Rekindling the vividness of the past: Assia Djebar's films and fiction.
To film La nouba, Djebar went back to the mountains of her childhood, fifteen years after the war of national liberation from the French, in order to interview her female relatives about their day-to-day wartime experiences. Both documentary and fiction, La nouba follows the filmmaker's "alter ego," Lila, as she questions her relatives, thus reactivating her own memory of a war in which she lost many loved ones (Djebar, commentary in Montreal, 1994). Fantasia mixes the personal story of an unnamed female narrator and Algeria's history since the dawn of French colonization in 1830. The film's testimonies are incorporated into the third part of the novel. Many parallels can be drawn between the film and the novel, in the movement from sound-image to the written word, especially with respect to musical structure, the importance of the gaze, and the weight of history on the couple and on contemporary Algerian society. In this essay I will focus mainly on one aspect of the links between film and novel: namely, the importance of women's memory in the project of rewriting history. As Djebar herself explained in an interview in the Algerian newspaper El Moudjahid, "Le sujet principal [du film] c'est le role des femmes dans la transmission orale de l'histoire nationale" (the film's main topic is women's role in the oral transmission of the nation's history). The close links between the transmission of that history and the retelling of a personal story are expressed through a series of superimpositions that give Djebar's entire work - and especially the film and the novel - a palimpsestic structure. The super-impositions are visible on at least three levels: the encounter between written, European archives and the oral transmission of history (as well as the insistence on the process of rewriting history through fiction); the multiplication of female voices and the parallels between different female figures; and finally, the recurrence of temporal superimpositions between different periods of Algerian history.
Overwriting the palimpsest of Algerian history. Throughout the novel, Djebar establishes a palimpsestic relation between the French colonial archives and her own writing, between the oral testimonies of women and her autobiographical notes, between the colonizers' writings and the female Algerian oral tradition. She reconstitutes the past, using documents that have already rewritten history. Djebar is a historian by training, and the archives she uses as a historical base for her reconstruction of the past were for the most part written in French by military officers who were invading and conquering her country. An illustration of this can be seen in the thirty-seven accounts of the 1830 siege of Algiers: thirty-two are in French, only two are in Arabic, and none were written by women (Fantasia, 55/44).(1) These reports and letters are not objective or factual accounts; they do not reflect a historical truth. Rather, most of them are examples of the discourse of the military colonizer, which covers up the Algerian people as much as it reveals them. As Trinh T. Minh-Ha states in Woman, Native, Other: "Historical analysis is nothing other than the reconstruction and redistribution of a pretended order of things, the interpretation or even transformation of documents given and frozen into monuments. The re-writing of history is therefore an endless task, one to which feminist scholars have devoted much of their energy" (84). For groups whose histories have been erased, this rewriting assumes a particular urgency. As Francoise Lionnet explains in her book Autobiographical Voices, women from colonized backgrounds "need to find their past, to trace lineages that will empower them to live in the present, to rediscover the histories occluded by History." (25). It is precisely in such a rewriting that Djebar engages.
For Djebar, Algeria is the "prey" of Western military discourse, a discourse she deconstructs/reconstructs as fiction (Fantasia, 56/45). By placing a Western interpretive grid on the Algerians' actions, the Frenchmen created stories (des histoires) at the same time as a history (l'Histoire). As a discourse, history is therefore shown to be very close to fictional narratives. This is of strategic importance for a people whose history has been distorted and/or erased under the colonizer's discourse. Foregrounding the fictional nature of colonial history empowers the writer to seize fiction as a legitimate means of reconstructing her past: "Her task will be to take on the 'official' record of the French colonial conquest of Algeria, itself a rewriting of historical fact, and to rewrite this rewriting from the perspective of the colonized subject" (Murdoch, 75). Djebar expresses a strong desire to insert into history the voices that had been silenced by the lack of a writing: "Or l'ennemi revient sur l'arriere. Sa guerre a lui apparait muette, sans ecriture, sans temps de l'ecriture" (But the enemy slips back in the rear. His war appears mute, unwritten, without time for writing; Fantasia, 68/56). The use of the word enemy to refer to the Algerians at this particular point in the text foregrounds the mediation/veiling effected by the French archives; it reflects a French standpoint that is unable to account for an Algerian perspective. It is precisely such a perspective that the novel aims to provide at the same time as it foregrounds the difficulty of such a project.
