to join the guerrillas before Hakim is able to find him. Like Lila, early in the novel, Cherifa thinks about the way her own sense of self is completely tied to her husband: “Son miroir,” she says to herself, “je ne suis plus que son miroir!” ‘His mirror … I'm nothing more than his mirror’ (50). By the novel's conclusion she is not only determined how to “act,” she also confronts a new life alone.

Not all these discoveries of female agency in the novel—discoveries Lila talks about as a kind of new-found and totally reconceived “bonheur” ‘happiness’ (286)—are met with celebration. Djebar stresses the violent recrimination with which women's changing status in the revolutionary scene is often met. When Hakim returns home at night, he beats Amna because he suspects she has lied to him. A nineteen-year-old woman, Touma, who dresses in European fashions, works in an office, and has begun to act as an informant for the French police, is murdered by her younger brother, Tawfik. The epithets he uses to curses her throughout suggest that Touma's crime, in her brother's eyes, involves her modern dress and liberated behavior as much as her betrayal of the nationalist cause. These and other reasons the narrative gives for these male reprisals are interesting and important, however, and I will return to them at the conclusion of this essay.

Male characters also find themselves increasingly individuated by the changes wrought by the war. Amna's husband Hakim, the police inspector, however, finds himself increasingly cut off from all previous social ties. He sees the strangeness in Amna's face when he questions her; “comme ceux que j'interroge et qui me bravent” ‘like those whom I interrogate, and who defy me’ he thinks to himself later (87). His connection to her, based for him on security and control, seems threatened. From interrogating his wife, he is forced by his French superiors eventually into torturing an old acquaintance, Saidi, a prominent figure in the town. But these acts of extreme alienation are only the final turns of a life of increasingly harsh isolation. When he first took the police job, he would describe his days to Amna simply as a series of chance meetings with male acquaintances, without clear reference to his police work:

Hakim trouvait du plaisir à prêter de la consistance à ces courts instants hors du commisariat à entretenir l'illusion que sa journée s'emplissait simplement de ces rencontres avec ses compatriotes et des phrases échangées dont la banalité établissait un lien profond entre lui, Hakim, bien qu'il fût le policier arabe assez haut gradé, et ses frères de race.

Hakim took pleasure in using these short moments outside the office to sustain the illusion that the course of his day consisted simply of these encounters with his compatriots and of these exchanged phrases, the banality of which established a profound link between him, Hakim, even though he was the high-ranking Arab police officer, and the brothers of his race.


Eventually, he speaks less of such meetings, as the men of the town ostracize him more and more completely, and he finally buys a car with his earnings, to obviate contact with anyone.

But while the novel's form is always pointing to the simultaneous perspectives of characters in emotional transition, it is also concerned with the features of spatial perspective, and with the geography of changing spaces in this era. The novel opens with a description of the streets of the Arab quarter where Amna and Cherifa live:

Dans le vieux quartier arabe, au pied de la montagne, les maisons à façade blanche crépie à la chaux se ressemblent. Dans ces lieux où s'étendait autrefois, de la ville maintenant agrandie, le seul faubourg—celui où les familles aisées de l'époque aimaient venir, dès la fin du printemps, pour y trouver, près des sources et des vergers proches, un peu de fraîcheur—chaque demeure est le fond d'une impasse où l'on fait halte après qu'on s'est perdu dans un dédale de ruelles […].

In the old Arab quarter at the foot of the mountain, the houses, with their white-washed facades, all look alike. Here in what was the old city's first suburb—the place where affluent families of the period loved to come, from the end of springtime, to find at the springs and the nearby orchards, a bit of coolness—each home forms the end of its own blind alley, where one stops after getting lost in a maze of little lanes […].


The maze of the Arab quarter contrasts sharply with Lila's apartment building, a new sixteen-story high rise that is totally unoccupied, built for affluent French families who have all fled since the start of the fighting. Its identical, empty white apartments each provide a view of an entire section of the city. The other major new construction in the novel is police headquarters, another high-rise designed to accommodate the massive numbers of detainees awaiting questioning, torture, and prosecution. This is the building Hakim drives back and forth to, and Hakim, we learn, is eager to move his family into an apartment in Lila's building (160). In this way the novel connects the isolated and regularized space of a modernizing bourgeoisie to the logical practice of the police state. The grid of blank apartments resembles both the cells of the high-rise prison and the island of expensive privacy Hakim purchases in the form of an automobile. Hakim's job in the security force compels him toward a totally privatized space, where he will meet no one, where he will never have to encounter one of the people he has tortured. Lila craves this form of isolation as the novel opens, feeling that it reflects her own sense of being totally alone now that her everyday tie to her husband has been broken. The novel's focus on the signification of urban spaces emphasizes too the way that Hakim and Lila's experiences have led them away from the community and family forms of the Arab quarter—where the streets themselves are a palimpsest of the community's history and structure. Because of the shock of new lives, to which Lila and Hakim are forced to react on their own, they crave a spatial regime of autonomous individuality, in compartments where they can be cut off from everything.

