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Assia Djebar (1936-2015) - pseudonym of Fatima-Zohra Imalayen


Algerian novelist, translator, and filmmaker, one of North-Africa's best-known and most widely acclaimed writers. Assia Djebar also published poetry, plays, and short stories, and produced two films. She explored the struggle for social emancipation and the Muslim woman's world in its complexities. Several of her works deal with the impact of the war on women's mind. Her strong feminist stance earned her much praise but also considerable hostility from nationalist critics in Algeria.

"Just so I could have worries that never change whether it's peace or wartime, so I could wake up in the middle of the night and question myself on what it is that sleeps in the depths of the heart of the man sharing my bed... Just so I could give birth and weep, for life never comes unaccompanied to a woman, death is always right behind, furtive, quick, and smiling at the mothers..." (from 'There Is No Exile' in Women in Their Apartments, 1980)

Assia Djebar was born in Cherchell, a small coastal town near Algiers. She attended the primary school where her father taught French, and completed secondary school studies in Algiers. After studies at the Lycée Fénélon in Paris, she became the first Algerian woman to be accepted at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. Djebar abandoned her studies before finishing in order to to return to Algeria. Later, she earned a doctoral degree in Literature at the Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier.

Djebar joined in the Algerian student strike of 1956, in the early years of the Algerian independence struggle. During the war French soldiers burst into her mother's apartment and tore her books. Djebar's brother was prisoned in France. In 1958 Djebar married Ahmed Ould-Rouïs, a member of the Resistance. She moved with him first to Switzerland and then to Tunisia. They divorced in 1975. Djebar's second husband was the poet Malek Alloula; this marriage also ended in divorce. While living in Tunisia Djebar wrote the short story 'There is No Exile' but did not publish it until 1980, as though she did not want to voice her doubts about the war at the time. Djebar returned in Algerian White (1995) to the aftermath of the struggle and the deaths of her three friends.

'"The other women have grown silent," I said. "The only one left to weep now is the mother... Such is life," I added a moment later. "There are those who forget or who simply sleep. And then there are those who keep bumping into the walls of the past. May God take pity on them!"' (from 'There Is No Exile')

Between 1957 and 1967 Djebar wrote four novels, making her debut with La soif (The Mischief). This work was written in two months during the student uprising in 1956. Fearing her father's disapproval, she adopted the pen name she kept ever since. The protagonist of the story, half-French, half-Algerian Nadia is a westernized Algerian girl. She lives a carefree life, tries to seduce her friend's husband in order to make her own boyfriend jealous. Below the surface reader encounters a serious study of psychological development. The book was compared to François Sagan's Bonjour tristesse. In Algeria it was condemned for ignoring the political realities of the day.

Les impatients (1958) was set before the independence struggle and centers upon a young woman, Dalila, who feels herself trapped in a family environment of domineering men and frustrated women. Les enfants du nouveau monde (1962) explored the awakening of Algerian women to new demands. The heroine is in the collective action for political change and the themes of love and war, the past and the present, continued in Les alouettes naïves (1967), which depicted a woman's rebel against patriarchy. After completing the book, Djebar temporarily stopped from writing and turned her attention to film.

During the liberation war Djebar collaborated with the anti-colonial FLN (National Liberation Front) newspaper El-Moujahid by conducting interviews with Algerian refugees in Morocco and Tunis. At that time the editor of the newspaper was Frantz Fanon, with  whom she befriended. It is very possible that Fanon used some of the material she collected on female students in his account of the Algerian war, A Dying Colonialism (1959). Djebar pursued her work in the history as a teaching assistant at the University of Rabat and participated in various Algerian cultural activities. During her stay in Morocco Djebar wrote her third novel, Les enfants du nouveau monde.

After Algeria had gained independence in 1962, Djebar was criticized for writing in French – writers were expected to switch to the national language, Arabic. Djebar held that French and Berber should be allowed to an official status as national languages and denounced the policy of ignoring the Berber heritage.