Through the opacity of colonial archives, between their silences or abundance of words, the writer/historian scratches the surface in an attempt to decipher and bring to light the traces of the presence of her people. The Frenchmen's writings served to erase and/or distort the Algerian people by (mis)representing and colonizing them. As a writer, Diebar feels that she must reappropriate this discourse, rewrite it, and subvert it by decentering its perspective, operating what Gerard Genette, in Palimpsestes, calls a "transfocalisation narrative" (285). Nancy K. Miller, in her landmark essay "Arachnologies," proposes a feminist strategy of "overreading," or "reading woman back in" (292). Djebar "overreads" the colonial archives, reading Algerian women and men back into history, and then overwrites their presence by writing over colonial documents, making her fictional text into a palimpsest. As Genette summarizes:
Cette duplicite d'objet, dans l'ordre des relations textuelles, peut se figurer par la vieille image du palimpseste, ou l'on voit, sur le meme parchemin, un texte se superposer a un autre qu'il ne dissimule pas tout a fait, mais qu'il laisse voir par transparence (451).
(This objective double-voicing within textual relations can be understood through the figure of the palimpsest, in which, on the same parchment, one can see a text superimposed onto another one which is not completely hidden but can still be seen through the light.)
For Genette, the palimpsest of intertextuality is primarily a question of raise en relation between two texts, two traditions. Djebar's novel centers on the double aspect of the raise en relation operated by intertextuality: it can provide a way to survive and bridge the violence of the past, at the same time as it carries the possibility of more violence and disintegration. Indeed, the act of using a palimpsest is of necessity a violent act, since it entails scratching off a previous inscription to cover it over with another. The palimpsest is a fitting metaphor for colonization, one of whose consequences is the forcible erasure of all traces of a people's history, culture, and way of life in order to replace them with the colonizer's. Successful colonization, like successful use of the palimpsest, would entail complete erasure of what was there before. But in both cases, such complete erasure is impossible. Just as it is impossible to wipe out a culture entirely, there always remain traces of the previous writing on the palimpsest, even if it may require a special light in order to decipher them. Djebar both provides this special light, a deeper gaze on the palimpsest of Algerian history, and does violence to colonial history by overwriting it from the perspective of the colonized. The traces of the French archives' ornate writing style, for example, were preserved on purpose in the historical chapters, whereas the third part's style follows the women's oral phrasing (Diebar, Wurzburg, 1996).(2)
One can wonder why Diebar chose to place the first book of her projected Algerian Quartet under the sign of colonial history. The first historical chapter opens in 1830, with the first written documents of France's conquest of Algiers. The loss of memory brought about by colonization is dramatically staged by the lack of historical information pre-dating 1830 in the novel. In Algeria it is impossible to start with a clean slate, because of the history of colonization. Before one can look to the present and the future, one must come to terms with the scars of the past on the palimpsest of historical discourse. The writer's task is to exhume her people's history like a speleologist (Fantasia, 91/77), using fiction to flesh out "la plate sobriete du compte-rendu" (the flat restraint of a military report; 15). Overreading the French documents, Djebar's narrator wonders who will bear witness to what nineteenth-century Algerians, and especially women, thought and felt, who will account for the Algerian memory. In the French reports, Algerians are made invisible, just as on the battlefield their guerrilla war strategies seem at times to render them invisible to the French army (68/56). Without their own records, Algerians are erased from a history written from the enemy's perspective. Algerian women, kept in their homes, were, for the most part, invisible to the French soldiers and, because of the veil, also rendered invisible to most Algerian men. Their enforced silence cries for a spokesperson: "Qui le dira, qui l'ecrira? . . . que se disent les femmes de la ville?" (Who will say it, who will write of it? . . . What are the women of the town saying to each other? 16/7-8). Answering this plea, Djebar searches the archives for traces of the presence of Algerian women throughout the history of conquest and war, re-creating missing elements through fiction. Women and their presence in the wars are foregrounded (see Mortimer's essay, 303-5). Djebar insists on the importance of mediation (of archival documents, of fiction), inscribing in the text the impossibility of completely restoring these women's voices or, in other words, the impossibility of bypassing one's colonial past.
Under the veiling of the French words, Djebar exhumes "des scories," "des scrofules" (scrofulous excrescences; 68/55), "details" that the Frenchmen had unconsciously let slip through and that bear witness to the violence used against the Algerians, especially against women. For instance, in one officer's letter to a friend, she focuses on the casual description of "ce pied de femme que quelqu'un a tranche pour s'emparer du bracelet d'or ou d'argent ornant la cheville" (a woman's foot that had been hacked off to appropriate the anklet of gold or silver; 68/55). Such "details," which do not quite fit in with the usual descriptions of war as a "divertissement viril" (manly sport; 68/55), are the trace of the repressed; they color the rest of the narratives: "Soudain les mots de la lettre entiere ne peuvent secher, du fait de cette incise: indecence de ces lambeaux de chair que la description n'a pu taire" (Suddenly as he inserts these words, they prevent the ink of the whole letter from drying: because of the obscenity of the torn flesh that he could not suppress in his description; 68/56). Djebar centers on this trace, bringing it to light in her rewriting of the historical palimpsest. She thus finds herself in the paradoxical position of having to be grateful toward the officers who dared write about the violence inflicted on the Algerian people; such is the case with Colonel Pelissier's report on the asphyxiation by fire of the Ouled Riah: "J'oserais presque le remercier d'avoir fait face aux cadavres, d'avoir cede au desir de les immortaliser. . . . Pelissier, l'intercesseur de cette mort longue, . . . me tend son rapport et je recois ce palimpseste pour y inscrire e mon tour la passion calcinee des ancetres" (I am almost tempted to thank him for having faced the corpses, for yielding to the desire to immortalize them. Pelissier, speaking on behalf of this long drawn-out death, hands me his report and I receive this palimpsest on which I now inscribe the charred passion of my ancestors; 92-93/78-79). Without the existence of the report, without the violence that it described, Djebar would not have been able to overwrite this massacre; its violence would have been banished from history and buried with the corpses.
