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Article ©2004, Sage Goellner

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“Idiome de l’exil et langue de l’irréductibilité.”

Sage Goellner, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Assia Djebar and Eugène Fromentin’s Haoua:

Cultural Betrayal and Intertextual Transformation

Depuis si longtemps déjà
toujours entre corps et voix
et ce tangage des langages
dans le mouvement d’une mémoire à creuser
à ensoleiller
risques de mon écriture
d’incessants departs
repères dans le sable ancestral
Ecrire est une route
à ouvrir…
    - Assia Djebar, Ces voix qui m’assiègent

In a dramatic parable near the end of L’amour, la fantasia, Algerian author Assia Djebar evokes a scene in French orientalist painter and author Eugène Fromentin’s Un été dans le Sahara (1856) that describes his visit to the besieged Algerian city of Laghoaut in 1853. Fromentin happens upon the severed hand of a woman’s corpse, one of the many casualties of violent incursions by the French. More than a century later, Djebar writes that she has taken up this “main de mutilation et du souvenir” in order to write “une préparation à une autobiographie”(LA 255, Mortimer 203).1 A metonym of an intertext, the hand that Djebar uses to write her story along with the history of her country is an emblematic image that offers a window onto the complex cultural and literary functions of intertextuality in the postcolonial context. What does it mean for Djebar to cite a text of the former colonizer? Is this a cultural betrayal, or is it rather a gesture of recuperation and transformation? More importantly for Djebar, does cultural betrayal result in writing that is “une route à ouvrir?”

Assia Djebar has often remarked upon the dangerous nature of autobiographical writing for Arab women, especially when written in “la langue adverse.”2 Often perceived as a cultural and a linguistic betrayal, personal disclosure is generally prohibited in the Arabo-Muslim context, and to write of oneself as a woman in a colonial language is an even greater transgression.3 In Algeria in particular, writers who express themselves in French are met with cultural condemnation and even mortal danger.4 In L’amour, la fantasia (1985) and Ces voix qui m’assiègent (1999), Djebar represents the dangers that she faces for the cultural betrayal of articulating her subjectivity in the French language.5

In these two texts, Djebar shows both the risks of cultural betrayal and the transformative possibilities of such disloyalty through the intertextual recuperation of one of Fromentin’s characters in Une année dans le Sahel, the silent odalisque Haoua, as her autobiographical double.6 Why would Djebar choose to identify with Haoua, a languorous, enigmatic, stereotypical “femme orientale” from the orientalist past, especially when considering interpretations of identification as the “wish to be the other” (Fuss 11)? In Freudian terms, identification is a “psychological process by which an individual assimilates an aspect, a characteristic, or an attribute of another,” in order to transform him or herself (Laplanche and Pontalis 188). As the beginning of a response to the question of why Djebar identifies with Haoua, I argue that through re-rendering this character, Djebar navigates her identity as an Algerian woman writer. Writing out of the restrictive cultural context of Algerian Arabo-Muslim society in which autobiographical writing is not sanctioned, Djebar uses Haoua as an autobiographical deflection to avoid exposing herself to derision and condemnation. Secondly, Djebar rewrites the fictional character of Haoua as a support and legimization for herself as a writer by casting Haoua as a foremother in a lineage of Algerian women writers that includes Djebar herself. Finally, Djebar recuperates this heroine from the colonial past to express her own plural identity and to make known new understandings of intercultural identity that reveal possibilities of transformation and liberation.

