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Writing violence and the violence of writing in Assia Djebar's Algerian Quartet.

My writing does not feed on rupture, but mends it.

- Assia Djebar, "To Write, Disinherited"

In the opening pages of the after word following Marjolijn de Jager's translation of Assia Djebar's Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement, Clarisse Zimra recounts an interesting anecdote about Djebar's hasty selection of a pen name when her first novel, La soif, was accepted for publication (WA, 159-60). After asking her fiance to recite the ninety-nine ritual modes of address, Djebar selected djebbar, a phrase praising Allah, as her pen name. In an instinctive gesture, Djebar reached back into Arabic, part of her oral heritage, in order to select a sort of veil, a pen name, which would protect her family from the scandalous act of an Arab woman writing an erotic story. When Djebar hastily transcribed this oral Arabic recited by her fiance into French script, however, she inadvertently changed the word and its meaning in the process of translation: djebbar became djebar,(1) which means "healer" in vernacular Arabic according to Zimra. Hence Assia Djebar's complex relationship to different languages and cultures enables her to (re)invent herself as a healer. This identity construction as healer of past, present, collective, and individual wounds ultimately foretells Djebar's journey into the subterranean realms of both a buried collective history and a buried story of the self. In this essay the first three novels of Assia Djebar's projected Algerian Quartet provide the material for mapping these subterranean realms within which Djebar writes in order to mend the myriad ruptures between self and other.(2) As Djebar's intricate weaving of plural autobiographies and histories in the novels will reveal, these multiple ruptures between self and other are emblematic of both the past and present violence ripping Algeria apart today.

In order to mend ruptures and heal wounds, Djebar embarks on a novelistic journey of self-discovery in the quartet and finds that writing within the space of rupture and division means putting herself in mortal danger (WA, 171). Like her Algerian sisters who unveiled and threw their vulnerable bodies literally into the front lines of battle during the Algerian War, Djebar's commitment to and quest for liberation for herself, for her sisters both past and present, and for her country render her painfully exposed and vulnerable. This exposure occurs on two intrinsically connected levels, as Djebar discovered while writing Les alouettes naives (1967): "I felt as if . . . as if I was exposing myself doubly. First, because as an Algerian, but one living - or so it seemed - as a Westerner, I was somewhat exposed already. Second, because writing about my innermost self felt like exposing myself further" (WA, 169). Living as a Westerner exposes Djebar, since this form of liberation, while it gave her the chance to study, also alienated her from the protective and nurturing traditional realm of her childhood. The matrons of Djebar's youth - we learn in Vaste est la prison (279) - recognize that although a French education will spare the young girl from a life of seclusion, it will also serve to exclude her from their company. This initial expulsion and exposure is complicated by another, which has its roots in the very culture from which Djebar was progressively alienated. Her upbringing taught her never to use the first-person-singular pronoun "I" to talk about herself, since the singularity represented by the "I" transgressed the traditional anonymity surrounding any confessional discourse.(3) Transgression of this taboo has far-reaching symbolic consequences particularly for women, since revealing intimate details about oneself with the first-person pronoun "I" without adopting traditional circumlocutions is akin to unveiling or denuding(4) oneself.

This double exposure, and the inevitable vulnerability it implies, is incessantly articulated in Djebar's work through images of women's wounded bodies: bleeding, suffering, and mutilated bodies often described in meticulous detail. It is through this intensely corporeal imagery that Djebar weaves together her own stories of wounds and mutilated memories with those of her Algerian sisters, and ultimately with those of Algeria herself.(5) For example, in Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade she describes the autobiographical experience as a painful wounding process which causes not only her blood to flow, but that of others as well: "To attempt an autobiography using French words alone is to lend oneself to the vivisector's scalpel, revealing what lies beneath the skin. . . . Wounds are reopened, veins weep, one's own blood flows and that of others, which has never dried" (156). Before attending to these reopened wounds caused by the dissection of the self implicit in autobiography, Assia Djebar felt she first had to settle the score with the French language. This internalized, individual war mirrors the collective struggle against the colonial power dominating Algeria. In Fantasia Djebar explores how the French language, a language indissociable from the official conquerors who killed as they wrote,(6) structured her identity: "After more than a century of French occupation - which ended not long ago in such butchery - a similar no-man's-land still exists between the French and the indigenous languages, between two national memories: the French tongue, with its body and voice, has established a proud presidio within me, while the mother-tongue, all oral tradition, all rags and tatters, resists and attacks between two breathing spaces" (F, 215). Instead of allowing this psychic battle to continue tearing her apart, Djebar redefines her problematic relationship to the French language in Fantasia not by reconciling herself harmoniously with French but by taking it as one would take "war booty" (DF, 25).

