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Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar

December 28, 2020 4 comments

Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar (1980 updated in 2001) Original French title: Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement.

Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Assia Djebar is composed of seven short stories. The first one, La nuit du récit de Fatima (Fatima’s Tale) features in my French edition but is not included in the English one. This short-story was not part of the original collection of stories from 1980. It has been added in 2001. The original collection includes:

Overture

Today

  • Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1978)
  • The Woman Who Weeps (1978)

Yesterday

  • There Is No Exile (1959)
  • The Dead Speak (1970 & 1978)
  • Day of Ramadan (1966)
  • Nostalgia of the Horde. (1965)

Postface : Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound.

The title of the collection comes from the painting by Delacroix, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment.

Delacroix painted it in 1834, from drawings that he did during his stop to Algeria in 1832 after a trip to Marocco. It was after the French conquered Algeria in 1830 and Assia Djebar’s postface is an essay about this painting and its significance.

All the short stories in this collection are centered around the condition of women in Algeria.

The Today section shows them at home after the war of independence. The Yesterday section includes stories set in the past. One is about women who fled to Tunis during the fights in Algiers. The Dead Speak is set in the countryside, at the burial of a respected and strong old woman, Yemma Hadda. Her grand-son has just come back from the maquis and the war has been over for eight days. Yemma Hadda was a character and never remarried after her husband died, probably to preserve her freedom. We see the customs in the country and how stifling they are for women. This was my favorite story.

We encounter women who have played an important part in the war of independence. Several characters were imprisoned at the Barberousse Prison in Algiers and were tortured. They suffered as much as men fighters but didn’t get the same recognition after the war.

In Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, we’re with Anne, a pied-noir who has come back to Algiers and Sarah, who’s married to Ali, a surgeon. (A pied-noir is a French person born in Algeria before the independence) Their friendship dates back to before the war and remains the same after.

Assia Djebar pictures women waiting for their husbands at home, not really allowed to come and go as they like. Aïcha came to stay with Yemma Hadda after her husband repudiated her. The Woman Who Weeps left her husband because he beat her. All women depend on their husbands and are more or less trapped. Their world revolves around their home and their family.

Assia Djebar’s point is clear, the Algerian woman has always been locked away in houses, living with the extended family. She’s never had a lot of freedom and the war didn’t change her status that much.

The essay in the postface comes back to Delacroix and his painting. It’s unique because he was allowed to enter into the harem of a raïs’s house. He had the opportunity to see these women in their quarters and to capture their way-of-life. It’s usually hidden from the eyes and his painting is a stolen glance; the myth of the Orient was fueled by paintings like this Delacroix. 

These short stories are like a modern version of Delacroix’s painting. Assia Djebar proposes an answer to the question “What would Delacroix see if he entered into contemporary Algerian apartments?” The Algerian woman was locked up in domestic life and according to Assia Djebar, she was still there in the 1970s.

I thought it was an interesting peak into Algerian women’s lives but I had trouble connecting with Assia Djebar’s style. I’m glad I read it but I don’t think I’ll look for another of her books. 

Has anyone read Women of Algiers in Their Apartment

The Poor Man’s Son by Mouloud Feraoun

July 8, 2018 10 comments

The Poor Man’s Son by Mouloud Feraoun (1954) Original French title: Le fils du pauvre.

Mouloud Feraoun was born in 1913 in Tizi Hibel in Kabylia, Algeria. He became a schoolmaster in Algeria and was assassinated on March 15th, 1962, a week before the war of independence ended. He wrote the Poor Man’s Son in 1954, during the dark moments of the war. This novella is largely autobiographical, the main character’s name, Fouroulou Menrad is almost an anagram of Mouloud Feraoun.

The book opens with a preamble: Menrad is a schoolteacher in a small village in Kabylia and he wrote his personal story in a notebook. The first par of the novella is a first-person narrative with Fouroulou telling about his childhood. He recreates his small village, describes the genealogy of his family, their way of life. Like a gifted storyteller, he makes us hear and see life in this remote part of Algeria. He describes the streets and the houses, the family clan and its living together, the bickering and jaleousy between his mother and his aunt.

As the only son, he was cherished by his parents and was always put first. His sisters didn’t have the same position in the family; he had better food and better care.

Comme j’étais le premier garçon né viable dans ma famille, ma grand-mère décida péremptoirement de m’appeler Fouroulou (de effer, cacher) Ce qui signifie que personne au monde ne pourra me voir, jusqu’au jour où je franchirai moi-même, sur mes deux pieds, le seuil de notre maison.

Since I was the first viable boy born in my family, my grand-mother peremptorily decided to call me Fouroulou (from effer, to hide) This means that nobody in the whole world could see me until I’d cross the threshold of our house myself, on my own two feet.

That’s how important he was to his family.

