Oran, langue morte, Actes Sud, 1997
Excerpt Postface & English Reviews (Canada, UK, US)
The Tongue’s Blood doesn’t run dry
Blood does not dry up: it is simply extinguished.
Assia Djebar, Vaste est la prison
This is a story of women of the Algerian darkness, the “new women of contemporary Algiers.”
Bits and pieces of life brought back, related in the goings and comings of female travellers, passengers – in a relay station, an overnight lodging where they catch their breath, and remember. Stages not of flight, but of mobility; dialogues exchanged between Algerian women from here and there. Abruptly, patches of life are illumined, and collapse: images then of pursuit, flight, death. And sometimes also of hope, in this long night.
Story after long story that skirts along and punctuates the everyday: the episodes, like gray or black pearls, unroll by fits and starts. The storyteller dreams, drifts away.
Women become victims for their knowledge, their profession, or their solidarity – with each story, the anxiety bites harder. The story continues from one resting place to the next, from trial to affliction, to deception, to repressed starts or wrongs endured without protest…. The story, not the silence nor the submission, like black peat; the words, despite everything, establish some order, along with the rage, the bitter pain, and the drop of light to be found in the ink of fear. At times, death is unmasked: and its grin suddenly disappears….
What do they expect, all the women there – young and old, going to work: at the school, the hospital, the office or just going to the market to buy groceries. They go with their hearts in knots, teeth clenching the rag of white or black fabric that masks their faces, many of them without anything on their heads, hair blowing in the wind, eyes defying the danger.
I, who wished to sketch their silhouettes here, perpetuate their walks, keep them outside, if need by despite a blackened sun, I dream for them, I remember “in” them.
For the most part, they think themselves neither heroines nor victims. They quiver, veiled or not, shackled or venturesome in spite of the dangers. They live: just before the fatal blow falls on a son, a brother, or on their own bodies.
Sometimes I tell myself: “You seize them from afar, slip as close as you can to their bodies, their hearts as you write them down! …” What good is it to write them down, it matters little to them – the one who dies, or the one who seeks asylum, and shrivels up, or the one who chooses silence, eyes lowered to survive?
After all, whatever approach is used to depict them trembling, the blood – their blood – will not dry on the tongue, no matter what tongue, or rhythm, or words are finally chosen.
For reality (Algerian reality, in my case) only sends me, in flashes, mutilated bodies, faces twisted by long minutes in the wind of terror, strangers – some murderous and some contused – glimpsed on the edges of the forests of Ouarsenis, and some I know who had hardly put themselves back together these last thirty years before they are set fire to with napalm! Algeria, you are a funeral mask against a backdrop of fire… .
Suddenly, I think of the writer Francis Ponge – “the master of still life in poetry,” as Michel Butor called him – during the years of the German occupation, when he was “holed up” as they say, a refugee with his family in the center of France. He started to write in 1942… about soap: “We were,” he remembers, “in the midst of the war, that is to say, facing all kinds of shortages and rationing, and soap, real soap, was something we needed. Perhaps that was one of the unconscious reasons for what must be called my “inspiration by soap”!
Ponge sent his text about soap to Camus, at the Gallimard publishing house, and Camus wrote back:
“As for the soap, your meaning is a little unclear to me… . Perhaps there is too much ellipsis!”
Later, “soap” would become a radio play “for German ears,” and only in 1967 a published book. One of the characters exclaims, in 1942, in the midst of those leaden years,
“For the intellect’s ablutions, a little bit of soap! Well wielded, it suffices.
Torrents of plain water cannot remove the dirt from anything. Nor can
silence. Nor your suicide in the blackest water, oh absolute reader!”
So Francis Ponge could find only the “dry tongue of soap” for “the intellect’s ablutions.” It happens that the poet came to Algeria after 1945, before the “Algerian war.”
One day, near Blida, contemplating sunset on the Mitidja, near the first of the Atlas mountains, he looked for words to describe a pink color, “a fiery, intense, slightly violet pink…” in the sky. He searched and searched for the word that would be adequate:
“I felt it was a pink that resembled the pink color of Algerian women’s
ankles. That is one of the only bits of their skin you can see.”