Therefore, in Fantasia Djebar appropriates the language of conquest and death not to kill, but rather to revive the dead and bear witness to their mortal combat. By throwing herself into the battlefield and appropriating the colonizer's weapons, she is able to turn these same weapons against the adversary.(7) Djebar's redefined relationship to the language of conquest and death is perhaps best embodied by the mutilated hand of an anonymous Algerian woman that Fromentin threw away during his travels at the time of the conquest. In Fantasia Djebar imagines herself picking up this hand and bringing it the qalam so that it may testify to its own mutilation as well as to the historical violence its mutilation represents (F, 226). The wounded female body comes to represent an Algeria raped and left bleeding in the dust by the conquering soldiers as Djebar presents her reading of the letters written by French soldiers in Fantasia. Far from collaborating with their discourse of exoticism when recuperating the image of Algeria as a woman, Djebar subverts this discourse by ripping the veil which masks the overt violence of colonial invasion.(8) By appropriating the gendered historical relationship between colonizer and colonized, Djebar is ultimately able to reveal the resistance and the screams of refusal muffled by the colonial discourse of conquest. Fantasia represents therefore the rewriting of Algerian history from a feminine stance so that these screams will be heard and so that a collective oral history transmitted by women may also be inscribed into the fabric of Algeria's past. Women's bodies become monuments and privileged sites in this reinscription process at the heart of Djebar's work. These bodies testify to, and can be read as, the story of women's active presence in history. This (her)story writes against and contests the representation of women as passive odalisques by both colonial and patriarchal discourses.(9) The body of the protagonist Sarah in the first short story of Women of Algiers provides an excellent example of how women's bodies can be (re)read. Her courage during the Algerian War is literally inscribed on her body with a blue scar that starts above one of her breasts and stretches down to her abdomen. This scar bears witness to the torture she endured in the colonizer's prison and inscribes women into the Algerian struggle for liberation.

However, not all women's bodies bear a scar like Sarah's which suggests that the wound has healed. In the same short story Leila's relationship to her used body provides a contrapuntal image of wounds which are not healed. Leila was one of the heroic fire carriers in the Algerian War who hid bombs under their veils when passing from the Arab zone into the French quarter of Algiers. Like Sarah's body, the bodies of these fire carriers bear witness to the war's violence and its gruesome price. Leila reminds Sarah of this price in the following passage from Women of Algiers: "In the streets they were taking pictures of your unclothed bodies, of your avenging arms in front of the tanks. . . . We suffered the pain of your legs torn apart by the rapist soldiers. And it is thus that the sanctioned poets evoked you in lyrical divans. Your turned-up eyes . . . no, worse. . . . Your bodies, used only in parts, bit by little bit" (44). Leila not only evokes the image of vulnerable, sacrificed bodies during the war; she also talks about how these bodies still suffer after independence is won. Leila concludes by reminding Sarah and the reader that the bombs are still exploding in Algeria, since the brothers are no longer fighting alongside their sisters but rather against them: "The bombs are still exploding . . . but over twenty years: close to our eyes, for we no longer see the outside, we see only the obscene looks, the bombs explode but against our bellies and I am - she screamed - I am every woman's sterile belly in one! . . . Were there ever really any brothers?" (WA, 44-45). The brothers' betrayal exemplifies the conflicts and ruptures which did not end, as the women warriors believed they would, when independence was won.

These women fighters threw themselves into danger and bore wounds testifying to this instead of staying in their traditional place during the war. As a result of their courageousness, however, they found they had no place in a postwar society which preferred to repress the memory of their participation rather than face the difficult task of integrating this new type of woman into the social fabric. Assia Djebar had predicted this new rupture in Les alouettes naives (1967), as Clarisse Zimra points out in her afterword to Women of Algiers (203). The collection of short stories Women of Algiers confirms Djebar's earlier prediction and attempts to explore various forms of disillusionment by reminding us that war wounds are far from healed. Yet it is at the close of Fantasia that Djebar earns the reputation of soothsayer, when she predicts more violence and death to come for her Algerian sisters. In this first novel of the quartet she uses a story of death and rupture from the past to predict and warn against the flow of blood in the future. The story centers on Haoua, a young woman who was fed on the sound of fighting between the Hajout tribe and the French during her adolescence. Like Djebar, whose adolescence is indelibly marked by an internal war reproducing Algerian history on a psychic level, Haoua possesses an identity that is structured by war and violence. In a characteristic move, Djebar reveals in Fantasia how this collective, historical violence ultimately permeates personal and individual lives. Haoua, who has come to watch the cavalcade of the Hajouts, is mortally wounded by her lover, one of the riders. In the middle of the festivity, Haoua's rejected lover wheels around on his horse and bears down on her until his charger kicks her in the face (F, 225).

Through her retelling of Haoua's story in Fantasia, Djebar is effectively revealing another frightening story. Within the collective tale of a festivity celebrating Algerian resistance to the French there lies hidden a tragic story of internal division pitting one Algerian against another, namely a man against a woman. Djebar's reading of the nineteenth century therefore brings her to the painful realization that there is more internal division to come and that the destiny of any woman standing up freely is intrinsically linked to Haoua's destiny. By listening to the muffled stories of the women of her native land in Fantasia, Djebar foresees "the inevitable moment when the mare's hoof will strike down any woman who dares to stand up freely, will trample all life that comes out into the sunlight to dance" (227). Moreover, the last poignant lines of Fantasia confirm this prediction: "Yes, in spite of the tumult of my people all around, I already hear, even before it arises and pierces the harsh sky, I hear the death cry in the Fantasia" (F, 227). The tragic end to this nineteenth-century love story provides a clue as to how to read the comma which appears between L'amour and la fantasia in the title of the first novel of the Algerian Quartet.(10) This comma may be read as the blood of rupture and division etched into Djebar's corpus, a mark of violence which has not loosened its grip on both Algeria's past and its present. As the final image of Fantasia demonstrates, this past and present violence will continue to inscribe itself on women's bodies in the next two novels of the quartet, A Sister to Scheherazade (1988) and Vaste est la prison (1995). Since Djebar has intertwined Algeria's destiny with that of the wounded female bodies in her text, one is forced to ask the question, "Will Algeria be left to bleed and ultimately die of its wounds like Haoua, or will its wounds be attended to so that they may heal?" Further exploration of the subterranean territory of history and autobiography in the second and third novels of the quartet will attempt to chart the ways Algeria is still bleeding and how Djebar's courage to continue writing with this very blood despite her own personal pain promises the beginning of a healing process.

