First Novels, 1957 - 1967
Cinema, 1978 - 1982
Novels, 1980 - 1995
Violent Algeria, 1990's
Novels, 1995 - present
Women in Islam
On Assia Djebar
University Studies

« Sitting by the side of the road, in the dust »


From Assia Djebar’s autographical essays Voices That Besiege Me,
translated from the French by Chris Miller



Desert, or solitude, of which, I think, every new beginning partakes: suddenly to start writing – too young, I expect – during the Algerian war (the other one, the war of my twenties); and what is more, not nationalist essays, no lyrical or polemical profession of faith (this was the kind of witness expected of me), no, but novels, which seemed gratuitous, and which I considered a form of verbal architecture. To me they brought, along with the pleasure of their conception, the parenthesis of a few months; a change, in short, from my seriousness of the time, that of a student algérienne, and later from the silences of a woman in exile.

            In this way I entered literature, through the sheer joy of invention, of opening out around me – I was outwardly rather constrained, in company, because of my Muslim upbringing – a space leavened by the imagination, a breath of pure oxygen…

            While I sketched out the beginning of my writer’s life, Algerian literature flowered in the shadow of a quartet of elders: Feraoun, Mammeri, Dib and Kateb…


“Sitting by the side of the road, in the dust…”

            All the same, this is how I would have liked to begin: to recall the moment when I felt that I – witness, gaze, or scribe – might, in the world outside, be truly commingled with my folk, “my own” – tribes, fractions, generations dead and alive of my far-off land (in short, “my nation”; rather, my community of origin) – yes, be mingled and lost among them and imagine that I might leave some trace… for them, for us.

            To write, not exactly at first onset: to grow wakeful above all by looking – a wholly neuter gaze, neither man nor woman’s, rather that of a woman bursting forth into the sunlight – a voracious gaze…

            I remember… I had just turned forty (at the time, I would sing out, insolently – in a society where at forty you are marrying off your eldest sons, where you settle into the respectability of matriarchy) – forty, for me, was being twenty a second time round!

              The first day we went out on location in a Jeep with two or three technicians (the young director of photography was thrilled to be working with me and kept saying so; he died suddenly, a month later, and I had to attend his funeral). That first day, then, in the Jeep, we had decided above all to get as high as possible into the mountains of my youth, beyond “the Roman road”, on tracks, higher again, through path and ravine…. Thus, in these strolling days of my first summer as a film-maker, I was fascinated by a recurring detail: everywhere, on the roads, men and women, peasants of all ages, and the women, old, for the most part, though all muffled up, sat cross-legged on the edge of the ditch, in the dust, to wait. For a coach, a cart, a man driving an ass. Eventually they got up and left, each in turn. But not always the old women, with whom I quickly learned to sit and converse, to settle down in the white dust and wait… well, we simply went on looking – in short, passing the time.

            “Sitting by the side of the road, in the dust” seemed to me, in those early days, a veritable treat. I sent the assistant and the cameraman off to the nearest village: to find out where to stay the night, undertake the various administrative formalities, they were fidgety, they wanted to make themselves useful all the time. Leaving me on my own, finally, sitting by the ditch, becoming acquainted with a group of farmer or seasonal workers (they were on their way to or from market); better, beside a woman sitting on her haunches, her head and shoulders half-veiled; next to her a grandmother began to complain about her son in the neighbouring village (“He shuts his wife up,” she said, “that’s all very well, but he’s not keeping his mother under lock and key!”), and she laughed. That was how she conceived life: basking in the sun, watching the theatre of the road. I came to a halt, by her side, for an hour or two.

            “Sitting on the road then”, on the bare ground, I think that I experienced the rarest of joys: anonymously looking on; even, as I was, wearing jeans; to life one knee, place my elbow on my leg, as they did, and forget time as I contemplated the procession of passers-by, fellahs, mule-drivers, a few bicycles…


            Thus at forty, I rediscovered the peasant world of my early childhood. With the status not of voyeuse but of androgyne, believing (or allowing myself to believe) that I was miraculously positioned on the invisible line that separates the sexes, here in this segregated country.