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Women in Islam
On Assia Djebar
University Studies

Women of Algiers in Their Apartment

American & English reviews


Assia Djebar. Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Marjolijn de Jager, tr. Clarisse Zimra, afterword. Charlottesville. University Press of Virginia. 1992. 211 pages.

Review in World Literature Today, Summer 1993.


Assia Djebar (b. 1936) has long been recognized in the French-speaking world for four early novels, films, and translations produced during a stay in Algeria (see WLT 64 :1, p. 40), and now for a new series of novels, Quartet, becoming available in English. In 1980, between the sets of novels, she published a small collection of short stories, Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement, now translated and enhanced by new stories, the critical essays « Overture » and « Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound », an interpretive essay and interview by Clarisse Zimra, a glossary, and a list of works. Djebar divides the collection into « Today » and « Yesterday » and laments that the intervening war, which allowed freedom to act for their country, immediately afterword superimposed the old traditional customs and thus re-created the « seraglio » in « the new wasteland : the law of invisibility, the law of silence. »


Part I includes a long story about a French woman and an Algerian woman – both wartime activitists who unite to protect a downtrodden water carrier. A very short story affirms women’s sexuality, denied in a traditional marriage but briefly alive in a casual encounter. Part 2 includes four interrelated stories of women’s lives, from powerful mountain dynasties of matriarchial domination over young women, through guile and superstition, to present ignominies of modern urban life. The addition of the new postwar stories makes even more poignant the portrayals of traumatized Algerian women, in prison, in exile. Ever a linguist as well as historian, Djebar laments also the loss of the women’s ancient ballads, epics retained only in the voices of the illiterate singrs, « forgotten women » who « developed irreplaceable frescoes… and have thus woven a sense of history, » now to be lost, their sound severed, their hearers again behind the veil, forbidden to gaze upon a world outside.



Charlotte H. Bruner, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, American Library Association, 1993:

As the title and the front cover’s reproduction of Delacroix’s painting of 1832 showing Algerian women in a harem imply, the stories contained in the volume focus on the status of the female in pre- and post-colonial Algeria. It is useless to wrangle over whether these are short stories or not ; perhaps they are better described as portrayals or vignettes that give us a vivid and poignant picture of what goes on behind the veils imposed by Algeria’s Islamic society. Delacroix gained access through a corrupt colonial official, but Djebar is an Algerian woman whose lived experience and acute observations give particular force to her writings. The lengthy « Postface, » « Glossary, » and « Afterword, » constituting almost half the book, are as interesting as the stories themselves and recount the life and impressive work of the author in terms as fascinating as the vignettes. Djebar exemplifies the creative woman’s dilemma and her work will be of interest to the general reader as well as the specialist. – H. Harter, emeritus, Ohio Wesleyan University


Laurence Huughe, World Literature Today, Special edition Assia Djebar, p. 871:

In the “Overture” to the collection, Djebar compares her practice to that of a water dowser and her work to  journey of listening. In the title story, Sarah, constantly wondering how to get close to her Algerian compatriots, dreams of the ideal encounter among women:


A woman speaking in front of another one who’s watching; does the one who’s speaking tell the story of the other one with the devouring eyes, with the black memories…? She who watches, is it by means of listening, of listening and remembering that she ends up seeing herself, with her own eyes, unveiled at last?


Finally, Sarah’s occupation which consists of transcribing traditional Algerian songs in danger of being forgotten, alludes to Djebar’s own work as a filmmaker focused on listening. In Women of Algiers in Their Apartment we thus “hear” various feminine voices relate the past and present realities of their lives as Algerians. This fictional space of polyphony is not unlike the space of the hammam described at length in the title story as inhabited by a multitude of sounds. The colliding basins that “punctuate the air” with their “deep sound”, the “constant whining of the children”, the “liquid murmuring” of the water, all mix with the murmur of the bathers’ voices; the “hoarse sighs” of the women being massaged blend in with the “voiceless music and the words that seek each other out”.


