[Issue #7, Spring & Summer 2002]
An Algerian Childhood
Edited by Leïla Sebbar
Translated by Marjolijn de Jager
Ruminator Books, 2001
[First pubished as Une enfance algérienne
Editions Gallimard, 1997]
Reviewed by Dana De Zoysa
Camus was right: only the sun has been kind to Algeria. Geography, demography
and history have not. The thread of green with which desert yields to sea
was originally named Ifriqqiya, whence comes "Africa." (Below
the Sahel was "Niger.") Over the last 2,000 years its many cultures
were side-by-side civilizations speaking in common the tongue of the marketplace
but otherwise each their own. Among those cultures were the pre-Muslim Berbers
(themselves of many tribes), Jews who condensed over the millennia like
dewbeads on a thread, Arabs who arrived with the Qur'an and remained to
trade. A handful of Christians remained from Roman times and many more coattailed
the reconquista seeking a quick dirham. And finally the French, nominally
Christian bourgeois but culturally Imperial Bourgeois. When the Algerians
exploded after Dienbienphu showed colonies need not submit, the French left,
but only after a ghastly fight. The political scirocco still blows and headlines
in red tell of it.
How could one possibly have a happy childhood in a place like this?
A book with the right editor can illuminate the souls politicians and economists
forget. The Algeria that Leïla Sebbar finds was a courtyard more than
a country, and in it people reconciled their differences and got on with
their lives. That's not what the history books say, but historians, too,
know how sensation sells.
Ms. Sebbar is an Algerio-French professor and author who has written of
her ancestral land for many French literary reviews. Here she has revived
a niche of the Algerian literary world quite popular in the 1950s that withered
during the Algerian war: childhood reminiscences.
The sixteen authors in her anthology do not Pollyanna their pens through
days of happy yore. There is much between the lines, and even more between
those lines. The jacket blurb describes Hélène Cixous's "Bare
Feet" as, "a deeply resonant story about a young girl's search
for place in a colonial society," which "recounts how, at the
age of four, an encounter with a shoeshine boy awakened her to the harsh
realities of her own class standing." Anne Donadey's foreword expands
that to: "The protagonist, a four-year-old girl, constantly wonders
where she belongs in a world divided between colonizers and colonized...
innocent of and responsible for the injustices of the world in which she
is growing up."
Then we get to Ms. Cixous herself, who gives flesh to these: "Suddenly
I was a grown woman... I resolutely pretended to be the little girl I had
been ordered to be. Again the feelings of shame that accompanies our lies
invaded me. And it is shame that is the sign of our childhood... I saw the
face of the little shoeshine boy and I recognized the sparkle in his eyes:
it was the lust of hatred, the first shimmer of desire." One is only
fleetingly aware until this that, as she is middle-class Jewish and he dirt-poor
Arab, social standing hurls a curse even on awakening desire.
There are other references to the social chasms of skin color -- the arrival
of a room-hushing lily-white French boy in Mohammed Dib's "Encounters"
relates, "We would not take our wide-open eyes -- and rightly so --
off him anymore, we weren't doing any work, incapable as we were of doing
anything but staring." Jean-Pierre Millecam's grandmother's driver,
"whose soul is as delicate as his features pure, suffers from his swarthy
skin tone." This reminds of India, where skin color still cleaves societies
more visibly than economic standing and more permanently (these days) than
The Algeria of these writers was no happy barrio of race and religion thriving
beneath the colonial rubric "the locals." The cities were divided
into enclaves -- this district in Tlemcen for the Arabic Muslims; that rue
in Oran where the Jews lived. Locals, yes, real people the more so. Algerian-turned-Parigot
Mohammed Dib describes the arrival of his physician with, "Two imperious
thumps on the front door with the knocker... were not only dealt to the
door of the house but also to that of my heart, which would instantly crumble
with sadness, just that -- sadness -- because I already knew how to take
my pain in stride... As if to announce them, my mother used to boil two
needles for the syringes... He saved my leg, which by all logic should have
Throughout it is writing that enchants. There are so few simple declaratives
that they could hardly stand out more if printed in yellow. Annie Cohen's
"Viridiana My Love" is a stream of consciousness romp through
word-images like dessert-case sweets. As befitting the Arabic reverence
for poetry, the Algerian writers are the most lyrical of the lot. Jemel
Eddine Bencheikh writes sumptuously baggaged sentences -- caravans, really.
Between first cap and full stop there is a lot of tapestry, and yet you
never lose the main image. His dreamcatching story "Tlemcen Up High"
gives us five stanzas of a uniquely Algerian popular metrical style called
the tahwîf, which consists of two sung phrases to each line, originally
meant to accompany pushing someone on a swing.
A beast to translate this must have been. Many sentences run fifty words
and up and paint more quick-cuts than a TV commercial. Marjolijn de Jager
certainly wins her kudos for the translation, although the occasional phrase
rings a bit off, e.g., "the whole shebang."
"Passion for place" is these writers' equivalent of Camus' rejoice
of the Maghrebi sun. Ironic then, the monopoles of cultural imperialism
that drew these literary filings author by author to Paris. All these reminiscences
were written there, encouraged there, published there. The capsule biographies
that preface each dolefully announce in the sentence after their name, "So-and-so
has been living in Paris since... " Pushed there by the Franco-Algerian
war of the 1960s and the ethnopolitical pogroms thereafter, they now write
mainly for Francophone literati. How cheering it must have been for them
to disalign from the magnet of Racine, Stendahl, et al, and realign themselves
to the multipole that once was Algeria -- ethnic, religious, economic, geographic
-- by way of childhoods regained. These memoires are stunning testimony
to the eloquence France ignored but these filings retained.
Algerian Childhood from Amazon.com.
Dana De Zoysa has lived for many years throughout Asia, including the Philippines,
Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and India. He has also lived in Holland and France,
and traveled throughout Europe and Northern Africa. He has published numerous
books, articles and reviews on Asia-related and developing-country topics.
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