Assia Djebar (1936-2015)

Home in France; Heart in Algeria
Elie Chalala

Assia Djebar has been a problematic for some Arab intellectuals, both when she became an "immortal" or a life-long member of the prestigious French Academy, and when her name was frequently mentioned as a Nobel Prize contender. Her recent death on February 6 proved no exception.  As her body lay in one of Paris’ hospitals, the same questions arose:  Why were her works not translated enough into Arabic, while her novels were translated into scores of other languages? A valid question. In an ironic twist, the French paper Le Figaro has suggested that one reason Djebar was denied the Nobel Prize for Literature concerned the fact that she didn’t write in her “mother tongue.” So why did she choose to write in her former colonizer’s language? This has led some to even question her intellectual integrity. Why would Djebar be chosen by an institution whose main purpose is "to protect and monitor the French Language?" A prominent Syrian intellectual, Subhi Hadidi, comes unintentionally and indirectly to her defense: “The Academy has chosen a novelist whose works examine a central issue, the writing in French by the sons and the daughters of previous colonies, and Djebar uses the language of the colonizer to document its savagery and some of its bloody memories.”

Born Fatma-Zohra Imalayene in 1936 to an Arab Algerian father and a Berber mother, she changed her name to Assia Djebar in 1957, after she published her first novel, “The Thirst,” at age 21. A student of the renown French orientalist Louis Massignon, Djebar became a prominent poet, essayist, novelist and filmmaker whose works reflected  consistent concern for individual human rights in Algeria. The writer never abandoned her interest in Algerian and in Arab Maghrebian causes, including the struggle for independence, and the preservation of culture, as well as issues of gender, and identity.

Was she a feminist? Some Arab critics actively attempt to deny Djebar’s “feminism,” as if it stains her reputation. One critic wrote, “Her literature did not have a feminist tendency to challenge a ‘masculine’ tendency or the ‘literature of man,’” adding that Djebar’s literature cannot be placed within “gender” categories, for her concern centered on women as human beings and as social victims of their jalads or executioners, which include man, the state, and society. The fact that three institutions, rather than one, control women appears to reassure this critic.

Djebar will return to Algeria one final time, to be buried, in accordance with her will, in Cherchell, the town of her birth.

For those interested in learning more about this remarkable person, we published a biographical essay by professor Lynne Rogers in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no. 52 (Summer 2005) in the wake of her election to the French Academy: “Assia Djebar Elected to French Academy: Immortal Sycophant or Courageous Humanist?” Al Jadid also published a review by Ms. Michelle Reale of Djebar’s “So Vast the Prison” in Al Jadid, Vol. 7, No. 37 (Fall 2001). To read these two articles, please use the following two links:

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