Djebar's courage in facing this violence in the quartet so as to heal wounds includes facing the violence of writing her autobiography in Fantasia. Although autobiographical elements found their way into her texts before Fantasia, Djebar felt she had to wait until Fantasia to be able to take charge of her autobiography (WA, 171). Before the writing of this first novel of the Algerian Quartet, if parts of Djebar's life and self found their way into her fiction, it was a way of hiding from herself: "Unlike the usual schema of female writing in the Western tradition, which is all subjective, I started writing as a wager, almost a dare, to keep as far away from my real self as possible" (WA, 168). Yet, while writing Les alouettes naives, Djebar realized that her fiction had literally caught up with her and that she could no longer hide from self-discovery. The fear of exploring the deep recesses of her own psyche was so great that, in her interview with Clarisse Zimra printed in the afterword to Women of Algiers, she likened writing about herself to committing suicide (WA, 169). The temptation to flee autobiography and the violence it entails (since it amounts to submitting oneself to the vivisector's scalpel) led Djebar to choose silence and to stop writing for a decade.(11) Fantasia demonstrates, however, that Djebar is no longer afraid of this scalpel which dissects her identity, since she has wedded her destiny to Algeria's. In Les femmes dans le roman algerien Hafid Gafaiti claims that the joining of individual and collective destinies in Fantasia marks a turning point in Djebar's writing, since she defines autobiography as a struggle and reveals the intrinsic link between writing and violence (171). In Fantasia Djebar joins her destiny to Algeria's by being reborn in 1842,(12) the year that General Saint-Arnaud destroyed the zaouia of her tribe, the Beni Menacer (F, 217). By exploring her own past in autobiography, therefore, Djebar ultimately explores Algeria's past, since the two destinies have been wed.

Despite this new commitment to autobiography that represents a struggle against violence, the flight from the self and from writing remains a very real temptation, especially as violence in Algeria worsens. This temptation to flee reappears in the third novel of the quartet, Vaste est la prison, which is written in the midst of fundamentalist violence after the bloody riots of 1988 in Algeria: "Je ne peux pas. Je ne veux pas. Je veux fuir. Je veux m'effacer. Effacer mon ecriture. Me bander les yeux, me baillonner la bouche" (I can't. I don't want to. I want to flee. I want to efface myself. To erase my writing. To blindfold myself, to gag myself; VP, 331).(13) The testimony to Yasmina which follows this passage, however, demonstrates that the need for a writing which bears witness to violence overrides the fear of writing. If Djebar does not write this violence - or, better yet, write within this violence - who will testify for Yasmina? Yasmina gave her life for her sister, a Polish woman whose flight from violence already calls into question whether or not Yasmina's story will be heard. Out of solidarity for Yasmina, Djebar must write her story and the story of other sisters in Vaste est la prison and A Sister to Scheherazade. It is in the name of this solidarity that Djebar continues the painful process of writing autobiography and history in A Sister, the novel of sisterhood and solidarity par exellence.

Djebar weds her destiny to those of her two heroines in A Sister, just as she wedded her destiny to Algeria's in Fantasia. Although A Sister appears to depart from the inscription of autobiography in the quartet, this novel ultimately demonstrates once again how Assia Djebar's fiction and the feminine narrators she creates reveal the surge of autobiography underpinning Djebar's work. In her Anthologie de la litterature algerienne de langue francaise Christiane Achour notes the autobiographical undercurrents of A Sister to Scheherazade when she describes how the narrator is so involved in this story of violence that Isma and Djebar's voices are mixed together throughout the novel (244). Autobiographical material appears primarily in the chapters of A Sister in which Isma is recalling her past. Instead of addressing Hajila in her interior monologues, Isma seems to be addressing the woman she used to be, or the Isma of the past who is the shadow of her current self. Isma's exploration of the self through interior dialogues mirrors Djebar's own exploration of her past in Fantasia. For example, in a chapter titled "L'adolescente en colere" (Eng. "A Young Girl's Anger") Isma tells a story of double alienation from French students and from traditional Algerian women:

I continued my studies in the capital. To do so I had to be a boarder; a few exceptional girls like myself, spared from a life of seclusion, while still haunted by its proximity or its threat, felt themselves doubly alienated from their European schoolfellows, the daughters of colonials settled on the plain.

My aunt had hidden neither her tears nor her helpless distress at my departure.

'Study?' she had muttered. 'Is she a man?' (SS, 130)

Isma's story mirrors Djebar's in Vaste est la prison when she describes how her father sent her to French schools against the wishes of her grandmother, who reacts like Isma's aunt by claiming that the young girl will be made into a boy by a French education.

