Shame, Guilt, and Silence in Wahiba Khiari's Nos silences
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Shame, Guilt, and Silence in Wahiba Khiari's Nos silences

In 1992, forty years after the war for independence that ended over a hundred years of French colonization, Algeria fell into the darkness of civil war. Four years earlier, in February 1989, the new constitution, approved by referendum, had ended state monopoly and authorized political pluralism. Unable to resolve a serious socioeconomic crisis, the regime became very unpopular, as reflected in the 1992 legislative elections.1 The conservative Islamic party called the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS) largely won the first round of these elections and would have won the second round had it not been suspended by the army. The FIS protested the suspension, causing the military forces to step in, cancel the elections, and dissolve the FIS. These actions eventually led to a massive wave of violence by radical insurgents opposing the army and the government. The FIS called for a jihad against the enemies of Islam and, as a result, a slaughter machine set led in Algeria, and the streets ran red for a long Black Decade. The final cost in lives reached over two hundred thousand.2

Faced with the magnitude of this tragedy, many Algerian intellectuals denounced the war and turned to their writings to give a voice to the fallen victims and render justice. Some of these intellectuals paid a heavy price for their words and were murdered.3 Others lived in fear but stayed in Algeria, while still others chose to continue the fight from exile. Wahiba Khiari is one of those authors who emigrated, in 1997, settling in Tunisia. [End Page 21] Despite her forced exile, Khiari wrote in the first instance to expose the terrible crimes in Algeria, particularly those committed against women. Published in 2009, her novel Nos silences (Our silences) is the story of two unnamed women and their different journeys in an unstable and violent Algeria.4 The first is an English teacher who, afraid for her life, decides to leave Algeria for an unspecified destination. The second narrator is a schoolgirl who stays in Algeria. As a consequence of her inability to leave, she witnesses the murder of her entire family and is subsequently kidnapped and raped by the Islamists. The two narrators are strangers who never meet.

This article seeks to reveal how these two unnamed protagonists live out the war and express their trauma. Their experiences are certainly different. The first woman lives in exile; she hopelessly observes the violence in Algeria from afar. Her shame at being alive and her guilt for being far away inform the way she writes.

The second narrator is not given the option of leaving Algeria. She lives in an overtly patriarchal society; she is constantly told that she is worth less than her brother. Internalizing this ideology, the second narrator comes to believe in her inferiority and lives through her rape as a violent confirmation of her low status. Unlike the first narrator, who writes a war narrative motivated by shame and guilt, the second narrator lives her trauma in and through silence.

The First Narrator

Je n'étais pas voilée et j'enseignais la langue des "renégats" dans un établissement mixte. Je réunissais à moi seule la liste des raisons pour lesquelles ils s'étaient donné le droit de tuer. Malgré cela, je suis restée, et j'y serais encore si j'avais pu changer les choses. (14; I was not veiled and I taught the language of the renegade in a mixed establishment. I alone combined all the reasons for which they had given themselves the right to kill. Despite it all, I stayed and I would have stayed even longer if only I were able to change things.)

The first narrator clashes with a group of students over the interpretation of John Lennon's famous song "Imagine." She realizes that they are incapable of imagining a world with no religion and no violence. It is her [End Page 22] confrontation with this overwhelming reality that convinces her to leave Algeria. Educated and financially independent, the first narrator leaves without her father's consent and after selling...