Djebar taught North African history at the Faculty of Letters and worked with the Algerian press and radio. In the 1970s Djebar studied classical Arabic to enlarge her ways of expression. Later in her novels she manipulated the French language, giving it the sounds and rhythms of Arabic, and turning the language of the colonizer into language of resistance. When Djebar began to work with her autobiographical novels, she had to overcome the "impersonality of French" and the fact, that she was using "the language of the Others". Djebar also turned to cinema to reach those who cannot read. She made two films for Radio-Télévision Algérienne (RTA). The first, La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua (1979, The Nouba of the Women of Mont Chenoua), won the International Critics Prize at the 1979 Film Festival in Venice. It was shown on television only once. La Zerda et les chants de l'oubli (1982, Zerda and the Songs of Fortune/The Songs of Forgetting), made with Malek Alloula, was chronicle of life in the Maghreb from the early to the mid-twentieth century. The film begins with words on a screen: "La Mémoire est corps de femme" (Memory is body of woman).

Djubar's long literary silence in the 1970s was partly due to her recognition that she was not going to become an Arabic-language writer and her interest in non-literary art forms. She worked as an assistant director on a number of productions. In 1973 she directed her own adaptation of Tom Eyen's play about Marilyn Monroe, The White Whore and the Bit Player. Upon returning to the University of Algiers, Djebar began teaching theater and film.

Les Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement (1980, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment) was a collection of short stories. The work marked a turning point in Djebar's career as a writer. Describing her return to French she said: "I had just turned forty. It's at that point that I finally felt myself fully a writer of French language, while remaining deeply Algerian." (Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Assia Djebar, translated by Marjolijn de Jager, 1992, p. 168) Coming after an silence of ten years, the book was welcomed in critical circles. It took its title from the famous Delacroix's painting and depicted the cloistered Algerian women, who are still imprisoned in the harem. However, Djebar gave her characters dignity and wisdom, deprived from them by the artist's intrusion into their private space. The second version of the book from 2002 contained a supplemental novel in addition to the first version.

L'Amour, la fantasia (1985, Fantasia: an Algerian Cavalcade), winner of the Franco-Arab Friendship Prize, mixed autobiography, historical accounts of the French conquest of 1830, and the Algerian War. It was the first volume of the Algerian quartet about Maghrebian women, which continued in (1987, A Sister to Scheherazade), a story of two women. Loin de Medine (1991) explored the lives of women in the life of the prophet Mohammed. This book was prompted by the fundamentalist street riots in Algeria. When excerpts were published, "the bearded ones" wanted to burn her, and "the beardless ones" defended her, as Djebar later said.

Djebar often looked pessimistically women's ability to change an overbearing patriarchy. In the autobiographical Vaste est la prison (1995, So Vast the Prison) the narrator links her own life as a modern, educated Algerian woman, with the traditions of her female notable ancestors and the history of Carthage, a great civilization the Berbers were once compared to. The protagonist is 36-year-old Isma, a musicologist and filmmaker, who realizes: "We think the dead are absent but, transformed into witnesses, they want to write through us."

Djebar taught history for many years at the University of Algiers. During the 1980s, she moved to Paris to work at the Center for Algerian Culture. She won the Neustadt Prize for Contributions to World Literature in 1996 for perceptively crossing borders of culture, language, and history in her fiction and poetry. In 1997, she received the Yourcenar Prize and in 2000 the prestigious Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels. Djebar was appointed in 1997 professor and director of the Center for French and Francophone studies of the Louisiana State University. From 2001, Djebar held the position of Silver Chair Professor of French and Francophone studies at New York University. Djebar was a member of the 'Académie Royale de Langue Francaise de Belgique. In 2005 Djebar became the fifth woman to be elected to the French Academy. She said in her acceptance speech that she felt that the Academy's doors did not open only for her, "but for the still vivid shadows of my colleague-writers, journalists, intellectuals, women and men of Algeria whose act of writing, of exposing their ideas or simply teaching in French cost them their lives in the decade of the nineteen nineties." (Narcissism and the Scene of Reading: Towards a Global Politics of Local Aesthetics by Aniruddha Maitra, 2013, p. 99)

Throughout the decades, no publisher dared to take the risk of publishig her novels in Arabic in her native Algeria, but at the same time English translations were read by a wide audience in Europe and in North America. Many of her friends were assassinated by Islamic terrorists as a result of their political views. Djebar was mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. She died on February 7, 2015, in a Paris hospital.

