On 15 June 2006, novelist Assia Djebar will become a member of the prestigious Académie Française. Founded by Cardinal de Richelieu in 1635, the purpose of the 40-member institution is to protect and monitor the correct usage of the French language. As the first North African woman to join those known as the immortels (immortals) and only the second African person (the first was Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor, in 1983), Assia Djebar will take the seat of magistrate Georges Vedel, who passed away in February 2002.
An Algerian by birth and soul, Assia Djebar writes in French. She was born as Fatima-Zohra Imalhayene in Cherchell, a small coastal town some 100 km west of Algiers, on 30 June 1936. While most young girls at the time were kept in seclusion from the age of 13 until their father chose a husband for them, Assia Djebar’s father was a schoolteacher who encouraged the eldest of his children to pursue her studies and allowed her to marry whom she pleased. As a teenager, Assia was a boarder at a secondary school in Blida, where she discovered the correspondence of Alain Fournier with writer and critic Jacques Rivière. It’s then, she later recalled, that “I began to read, to really read, and to differentiate between books that shape you and those that simply entertain you”.
After attending the Faculty of Algiers, Assia Djebar became, in 1955, the first Algerian woman admitted to the elite French institution Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Sèvres, where she studied history. In 1957, she published her first novel, La Soif (Thirst), under the pen name Assia Djebar (“consolation and intransigence” in Arabic), and was acclaimed the Muslim Françoise Sagan. In 1958, she married a member of the Algerian resistance (the Algerian War of Independence lasted from 1954 to 1962) and decided to follow her husband into exile in Tunis, where she worked as a journalist and pursued her studies. She later taught modern and contemporary history at universities in Rabat, Morocco and in Algiers while continuing to publish. With Les Impatients (The Impatients, 1958) and Les Enfants du Nouveau Monde (Children of the New World, 1962), her work took on a very feminine - even feminist - tone in which history is intertwined with personal and intimate journeys, and raised questions related to the notion of identity and the act of writing.
In the mid-1970s, Assia Djebar traded in her pen for a camera, turning her artistic energy towards cinema. Her first film (half-documentary, half-fiction), La Nouba des Femmes du Mont Chenoua (The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua) was recognised at the Venice Biennale in 1979, while La Zerda et Les Chants de l’Oubli (The Zerda and Songs of Forgetting), an archive film on the thirty years of colonial rule in the Maghreb, won first prize for the best historical film at the Berlin Festival in 1982.
Upon her return to France in the early 1980s, Assia Djebar broke her decade of narrative silence and wrote Femmes d’Alger dans Leur Appartement (Women of Algiers in Their Apartments) in 1980, followed by L’Amour, la Fantasia (Fantasia: an Algerian Cavalcade) in 1985, which won the Franco-Arab Friendship Prize. In 1997, Assia Djebar, a tireless wanderer whose true home most certainly resides in the act of writing, was appointed director of the Centre for French and Francophone studies at Louisiana State University, in the United States.
In the 21st century, Assia Djebar has at last achieved well-deserved international recognition. After being elected to Belgium’s Royal Academy of Literature in 1999, she received the Peace Prize at the world’s biggest book fair in Germany. In addition to earning honorary doctorates from the Universities of Vienna (Austria), Concordia (Montreal) and Osnabruck (Germany), Assia Djebar has been frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2002, she became a Silver Chair Professor at New York University, where she currently teaches French and Francophone literature.
Today, the works of the woman who admits “to loving and suffering in Arabic, and writing in French” are translated into some twenty languages. Although Assia Djebar’s readership in France has remained limited for far too long, her election to the Académie Française will bring her the recognition she deserves. The novelist has also expressed the hope that her admittance will “promote, on the other side of the Mediterranean, the translation into Arabic of numerous francophone authors”. It should also foster strong and lasting bonds between both cultures, as well as ties based on mutual respect and sharing. In the words of Tahar Ben Jelloun, the eminent francophone writer from Morocco: “With Assia Djebar (at the Académie), it’s France and the French language that grow richer and take on new colours.”