One aspect of Djebar’s identification with Haoua appears in a striking scene in L’amour, la fantasia, a text containing myriad ways of veiling its author’s subjectivity, such as doubling, polyphony, and intertextuality. In “Ecritures féminines algériennes,” Simone Rezzoug asserts that Djebar’s use of quotations, including but not limited to multiple voices, and authorial parallels, together with her use of a pseudonym are ways of hiding, conserving anonymity, and also of defending and legitimizing herself. One of Djebar’s masks is her doubling through the figure of Haoua, a phenomenon that occurs explicitly in the closing pages of the text in which she rewrites Fromentin’s fantasia scene in Une année dans le Sahel (1858). In this episode, Haoua is killed by her jealous ex-husband in the course of a fantasia, a series of exercises in which horsemen show their artistic and military prowess.8 Djebar writes:

Dans la gerbe des rumeurs qui s’éparpillent, j’attends, je pressens l’instant immanquable où le coup de sabot à la face renversera toute femme dressée libre, toute vie surgissant au soleil pour danser! Oui, malgré le tumulte des miens alentour, j’entends déjà, avant même qu’il s’élève et transperce le ciel dur, j’entends le cri de la mort dans la fantasia. (LA 256)9

Re-imagining the fantasia scene, Djebar incorporates this mortal spectacle into her own identity and concludes her autobiography with it. Djebar’s evident identification with Haoua occurs in the enunciation of the “je.” In this passage, Djebar writes in the first person, but from the perspective of Haoua. This enunciation in the singular then extends to the collective with the anaphoric phrase “toute femme dressée libre, toute vie surgissant au soleil pour danser” referring to not only Haoua and Djebar before the mortal blow, but also other Algerian women. The autobiographical parallel between Djebar and Haoua then reaches its crescendo in the closing words of the text: “j’entends le cri de la mort dans la fantasia.” Again, the figure of Haoua is superimposed upon Djebar’s “je,” thereby reinforcing Djebar’s identification with Haoua and with other women who put themselves forward, as well as underlining Djebar’s understanding of the dangers of women’s transgression.

A woman’s death by the “coup de sabot à la face” is a recurrent refrain in Djebar’s corpus that is developed further in Ces voix qui m’assiègent, a collection of essays. This motif is found in her discussion of the reception of her first novel, La soif (1956), which was attacked by Maghrebi literary critics as being insouciantly superficial for not treating the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). Djebar states that Algerian women writers suffer attacks such as these from religious fanatics disguised as intellectuals and writes: “je peux dire maintenant que je sais gré à ma distraction naturelle, et sans doute à la rigueur de ma formation intellectuelle, de m’avoir fait éviter instinctivement ‘le coup de sabot à la face.’” (CV 87). Again, Djebar identifies with Haoua here through imagining herself as Haoua during the fantasia scene, facing the mortal “coup de sabot” that has become a metaphor for the critical condemnation of Djebar’s writings.

In the same text, Djebar continues to figure Haoua as her alter-ego by explicitly calling her “ma parente, ma semblable, mon double” (CV 80). Djebar names Haoua her kin, her likeness, and with the strongest of the three terms, her “double.” Throughout this collection of essays, Djebar’s rendition of Haoua continues in this psychological mode and at times approaches the phantasmic. In the following passage, Haoua is described as one of Delacroix’s models come to life:10

Restituée comme un des modèles de Delacroix ressuscité […] Forme réanimée, comme descendue du tableau chef-d’œuvre orientaliste, ou surgie de la réalité silencieuse, voici Haoua peu à peu muée en personnage de fiction, première héroïne d’une littérature francophone que mon pays inspirera à ses amoureux, autant qu’à ses natifs. (CV 219-20)

Described as “restituée,” “ressuscitée,” and “réanimée” in the space of a few sentences, Haoua is recreated as a woman set free. In Djebar’s prose, Haoua, “[u]n des modèles de Delacroix ressuscité” becomes a living, breathing, moving figure. The “forme réanimée” of an Algerian woman character in a French text, Haoua is transformed from a still, painted odalisque figure in 1878 to a “première héroïne” of Francophone literature in 1985, one who will inspire both Algeria’s “amoureux” and her native peoples (CV 220). The clearly positive valence of Djebar’s version of the character serves to legitimize and reinforce Djebar’s identity as an independent writer.

