I’ve written here before that my fundamental interest in literature lies in the bond between identity and narrative – how we tell stories in order to be. When I first started out as a researcher, it was women’s stories that intrigued me. Feminism, particularly in its theoretical forms, captivated me. The notion of telling stories that had been silenced, of piecing together a secret history, one that was essential to a culture but which had been discredited or denied, and using it to challenge the status quo seemed to me a fine and forceful strategy. And it was this interest that led me about a decade later to start reading the work of Assia Djebar, an Algerian writer who risked ostracism from her family and exile from her culture in order to tell the stories of some of the most hidden and silenced women of all.
Algeria was colonised by the French in 1830 who, alas, did not rule with gentleness or restraint. As with many colonisers, the French treated the indigenous people with contempt as second-class citizens and tried to write their own culture over the top of the one in place. It is a common enough story, except that there was one area of Islamic life that was strictly beyond bounds even to the new French overlords, and that was the world of women. In 1832, the painter Eugène Delacroix travelled to Algiers and was permitted an extremely rare glimpse into a harem. The sight overwhelmed him with its cloistered sensuality and he produced a painting to celebrate the moment that went on to embody the spirit of the Orient for decades to come, inspiring countless other artists. The picture, Women of Algiers in their apartment, represents three women, indolent and beautiful and bathed in the acquatic light of a shuttered enclave, their clothes sumptuous, their expressions distant. To one side stands an attentive servant who we may also take to be their jailor. In her book of the same name, Women of Algiers in their apartment, Djebar pulls the romanticism of Delacroix’s image to pieces. As a free Frenchman enjoying a forbidden glance into another world, he may well have perceived exotic sexuality, but for Djebar who knew what it was to grow up in a segregated culture, the picture shows sterile and hopeless imprisonment, an environment so mournful that the women within it become self-alienated and indifferent. The lot of the women of Islam, Djebar writes, was to be ‘buried alive’ in their own domestic space, and rather than idealise this goldfish bowl existence, as men (regardless of their culture) tended to do, she would expose it for the vitality-sapping environment that it was.
Djebar’s book is a curious and unusual work that brings together a number of different fragments of writing, snippets of domestic scenes, everyday problems, traditional rituals, in what critics have termed a ‘mosaic’ of daily life. Set in the aftermath of the bitter and costly war of independence (1954-62) it shows a culture still in awkward transition, clinging to remnants of its past, unsure after 150 years of colonisation exactly what that past ought to look like, and even less certain how the future should be. At the time the book is set, Algerian women under the tradition of Islam were confined to their domestic spaces and only allowed out once a week, often at night, to visit the baths. If a woman did venture out onto the streets then it was under the protection of a veil that left only one eye uncovered. The protection was for the unsuspecting males in the outside world, for in Islamic culture a woman’s gaze is considered potently sexual and must be hidden away. Islamic tradition also regulates the speech of women: when they speak women must only use whispers and only the elderly have the right to talk at all. More significantly still, a woman may only refer to herself ‘anonymously’, as it is forbidden for a woman to use the first person pronoun, to call herself ‘I’. The cult of silence, as Djebar calls it is a ‘second mutilation’ after the veil, and she tells how this can be used against women in ingenious ways. When a young girl accepts an offer of marriage the law decrees she must say ‘yes’, but since she cannot be seen by her bridegroom, she must use a male intermediary to speak for her. Djebar points out that this all too often leads to a woman being forced into an undesired alliance, particularly when her tears or her silence can also be read as acceptance.
Whilst this may sound bad, it does represent notable progress in women’s rights. Djebar recalls one Persian tradition whereby the young woman is kept behind a curtained door in an adjacent room to that containing her suitor. When the necessary ‘yes’ is required the women who accompany her hit her head against the door so that she calls out. This kind of unsisterly behaviour is happily absent from Djebar’s representation of the world of women in post-colonial Algeria; in fact what she writes about most is the sense of deep, lasting bonds that arise amongst female family and friends, the abiding and loving community that has grown out of their restricted and cloistered community. The profound irony here is that Djebar has to betray her roots and her traditions in order to do so. In speaking for the women who have been forced to be silent, she is turning her back on her own traditions, committing a revolutionary act of gender politics and angering many among her culture. When Djebar published her first novel at the age of 21 she changed her name, her birth date and her appearance in the hope of keeping it secret from her family. They found out nevertheless. Djebar has published more books in America (where she now lives and teaches) than in her native land and has had far more success internationally than in her own country. The fact that she was brought up in the French education system and wrote in a language still regarded by her culture as the tongue of the enemy, did not exactly help.
I’ve read quite a lot of Djebar’s novels now and it’s been interesting to watch the evolution of her female characters. Initially it was their history that she wanted to bring to the light of day, but then Djebar’s characters began to venture forth into Europe; eventually they started to have relationships with men, and just recently they have begun to fall pregnant. It’s undeniably a progression and a break with the stranglehold of Islamic tradition, but it’s not necessarily unqualified success. In Women of Algiers in their apartment, Djebar issues a stern warning to the women of her culture not to abandon the sisterhood too peremptorily for the lure of Westernised relationships. Her vision for women back then was bound up with a painting by Picasso, a reworking of that original Delacroix. Most importantly for Djebar the spying servant is missing in Picasso’s version, there are no walls, no confinement, no police, and instead, the women dance. But what she admired most about it, was Picasso’s ability to see differently. It’s very hard, Djebar suggests, to see your own culture and not be blind to it because of its familiarity, just as it’s hard sometimes to see a different culture and not to idealise it because of its singularity. If you can use the comparison between the two for real, lasting enlightenment, then, she suggests, you have the beginning of proper liberation. Djebar’s thoughtful, profound and often very accessible work is constantly exploring this kind of culture shock, and that makes her an unusual and important writer.