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Djebar's odyssey.

"Silence sur soie' ou l'ecriture en fuite": the title of the afterword of Nulle part dans la maison de mon pere (445), Assia Djebar's final and most autobiographical book, in a double entendre as an ultimate tribute to her relationship with the French language, reveals that "Silence sur soie" could have been the secret, alternative title of the novel. For her, writing on oneself, like a rememoration, despite its harshness and splitting effect, represents an exercise that leads less to torture than to a silky outcome, "a du 'soyeux' et non du torturant" (445). "Ecriture en fuite," or "Writing on the run," responds to "Silence sur soie" (silence on silk or self), tying together the two meanings of the French verb that inspired her writing: filer. Filer as in to trail, run, slip away, and, in a more literal sense, to spin. To the moving writer who wrote as she walked (1) corresponds the weaver. In this double entendre that we can discern patterns of resistance that traverse Djebar's work and in which "patterns," recalling the evocations of veils, canvases, of women spinning, sewing, stitching, point to Djebar's incessant desire to reveal the textile within the text. (2)

In Djebar dwelled a rhapsode. A rhapsode, that is, like the performer traveling from town to town to sing epic poems, musician and storyteller, recognizable by his mantel and his stick (the rhabdos), vocalizing the written word, the rhapsodist who (that is what rhapsdidein means) sews songs together. Songs, or voices, stories, memories. It is part of this art I wish to recall, with stories and memories of a peculiar kind, all of which revolve around odd visits and strange returns.

It could begin with this scene.

A woman, a foreigner not so foreign, "etrangere pas tellement etrangere" (Femme sans sepulture 77), has returned to her hometown, again. In Caesarea (Cherchell), where she was born and raised, she stays this time, without really knowing why, in the city's only hotel. But before spending the first night in her luxurious room, she rushes to the local museum where, in front of a Roman mosaic she had forgotten from her previous stays, she stops playing the tourist and has an epiphany of sorts. On the strange mosaic, three birdlike women are on a shore, contemplating in the center of the scene a large vessel floating over the waves. These beautiful creatures, she contends to the two women she visits later, are from Caesarea, the only women to be immortalized in stone in the region. But her younger friend corrects her: these bird-women are both locals and strangers--the mosaic was discovered in the 1930s, on the farm of a poor settler, "un petit colon," and its title is revealing: "Ulysse et les sirenes, un episode fameux de L'Odyssee" (117).

This revelation lies at the core, in the exact center (3) of La Femme sans sepulture, one of Djebar's last novels. It tells the story of a female narrator, whose resemblance to the author is striking; like her, she has returned again to her hometown of Caesarea/Cherchell after having come back in 1976 and 1978 to make a film dedicated to Zoulikha Oudai (and Bela Bartok) (Femme sans sepulture 14-17), a barely veiled reference to Djebar's film La Nouba des femmes du mont Chenoua (1978). As if presenting the pages that Djebar stopped writing during her decade of scriptural silence to make movies, the novel recounts her search for Zoulikha, the renowned, almost legendary female resistant, a moudjahidda who fought in the maquis during the Algerian War of Independence. The book, as Djebar asserts in her avertissement, is itself composed like a feminine fresco, a mosaic: "J'ai use a volonte de ma liberte romanesque, justement pour que la verite de Zoulikha soit eclairee davantage au centre meme d'une fresque feminine--selon ie modele des mosaiques si anciennes de Cesaree de Mauretanie (Cherchell)" (9).

If the book is composed after the model of a mosaic, we can only find uncanny the particular mosaic Djebar chose as its metonymy. Uncanny because it depicts men at its center and women on the margins. Uncanny because it makes Odysseus a counterpart, even a counterpoint of Zoulikha. (4) Uncanny, finally, in its very form. Contrary to the mosaic "Ulysses and the Sirens," displayed in the Bardo Museum in Tunis (Figure 1), (5) very similar in its composition to what is described in the novel, the mosaic in the Musee Public National of Cherchell is not exactly a mural.

The mosaic, in fact, decorates the basin of a large fountain (Figures 2-4).

More than the waters this fountain once contained, the meanings of this mosaic eventually overflow beyond the core of the novel. To a great extent, it is Djebar's whole work and imaginaire that exude from this wall. And this mosaic's significance lies as much in what the author unveils as in what she omits.

To be sure, the mosaic soon appears as a lieu de memoire--a memorial as it were, both intimate and collective, a paradoxical space-object that denotes a sense of both proximity and estrangement. Drawing itself from the narrator's oblivion, it becomes more than an image--a story that, although foreign to her on many levels (an anonymous artist's rendition of Homer's version of an ancient myth, explained to her by someone else), she eventually appropriates to the point of including herself in it.

