Algerian Novelist dies

Feb 16, 2015 at 04:32 PM

Assia Djebar, Novelist Who Wrote About Oppression of Arab Women, Dies at 78

New York Times – PARIS — Assia Djebar, an Algerian-born writer and filmmaker whose widely admired work explored the plight of women in the male-centric Arab world, died here on Feb. 7. She was 78.

Her death, at a Paris hospital, was announced by the Académie Française, which elected Ms. Djebar a member in 2005. In a statement, President François Hollande hailed Ms. Djebar as “a woman of conviction, whose multiple and fertile identities fed her work, between Algeria and France, between Berber, Arab and French.”

Ms. Djebar was frequently mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was the first Algerian student and the first Muslim woman to be accepted to the École Normale Supérieure, one of France’s elite schools, and the first writer from North Africa to be elected to the Académie Française.


She wrote more than 15 books, including novels, plays and poems, which were translated into 23 languages. Among them were the novels “So Vast the Prison,” about the subordination of women in Arab society, and “Algerian White,” a meditation on violence and death in Algeria, as well as the short-story collection “The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry.” All were published in the United States by Seven Stories Press.

Most recently, Ms. Djebar was a professor of French and Francophone studies at New York University.

Ms. Djebar earned wide recognition in 1957, when she published her novel “La Soif,” or, in the edition published by Simon & Schuster, “The Mischief.” The story centered on a young woman from an upper-class French-Algerian family who seduces her friend’s husband to alleviate her boredom.

It drew comparisons to “Bonjour Tristesse,” Françoise Sagan’s 1954 novel centering on a sexually precocious teenager who sets out to keep her philandering widowed father from marrying again.

A review in The New York Times called “The Mischief” “a strange, light, quite entertaining novella,” adding that it is “nicely plotted and skillfully executed in an elliptical, veiled prose.” The review said it was the first novel by an Algerian woman to be published outside her own country.

Among her many awards, Ms. Djebar received the 1996 Neustadt Prize for contributions to world literature, which counted among its previous winners Gabriel García Márquez. In 1979, she received the International Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival for her movie “La Nouba des Femmes du Mont Chenoua” (“The Party of the Women of Mount Chenoua”), which told the story of an Algerian expatriate who returns to her country 15 years after it won independence.

She was born Fatima-Zohra Imalayene on June 30, 1936, in Cherchell, a coastal town west of Algiers. Her father was the only native teacher of French in a colonial school, and she was educated in French. (Teaching in Arabic was forbidden by the colonial authorities.)

While her female cousins left school young and began wearing the veil that Islam required, her father insisted that she continue her education.

She later studied in Paris, then returned to Algeria after that county won independence in 1962. In Algiers, she taught history, French literature and cinema.

After directing several films in Algeria, Ms. Djebar returned to France because “there were only men in the streets of Algiers,” she told the newspaper Le Monde. She began a life of shuttling between the two countries. From 1980 to 2005 she wrote several books, including the novels “Ombre Sultane” (1987) and “Loin de Médine” (1991).

The critic Philippe Barbé wrote that “ ‘Ombre Sultane’ is a central work because Djebar is not content to illustrate and to denounce the captivity of Muslim women.”

“Rather,” he wrote, “the novel demonstrates a series of tactics that can be used by captive women in their quest for emancipation.”

Ms. Djebar was appointed director of the Center for French and Francophone Studies at Louisiana State University in 1995. She left for N.Y.U. in 2001. Her 2007 book, “Nulle Part dans la Maison de Mon Père” (“Nowhere in My Father’s House”), was her first to be published in Arabic.

Ms. Djebar had expressed ambivalence about writing in French, the language of her homeland’s colonizers but also a source of liberty, because it allowed her to educate herself.

“First it was the language of the enemy,” she said in an interview with The Times in 2000, “then it became a kind of stepmother, in relation to the maternal tongue of Arabic.”

Ms. Djebar, who was divorced twice, is survived by a daughter, Jalila. One of her husbands was Walid Garn, with whom she collaborated on the 1969 play “Rouge L’Aube.”

In an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro in 2005, Ms. Djebar reflected on her status as a female author in the Arab world.

“I am not a symbol,” she said. “My only activity consists of writing.” She added, “Like many writers, I use my culture and I collect several imaginary worlds.”

One such world, though fictional, was grounded in her own grief and the clash between Islamic fundamentalism and postcolonial Algerian society. Her novel “Algerian White” was inspired by the murders of three people close to her: a psychiatrist, a sociologist and her brother-in-law, a playwright.

Ms. Djebar wrote of their last moments, and also those of more than a dozen Algerian writers, from Albert Camus to an unidentified Muslim woman, a teacher, gunned down in 1994.

“A hymn to friendship and the enduring power of language,” the writer Leslie Camhi wrote in The Times, “it is also a requiem for a nation’s unfinished literature.”


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