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mirrors: in pluralism, syncretism and construction

Image: The Battle of Algiers (Film)

This essay attempts to explore/ deconstruct how Assia Djebar’s socialization informed her literary style in her novel “Children of the New World.” Polarities of praise and criticism Djebar has received, point to how her formative experiences (cultural, political, gendered) have informed the structure and artistry of the novel in ways not often seen in other writers’ works. However, the aesthetic approaches used by Djebar in writing this novel are perhaps equally (more interestingly) derived by how the tools of her socialization aided in achieving her intended goals with this book.

Assia Djebar’s Background

Born in 1936 in then French Algeria, Djebar was educated at the École Normale Supérieure, and became part of a generation of writers who not only came of age during a series of colonial independence movements, but also whose socialization was shaped by a range of influences — in Djebar’s case, Western, Arab and Berber. The only woman amongst the Algerian literary pioneers of her generation, her work included novels, essays, documentary films and plays, all of which explore a common thread — the experiences of Algerian women. “Throughout her fiction Djebar examines how individual experiences depart from the collective or official narratives of [Franco-Algerian] history. By complicating the binary positions of victim and aggressor, she envisions new possibilities for empathy and solidarity” (Lachman 163). While she has been praised on the one hand, for constructing characters that defy the Orientalist stereotypes of female passivity in the Arab world, Djebar has, on the other, been criticized for constructing illustrations of Algerian women that reflect an international feminist agenda (arguably imbued with a neocolonial spirit), rather than prioritizing a more locally informed understanding of women’s experiences and modes of agency (Dobie 129). These criticisms/ observations of her work perhaps point to the internal conflict created by her transnational upbringing.

Djebar’s father’s commitment to her education may have liberated her from the female enclosures that confined other Algerian women of her generation, but this also seems to have caused her to be haunted by exile. In the years leading up to the publishing of “Children of the New World” (1962) Djebar had published two prior books; in 1958 she was exiled and on the run; her husband was wanted by the French police; her younger brother had been imprisoned for his political activism; and the war raging in Algeria made returning to her home country impossible (Zimra 204). There is little doubt Djebar carried the layered oppressions of her home country with her into Europe, and again into her writing. Despite the significant gains this international upbringing afforded her (fluency in French, access to public spaces, elite Western education, etc) her socialization had separated her from the women’s world in Algerian society. According to Mortimer, Djebar’s mastery of the French colonizer’s language, and her ability to inhabit both the public and private spheres of both worlds (to varying degrees of mastery) gave her insight, perspective and a base of knowledge of the gendered and colonial “other” she would not otherwise have had access to at the time, as an Algerian and as a women. Her appropriation of the language (particularly French language) and access to public spaces enabled a confrontation with two patriarchal discourses (French and Maghrebian). These experiences enabled Djebar to challenge colonial and patriarchal oppressions in her rewriting of the history of France’s conquest of Algeria (in French no less), and to reinsert women into its pages of history (Mortimer 114).

Aesthetic Construction

In Djebar’s “Children of the New World,” the story weaves feminist issues as subtext through a cast of compelling characters, with whom a reader can easily relate. Despite how little a reader might know of Algerian history, readers quickly feel they know the characters due to a resonant “psychological verisimilitude” possessed by the characters. In a contemporary sense, the novel also parallels aspects of current international conflicts, revealing the complexity of a coordinated, localized insurgency against foreign/ Western occupation. The focus is on women who are drawn into the politics of resistance, how their lives, actions, causes and effects become intertwined. The lives of traditional illiterate women (Cherifa, Amna and Lla Aicha) simultaneously stand alongside, influence, and are influenced by the lives of contemporary, educated women (Lila, Salima, Suzanne and Hassiba), each asserting their individual agency and identity despite the oppressions they face. Countering official histories, Djebar’s narratives tell of these women’s roles in the war, and how their victories may not equate to an end to the suffering or a fading of loss (Dobie 128; Ghazoul 120; Zimra 214).

Drawing on influences from Berber, Arabic and French, Djebar’s writing constructs poetry from a place of linguistic and cultural pluralism to persuasively juxtapose how, such a pluralism in political conflict is not so poetic. Through her poeticism, the novel is visually evocative, which points to Djebar’s eye as a filmmaker. The novel is particularly visual in how the narrative moves from scene to scene, from public to private spaces. The novel’s structure juxtaposes two different squares — the public square (territory of the colonizer) and the traditional courtyard (inner sanctum of the colonized) (Zimra 214). The reader not only has a clear sense of the ambiance of the various spaces and the individuals who inhabit them, but also the rules of engagement within those spaces and the shifting of power dynamics — whether they be colonial or patriarchal shifts in power dynamics or modes of resistance. “Architecturally and sociologically, the same oppositional structure prevails: old Arab quarter vs. European town; illiterate urban proletariat vs. committed intellectuals; traditional Qur’anic schools vs. secular French high schools; and just vs. unjust causes” (Zimra 214).   

Djebar’s choice to write in French is similarly a mode of resistance to colonial oppressions. In Mortimer’s essay, “Writing the Personal: The Evolution of Assia Djebar’s Autobiographical Project,” Mortimer uses the veil as a metaphorical concept, arguing that Djebar’s use of French in her writing, mirrors Algerian women’s use of the veil in public space — for acceptance, conformity, and a certain degree of protection. In French cultural space, a society which has traditionally been oppressive to Algerian values/ perspectives, Djebar’s aesthetic approach and  appropriation of French provides a veil of (elite) Western conformity, allowing her to entrench a radically political and contentious view, within the Western imagination at the time (Mortimer 112-114, 121).

