A Tribute

Assia Djebar (1936-2015)

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Assia Djebar, the Algerian-French feminist activist died on February 6, 2015. This is an extract from a piece that I wrote for a volume on how to teach Assia Djebar. This was when she was already somewhat in decline. She never saw the finished piece.

For me, it is difficult to restrict Djebar to any one approach or any one context. Commenting on some archive footage of the 1960-s anti-colonial struggles in Mozambique and Angola, I wrote:
although liberation struggles force women into an apparent equality starting with the 19th century or even earlier—when the dust settles, the so-called post-colonial nation goes back to the invisible long term structures of gendering. The most moving shot in this footage is the black Venus, reminding us of the Venus of Milo with her arm gone, who is also a black Madonna, suckling a child with bare breasts. This icon must remind us all that the endorsement of rape continues not only in war but also, irrespective of whether a nation is developing or developed—in women fighting in legitimized armies. Colonizer and colonized are united in the violence of gendering, which often celebrates motherhood with genuine pathos.

I realized later that this entire insight came to me from Djebar in "Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound." This is the nature of my debt to Djebar. In many different contexts lessons learned from her writings crop up to help me to think. Who can forget such tremendous insights as the locked steel car with the modern Algerian woman driving, as still a veil? Beyond the veil, the insight travels into the gated community as prison.

Her most important stance is against identitarianism. If you cannot say yes to the enemy, you cannot practice freedom—this is imaginative activism.

Thus in the beginning of Fantasia, she tries to gaze at her hometown as the conqueror had. You cannot enter the conqueror's mindset—capture his gaze—without sympathy. This is the opening of her book, and it makes a tremendous impact on the careful reader—invites her to a sort of imaginative activism, which is a complicity, a folded-togetherness between metropolitan French and Francophony, if you like. Her embrace of Camus, full of nuanced detail, is a mark of this complicity. The double bind of Francophony for an Arab woman of her generation, denied entry into written Arabic, is part of Djebar's theme. French is manifest because Arabic as writing medium can only be desired. That desire describes a huge paraphe all across her work, broken by an early decision that had legitimized a mere polarization: I will not write in French but make a film. The result is the exquisite Nouba of the Women on Mont Chenoua, which won the critics' prize at Venice, and La Zerda, winning a prize at Berlin in 1983.

She could not remain within that unproblematic ritualization of the split between the verbal and the visual. In 1982 she starts her magisterial Algeria Quartet. At the close of Fantasia, she gives us the best metaphor for the double bind of Francophony: her father's traditional decision to marry her off, as a child bride, to the French language. Wow! This so resonates with my more feebly expressed conviction that the bride in traditional exogamy is the originary diasporic, redefining exile, that I rejoice. ("II n'y a pas d'exile", in Women of Algiers, had already enriched Said's sense of the exilic, and Derrida's "II n'y a pas de hors-texte".) In the rest of Fantasia, a plethora of metaphors stages the inability to grip this double bind in a single articulation. The autobiographical subject's personal reaction to women's orality is just as doubly bound. But collectively it is seen as memory chains—not history but the longue duréé in fiction, its appropriate habitat imaginatively re-creating the ancestress of ancestresses whom no soldier was to describe. Literature is not evidence, but an instrument for imaginative training. A defense of fiction if you like, over against the coarser contemporary trend to privatize historiography by so-called cultural memory.

This fiction has a broad field. Her "feeling for Islam" comes through the Abraham-Ishmael story. Read this with Derrida and Vattimo locating the ethical moment of the Abrahamic in the negotiation between God and Abraham. Toni Morrison had maternalized the story and made the murder happen. So does Djebar's text, in other ways. The women's chants make Sarah speak. We are obliged to look at the interstices where Arabic makes its entrance, rewriting Nietzsche's Baubo—post-reproductive women—into "figurehead[s] at the prow of memory;" riffing Islamic feminism in reporting the Aunt's triumphal repetition of a verse in the Q'ran that would prove to her that "woman was historically the first to adhere to the Islamic faith;" and the Mother publicly passing on the Q'ranic injunction to read to a girl child; trumping Rushdie in acknowledging pre-Islamic goddesses available through her second mother-tongue: Lybico-Berber. I have laid out other connections with Derrida in "Ghost-writing", a piece that brought a published reprimand from Derrida. Her excavating re-imagining through musical form is most specifically true, of course, of Far from Medina, but as a theme it is present and beckoning in all her writing. Djebar's main intent is thus not, specifically, to be true to her Arabic sources in Medina, but rather, respectfully to transgress and imagine and flesh out the moments where women make their appearance. Her opera "Daughters of Ishmael in Wind and Storm," shown in Rome and New York, gives us a sense of this. Maria Nadotti, mourning from Italy, remembered that luminous occasion at Columbia when Assia Djebar's and Toni Morrison's operas played together, and Angela Davis and Leila Ahmed were commentators.