In War's Other Voices Miriam Cooke argues that "war, the organization of violence against another person, demands to be written. Violence, so that it does not become chaotic and bestial, must be ordered into a narrative sequence" (25). It is such a reconstruction of an initial chaotic experience, borne through the psyches and bodies of the colonized, that Djebar engages in, breaking the concept of chronological, linear historical time into a fragmented, cyclical, fictionalized narrative. Telling war, writing war, is a deeply "transformative" process (Cooke, 27) that allows Maghrebian writers not only to gain some control over a painful experience, but also to foreground a point of view which had been erased by decades of historical writing done by the colonizing other, thus transforming history itself.
Djebar does not use only French written documents in her work of reconstruction and rewriting history. As an Algerian woman, she has access to the richness of an oral tradition transmitted by "les aieules," the foremothers. This tradition can be more accurate than the written word when it comes to knowing about one's ancestors. Talking about one of them, the novel's narrator exclaims: "Au-dela d'Oudja, sa trace disparait dans les archives comme si 'archives' signifiait empreinte de la realite!" (Beyond Oudja, there is no more trace of him in the archives - as if "archives" meant the imprint of reality; 201/177). Even though she is using the written medium, Djebar inscribes her work in the feminine oral tradition in which she finds her inspiration. The oral tradition is part of Arabic memory, which, with its lapses and accidents, erosions and traces, is "champ profond pour un labourage romanesque" (a deep field ripe for novels to furrow), as she pointed out in her article "Le romancier dans la cite arabe" (115). The oral tradition, because it weaves itself through the blanks and gaps of memory, participates in the palimpsestic nature of Djebar's project. It proves to be of utmost importance for the recovery of one's past, especially since the written record has been shown to lie.
Clashes can appear between the documents and the knowledge coming from the oral tradition. As an example, in the nineteenth century, when members of the narrator's family were taken as hostages and exiled, the oral Algerian and French written sources disagree on the numbers: were there eight, or forty-eight (including a pregnant woman)? It is clear which source Djebar chooses to follow, since, a few chapters later, she re-creates in dialogic form the story of that pregnant woman, filling in the blanks of history by using fiction. This dialogue between two women, between past and present, is also, as Dorothy Blair has remarked, a dialogue between history and fiction, written and oral traditions.
Je t'imagine, toi, l'inconnue, dont on parle encore de conteuse a conteuse. . ., je prentis place a mort tour dans le cercle d'ecoute immuable. . . . Je te recree, toi, l'invisible, . . . aieule d'aieule la premiere expatriee. . . . Je te ressuscite, au cours de cette traversee que n'evoquera nulle lettre de guerrier francais. (L'amour..., 214).
(I imagine you, the unknown woman, whose tale is handed down from storyteller to storyteller; now I too take my place in the unchangeable circle of listening. I re-create you, the invisible woman, .ancestress of ancestress, the first expatriate. I resurrect you during that crossing that no letter from any French warrior was to allude to.) (Fantasia, 189)
Here Djebar does violence to her French intertext: she overrides/overwrites its authority with the oral historical tradition of her family. Textually, the original violence done to the Algerians and to their history resurfaces through the use of the dialogic form. The pregnant ancestor, although brought back to light by Diebar, does not speak in her own voice after years of erasure; the narrator addresses her in the second person in an attempt to render her present within her text, to place the past in dialogue with the present while at the same time insisting on the use of mediation necessary to the overwriting process. The use of the second-person pronoun bears witness to the violence of historical erasure in the colonial context. The use of the second-person singular is characteristic of Djebar's style, as the second book of the quartet, Ombre sultane, makes abundantly clear. In the third part of Fantasia, "I," "she," and "you" alternate. The second-person singular is used when the narrator wonders about her work of transmission and initiates a dialogue with the women whose testimonies she is restituting. The presence of these testimonies is crucial to the process of overwriting history. The stakes are high: it is a matter of creating new documents, new "archives," before the witnesses disappear, in order to produce a history that will account for the Algerians and the women.
