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0010.1177/0021989415582126The Journal of Commonwealth LiteratureMoore research-article2015



Obituary: Assia Djebar (1936–2015)

C O M M O N W E A LT H L I T E R A T U R E The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 1­–5 © The Author(s) 2015 Reprints and permissions: DOI: 10.1177/0021989415582126

Lindsey Moore Lancaster University, UK

Assia Djebar is the pen name of Fatima-Zohra Imalayen, born in Cherchell, Algeria, in 1936. Djebar was an internationally celebrated writer in French, as well as an historian and filmmaker, and was the first North African to become a French Académicienne. She passed away on 6 February 2015, in Paris, aged 78. On 6 February 2015, I led an MA seminar on Assia Djebar on a Postcolonial Women’s Writing course. We began with an extract from Children of the New World (2005; Les Enfants du nouveau monde, 1962), published the day after Algerian independence, noting its echoes of Frantz Fanon’s “Algeria Unveiled” (1980; “L’Algérie se dévoile”, 1959). Djebar had worked for Fanon in Tunis when he was editor of the Algerian National Liberation Front’s El Moudjahid. In this, Djebar’s third novel, she portrayed a greater diversity of Algerian female experience than did Fanon, and was less sanguine that female emancipation would come with national liberation. The retrenchment, in postcolonial Algeria, of patriarchal privilege and mono-cultural definitions of national space, led Djebar to emphasize that she “never used the term revolution, even at the time when it was flooding and drowning every discourse, public or private” (quoted in Zimra, 1999: 178). Our seminar worked towards “The Woman in Pieces” (“La Femme en morceaux”) from the collection The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry (2006; Oran, langue morte, 1997), published against the backdrop of the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, a mere 30 years after the “revolution”: there, a female teacher in Algiers, reading a story about a dismembered female body from the Thousand and One Nights, is decapitated by Islamists in front of her students. Djebar’s is an extravagantly haunted literary corpus. But another haunting — an uncanny coincidence — defined our class that morning: we noted with some foreboding that it had been some time since Djebar’s last publication, Nulle part dans la maison de mon père (2007). And indeed, there were ominous rumours on social networks that very evening, substantiated the next day. Two giants of African letters — Djebar and André Brink, from opposite ends of the continent — were no longer. Corresponding author: Lindsey Moore, Lancaster University, UK. Email: [email protected]


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The following week, obituaries for Djebar appeared in The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. Yet the English-speaking world remains largely ignorant of a writer who was awarded the Neustadt Prize for World Literature in 1996 and regularly nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, who was the first North African to assume a chair (in 2005) in the French Academy, and to whom the Presidents of both France and Algeria paid homage. Many of her works are available in English, though not yet in Arabic. Her writing is the subject of several English-language monographs (Hiddleston, 2006; O’Riley, 2007; Ringrose, 2006) and increasingly features in postcolonial scholarship outside of French departments (for example Morton, 2012). Djebar’s passing is, in fact, as epochal as that of a third African writer: Chinua Achebe’s in March 2013. Algeria was not only a foundational context for postcolonial studies; it continues to test many of its formative precepts. It is with this context centrally in mind that Robert Young (2012: 25) has argued that “the postcolonial narrative of emancipation and the achievement of sovereignty [has been] in many cases deeply contradictory”. In Algeria, women, indigenous groups, and religious minorities have found postcolonial sovereignty to be at least as oppressive as was French colonial rule (2012: 25). Djebar’s is a life-long interrogation of Algerian heritage, self-definition and historical violence. While she has little direct connection with the Commonwealth — born in French Algeria, she lived latterly between Paris and New York — hers is an exemplary postcolonial feminist corpus, as attested by Gayatri Spivak (1992, 1995). Since Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1999b; Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement, 1979), Djebar’s work has been characterized by what Ranjana Khanna (2006) calls “critical melancholia”: it not only rereads the colonial archives, but also refuses the monumental commemorations of nationalist history. In Women of Algiers and the film La Nouba des femmes de Mont Chenoua (1977), which enabled a return to writing after a silence of more than a decade, Djebar eulogizes the unsung heroes of Algeria’s wars, emphasizing women as witnesses, survivors and weavers of the social and economic fabric of the country. A feminist archaeology of traces is inaugurated: the narrator of La Nouba defines herself as a “listener” to “the sound of broken memory”. Writing in close proximity to the colonial archives, the narrator of Djebar’s best-known work, Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade (L’Amour, la fantasia, 1985) “wait[s] amidst the scattered sheaf of sounds” and “intervene[s], with nomad memory and intermittent voice” to re-create the histories of Algerian women whose bodies function as traces in relation to the public archives: the book is “an attempt to bring … the qalam [pen/pencil]” to the female “hand of mutilation and memory” (Djebar, 1985: 227; 226). This is a project conceived as and at significant risk. In “The Woman in Pieces”, Atyka continues to recite even after she is decapitated; when Atyka’s body and head are wrapped in two white shrouds, her student Omar combs the “white city” of Algiers searching for her voice (Djebar, 2006: 124–5). Thus did Djebar progressively conceive of the (im)possibility, the “white [le blanc: white, blank, target, veil, death shroud] of writing” in “an Algeria of writing-in-blood/without-writing [sang-écriture/sans-écriture]” (Djebar, 2001a: 229; my partial retranslation). The “search for a liturgy” in Algerian White (2001a; Le Blanc de l’Algérie, 1995) speaks back to a civil war context characterized by intellocide and misogyny (2001a: 13). Djebar’s signature mode of operation — particularly ascertainable in Fantasia and So Vast the Prison (2001b; Vaste est la prison, 1995) — is a deconstruction of histoire (both