From Children of the New World, which should be read with Fanon's Wretched of the Earth to gender the scene, to The Tongue's Blood Does Not Run Dry, written in 1997, is a trajectory where fiction and historiography merge and the inevitable failure of decolonization is spelled out. It calls for, as Djebar remarks in the Postface of Tongues, an "absolute reader," whose self-inflicted death—an extreme image of reading—will assuage nothing. This book shows what the "personal is political" can really mean. Mature sexuality, women as teachers, daughters, mothers, wives, sisters of brothers, French gone Arab gone Berber gone French and so on indefinitely. The history that can heal but will not be allowed to because men under colonization have had no practice of freedom and will kill. The double bind of the commitment to the named country—which is yet emptied of its name, becoming what a Lacanian might call a parole vide, pushing into a Paris of exile, runs through many permutations.

The emptying of the name ot Algeria is consummated at the end of So Vast the Prison. Djebar takes enormous risks here, laying out the themes of her fiction in a cinematic style, keeping the responsible reader working at transitions: detailed account of sexuality, a plunge into the longue duréé of history, filmmaking as turning the burqa inside out in the camera's little eye, Carthage and the Berber script, and finally the bloody Algeria of retaliatory violence. If women's suffering is vast and generalized, death by torture, knife, bullet, throttling, rape is narrow. We are brought here by way of many effacements (as in the section titles) to the imagined death—an historical fact—of the Berber hero Jugurtha in a Roman dungeon more than two thousand years ago, uttered in the tongue of the Berbers. In Jugurtha Djebar touches continental Africa. He is the first African Lumumba, betrayed by his own kind in collusion with the imperialists. "The blood of History and the oppression of women," she writes in parenthesis at the end of this anguished book that took her seven years to write. In the end, she makes the narrator ("Isma"—"the name," and that naming is staged in the staggering last movement) act out absolute readership, wounding her body's voice machinery deeper and deeper with a knife. Her exile is now described bitterly as "fugitive and knowing it".

If in So Vast the Prison absolute readership is staged, it prepares us for Algerian White, where Djebar, as mourner graduating from solitude to collectivity, is herself the absolute reader of "that blurred and broken white from which she reconstructs a margin." It is hard to advise a way to read this book. The form is a procession of the dead. In the manner of the Ernesto Cardenal of "Marilyn," she mingles the assassinated with the 'naturally" dead, of disease, accident, suicide. As in all her work, she transforms the wisdom song, reminding us of African writers such as Ama Ata Aidoo. She comes out of the somewhat single-issue woman-focus that she has sometimes had: "It is no longer just the night of women separated, isolated, exploited as mere child-bearers ..." Here more than ever Djebar, an abiding pacifist obliged to inhabit violence, brings colonial and postcolonial violence together, exclaiming in October, 1988: "Once more, O Frantz, the 'wretched of the earth'!"

At the beginning of our friendship I had been drawn to Djebar because she had acknowledged Bengali as an Islamic language in her Women of Algiers, drawn not so much on my behalf as on behalf of my friend the poet Farhad Mazhar, whose brilliant poem takes Bengali away from Allah, turning the general non-recognition of Bengali around quite as the eye of the camera turns the burqa around for Djebar. In Nulle part, thinking that I could share in her predicament, she considers the double-edged gift of the veil of the French language and culture from her father, without the access to either the women's or the men's world fully, and she generalizes her intensely private story. The theme of self-effacement is center stage. To answer the responsibility, I pointed to her, at Cerisy, at my own development of the idea of being "married to colonialism" in the very same essay (as yet unpublished), where I presented the thought of the bride as diasporic.

Assia Djebar was a cosmopolitan, a star, a Francophone writer, a feminist. Each of these descriptions is problematized in her work. To be a star is to be nowhere in her father's house. To be a feminist is to generalize women's oppression. Francophony is a labyrinth of double binds, an enabling violation, a distancing from the oral and the originary. And cosmopolitanism—where her rescuers are Ibn Khaldun, Augustine, and Pauline Rolland—is the choice of an "elsewhere," as she makes clear in Algerian White. In my global peregrinations, I set unconditional ethics transformed into knowledge management with toolkits. In Djebar's Defense of Fiction (and mine too, ya Assia), we hold out for the imagination.

Autumn Number, Vol. 48, No. 14 - 17, Oct 11 - Nov 7, 2015