Of Prisons and Freedom: Liberation in the Work of Assia Djebar

The Arab Spring may have destroyed the perception that Arab cultures are inherently incompatible with democracy and the values of freedom, but writers of Muslim extraction who are politically and culturally progressive have been wrestling with the thorny question of freedom for many decades.

Assia Djebar
Photo by Ulla Montan

In Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (1987), Doris Lessing states somewhat facetiously, “Soon, soon, we will have left behind The Age of Belief and its wars and tortures and hatred of another type of believer, soon we will all be free and, as all the philosophers and sages have recommended, we will all live our lives with minds free of violent and passionate commitment, but in a condition of intelligent doubt about ourselves and our lives, a state of quiet, tentative, dispassionate curiosity.”  Lessing also proposes that reading literature which engages thoughtfully with contemporary social questions and studying history are the best ways to cultivate this self-reflexive open-mindedness. The idea that an individual may be liberated from dogmatic habits of mind through intelligent activity is at the core of her writerly inspiration and is an ideal that motivates many great writers of our era—from Nuruddin Farah to Assia Djebar—who, like Lessing, portray the quest for freedom as a complex endeavor.

Freedom as a fundamental value in Western culture has encountered significant challenges since the beginning of the twenty-first century. After the events of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush and other politicians in the Western world espoused an anti-Islamic jargon that, wittingly or not, generated considerable fear and confusion about the Islamic world among ordinary citizens. We could scarcely hear the words “Arab” or “Muslim” without the echo of “natural enemies of the civilized world.” Americans were asked to believe that “they” hate us because of our freedoms, and the patriarch’s beard and sky-blue burqa figured as twin symbols for the regressive passions of Muslim men and the women they brutalized. Rhetorically speaking, the “war on terror” has depended on an intransigent opposition between Western freedom and Islamic extremism in a way that trivialized what freedom might mean to millions of Muslims around the world. And then came the Arab Spring, destroying the perception that Arab cultures were inherently incompatible with democracy and the values of freedom. These popular insurrections against tyranny that began on the Mediterranean coast of Africa in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have finally undone the simplistic assertion that “they hate us because we are free.” 

My discussion of Assia Djebar’s work offers a retrospective of key moments in her representations of freedom in the Algerian context since the 1950s. Djebar has made two films, La nouba des femmes de Mont Chenoua (1977) and La Zerda ou les chants de l’oubli (1983), and written numerous novels and stories that engage with a range of issues, from the nation’s quest for independence to contesting women’s oppression in the name of tradition. The fact that her corpus spans more than five decades illustrates an important point: sophisticated writers of Muslim extraction like Djebar and Farah, who are politically and culturally progressive, have been wrestling with the thorny question of freedom for many decades, well before people took to the streets of Tunisia. 

History reveals that the idea of freedom emerged from the depths of unfreedom, as an aspiration held by those dispossessed of this most precious human right. In Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (1992), Orlando Patterson writes, “The basic argument of this work is that freedom was generated from the experience of slavery. People came to value freedom, to construct it as a powerful shared vision of life, as a result of their experience of, and response to, slavery or its recombinant form, serfdom, in their roles as masters, slaves, and nonslaves.” He explains that freedom is a tripartite value in the West involving personal, sovereignal, and civic freedoms and that in order for an individual’s desire for freedom to become a value, the community must give its consent. 

Crawford Young concurs with the premise that the idea of freedom takes shape as the antithesis to unfreedom in The Idea of Freedom in Asia and Africa (2002), and he identifies three sources of unfreedom in modern Africa: slavery, colonialism, and dictatorship. He observes that freedom was seen as the prerogative of “civilized” peoples in the colonial era and that while liberation movements secured a collective freedom, they did not always safeguard civil liberties or personal freedoms. Anouar Majid contributes useful elements for this discussion with the spiritual aspect of freedom as a value in Muslim communities in Unveiling Traditions: Postcolonial Islam in a Polycentric World (2000), where he asserts that the idea of freedom is something that is primarily secure in one’s innermost being. Thus, instances of oppression—gender inequality, human rights abuses—should be seen as distortions that result from human choices and actions, rather than from religious values. 