Lorsque je revenais, chaque ete, a sa ville et a sa demeure, moi, alors agee de dix ans ou un peu plus, sans voile, trop tot grandie, je devenais pour elle, a vrai dire encombrante: il lui arrivait, la vieille, de m'examiner les traits du visage de pres, elle murmurait sur un ton acre, pourquoi, a propos de quoi, en tout cas avec un etonnement mefiant et comme en soudaine ennemie: "Ces yeux, ah, ces yeux!" puis elle detournait de moi son regard, elle protestait cette fois en direction de ma mere: - Eh bien quoi, vous en ferez un garcon peut-etre? (VP, 303-4)

(When I used to return to her city and her home for the summers, I was about ten years old, without a veil and too grown-up, so I became a real nuisance to her. The next day she used to scrutinize my facial features closely, murmuring in an acrid fashion with distrustful surprise and suddenly hostile: "These eyes, oh, these eyes!" Then she used to avert her gaze away from me, protesting this time against my mother: "Well maybe you're going to make a boy out of her?")

Intertextualities such as these between Isma and Djebar are important not so much because they prove the masking of autobiographical material within the story of a fictive narrator, but because the doubling and the merging of feminine identities is central to the elaboration of sisterhood and solidarity in A Sister.

The confusion between Isma and Djebar(14) provides a central key as to how to read feminine identity in A Sister. This confusion between women is often read as part of the patriarchal seraglio structure of interchangeable women-objects whose individual identities are effaced.(15) The seraglio structure is subverted by Djebar when she redefines the multiplicity of women as a weapon to be used against patriarchy. She reveals a woman who is able to stop the substitution of women and who tums patriarchal law against itself by bringing Dinarzade out of the shadow of her mythical sister, Scheherazade. Scheherazade is able to bring her sister with her into the sultan's chamber on her wedding night, since women who are blood relations of the bride are forbidden to the polygamous man (SS, 103). Since Dinarzade is protected from the sultan by this rule, she is able to watch over her sister and wake her before dawn.

In any case, Dinarzade, the sister, will be keeping watch near at hand: she will be close by while they embrace; she will look on at their carnal feast, or at least give ear to it. And the sultan's bride will be reprieved for one day more, then for a second; to be sure, the tales she spins help save her, but first and foremost it is because her sister has kept watch and woken her in time.

Assured of the sister's collusion in keeping sleepless watch, Scheherazade has been able to indulge in erotic transports, then yield to sleep. Awakened one hour before dawn, as if she had not slept, as if she had never known a man, she will give free rein to her virgin imagination.

To throw light on the role of Dinarzade, as the night progresses! Her voice under the bed coaxes the storyteller up above, to find unfailing inspiration for her tales, and so keep at bay the nightmares that daybreak would bring.

And all the fears haunting women today are dispelled, because of the two faces of the sultan's bride. (SS, 95)

In the last sentence of this passage Djebar interprets the importance of "this age-old sister to women today who fear the violence of the dawn. Every woman needs a sororal double whose destiny is wedded to hers and who will watch over her like Dinarzade watched over Scheherazade.

In the opening pages of A Sister, which serve as a prologue to Hajila's and Isma's stories, Djebar inscribes the Hajila-Isma duo into the mythic frame story of the Thousand and One Nights. Their modern story becomes mythic as well, since it transcends the particular context within which it is set: "Isma, Hajila: an arabesque of intertwining names. Which of the two is the shadow who will become the sultan's bride? Which one is to be the bride at dawn, only to dissolve into a shadow before noon?" (1). The indeterminacy of their identities will ultimately become a powerful tool against a patriarchal order which pits women against each other as rivals in order to divide and conquer. In the third part of A Sister, titled "La sultane regarde," (Eng. "The Sultan's Bride Looks On"), Isma is haunted by the realization that women have always been turned against one another, and she begins to understand how this rivalry is perpetuated by mothers like Touma (Hajila's mother): "Now, the mothers keep guard and have no need of the policeman's badge of office. The seraglio has been emptied, but its noxious emanations have invaded everything. Fear is transmitted from generation to generation. The matriarchs swaddle their little girls in their own insidious anguish, before they even reach puberty. Mother and daughter, O, harem restored!" (145). With the realization that Touma perpetuates the seraglio structure by imprisoning her daughter, Isma recognizes that she too has participated in this seraglio structure. She knows she has failed her sister Hajila by not watching protectively over her like Dinarzade watched over Scheherazade. Isma's feminist awakening prompts her to invite Hajila to the hammam, where Isma will consummate their sisterhood and commitment to solidarity by giving Hajila the key to leave her prison at the end of A Sister.

Despite this positive ending, Isma's initial complicity with the seraglio structure must be explored, since its tragic consequences are inscribed on Hajila's raped and beaten body. At the beginning of A Sister Hajila is not assured of Dinarzade and Scheherazade's complicity, since she has no sister to protect her when she is sent to the master's bed. Despite her apparent liberated ways, Isma participates in, and is complicitous with, the seraglio structure when she selects a wife for her husband. Djebar's explanation of the ambivalent meaning of derra illustrates the violence involved in the rivalry between wives.

