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


Ombre sultane

Reviews from US



Katherine Gracki, “The Algerian Quartet, the Blood of Writing” World Literature Today, 70 (Autumn 1996), p. 839:

In the opening pages of A Sister, which serve as a prologue to Hajila’s and Isma’s stories, Djebar inscribes the Hajila-Isma duo into the mythic frame story of A Thousand and One Nuits.


Their modern story becomes mythic as well, since it transcends the particular context within which it is set:


Isma, Hajila: an arabesque of intertwining names. Which of the two is the shadow who will become the sultan’s bride? Which one is the bride at dawn, only to dissolve into a shadow before noon?”


The indeterminacy of their identities will ultimately become a powerful tool against a patriarchal order which pits women against each other as rivals in order to divide and conquer.  …


Despite her apparent liberated ways, Isma participates in, and is complicitous with, the seraglio structure when she selects a wife for her husband. […]


… Isma’s initial complicity with the seraglio structure must be explored, since its tragic consequences are inscribed on Hajila’s raped and beaten body. At the beginning of A Sister, Hajila is not assured of Dinarzade and Scheherazade’s complicity, since she has no sister to protect her when she is sent to the master’s bed. […]


In the third part of A Sister, titled “La Sultane regarde” (“The Queen Guards Over”), Isma is haunted by the realization that women have always turned against one another, and she begins to understand how this rivalry is perpetuated by mothers like Touma (Hajila’s mother):


Now, the mothers keep guard and have no need of the policeman’s badge. The seraglio has been emptied, but is noxious emanations have invaded everything. Fear is transmitted from generation to generation. The matriarchs swaddle heir little girls in their own insidious anguish, before they even reach puberty. Mother and daughter, O harem restored!” (p. 145)


With the realization that Touma perpetuates the seraglio structure by imprisoning her daughter, Isma recognizes that she too has participated in this seraglio structure. She knows she has failed her sister Hajila by not watching protectively over her like Dinarzade watched over Scheherazade. Isma’s feminist awakening prompts her to invite Hajila to the hammam, where Isma will consummate their sisterhood and commitment to solidarity by giving Hajila the key to leave her prison at the end of A Sister.”  ….


Sonia Lee, Département de langues modernes, Trinity College, Connecticut

« Résumés : Préfaces pour un féminisme Africain 1ère partie »


Shéhérazade et ses sœurs ou le harem éclaté :

remarques sur la sororité comme moyen de subversion chez Assia Djebar et Mariam Bâ


Dans son roman, Ombre sultane, Assia Djebar souligne que Shéhérazade, la conteuse qui déjoua la mort et la cruauté du sultan par la force vive de sa parole, n’aurait pas survécu sans l’aide de sa sœur. Ainsi la narratrice du texte, Isma, conteuse des temps modernes porte secours à Hajila, sa co-épouse en l’aidant à s’évader de l’espace clos et interdit du harem. De même, dans Une si longue lettre de Mariama Bâ, l’héroïne Ramatoulaye subvertit l’ordre patriarcal et se conçoit une nouvelle vie à l’aide du discours qu’elle tient à son amie d’enfance dont le soutien lui est vital. A travers leurs œuvres, ces deux écrivaines musulmanes entreprennent de démanteler la loi du père pour y substituer celle de la sororité.


Anne Donadey, “Assia Djebar’s Poetics of Subversion” in Post-colonial Women’s Writing issue, L’esprit créateur, Summer 1993, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2: 108-117.


[…] L’Amour, la fantasia, […] was announced as the first novel of a projected quartet. The second volume, Ombre sultane, appeared in 1987. In Ombre Sultane, Djebar has in no way created a sequel to her 1985 text which brought together history and autobiography. In L’Amour, la fantasia, the unnamed female narrator returns to a double past, individual and collective. […] Ombre sultane explores the complex issue of women’s situation in contemporary Algeria, by centering on the characters of two co-wives, the “liberated” Isma (cast as narrator) and the more “traditional” Hajila (addressed by Isma). The unity between the two novels is not to be found at the level of the plot, but rather at the structural and thematic levels, as exemplified in Djebar’s use of epigraphs.


