Algerian writer and filmmaker
(1936 – 6 February 2015)
by Fatma Alioua
Assia Djebar was the first Algerian woman to make a film within a national cinema that only began after Algeria’s independence from France in 1962. La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua (Radio-Télévision Algérienne, Algeria 1978; see youtube clip) is a 113-mins feature film combining fiction and documentary and structured in five movements, like the traditional North African-Andalusian song-form, nubah. The film centres on Leila (played by the Egyptian actor, Sawsan Noweir), returning to Algeria sixteen years after the end of the independence war. Through her, Djebar contemplates the experience and importance of women within Algeria’s history. Leila interviews village women from the Mont Chenua area, including Djebar’s own relatives. At a time when the role of women in the war had been thoroughly eclipsed by male society and culture, filmmakers included, the film was not well received: “One of the principal elements of the collective consciousness of Algerian filmmakers appears to be the family, of which [the] woman is the guardian.” (Lotfi Maherzi, Le Cinéma algérien, 1980:290).
Lotfi does not include La Nouba in his list of important films, which ends in 1979, a year after the film’s release; but Wassyla Tamzali’s book, En attendant Omar Gatlato, published in 1979, devotes a whole chapter to the film and its director/writer. The film talks about memory, silence, history and denial, and, in her interview with Djebar, Tamzali asks why she showed only much much older women or very young girls. “It was impossible to .. film [women whose ages were in between … and] often it was a young boy who stood between me and his mother.”
In addition, critic Ahmed Bedjaoui noted in his blog of January 2013, Algerian (male) filmmakers of the time blocked the film’s wider exhibition. Djebar had hitherto been teaching a module on cinema and theatre at the University of Algiers, so was clearly a film expert, but she was also a published author of five novels and a play. They resented her entering ‘their’ domain, and attempted to stop the film being shown at the prestigious Carthage Film Festival in Tunis in 1978. When it went on to share the 1979 Venice Film Festival International Federation of Critics’ prize (FIPRESCI), the news was met with silence in Algiers.
Djebar’s second film, La Zerda et les chants de l’oubli (Zerda and the songs of forgetting),1979 60 mins, was financed by RTA (Algeria’s television), and brought colonialist archive footage of ‘desert fantasias’ together with deconstructive commentary to question its ‘whitewashing’ imagery (see youtube clip). (A zerda is a small, nocturnal desert fox with large ears, unique to the Sahara.) Ulrich Gregor, Director of the Berlin Film Festival wanted to put the film in the Official Competition, but, writes Bedjaoui, the then new Director of RTA vetoed its appearance there. Further projects were not supported.
Assia Djebar was born Fatima Zohra Imalayen in Cherchell, a harbour town West of Algiers. Her father, the only native teacher of French, insisted on her continuing with her education, and she was the first Algerian and Muslim woman to be accepted by the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. However, she subsequently dropped out when the the FLN (the Algerian national liberation movement) called on students to join its ranks in Tunis, and became one of the first women to embrace the nationalist cause. She was a founder correspondent of el Moudjahid, the FLN newspaper, alongside Frantz Fanon.
Djebar’s first novel, the autobiographic La Soif/The Mischief, appeared in 1957; the last to be published was Nulle part dans la maison de mon père/Nowhere in my father’s house, in 2009. In her writing she was interested in the processes of change in Algeria; she was also keen to pinpoint the regression of women’s status and the difficulties of changing what was deeply rooted in communities and perpetuated by politics. As Affia Brehri wrote: “All Assia Djebar’s books had a historical and revolutionary dimension.” (El watan, 14/03/2015) She published more than twenty titles, including Vaste est la prison/So Vast the prison 1995, and Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement /Women of Algiers in their Apartment 1980, and was translated into as many languages.
In fact, Djebar was more recognised internationally than in her home country, and she worked abroad for long periods. After teaching history at Algiers University in the 1980s, she moved to Paris and completed her doctorate at Montpelier University. She worked in Paris before moving to Louisiana State University and then, as Silver Chair Professor of Francophone Literature, to New York University.
In 2005 she was elected to be one of the so-called “immortals” to the Académie française – only the fifth woman to have been so honoured and the first and only one from the ex-French colonies. In her inaugural speech she focused on the politics of French colonialism and its destruction of Algerian identity, which she defined through a historical chain of events, and historical figures traced as far back as the Romanised berbers, such as Apulée and Augustin. In Algeria this and other awards were barely recognised.
Assia Djebar died in February 2015, in Paris, just as she had lived – silently and in a dignified way; ‘intransigent’ and ‘resolute’, as her pen name signifies. She wished to be buried next to her father in the Cherchell cemetery that overlooks the sea. Her family expressed the wish to see her funeral conducted by women and as a celebration of her life through poetry and the songs of her favourite singer, the late Marguerite Taos Amrouche. Hence the implementation of this wish was negotiated by Le Réseau Wassila, a network of associations and individual women fighting violence against women and children. The authorities initially objected to this change to the official protocol for such occasions (of state dignitaries and readings from the Qu’ran), but eventually a compromise was found to everyone’s satisfaction. There were four ceremonies: an official one in the VIP lounge of Algiers Airport, as the coffin arrived; two at the Le Palais de la Culture in Kouba, Algiers – one religious and official, the other attended predominantly by women as her family wished; a fourth took place in the library of Cherchell, her birthplace. Her burial was unprecedentedly accompanied by women chanting patriotic songs.
Fatma Alioua completed her Doctorate at Sheffield University, focusing, as a socio-linguist, on media language during the Falklands-Malvinas war. She spent many years teaching English as a second language, and, in Algiers, is an active member of Le Réseau Wassila, where she has engaged in outreach work and workshops on gender in media language.