The narrator is not on the tracks of Zoulikha only. In the end, this story tells of Djebar's journey toward--or after--Odysseus. As Gilles Deleuze would have put it, we are witnesses to Djebar's becoming Odysseus, to her "devenir-Ulysse." Becoming, going toward, or moving after Odysseus implies seeking a way back "home," striving to remember (or at least resisting forgetting) and transmitting this experience. To move after Odysseus also means to face others and oneself as welcoming or unbecoming hosts, offensive or derelict guests, to face the use and abuse of hospitality. To move after Odysseus means to become oneself, to devenir soi, after becoming a stranger in one's own home, after nearly losing oneself.

More than a metonymy, this mosaic is a mise en abyme of Djebar's project. The scene of the revelation and its aftermath of the Homeric allegory is itself an allegory. To the three Sirens correspond the three women who gather around it. But one of these women, the narrator, is doubled, split in two: she is the direct witness who bears testimony of her experience in front of the mosaic, transforming the mosaic into a textual object, a narrative for her companions who, in turn, become witnesses to the transformed work of art. But the metamorphosis, or the multidimensional nature of the narrator, does not stop here. She also identifies with (or tends toward) both the Sirens and their victim/witness, Odysseus.

A mise en abyme of Djebar's project, this mosaic resembles memory as the author conceives it: individual but with a universal scope; damaged, incomplete (like the body of one of the Sirens or the mutilated body of Eros) but retold, made accessible, available once again; ancient and present; repressed, but returned from oblivion, unearthed, excavated; a narrative, whole, but made of fragments; a narrative where characters are hybrid, mobile, exposed, and transformed by art, music in particular.

The narrator's interpretation of the mosaic is in this sense the closest to common knowledge: Odysseus "veut absolument continuer son voyage, mais il veut tout autant ecouter le chant des sirenes" (Femme sans sepulture 117). But the meaning of the song and of Odysseus's relation to it keeps changing. As the narrator remarks, the mosaic "ne rend pas present ce risque de mort," does not convey the lethal nature of the Sirens' songs, and the scene seems completely impregnated with the magic of music (118). The three musicians, in fact, seem ready to fly off. Rewriting the myth, the narrator suggests that the birdlike-women are not dangerous and that men have been mistaken.

As it turns out, however, we, the reader, also run the risk of mistaking the narrator's own take on the myth--errors that could stem from the malleability, the motility of her discourse, especially when it pertains to Odysseus in particular. When she first asserts to her friends that "en tout cas, comme Ulysse nous sommes, nous aussi, bien loin de la Grece" (118), we may wonder whether "we" refers to Algerian women and whether "Greece" is an allegory for an original "Algeria" (and which one), a faraway "home" to return to.

Because around this mosaic of Odysseus and the Sirens, the three women keep wondering and talking.

To the narrator, Zoulikha returns through the two other women, Mina, the youngest daughter of the resistance fighter, and Dame Lionne, or Lla Lbia, a former card-reader who was Zoulikha's friend, her sole support during the hardest times. Dame Lionne is pure memory ("memoire pure" [167]), and Mina knows everything about what Djebar calls her mother's "odyssey." (7) In the time of the revelation of the mosaic, Zoulikha, however, is not Odysseus; she is part of these birdlike women ready to take flight. To fly away, that is, from the overwhelming torpor that "since 1962," as the museum visitor puts it, has settled again. In the end, as the afterword makes clear, the wax Odysseus's companions use against the Sirens deafens the people of Algeria, who have forgotten the enchanted calls promised by the Independence: "Dans ma ville, les gens vivent, presque tous, la cire dans les oreilles: pour ne pas entendre la vibration qui persiste du feu d'hier. Pour couler plus aisement dans leur tranquille petite vie, ayant choisi l'amnesie" (236).

Thus the allegory goes. "Une seule femme s'est vraiment envolee: et c'est ta mere, Mina, c'est Zoulikha" (119). Zoulikha is a siren. Not a deadly temptress, but a muse whose song inspires resistance and freedom, resistance against the oppressor, but also resistance against the deafness and oblivion some (most, perhaps) Algerians, like the crew of Odysseus, wish to sustain instead of facing their future.