The narrative frequently juxtaposes different spatial orders in this way, pointing to the economic and social practices particular to each, moving toward a materialist geography of the colonial city, with its rough patchwork of economic and social forms. Driving in his car back to the police station, Hakim thinks of Amna's suspicious responses to his questions as he looks out the window:

Le jeep s'engage dans la longue rue du vieux centre d'affaires: magasins de tapis, de maroquinerie, de cuivre, c'est là le reste d'un quartier artisanal où se sont depuis installés des échoppes nouvelles, vendeurs de cycles, de radios, de mobilier neuf. Au bout, le marché arabe avec un air agreste parce que les paysans y viennent vendre leurs oeufs, leurs fromages de chèvres, leurs volailles fraichement égorées, ou vives. Ce matin, l'animation habituelle semble gelée.

The jeep moved slowly into the long street of the old business center: stores for rugs, leather, copper-wear: it's the remainder of an artisan quarter where recently new shops have appeared, sellers of bicycles, radios, new furniture. At the end the Arab market with a rustic air because the peasants come there to sell their eggs, goat cheeses, their fowls, freshly killed or live. This morning, the usual activity seems frozen.


These images of sharp spatial and social border-lines occur again, for example, with Lila's high-rise apartment, which looks out on the shanty town by the river, crowded with displaced villagers, or in the descriptions of the new high-speed train that stops in the old central square.

But, as will be clear from these examples, as old social bonds break down in the novel, new revolutionary bonds are formed. The trajectory each character follows moves away from some previous conception of community or family, through experiences that require some kind of individual action, which is later supported by new relationships. And it is this trajectory that is reflected in the novel's form, where a host of characters move independently, each confined to his or her own synchronous, monadic point of view, while through the course of the day's events the reader perceives a new order emerging from this jumble of perceptions. This breaking and remaking is a model for the emergence of the “new world” of Djebar's title, a new world of autonomous horizontally affiliated subjects, linked through rational participation in the structures of citizenship. It is in this way that the novel seems to fit with Appiah's “modernism,” since characters experience the revolution as a rationalizing force. The social upheaval of the war pushes them, often for the first time in their lives, toward individual, instrumental decisions with specific ends in political practice, emotional self-care, or wage labor. The novel narrates the rise of Algerian nationhood through the emergence of what Chakrabarty calls “the subject of western history.”

What I have proposed so far is that, in its depiction of revolutionary change, Les enfants suggests that history will propel traditional or colonial societies inevitably toward abstract individualism. This notion of historical development provides the novel with a framework for representing the process of decolonization, and this framework has been referred to as the novel's “modernism.” Two other commentaries on Algerian society also written in the late 1950s will give a better understanding of the force of this particular modernist framework, during the struggle for Algerian independence: Pierre Bourdieu's Sociologie de l'Algérie (1958), and Frantz Fanon's L'an V de la révolution algérienne (1959). These texts share the “modernist” perspective I have tried to identify in Djebar's novel, and thus they seem to confirm the power this particular narrative of development held for anticolonial intellectuals of the period. At the same time, however, these works by Bourdieu and Fanon differ sharply from Les enfants in other ways, particularly in their understanding of the role gender might play in the process of social and economic change. These differences ultimately show that Djebar's novel offers the possibility of a break from the linear framework of a history centered on the west.