In “Of Pencil Points and Petty Tyrants,” Djelal Kadir pinpoints the quality of Djebar’s commitment to justice in Algeria as the reason she was awarded the Neustadt Prize in 1996: “It is because of her ethical steadfastness and perspicacious integrity as a writer and as a moral conscience in the face of tyranny’s perennial delusions that a jury of her peers selected her for this prize” (WLT, Autumn 1996, 777). We should recognize that the Algerian context has its specificities, since the Arab Spring has reminded us that no two tyrants impose their dogma and instill fear in exactly the same manner, but writing like Djebar’s offers insights into the nature of postcolonial civil strife as a cycle of violence, with roots in the colonial past, in terms that transcend the local experience of her own homeland. 

Timeline of Algerian Events

1830 French begin colonial conquest of Algeria
1937 Assia Djebar born in Cherchell of Berber and Arab origin
1954–62 Algerian War for Independence
1956 Soummam Congress; French use guillotine in Barberousse prison; escalation of violence
1958 Battle of Algiers
1962 Les Enfants du nouveau monde published
1962-65 Ahmed Ben Bella president; official referendum, 1963
1965 Houari Boumédienne overthrows Ben Bella
1976 New constitution; Front de Libération Nationale (FLN/National Liberation Front) becomes sole political party; Islam recognized as state religion
1978 Boumédienne dies; Chadli Benjedid becomes president
1986 Strikes and demonstrations triggered by collapse in oil prices, unemployment, and inflation
1988 October riots, protest against government inaction and economic downturn
1989 Ban on new political parties lifted, Front Islamique de Salut (FIS/Islamic Salvation Front) is founded, among others
1991 The National People’s Assembly is dissolved; Chadli Benjedid resigns; state of emergency declared
1992-99 Algerian Civil War
1994 Liamine Zeroual appointed chairman of Higher State Council
1995 Zeroual elected president
1995 Vaste est la prison and Le Blanc de l’Algérie published
1996 Djebar wins Neustadt Prize
1997 Djebar wins Yourcenar Prize
1999 Abdelaziz Bouteflika elected president; law on civil concord approved
2004 Bouteflika reelected
2005 Djebar elected to Académie Française
2009 Bouteflika elected to third term

Assia Djebar turned twenty-six the year Algeria declared its independence from France in 1962. While she came of age as a writer during the national struggle for liberation, her brother and first husband were involved in anticolonial protest with the Front de Libération Nationale (fln). In addition to her family’s involvement in this war, Djebar’s mother descended from the Beni Menacer tribe whose ancestors led the Algerian resistance to French conquest during the nineteenth century, including Mohamed Ben Aïssa el-Berkani, who served as a lieutenant under the Emir Abdelkader, and her maternal great-grandfather, Malek Sahraoui el-Berkani, who was killed in combat against the French in 1871. Like most Algerian schoolgirls, Djebar went to Koranic school in the afternoon, but she was the only girl to attend French colonial school for natives. This was the teacher’s prerogative, and he happened to be her father. Djebar’s improbable introduction to French is frequently told by the scene of a young girl walking to school holding her father’s hand. As a result of her French education, the future writer was not sequestered as were her cousins, and she did not wear a veil as her mother and aunts did. The repercussions of her parents’ choice to break with tradition—the complexities of which they could not have anticipated at the time—profoundly affected their daughter’s career as a writer. Djebar used her personal freedom to write about her exceptional experiences and the lives of Algerian women—who did not enjoy the opportunities she was afforded—from a cross-cultural feminist viewpoint, with an abiding respect for men and women who, like her ancestors, were willing to fight for freedom.

In Djebar’s work, relative degrees of freedom are attained along the way. Her imaginative engagement with the liberation of Algerian women as an integral part of a national liberation that is meaningful and inclusive reflects a feminist standpoint that extended the parameters of debate. 

