Confronting a particular idea within the African Diaspora can be problematic in many ways. While certain concepts and themes are communicated across the wide and diverse scope of writers, which have enriched the continent with intuitive and poignant works, there always runs a risk of coming across as reductive and assimilative. In mingling several identities into one collective, which parts of the West continue to do, some may fail to recognize Africa as a continent composed of several unique societies rather than one country. While several artists across the diaspora have embraced a strong sense of African unity and solidarity in revolt against colonialism and forged an identity, ideas of self-image on a micro scale continue to be problematic, not only within international boundaries, but regional ones as well. Particularly for women, ideals of feminism and liberation are suddenly divided by preconceived notions of race and class, an issue which is extremely present today in the Western hemisphere. This is particularly crucial in Assia Djebar’s renowned work, Women of Algiers in their Apartment, as notions of gender, nationalism, and othering become focal points of contemplation for the female protagonists.
Orientalism and Identity
There is no coincidence that Djebar chose an iconic painting for the cover of her collection of stories, or that her title replicates Eugène Delacroix’s exotically visual portrayal of Algerian – or most likely North African – life. Delacroix’s painting is just as much about the spaces between occupied light, casting shadows on the unknown and unseen: the dark servant, the sense of isolation from the outside world, the imminent suspense. In Djebar’s work of the same name, these spaces are explored, defined, glossed over, made elusive and revealing at the same time – and like the painting, it is the space in which Djebar’s women occupy that define them rather than the women themselves. Within these spaces lies a dynamic chemistry between women – while confined to the interior of their apartments (their domain), ideologies of the outside world continue to dictate their sense of role and personhood. These spaces become a stage where social hierarchies play out between race and class, education and occupation, health and age, with forms of micro-othering occurring.
Coping with these struggles in identity, the women of Djebar’s apartments encounter spaces that confine their self-expression. The aged water-carrier, who labors endlessly in the bathhouse – known as the woman who listens to the tribulations and dreams of other women; the ex-revolutionary, struggling to overcome her traumatic experiences being tortured by exploring the sounds and music of women’s lives; the “exiled” woman conflicted between her French and Algerian identity, cast out by both. Trying to strive above and find their identities amidst the turmoil of their inner thoughts, some of these women turn to self-injury, alcoholism, isolation, and long periods of mourning. Djebar does not deal with these as plot devices to drive along the narrative, nor to infinitely define these women – there is no revelatory climax where the characters undergo dramatic transformations. Djebar does not follow the ideals of the self-healing, self-empowerment crusade that has become a trope in Western hemisphere, where the environment is drastically different. Nor does Djebar make addiction itself a focal point, but acknowledges that it is a growing problem throughout the region (and which continues to be today particularly among the younger population). Rather, it is a dire aspect of an even more dire problem.
Can the women truly heal? Can Sarah, wounded from her past, conflicted in her present find her own voice through the voices of other women? Can she find it through her country, and the role which her country compels her to fill? Self-image remains highly problematic with the women of Algiers’ ever-mysterious apartments; just as much is disclosed by what is not said, as what is said. Within the intricacies of Djebar’s prose and the powerful translation into English, by Marjolijn de Jager, there is a sense of deliberate distance from the reader. The voyeur, the confidant, the compassionate spectator, are conveyed in a way that entangles their identities into their spaces. The overall work – both ambiguous and brutally clear, barren and vibrant – is an incredible testament to these courageous women and their place in the patriarchal, post-colonial, religious society in which their voices, when found, are often unheard.
By Jenni Falconer