The “modernist” narrative of development, where history moves toward and through the individual subject of European economic and political theory, is clearly a shaping force in Bourdieu's 1958 book, published in English as The Algerians. Bourdieu begins here by studying the implementation of French colonial capitalism in Algeria. Particularly since the rapid development of grain and wine production in the late nineteenth century, French agricultural policy had aimed specifically at disrupting the close organization of tribal societies in order to concentrate land ownership in French hands, and to produce a class of mobile Algerian wage-laborers. These processes are, however, unevenly accomplished, with agricultural development concentrated on the areas with the most rainfall and most fertile soil. Thus while traditional methods persist in some regions, though changing under considerable pressure, a new class of urban poor has arisen, clustering in coastal cities. By the early 1950s, Bourdieu argues, social practices and attitudes are considerably in flux: “Aux anciennes valeurs de prestige et d'honneur, se substitute la valeur monétaire, impersonelle et abstraite” (120) / “An impersonal and abstract monetary value is replacing the former values of prestige and honor” (139).6 What results, according to Bourdieu, is “[un] monde renversé” (120) / a “topsy-turvey world” (139), where beliefs and practices are cut off from their former contexts in economic relations: “Aussi est-il naturel que la société algérienne, déséquilibrée et déréglée, se soit trouvée emportée dans une course vertigineuse à l'abîme” (112) / “It was to be expected,” he concludes, “that Algerian society thrown off balance and in a complex state of disorder, should have been swept down a dizzy path leading to the abyss” (129).

It is the perception of such an “abyss,” a social vacuum brought on by uneven and rapid change, that recalls Djebar's day in the life of Blida, where one character after another finds a previously stable existence fractured. Like Bourdieu's text, Les enfants represents the war as a process that shatters the undergirding of identity and community, launching characters into a cultural free-fall. Customary and traditional practices have to be abandoned, as each character moves into an uncertain “new world.” The radical novelty of this world is revealed not simply in the events the novel depicts, but also at the level of narrative form, in the near-random kaleidoscope of atomized viewpoints the novel presents.

This “modernist” view of the anticolonial struggle links Les enfants as well to Fanon's L'an V de la révolution algérienne, a collection of essays published together in 1959. Here Fanon argues that the revolution is draining the original significance of all markers of Algerian cultural identity. The veil, the radio, the newspaper, family relationships, medical technology: all these, in Fanon's treatment, are cast loose from earlier structures and meanings as the priority of all decisions and modes of social signification falls on the revolutionary imperative. Radios, once a symbol of pied noir luxury, carry the news of the revolution, altering the cultural significance of spoken language: “la réalité du combat et le désarroi de l'occupant, enlèvent à la langue arabe son caractère sacré, et à la langue française ses catégories maudites” (83) / “The reality of combat and the confusion of the occupier strips the Arabic language of its sacred character, and the French language of its negative connotations” (92).7 Fanon observes that “les vielles superstitions commencent à s'écrouler” (139) / “old superstitions begin to crumble” (143) as medical techniques for caring for FLN combatants became generally accepted. For Fanon the forces of colonial capitalism and the contingencies of combat create an instability of social values, and from this instability will emerge a class of subjects capable of the abstract, or, as Benedict Anderson puts it, “imagined” identification with the nation. Again we can see the similarity to events and strategies in Djebar's text. Customary patterns of kinship, work, dwelling, and movement break down, some gradually, some all at once. What remains is a collection of new individuals, forced upon the shoals of instrumental reason.

Fanon's essay “Algeria Unveiled” in this volume recalls Djebar's scene of Cherifa leaving the house alone for the first time to warn her husband that he is wanted by the police. When Cherifa finally finds Youssef at his shop in the city, her veil accidentally falls off and “découvre son visage angoissé” ‘reveals her anguished face’ (227). A moment later the narrative voice describes the way that the fears and sensations of her search through the streets “la découvraient à elle-même” ‘revealed her to herself’ (228). The scene is similar to Fanon's discussion of the new sensory and psychic perceptions of Algerian women who move alone and unveiled in public for the first time to carry out the work of the revolutionary cells. Djebar's sense of a self-discovery resulting from this literal uncovering repeats the formulation of Fanon's title: that in pushing the veil beyond the limits of its traditional signification, the new Algerian nation itself will be “unveiled.” In the vicissitudes of combat, Fanon argues, “le voile est repris, mais définitivement dépouillé de sa dimension exclusivement traditionelle” (52) / “the veil is resumed, but stripped once and for all of its exclusively traditional dimension” (63).

Voile enlevé puis remis, voile intrumentalisé, transformé en technique de camouflage, en moyen de lutte. Le caractère quasi tabou pris par la voile dans la situation coloniale disparaît presque complètement au cours de la lutte libératrice.


Removed and reassumed again and again, the veil has been manipulated, transformed into a technique of camouflage, into a means of struggle. The virtually taboo character assumed by the veil in the colonial situation disappears almost entirely in the course of the liberation struggle.