Besides being a double for herself, Haoua is also for Djebar a “devancière:” she is the originator of Algerian women’s literature. Djebar writes: “Peintres voyageurs – moins d’une dizaine en un siècle – ils […] ont vraiment rencontré [Haoua], Eve algérienne pas encore renaissante dans une lumière qui serait celle de la liberté” (CV 81). Djebar plays on the meaning of Haoua’s name, whose Arabic meaning can be “Eve,” the original woman and the mother of all in both Muslim and Judeo-Christian religious traditions, and also the first female lawbreaker who takes from the tree of knowledge.11 Djebar uses this semantic association in Haoua’s name to represent her as the precursor of all women writers in Algeria, including Djebar herself.

In a passage that again highlights Haoua’s groundbreaking qualities, Djebar writes that Haoua is the “[p]remière Algérienne d’une fiction en langue française à aller et venir, oiseusement, première à respirer en marge et à feindre d’ignorer la transgression” (LA 253). As a part of Djebar’s recreation of the past, she points to Fromentin’s character as the first Algerian woman to be represented in a French text. In Ces voix qui m’assiègent, Djebar underscores Haoua’s transgressions, which echo Djebar’s transgressions as a woman writer in French:

Fromentin rencontre Haoua voilée dans la rue, il la suit dans le dédale du quartier arabe; on lui donne rendez-vous le lendemain, à midi. Haoua, veuve d’un premier mari, divorcée d’un second qu’elle a quitté, amie d’une danseuse, Aïchoucha, vit en marginale, statut de ‘femme libre’ qui n’est point celui de la prostituée. (CV 219)

Djebar relates certain facts about the character of Haoua from Fromentin’s text, notably, that she was the pariah of Blidah, a woman of questionable repute, an independent divorcée who received Frenchmen in full knowledge of her community. Fromentin introduces Haoua as an outsider from the outset of Une année dans le Sahel, and throughout the text, Haoua remains suspicious to others and lives in isolation from the rest of the community. Even following her expiation, she is relegated to a separate tent to die, completely rejected by her compatriots. A risk-taker met with disapproval at every turn, Haoua is expelled from the community before, during, and after her death. Like Haoua, Djebar is also an outsider: an Algerian woman who has made the conscious decisions to write about herself and to write in French, and who lives as a result in exile, Djebar is acutely aware of the dangers of her dual cultural betrayal.

Similarities between Djebar and Haoua do not end here. Perhaps the most important aspect of Djebar’s identification with Haoua is that in Djebar’s version of Fromentin’s character, she makes Haoua into a writer. Although there is no scene of Haoua writing in Fromentin’s Une année dans le Sahel, Djebar deliberately envisions her as a writer:

D’une certaine façon, c’est toujours Haoua – la rêveuse, la fugueuse que rencontre vraiment Fromentin à Blidah – qui a décidé d’écrire […] elle se regarde, elle sourit […] puis elle trace à la hâte les premières lignes. Calligraphie d’un appel au secours, ou simplement empreinte des doigts, du cœur que le personnage consent à laisser, avant de mourir… (CV 82)

With the word “toujours,” Djebar implies that Haoua has always been a writer. A few sentences later, Djebar refers to Haoua again as a writer with the term “scripteuse,” an expressly feminized neologism evoking the Latin “scribe” (CV 82). Djebar indicates that Haoua writes in many different ways; “tracer,” “calligraphie,” and “empreinte” denote the activity of writing, but “calligraphie” evokes careful and deliberate markings, whereas a rushed “empreinte” implies haphazard writing. For Djebar, Haoua’s writing is an act of urgency and danger, an “appel au secours.” Djebar focuses concomitantly on the deliberate choice Haoua makes to write and on Haoua’s writing as a cry for help as a way of illustrating the myriad modes of writing available to Algerian women. Most importantly, however, Djebar links Haoua’s writing with desperation, stating explicitly that it can pose the risk of death: “l’écriture est-elle appel pour une naissance ou danger sinon de mort plutôt de disparition?” (CV 80) For Djebar, to write is to place oneself on the brink of liberation or death, a breathless suspension marked with extreme danger and infinite possibility.