Sarah hears the mournful plaints of an anonymous contralto voice, the monologue of an unfamiliar woman, the conversation of her friend Baya, laughter and moaning, the “gentle” trifling, worn-out words that slid off with the water…; in the back, a brouhaha of interwoven voices. The whispering about troubles continues “once the pores of the skin are thoroughly open.” Finally, Sarah listens to the silence of “other women, mute [who] stare at each other across the steam” (32).”


Qadri Ismail, “Veil of Tears, Algerian Women Fight the Purdah”:

The fact that Algerian women, many of whom played heroic roles during the revolution, couldn’t  dance publicly when it was over is amply illustrated in Assia Djebar’s collection of stories, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Anyone into postcolonial fiction won’t find better alternativs, even on a sunny day, than reading Djebar. Her novel Fantasia (Quartet), first part of the projected « Algerian Quartet », explodes official history. Most narratives of national liberation present the experience of men as that of the nation. What might such a history look like, this all to rare novel asks, if examined from the other side ?


Women of Algiers collects three brilliant longer stories, three good short ones, a theoretical postface, and an afterword by Clarisse Zimra. Written between 1958 and 1978, these pieces are located in an almost exclusively female and domestic – « restricted » – setting. The first thing a woman learns, Djebar suggests, is to stay in her place.


In an « Overture », Djebar calls these stories « a listening in, » and situates herself as spy-cum-interpreter of other women’s experiences. A writer in French, she’s listening to people speaking Arabic, people whose world does not overlap with hers. This stance also highlights a different point : that, denied a public and published history, « never having appeared in the sunlight », women have only word of mouth to keep their stories alive.


Many women, seated, lying down, or ill – that is, in passive positions – tell their tales in Women of Algiers. In the title story we meet a masseuse, married off at 13 to a drunken soldier, who fled him, became a prostitute and, when too old to turn tricks, worked at the baths ; we meet Leila, the revolutionary heroine, who seeks refuge in narcotics because there isn’t room for her in postcolonial Algeria.


Sarah, the story’s protagonist, sees their talk and hers as a weapon : « For Arabic women I see only one single way to unblock everything ; talk, talk without stopping, about yesterday and today, talk among ourselves… Not the voice of female vocalists whom they imprison in their sugar-sweet melodies… But the voice they’ve never heard, because many unknown and new things will occur before she’s able to sing. »


Review Women of Algiers in their Apartment, TLS May 14, 1993:

Women of Algiers in their Apartment is a collection of stories which was first published in French in 1980 by Editions Femmes in Paris. The introduction explains that the stories, written at intervals between 1958 and 1978, are an exercise in listening; in catching the « whispered discourse » of women among themselves. The women of Algiers have for centuries lived in the shadows, within the walls of their apartments, conversing in whispers « because of the eye through the peephole ». But modern women, who have been allowed to move about in the city, are also not free of the « peephole ».


A short piece, « A day of Ramadan », written in 1966, shows how little has changed in the life of women since the War of Independance. The girl who has defiantly celebrated Ramadan in a French jail is now marking it in another prison: a household of women. Delacroix’s famous oriental painting of the harem gives its name to the collection. The « afterword » by Clarisse Zimra provides information on the author together with an interview.



Book Report « New Literature from Europe » Book World, April 26, 1998

By David Streitfeld

In March, when it was France’s turn, the writer was Assia Djebar, a native of Algeria who is now teaching in Louisiana. « I cohabit with the French language: I may quarrel with it, I have bursts of affection, I may subside into sudden or angry silences – these are the normal occurrences in the life of any couple, » she read in French. But she got married to the French language too early, and simultaneously regrets and is suspicious of the Arabic she left behind:


« The Arab poet describes the body of his beloved ; the Andalusian exquisite composes treatise after treatise, listing a multiplicity of exotic postures : the Muslim mystic, dressed in woolen rags and satisfied with a handful of dates, expresses his thirst for God and his longing for the hereafter with a surfeit of extravagant epithets… The prodigality of this language seems to me somewhat suspect, consoling with empty words. »


The most accessible of Djebar’s three books in this country is Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, a collection of short fiction published in 1992 and, due to the patience of the University Press of Virginia, still available. Here Djebar examines the plight of Algerian women, and how language lends itself to acts of oppression. Official Arabic, she writes, is « an authoritarian language that is simultaneously the language of men. »


Would she, someone asked during the Q&A, be tackling in fictional form the nightmare that is Algeria today?