Fanon is quite absolute about this process, not just in relation to the veil but to all features of Algerian societies, persuaded that the future will witness the rapid withering of traditional, magical, and religious thinking, and the pervasion of the instrumentalist thinking of the revolutionary. It is at this point, however, where Djebar radically parts company with Fanon. Indeed it is Djebar's understanding of the intransigence of certain cultural norms, especially those relating to gender, that makes Les enfants a fuller and more subtle portrait of a revolutionary modernism.

For his own part, Fanon himself seems to revise the rigid dialectical method of L'an V in his last book, Les damnés de la terre (1961). Here in this later work, the secularizing instability of culture in combat will become “the zone of occult instability, where the people dwell” (227). This later formulation, widely influential in the poststructuralist critique of the nation, as Henry Louis Gates has suggested, signals a shift in Fanon's revolutionary modernism.8 Decolonization here evolves not in an “abyss” of cultural a-signification, where traditions are “stripped” of all earlier meanings, but rather in this “occult zone,” through which the revolutionary intellectual must pass in order to see that “the people” will not emerge as “modern” subjects of European history. What Fanon will later develop will be not a modernism, nor a nativism, but perhaps a way of seeing a history which could aim at, as Chakrabarty puts it, “provincializing Europe” (20).

Still, Fanon's response to the early years of the fighting was, as it were, to take reason on faith. A similar article of faith guided the core of Algerian nationalist political and military leadership at this point. Indeed the wing of the diverse nationalist movement throughout the first half of the twentieth century which eventually coalesced into the Front de Libération Nationale had many ties to France and French political organizations, including for a time the communist party. Thus it might be logical to conclude that Algerian nationalist politics in this period would be articulated within the terms bounded by Chakrabarty's “subject of western history.” Étoile Nord-Africaine, the group most acknowledged as the first widely popular nationalist party, had been organized by Algerian workers in France, and its politics were always of a progressive, secular type.9 However, this was not the only nationalist group; an Islamic reform movement, which, like Étoile, gathered strength in the 1920s, also commanded at various times great popular support in its push for a modern nationality conceived within a modernized sense of religious faith.10 Any attempt to understand Algerian national politics would have to consider this broad nation-building network. Yet the idea of a specifically Arabic-Islamic Algeria was marginalized within the FLN, particularly after 1955 with the purging of one faction of its leadership who had argued for continuing ties to the reformists and a religious characterization of the war with France (Harbi 5, 171, passim; Ageron, 98). One FLN Manuel des militants, published in 1962, stated the FLN's political objective as follows: “l'édification d'une République Algérienne, libre, démocratique et sociale, qui ne soit pas en contradiction avec les principes islamiques” ‘the advancement of an Algerian Republic, free, democratic, and social, which does not contradict the principles of Islam’ (Khelifa 8). Again, the formulation indicates that a modernist conception of the subject structures this statement of national goals: the economic and the political, named in the first clause, will be the juridical foundation of a new Algerian state, while religion will be left to a private realm of individual conscience, into which the state will not intrude.

As Winifred Woodhull has shown, Fanon's treatment of the veil in A Dying Colonialism was limited in part because he did not consider the links between Algerian and European feminist groups, and thus could not acknowledge that the veil might have any continuing meaning beyond its deployment in the nationalist struggle (“Unveiling Algeria” 120). For her own part however, Djebar does not seem at all persuaded that this complete depolarization of all cultural signs is inevitable. The complete rationalization imagined in the revolutionary moment failed to occur, as indeed it failed to occur as expected in the “First World,” with neoconservative and fundamentalist appeals to national heritage and tradition gaining political currency since the 1980s.11 In Algeria gains in the status of women that the revolution promised were sharply rolled back after the 1962 armistice, and the progress of secularization has been anything but steady, with the FIS, Front Islamique du Salut, winning popular elections in 1991 and moving rapidly to a posture of civil war. Djebar's novel, though it seems in some ways to subscribe to the modernization/rationalization view of colonial history, does anticipate the complex negotiation of tradition and state politics in the post-revolutionary period. To a certain extent, the novel represents social practices taking an unreal or wholly conventionalized quality, within the changing patchwork of economic, political, and spatial regimes of the city. The exchange of formulaic public greetings by men, the importance of extended family loyalties, the separation of the sexes: these practices drift free from earlier contexts. The signs of tradition, though, instead of being completely evacuated of meaning, become wildly inconsistent. Hakim, for example, when he is ostracized, experiences a kind of panicked yearning for the forms of the male-male public greeting—“Même quand,” Djebar writes, “ce n'était que dans la forme; et, la forme, pour cette bourgeoisie appauvrie, compte tant encore” ‘Even though there was nothing here except in the form; and the form, for this low-level bourgeoisie, still counts for so much’ (91).

