Assia Djebar Elected to French Academy: Immortal Sycophant or Courageous Humanist?

Lynne Rogers

Assia Djebar has broken new ground as she is the first Muslim North African woman to become an "immortal" or life-long member of the prestigious French Academy, founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu during the reign of King Louis XIII "to protect and monitor the French Language."

Her acceptance of the honor has reopened the divisive controversies surrounding colonialism and cultural integrity, as well as the worn yet still valid issue of North African writers writing in French. (The only previous African to be admitted to the Academy was the Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor in 1983.) Djebar's award reiterates the French Academy 's inclusion of Francophone literature. A writer whose works are more readily accessible in the West, Djebar herself expressed the wish that her award would encourage the translation of more Francophone writers into Arabic.

As a poet, essayist, filmmaker and novelist, Assia Djebar reveals in her works a consistent and intelligent concern for individual human rights in Algeria. Although she writes in French, she pays respectful homage to her Berber roots. She has influenced contemporary Maghreb and Beur writing by broaching taboo subject matters with the intellectual rigor of her academic training as a historian and her poetic style that refuses generic boundaries. Her election to the Academy and her unofficial position as the poster child of Western feminists should not detract from her artistic talent and unwavering commitment to human rights.

The Academy's recognition of Djebar follows a list of previous prizes for her writing and cinema including the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1996, the Frankfurt Peace Prize in 2000, as well as awards from Montreal, Belgium, Vienna and Italy. Her status as the first Muslim Algerian to belong to the Academy follows a litany of "firsts" for Djebar.

Born Fatma-Zohra Imalayene in 1936 to an Algerian Arab father and a Berber mother, Djebar broke tradition to attend the all-boys school where her father taught French.

In a well known passage from, "Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade," the first novel in her quartet, Djebar's narrator describes the thoughts of their veiled village neighbors as the father holds the little girl's hand on her way to school: "From the very first day that a little girl leaves her home to learn the ABCs, the neighbors adopt that knowing look of those [who] in ten or fifteen years will be able to say, 'I told you so!' while commiserating with the foolhardy father, the irresponsible brother for misfortune will inevitably befall them." The little girl's acquisition of the French language and the experience of going to school isolate her from the other veiled women yet also allow her dreams of love and freedom. Contrary to the benevolence of her father and the naïve goodwill of the student, the neighbors' suspicions of impeding doom seem to predict the Arab criticism of Djebar and the Western rally behind her feminism as proof of Islamic barbarity.

Later, the young school girl, the future student of Louis Massignon, became the first Algerian woman to study at l'Ecole Normale Supérieure in Sévres. Her participation in the student demonstrations supporting the Algerian struggle for independence in 1956 resulted in her temporary expulsion from the French institution and provided the inspiration for her early fiction. In 1958, she married Ahmed Ould-Rouï, who belonged to the resistance and whom she later divorced. During the war, her brother was imprisoned in France for his resistance activities, and Djebar worked as a journalist in Rabat. She completed her doctorate at l'Université Paul Valéry de Montpellier and has since been awarded several honorary doctorates. She taught at universities in Algiers and Morocco before coming to the United States to teach, first at Louisiana State and currently at New York University. In 1980, the poet Malek Alloula became her second husband; they have since divorced.

Djebar debuted her long and productive literary career in 1957 with her first novel "La Soif" (Thirst). At the suggestion of her first husband, she took the pen name Assia Djebar (irreconcilable) to hide her identity from her father. However, through some error, her name was spelled Djebar, which translates into "healer." This name appealed to the young writer and she has continued to use it. Both, "La Soif" and her second novel, "Les Impatients" (The Impatient, 1958) deal with the problems of Westernized Algerian females negotiating the restrictions imposed by traditional Islamic society and the friction of French culture.