MEDIATED DIALOGUES: WOMEN'S VOICES. In Fantasia as in La nouba, women's testimonies about their own experience of history can only be transmitted to the reader/spectator through a series of external mediations that foreground the aspects of re-constitution of such history and the workings of memory in the rewriting of a history that had been erased by official versions. The narrator/filmmaker takes her place within the female, oral tradition: "Dire a mon tour. Transmettre ce qui a ete dit, puis ecrit" (It is now my turn to tell a tale. To hand on words that were spoken, then written down; Fantasia, 187/165). Such transmission is effected through the mediation of translation (from Arabic to French) and transcription (from oral to written words). The narrator constantly insists on the necessity of mediation in the novel, especially in the third (and last) part, with its explosion of narrative voices. Whereas the first two parts of the novel followed a point-counterpoint structure, passing from an autobiographical chapter to a historical one and shuttling between first and third person, in the third part the structure and the use of pronouns become more complex: the women's testimonies are first rendered in the first person, and then taken up again in chapters in which the "I" belongs to the novel's narrator. At first, one does not realize that the "I" in the second chapter of the third part, titled "Voix" ("Voice"), is not the same as the narrator's "I" in the preceding chapter, "Les deux inconnus" ("The Two Strangers"). Yet the style of these chapters is so different, going from a complex and highly literary language to a voice that maintains itself as close to an oral style as possible, that a certain level of confusion is created in the reader. It is only in the next chapter in italics, "Clameur" ("Clamor"), that we are made to understand the double referent of the "I": the narrator rewrites and comments in the third person on the story that was just told in the first person, and reveals to us the protagonist's name, Cherifa. Cherifa then continues her narration in the following chapter. The shifts between the different narrative voices suggest both the close link between the varied experiences of women across generations and the complexity of the work of translation-transcription.
A similar technique is used in the film, in which different voices are often superimposed. The narrator's voice - a voice-over in French in the film's French version - often covers over in part that of her relative who is speaking in the Algerian dialect, using the first-person pronoun to summarize or repeat her words in the other language. In one scene in particular, a woman begins to tell Lila her story; her voice is then covered by Lila's voice-over giving us a summary of what her aunt is saying. From time to time, the voice-over stops and the ongoing dialogue (subtitled in French) between the protagonist and her aunt can then be heard. In general, in the film, the French subtitles - which inherently cannot translate everything and leave blanks - create a third layer of mediation in the process of transmitting history. It is as if each voice gave the other the courage to continue to speak up through the means of female polyphony. Djebar has often remarked that it is the presence of anonymous women's whispers that allows her to speak and take up the pen. Her use of polypbony also foregrounds the violent and dangerous aspect of this means of communication in which a voice invested with narrative authority, the voice-over, will inevitably run the risk of dominating the other voices from time to time. Djebar's entire work reflects the impossibility of letting the "other" woman speak outside the circulation of power, especially in a postcolonial context.
In the novel, women's voices are transmitted not only from dialectal Arabic to French, but also from oral to written form. The narrator, instead of trying to cover over this double mediation, foregrounds its implications after transmitting the story of Cherifa, a young fighter whose experience also provides the film with a running thread: "Petite soeur etrange qu'en langue etrangere j'inscris desormais, ou que je voile. . . Tavoix s'est prise au piege; mon parler francais la deguise sans l'habiller. A peine si je frole l'ombre de ton pas!" (Strange little sister whom I henceforth inscribe - or veil - in the foreign tongue. I have captured your voice; disguised it with my French without clothing it. I barely brush against the shadow of your footsteps; Fantasia, 160-61/141-42). The multiplication of narrative voices from one chapter to the next in the novel and the superimposition of these same voices in the film have a double function. They reflect at the same time the desire that Djebar expressed in the overture to Femmes d'Alger "[de] ne pas pretendre 'parler pour', ou pire 'parler sur', a peine parler pres de, et si possible tout contre" (not to claim to "speak for" or, worse, to "speak on," barely speaking next w, and if possible very close to; 8/2), and her awareness of the difficulty of such a project in a postcolonial context in which to let the other speak also necessarily entails to veil her speech: the dialogue between women in Djebar's work inscribes itself precisely in the interstices between sisterhood and appropriation, in the shuttling between "speaking for" and "speaking very close to." Clarisse Zimra rightly links this insistence on mediation to the ambiguous position of the intercessor, a term whose recurrence in Fantasia she traces in her beautiful essay "Disorienting the Subject" (151-57).
In the film as in the novel, the French language inserts itself between the women, like a veil. In the film, Lila's voice-over was first written in French by Djebar, then co-translated into Arabic, and then taken up again in French in the film's French version (Djebar, 1994). The superimposition not only of voices but also of female figures themselves gives La nouba a palimpsestic aspect. For instance, two central stories, Cherifa's and Zohra's, are repeated in the film (and in the novel as well). Thirteen-year-old Cherifa saw her brother Ahmed, a mudjahid, die in front of her. She spent two nights hiding from the French in a tree, climbing down only to retrieve the body in order to perform the purification ritual (Fantasia, 136-38/119-21). Zohra, a farmer who had fed the mudjahidin, was punished by the French and her farm was burned down. She and her daughter had to spend the entire night outside, not daring to disturb any of her neighbors. In the film, these women's stories are acted out and replayed in a dream sequence following their narration. Through the medium of the dream, their memories also become Lila's.