Djebar shows us that an understanding of the history of freedom in Algeria must pass through the gates of prison. Prison figures as the most potent and persistent symbol of unfreedom in her writing. In starkly literal terms, Djebar represents prisons such as Barberousse as the place where men and women are detained, tortured, and killed. Prison is also the place where families visit loved ones, as her mother visited her brother, Salim, in Metz, or where women get news of a father’s death and encounter water rushing underneath the front gates of Barberousse, a telltale sign the guillotine had been used. Prison is where yesterday’s victims of torture at the hands of French paratroopers became the villains in Algeria’s future civil war. The veiled woman’s silence is an irremediable prison that she exposes as a social injustice. Prison is also an evocative metaphor for the loss of personal freedoms and civic liberties on the road to Algeria’s national sovereignty.

The writing Djebar did during the war for independence is an imaginative rendering of the hopes and struggles of the people in real time as they were happening. In the novel Les Enfants du nouveau monde (1962; Eng. Children of the New World, 2005), every character is developed in relation to the theme of imprisonment. An Arab police inspector named Hakim works for the French; his bosses instruct him to torture prisoners, and they measure his allegiance as a harki by the vigor of his interrogations.* Salima is a survivor in prison whose consciousness was battered by Saïdi’s cries of agony while Hakim tortured him. She trembled at first but then forced herself to stand in her cell and listen to what she imagined was the song of their future liberation. A defiant posture was considered the ultimate expression of patriotic fervor at a time when embattled resolve dominated the moral landscape. 

The novel makes two predictions: Algeria will regain its freedom, and combatants will be reborn as children of a new world. This revolutionary sentiment is reinforced near the end of the novel when Lila is arrested and mistakenly thinks that prison will teach her to meet a challenge, when, in reality, it promises her rebirth in a new world. The belief in new men and women being born from the liberating effects of insurrectional violence is straight out of Frantz Fanon’s Les Damnés de la terre (1961; Eng. The Wretched of the Earth, 1965). The human capacity to strengthen one’s commitment under duress was a powerful ideal that Mufdi Zakariah captured in a song titled Qassaman (We pledge), written in Barberousse in 1956, which became Algeria’s national anthem in 1962. So the prison (and Barberousse, in particular) became the most important symbol for Algeria’s struggle for liberation and a crucible for the emergence of a new national identity. 

The first signs of apprehension about Algeria’s future in Djebar’s writing appear in a collection of poetry published after the war, Poèmes pour l’Algérie heureuse (1969; Poems for a happy Algeria). These poems, written between 1954 and 1963, take up the idea of freedom with images that echo the national anthem, as in “Alger” and “Algérie.” There are fragments of distilled emotion that depict a range of unsettling experiences, from surveying a battlefield littered with corpses to the private hell of a woman raped by a soldier. The young writer has seen loved ones sacrifice hopes for a happy future even as she contemplates the ravages of war. In one of the last poems, “Toutes les amarres sont coupées” (All the ties are cut), she hints at problems that lie ahead. The metaphor of cutting ties that bind evokes freeing a prisoner from handcuffs as well as disconnecting a vessel from its anchor, so liberation as freedom from constraint simultaneously signals the potential for things to completely unravel. The poem’s setting is, once again, that of a victim being tortured in prison. In a posture of defiance, the prisoner taunts his interrogator by yelling that his blows are a source of enlightenment. It is precisely this image of the prisoner’s body in pain that provides the unexpected pivot in Algeria’s narrative of triumphant nationalism. The rebel’s attitude in agony prefigures the abuse of power to which the victim will resort once the chains do come off. 