history and story, in French) through historiographical and autobiographical meta-fiction, although her final work solicits a more conventional autobiographical “pact” (Mortimer, 2013: 119). Djebar conceived of autobiography as also the “the possibility of writing or giving writing to the other [woman], identifiable … as a mutilated metonym of violence” (Spivak, 1992: 772). The leitmotif of Fantasia, the untranslatable “l’amour, ses cris (s’écrit)”, implies a cry of passion and pain emerging into (Djebar’s) writing, and the title trope the “inevitable moment” when “the mare’s hoof will strike down any woman who dares to stand up freely” (Djebar, 1985: 214; 227). More generally, Djebar’s work is “a painful expression of the division, the dismantling, and the despair of [Algeria] with which the author identifie[d] not only her life but also her practice as a writer” (Gafaïti, 1996: 815). Crucial here is her positioning as “a woman with a French education and an Algerian or Arabo-Berber, or even Muslim sensibility” (Djebar, 1999a: 26; my translation). While the iconic scene that opens Fantasia, of a young girl going to school holding the hand of her schoolteacher father, represents the gift of the French language and unveiling as a sign of emancipation from tradition, French is also characterized as both a “Tunic of Nessus” — a poisoned garment — and a dangerous denuding. Writing autobiographically in French is “to lend oneself to the vivisector’s scalpel … one’s own blood flows and that of others, which has never dried”. It is a “stripping naked … expressed in the language of the former conqueror”, which evokes colonial plunder (Djebar, 1985: 1; 156–7). Due both to the author’s linguistic itinerary and to the risk of mining women’s alternative histories — for example in her alternative Islamic history, Far from Medina (1994; Loin de Médine, 1991) — there is no writing that is not also a veil. In So Vast the Prison (2001b), the legacies of French colonialism and of earlier invasions of Algeria are counterpointed by a matrilineal legacy of ideolects and music, notably the transcription, by the autobiographical narrator’s mother, of the noubas (songs) of alAndalus (Islamic Spain). The text also describes “a linguistic triangle” of Arabic, French, and Tifinagh, an ancient “Libyco-Berber” that is “a language of rock and soil … which lost its alphabet momentarily except among the Tuareg” (Djebar, 2001b: 227). Djebar presents a palimpsestic Maghreb pluriel (pluralist Maghreb, or North African Arab west), as the Moroccan writer Abdelkébir Khatibi (1983) has formulated it. This is partly produced by women, despite their historical marginalization by first Arabo-Islamic, then French colonizing cultures. While French — Djebar’s writing language — remains an elite marker, the fact that it has been officially disavowed in the postcolonial period makes it a minor or deterritorializing mode of literary praxis. Réda Bensmaïa observes the ongoing commitment of French-language authors both to “open[ing] a space for the multiple voices and languages of Maghrebi popular culture” and to revealing French as a system of signs bearing the trauma of a colonial legacy (2003: 26; 55). So Vast the Prison exemplifies his argument that Algerian literature remains an indispensable tool “for the elaboration — or perlaboration and anamnesis — of … the idiosyncratic nature of indigenous cultures” (2003: 6). Algerian White therefore asks profound questions about the Algerian nation as it has been defined since the 1954–62 war of independence: “How, from now, to mourn”, asks Djebar, “without first having sought to understand the why of yesterday’s funerals, those of the Algerian utopia?” (2001a: 230; my partial retranslation). There has been criticism of Djebar’s work, particularly of moments where it slips into generalization, indeed Orientalist cliché: the “Overture” to Women of Algiers is one