Derra: the word used in Arabic to denote the new bride of the same man, the first wife's rival; this word means 'wound' - the one who hurts, who cuts open the flesh, or the one who feels hurt, it's the same thing!

Is not the second wife, who appears on the other side of the bed, similar to the first one, almost a part of her, the very one who was frigid and against whom the husband raises avenging arms? At which the first wife smiles, an ambiguous smile. (SS, 91)

One can imagine Isma's own ambiguous smile as she sends Hajila into a war zone by proposing Hajila as her husband's next wife. As the ambivalence of the word derra suggests, the second wife, who is supposed to be the wound for the first wife, actually becomes the one who will be wounded in A Sister. Like Haoua, who is wounded by a lover furious about being rejected, Hajila becomes the victim of the husband's(16) wounded pride, since he is rejected by his first wife, Isma.

In A Sister a woman's body will again testify to rupture, division, and war. This time the Algerian War for Independence is explicitly absent, yet its structuring presence still hides beneath the story. It could be argued that A Sister elaborates the warning emitted in Les alouettes naives that the war for independence was reborn within the couple (WA, 190). In A Sister Isma describes her relationship with her husband in terms of war (barricades, defiance, confrontation) as she recounts her past (66). Likewise, Hajila, through Isma's narrative voice,(17) describes her first sexual experience with the husband in terms of struggle, battle, and resistance.

Rape! Is this rape? People assert that he is your husband, your mother always refers to 'your master, your lord' . . . He has forced you down on to the bed, you try to fight him off, finding unsuspected sources of strength. You are crushed beneath his chest. You try to wriggle free from under the weight, you stiffen your arms convulsively against your sides, bracing yourself as he clasps you to him. The man's arms tighten around you, then relax their grip, you bend your legs, not daring to kick, not trying to escape. A battle fought out on a mattress in a tangle of crumpled sheets . . . The man has switched out the lamp, taking advantage of a temporary let-up, a brief breathing space. You were already closing your eyes. The climax is near, you resume your resistance. (SS, 57-58)

Isma experiences jouissance and erotic fulfillment despite the antagonism between herself and her husband, whereas Hajila only suffers from the sexual act forced on her by a man she loathes, a man with whom she wages nightly battle. Powerless yet anything but submissive, Hajila describes sex as another form of slavery: "'Is this what coitus really is for every woman? this physical pain?' Has no woman ever rebelled? Do the other forms of slavery not suffice?" (63). Hajila's reaction to this violent appropriation of her body is to declare war on the husband and to name him the enemy: "'Every night this searing burrows deeper into you, you clench your teeth for minutes on end, waiting for the male to finish puffing and panting above your head!' Not one of these women revealed that, the following morning, your only defence is defiance! You take your time washing yourself, oh so slowly! you show your hostility by the way you stand against a door" (63-64). Hajila's resistance is reminiscent of an Algeria whose screams of refusal and resistance are made audible by Djebar's version of the colonial conquest in Fantasia.

Hajila's revolt takes the form of her daily walks in the city without her veil, therefore naked and exposed. In Maghrebines: Portraits litteraires Denise Brahimi points out that these walks are not free promenades, but rather panic-stricken revolts through which Hajila deliberately exposes herself to the violence of the masculine gaze in the streets in order to send out a call for help (120). For Hajila, who was brought up in a traditional environment and who has veiled most of her life, these anonymous male looks in the street violate her entire being, and her continued walks represent a betrayal of her husband: "How could you tell him that it was even more serious, that you were deceiving him with the faces of strangers?" (SS, 86). Hajila has felt justified in this "betrayal" ever since her rape by her husband: "This morning, the day after the rape, you are no longer afraid of him. You only have to remember the times you stroll at liberty through the sunlit spaces of the town, with no stench between your legs" (62). Yet Hajila loses this battle against her husband when he finds out about her daily revolts. One is reminded of Scheherazade's fear of the dawn when the husband begins beating Hajila at daybreak, punishing her for her "infidelity," since she has let herself be devoured by male gazes every day by walking through the city unveiled. As punishment for letting herself be gazed at and, conversely, gazing back, the husband attempts to blind Hajila (87). This image of a man attempting to blind his wife as he beats her prefigures a certain identification between Hajila and Djebar. Like the duo Isma-Djebar, whose destinies are inevitably intertwined by their common past, Hajila and Djebar share the same wound. Hajila begins her healing process in the hammam when Isma reaches out to her as sister, daughter, and mother and a bond of solidarity is established between the two; Djebar's healing process is charted in Vaste est la prison.

A certain continuity between A Sister to Scheherazade and Vaste est la prison, as well as a merging of Djebar's, Hajila's, and Isma's identities, is established by the symbiotic atmosphere of the hammam(18) which appears at the close of A Sister and at the beginning of Vaste. Hence the autobiographical element in the quartet surges forth in full force, going beyond the mere similarities of Isma's and Djebar's adolescence. Djebar courageously reveals and writes about her own wound at the hands of her husband in the first part of Vaste. Like Hajila, Djebar protects her eyes from a furious husband who wishes to punish her with blindness (85). Djebar inscribes herself into the age-old story of sororal bonds by becoming not only Isma's double but Hajila's as well. This merging of authorial identity with the identities of other women is a strategy already present in Fantasia. For example, in an excellent analysis of Djebar's project, Hafid Gafaiti, in Les femmes dans le roman algerien, notices how the autobiographical "I" which announced itself in the scandal of its singularity gradually effaces itself in order to merge with and to privilege the anonymous voices of Algerian women in Fantasia (171). Ultimately this initial inscription of a plural autobiography (Abdel-Jaouad, 25) in Fantasia will be put into practice in Vaste est la prison according to the solidarity and sisterhood principle developed by A Sister to Scheherazade.

