It is impossible to encapsulate the life and work of someone as prolific and influential as beloved Algerian novelist Assia Djebar. Her death at the age of 78 marks a symbolic lacuna in a difficult and intricate Algerian history, and of the women that have been swept up along with it - the women which Djebar made the primary subject of her life's work.
Though trained as a historian, her seventeen published works, two films and long career as teacher and professor will soon be treated as nothing more than a detail meant to serve the West's obsession with Djebar as a savior and emancipator of Islamic women. Her complex legacy could not possibly meet a crueler fate.
Assia Djebar, who wrote her first novel at the age of 19, has been attacked and celebrated for what has been termed as her "bourgeois individualism," for writing in French as opposed to Arabic, for too much or too little engagement with the Franco-Algerian war and then the second, even longer Algerian civil war. Her work, thus, has often become the site for the hackneyed "clash of civilizations" debate as France and Algeria play out manipulative and ideological positions vis-a-vis Djebar's fiction.
Setting aside vitriotic debates of the past, and perhaps those to come, I would like to pay homage to her sensitivity, elegance and masterful writing through one of her shorter works entitled, "Woman in Pieces," which is included in the English collection of her stories, The Tongue's Blood Does Not Dry.
"Woman in Pieces" is a beautiful reworking of the tale "The Three Apples" from the One Thousand and One Nights. In Djebar’s version, several stories intertwine, the focus being on the storytelling itself, especially stories told by women. The legendary and brave Scheherazade, spinning stories so her life may be spared, is evoked first, and thus it is through one of her stories that Djebar's novella begins. A young woman in medieval Baghdad has been murdered and cut into pieces by her jealous husband. “The pieces are wrapped carefully in a veil, the white veil of a city woman. A linen veil, just barely soiled. Just barely bloodied…The body of a woman cut in pieces.” Haroun El Raschid finds her on an autumn night at the bottom of the Tigris river. This tale is juxtaposed with the second story of a young teacher named Atyka in Algiers. Atyka happens to be teaching "The Three Apples" to her adolescent students when she is ritualistically murdered by Islamic radicals in her classroom.
But the story does not end with murder of Atyka. Her spirit continues to tell the tale and inhabits and haunts the spaces of her city. "The body, the head. But the voice? Where has Atyka's voice taken refuge?" The stories of Djebar's dismembered women exist in a continuum and become subsumed into the ever-present violent and misogynist reality of our time. Having taught this story for several years to my American students, this act only becomes more evocative and personal, implicating me and all women in the act of storytelling, story-spreading, story-sharing.
Djebar makes an inextricable and vital link between the body and the act of writing. "Fiction's head shatters, " she says, just like the shattered bodies of women. "Fiction, this madcap ballerina, cavorts in front of this drama. She spins drunkenly all around the disaster, beyond an invisible circle of vulnerability. She believes she has trapped one of life’s fireflies, glowing a second before all is lost, a gap that vociferates or that grasps you.”
Djebar's death is a tremendous loss, and I would ask for Djebar to be remembered for something very simple - for being the Scheherazade of our time, for making storytelling the most important, human and life-giving of all activities. May she rest in power.
Bhakti Shringarpure is editor-in-chief of Warscapes magazine. Twitter @bhakti_shringa
Image by Aurelia Pirson entitled " Assia Djebar-Portrait. Graphite, Encre et Gouache sur Collage/ Photoshop"can be found here: http://aureliapirson.fr/?p=704