In Zohra's story, the use of counterpoint (i.e., the disjunction between sound and image) is to be noted. The story is first narrated by Lila's voice-over. The images shown at that time are from the present (Lila's visit to Zohra, her relative). The contrast between Zohra and her daughter spending the night outside and Zohra's warm welcome toward Lila is striking. In the dream sequence that follows, sound and image converge but do not merge. Zohra's testimony, in Arabic with French subtitles, now provides the voice-over for the actions being played out on the screen. Zohra thus goes from the position of witness-storyteller to that of narrator of the film, and oral dialectal Arabic, like French in the rest of the film, becomes the language of the voice-over during the dream sequence.
Women's varied personal experiences intermingle without regard for chronology. A parallel is developed between Lila's and Cherifa's trajectories. For example, after a scene in a barn with her husband Ali, Lila tells him, "Je pars" (I'm leaving), before running toward her Jeep. Later on, Cherifa's mother tells Lila, "Ma fille m'a dit, je pars" (My daughter said to me, I'm leaving). Lila and Cherifa have many common points. Both have crisscrossed the mountains, be it on foot or by car; as teenagers, both lost a brother to the war; moreover, we learn from Lila's voice-over that during the war, both women had been jailed in the same prison. This comment is followed by the sentence "Ouvrir de nouvelles prisons" (To open new prisons) as the camera lingers on images of veiled women. Before the scene with Ali, Lila's voice-over had already mentioned "mes anciens jours de prison. Pour en parlet, il faudrait en etre vraiment sortie" (the time I had spent in jail. To be able to speak of it, I would have to have completely escaped it). For Lila as for the other women, the struggle continues, not only through the memory of the war of liberation, but also in the struggle for female freedom. In this context, the fact that Lila's words, "I'm leaving," should echo Cherifa's takes on a deeper meaning. In the same way, Lila creates a parallel between her own situation and that of Zohra's daughter. Zohra then becomes her mother: "Toutes les femmes errantes du passe deviennent ma mere. Et c'est moi, l'enfant" (All the wandering women - from the past become my mother. And I am the child). For Djebar, foregrounding women's visibility in the war means claiming a legitimate space for all women - including herself - outside the private sphere at the same time as it gives her the opportunity of dealing fictionally with a violent past.
According to Ratiba Hadj-Moussa's excellent study of La nouba, "La guerre (monumentale) constitue le referent qui realise la jonction entre le national et le feminin, referent. . . incontournable de la modernite algerienne" (The [monumental] war constitutes the referent that allows the junction between the nation and the feminine, insofar as it is the inescapable referent of Algerian modernity; 2). The many doublings in the film give Lila the ability not only to carry out this junction, but also to turn to genealogy in order to create a bridge with nineteenth-century women's war experiences. After a freeze frame ends the dream sequence in which Cherifa's story was being replayed, the camera cuts to a close-up of Lila as a child, thus almost superimposing their two childhood faces. Lila's voice-over comments on the parallel between Cherifa and herself: "C'etait elle, c'etait moi. Moi, toute petite, dans le lit-cage. Ma grandmere. . . me racontait, chaque soir, a sa maniere, l'histoire de notre tribu" (That was her, that was me. Me, as a little one, in the crib. Every night, my grandmother would tell me our tribe's story, its history, in her own words). The chain of oral transmission of history is made present in the film, as several old women transmitting their historical knowledge to children appear on the screen. Then there is a shift to the nineteenth century, with a shot of a group of women running toward a cave in the Dahra Mountains. Lila's voice-over announces: "Quelquefois ici, l'ennemi vous enfuma. Vives" (One day, here, the enemy asphyxiated you by fire. Alive). In the film, this is the only reference to a gruesome event of Algerian history which is central to the novel: "mille cinq cent hommes, femmes, enfants, vieillards" (1,500 men, women, children, elders), almost the entire Ouled Riah tribe, were exterminated by the French in 1845 (Fantasia, 85/72). Women from the past and present are joined through similar loss and struggle. To foreground the similarities, Djebar asked seasonal workers to play the part of the nineteenth-century women. They are not dressed in nineteenth-century costumes, but are simply wearing their own clothes, and were asked to reenact the same actions and gestures they had performed during the recent war of liberation (Djebar, 1994). In the film, these women first appear in Lila's dream. The camera then goes back and forth several times from these women dancing in the cave to Lila, alone in the same cave, searching for traces of their presence decades later. In the film's final movement, "Khlass," Lila joins these women in a dream sequence. The dream thus allows the superimposition of different eras of resistance in order to create a feeling of continuity between diverse women's struggles. The dream becomes a locus for the work of memory, since it allows a junction between past and present. Like the chain of oral transmission, it creates a connection between different times and different struggles through the process of superimposition.
