Assia Djebar?S “Fantasia” Essay, Research Paper
Assia Djebar’s, Fantasia
Assia Djebar believed that the process of Western acculturation excluded her from most if not all aspects of the traditional women’s world. This resulted in her mastery of the French language and access to public space. This view of exclusion led Djebar to her Algerian Quartet, which is a writing project to reestablish links with the maternal world, which she felt distanced from, but in fact never lost (Ghaussy3). They are all polyphonic texts that combine personal and collective memory. In these texts Djebar adds her own voice to those of her maternal ancestors, both historical and legendary. Fantasia, is the first part of the quartet. In Fantasia, she interweaves autobiographical fragments with other strands of narrative like history and oral narrative. She widens the scope of autobiography to embrace the collective voice, inserting her discourse within the community of Algerian women. Autobiography becomes Djebar’s way back to the cherished maternal world of her past, where she seeks healing and reconciliation from a self fragmented by the colonial experience (Ghaussy4). At the same time, it allows Algerian women’s muted voices and veiled presences to emerge into public space.
Before beginning the quartet, Djebar, trained as a historian, undertook an oral history project that involved probing Algerian women’s collective memory. In the mid 1970’s she interviewed women in her native region of Cherchell which participated in the independence struggle. The majority that she had interviewed was young women during the war, facing danger and hardship with the male soldiers. Djebar then selected pieces of women’s narratives and inserted them into Fantasia, bringing together the oral history of Algeria (Ghaussy1).
In part III of Fantasia, titled “Voices From the Past,” Djebar uses different narrative voices, which are women who share their traumatic life stories, as women and as prisoners. For instance, the first movement starts out with the narrator, whom we assume is the author. She titles it The Two Strangers. It is a story about the two men that she fell in love with. Both of them gave her life meaning because they gave her the power to be visible. They implored her and cared about how she felt and she loved them for that. The first voice in that movement is the voice of a woman named Cherifa. She talks about her traumatic experiences with the French burning down their houses and how they killed her brother.
The second movement starts out with the narrator, which she titles the Trance. She talks about witnessing these frightful chants that her grandmother was involved in, she describes it like this:
At first choking cries came thick and fast, jostling each other, then they swelled and swirled in spinning spirals, intersecting arches, tapering to needle points. The old lady gave up the struggle, surrendering herself completely to the insistent beat of the blind woman’s drum: all the voices of the past, imprisoned in her present existence, were now set free and leapt far away from her (Djebar144)
At first this ceremonial chant was a mystery. By watching her grandmother though she knew that this chant was a way of freeing and protesting the way she feels. She then realized that out of all the women, her grandmother was really the only one who never complained. The reason is because all her frustrations were taken out on these ceremonial chants. The second voice we hear is the voice of a woman named Sahraoui Zorah. She talks about treason, the house burnings, and the hidings that she went through. The third, fourth and fifth movements the widow speaks, with other intervening voices. In these movements the cries of rape, torture and silence are heard.
In order to understand Arab traditions the author creates the chapter Aphasia of Love, meaning silence of love.
I had passed the age of puberty without being buried in the harem like my girl cousins; I had spent my dreaming adolescence on its fringes, neither totally outside, nor in its heart; so I spoke and studied French, and my body, during this formative period, became Westernized in its way (Djebar127).
The French dominates this experience of moving freely in the male sphere. The Arab girl is then uprooted from her own culture, whose customs remain by the standards by which she assesses her own situation.
I suffered from misunderstanding… I discovered that I too was veiled, not so much disguised as anonymous. Although I had a body just like that of a Western girl, I had thought to be invisible, in spite of evidence to the contrary (Djebar126).
Aphasia should not be read only as an involuntary loss of the ability to speak, but instead as a deliberate method of protest against the “inherent fault of the European education; verbosity, an indiscreet compulsive longiloquence in these preambles to seduction”(Djebar126). The resistance to a complete assimilation of self-definition, cultural identity, and desire becomes especially clear in the encounter of the Arab women with “the doubly opposite sex,” the Frenchman. This relationship is marked by a power struggle in which “the only possible eloquence, the only weapon that could ever reach me was silence. Refusal of speech was both the starting point and the end point of our relationship”(Djebar127). In this rebellion the Arab girl refuses to use specific discourse of the colonizer by turning to silence. This goes back to the traditions of her own cultural background, in which love is not verbalized.
In Fantasia silence is not, however, simply proclaimed as protest all together. Silence is imposed onto women and enforced and justified by “custom” and “tradition,” which can be damaging and smothering, as Djebar illustrates when she re-creates the voices of her Arabic sisters, who narrate their experiences of rape and violence during the French-Algerian war. Djebar shows that by unveiling women’s situations and making it public; they feel shame and guilt because they are stigmatized by Arab society. “Like Djebar’s Algerian sisters who unveiled and threw their vulnerable bodies literally into the front lines of battle during the Algerian War, Djebar’s commitment to and quest for liberation herself, for her sisters both past and present, and for her country render her painfully exposed and vulnerable”(Ghaussy10). Living as a Westerner exposes Djebar though, but at the same time it also alienated her from the protective and nurturing traditional realm of her childhood. The matrons of Djebar’s youth we recognize that although a French education will spare the young girl from a life of seclusion, it will also serve to exclude her from their company. This initial expulsion and exposure are complicated by another, which has its roots in the very culture from which Djebar was progressively alienated. Her upbringing taught her never to use the first person singular pronoun “I” to talk about herself. In this novel the chapters in the first person are told by Djebar, indirectly. These women’s stories may or may not be real, but the cries are. The reason for this ambiguity is so Djebar can tell her stories in with others so no one knows her story directly.
Fantasia represents the rewriting of Algerian history from a feminine stance so that these screams will be heard and so that collective oral history transmitted by women may also be inscribed into the fabric of Algerian’s past. Women’s bodies become monuments and privileged sites in this re-inscription process at the heart of Djebar’s work. These bodies testify to, and can be read as, the story of women’s active presence in history.