Like Fatima Mernissi, Djebar does not perceive the oppression of women as inherent to the Muslim faith but rather as a social distortion of power. Her third and fourth novels, "Les enfants du noveau monde" (Children of the New World, 1962) and "Les alouettes naïves" (The Innocent Larks, 1967), deal with the Algerian struggle for independence as well as feminist issues. Early criticism reproached Djebar for her privileged focus on women's rights rather than the larger injustices of colonialism and disparaged her realistic representation of tensions within the liberation movement. Later critics came to appreciate her attention to personal relationships as an indicator of societal health. (Given the current political situation in Algeria, her equating the cavalier dismissal and subsequent oppression of the women who fought for independence with the suffering inflicted by colonialism seems eerily clairvoyant.) At this time, Djebar took a 10 year sabbatical to study written Arabic and turned her artistic energy towards cinema. She continued her focus on Algerian Berber women in the two films, "La Nouba des Femmes du Mont Chenoua" (Fits of the Shinoua Mountain Women, 1979) and "La Zerda et Les chants de l'oubli" (The Zerda and Songs of Forgetting, 1982). Despite her efforts in Arabic and her cinematic recordings of Berber, she continued to write in French, publicly proclaiming, "French is my House. "She broke her narrative silence with her celebrated "Les femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement" (Women of Algiers in Their Apartments, 1980).

As in her later work, "Les femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement" juxtaposes the oral testimonies of Algerian women with the canons of Western orientalism. In this work of short stories, Djebar utilizes her unique position as a trained historian in her recreation of the story behind the Delacroix painting, effectively taking or giving the last word to those silenced females living behind the veils. In her Quartet, Djebar self-consciously blurs the generic boundaries between history, autobiography, fiction and film, sharing her process of discovering and remembering with the reader. The first work, "L'Amour, la fantasia" (Fantasia: an Algerian Cavalcade, 1985) weaves together an impressive mélange of written and oral historical memoirs describing the violent colonization of Algiers from both a French and Algerian point of view interspersed with her coming of age memories of colonial Algeria. This elaborately constructed novel refers to the repeated motifs of Beethoven's "Quasi una fantasia" and the Arab 'fantasia,' the ritualistic firing of rifles to signal war or celebration. Her narrative orchestrates a chorus of pain that resonates throughout her work.

The second text, a modern and pessimistic response to the romance of "A Thousand and One Nights," "Ombre sultane" (A Sister to Scheherazade, 1987) focuses on one narrator drawn from her previous novel. Isma, a liberated, Westernized divorcee, returns home to reconcile with her daughter and to befriend her husband's downtrodden second wife. As Isma chose Hajila, the second wife for Isma's ex-husband, the novel explores the complicity of the educated elite in modern Algeria. Like Djebar's later narrators who openly wonder at their physical as well as emotional desires, Hajila's defiance, after her drunken husband rapes her, exposes her sexuality and abuse with a liberating honesty.

In the third novel, "Loin de Médine" (Far from the Medina, 1991), Djebar focuses on the beginnings of Islam to recognize the political and theological contributions of early Muslim women. In "Vaste est la prison" (So Vast the Prison, 1995), Djebar returns to the intricate structure of "Fantasia." The novel's title extracted from the Berber song, "So vast the prison crushing me/Release, where will you come from?" alludes to the multilayered prisons Algerian women have found themselves in, yet the novel also cherishes the solidarity women find among themselves in the various prisons. Her latest work, "Le Blanc de l'Algérie" (Algerian White, 1995), addresses the inhumane rampant killing currently committed in Algeria today. Again relying on recreation to complete the historical rendition of a political event, the exiled Djebar mourns the loss of her friends by assassination, fatal illness and car accidents by imagining their final days.

Although early Arab critics accused Djebar of concentrating on the superfluous female frustration of the middle class, Djebar's work clearly exposes the crippling brutality of colonialism, the hypocrisy of the patriarchal elite and the demonic intolerance of fundamentalism. Throughout her work, the military power of the French, assisted by indigenous collaborators, crushes the Algerian heroes and heroines while the glorious young freedom fighters deteriorate into petty domestic despots.

The tragedy of today's Algeria looms as a graphic reminder to the Arab world of the repercussions of oppression. As a voice of Algeria, Assia Djebar dexterously and sympathetically enters the dangers of self-examination. Her colleagues, who diminish her achievement as a reward for merely reiterating stereotypes in the language of the colonizer, not only overlook her complex and imaginative aesthetics, they repeat the deafness that Djebar writes against and reinforce the rhetoric of power.


This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no. 52 (Summer 2005) 
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