As a retold allegory and an exhumed artifact, the mosaic bonds together myth and history, the story of Odysseus and the fate of modern Algeria. But in the work of Djebar, a historian by training if not by vocation, history itself does not escape the effects of fiction--or "error." The mosaic, the narrator comments, "ne rend pas present ce risque de mort" (118), does not convey the deadly dimension of the Sirens' song, does not, literally, make it present. When Dame Lionne asks if these Sirens are "nos femmes d'aujourd'hui," she utters a fundamental question (that of synchronization, harmony, of being contemporary of one's space and time) that, in turn, might explain the "error" made by Mina dating the mosaic's discovery "in the 1930s," when, in fact, it was unearthed with the ruins of a Roman villa in 1941. The discrepancy speaks volumes. Excavated in the 1930s, the mosaic would have become contemporary with the apex of the French colonial era, the centennial of the conquest of Algeria--and of Djebar's own birth. In that veiled "mistake," the author thus reinvents herself in order to share an "origin" with a certain image of Odysseus (and-the-Sirens), becoming his sister, even his twin ...

Insofar as it inserts History in the fiction, this mosaic is as revealing as Odysseus's scar, but in a strange way. For Erich Auerbach, Odysseus's scar, which lends the title to the first chapter of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, is the sign of reality, the evidence chosen by the author to "represent phenomena in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts" (4). The scar, which reveals Odysseus's identity to the old nurse washing his feet in his home, where he has returned as a vagabond after a twenty-year absence, belongs for Auerbach to the "procession of phenomena" Homer uses to create a clear narrative, always embedded in the present, leaving nothing in the dark, conveying a sense of realism easily grasped by the audience. But, because it is uncertain, blurred by the "mistake," the History that the mosaic denotes does not pretend to a full-fledged realism. Odysseus's scar performs what Djebar calls in her last novel "inventer le vertige," inventing vertigo. (8) This vertigo stems from the multidirectional movement with which Djebar achieves the relentless metamorphoses of her narrator, navigating between Odysseus and Zoulikha, getting closer or drifting away.

The more she listens, the more she discovers how much she shares with Zoulikha: her hometown ("elle est de ta ville") (Femme sans sepulture 14), even the house in which she was born, as she discovers that her house was separated from Zoulikha's only by a wall. Transformed from an unknown neighbor, she becomes a virtual family member, whose father was as educated as hers, did not make her wear the veil, and whose grandmother, just like the narrator's, was married three times. This imagined shared genealogy, this parente (kinship) or voisinage (neighboring), has limits, nonetheless, like the wall of the narrator's family house shared with Zoulikha's home. Just like the resemblance with Odysseus, fantasized by the narrator, as she returns to her hometown to hear and transmit Zoulikha's words and silence:
   Je l'entends, et je me trouve presque dans la situation d'Ulysse,
   le voyageur qui ne s'est pas bouche les oreilles de cire, sans
   toutefois risquer de traverser la frontiere de la mort pour cela,
   mais entendre, ne plus jamais oublier le chant des sirenes ! Elle
   sourirait, elle se moquerait, Zoulikha, si on lui avait dit qu'on
   la comparerait, elle, aux sirenes du grand poeme d'Homere. (236)

Almost in the situation of Odysseus, the narrator is also almost like the Sirens Zoulikha resembles.

To be sure, this double movement of likeness departs from the mimesis Auerbach had in mind. Djebar's realism pertains to the authentic rendition of the vertigo experienced in the quest for self, identity, and memory. Odysseus's scar does not illuminate the story. It thickens its obscurity. As Ernstpeter Ruhe formulates, commenting on Djebar's last novel, her female characters are shadows she invents. And like Odysseus who, before descending into the other world, had to sacrifice animals to animate and be able to speak to the dead, the author nourishes these shadows with her blood so that they can live their lives in the chiaroscuro of writing. (9) This chiaroscuro, or clair-obscur, is precisely what Auerbach, insisting on the clarity of Homer's style and story line, fails to acknowledge in the scene of Odysseus's scar. Yet the poet staged the scene of recognition precisely as a return to the shadows: about to be bathed by his old nurse, who still has not recognized him, "Odysseus, sitting full in the firelight, suddenly swerved round to the dark, gripped by a quick misgiving--soon as she touched him she might spot the scar! The truth would all come out" (403). And so the old nurse would not see the scar but feel it. Identity would not be revealed by a gaze but by a touch.

