In February 2015, Algeria lost an important figure in their literary world: Assia Djebar. A novelist. An educator. A filmmaker. She is considered one of the most influential writers from North-Africa. On 16 June 2005, she was elected to the Académie française, an organization tasked with guarding the heritage of French language. It was a first for a writer from the Maghreb to achieve such recognition. Upon receiving the honor, she told a French newspaper that she did not consider herself a symbol. “Each of my books is a step towards the understanding of the North African identity and an attempt to enter modernity.”
In Cherchill, a small seaport village near Algeria’s capital, Fatima-Zohra Imayalen was born into a Berber family on 30 June 1936. Throughout her life, she had already been a many of firsts: one of the first girls to attend the Quranic private boarding school in Bilda, the only Muslim in her high school class in Algiers and the first Algerian and Muslim woman to be accepted in École normale superieure de jeunes filles, one of France’s most elite schools.
At the age of 21, she published her first book titled ‘La Soif’ (1957; i.e. ‘the thirst’ in French, translated in English under the title ‘The Mischief’). It tells the tale of a French-Algerian girl who grows up in Algeria and seduces her friend’s husband in an attempt to make her boyfriend jealous. Since that moment, using her pen name, Assia Djebar wrote more than 15 books, including novels, poems and plays. They have since been translated into more than 23 different languages.
A recurring and profound theme in her works are women. Assia Djebar examined the lack of rights for Muslim women across the Arab world. As such, she focused on the role of women before and after Algeria’s independence victory. In her collection of short stories ‘Femmes d’Alger dans Leur Appartement’ (i.e. Women of Algiers in their apartment), Djebar exposed how little had changed for Algerian women, even after independence. Her first film ‘La Nouba des Femmes du Mont Chenoua’ (i.e. The Song of Women of Mount Chenoua) shows the story of a female engineer, Lila, who returns to her native region fifteen years after the Algerian war. To understand her own past, Lila reflects on the differences between her life and other Algerian women. Djebar’s own life experiences formed the backdrop for many of her works. Her novel ‘Le Blanc de l’Algérie’ (i.e. Algerian White), she tributed to three men she knew who were killed in a yeartime.
In 1996, Djebar won the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature for her contribution to world literature. The following year, she took home the Yourcenar Prize. In 2000, she won the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Assia Djebar was often a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
At the age of 78, Djebar died. French president François Hollande called her a “woman of conviction whose multiple and fertile identities fed her work, between Algeria and France, between Berber, Arab and French”. As an educator, novelist and filmmaker, Assia used her creative art as a plight for Arab women’s independence: “I come from a world where women are traditionally kept ‘in the shadows’ and have been excluded from writing for much too long. I however, am not in the shadows. Far from it.”
This article was written by Siham Machkour.