- Languaging Space in Assia Djebar’s L’amour, la fantasia
This essay examines Assia Djebar’s approach to language as a temporal, physical, and imagined space. In L’amour, la fantasia (1995), the first volume of her “autobiographical quartet,” Djebar intertwines her own stories with those of girls and women living during and after the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62); historical narratives of French soldiers, reporters, and painters during the years of colonization; and fictional anecdotes. She demonstrates that Algerian history is reflected in her own experiences. Appropriating the voices of colonizer and colonized across time, Djebar creates a chronotope, a kind of temporal landscape in which French, the language of the colonizer, becomes her own to the extent that she inhabits it.
Shortly after Algeria’s independence, the narrator is walking in Paris with her brother when he calls her hannouni, meaning “my dear” or “my love.” Thrown back to her childhood, she muses: “My brother . . . reminds me . . . of the local spoken dialect of the mountains where we spent our childhood. I felt a somewhat bittersweet embarrassment. I turned away. I began to reminisce about the past” (Djebar 1993, 80-81).1 The text subtly switches tenses from the present to the past, a technique employed throughout the book, illustrating the association between the past, tradition, and the languages of Arabic and Berber. The Arabic word hannouni evokes nostalgia, regret, and longing, all the more poignant since Djebar is forced to narrate in French, the colonial language that the younger generation speaks fluently and that separates them from their mother tongue, the language of their parents and grandparents. [End Page 296]
Scholars often refer to the entry of the colonizers’ language into Algeria as an implantation of French, making language into something physical. The French initiated this implantation with the idea that to unify a region, one had to unify its language. In 1938 Arabic was declared “a foreign language,” so that French became associated with citizenship and freedom, especially freedom of movement in a space no longer belonging to the indigenous population. In fact, this implantation had the unintended consequence of reinforcing regional language differences such that the regions became increasingly delineated by the languages of their inhabitants: Berber, Arabic, Spanish, Italian, and Turkish. The French policies and attitudes established language as an immense dividing factor among the various indigenous groups and of course between the native Algerians and the European colonists.
Different physical language-spaces are an ever-present element of the narratives of L’amour, la fantasia, literally dividing the world inhabited by Arabic from that inhabited by French. In one story from Algeria before the outbreak of the war, the narrator, a young girl at the time, describes a French family living in her neighborhood. She never enters the family’s house but watches the goings-on through the windows. One interaction that captures her attention occurs between the eldest daughter and her new fiance. Contrary to local customs, the two publicly display their affection, touching and exchanging words of endearment. She expresses her sense of removal and distance watching the scenes on the other side of the glass: “I decided that love must necessarily reside elsewhere and not in public words and gestures. . . . The French language could offer me all its inexhaustible treasures, but not a single one of its terms of endearment would be destined for my use” (27). For the narrator, the French language becomes a space of intimacy, of “the couple,” and of a different kind of happiness to which she cannot gain access despite learning French in school.
French is also the language that this same narrator uses to write love letters to an anonymous correspondent overseas, her words literally traveling across the oceanic expanse: “When I write and read the foreign language, my body travels far in subversive space” (184). She uses spatial terms to describe her study of Arabic at the Quranic school too: “The learning was absorbed by the fingers, the arms, through the physical effort. The act of cleaning the tablet seemed like ingesting a portion of the Quranic text” (183-84). Yet this physical space of language is perhaps most apparent...