Intimacy that is kept distant is a rare attribute in a book, one which few authors – such as Margaret Atwood – have been able to master effectively. But Algerian writer Assia Djebar conveys this sense of secrecy and detachment beautifully as she traces the shadows of her women in Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, a collection of stories from 1958 – 78. Revealing, disclosing, uncovering, yet not quite penetrating, the lives of Djebar’s characters from pre, present, and post-colonial Algiers never seem to completely come into the light, or project their voices above the silence.
Djebar’s handling of discourse surrounding the Algerian War is deliberate and cuttingly precise, just as her lens formulates a calculated focus on the women of her book. “[…] try as I might to enjoy all my “freedom” – to call it by its true name – but one single question keeps plaguing me, this freedom, is it really mine?” asks one of the protagonists, who still bears the scars which “freedom” cost her. Like the Delacroix painting of the same name which Djebar analyses closely, the reader’s relationship with the characters of the book is restricted – written primarily in third-person narrative, a strong impression of carpmentalisation structures the scenes, emotions, voices, and personas into their own sections. There is a strong sense of “gazing” into each scene without truly becoming a part of it – almost like the near-voyeurism of Delacroix’s perspectives. Though every woman has a story embroiled in vivid emotions, they are often memories and reflections, rather than being in the midst of the moment itself; recollections of torture during the war, or the mourning of a child heard through the walls of the apartment keeps the reader separate from the actual event in most cases, or draws them in after the event to witness the response.
Detached World, Displaced People
Men and women, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters seem to have their bonds lacerated by the aftermath of war, colonialism, and oppressive Islamic law. There remains disillusionment, disinterest and little connectivity – even the rare moments of tenderness between men and women are strained. The irony of nostalgia (the time before liberation) is one of the only “warm” components of the stories, where alleys which were once the playground of childhood have turned threatening, and the excitement of bridehood before it became tarnished and exploitative linger in the minds of ex-liberators and old widows.
Perhaps the most intimate moment is revealed through the water-carrier of the bathhouse, a place where women go to talk about things they cannot open up about elsewhere. In a unique moment of transition as she is rushed out of the bathhouse and towards the hospital, in a first-person stream of consciousness the water-carrier reveals the burden on her shoulders as she recounts moments of life which have been torn away in perpetual servitude, and of the joys denied her. She cries out in her mind with something akin to the ubi sunt motif: “Where are you, you fire carriers, you my sisters, who should have liberated the city… Barbed wire no longer obstructs the alleys, now it decorates windows, balconies, anything at all that opens onto an outside space…” She goes on to speak of further violations, always expressing the sense of “space” and its striking division between inner and outer.
Even in the solidarity of pain, the water-carrier cannot find the lost voices of the women, a quest which Sarah, a musicologist, has undertaken. She drives through the streets feeling displaced and lost, far removed from her childhood (a sense that partially drives her friend, a French immigrant, to severe depression). Will the voices ever be heard, or the lens shattered to allow life beyond the walls of mortar, law, and heart?
Whether Djebar herself asks this question or leaves it to her characters is up to the reader, but her style and conviction is both powerful and graceful, and though at times her implications are elusive, they trigger subconscious stirrings rather than confusion. Djebar engages and defies the notions of empowerment and freedom, of “the feminine” and Orientalism, and while not giving her women “a voice” to restore them to their full sense of womanhood, she lets out a whisper which in some ways produces a greater resonance than any call.
Lucy A. Armstrong is a Canadian writer currently based in the UK. She discovered magical realism and the Diaspora while studying literature in her favourite city, Montreal, and divides her time between discovering new ideas in the art world and creating her own. She shares them and the work of others at pilgrimagethroughart.