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Behind the veil

The Tongue's Blood Does Not Run Dry Algerian Stories Assia Djebar Translated from the French by Tegan Raleigh Seven Stories Press: 220 pp., $22.95

February 04, 2007|Hazel Rowley | Hazel Rowley is the author of "Tete-a-Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre," "Richard Wright: The Life and Times" and "Christina Stead: A Biography."

SOME of the women Assia Djebar writes about in "The Tongue's Blood Does Not Run Dry" are veiled figures who flutter home at dusk; others let their hair blow in the wind, "their gaze defying the danger" of being seen bare-headed on the street. This collection of stories -- Djebar has called them "documentaries" -- about women living in Algeria tells of love, violence and sorrow -- a thousand and one nights of anguish.

These tales, some based on real events, first appeared in French in 1997 as "Oran, Langue Morte." Now published in English, they were written in the mid-1990s, a time when Algerian writers, journalists and intellectuals were targeted by Islamist fanatics and 200,000 civilians were massacred -- a teacher in front of her class, a wife at her husband's bedside in his hospital room, an elderly professor leaving his house with a grandchild at his side.

Djebar, an acclaimed writer and professor of French literature and civilization at New York University, sees her work as bearing witness with urgency and rage. In "Algerian White," her 1995 memoir of three close friends who were assassinated by fundamentalists, she describes being "obsessed by the coupling of death -- that black and thoroughbred mount -- and writing." Born Fatma Zohra Imalhayene in 1936, she came of age during the French colony's horrific war for independence, which began in 1954. Looking back, she, like many of her compatriots, seems to wonder: All that for this?

When Algeria became independent in 1962, writing in French instead of Arabic was seen as a provocation. Although Djebar had been educated in French (the colonial authorities forbade teaching in Arabic), she had an ambivalent relationship with it. French was "the language of the Others," the colonizers and the torturers in the war of independence, but it was the language in which she had the freedom to write things she could not get away with in Arabic. (She took the pen name Assia Djebar in 1957 to protect her family.) However, when speaking of the unspeakable, of the gratuitous violence committed in the civil strife of the mid-1990s, finding words in any language is a challenge. Sadly, this translation does not do justice to the author's prose, which is elliptical and dreamlike, infused with a tenderness for her country that is reminiscent of Algerian-born Albert Camus.

These days, Djebar lives abroad ("There is no exile," she says), dividing her time between New York and Paris. In interviews, she has insisted that she does not want to be tagged the representative of Algerian women; she is far removed from those dangerous streets where everyday life still can require acts of heroism. But her trajectory shows remarkable courage. While married to a member of the resistance during the war for independence, she became the first Algerian to study at the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. In 2005, she became the first Algerian -- and the fifth woman -- to be elected to the Academie francaise, the august body that tries to protect the French language from foreign incursions.

If Djebar hovers between two worlds, so do the characters in this collection. In "The Attack," Mourad writes vehement newspaper articles denouncing the fanatics' regime of ignorance and terror. Flooded with death threats, he goes underground but is finally shot dead. His wife tries to deal with her grief by going on as usual, teaching Arabic. But one day, as she hands papers back to the class, she says a word -- just one word -- in French. A boy jumps up: "Do we have a teacher of French or of Arabic?" The remark hits her like a gunshot. She stands up to him passionately at first but then bursts into tears. Soon she finds herself unable to get out of bed, unable to walk the streets. Her dream: "To go as far away as possible."

Several couples in these stories -- usually a French woman and an Algerian man -- fall in love, not yet realizing they are "taking up parts, in spite of themselves, in a ghostlike play." Living in France, Annie puts up with Idir's hot temper for two years, but after the birth of Fatima, she wants a divorce. Idir is granted visiting rights on Sundays. One Sunday, while Annie is looking for diapers, Idir takes the bare-bottomed baby and bolts into a waiting taxi to the airport. In Algeria, it is understood: Men rule the family. For nine years, Annie lives as if paralyzed, then obtains visitation rights. She has been learning Berber, so she can speak with her daughter. When the shy girl walks toward her, she is wearing a black chador down to her shoulders. Near the end of their conversation, Annie asks to see her hair. Fatima refuses. Her gaze is cold, "like a sword in front of her." Next summer, Annie tells herself, they will spend a month together and they will love each other.

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