KVINFO/14.6.2007 Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to deliver this speech in honour of Assia Djebar, the Algerian author who is about to receive this year’s ALOA prize for her novel The Sister (original French title: Ombre sultane, in Danish Shahrazads søster). The novel was published in Danish last year as the first of four novels in her Algerian Quartet.
Assia Djebar writes in French, she has been translated into some 20 languages and lives and works in Paris and in New York, where she is professor of French and Francophone literature at New York University. Last year Assia Djebar became the first Muslim, and only the fourth woman ever to enter the French Academy. Many years ago she was likewise the first Algerian woman to enter the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris in 1955. When, two years later in 1957, she published her first novel La Soif, she was described as the Algerian Francoise Sagan.
Let me be quite honest with you: The fact is that I was not familiar with Assia Djebar’s writing before today’s prize novel was published here in Denmark last year. But once I had read her fascinating novel The Sister from 1987, wonderfully translated into Danish by Nina Gross, I was convinced of the importance and great significance of her writing. On rereading The Sister and reflecting on my own immediate fascination with it, I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s definition of the novel in her essay “A room of one’s own”, where she states that in the novel “life conflicts with something that is not life”.
The aesthetic dimension of Assia Djebar’s dreamy and rhythmic prose overwhelms from the very first sentence of Shahrazads søster. You are tempted merely to read the words and the sentences and to surrender to the sound and rhythm of the text itself. But in spite of the temptation simply to enjoy the beauty of the words, this turns out to be impossible. The story itself is so forceful that it overpowers your aesthetic fascination. The story that is told provides both insight and knowledge to any reader who wants to understand about the lives and conditions of Muslim women living in traditional patriarchal cultures. When reading you are soon forced to forget about anything else but the page turning plot.
I have read somewhere that Assia Djebar rejects theory as a source of inspiration to her writing because theory, and I quote “… isn’t what you write from, you write from human experience”. I assure you that as a reader you instantly recognize the influence of human experience in her writing. Not only that, but you are also filled with feelings of optimism and hope that it is in fact possible for people to overcome and rid themselves of the heritage and burden of ancient repression. Change is possible.
The novel The Sister begins with an enigmatic presentation of Hajila and Isma, a strange couple: two women, neither sisters nor rivals, in spite of the fact that both of them are married to “The Man”, as their nameless husband is called throughout the novel. One of the wives, Isma, has chosen the young woman, Hajila, and lured her into marrying her husband in the hope that she herself would be set free from the memories of love long lost and save herself from the emptiness of the present.
When we meet Isma, she is a 40 year old educated Algerian woman who has left her husband and her two children to live and work in France. Isma is the storyteller, and Hajila, who has taken her place in the marriage, is the oppressed woman whose story is told. To begin with the new wife Hajila accepts her situation, but very slowly she gets the idea of leaving the apartment during the day. So she starts walking in the streets and for the first time in her life she removes her veil. When The Man finds out what is going on, he becomes violent. At the end of the novel the two women meet in the hamman, the public bath, and Isma gives Hajila her key to the apartment as a symbolic key to freedom.
At first sight Isma and Hajila are opposites. Isma once loved The Man and the sensual description of their relationship contrasts sharply with his violent and insensitive use of Hajila’s body. On the other hand there is a strong connection between the two women: Isma represents Hajila’s hope and longing for a different life, and, on the other hand, Hajila represents Isma’s past and the repressed self she left behind.
With this split between one woman who is free to move, choose and live her life and another woman who is oppressed, isolated and not supposed to choose for herself, Assia Djebar creates an image of modern identity: How is it possible to be who you are, if the prize you have to pay is to break up, leave behind and destroy the human being you used to be.
“In the Algerian Quartet I show who I am”, Assia Djebar once said. Let me add that at the same time she holds up a mirror to us all. In to-day’s prize novel we are invited to see ourselves reflected in the gap between what has been and what is not yet there. In this respect we all share the exile of Shahrazads sister.