Although sororal bonds promise to heal wounds at the end of A Sister, solidarity and sisterhood are not easy to come by in a society which persists in setting women against one another as rivals. In A Sister Isma suddenly awakens to this realization as she watches her ex-husband's son Nezim - a son who is perhaps Hajila's only consolation in her domestic prison - learn society's rules from Touma, who is the guardian of this modern-day seraglio: "From earliest childhood males learn to detect the breach in our defences caused by indecision - the moment of weakness which, in a flash, sets women in wrangling confrontation with each other. What they see as children will serve to slake their appetites as adults. To widen eventually the gap between us. With their bodies, their sex, their perfidy! Forcing us more and more to lose hope" (146).

Hajila's mother, Touma, enforces the seraglio's primordial law, and therefore this mother-daughter bond must be severed before Hajila can begin her healing process. The importance of renewing the matrilineal bonds of the past, a common theme in Djebar's work since Women of Algiers, should not be interpreted as the daughter's submission to mothers who cloister their daughters. In "To Write, Disinherited" Djebar explicitly refuses this particular mother-daughter transmission and does not accept this heritage, which is ultimately a heritage of lamentation that would render writing impossible.

For women . . . the ancient song just injected rhythm into their sterile inner ferment, their offended pride - and even this only on the condition that the body was forgotten - the hair of course, the eyes, the breasts, the carriage, the gait, the sheer movement. . . . Only provided the voice subsisted without the gaze - women's voices floating off somewhere or else entombed. Weeping, mainly. . . . Tears can't be written; they claw the body, they torture it. At best, they turn into a gale, a storm; not a flow of writing. Rage, if it grabs you by the throat and knots up your voice, at least it causes your words from here and there to tumble madly onto the page. Did I say I'll write no lamentation? My writing never has accepted such a heritage. (186)

Djebar rejects this heritage in order to restore both the sound and the gaze to her work and to be reborn as a new feminine subject in her work as a filmmaker, which is documented in the chapters titled "Femme arable" in the third part of Vaste est la prison. It is not surprising that these chapters alternate with chapters which rewrite the stories of Djebar's feminine ancestors. Djebar demonstrates here how women can renew their relationship with the matrilineal figures from their past without being subsumed within a heritage of cloistered women like Hajila.

This argument is supported by Djebar in the sixth movement of the third part of Vaste est la prison. When her daughter tells her of the new job offered to her in her father's city, Djebar remembers how the women of this region refer to their husbands as "the enemy" (l'e'dou) and fears that her daughter will not be able to fall in love among such enemies (320). When Djebar discourages her daughter from taking this job and encourages her to go to Rouen instead, she realizes that she is disinheriting her daughter and making her a "fugitive" (320). At the same time Djebar is bequeathing another heritage, one passed down through a feminine genealogy of mythical women, all of whom were fugitives in one way or another because they dared to keep moving despite the mortal risk involved. In Vaste est la prison this new symbolic genealogy can be traced back to Tin Hinan, the fugitive princess of Tuareg legend.

After recounting the history of Berber struggle and resistance (Yougourtha is the emblem of this struggle) through the loss of the Berber alphabet in the second part of Vaste est la prison, Djebar conjures the image of the legendary Tin Hinan, who brought the archaic alphabet with her in her flight from the Tafilalet to Hoggar.

J'imagine donc la princesse du Hoggar qui, autrefois dans sa fuite, emporta l'alphabet archaique, puis en confia les caracteres a ses amies, juste avant de mourir. Ainsi, plus de quatre siecles apres la resistance et le dramatique echec de Yougourtha au Nord, quatres siecles egalement avant celui, grandiose, de la Kahina - la reine berbere qui resistera a la conquete arabe -, Tin Hinan des sables, presque effacee, nous laisse heritage . . . notre ecriture la plus secrete, aussi ancienne que l'etrusque ou que celle des "runes" mais, contrairement a celles-ci, tout bruissante encore de sons et de souffles d'aujourd'hui, est bien legs de femme. (164)

(So I imagine the princess of the Hoggar who, in bygone days, brought the archaic alphabet with her in her flight, then entrusted its characters to her female friends on her deathbed. So, more than four centuries after the resistance and the dramatic defeat of Jugurtha in the north, also four centuries before the grandiose defeat of Kahina - the Berber queen who resisted against the Arab conquest - Tin Hinan of the desert sands, almost forgotten, bequeaths her legacy to us . . . our most secret writing, as ancient as Estruscan and runic writings, but unlike these writings, ours, which is still humming with today's sounds and breaths, is a woman's legacy.)