Djebar explains that "c'est la documentation sonore [les enregistrements des temoignages feminins] qui a servi de point de depart au film. Le son direct de la premiere prise enregistree est ce qu'on entend quand les femmes parlent" (it is the soundtrack [the recordings of women's testimonies] that served as a starting point for the film. The sound from the first live recordings is what we hear when the women speak; Montreal, 1994). Djebar's entire work can be understood as an answer to the "regard interdit, son coupe" (forbidden gaze, severed sound) that she perceives as the major problem of Algerian society and which she discusses at length in her postface to Femmes d'Alger (167/133).(3) In La nouba it is above all the sound that guides her work.
Il s'agit de la memoire recherchee par la voix. Ma demarche est de partir du son. . . . C'est la meme chose dans mes livres. . . Quand la mere de la fillette dans l'arbre se met a pleurer, il y a un rapport entre voix et memoire au moment d'un detail de vulnirabilite. Je restitue ce qui est arrive a la fille dans L'amour, la fantasia. La mere se remet a souffrir, dans le moment, vingt ansen arriere. C'est comme un trou dans lequel entre et s'impose l'image, et donc on revoit la fillette sur l'arbre dans le film. C'est pour cela que le son est le point de depart, a cause des traces de blessures qui restent dans sa memoire. C'est a qu'il faut restituer, pas forcement au moment le plus caracteristique, ou le plus terrible, mais ce qui vingt ans apres continue a toucher dans le vif. (Montreal, 1994)
(It's all about memory sought through the medium of the voice. In this process, I start from the sound. It's the same in my books. When the mother of the girl in the tree begins to cry, there is a connection between voice and memory during a vulnerable moment. I restore what happened to the daughter in Fantasia. The mother begins to suffer anew, thrown back into that moment of twenty years before. It's like a gap through which the image inserts and imposes itself, and that's why we see the girl in the tree in the film. That is why the sound is the point of departure, because of the traces of wounds remaining in her memory. That is what must be restored, not necessarily the most characteristic or most terrible moment, but what, twenty years later, continues to cut to the quick.)
The girl in the tree is Cherifa, whose image recurs constantly in the film, like a leitmotiv. It is present from the very beginning of the film, where it is interspersed with archival images and war sounds. In the book, the image of Cherifa in the tree echoes another story, that of the Agha's daughter in the chapter titled "La marine nue de Mazouna" (The Naked Bride of Mazuna). This chapter, placed right after the one recounting the asphyxiation of the Ouled Riah, centers on events that had occurred a few months before the 1845 massacre. Bou Maza, one of the leaders of the resistance, was fighting the Caids and Aghas who collaborated with the French. Badra, the Caid's daughter, was to marry the Agha's son, but the wedding party was attacked by Bou Maza's men and the Agha was killed. Like Cherifa with her brother, the Agha's daughter witnessed the death. She managed to escape, spending two days and two nights hiding in a tree, only coming down when she saw her brother approaching. Although Cherifa and the Agha's daughter belong to two different historical periods and two opposing camps (resistance to and collaboration with the enemy), they experience similar traumas because of the war. In the same way, Badra, the Caid's daughter, and the Agha's daughter suffer similar fates in spite of their different situations. Resistance to varied enemies creates a link between the Algerian women whose lives are restored in Djebar's work. According to Adlai Murdoch, Badra's resistance to Bou Maza (like the Agha's daughter's) "may be read as a model for the maintenance of female subjective integrity in the face of a patriarchal desire for her subjection" (85). Women thus resist both Algerian and French patriarchal strictures.
A continuing history of resistance. The personal story and the country's history are intimately connected. In the film, Lila keeps on repeating the leitmotiv "J'avais quinze ans, j'avais cent ans de douleur" (I was fifteen years of age, with a hundred years of pain). In the book, the narrator claims, "Je suis nee en dix-huit cent quarante-deux" (I was born in eighteen hundred and forty-two; 243/217), the time when the French burned the zaouia of the Beni Menacer, her tribe. Four different war periods are superimposed: "la premiere guerre d'Algerie" (the first Algerian War) in 1842-45 (Fantasia, 92/78); the Berkanis' "seconde revolte" in 1871 (201/178); the war of national liberation in 1954-62; and finally, the gender wars. This superimposition subverts both French and Algerian official history. In France, traditional historiography tended to divide Algerian history into three parts: a short period of conquest, followed by over one hundred years of French Algeria (supposedly with minimal resistance on the part of the Algerians during that time), the "Algerian events" painfully bringing the French presence to an end. In Algeria, the war of national liberation is presented as the point of departure of the Algerian Nation, thus contrasting sharply with the dark period of French colonialism (Perville, Stora). In both countries, the analysis divides history into before and after. Djebar creates a female counterhistory that destabilizes the sharp break between colonization and decolonization by foregrounding the process of continual resistance and of collaboration (a perfect example is to be found in the chapter "La mariee nue de Mazouna"). She contextualizes the nineteenth-century anticolonial wars by placing them in a dialogue with the last war of independence. The Algerian sociologist Marnia Lazreg also sees "a striking symmetry in the history of colonization and decolonization" and "an unrecognized continuity in women's participation in the political/military life of their country" (118, 137).
