Women of Algiers in Their Apartment – Assia Djebar (translated by Marjolijn de Jager)




“For Arabic women I see only one single way to unblock everything: talk, talk without stopping, about yesterday and today, talk among ourselves, in all the women’s quarters, the traditional ones as well as those in the housing projects. Talk among ourselves and look. Look outside, look outside the walls and the prisons!…The Woman as look and the Woman as voice,” she added somewhat obscurely, the snickered: “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: the voice of sighs, of malice, of the sorrows of all the women they’ve kept walled in….The voice that’s searching in the opened tombs.”

Welcome to “Women of Algiers in Their Apartments”, a collection of short stories, snippets and in one case (almost) an essay, by Assia Djebar. This book is that “one…way to unblock everything” it is the “talk…about yesterday and today”, a collection of stories from the mouths of the Algerian women.
Our book is broken into four distinct sections, Overture, Today, Yesterday and Postface. We also have a short glossary and an Afterword of 52 pages by Clarisse Zimra from Southern Illinois University, which includes an interview with the author. However I will only focus on the text for this review.
Our book opens with the sledgehammer “Overture”:
These stories, a few frames of reference on a journey of listening, from 1958 to 1978.
Fragmented, remembered, reconstituted conversations…Fictitious accounts, faces and murmurings of a nearby imaginary, of a past-present that rebels against the intrusion of a new abstraction.
I could say: “stories translated from…,” but from which language? From the Arabic? From colloquial Arabic or from feminine Arabic; one might just as well call it underground Arabic.
I could have listened to these voices in no matter what language, nonwritten, nonrecorded, transmitted only by chains of echoes and sighs.
Arabic sounds – Iranian, Afghan, Berger, or Bengali – and why not, but always feminine tones, uttered from lips beneath a mask.
An excoriated language, from never having appeared in the sunlight, from having sometimes been intoned, declaimed, howled, dramatized, but always mouth and eyes in the dark.
Today, how do I, as water dowser, craft words out of so many tones of voice still suspended in the silences of yesterday’s seraglio? Words of the veiled body, language that in turn has taken the veil for so long a time.
Here, then, is a listening in, by means of which I try to grasp the traces of some ruptures that have reached their term. Where all that I could come close to were such voices as are groping with the challenge of beginning solitudes.
Written in French, this is not a French story (as our Overture tells us), but the story of numerous Arabic women, the women behind the veil.
“Today” contains two stories, the title “Women of Algiers in Their Apartment”, written July-October 1978 and the short “The Woman Who Weeps” (an uninterrupted dance of broken lines on Picasso’s painting of the same name). The title story is made up of snippets of stories from the women of Algiers. As Djebar tells us “Arabic is always so full of imagery”:
The only free women in the city go out in single white files before dawn, to do three or four hours of cleaning in the glass offices of low-, middle-, and high-level civil servants who will arrive later on. They burst out laughing in the stairwells, clean up the clutter, with their heads still held high, slowly lifting their headdresses, and all the while they exchange ironic comments on the respective floor managers, those who protectively ask them about their children’s studies, and those who don’t talk because one doesn’t speak to women, whether they work outside the house or are, like their own wives, objects of representation…The free women of the city go home and, with a cup of coffee in front of them, dream of the oldest son who will grow up, who will surely also become one of those floor managers: they will finally be able to close their door and in their turn supervise the young girls in order to keep them sheltered between their walls.
It is through the stories of the women who are locked inside, for months, for years, that we learn the lives of the Women of Algiers. The story is basically their oral history being told to the wounded Sarah (from France I think), and throughout we have revelations galore. For example, the women in the newer homes sabotage (break) the faucets so they can still travel to the village pump and communicate with other women. We have the story of the water carrier herself, “the excluded one” sold into marriage at age thirteen.
We then move to “Yesterday”, and open with “There Is No Exile”, written in March 1959, the story of a divorced mother of two (both deceased) who is in exile in France and is to be married off, the ritual that this entails, this is set to the concurrent theme of a death of the neighbour’s child and the laments and wailing of the funeral preperations.
Our next story “The Dead Speak”, written in 1970 and 1978 is almost impossible to decipher, there are only fragments of sentences and conversations. Personally here I did not persist with a re-read.
The very short 1966 story, “Day of Ramadan” is self-explanatory within the title and a reflection for the exiled people of Ramadan’s past.
Our next story is “Nostalgia of the Horde” from 1965, is a grandmother telling her story, “I married him at twelve, he was twenty-eight”.
We then move to the “Postface” with the single story of “Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound” from 1979. The tale of Delacroix and his short visit to Algiers in 1832 where he paints “Women of Algiers in their Apartment” – the painting on the cover of the book. The story of a harem enclosed, but a harem exposed. Fifteen years later he repaints the image that haunts him:
In this second canvas – in which the features of the characters are less precise, the elements of the setting less elaborate – the vision’s angle has been widened. This centering effect has a triple result: to make the three women, who now penetrate more deeply into their retreat, more distant from us; to uncover and entirely bare one of the room’s walls, having it weigh down more heavily on the solitude of these women; and finally to accentuate the unreal quality of the light. The Latter brings out more clearly what the shadow conceals as an invisible, omnipresent threat, through the intermediary of the woman servant who we hardly see any longer, but who is there, and attentive.
We have no right to be in this enclosed place, it is a “stolen glance” into the harem, as is this book, we are stealing into the lives of the women behind the veil.
This final story is almost an essay in style, telling us tales of wedding nights, the ritual screams, the virginity, the blood and the association with birthing. We have war time heroines, we have submission, dispossession of indigenous cultures and structures, then we move to the images shown in Picasso’s works of the same name (taken from Delacroix’s work).

This is a powerful work, one of those books that you know demands being read, one that deserves a wide audience, if only to reveal the female side of the Arabic culture. Djebar, in the closing sections, argues that the mother (through oral history) has “monopolized the only authentic expression of a cultural identity”. Therefore it is only fitting that we understand that mother’s stories.
Personally I found the earlier works easier to follow with some of the later ones being a little too obscure for me, however I am grateful for getting a glimpse behind the veil, one that has, again, come down.

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