Djebar's portrayal of this cultural process is most striking in the character Tawfik, brother of the collaborator, Touma. Tawfick shoots his sister in the public square, after he connects her with the arrest of a character who has been killed while in detention. But though he wants to join an FLN cell and is eager to appear hardened for the cause, he thinks of his killing not in terms of revolutionary necessity, but in terms of family honor. Touma's political crime fades in his mind, and her French clothes and association with French men take over Tawfik's memory. “J'avais une tache sur moi,” he says, “et je l'ai effacée” ‘I had a stain on me, and I effaced it’ (298). He repeats this phrase again and again mechanically, as he wanders the city after the crime. He recalls then the time when he first heard these words, in a story he was told in childhood.

«J'avais une tache sur moi … Je portais une souillure», ainsi a parlé, lui a-t-on raconté quand il était enfant, celui dont l'honneur s'est trouvé offensé par sa fille qui s'est donnée à un étranger, sur la route. C'était au bord du fleuve; le bidonville n'existait pas, les racines de la misère restaient enfouies encore dans la terre protectrice […] s'y installaient les premières gens descendues de la montagne, ou d'anciens nomades venus des plateaux du sud, eux tous que la ville prétendait ignorer, mais dont les filles, «les filles du fleuve» disait-on, étaient célèbres pour leur beauté, autant que pour leur vertu farouche—celles-là même qui alimentent à présent les bordels de la capitale, quand elles ne deviennent pas danseuses du ventre, dans les cabarets des ports.

“I had a stain on me … I carried a mark,” thus had spoken, someone had told him when he was a child, the man whose honor was offended by his daughter who gave herself to a stranger on the road. This was at the edge of the river; the shanty town did not exist yet there, the roots of the misery remained buried in the protective ground […] there lived the first people to come down from the mountain, or from the old nomadic peoples of the southern plateaus, all those people the city pretended not to know of, but whose girls, “the girls of the river” as they were called, were known for their beauty, as well as for their fierce virtue—those even who at present fill the brothels of the capital, when they don't become belly dancers in the port-city cabarets.


It is the drift in Djebar's narration here that offers clues to the way traditional cultural practices can persist under conditions of economic or political modernization. The story of injured patriarchal honor here winds through the geographic dislocations of colonial capitalism. The language that structures Tawfik's rage has filtered to him through several layers of social transformation, but forms of the male exchange of women are reinvented throughout the process of economic modernization.

Though Djebar seems in ways to narrate Algerian modernity as the emergence of an autonomous rational subject, she shows with great force that economic and political modernization is not equivalent with rationalization on the level of subjectivity. In this narrative of revolution, the signs of tradition can still circulate in conventionalized or commodified form. Detached from colonial or precolonial social structures, the codes of a traditional gender system persist within the otherwise “new world” of the nation. In this regard the novel's model of gender and history resembles Fanon's and Bourdieu's less than that of sociologist Maria Mies, who argues that the struggling Algerian economy after independence was shored up in part by so-called “soft sectors” of unpaid production, like housework and child care, which can only be maintained—in Algeria or in the US and Europe's intense “housewife-ization” of the 1950s and '60s—under the sign of a “traditional” femininity.12 Tradition becomes a commodity in a postrevolutionary world, but its status remains mystified, fetishized, not disenchanted but a spell recast, this time within a new national ideology. Djebar's novel portrays the cultural processes that make this sort of deployment of the sign of femininity possible. The novel presciently suggests the way that infrastructural or political modernization, as conceived within a European model of history, will not lead to the shift in consciousness clearly looked for in this revolutionary period.


  1. The emerging critical literature on L'amour, la fantasia is extensive. See in particular Gayatri Spivak's relatively early (1991) take on the novel in her essay “Acting Bits/Identity Talk,” as well as Clarisse Zimra's “Disorienting the Subject in Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia”; Anne Donadey's “Assia Djebar's Poetics of Subversion”; Mildred Mortimer's “Assia Djebar's Algerian Quartet: A Study in Fragmented Autobiography”; and H. Adlai Murdoch's “Rewriting Writing: Identity, Exile and Renewal in Assia Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia.” John Erickson devotes significant attention to the novel in his recent Islam and Postcolonial Narrative, as does Winifred Woodhull in Transfigurations of the Maghreb.