She thought not. « That », she said, « would take a Dostoyevsky. »


Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, Cahners Publishing company 1992

Publishers Weekly September 28, 1992 v 239 n 42 p. 66

Like the 19th century Delacroix paintings of harem women from which it takes its title, this collection of six stories and an essay – published in 1980 in French – depicts moments in the lives of Algerian women. More than a century after Delacroix, and three decades after Algeria won its political independence from France, these Muslim women are still cultural prisoners. In the long title story, Sarah is only one of many characters straddling past and present: scarred from years of torture and prison, now married (to a man she chose herself) and making a documentary about Algiers, she still goes to the Turkish baths and participates in the old rituals. Like her creator, she can “see only one single way to unblock everything: talk, talk without stopping…” The author of seven novels and the scripts for two films, Djebar records the talk: “Fragmented, remembered, reconstituted conversations… Fictitious accounts… uttered from lips beneath a mask.” Even in translation the prose can be vividly pictorial as well as poetic, but it also tends to be opaque, and – aside from those of one or two shorter pieces – the story lines hard to follow. In an essay and interview with Djebar, Zimra provides biographical information and also conveys Djebar’s intense personal voice.


From the Critics, Barnes & Noble.com – Women of Algiers in Their Apartment

From Tadri Ismail

{This volume} collects three brilliant longer stories, three good short ones, a theoretical postface, and an afterword by Clarisse Zimra… These pieces are located in an almost exclusively female and domestic – ‘restricted’ – setting. The first thing a woman learns, Djebar suggests, is to stay in her place… The unknown and new things heralded here include women forming community, without which they can not sing, or dance… In her long and useful afterword, Clarisse Zimra says Djebar’s “regressive” feminism has been criticized as uninspiring. Read in the precarious context of contemporary Algerian women, Djebar’s pessimism doesn’t seem in the least out of place.


From Library Journal

The subjects of the title – after the painting of the same name by Delacroix depicting a 19th century Algerian harem scene – have witnessed little change in their status during the century separating the two works. The post-colonial culture and political order have alienated women and perpetuated the male-dominated society in spite of the active role Algerian women played during the struggle for independence. Stories like “There is no exile” and “The Dead Speak” reflect how women of Algiers and elsewhere in Muslim countries have been taken in. Though denounced in Algeria for some time because of its criticism of the social and political establishment, this collective, written in French between 1959 and 1978, has had a great success in France and Italy. – Ali Houissa, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY


Customer review, “Dalila” April 5, 1999

When I started reading this fabulous book, my first reaction was “Why didn’t I read it when I was back home?” But the answer was easy, the book was not accessible and even if I read it then, I wouldn’t have understood it or appreciated it as I do now… I was 12 when I read Les enfants du nouveau monde, and it took me awhile to get into the book because at that age, as most young Algerian women, I was not allowed to have an inquisitive mind. After that first book, I started searching for all of Assia’s books and I have been reading them since then,… I love her style and her true portraits of an Algerian person’s life… Assia’s characters are alive in today’s life and will always remain so.


Gayatri Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts and Circomfession” Postcolonialisme & Autobiographie, p. 19.

“Here is Assia Djebar, in « Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound. » First, the description of colonial “envy” and the slow freezing of gender relations.


Around [a] feminine drifting away, the dispossessed man’s haunting feeling of paranoia crystallized… In Algeria, it was precisely when the foreign intrusion began in 1830 – … that a gradual freezing up of indoor communication accompanied the parallel progressive cathexis of material space … between the generations, and even more, between the sexes.


In this situation, the only figure, demonized and neutralized, that can be endowed with the gaze, is that of the mother, so that the sons can enable themselves for ritual reparation within a general situation of envy. If Nietzche and Derrida wanted to catch individual life by figuring the mother, Djebar’s description of the dystopic figuration of the moment of birth, the patriarchal transfiguration of the mother into repressive moral law rather than feminine accountability toward justice, as agent of responsibility, is indeed an account of the colonial and postcolonial.”