Feraoun depicts a place where everybody was dirt poor and always on the verge of being poorer. Any accident or illness preventing the adults to work could lead to starving. Any event affecting the crops could lead to not having enough food to put on the table. All of the adults’ energy is spent on staying afloat and feed the family. If needed, men went to France to work for a while and send fresh money back home. Feraoun weaves a wonderful homage to his aunts as he loved spending time in their house. They were artisans, creating potteries and baskets with artful drawings. He remembers their craft and their affection.

With little touches, little anecdotes and memories, the scenery appears in our eyes mind. We see the dusty streets and the unbearable summer heat. We hear children laughing and running through the village, playing together. We see the family. We imagine Fouroulou in the fields, destined to be a shepherd. Anecdotes about fights, tricks and illnesses let us see the local traditions. The presence of the French State is only palpable in some areas like the police (the villagers did their best not to involve the French police in their quarrels) and of course, the school system.

That’s when things start to change for Fouroulou. When he goes to school. It’s a sacrifice for the family: they need to buy him supplies and clothes and while he’s in school, he’s not working. This is common in poor communities, school isn’t seen as as vital as working. And Feraoun wonders:

Les pères de famille qui passent leur temps à essayer de satisfaire les petits ventres peuvent-ils s’occuper également des petites cervelles ?

Are family men who spend their time trying to satisfy little bellies able to also take care of little brains?

As you can guess from Feraoun’s biography, going to school will be a turning point in his literary doppelgänger’s life. Fouroulou’s school teacher in the village made him participate to a competition to win a scholarship to go to collège (junior high). This was common practice in the French school system of the beginning of the 20th century. Schoolteachers were on a mission to detect bright pupils and help them go further. It was also a way to have candidates to enter the Ecole Normale, the state network of schools that trained future schoolteachers. That’s what Menrad and Feraoun did. (It still existed in the 1970s) For the second part of the book, we switch from Fouroulou’s voice to that of an omniscient narrator. This part relates Fouroulou’s years in college and his years after graduation.

There’s no real plot in The Poor Man’s Son. It’s mostly an homage from a grown man to his origins. If I had to compare him to other writers, I’d say he’s like Pagnol with La gloire de mon père or Ramuz or Giono. He recalls his childhood with tenderness and emotion but doesn’t sugarcoat the poverty.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

February 25, 2018 25 comments

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (2013) Original French title: Meursault, contre-enquête.

Preamble: I downloaded a sample of the English translation on my kindle. All the translations of this post are by John Cullen who translated The Meursault Investigation into English.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud is a story based on The Stranger by Albert Camus, told from the side of the victim’s family. The narrator is the victim’s younger brother and Daoud’s novel relates both the murder seen from the Arabs’ side and the consequences of this event on the younger brother’s life.

From the first sentence, the reader knows that The Meursault Investigation is constructed as a mirror to The Stranger. Indeed, it opens with Aujourd’hui, M’ma est toujours vivante. (Mama’s still alive today), a counterpart to Camus’s Aujourd’hui Maman est morte. (Maman died today) In a sense, the book is like a negative in photography.

In the first pages, the narrator mulls over the fact that the Arab killed in L’Etranger has no name. His first mission is to give him his name back, he says he was named Moussa. Our narrator is in a café, drinking wine and telling his story to a stranger. French is the language because this story needed to be told with the language of the colonizer. The pace of the story is in short chapters and often they end with a direct address to the reader, as if he were in the café, listening a storyteller. It’s like Scheherazade leaving cliffhangers to have her audience back the next day. You don’t see it in English, but in French, it’s said with the “tu” form and not “vous”. For me, it’s also a way to remind us that the narrator doesn’t use his native language for this story, that his native language is Arabic were the “vous” form isn’t used in spoken language.

Daoud never mentions Camus in his novel but he’s everywhere. He’s paraphrased in chapters, a mirroring text to the original, a text in reverse, the same way Arabic is written from right to left when French is written from left to right.

As I said, Camus is never mentioned directly and L’Etranger is a first-person narrative. This allows a confusion between the writer and the character, something that is very clear in this paragraph:

Comme tous les autres, tu as dû lire cette histoire telle que l’a racontée l’homme qui l’a écrite. Il écrit si bien que ses mots paraissent comme des pierres taillées par l’exactitude même. C’était quelqu’un de très sévère avec les nuances, ton héros, il les obligeait presque à être des mathématiques. D’infinis calculs à base de pierres et de minéraux. As-tu vu sa façon d’écrire ? Il semble utiliser l’art du poème pour parler d’un coup de feu ! Son monde est propre, ciselé par la clarté matinale, précis, net, tracé à coup d’arômes et d’horizons. La seule ombre est celle des « Arabes », objets flous et incongrus, venus « d’autrefois », comme des fantômes et avec, pour toute langue, un son de flûte. Je me dis qu’il devait en avoir marre de tourner en rond dans un pays qui ne voulait de lui ni mort ni vivant. Le meurtre qu’il a commis semble celui d’un amant déçu par une terre qu’il ne peut posséder. Comme il a dû souffrir, le pauvre ! Etre l’enfant d’un lieu qui ne vous a pas donné naissance. I’m sure you’re like everyone else, you’ve read the tale as told by the man who wrote it. He writes so well that his words are like precious stones, jewels cut with the utmost precision. A man very strict about shades of meaning, you hero was; he practically required them to be mathematical. Endless calculations, based on gems and minerals. Have you seen the way he writes? He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like poetry! His world is clean, clear, exact, honed by morning sunlight, enhanced with fragrances and horizons. The only shadow is cast by “the Arabs,” blurred, incongruous objects left over from “days gone by”, like ghost, with no language except the sound of a flute. I tell myself he must have been fed up with wandering around in circles in a country that wanted nothing to do with him, whether dead or alive. The murder he committed seems like the act of a disappointed lover unable to possess the land he loves. How he must have suffered, poor man! The be the child of a place that never gave you birth…

Where does the assimilation between Camus and Meursault begin and end? The man who wrote it can be both Camus writing a novel and Meursault writing his journal. They were both born in Algeria. L’Etranger was written in 1942, before the War of Independence but I imagine that the tensions between the French colonizer and the locals were already palpable. Camus and Meursault were strangers to the land they were born to.

Let’s stop a bit and contemplate this paragraph.

Daoud perfectly nailed Camus’s style. That’s how I felt when I reread L’Etranger. I was dazzled by his words, his perfect way to describe the landscape and the Mediterranean light. Short sentences chiseled with precision. I have a reservation about the translation. When I read the French and the passage about Camus’s style, Daoud only uses the word pierre, not pierre précieuse. And John Cullen translated it with precious stone, and then jewels which takes the Anglophone reader to another path than the one I took. Perhaps Daoud told him that was his intention. That’s not the way I see it. When I read Daoud, I see carved stones, not gem stones. I see the rectilinear lines of buildings at the sea front in Algiers. I see light stones from a quarry, shaped into perfect geometrical stones to build buildings, to set up the inevitable ending of L’Etranger. I don’t see Camus as a jeweler, I see Camus as an architect and a builder.

Daoud also writes Il semble utiliser l’art du poème pour parler d’un coup de feu ! and not Il parle d’un coup de feu et on dirait de la poésie ! which would be He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like poetry! In French, the use of art du poème is not natural and I wonder if it’s a way to show that the narrator is not a native French speaker and that he comes from a literary tradition where poetry holds a major place.

The end of the paragraph refers to the awkward place of French colonizers in Algeria. Some came to Algeria from Alsace and Lorraine after the 1870 debacle and the annexing of these regions to Germany. Part of the French living in Algeria were born there; they were not only people sent in Algeria for a few years as a military, a civil servant or an expat for a company. From an individual point of view, it was their country, in the sense of the place you were born. But of course, it was not their land because their presence was based on a conquest that took thirty years and they were living on stolen land, on a lie. Daoud’s words explain that for Algeria, Meursault was a stranger. For the French community, he was an outsider. This is why it’s difficult to clearly choose between the two titles used in English for L’Etranger, which covers both meanings in French.

I won’t tell more about the plot and how far the mirroring goes because it would spoil your reading. Suffice to say that it shows a narrator living in poverty and probably saved by the school system. (Like Camus and in the background, like Meursault) It shows Algeria after the independence, after the terrible decade of the 1990s and how a man who doesn’t comply to religious duties and drinks alcohol can feel as an outsider in his own country. The narrator might have something in common with Meursault after all.

The Meursault Investigation assumes that Camus never named the Arab who was killed because as an Arab, he was a non-entity. I don’t agree with this. I’m sure that a lot of scholars more qualified than me have written essays about it. As a common reader, when I closed L’Etranger recently, I thought this was a universal story and that the Algerian setting was incidental. Maybe Camus missed his place of birth in 1942, in the middle of the horrible WWII. To me, L’Etranger is closer to a Greek tragedy, something set up from the start, a literary machinery that corralled the character into the path designed by a writer who wanted to point out the absurdity of life, the narrowmindedness of his society and show his vision of life through a novel. I don’t read anything into the Algiers setting, sorry.

I think The Meursault Investigation is a brilliant book that left me puzzled. Its construction is skillfully done, Daoud knows Camus’s work inside out. There are obviouns references to L’Etranger but to other works by Camus like Caligula or The Myth of Sisyphus. I don’t fully agree with his interpretation of L’Etranger but Daoud wrote a compelling story and also used Camus’ novel as a stepladder to criticize his own country. I really recommend (re)reading L’Etranger before diving into The Meursault Investigation. It’s only 120 pages long and it will enhance your reading of Daoud’s novel.

Other reviews:

 

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