This scar is like the stitch--not the stitch of the breathless runner, the ancient pentathlon athlete the young Djebar felt she was in L'Amour, la Fantasia, (10) but the stitch left by the weaver or the seamstress on her textile palimpsests. The stitch of a rhapsode weaving. A stitch, a scar like a signature. For Odysseus, the scar appears as the mark of the origin of his name: the scar he received as a boy in a hunting accident with a boar earned him his name: "Odysseus ... the Son of Pain" (403). The scar, recognized by the touch (and not the sight) of his nurse, seals Odysseus's identity, the last pact of hospitality given to the master returned as a stranger, the king as a beggar: a recapture of one's identity after almost effacing oneself. For Odysseus returns as Odysseus after having renamed himself outis, "No One." This was the price of survival--and regeneration. In the deadly cave of the Cyclops where, before the opulent cave of Calypso, Odysseus used poetic resistance, the power of words against the barbaric inhospitality of Polyphemus, by effacing himself, renaming himself "No One" to fool the awful host. In that cave, Odysseus was reborn as a hero whose humanity would glare instantly in a mistake, when, beside himself, he shouted his name, inflated, unfolded, signing his deed in excessive verbosity, saying to his enemy he had been defeated by "Odysseus," "raider of cities," "Laertes' son who makes his home in Ithaca" (Femme sans sepulture 227).

While Odysseus regenerates after self-negation to return home as his father's son, Djebar finds another way, almost opposite. The narrator who says she is returning to her hometown twenty years later overlays with the writer who has taken twenty years to write her book as the dates reveal in an ultimate signature: "juin 1981, Paris--septembre 2001, New York" (243); in a superimposed figure who finally distinguishes herself from her mirrored reflection, her (almost) antisymmetrical self, Odysseus, also exiled for twenty years, except she claims not to share his desire to listen, chained to the mast, to the Sirens, the women fighters, like Zoulikha. (11)

Zoulikha's partial disappearance stands as a counterpoint to the fractional appearance of the author; she presents herself in a permanent devenir-Ulysse, a perpetuum mobile, a vibrating, unfinished project and projection. This pulsating dynamic announces the modus operandi of Djebar's next work, La Disparition de la langue francaise, which tells both of an apparition and of a disappearance. If Fantasia recounted the apparition of the French language, offered by the father, La Disparition entails the loss of the gift. In fact, I imagine Djebar haunting La Disparition as if she had taken up the veil that the apparition of the French language had set aside when the father took her to school by the hand. The disappearing of the French language is not the "return" of the veil that, thanks in part to her father, she never wore, but the apparition of a veil--a veil that Djebar wears in this novel that she haunts, both as Berkane and the anonymous narrator. In this sense, La Disparition forecasts the last part of her autobiography, the Algerian Quartet begun with L'Amour, la Fantasia but of which Les Alouettes naives was the precursor, the prehistory, ten years earlier. And the ambiguities inherent to this novel only reproduce the fundamental paradox nourishing the autobiographical project, a project that is inspired by but also a subversion of the mother's memory.

La Disparition is again a story of a return, right from the overture: "Je reviens done, aujourd'hui meme, au pays ... 'Homeland', le mot, etrangement, en anglais, chantait, dansait en moi" (13). Perhaps Djebar's strangest book, La Disparition speaks of alienation in the foreignness of language, rather than in either Arabic or French. The return it recounts is also that of a voice not heard since Les Alouettes na'ives: the voice of a male narrator. The man, Berkane, both the narrator and the protagonist who vanishes, also marks the return of Djebar's tutelary figure. Berkane undoubtedly comes from the Berkani of the Dahra, the tribe of origin of Bahia Sahraoui, Djebar's mother. In other words, La Disparition de la langue frangaise describes the ultimate transformative passage and the most compelling return: that of the mother, and the mother's ancestors, those who have always been, for Djebar, the ultimate guardians of the "original" memory, of the time of the French invasion.

Berkane's move also recalls the homecoming of another man who, like Berkane, returns to his homeland after a twenty-year exile. "Quand Ulysse revient, apres une absence moins longue que la mienne, c'est a Ithaque qu'il debarque dans l'anonymat, meme si seul le chien qui le hume le reconnait sous ses hardes de vagabond" (89). Like Homer's hero, Berkane returns to his native land a vagabond, a stranger at home. And in the end, like Odysseus again, he returns home ... to disappear almost immediately. Thus goes the tragic denouement of Djebar's novel, set during the Dark Years of the Algerian civil war after Islamists won the elections. Only his car is found, in a ditch. His body will never be found. Perceived as an "emigre de passage" (249), one even wonders if he has really disappeared. Berkane has become "No-Body," like an Odysseus who would not have made it out of the cave of the Cyclops.

A ghostly Odysseus, Berkane appears as the haunting name, the signature Djebar came closest to inscribing in a novel.