So, out of all the wrapped body of an Algerian woman outside (he noted about the veil that covers her body and almost her face: “A single eye uncovered, but it is in the depths of the veil!”), Francis Ponge, the first and undoubtedly the only stranger to gaze upon the phantom-woman in the open exactly as men of her country do, starts with her ankles, “one of the only bits of flesh, that every male in an Arab street can recognize her in all her singularity as she passes, engulfed in anonymity.
So it was in Algeria that the will to try and define, as precisely as possible, the pink of the sky at sunset, led Ponge to coin the expression, “scoundrel pink”, referring to the color of veiled Algerian women’s ankles.
By the acuity of his gaze, he mined, purified and shaped his native tongue, wherever he was in the miscellany and darkness of the real. He concluded: “The mute world is my country!”
On the subject of Algeria, and following his example, “the mute world” for me would mean not only the world of things (shrimps, oranges, figs…) but also, for generations, the world of women, masked, prevented from seeing or being seen, treated as “things.”
In all the present torment and drift, women are looking for a language: a tongue in which they might deposit, hide, nidify their power of rebellion and life in these uncertain surroundings.
“In which torrents of plain water cannot remove the dirt from anything,” as Ponge said in Soap. And I shall borrow from this text, to palliate the inadequacy of mine, these words which conceal, out of modesty, the French poet’s fiery bitterness:
“Neither can silence. Nor your suicide in the blackest water, oh absolute
Translated from French by Jeff Humphries, copyright 1998.
Janice Valls-Russell, “Moreover in anger and bewilderment” On Oran, langue morte
The Economist, January 17, 1998:
Reliable facts from Algeria are scarce. But fiction published by Algerians in the past 12 months sheds light on their country’s torment.
The severed head on the desk talks on. As blood stains her golden-red hair, the murdered teacher rounds off the tale from the “Arabian Nights” that only minutes before she was discussing with her pupils: “Night, it is night every day, a thousand and one days, here, at home, in…” The voice fades before it can say, “Algeria”.
The scene sounds lurid to the point of melodrama. But it is fiction steeped in the realities of present-day Algeria, as Assia Djebar sadly remarks in an afterword to “Oran, langue morte” (Actes Sud, 1997), a collection of her recent short stories from which the scene above comes. In the first two weeks alone of Ramadan, the fasting month which began on December 30th, more than 1,000 Algerians are reported to have died in murderous attacks on towns and villages. As henchmen, fanatics or avengers destroy factories, set off bombs in cities and cut villagers’ throats, powerless but talented Algerians are attempting to redeem something from this horror by bearing witness to it in fiction. […]
Gone is the self-censorship that many Algerian authors chose for themselves after independence from France in 1962. There is nothing proud nor patriotic about silence any more. Everything will out – disillusionment, frustrations, hate, desire, love, all to a backcloth of vivid settings, be it lush coastland or barren hill country. An Algeria that was or might be has never been so lovingly described or seemed so beautiful, even in crowded cities where rats and cockroaches infest the tenements.
Frank and direct as these novelists are, their work circulates only with difficulty in their own country, if at all. Though the writers mentioned here are all Algerian, they write or are published in French. The Algerian authorities control printing presses. So authors in Algeria must find publishers abroad if their writing is irksome for the army or government, as at present it can scarcely avoid being. For the shared assumption of all these writers is that, whatever its roots and whoever the killers, the violence is homegrown and not a colonial leftover – a decisive change of attitude from the heroic fiction of independence.
To stay or to go
Not that these novels are manifestos or reportage. Play on language provides narrative ploys – to erotic effect in Ms. Djebar’s Les Nuits de Strasbourg (Actes Sud, 1997), when an Algerian woman discovers the art of love-making, in French, with a man from Alsace. This elegant story about the passing of time is also about the building of bridges – cultural and emotional – in which the main character, at the heart of a cosmopolitan cast, is the city of Strasbourg. The action stops in 1989 and Oran, langue morte (Actes Sud, 1997), which Ms Djebar wrote while working on Les Nuits de Strasbourg, reads almost as a grim sequel.