Le Blanc de l’Algérie (1995; Eng. Algerian White, 2000) represents Djebar’s first reassessment of independence and its legacy of violence as a result of Algeria’s civil war during the 1990s. She exposes the details of assassinations and tries to explain the underlying sources of conflict. Djebar provides intimate eyewitness accounts of people who were killed when the Islamists targeted moderate Muslims with social standing and influence in an effort to purge Algeria’s cultural life of dissenters with different beliefs. One of the most evocative of these human portraits is the story of how her friend, Dr. Mahfoud, was stabbed on his way to work on June 15, 1993. Mahfoud was a psychiatrist and activist who had recently led a funeral procession for the slain writer Tahar Djaout. There is the poignant detail of how the doctor left his wedding ring on the bedside table the day he was killed. We also learn from an investigation that a nurse Mahfoud had recently hired quietly identified the doctor as an enemy of the Islamist cause. After Mahfoud’s funeral, coworkers and friends visited his grave in Blida, where they encountered a bereft boy who had followed the doctor’s coffin and was still watching over his grave. As we wonder how the nation will recover from these internecine wounds, we also notice how Djebar’s perception of violence has changed from a source of enlightenment to something that maims those who survive. 

Djebar traces the roots of this fratricide during the 1990s to the war of independence with a searing sense of disillusionment and a tenacious will to document the details. She examines the scale and intensity of the war against the French and detects the first signs of a social fracture that would widen the gap between moderates and extremists. Crawford Young also notes that the unifying popular will that led to decolonization in much of Africa was more Jacobin than Jeffersonian. The chance to come up with a different solution in Algeria quickly faded as violence escalated between 1956 and 1957, and Djebar remarks that Albert Camus may have been the first to see the anticolonial war as also a civil conflict about the future direction of the nation. 

In a posture of defiance, the prisoner taunts his interrogator by yelling that his blows are a source of enlightenment. It is precisely this image of the prisoner’s body in pain that provides the unexpected pivot in Algeria’s narrative of triumphant nationalism.

Once the French introduced the guillotine in Barberousse on June 19, 1956, there was no way back, and she revisits scenes from the downward spiral that followed, with an updated view of what it meant then in light of what was happening in the present. Yacef Saadi’s network stepped up attacks against the French and their interests, to which the military police responded by blowing up four houses in the casbah on the night of August 9, 1956. The escalation led to the infamous Battle of Algiers and marked a turning point. Violence would beget more violence, and the promise of freedom dissipated after independence under one-party rule failed to deliver prosperity while severely restricting civic freedoms. When faced with the zealous bloodletting in a new “Age of Belief and its wars and tortures and hatred of another type of believer,” as Lessing put it, Djebar laments how the writer was becoming the nation’s “propitiatory victim” during the 1990s. Not only were the voices of individual poets and playwrights eliminated one bullet at a time, but the possibility that any writer would feel free to express dissent seemed in jeopardy. 

Vaste est la prison (1995; Eng. So Vast the Prison, 2001) was also published in the midst of this civil war and gives us Djebar’s most complex engagement with freedom in all its dimensions. The metaphor of a vast prison expands on the theme of freedom, allowing her to explore the interrelatedness of the various spheres. The novel opens when the narrator overhears her mother-in-law conversing with an attractive middle-aged friend who refers to her husband as the enemy, l’e’dou in Arabic. Her enemy is waiting at home, so she cannot stay and chat with the other women in the hammam. What was an offhanded colloquialism for the wife whose husband is expecting her has the effect of letting a chilling gust of wind into the steamy bathhouse for the narrator. The hammam is an inverted symbol of unfreedom: within the intimate space of the bathhouse, women are free, whereas society outside seems a vast prison where patriarchy turns husbands into enemies. The gendered space of the hammam forms the moral epicenter from which all other variations on the theme of imprisonment evolve. The daughter-in-law’s reaction to hearing l’e’dou foreshadows the traumatic story of her first divorce that is about her repudiation of him. The implacable sense of unfreedom that she feels as a wife ultimately pushes her to take “the first shaky step of my freedom.” The narrator’s decision to leave her marriage is a bold act of self-definition in defiance of a whole host of social expectations that keep women silent, sequestered, and subservient.