The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 

example. To the unaccustomed ear, too, and particularly in translation, Djebar’s prose can sound overwrought. For me, though, her work is almost incomparable in its attention to located, contingent tactics of female resistance to intersecting power/knowledge regimes and its conscientious self-scrutiny. Djebar translates a “divided field of identity” as part of “a meditation on the possibility that to achieve autobiography in the double bind of the practice of the conqueror’s writing is to learn to be taken seriously by the gendered subaltern who has not mastered that practice” (Spivak, 1992: 771; 770–1). It is particularly novel in its braiding of oral, aural, textual, and visual modes of representation, as well as of archival material, oral testimony, autobiographical experience, and fiction. Djebar described filming as a way of “apprehending words in space and letting them emerge” (1999a: 100; my translation) and, in her writing, “defined myself as a gaze, a way of looking upon my very own space” (quoted in Zimra, 1999: 173; emphasis in original). She explained that a voice inspires memory through the mediating influence of an image (cited in Donadey, 2001: 56–7). Her own position, in hearing and attempting to transmit these voice-images in French, was a split space. Her work highlights “the artificiality of the imaginary compact and calls into question the very conditions of its own production” (Zimra, 1999: 209). Hiddleston (2006) suggests that the foregrounding of a spectral economy in Djebar’s later works such as La Femme sans sépulture (2002) and Disparition de la langue française (2003) positions identity and language as “ghostly, dispossessed, beyond the grasp of the francophone writer who is no longer in command of her project” (2006: 5). As such, critical melancholia perhaps became an impossible mourning. But as Algerian White elaborates, “it is around the writer’s buried body that several different Algerias [have been] sketched out” (Djebar, 2001a: 14). Writers have been propitiatory victims in the culture wars of Algeria or have almost inevitably been exiled, but their writing persists as Algerian even as it speaks from beyond the grave or outside Algeria, as well as more widely to postcolonial concerns. While Hiddleston’s 2006 monograph charts Djebar’s trajectory as one of progressive expatriation from Algeria, beginning with the childhood alienation of her mother tongue(s), Mortimer conceives it, in light of the final autobiographical instalment, as “a circular movement that implies a return to the place from where it began” (2013: 114). Fittingly, then, on 13 February 2015, Djebar was buried in her place of birth: Cherchell, “a small Algerian city at the foot of the Atlas mountains” (Djebar, 2001b: 12), an ancient site that retains the traces of multiple civilizational influences. References Bensmaïa R (2003) Experimental Nations: Or, the Invention of the Maghreb. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Djebar A (Dir.) (1977) La Nouba des femmes de Mont Chenoua. Algeria: Radiotélévision algérienne. Djebar A (1985) Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade (Trans. Blair DS). London: Quartet. Djebar A (1991/1994) Far from Medina (Trans. Blair DS). London: Quartet. Djebar A (1999a) Ces Voix qui m’assiègent … en marge de ma francophonie. Paris: Albin Michel. Djebar A (1979/1999b) Women of Algiers in their Apartment (Trans. de Jager M; 2nd ed.). Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia.



Djebar A (1995/2001a) Algerian White (Trans. Kelley D and de Jager M). New York: Seven Stories Press. Djebar A (1995/2001b) So Vast the Prison (Trans. Wing B). New York: Seven Stories Press. Djebar A (2002) La Femme sans sépulture. Paris: Albin Michel. Djebar A (2003) Disparition de la langue française. Paris: Albin Michel. Djebar A (1962/2005) Children of the New World (Trans. de Jager M). New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York. Djebar A (1997/2006) “The Woman in Pieces”. In: The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry: Algerian Stories (Trans. Raleigh T). New York: Seven Stories Press, 97–125. Djebar A (2007) Nulle part dans la maison de mon père. Paris: Fayard. Donadey A (2001) Recasting Postcolonialism: Women Writing Between Worlds. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Fanon F (1959/1980) Algeria unveiled. In: A Dying Colonialism (Trans. Chevalier H). London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, 35–67. Gafaïti H (1996) The blood of writing: Assia Djebar’s unveiling of women and history. World Literature Today 70(4): 813–822. Hiddleston J (2006) Assia Djebar: Out of Algeria. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. Khanna R (2006) “Post-palliative: Coloniality’s affective dissonance. Postcolonial Text 2(1). Khatibi A (1983) Maghreb pluriel. Paris: Denoël. Mortimer M (2013) Writing the personal: The evolution of Assia Djebar’s autobiographical project from L’Amour, la fantasia to Nulle part dans la maison de mon père. Journal of Women’s History 25(2): 111–129. Morton S (2012) States of Emergency: Colonialism, Literature and Law. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. O’Riley M (2007) Postcolonial Haunting and Victimization: Assia Djebar’s New Novels. New York: Peter Lang. Ringrose P (2006) Assia Djebar: In Dialogue with Feminisms. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi. Spivak GC (1992) Acting bits/identity talk. Critical Inquiry 18: 770–803. Spivak GC (1995) Ghostwriting. Diacritics 25(2): 65–84. Young RJC (2012) Postcolonial remains. New Literary History 43(1): 19–42. Zimra C (1999) Afterword. In: Djebar A, Women of Algiers in their Apartment (Trans. de Jager M; 2nd ed.) Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 159–211.

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