Before closing, one last return must be evoked. I think of Nfissa finally coming home, freed by her father from a French military jail during the Algerian War of Independence. An awkward return, indeed, for this daughter who, pausing on the threshold, struggles to recognize the house where she was born and raised and that she had left only to go fight in the maquis. Her father is showing her in, with a whispered warning:

"Fais attention a la marche," murmurait-il ainsi qu'il le faisait toujours avec les visiteurs, comme si, d'etre alle chercher sa fille trois cents kilometres au sud, dans cette caserne, qui ne semblait pas une prison, plutot un camp de legionnaires romains sur le limes des plateaux berberes [...] l'avait rendue etrangere a ces lieux qui ne s'etaient point alteres. (Alouettes 19)

The daughter has returned, but she is estranged, alienated, watching her step as if a stranger--a stranger to her father, a stranger in her own house. The stupefaction, however, comes on the second threshold where Nfissa stops, transfixed, realizing that what has changed in the familial house is the light, effectively telling the reader that the penumbra of her foreign prison and the darkness of her natal house are merely one step apart.

Forty years before Djebar's last novel, Nfissa returns "nowhere in her father's house." The father's house that is Odysseus's last stop in The Odyssey, and that also figures in the prelude of La Femme sans sepulture, where, from Mina's house, the narrator stares at the wall, "le mur qui nous separe de la maison de mon pere--le lieu de ma premiere enfance" (14). "Nulle part dans la maison de mon pere!" is the strange lamentation, "etrange complainte que l'etrangere, durcie, se chante pour elle-meme" (87), the song that foreshadows the final confessions.

In the end, what Djebar tells in all these books are stories of strange kinds of hospitality.

In La Femme sans sepulture, the narrator--"la visiteuse," "l'etrangere," "l'intervieweuse," "l'invitee," the "traveller, but who is from here, who was, as a child, so close, on the other side of the low wall" ("voyageuse mais d'ici," a ete enfant, tout pres, "de l'autre cote du muret") (49)--is welcomed as a foreigner-not-so-foreign every time she returns to her hometown. To her hometown, but not to her home. She stays with cousins, or Dame Lionne, or in a hotel. She knows the rules of hospitality and its paradoxes.

The ambiguities of hospitality lie in the very origins of the word itself. As Emile Benveniste has shown in Indo-European Language and Society, hote comes from the Latin hospes: "s/he who gives or receives hospitality." And hospes itself has a double origin. It stems from an ancient compound between hostis ("stranger"), from the verb hostire ("to compensate, to make equal"), and the element--pes that has multiple roots (Sanskrit, Greek, Latin) and corresponds to the ideas of "master," "spouse," and "oneself." In this sense, hospes as "host" would then be the hosti-pet-s, the master of one's home who welcomes the stranger. Along this path, hostis evolved to become hospitalitas. But hostis also remained as a self-standing term, meaning first "public enemy," then "enemy army," and as hostilis, "hostile." In other words, at the origins of hospitality, one finds the sense of "hostis" as either "favorable stranger," the "guest," or as "hostile stranger," the "enemy" (Benveniste 75). (12)

For Djebar, this paradox is never more cogent than in the extreme case of transgressed hospitality that is colonization. The ambiguity she stresses, however, does not limit itself to the inversion of the host-guest dialectic, where the original "host," the colonized, is forced by his "guest," the colonizer, to surrender his authority. Djebar pushes the limits of the ambiguity to see in the conqueror a vital witness to the wrongs he has done and to the worthy resistance he elicited. In La Femme sans sepulture, the narrator recalls how exactly a century before her, Berber women fought to the death against the French, and she wonders if one ought not to salute these enemies, foreign spectators who alone can bear witness to the glorious deeds of these women. (13) In L'Amour, la Fantasia, the paradox reaches its climax in a much darker way, with the author finding herself on the tracks of Aimable Pelissier, the French officer responsible for asphyxiating hundreds of Algerians who had taken refuge in caves in the Dahra mountains in 1845. To Djebar, Pelissier becomes a silent witness, a paleographer, a vital enemy she describes as "a quasi-fraternal embalmer of this tribe" and, because of the substantial report he writes a few days later, "Pelissier, "the barbarian," becomes to her the first writer of the first Algerian war. The absolute other (the "barbaros," who cannot even speak, he who stutters [Sanskrit, Barbara]) becomes for the author an essential ally, a host with a gift:
   Pelissier, speaking on behalf of this long drawn-out agony, on
   behalf of fifteen hundred corpses buried beneath El-Kantara, with
   their flocks unceasingly bleating at death, hands me his report and
   I accept this palimpsest on which I now inscribe the charred
   passion of my ancestors. (79)

The deadly caves of the Dahra are, for the writer, charged with a mission of memorializing a dreadful source of inspiration. Like the parting gift that in the Homeric tradition seals the pact of hospitality--the host gives his guest upon his departure a memento of their interaction in order to memorialize the host's welcome for generations to come--Pelissier's gift recalls the Platonic pharmakon Jacques Derrida speaks of in Dissemination, both poison and remedy for writing and remembering. A poisoned gift with powers comparable to the present given to the narrator of L'Amour, la Fantasia by her own father.