A visit to ruins in Dougga, an ancient Berber village in present-day Tunisia, develops the theme of freedom in this novel. The narrator surveys what has been lost; over centuries, inscriptions on a monument at this site have been partially effaced, while European explorers added to this by sawing off pieces of the ancient stele and carting them away to a museum in London. Taken together, the erasure of inscriptions and the stele’s violent fragmentation create an impasse for visitors who are no longer able to make sense of the ruins. In addition to what the state of these unreadable fragments tells us about the parasitical nature of Western imperialism, the narrator perceives a sense of cultural dispossession in terms of her inheritance as a woman. She laments the disappearance of one Tuareg ancestor in particular: Tin Hinan, who displayed her beauty and strength as a woman in a way that represents the antithesis of femininity for modern Islamic patriarchy. If creativity requires personal freedom and cultural roots, then women writers like Assia Djebar stand to lose the most at Dougga. Restoring Tin Hinan to her proper place in the cultural heritage of the Maghreb is of vital importance for all who see patriarchy under modern Islamist rule as a vast prison that continues to unfurl in the wake of Western imperial domination.

Djebar’s unique perspective as a cross-cultural pioneer with a woman’s understanding of history allows her to show how the various aspects of freedom are interdependent.

In Vaste est la prison, Djebar weaves memories of filming La Nouba des femmes de Mont Chenoua in the 1970s with episodes from her life’s story. She remembers how a woman completely concealed by a white veil was the image-symbol that became the driving force of her creative endeavor as a filmmaker. She discloses the process of reworking her perception of the veil, not as something “normal,” but as a “scandalous” sign of cultural incarceration. Djebar was able to recast this image when she imagined seeing through the lens of her movie camera as if from the aperture in a woman’s veil. The opening through which a veiled woman sees became the new pathway for a feminist gaze that was capable of devouring the world. The narrative establishes a connection between Djebar’s view of the veil and a community of women that includes five hundred million segregated women across the Muslim world. Telling this story about how she struggled with the experience of being both inside and outside her culture of origin laces the narration of all of her texts and constitutes Djebar’s version of a feminist genealogy, which we see in Loin de Médine (1991), where she seeks to recover a more suitable Islamic past; in L’Amour, la fantasia (1985; Eng. Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, 1993), where she unveils Arab women’s voices in French; and in Ces voix qui m’assiègent (1999), where she wrestles with language and identity. Djebar’s historical examination of freedom in Algeria and the Muslim world challenges patriarchal oppression in a way that also subverts the comfort of Western stereotypes by the sheer force of her own will. 

In Djebar’s work, relative degrees of freedom are attained along the way. Her imaginative engagement with the liberation of Algerian women as an integral part of a national liberation that is meaningful and inclusive reflects a feminist standpoint that extended the parameters of debate. Her unique perspective as a cross-cultural pioneer with a woman’s understanding of history allows her to show how the various aspects of freedom are interdependent. Her growing awareness of the corrosive effects of violent struggle and that it engulfs the private lives of women who are so often on the frontlines dovetails with the efforts of Leymah Gbowee, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Tawakkol Karman, who were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” Without the persistent participation of women activists in civic life, without the expression of tenacious dissent with word and deed, without a writer’s resistance to dogma, the majority of people in countries like Algeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Yemen would not enjoy the hope of freedom. When I think about Djebar in the company of these women, and all the others whose names we do not know, I ask myself their question: Whose freedom and at what cost? 

University of Arizona

Phyllis Taoua is the author of Forms of Protest: Anti-Colonialism and Avant-Gardes in Africa, the Caribbean, and France (2002) and is completing her second book, Africa from African Perspectives: Their Voices, Our World and the Difference It Makes. Other publications have appeared in The Cambridge Companion to the African Novel, Transition, SubStance, Research in African Literatures, Cahier d’Études Africaines, and Journal of African Cultural Studies. In 2006 she was the recipient of a Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation award and Resident Fellow at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.