Like Tin Hinan, Zoraide is also a fugitive who takes a message written in her native language, Arabic, with her in her flight from her homeland. Djebar establishes a bond with Tin Hinan and Zoraide in Vaste when she inscribes herself in the constant movement of previous feminine fugitives: "Je deviens de plus en plus transfuge. Telle Zoraide, la depouillee. Avant perdu comme elle ma richesse du depart, dans mon cas, celle de l'heritage maternel, et ayant gagne quoi, sinon la simple mobilite du corps denude, sinon la liberte. Fugitive donc, et ne le sachant pas" (More and more I become a renegade like Zoraide, who was stripped of her inheritance. Like Zoraide, I've lost my original riches, in my case the wealth of maternal legacy, and what did I gain, save the simple mobility of the denuded body, save freedom. A fugitive, therefore, without knowing it; 172). Djebar in turn passes the legacy of these fugitives down to her own daughter, and in doing so, she reinvents a feminine genealogy which transcends blood lines and ethnicity. Like this new feminine genealogy, feminine sisterhood must also transcend these same categories in order to embrace all women threatened by the mare's hoof in the Fantasia.

In the fourth and final section of Vaste Djebar presents us with a model for this type of sisterhood which transcends divisions between women and is based on the common condition of flight. In the chapter titled "Yasmina" a Polish woman becomes a sort of fugitive in an Algeria that has become too dangerous due to the outbreak of fundamentalist violence. When this Polish woman is stopped by false police officers and then taken away by them, Yasmina courageously defends her "sister." She pays the ultimate price for her solidarity, which transcends any limited definition of sisterhood. Yasmina dies for a foreign woman, a woman whose life is in danger and for whom Yasmina unhesitantly redefines kinship by watching over the Polish woman like Dinarzade watched over Scheherazade. Since the Polish woman has disappeared, Djebar inherits Yasmina's legacy of resistance and solidarity. Djebar writes Yasmina's story in order that Yasmina's mutilated body, like so many mortally wounded bodies in Djebar's work, will testify to the present violence and rupture in Algeria.

Djebar's response to the current violence in Algeria is quite clear as Vaste draws to its close: writing violence and courageously facing the violence of writing enables Djebar to renew age-old sororal bonds, which in turn empower her to bear witness to a beloved Algeria whose wounds are far from healed. Although it is modeled on sisterhood, Djebar's solidarity is not gender-specific, since it embraces all the victims of the current violence, as Le blanc de l'Algerie (1996) demonstrates. It therefore seems only fitting to conclude this essay with a lyric passage written by Djebar in 1994, since this passage evokes her commitment to a writing which will not feed on rupture, but mend it.

So from now on, in response to the blood gushing in / my country, / is it a program marked feminine I'm to write / to live / to write in order to live, / and in the debility of my childhood tongue, / the depletion of my inherited tongue, shall French, transmitted by / no genealogy, sow itself instead / in what solitude / of elsewhere, / of another land elsewhere / to start from scratch / to let the silence stream / and mend the rip? / Did I say I'll write only in life, which means in life's void, too, in the / solitary flight which, at its furthest point, turns into solidarity lest it / freeze over? / The writing of a disinherited daughter, in order to speak, still, of / sunlight. (TW, 188)

The mere fact that Djebar surmounts the temptation to flee writing in the first three novels of the Algerian Quartet and continues to write of violence, in violence, and despite violence is ample testimony to her commitment to affirming life and to healing wounds.

Tulane University

1 The accent in djebar has subsequently been dropped.

2 The first three novels of the Algerian Quartet are L'amour, la fantasia (1985), Ombre sultane (1987), and Vaste est la prison (1995). In an interview with Clarisse Zimra titled "Woman's Memory Spans Centuries" in Women of Algiers, Assia Djebar suggests that the title of the fourth novel in the quartet might be Les oiseaux de la mosaique (186).

3 In La litterature feminine de langue francaise au Maghreb Jean Dejeux points out that this attitude toward the use of the first-person-singular pronoun "I" is characteristic of Maghrebian society in general, among both men and women (66). Despite the reticence of both men and women, the stakes are higher for a woman who "unveils" intimate details about herself. Nada Turk, in her article, "L'amour, la fantasia d'Assia Djebar: 'Chronique de guerre, voix des femmes'," comments on these higher stakes for women who use the first-person pronoun. Djebar has pointed this out as well in "Du francais comme butin."

4 In vernacular Arabic, "unveiled" means "denuded," as Djebar points out in her essay "Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound," in Women of Algiers (149).

5 In Fantasia: An Algerian Calvacade Djebar refers to Algeria's rape by the colonial conquerors. Although Djebar no longer calls Algeria a woman but rather a goule (a type of female vampire in Oriental legend) in the final chapter of Vaste est la prison, she still identifies Algeria as feminine.

6 Djebar often describes writing as a violent process which threatens the writing subject with suicide and death. Writing and death remain intertwined throughout the quartet, especially in part 4 of Vaste est la prison, when Djebar evokes the recent deaths of her compatriots.

7 In an insightful article titled "Assia Djebar's Poetics of Subversion" Anne Donadey uses Luce Irigaray's theory of mimicry to show how Djebar's repetition of colonial discourse is a retaliatory reappropriation of language.

8 In one of her most important essays, "Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound" in Women of Algiers, Djebar overtly condemns this exotic tradition which masks violence when she describes how the "orientalizing gaze tums in circles" around the closed Algerian society "stressing its 'feminine mystery' even more in order to hide the hostility of an entire Algerian community in danger" (146).