Through the image of Haoua the writer, Djebar expresses the possibilities of writing in individual and collective terms. Referring to a lineage of women writers in Algeria, she writes: “Il est vrai que, si je ne veux plus nous inventer Haoua, modèle du peintre, en tête de la procession passée, les devancières ne nous manquent pas” (CV 84). Using Fromentin’s character, Djebar creates a mythic past in which she expresses her solidarity with other Algerian women writers, establishing herself as ancestor—through her identification with Haoua—and descendant in this genealogy, thereby substantiating her place within it.

For Djebar, re-imagining Haoua in this way is thus not only the positive recuperation of a dead heroine in colonial literature, but also a way for Djebar to express a mosaic self-portrait of multiple cultures and influences, and her identification with Haoua in the construction of her autobiographical self reflects one of the elements of her plural identity. In the following passage, Djebar creates a similar imaginary, idyllic past full of possibility. Djebar invents a scene of French-Algerian cultural contact in which Algerian women come to self-knowledge and self-expression for the first time through the gaze of the orientalist painter:

[le modèle du peintre] se pose devant un vrai regard: Delacroix et sa vision inoubliable à Alger “au fond d’un couloir obscur”; Chassériau à Constantine contemplant ces juives autochtones au visage découvert, le hennin sur la tête et les yeux sombres, presque ressuscités d’un Moyen Age français […] Oui, devant ces attentes, ou ces éclairs d’attente, la dame algérienne se met à croire au Royaume, celui-là même où un homme regarde la femme avec la ferveur naïve du soufi contemplant en chaque créature le miracle de Dieu. Devant cette nouveauté-là, l’algérienne pourra rêver au rêve. (CV 81)

Evoking two canonical paintings, Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement and Théodore Chassériau’s Juives au balcon, Djebar envisages a time when nineteenth-century painters truly saw Algerian women and recognized their individuality with “un vrai regard.” In Djebar’s imagination, as a result of this encounter, Algerian women came to self-knowledge and eventually to self-expression for the first time. In this imagined scene of Algerian women’s “coming to writing,” Djebar also foregrounds the syncretic identity of Algerian culture with a mix of references to the Jewish women of Constantine, the medieval “dame” of France, and the Muslim pantheistic philosopher, the sufi. Through Djebar’s perspective, the revelatory mixing of cultures, epochs, and races in Algeria is necessary to create the dreamed-of “nouveauté,” the liberatory beginning of myriad cultural perspectives that results in an open culture of evolution rather than restriction. In Djebar’s imaginary, the dream of liberation and independence of Algerian women can only be achieved in this diverse and inclusive kaleidescoping of cultures. The mutual cultural interiorization reflected in this passage results in a new generation of women of which Djebar is a part. Situated at a cultural crossroads, Djebar’s background and formation as a writer and as a person is also multifaceted. A product of a plurilingual context--arabophone by her society, berberophone by her mother, and francophone by her father’s insistence on French schooling--Djebar is both a reflection and a proponent of this métissage culturel. This mixing of cultural influences breathes new life and liberation into rigid, restrictive cultures and produces a culture of multiplicity in which, according to Djebar, women’s writing is made possible.13

The multiple and complex set of reasons why Djebar chooses to identify with Haoua isintimately linked to Djebar’s approach to and understanding of writing and identity. Facing the risks of cultural betrayal by writing of her inner self in the French language, Djebar uses the figure of Haoua both to dissemble and reveal herself, as well as to represent a mythical genealogy of Algerian women writers who attempt to discover and express their own subjectivity in written language. Haoua’s lineage legitimizes and supports Djebar as an Algerian woman autobiographer who faces the relentless “coup de sabot à la face.” To conclude, I will leave the final words to Djebar:

[…] je ressors de cette exposition du moi en texte publié: ainsi, je me rétracte devant l’exhibition au premier instant risqué; ainsi, glissant dans une nouvelle vulnérabilité qui s’ajoute au risque bien réel du corps de femme, de la main de femme qui écrit sur soi, sur moi, sur nous, je finis par sortir de la mise sous silence; je finis par m’en sortir. (CV 106)

SAGE GOELLNER is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of French and Italian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with an M.A. from the University of Michigan, and is currently completing a dissertation entitled Rewriting the Past: Intertextual Representations in Algerian Francophone Literature while teaching at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI.