  2. The most sustained treatment of Les enfants du nouveau monde appears in Evelyne Accad's overview essay “Assia Djebar's Contribution to Arab Women's Literature: Rebellion, Maturity, Vision.” Accad nicely sums up the novel's central strategy, arguing that it “shows the awakening of a new nation and its people by describing the growing awareness of several women” (806). She concludes, however, that in the novel, “Djebar makes it clear that society is no longer to be considered the culprit with respect to the condition of women” (807). This is an unfortunate oversimplification. Miriam Cooke's “Arab Women, Arab Wars” offers a brief discussion of Les enfants; Benjamin Stora mentions the novel in his essay “Women's Writing between Two Algerian Wars,” as does Zimra in “Disorienting the Subject.”

  3. My strategy here in positioning Djebar's text within a regional or local historical framework derives in part from Kum Kum Sangari's essay “The Politics of the Possible.” Here Sangari questions the positioning of two international celebrities from the third world, Rushdie and García Márquez, within the rubric of a global postmodernism, arguing instead that the dazzling formal innovations of these authors emerge out of specific geographical and historical problematics. While I use the term “modernism” here in my reading of this early text by Djebar, my aim is to develop a particular sense of this term, specific to the context of anticolonial struggle in Algeria.

  4. Appiah's discussion of the problem of modernization in his essay “The Postcolonial and the Postmodern” focuses most importantly on the disjuncture between the spread of capitialist markets and what he calls “the pervasion of reason.”

  5. Translations from Djebar's novel throughout are mine.

  6. Translations of Bourdieu are from the English edition, published in 1962 as The Algerians.

  7. Translations of Fanon are from the English edition of L'An V, first published in 1965 as Studies in a Dying Colonialism.

  8. Gates provides a useful survey of Fanon's position within postcolonial criticism in his essay “Critical Fanonism.” For the poststructuralist reading of The Wretched of the Earth, see most centrally Homi K. Bhabha: “I am indebted to Fanon for liberating a certain, uncertain time of the people […]. The present of people's history, then, is a practice that destroys the constant principles of the national culture that attempt to hark back to a ‘true’ national past, which is often represented in the reified forms of realism and stereotype. Such pedagogical knowledges and continuist national narratives miss the ‘zone of occult instability where the people dwell’ (Fanon's phrase)” (303; parentheses in original). Bhabha is writing here in his edited volume Nation and Narration, a collection of essays that approach national culture as semiotic construct, interminable narrative, or neurotic commemoration. For Bhabha reading Fanon, see also “Interrogating Identity: Frantz Fanon and the Postcolonial Prerogative” and “Remembering Fanon: Self, Psyche and the Colonial Condition.” Bhabha's emphasis on the unknowability or, to be more precise, on the performativity of culture is critically analyzed in Benita Parry's essay “Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse.”

  9. An early twentieth-century movement called Jeunes Algériens predated Étoile; its dependence on the European developmental paradigm is signalled in its name, which points toward a romantic idea of national maturation, linked with so many nineteenth-century European nationalist groups, like Disraeli's “Young England” or Davis's “Young Ireland.” The Jeunes split over reaction to the so-called Jonnart laws of 1919, a French concession that extended voting rights to male Algerians who were educated, owned property, or had fought in WWI. One contingent, the Fédération des Élus Indigènes, supported the law and called for an Algerian elite (the “elect”) to assimilate into the French bourgeoisie. Étoile formed in opposition, rejecting partial suffrage and calling for complete civil rights and, ultimately, independence (Ruedy 136-43; Ageron 87-88). The influence of Étoile's eventual leader, Messali Hadj, declined within the FLN once conflict began in 1954 (Harbi 5, 170-72).

  10. In Histoire de l'Algérie contemporaine Charles-Robert Ageron begins his summary of political life in the early 1950s as follows: “Les nationalistes accrurent donc leur audience. Les 'ûlamla [reformists] étendaient leur réseau d'écoles et d'influences et formaient un jeunesse tou entière ver l'Orient arabe” (98). There were 90 of these schools in 1947, 181 in 1954, serving 40,000 students (89). Ageron's emphasis of the continued influence of this important movement, at least among the generation of young Algerian men educated in these schools, is somewhat unusual. John Ruedy's discussion of the movement in his Modern Algeria, for example, downplays its long term effect. Neither Fanon nor Bourdieu seems to mention it in the works treated here.

