A meditation on death and loss, lives taken in the struggle for freedom against the colonial power, against fundamentalism. A meditation on writing and all of its risks, language and all of its meanings, Algeria and all of its tragic complications.
Love and loss, hope and despair.
A travel through memories, like this one:
I took off for Kader’s Oran, the city and its deepest depths, which he had sketched out for me… we drove around the town, splattered with cries and laughter, full of youths (oh, the youths of Oran, everywhere, leaning against a wall, on the vertical, in the sun, at every street corner, watching, laughing, cautious!), our tour was gradually fed by Kader’s memories. (21)
A town to be loved. I had only just finished The Plague, also set in Oran. Albert Camus writes, with the eyes of a European that must always be comparing the rest of the world to an ideal of home:
The town itself, let us admit, is ugly. It has a smug, placid air and you need time to discover what it is that makes it different from so many business centres in other parts of the world. How to conjure up a picture, for instance, of a town without pigeons, without any trees or gardens, where you never hear the beat of wings or the rustle of leaves — a thoroughly negative place in short? … Our citizens work hard, but solely with the objective of getting rich. (1-2)
There are no Arabs in the Oran found in these pages, though Camus does write of walking through the Negro district (and what does that word mean to him exactly?), ‘steep little streets flanked by blue, mauve and saffron-yellow walls… (79) He writes of the plague starting in the poorer and more crowded outskirts, but there are only Spaniards and Frenchmen.
This absence is possibly one of the largest presences in the literature I have read.
To Kader, returning to Oran, Djebar writes:
You must have often unveiled for others the naked, tumultuous and impulsive, raucous, mocking town. (22)
This town and the town of the Plague — two Orans, two visions of what a city could and should be.
Camus is in Algerian White as author. His lack of understanding of the complexities. His effort to make peace. His early death in a car accident. She later writes:
Camus, an old man: it seems almost as unimaginable as the metaphor of Algeria itself, as a wise adult, calm at last, at last turned toward life, ordinary life… (103)
I think it true that ordinary life escaped him, you see it in his words.
But he is really the least among this pantheon of writers, too many of whom I still know almost nothing, despite all my recent reading.
But first we return to the theme of dust:
Three Algerian days.
White with dust. The dust you didn’t notice, on any of these three days, but which seeped its way in, unseen and fine, into all those who came together for your departure.
A dust slowly forming, which gradually makes that day grow fainter, further away, a whiteness which insidiously effaces, distances, and makes each hour almost unreal, and the explosion of a word, the gasp of an ill-repressed sob, the bursting spray of chants and litanies from the crowd, all of the excessive on the day itself, from then on paled, worn hollow to the point of evanescence.
So, white days of that dust in which tens of witnesses, friends, those around you, who went with you to the graveside, they the followers, thereafter caught up; clothed in it stiffly and awkwardly, unknowingly. Dust of oblivion which cauteriuzes, weakens, softens, and …. Dust.
Three days white with that dust and that mortal fog. (51)
I cried for the death of Mouloud Feraoun, his words still live with me, I almost feel as though I know him. Feraoun, one of six murdered together in two sets of three, machine gunned down, with 109 9 mm cartridge cases found. The son of another there, Jean-Phillipe Ould Aloudia, spent thirty years investigating, identified the assassins granted amnesty by the French State.
Nothing could be done to them.
There is Djebar’s chance meeting with Mouloud Mammeri in Algiers, 1988:
‘Before I saw you in the distance, I was walking with my head in the clouds.. How lovely this city is, iridescent like this! I can’t get enough of it: as if it were the first time! I never tire of the facades or the balconies of the houses, and especially not of the sky!… (139-140)
I learned about Emir Abdelkader, who fought the colonial invasion, whose bones have been fought over:
Abdelkader, if he has truly come back to this land where he was first a soldier, will be better able than I to make the list of those who write and who, like so many others, are persecuted, silenced, pushed to suicide, to suffocation, or–through the intermediary if desperate youth, transformed into paid killers–killed by a single blow. (225)
There are Franz and Josie Fanon, Jean-el and Taos Amrouche, Kateb Yacine, M’Hamed Boukhobza, Mahfoud Boucebci, Anna Greki, Abdelkader Alloula among many others. And, like Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, a return to language, nationality, home…the tangle of words and the limits language and culture place on what can be expressed.
Algerian literature–we must begin it with Apuleus in the second century and continue to Kateb Yacine and Mouloud Mammeri, passing Augustine, the emir Abdelkader, and Camus–has continuously been inscribed in a linguistic triangle.
–a language of rock and soil, the original one let’s say. Libyco-Berber, which lost its alphabet momentarily except among the Tuareg:
–a second language, that of the prestigious exterior, of Mediterranean heritage–Eastern and Western–admittedly reserved for lettered minorities…
Arabic and then French
–the third partner in this triangle presents itself as the most exposed of the languages, the dominant one, the public one, the language of power: that of the harangues, but also the written one of the forensic scientists, the scribes and the notaries.(227-228)
This has been Latin, Classic Arabic, Turkish, French, again Arabic…
These are just a few quotes I liked, there is so much more here, particularly for someone who knows more of these writers and the recent history. I am setting out to learn…
Perhaps the best of all, though was this (a facebook update from July 28th, as I mix my social media)
Today on the tube I met a Maori who asked how I came to be reading Assia Djebar and I told him a quick summary of the long story about this article I can’t finish and he told me how in New Zealand his university classes on colonialism had featured a professor who studied violence in Algerian women’s fiction, and then we talked about Djebar and Feraoun and Fanon and Paris and damn but did it bring happiness to my day.
For more on the struggle in Algeria…