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Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, by Assia Djebar.

February 17, 2012

Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, by Assia Djebar. University of Virginia Press (1999), 211 pages. Marjolijn de Jager (Translator), Clarisse Zimra (Epilogue)

Assia Djebar has written an exquisite collage of women’s stories from the Algerian civil war and its aftermath.

In “Overture”, Djebar describes her book’s goal and the hidden voices of women she is trying to capture.

These stories, a few frames of reference on a journey of listening, from 1958 to 1978.
Fragmented, remembered, reconstituted conversations…Fictious accounts, faces and murmurings of a nearby imaginary, a past-present that rebels against the intrusion of a new abstraction.
I could say: ”stories translated from…,” but from which language? From the Arabic? From colloquial Arabic or from feminine; one might just as well call it underground Arabic…
Arabic sounds—Italian, Afghan, Berber, or Bengali—and why not, but always in feminine tones, uttered from lips beneath a mask…
Words of the veiled body, language that in turn has taken the veil for so long a time.
Here, then, is a listening in…

The first and title story is about Algerian women of various backgrounds who still bear physical and psychological scars of the brutal Algerian war against French colonialization. There is the educated surgeon’s wife seeking to help her French childhood friend back from a suicide attempt while still dealing with her own adolescent years spent in prison and the silence she always carries. And the old, wrinkled woman who carries water at the public bath recalling what she has suffered and lost in the course of her life. The second section portrays the war years themselves with women exiled, imprisoned or left behind when the men went to fight. Both sections convey how war affects women in particular ways, often differently than it affects men.

Woven into the sections that dealt with war were scenes described from the inside of cultural institutions. The section on the public bath was powerful and helped me understand the institution’s importance to the women. At the bath, “conversations or monologues unrolled in gentle, trifling, wornout words that slide off with the water, while the women laid down their everyday burdens, their weariness.” The long section on the Islamic funeral took me inside an unfamiliar religious culture and the diverse experiences of its male and female participants.

The closing section of Women of Algiers in Their Apartment includes an essay by Djebar. In it she explains titling her book after a well-known ninetieth-century painting by Delacroix, which is “a forbidden glance” at the silent women in a harem in Algiers. Despite the end of colonization and some of restrictions, Djebar believes that Arabic women still struggle with veils and silence. A final essay by Clarisse Zimra establishes Djebar’s literary context and includes parts of her interview with the author. In these, Djebar herself emerges as a fascinating individual who has lived an extra-ordinary life.

Djebar writes in a modern, experimental style which often leaves a reader like myself reaching for plot or meaning. That is my problem, not Djebar’s. If I had had a better grip of Algerian or Islamic life, I might have been more appreciative. As I read I thought I didn’t understand. Afterward, looking back, of course, I had understood. How could I not.

Assia Djebar defines herself as a feminist but she is not concerned with theory or with political issues. Like French feminists, she links her feminism to language, the body, and eroticism. She reveals the pain of both gender and colonial oppression. In the words of one of her characters,

”For Arabic women I see only one way to unblock everything; talk, talk without stopping, about yesterday and today, talk among ourselves….the voice of sighs, of malice, of the sorrows they’ve kept walled in…The voice that is searching in the opened tombs.”

Although very explicitly about women in Algiers, her sentiment resonates with the needs of women globally.

I recommend this book highly, especially for those more prepared than I for its complexity, style, and culture. The scarcity of literature by and about the women of Arabic North Africa makes this book particularly valuable.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2012 8:28 am

    I loved this one when I read it a couple of years ago! It is a shame that there aren’t more ‘classic’ Maghreb women authors, but I’m hopeful when I look at contemporary authors that more and more women will appear in the future.

  2. February 18, 2012 9:38 am

    Thanks. I hope so.

  3. February 24, 2012 9:44 am

    I am a big fan of Assia Djebar so am delighted to see you writing about her. I particularly enjoyed the essay at the end of this book. It seemed to draw together the mosaic of pieces that preceded it and provide a really powerful ending. I read an interview with Djebar in which she said she thought of the structure in her novels as ‘architecture’ and she said she felt this was magnified by the fact that she grew up forbidden to say the word ‘I’. That was a privilege reserved for the older women in her community. What a thought! How must that affect a person?

    • February 25, 2012 10:37 am

      Amazing that she couldn’t use the word “I” until she older. No. I can’t imagine the impact. Could young men use the word?

  4. February 28, 2012 10:02 am

    I am thrilled both to see this book reviewed and to see both Eva and litlove comment about it too and about loving it. Djebar is definitely one of my favorite authors and reading one of her works is always a treat – as is reading about the experiences another has had reading her works!

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