Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 July 2005
Issue No. 750
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In search of Algerian women

The Algerian writer and filmmaker Assia Djebar was elected to the Académie française in June, the first woman from the Maghreb to be elected to this prestigious French conclave, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Click to view caption
Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement, Eugène Delacroix, 1834

News of the recent election of Assia Djebar to the Académie française in Paris will please the Algerian academic, writer and filmmaker's many admirers worldwide. Born Fatima-Zohra Imalayen in 1936 in the coastal town of Cherchell in what was then French Algeria, Djebar has achieved worldwide fame in recent decades, notably for her quartet of novels on Algerian women, beginning in 1985 with the publication of L'Amour, la fantasia, which has been translated into English as "Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade".

Djebar first came to public attention in 1957 with her first novel, La Soif (Thirst), published when she was just 20. Hailed in France as an Algerian Françoise Sagan, whose own first novel of teenage revolt and female emancipation, Bonjour tristesse, had just become a bestseller, La Soif describes the life of a half-French, half-Algerian girl eager to choose her own path in life not necessarily with regard for family or tradition. Condemned at the time as an exercise in frivolous individualism during a period of national struggle, the novel established Djebar as a significant voice in nascent Algerian literature, a reputation enhanced by subsequent novels, such as Les Enfants du nouveau monde (1962), and Les Alouettes naives (1967), which explored the place of women in the then newly independent Algeria and the early challenges facing the new country.

At the same time Djebar was establishing herself as a historian and academic, and she was the first Algerian woman to be admitted to the prestigious Ecole normale supérieure, a French grande école, in 1955. Here she studied the history of the Maghreb, becoming a professor of history and then of French and film studies at the University of Algiers in the 1960s and 70s. In the latter decade, Djebar began work as a filmmaker, researching and writing documentary films on Algerian women, including La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua (1979), and La Zerda ou les chants d'oubli (1982). She left Algeria in the 1980s, having become disillusioned both with the regime and with its policy of "Arabisation", the compulsory use of the Arabic language, which she believed was impacting badly on Algerian intellectual life. From the 1990s on Djebar has taught at various universities in the United States, while continuing to publish fiction on Algeria, notably the stories collected in Oran, langue morte (Oran: Dead Language) in 1997.

Djebar's election on 16 June to the prestigious Académie française has been hailed as the crowning point of an already distinguished career and one that has seen her join the ranks of the best-known francophone writers from the Maghreb, as well as become something of an unofficial ambassador of La Francophonie through her teaching and other assignments. Indeed, the Académie, founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu to promote the correct use of the French language, is best known today for its monumental French dictionary, the current edition of which has now reached the word l'onglette (a kind of engraving tool).

Among the other members of the present Académie, whose number is restricted to 40, are many of the great and the good of French intellectual and political life, including the anthropologist Claude LéviStrauss, novelists Henri Troyat and Alain Robbe- Grillet, and historians Pierre Nora and Marc Fumaroli. New members are elected for life on the death of a previous member, and according to the Académie's own publicity material election to it is "considered a supreme consecration", the academicians jointly presenting "an accurate image of the talent, the intelligence, the culture and the literary and scientific imagination on which the genius of France is based".

For the French newspaper Le Monde, in an editorial written in the wake of Djebar's election, the Académie's decision to elect "for the first time an author from the Maghreb" has "reaffirmed that la francophonie is not just a word -- [and has shown its] determination to continue to welcome remarkable women among its members". In addition, "French literature is too often seen as a kind of private domain, its boundaries placed around the Paris region, when in fact the French language should serve as a single standard for all francophone writers, whether Vietnamese, Canadian, Belgian, Swiss, African or Egyptian."

By this election, "the Académie has welcomed a novelist who was also an Algerian nationalist, a militant and a contributor to [the FLN newspaper] Al-Moudjahid. Her life is the reflection of a constant struggle for honour, independence and women's freedom. It has been a long journey from her Algerian childhood to her tour across the world and from her mother tongue to her making her peace with that of the "former coloniser".

Two features of Djebar's writing career stand out, especially for those coming to it for the first time. The first is her long period of silence between the publication of Les Alouettes naïves in 1967 and the appearance in 1980 of the short stories collected in Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement (Women of Algiers in their Apartment), named after the famous 1834 painting by the French painter Eugène Delacroix, now in the Louvre. The second is her decision to write in French and to carry out her excavations into Algerian women's history in that language, a decision now crowned by election to the Académie française.

Often seen as a turning point in Djebar's writing career and a foretaste of her mature style, Femmes d'Alger appeared after a decade of silence, during which Djebar was searching for a clearer conception of her identity as a writer and of her relationship to French, her chosen medium. In a piece entitled Ecrire dans la langue de l'autre (Writing in the Other's Language), which appeared in the 1999 essay collection Ces Voix qui m'assiègent (These Voices that Surround Me), Djebar explains that in her earlier novels "I had used French as a veil covering who I was, covering my woman's body, almost covering up my own voice." Only later, notably by listening to other women's voices through film work, whether speaking in Arabic dialects or in Berber, "did I realise that what was hidden, what had been forgotten in my original circle, had to be brought back to light precisely by my using French".

Since the publication of Femmes d'Alger Djebar has spoken more fully of her complex relationship with French and of her choice to write in it, notably in the pieces collected in Ces Voix. In Ecrire dans la langue de l'autre, for example, Djebar writes on the early role that French played for her, "a young Arab girl going to school for the first time one autumn day, her hand in the hand of her father," as the language of public space, of education and of a masculine world represented by her father, himself a teacher of the language.

Her mother's world by contrast was hidden and private, and in it dialects of Arabic or Berber were spoken but were not usually written down. Djebar writes fascinatingly of the ways in which French for her was associated with writing, education and making a way in the world, while the Algerian Arabic dialects and Berber were associated with a female and private space, peopled by women's voices and containing histories that had never been set down on paper.

"Coming from a world and from a culture profoundly marked by the traditional segregation of the sexes," Djebar writes in a piece in Ces Voix entitled Entre parole et écriture (Between Speech and Writing), "I developed in turn a secondary, internal division in my career as a writer, becoming more pronounced as the years went by, between being a speaker of Arabic... and early on becoming practiced in French, due, first of all, to my education." While French expressed "a masculine part of myself, my feminine side stayed in the apartment behind the shutters and beside my mother, who wore the veil and did not go out".

This masculine language, famous for being "as clear as spring water", was one that "became for me a kind of speech stripped of its [feminine] shadows." Yet, paradoxically, it was one to which such shadows could be re-introduced, a "woman's space", as Djebar puts it in Ecrire dans la langue de l'autre, that could "include her interior and exterior, her intimate life and the expression of it...It is a kind of writing in which in the past I could express my feeling of being an outsider and which has since become my only real home." French, Djebar writes in L'enjeu de mon silence (The Stakes of my Silence), an essay on her 10-year period of silence in the 1970s, became a space "that did not exclude the other mother tongues within me, without my ever 'writing' them".

Elliptical, highly concentrated, and drawing broadly on Algerian history, her own autobiography and on the voices of Algerian women, whatever language they might be speaking in, Djebar's writing invites a rare attention from the reader, repaying her or him with the expression of this writer's intelligence and exceptional scrupulousness, as well as with a series of unorthodox accounts of Algeria and of Algerian history.

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