This gift is evoked in a gesture which in the vein of the movement that acts as a modus operandi in Djebar's work, returns for a third time in a scene at the end of the novel. The scene is introduced by a new reference to motion and transformation, with the narrator quoting another francophone writer:

"J'ecris," dit Michaux, "pour me parcourir. Me parcourir par le desir de l'ennemi d'hier, celui dont j'ai vole la langue. [...] Croyant << me parcourir >> je ne fais que choisir un autre voile." (302)

A strange journey, the seemingly liberating act of writing thus only leads to another veil--an uncanny, circular move that turns out to be ominous: "La langue encore coagulee des Autres m'a enveloppee, des l'enfance, en tunique de Nessus, don d'amour du pere qui, chaque matin, me tenait par la main sur le chemin de l'ecole" (303).

Returning to the image of the novel's overture, the little Arab girl walking to school hand in hand with her father, this return, like the one it was so difficult for Odysseus to make, entails yet another change. And this ultimate metamorphosis comes as a contradiction to what Djebar said before of her usage of the French language as the "seul metissage que la foi ancestrale ne condamne pas, celui de la langue, pas celui du sang" (142). Now, precisely because of the words she uses in French, she is effectively saying that this cross-breeding is, in fact, only "of the blood." For, as she writes in French, French is "la langue encore coagulee des Autres," a strange, foreign coagulated blood given by her father for her to wear like the tunic of Nessus.

The tunic of Nessus is the most terrible text(ile) Djebar could have invoked. It is the story of Hercules killing with a poisoned arrow the centaur Nessus, who was trying to rape his wife, Deianira. Before he dies, Nessus, planning revenge, gives Deianira a shirt soaked in his blood, "a talisman," he says, "to kindle love." Deianira gives the shirt to her husband, fearing he is leaving her. Hercules thus dies from the poison with which he killed his enemy. The "tunic of Nessus" thus becomes the epitome of Djebar's terrible ambivalence with respect to the French language, a poisoned gift, given unknowingly as a gift of love by the father. (14)

Pharmakon, thus, is at once the French language that granted her freedom--a liberation from the oppression Algerian women endure in the traditional, conservative space of their society--and also the cause of alienation, the source of the paternal, patriarchal censorship of the expression of love. Pharmakon, the paternal tongue that allows the author to remember and memorialize in writing herself and other Algerian women, is also the cause and the source of an incessant struggle. As a refuge for emancipation, on the one hand, and a medium of alienation from the mother tongue, on the other, the French language performs an act of hospitality as ambiguous as the origin of the word itself, a cohabitation that, as she says, can be likened to a forced marriage. (15)

The epigraph of Jacques Derrida's essay Of Hospitality asserts that "an act of hospitality can only be poetic" (2). Djebar's work does not necessarily suggest that the poetic act of writing can only be inhospitable. The act of writing, in French, stems from a difficult, reluctant hospitality, a hospitality based on defiance and resistance. Derrida, inspired by Benveniste's research, calls it"hostipitality" in a performative neologism, a mot-valise (portmanteau) that expresses poetically the inextricable political and ethical ambiguities of hospitality (45). And these paradoxes derive from a Greek origin for Derrida, who again quotes Benveniste: "The same institution [as the Roman institution involving the hostis] exists in the Greek world under a different name: xenos ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) indicates relations of the same type between men bound by a pact which implies precise obligations that also devolve on their descendants" (21). Benveniste went on to define this institution of hospitality: "The xenia ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), placed under the protection of Zeus Xenios, consists of the exchange of gifts between the contracting parties, who declare their intention of binding their descendants by this pact" (77).