1   The phrase “une préparation à une autobiographie” is from Mildred Mortimer’s 1985 interview with Assia Djebar, “Entretien avec Assia Djebar, écrivain algérien,” p. 203. Indeed, when describing L’amour, la fantasia as an autobiography, many people have used qualifiers. Hédi Abdel-Jouad calls the work “une autobiographie au pluriel” and Djebar also refers to the text as an “autobiographie double.” See Abdel-Jouad, p. 25, and Djebar’s speech for the 2000 Peace Prize in Germany, “Idiome de l’exil et langue d’irréductibilité.”

2   Djebar characterizes the French language as “la langue adverse” in a 1985 interview with Marguerite Le Clézio. See Le Clézio.

3   Sherif Hetata states that, “The reluctance to reveal one’s self is particularly powerful in the Arab region. […] The author’s self remains carefully hidden. The self, the inner, secret self, is something a man (or a woman) in our region does not write about.” See Hetata, “The Self and Autobiography,” p. 124. Mildred Mortimer also adds that Djebar “comes to autobiography fully aware that subjectivity in life and fiction are transgressions in Algerian culture…Islamic culture is bound to the non-dire, or unspoken, in other words, to silence; it prohibits personal disclosure. ” See Mortimer, “Assia Djebar’s Algerian Quartet: A Study in Fragmented Autobiography,” p. 102.

4   Djebar’s Le blanc de l’Algérie (1995) is a memoir that describes Algeria’s recent history and the deaths of three of Djebar’s close friends, French-educated intellectuals who were assassinated in 1993 during the Muslim Brotherhood’s campaign against such figures. The book extends to a liturgy for the many Algerian journalists, novelists, poets, and teachers who died in accident, illness, or assassination between 1960 and 1994.

5   Djebar herself shows her awareness of these risks when rhetorically asking in an interview, “Qu’est-ce que c’est dans une culture arabe, qu’une femme qui écrit?” and replying, “C’est un scandale.” See Zimra.

6   Originally named “Zorr,” Haoua was a character first represented in writing by Armand du Mesnil, Fromentin’s traveling companion during his journeys to Algeria. The question remains whether Fromentin really meet a woman upon whom the character of Haoua was based. Barbara Wright speculates that Haoua could have been based on an amalgam of many Algerian women. See Wright, p. 306.

7   Assia Djebar’s real name is Fatima-Zohra Imalayène; this pseudonym creates a contradiction in terms: “Djebar” means “intransigence,” and “Assia” means “reconciliation.” See Rezzoug, p. 88.

8   Fromentin saw his first fantasia in 1848, and the maneuvers, movements and colors of the costumes were great inspiration to him and became subjects of many of his paintings. See Wright, p. 198.

9   I use the abbreviations LA for L’amour, la fantasia and CV for Ces voix qui m’assiègent.

10   See Djebar’s postface to Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement for another discussion of Delacroix’s painting.

11   Hawa means “Eve, wife of Adam, mother of mankind.” See Ahmed, p. 265.

12   In this way, Djebar echoes Sartre’s ideas on individual existence as a result of the gaze of the other. See Jean-Paul Sartre, “L’être pour autrui,” in L’être et le néant, essai d’ontologie phénoménologique.

13   See Clerc, pp. 67-68, and Bhabha’s discussion of hybridity in “How Newness Enters the World” in The Location of Culture, pp. 212-36.


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