For further reading: Assia Djebar, romancière algérienne, cinéaste arabe by Jean Déjeux (1984); Assia Djebar by Mildred Mortimer (1988); Les romans d'Assia Djebar by Beida Chikhi (1990); Two Major Francophone Women Writers: Assia Djebar and Leila Sebbar by Rafika Merini (1995); Assia Djebar: Ecrire, Transgresser, Résister by Jeanne-Marie Clerc (1997); Escritura dos silencios Assia Djebar by Vera Lucia Soares (1998); Islam and the Post Colonial Narrative by John Erickson (1998); Recasting Poatcolonialism by Anne Donadey (2001); Assia Djebar: In Dialogue with Feminism by Priscilla Ringrose (2006); Assia Djebar: Out of Algeria by Jane Hiddleston (2006): Algeria Cuts: Women and Representation, 1830 to the Present by Ranjana Khanna (2008); Remembering the (Post)Colonial Self: Memory and Identity in the Novels of Assia Djebar by Jennifer Murray (2008); Gender and Identity in North Africa: Postcolonialism and Feminism in Maghrebi Women's Literature by Abdelkader Cheref (2010); Representing Algerian Women: Kateb, Dib, Feraoun, Mammeri, Djebar by Edward John Still (2019); The Algerian Historical Novel: Linking the Past to the Present and Future by Abdelkader Aoudjit (2020); Assia Djebar: le manuscrit inachevé, ed. Mireille Calle-Gruber, Anaïs Frantz (2021) 

Selected works:

  • La soif, 1957
    - The Mischief (translated from the French by Frances Frenaye, 1958)
  • Les impatients, 1958
  • Women of Islam, 1961 (photos: Magnum, translated by Jean MacGibbon)
  • Les enfants du nouveau monde, 1962
    - Children of the New World: A Novel of the Algerian War (translated by Marjolijn de Jager, 2005)
  • Les alouettes naïves, 1967
  • Poèmes pour l'Algérie heureuse, 1969
  • Rouge l'aube, 1969
  • La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua, 1969
  • La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua / The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua, 1979 (film, prod. by Algerian Television)
  • Les Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement, 1980
    - Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (translated by Marjolijn de Jager, afterword by Clarisse Zimra, 1992)
  • La Zerda ou les chants d'oubli, 1982 (film, dir. by Assia Djebar, written by Malek Alloula)
  • L'Amour, la fantasia, 1985
    - Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade (translated by Dorothy S. Blair, 1988)
  • Ombre sultane, 1987
    - A Sister to Scheherazade (translated by Dorothy S. Blair, 1987)
  • Loin de Medine, 1991
    - Far from Medina (translated by Dorothy S, Blair, 1987)
  • Chronique d'un été algérien, 1993
  • Le blanc de l'Algérie, 1995
    - Algerian White (translated by Marjolijn de Jager, David Kelley, 2000)
  • Vaste est la prison, 1995
    - So Vast the Prison (translated by Betsy Wing, 1999)
  • Oran, langue morte, 1997 [Oran, Dead Language]
  • Les nuits de Strasbourg, 1997
  • Ces voix qui m'assiègent, 1999
  • Filles d'Ismaël dans le vent et la tempête, 2002 (Daughters of Ishmael in Wind and Storm; musical drama in five acts)
  • La Femme sans sepulture, 2002
  • La disparation de la langue française, 2004
  • The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry: Algerian Stories, 2006 (translated from the French by Tegan Raleigh)
  • Nulle part dans la maison de mon père, 2007

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