What Derrida derives from these remarks by Benveniste is that what the latter called the "favorable stranger" (hostis or xenos) differs from what the Romans called the peregrinus and the Greeks the barbaros, the one who lives outside the Roman or Greek world, who does not share their values or their language. This distinction between the two kinds of strangers brings forth the ultimate dilemma of hospitality. (16) "[The] right to hospitality offered to the foreigner 'as a family,' represented or protected by his or her family name, is at once what makes hospitality possible [...] but by the same token what limits and prohibits it" (Derrida 24): there is an absolute hospitality which requires that I open up my home not only to the acceptable foreigner (with a name) but also to "the absolute, unknown, anonymous, other [...] without asking of them either reciprocity (entering into a pact) or even their names. The law of absolute hospitality commands a break with hospitality by right" (25). Djebar's relationship with the French language, but also with the French memory, encapsulates this dilemma. Accepting, owning, and then passing on the poisoned gift from the barbaric French officer responsible for the massacre of refugees in Algerian caves--his voice, his memory, his narrative--Djebar invents a new form of resistance to absolute inhospitality. And this paradoxical gesture, again, recalls that of Odysseus emerging from the barbaric cave of the Cyclops where Odysseus became Odysseus by effacing himself and renaming himself "No One" before crying his many other names.

This cry, the crying of names, is also what the story of the Sirens tells. What is not said of the mosaic, however, is that the scene of the Sirens is often used as in funerary art, on sarcophagi, to accompany the name of the defunct. According to Plato, Sirens represented authority and dignity: at the top of each of the eight circles of the world, they each emit a single distinct sound, but together reach harmony. The soul of the dead follows this celestial harmony and the Sirens in their circular motion (Cumont 107). The mosaic thus also stands as the sepulture of Zoulikha, of the women who left their father's house, and, although they return as their father's daughters, they also return as resisters, who have found their own voice and who have made their own name. Odysseus might have been Djebar's guide, her muse even, up to a point. Like her father, who offered her the present of the French language--the pharmakon, both poison and remedy for writing and remembering--until she let go also, of his guiding hand. More than Odysseus, effacing her patronym, Assia Djebar, born Fatima Zohra Imalayene, wrote in her own name.

Princeton University

Works Cited

Aas-Rouxparis, Nicole. "La Femme-oiseau de la mosaique: Image et chant dans La Femme sans sepulture d'Assia Djebar." Nouvelles Etudes Francophones 19.2 (2004): 97-108.

Asholt, Wolfgang. "Narration et memoire immediate." Assia Djebar: Literature et transmission. Ed. Wolfgang Asholt and Mireille Calle-Gruber. Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne-Nouvelle, 2010. 81-93.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957.

Benveniste, Emile. Indo-European Language and Society. 1969. Trans. Elizabeth Palmer. London: Faber and Faber, 1973.

Cumont, Frantz. "Une mosaique de Cherchel figurant Ulysse et les sirenes." Comptes rendus des seances de l'Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 85.2 (1941): 103-9.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Hospitality. Ed. Anne Dufourmantelle. Trans. Rachel Bowl by. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000.

Djebar, Assia. Les Alouettes na'ives. Aries: Actes Sud, [1967] 1999.

--. L'Amour, la Fantasia. Paris: Livre de Poche, 1985.

--. Ces Voix qui m'assiegent ... en marge de ma francophonie. Paris: Albin Michel, 1999.

--. La Disparition de la langue francaise. Paris: Albin Michel, 2003.

--. La Femme sans sepulture. Paris: Livre de Poche, 2002.

--. Nulle part dans la maison de mon pere. Aries: Actes Sud, 2007.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

Ruhe, Ernstpeter. "Les sirenes de Cesaree: Assia Djebar chante La Femme sans sepulture." CELAAN: Revue du Centre d'Etudes des Litteratures et des Arts d'Afrique du Nord 2 (2003): 85-100.

--. "Enjambements et envois: Assia Djebar echographe." Assia Djebar: Litterature et transmission. Ed. Wolfgang Asholt and Mireille Calle-Gruber. Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne-Nouvelle, 2010. 36-50.

(1.) "Moi, la marcheuse," says Djebar of herself in her last book (124). Earlier, she had evoked her art by calling it an imperceptible walk: "Oui, mon ecriture francaise est vraiment une marche, meme imperceptible" (Voix 7).

(2.) As noted on page 2, an earlier version of this text was delivered at the conference "Assia Djebar, Patterns of Resistance," held on October 16, 2015, at Columbia University's Maison francaise.

(3.) Physically, in the middle of the volume, and structurally as well, as the sixth chapter out of twelve. See Ruhe, "Les sirenes de Cesaree."