9 See in particular Djebar's analysis of Delacroix's representation of Algerian women her essay "Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound" in Women of Algiers.

10 The original title published in French by J. C. Lattes in 1985 is L 'amour, la fantasia.

11 Djebar at first claimed that her silence was caused by a problematic relationship to the French language, as Marguerite Le Clezio's interview with her demonstrates. Djebar then reconsiders this explanation for her silence while being interviewed by Clarisse Zimra in 1990. Djebar says: "I know I've told many others before that my silence had to do with my problematic relationship to language. That's what I claimed largely to be left in peace. But your questions force me to reconsider, and I am persuaded that there was something else at the bottom of it - at the bottom of me. I know, for instance, that I had to wait until L'amour, la fantasia to be able to take charge of my writing, to be able to inscribe my innermost self in my work" (171). Rather than read this reassessment as a denial of the importance of language choice in Djebar's decision to choose silence, I would argue that the two dilemmas are intrinsically linked, because the fear of autobiography is symptomatic of the same fear of exposing oneself in the language of the colonizer: both activities imply a wounding by and in language and writing.

12 Djebar's actual date of birth is 30 June 1936 (WA, 159).

13 This and all subsequent translations from Vaste est la prison are mine.

14 Djebar explicitly becomes Isma's double in Vaste est la prison when, interrupting herself as narrator during a particularly traumatic scene, she asks herself, "Appellerai-je a nouveau la narratrice Isma?" (331).

15 See, for example, Alain Grosrichard's reading of women in the seraglio in Structure du serail.

16 The husband in Ombre sultane is never named.

17 Isma narrates the passages which describe Hajila's feelings and actions throughout the novel. Although it is not within the scope of this essay, the occultation of Hajila's narrative voice merits close analysis, especially in relation to the theme of silence present in most of Djebar's work.

18 In "Espaces humides feminins dans la ville" Traki Bouchrara Zannad claims that feminine complicity often occurs in the hammam due to the effect that the hammam has on women's bodies and imaginations. In Assia Djebar: Romanciere algerienne, cineaste arabe Jean Dejeux also claims that the hammam is a place where women descend into a maternal, uterine environment, where memories of origins and collective unity prevail over feminine rivalries (51).


Abdel-Jaouad, Hedi. "L'amour, la fantasia: Autobiography as Fiction." CELFAN Review, 1:1-2 (1987-88), pp. 25-29.

Achour, Christiane. Anthologie de la litterature algerienne de langue francaise. Paris. Enap-Bordas. 1990.

Brahimi, Denise. Maghrebines: Portraits litteraires. Parris. L'Harmattan-Awal. 1995.

Dejeux, Jean. Assia Djebar: Romanciere algerienne, cineaste arabe. Quebec. Naaman. 1984.

-----. La litterature feminine de langue francaise au Maghreb. Parris. Karthala. 1994.

Djebar, Assia. Le blanc de l'Algerie. Paris. Albin Michel. 1996. [BA]

-----. "Du francais comme butin." La Quinzaine Litteraire, 436 (1985), p. 25. [DF]

-----. Fantasia: An Algerian Calvacade. Dorothy S. Blair, tr. Portsmouth, N.H. Heinemann. 1993. [F]

-----. A Sister to Scheherazade. Dorothy S. Blair, tr. London. Quartet. 1988. [SS]

-----. "To Write, Disinherited." Ann Smock, tr. Re/mapping the Occident. Bryan Joachim Malessa, John Jason Mitchell, eds. Berkeley. University of California Press. 1995. [TW]

-----. Vaste est la prison. Paris. Albin Michel. 1995. [VP]

-----. Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Marjolijn de Jager, tr. Charlottesville. University Press of Virginia. 1992. [WA]

Donadey, Anne. "Assia Djebar's Poetics of Subversion." L'Esprit Createur, 33:2 (Summer 1993), pp. 107-17.

Gafaiti, Hafid. Les femmes dans le roman algerien. Paris. L'Harmattan. 1996.

Grosrichard, Alain. Structure du serail: La fiction du despotisme asiatique dans l'occident classique. Paris. Seuil. 1979.

Le Clezio, Marguerite. "Ecrire dans la langue adverse." Contemporary French Civilization, 10 (December 1986), pp. 230-44.

Turk, Nada. "L'amour, la fantasia d'Assia Djebar: 'Chronique de guerre, voix des femmes'." CELFAN Review, 7:1-2 (1987-88), pp. 21-24.

Zannad, Traki Bouchrara. "Espaces humides feminins dans la ville: Le dar el Arbi et le hammam, etude de cas: la Medina de Tunis." Espaces maghrebins: Pratiques et enjeux. Actes du colloque de Taghit (23-26 November 1987), pp. 233-39.

KATHERINE GRACKI is a doctoral student in French at Tulane University, specializing in francophone literature and particularly the literature of the Maghreb written by or about women. She is the author of an essay on Assia Djebar published in the Fall 1994 issue of Women in French Studies and recently presented another paper on Djebar at the annual CIEF conference in Toulouse (1996).
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Title Annotation:Assia Djebar: 1996 Neustadt International Prize for Literature
Author:Gracki, Katherine
Publication:World Literature Today
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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