In the third part of the novel (in a passage that has been commented on by Gayatri Spivak and Denise Brahimi), the narrator enters into a dialogue which is an exchange of stories with Zohra. Zohra's story centers on her sons' and her own resistance to the French armed forces during the war of national liberation. French violence and repression affected them directly through physical wounds, repeated house burnings, humiliations, and torture. Her story is emblematic of that of many musbilat, or civil militants, as described by Amrane (115, 119, 126). Her participation in the war was a total commitment of herself, her family, and of anything she owned. The kinds of services she performed remained for the most part within the realm of the female role: cooking and sewing for the mudjahidin, as well as gathering and transmitting intelligence on French troop movements. Her losses, as a punishment for her actions, were not only material but were inscribed on her body and psyche. During one of the house-burning episodes, her hair caught fire, and scars always remained as a reminder of this event. This, combined with torture, caused brain damage, gaining her the nickname "la folle" (the madwoman; 184/162).
After listening to Zohra telling her own story, the narrator feels the need to reciprocate by giving her a story through "la mediation de la lecture" (the mediation of reading; Brahimi, 122). Reading, writing, and oral storytelling mingle into what Spivak calls an arabesque (771). As Zohra's story is translated into French and committed to paper (for a partly Western audience of a book published in Paris), Fromentin's written narrative of an Algerian story told to him in 1853 and written down in French is transposed into dialectal oral Arabic and told to an Algerian woman (although the book's audience reads a French written version of this story). The boundaries between French writing and dialectal oral Arabic, between storyteller and writer, lose their rigidity. The oral tradition enters into written history, and the written text inserts itself into the female, oral tradition.
The cruel events of the French colonization of Algeria and their consequences for women echo those of the last war between Algeria and France. Fatma and Meriem, the two nineteenth-century prostitutes of Fromentin's story are explicitly compared to Kha-didja, the prostitute who, like Zohra, was imprisoned by the French and tortured for financially supporting the mudjahidin (Fantasia, 188/166). Fatma's and Meriem's half-naked bodies recall Zohra's and her female relatives' bodies stripped by French soldiers (181/159, 189/166). We are also reminded of the bodies of the women whom Cherif Bou Maza had forced to give up their jewelry and finery in 1845 (113-15/97-99). The violent encounter between Algeria and France inscribes itself as a wound whose traces remain on the body and memory of Algerian women, from the beginnings of the French conquest to the final war of liberation. Through the conflation of Fromentin's and Zohra's stories, the 1830 conquest comes to be viewed through the prism of the 1962 victory, as Algerian history becomes a history of continual resistance. As Danielle Marx-Scouras has shown, the violence of war continues for women during peacetime in Djebar's work (178). Contemporary Algerian women's struggle for the liberation of their gaze and voice is no longer marginal to the project of nation-building. Instead, their struggle inscribes itself fully within a national history of resistance and is thus legitimated.
Djebar's film and novel overwrite a history whose starting point is "the traces of wounds remaining in [women's] memory" (Diebar, 1994). Djebar's work of and about memory allows her to "rallumer le vif du passe" (rekindle the vividness of the past), "ecouter la memoire dechiree" (listen to a wrenched memory; La nouba), to prevent the ink from drying (Fantasia, 68/56), to bring stifled voices and asphyxiated memories back to life and into history.
University of Iowa
1 I have used existing English translations whenever available and listed them in the bibliography. When two different page numbers are given, the first refers to the French text, the second to the English version. I have often had to modify translations to remain as close to the original text as possible. All other translations are my own.