(4.) The counterpoint would of course refer to the musical dimension of the reference, which has been very well discussed by Nicole Aas-Rouxparis in "La Femme-oiseau de la mosaique: Image et chant dans La femme sans sepulture d'Assia Djebar."

(5.) This mosaic was displayed on the wall of a peristyle pool in what has been named "The House of Ulysses and the Pirates," or "House of Ulysses and Dionysus," after the mosaics found in that room. The other prominent mosaic (both are now some of the most famous in the Bardo Museum) depicts Dionysus and pirates of the Tyrrhenian sea.

(6.) In Cumont, "Une mosaique de Cherchel figurant Ulysse et les sirenes."

(7.) "Mina, toi qui sait tout sur l'odyssee de ta mere" (Femme sans sepulture 165).

(8.) See Asholt, "Narration et memoire immediate" 82.

(9.) Ruhe put this in powerful terms: "Comme Ulysse qui lors de sa descente dans l'autre monde devait d'abord immoler une bete pour animer les ombres des defunts et pouvoir leur parler, l'auteur nourrit de son sang ses ombres pour qu'elles s'animent et vivent leur vie dans le clair-obscur de l'ecriture" ("Enjambements et envois" 40).

(10.) "Mon corps seul, comme le coureur du pentathlon antique a besoin du starter pour demarrer, mon corps s'est trouve en mouvement des la pratique de l'ecriture etrangere" (256).

(11.) As it is evoked in the novel's epilogue: "Mon ecriture, avec ces seuls mots de l'ecoute, a glisse de mes doigts, differee, en retard, enchainee si longtemps. Et je songe au heros grec qui voulait malgre tout, ecouter, lui et lui seul, trois musiciennes dressees, lui que, pour cela, on a attache du mat du navire. Du navire qui s'eloigne. / Je ne m'eloigne pas ; je n'ai pas demande a etre immobilisee. Non ! L'image de Zoulikha, certes, disparait a demi de la mosaique. Mais sa voix subsiste, en souffle vivace" (242).

(12.) A hostis is not a stranger in general. In contrast to the peregrinus, who lived outside the boundaries of the territory, hostis is "the stranger insofar as he is recognized as enjoying equal rights to those of the Roman citizens." This recognition of rights implies a certain relation of reciprocity and supposes an agreement or compact. [...] From this point of view hostis will signify "he who stands in a compensatory relationship," and this is precisely the foundation of the institution of hospitality (Benveniste 77).

(13.) "Ces etrangers spectateurs, qui seuls peuvent temoigner que nos corp.\s de femme, en explosant sous la lumiere, retrouvent joie et salut dans cette mort chantee" (Femme sans sepulture 136).

(14.) But the tunic of Nessus evokes dimensions of hybridity and wandering. This story of crossings, the tragic end of a fabulous epic, recalls the mythical death of two "crossbreeds," a half-god and a centaur, an orally recited Greek myth written down in Latin by Ovid. By likening the French language to the tunic of Nessus, Djebar, in a startling reprise, reassociates French with its ancient, Mediterranean material, a text(ile) of orality and literacy, unbearably moving. The tunic of Nessus is thus the ultimate paradoxical text(ile) that Djebar weaves within her own text. A poisoned gift of the father to his daughter, it reveals the violence of the ambivalence at work in her writing, between feminine creativity and paternal inspiration, between Algerian confinement and occidental movement, between sewing and writing. The shirt of Nessus is the ultimate, dreadful variant of the skirt the girl wears in the French school (still because of the father), a garment that interferes with the Arabic scriptural posture imposed in the Koranic school, sitting cross-legged, en tailleur, like a tailor. As if wearing the French text(ile) announced the end of the Arab writing.

The story of Hercules, Deianeira, and Nessus is found in book 9 of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Let us also recall that, incidentally, Pablo Picasso illustrated Les Metamorphoses, the first book published by the prestigious Swiss art publisher Albert Skira, in 1931. "Hercule tue le Centaure Nessus" is among the most astonishing etchings, all very figurative compared with what Picasso would do with Women of Algiers.

(15.) "Je cohabite avec la langue frangaise," says Djebar in L'Amour, la Fantasia (297).

(16.) "The foreigner doesn't only have a right, he or she also has, reciprocally, obligations," and "the right to hospitality commits a household, a line of descent, a family, a familial or ethnic group receiving a familial or ethnic group" (23). This group is defined by a name--a family or proper name.

Caption: Figure 1. Ulysses and the Sirens. Mosaic, 380 x 130 cm, 250-270 CE. Musee National du Bardo, Tunis
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Author:Benhaim, Andre
Publication:The Romanic Review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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