Both of Djebar’s novels follow a tripartite structure, and are framed by a complex system of epigraphs and short, lyrical passages in italics. Each novel opens with a general epigraph, in both cases a quotation from a painter (Eugène de Fromentin in L’Amour, la fantasia, Pierre Bonnard in Ombre sultane). Each of the three parts is in turn preceded by one or two quotations: in parts one and three, Djebar uses Western authors; in parts two, Arabic ones (the famous historian Ibn Khaldoun in the first book of the quartet, and the archtext of Arabic literary tradition, the Arabian Nights, in the second one).


By thus moving from Western (French) to Arabic and seemingly back to Western sources, Djebar is establishing a pattern of dichotomization which she immediately subverts at several levels. For instance, in the first parts of both novels, she alternates chapters in counterpoint: in L’amour, la fantasia, historical and personal chapters; in Ombre sultane, chapters on Hajila and on Isma, the former written in the dialogic “tu”, the latter in the personal “je.” However, this strict compartmentalization is subverted in both novels through the recurrence of similar vocabulary in the paired chapters, and in Ombre sultane by the meeting of second and first persons at the end of chapter 6, repeated in chapter 13. The lives of the seemingly radically different women come to mingle.


Similarly, the opposition established between Western and Arabic quotations is destabilized in the third part of both books. In L’Amour, la fantasia, one of the two epigraphs opening part three is by Saint-Augustine, who can be said to belong to both traditions: he was a Father of the (Catholic) Church and he founded the tradition of Western autobiography. As Djebar herself point out in L’Amour, la fantasia, he was also an Algerian who wrote his autobiography in a language other than his own, the language of the dominant power of the time (241-2). In the third part of Ombre sultane, the excerpt from Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales reminds the reader of the tale of The Arabian Nights: “La sultane regarde” (Ombre sultane, 151).


Fromentin’s quotation (from his Algerian travelogue Une année dans le Sahal) provides the opening as well as the conclusion of L’Amour, la fantasia, “Il y eut un cri déchirant – je l’entends encore au moment où je t’écris –, puis des clameurs, puis un tumulte » (Amour, 7). At the end of Ombre sultane, a post-scriptum identifies a quotation used in italics in the text a few pages earlier: the same quotation by Fromentin that was used to open L’Amour, la fantasia is now used to close Ombre sultane. However, the quotation (as well as the title of Fromentin’s book) is slightly altered. Through the repeated use of Fromentin’s sentence, Djebar creates a common thread, a reverberation, between the two novels, using in Ombre sultane echoes of the main intertext of L’Amour, la fantasia.”

(p. 107-109) […]



In grounding her text in the works of others before her, Djebar inscribes herself in a long Arabic, even Quranic, tradition in which one must quote someone else in order to support an assertion, to legitimize one’s report. […]


Djebar’s slight alteration of Fromentin’s words reflects a desire to remain true to the (oral) spirit of the quotation while going beyond the constraints of its (written) letter. She grounds her written texts in the oral tradition and by creating variations on the written quotations she employs. Thus, when using Fromentin’s sentence as an epigraph, she quotes it word for word; but when incorporating his words into her own text, she appropriates them by alterating them, “Un grand cri s’éléva (je l’entends encore au moment où je t’écris), puis une clamour, puis un tumulte…” The marginal changes, together with the variation in the title which she quotes as being Une année au Sahel, seem to point to the workings of memory and oral transmission. Djebar inscribes orality within her very choice of citations. Thus, at the same time as she is using other texts, she reveals their oral origin, foregrounding the orality of writing and deconstructing yet another dichotomy. (110) […]


Djebar makes use of this strategy in both L’Amour, la fantasia and Ombre sultane, reappropriating and subverting not only the discourse of (Western and Arabic) patriarchy about women, but also the discourse of colonialist imperialism about the Algerians – thereby creating an original form of female Algerian mimicry. (p. 111) […]


Djebar’s use of mimicry is perhaps closer to what Barbara Harlow, using Elias Khouri’s formulation, calls mu’aradah, or resistance, than to Bhabha’s concept of mimcry. Mu’aradah “is also the designation given to a classical Arabic form, according to which one person will write a poem and another will retaliate by writing along the same lines but reversing the meaning” (Harlow, 24). Like Djebar’s text, mu’aradah is essentially dialogical (the verb “retaliate” indicating that violence is part of the dialogue), and is expressed by a writing which is inscribed through orality (since poems are written but also meant to be recited or read aloud).” (p. 112)