“I only see one way for the Arab women to free themselves from everything. The one of talking, talking non-stop, talking for yesterday and talking for today. Yet, talking to each other.” - Assia Djebar (1992) Women of Algiers in Their Apartment
Can you hear the call for dialogue? The much-needed dialogue that may reconcile us with ourselves and with each other?
Paying tribute to writer Assia Djebar who passed away on February 6th in Paris at the age of 78 may be one of the most difficult tasks I have sought to do in my life, simply because I thought she was immortal. Assia Djebar has been honoured by Algerians for her great work, her integrity, her intellectual honesty and her unflinching stance against Algerian patriarchy, even from beyond its borders.
When I first read Djebar, I was in my early 20s. Her work opened my eyes to the plight of other Algerian girls of the post-colonial era, caught between three cultures: the French (as the spoils of war) and the Berber and Arab/Muslim cultures. Later, in my late 40s and living in exile, I discovered that Djebar was also honouring me, this time as a female Algerian academic living in the diaspora. Djebar is a great role model for many exiled Algerian women. Her intellectual commitment, her success and her notoriety are, and will always be, the greatest source of inspiration for many of us.
Born on 30 June 1936, Djebar (real name Fatima-Zohra Imalayen) was a French-Algerian novelist, filmmaker and academic who frequently worked under a pen name. Her work has been translated into more than 20 languages and reflects her life-long commitment to the fight against patriarchal and colonial societies. Djebar was born and educated under French colonial rule and she was frequently associated with women’s movements.
In 1957, Djebar’s first novel, La Soif (The Thirst), won the hearts of all French-speaking feminists, who named her “the Muslim Françoise Sagan”. By 1996, her work had been awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. To recount the hundreds of prizes that Djebar received for her collected oeuvre is beyond the scope of this article, but perhaps her greatest achievement was her election to the Académie Française in 2005 – the first writer from North Africa to achieve such recognition. However, it is important to mention that successive Algerian governments (that have ruled the country under the same regime since independence) never accorded Djebar or her work due recognition. Neither did they introduce her literature into the school curriculum, with the shameful result that many young women in Algeria today have never heard her name or read her work. Despite the lack of acknowledgment, Djebar was at the forefront of a new feminist wave which had its origins in the emergence of a new intellectual elite in Algeria.
Peter Knauss, a political scientist whose work focuses on Africa, points out that Algerian feminism began in the first half of the twentieth century when a middle class began to emerge, graduating from the French colonial education system. This class was a social group of highly skilled Algerians, generally from the petite bourgeoisie (doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, and so on), who were mainly concentrated in the big cities. This was in contrast to the majority of the country which remained very conservative, attached to strict Islamic rules and an indigenous patriarchal culture, and deliberately kept in backward conditions by the colonial system.
It was from this new middle class that the intellectual elite emerged, and with it, nationalist and progressive movements, including a feminist movement. Although there were fewer highly educated women than men, women of this new social class were encouraged to further their studies, remove their veils and fully participate in the Algerian liberation struggle. Djebar took up her position within this milieu and embraced her role within the new feminist movement. She became the only female professor of contemporary Algerian history to work at the University of Algiers after the 1960s.
Djebar published her first novel in 1957 and continued to write until her last book in 2008, Nowhere in my Father’s House. Her films, made in the 1970s, were considered a turning point, establishing her conception of the power of artistic creation, and her literature introduced the world to a distinctive “Djebarian” style of writing. For the last 10 years, the name of Assia Djebar continued to gain prominence in the very highest spheres of literature; she was acknowledged as a giant of French literature, and was a prospective candidate for a Nobel Prize. The “Muslim Sagan” helped realize the dream of the thousands of women for whom she spoke to finally have their voices not only heard but also recognized as important.
Throughout her 60 years’ writing and publishing, Djebar unreservedly condemned all forms of subjugation imposed on the Muslim Arabic, the Berber and the Maghrebi Arabic woman. At the age of 40, disturbed by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Algeria and the Arab world in the 1990s, Djebar decided to learn Arabic in order to tap directly into the original texts and thus to thwart any betrayal of the basic tenets of Islam.
But she was also fascinated by the popular narratives of the socially oppressed women of her home town, Cherchel, in which she found inspiration. She framed her work within these narratives, and this enabled her to take on the challenge of exploring Algerian identity. The entire body of her literature thus reflects perfectly her Algerianity, this mixture of Arabo/Berberism, all wrapped within Islamic religion and culture. Ironically for someone who so embraced her home country and its many complex cultural layers, Djebar fled to exile in 1965, mainly because of the lack of academic freedom and the harsh patriarchal rules imposed onto women during the post-colonial Algeria. After living and working in France, Her last position was Silver Professor of Frech Literature in New York University.
As a historian, Djebar was concerned with visions of the past, but also (and especially) she was able to project her imagination into the future. In her work, she fluently created a relationship between history and contemporary events: she not only addressed “the colonial conquest of Algeria, or even the early days of Islam” in Far from Medina, but also the latest Algerian tragedy of the 1990s. Greatly affected by the assassinations of a great number of writers and intellectuals, Djebar reiterated the responsibility of writers and academics to research the causes of this tragedy. I recall her words: “When I write, I always write as if I was going to die tomorrow. And every time I finish, I wonder if that's really what was expected of me as the killings continue. I wonder what’s the point. If not to bite the bullet and not to cry” [personal translation].
More recently, even while fighting Alzheimer’s, Djebar embarked on researching and writing the life and work of Saint Augustine. She did not finish this valuable project, but she has left a great legacy for others to continue. She no doubt wanted to give another dimension to the history of Algeria, which has unfortunately been held hostage by both the Algerian regime and a religious fanaticism that has driven the country into an era of darkness. Re-affirming the Algerianity of Saint Augustin not only reconciles Algerians with their past and their identity, but also re-opens the dialogue between Muslims and Christians beyond the frontiers of North Africa. A challenge to which Djebar was more than capable of rising.
In general, the memory of Algerian women has remained frozen in a sort of melancholic-exilic imagery, embedded in a nostalgic sorrow caused by their exile. This may have been the case for Djebar, who also held coherent, well-defined certainties about her host country and Algeria, the homeland to which she always dreamed of returning. During her exile, however, Djebar did revisit home many times, if only to draw strength from her roots, from those voiceless women of her hometown, to give birth to a literary masterpiece.
Today, Djebar has permanently returned home. Dead and empty-handed, she may appear no longer capable of causing offence yet she is still seen as a threat to the established patriarchy, to religious fundamentalism, and to the mediocrity into which Algeria has sunk in today’s world.
Why is it that this homeland always rejects its most erudite children? Those upon whom it can always count to honor Algeria?
Rest in power, Assia Djebar.
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