Despite the inherent controversy writing in French brings, it seems to accomplish a strategic goal of illuminating the voices most left out of history (this was unlikely to have achieved a similar resonance in the West had she chosen to write in Berber and/or Arabic). At the same time, Djebar’s work also seemed intent on responding to Algerian societal unease, through self-revelation and narrative strategies situating individual motivations within the collective in a culturally-specific wartime environment. Through her characters, Djebar simultaneously challenges Algeria’s patriarchal order, which traditionally kept women confined at home and veiled in public space, by also highlighting the myriad of ways women chose to exercise personal agency throughout the war (Mortimer 112-114, 121).

Aesthetic Intentions

Half-page-long single sentences fold and unfold in slow, long, sensual, and elegant stretches; one might say, arabesques. Then, a perfectly balanced paragraph suddenly turns into fragments that may be connected (or disconnected) by ellipses, or by sudden tense or pronoun shifts. The result is visually kinetic, almost three-dimensional. It feels as if the narrative voice were cracking, memory faltering and repeating itself (Zimra 224).

Edward Said’s metaphor of counterpoint provides a suitable lens to explore how the novel’s construction achieves Djebar’s political intent in “Children of the New World.” In Said’s June 1999 lecture at the American University in Beirut, he used his theory of counterpoint to induce a paradigm shift while arguing passionately for a re-imagining of Israeli-Palestinian history. In Lachman’s essay “The Allure of Counterpoint: History and Reconciliation in the Writing of Edward Said and Assia Djebar,” she attempts to repurpose Said’s theory, outlining how three key dimensions exist within Said’s use of counterpoint: 1. as a musical practice, 2. as a guide to relate divergent musical and cultural backgrounds, and 3. as a metaphor for human emancipation. (162-164).

Dating back to the Renaissance and Baroque periods of Western musical tradition, the term “counterpoint” comes from the Latin for “point against point” or “note against note.” Each voice must be independently unequivocal. Voices are of equal importance; no voice dominates, except for momentary punctuation; and each individual voice must satisfy certain rules to combine with the others. As a theoretical tool, counterpoint provides a mode of conceiving relations between different parts within a whole (Lachman 164-165).

Melding a myriad of influences (Berber, Arabic and French) into poetic narrative is something Djebar does not only linguistically (musically) and culturally, but also as an attempt to illuminate a common humanity within the conflict. Her characters each with their own independent voices interweave to form a chorus within the shifting power dynamics and oppressions in the town. Djebar strives to not equate the traumas, to undermine any one group’s claim to victimization and suffering, and to illustrate that no one group emerges victorious or unscathed from the war. Her aesthetic approach enables us to “hear” all voices in this multi-layered text, and to allow their juxtapositions in visual, voice and language, to create anew some awareness and compassion for the other (Lachman 180). As a theoretical tool, a metaphor and/ or a lens through which to deconstruct Djebar’s artistic intention, Said’s counterpoint theory aptly illuminates Djebar’s arguable desired impact.

Conclusion

In Dobie’s essay, “Assia Djebar: Writing Between Land and Language,” she discusses a tendency of writing in French to become either a subtle affirmation of “francophonie” as a form of cultural universalism in the Maghreb, or a form of linguistic nativism that sees Arabic as the only authentic language of Algerian culture — sometimes negating the cohabitation of these two languages, sometimes reducing to solely these two languages in the cultural context of the Maghreb. The judgements that arise when writing in French seem completely removed from what Djebar’s aesthetic and strategic intentions were. While her choice to write in French may also be translated to associations of “alienation,” language and identity are not always so consistently aligned (Mobie 130).  

Djebar’s aesthetic approach was aimed at challenging the patriarchal structures of Algerian culture and society as she had done in the decades following her departure from her father’s house, carrying with her the power of a colonizer’s language, the history of colonial oppressions, and the knowledge that the struggle against patriarchal domination begins at home (Mortimer 125).

“Children of the New World” then leaves space for questions to rise up in the reader. The more salient questions surround transcending the cycle of victimhood and violence. How might victims of yesterday transform the dynamic of power without resorting to violence against former oppressors? How can yesterdays victims avoid becoming tomorrow’s oppressors? (Lachman 180).

These all remain unanswered questions arising from any human conflict.  

Works Cited

Djebar, Assia. “Children of the New World.” Feminist Press. City University of New York. 2005. Book.

Dobie, Madeline. “Assia Djebar: Writing between land and language.” PMLA – Theories and Methodologies. 128-133. Modern Language Association of America. 2016. Web. Jun 8, 2018.

Ghazoul, J. Ferial. “Book Reviews – Children of the New World: A Novel of the Algerian War.”  Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies. 120-122. 2007. Web. Jun 8, 2018.   

Lachman, Kathryn. The Allure of Counterpoint: History and Reconciliation in the Writing of Edward Said and Assia Djebar.” Research in African Literatures. 162-186. Indian University Press. Winter 2010. Web. Jun 8, 2018.

Mortimer, Mildred. “Writing the Personal: The Evolution of Assia Djebar’s Autobiographical Project from L’Amour, La Fantasia to Nulle Part Dans La Maison de Mon Pere.” Journal of Women’s History. 111-129. Summer 2013. Web. Jun 8, 2018.

Zimra, Clarisse. “Afterword.” Children of the New World. 201-227. 2005. Book.

Read / Children of the New World: A Novel of the Algerian War, by Assia Djebar

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