2 I wish to thank Ernstpeter Rube for helping me to refine my argument regarding the violent nature of the palimpsest.
3 Djebar's work on sound is particularly remarkable in her second film, La zerda, in which she reedited strips of film discarded from newsreels taken by "[des] cameramen parisiens" (Parisian cameramen) who accompanied "les ministres francais en voyage officiel [et] filmaient ... ce qui attirait leur regard" (French ministers in their official travels [and] filmed whatever attracted their gaze; Djebar, 1994). The subversion of these images is operated not only at the level of the choice of images themselves among miles of archival film, but especially at the level of the film's sound, with the addition of the "chants de l'oubli" (songs of forgetting) that "correspondent a ce qu'il n'y avait pas dans l'image" (correspond to what was not filmed; Djebar, 1994). The film is divided into four parts, four songs that retrace a history erased by French camerawork but preserved in the oral memory: insubordination (Abd-El-Kader's time), intransigence (guerrilla-war time), insulation (colonial times), and emigration between 1912 and 1942. A fifth part had been planned but could not be shot because of technical difficulties. It was to have been called "Le chant des morts les yeux ouverts" (Song of the Dead with Open Eyes) and was to display the ways in which both communities, Algerian and French, bury their dead (Djebar, Louisiana, 1996).
Amrane, Djamila. Les femmes algeriennes dans la guerre. Paris. Plon. 1991.
Brahimi, Denise. "L'amour, la fantasia: Une grammatologie maghrebine." Itineraires et contacts de cultures, 11:2 (1990), pp. 119-24.
Cooke, Miriam. War's Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War. New York. Cambridge University Press. 1988 (1987).
Djebar, Assia. L'amour, la fantasia. Paris. Lattes. 1985.
-----. Commentaries given during the roundtable on Djebar's film work during the "Colloque sur l'ecriture des femmes migrantes en francais en France et au Canada" at Concordia University, Montreal (Quebec), May 1994.
-----. Commentaries given on La zerda during the "Icono-Graphies Colloquium" at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, March 1996.
-----. Commentaries given during the "Postcolonialism and Autobiography Colloquium" at Wurzburg University, Wurzburg (Germany), June 1996.
-----. Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade. Dorothy Blair, tr. & intro. London. Quartet Books. 1989.
-----. Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement. Paris. Des Femmes. 1980.
-----. La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua. Film, 1978.
-----. Ombre sultane. Paris. Lattes. 1987.
-----. "Retablir le langage des femmes." Interview with C. Bouslimani. El Moudjahid, 8 March 1978.
-----. "Le romancier dans la cite arabe." Europe, 474 (October 1968), pp. 114-20.
-----. Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Marjolijn de Jager, tr. Charlottesville. University Press of Virginia. 1992.
-----. La zerda ou les chants de l'oubli. Film, 1982.
Genette, Gerard. Palimpsestes.' La litterature au second degre. Paris. Seuil. 1982.
Hadj-Moussa, Ratiba. "Le difficile surgissement de la memoire." Paper given at the "Colloquium Script/Screen in Francophone Africa" at Victoria University, Victoria (B.C.), Canada, October 1994.
Lazreg, Marnia. The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question. New York. Routledge. 1994.
Le Clezio, Marguerite. "Assia Djebar: Ecrire dans la langue adverse." Contemporary French Civilization, 9:2 (Spring-Summer 1985), pp. 230-43.
Lionnet, Francoise. Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture. Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell University Press. 1989.
Marx-Scouras, Danielle. "Muffled Screams / Stifled Voices." Yale French Studies, 82 (January 1993), pp. 172-82.
Miller, Nancy K. "Arachnologies: The Woman, the Text, and the Critic." In The Poetics of Gender. New York. Columbia University Press. 1986. Pp. 270-95.
Mortimer, Mildred. "Entretien avec Assia Djebar, ecrivain algerien." Research in African Literatures, 19:2 (Summer 1988), pp. 197-205.
-----. "Language and Space in the Fiction of Assia Djebar and Leila Sebbar." Research in African Literatures, 19:3 (Fall 1988), pp. 301-11.
Murdoch, H. Adlai. "Rewriting Writing: Identity, Exile and Renewal in Assia Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia." Yale French Studies, 83 (January 1993), pp. 71-92.
Perville, Guy. "Historiographie de la guerre." In La France en guerre d'Algerie: Novembre 1954-Juillet 1962. Laurent Gervereau, Jean-Pierre Rioux, and Benjamin Stora, eds. Paris. Musee d'histoire contemporaine-BDIC. 1992. Pp. 308-9.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Acting Bits / Identity Talk." Critical Inquiry, 18:4 (Summer 1992), pp. 770-803.
Stora, Benjamin. La gangrene et l'oubli: La memoire de la guerre d'Algerie. Paris. La Decouverte. 1991.
Trinh T. Minh-Ha. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington. Indiana University Press. 1989.
Zimra, Clarisse. "Afterword." In Assia Djebar's Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Charlottesville. University Press of Virginia. 1992. Pp. 159-211.
-----. "Disorienting the Subject in Djebar's L'amour, la fantasia." Yale French Studies, 87 (1995), pp. 149-70.
Anne Donadey is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Women's Studies at the University of Iowa. Her articles have appeared in The French Review, L'Esprit Createur, and the book collection Identity Papers.
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|Title Annotation:||Assia Djebar: 1996 Neustadt International Prize for Literature|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1996|
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