  11. I am thinking here most primarily of David Harvey's comments on the British “heritage industry” in his Condition of Postmodernity. During a period in the 1980s, new museums opened in Britain at the rate of one every three weeks (62). This figure would presumably include museums not devoted to histories that would be properly understood within a British national construct, but the figure is overwhelming. This spike of commemoration and monumentalization occurred in a time of increasingly “flexible accumulation” (Harvey 145-47), when rapid economic change dislocated cultural signs of all sorts from their previous economic and social contexts.

  12. See Mies's chapter “National Liberation and Women's Liberation” (175-204) for discussion of several examples.

This essay would not have been written without the guidance and support of Kristin Ross, who first steered me toward Djebar's work, and who offered generous comments on early drafts. I am also grateful for the assistance of Christiane Michel.

Works Cited

Ageron, Charles-Robert. Histoire de l'Algérie contemporaine. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1970.

Accad, Evelyne. “Assia Djebar's Contribution to Arab Women's Literature: Rebellion, Maturity, Vision.” World Literature Today 70 (1996): 801-12.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 1st ed. London: Verso, 1983.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “The Postcolonial and the Postmodern.” In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Bhabha, Homi. “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation.” Nation and Narration. London: Routledge, 1990. 291-332.

———. “Interrogating Identity: Frantz Fanon and the Postcolonial Prerogative.” The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994, 40-65.

———. “Remembering Fanon: Self, Psyche and the Colonial Condition.” Foreword to Black Skins, White Masks. London: Pluto, 1986.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Algerians. Trans. Alan C. M. Ross. Boston: Beacon, 1962.

———. Sociologie de l'Algérie. 1958. 3rd ed. Series: Que Sais-Je? Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?” Representations 37 (1992): 1-26.

Cooke, Miriam. “Arab Women, Arab Wars.” Cultural Critique 29 (1994): 5-29.

Djebar, Assiah. Les enfants du nouveau monde. Paris: Julliard, 1962.

Donadey, Anne. “Assia Djebar's Poetics of Subversion.” L'Esprit Créateur 33.2 (1993): 107-17.

Erickson, John. Islam and Postcolonial Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Fanon, Frantz. L'an V de la révolution algérienne. 1959. 3rd. ed. Paris: Maspero, 1962.

———. A Dying Colonialism. Trans. Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove, 1965.

———. Les damnés de la terre. Paris: François Maspero, 1961. Trans. in English by Constance Farrington as The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove, 1963.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Critical Fanonism.” Critical Inquiry 17 (1991): 457-70.

Harbi, Mohammed. Le FLN: Mirage et réalité. Paris: Editions J.A., 1980.

Head, Bessie. A Question of Power. Oxford: Heinemann, 1974.

———. Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind. Oxford: Heinemann, 1981.

Mies, Maria. Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labor. Atlantic Highlands: Zed, 1986.

Mortimer, Mildred. “Assia Djebar's Algerian Quartet: A Study in Fragmented Autobiography.” Research in African Literature 28.2 (1997): 102-17.

Murdoch, H. Adlai. “Rewriting Writing: Identity, Exile and Renewal in Assia Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia.Yale French Studies 83 (1993): 71-92.

Parry, Benita. “Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse.” Oxford Literary Review 9.1-2 (1987): 27-58.

Ruedy, John. Modern Algeria. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992.

Sangari, Kumkum. “The Politics of the Possible.” The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. Ed. Abdul R. JanMohamded and David Lloyd. New York: Oxford UP, 1990. 216-45.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Acting Bits/Identity Talk.” Critical Inquiry 18 (1992): 770-803.

Stora, Benjamin. “Women's Writing between Two Algerian Wars.” Research in African Literatures 30.3 (1999): 78-84.

Suleri, Sara. Meatless Days. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Woodhull, Winifred. Transfigurations of the Maghreb: Feminism, Decolonization, and Literatures. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996.

———. “Unveiling Algeria.” Genders 10 (1991). 112-131.

Zimra, Clarisse. “Disorienting the Subject in Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia.Yale French Studies 87 (1995): 149-70.

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Principal Works


Further Reading