I met many men and women after the 1970s, but I still carry the young people of the Cinemateque with me, who still resound, despite departures, separation, distance, time. My young people. And a woman, one single woman: Assia Djebar, who came back from Paris with a film in her writer’s suitcase: The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua. She was friendly and distant at the same time, far from our revolutionary flurry. She arrived in the middle of the national campaign for the “second phase of the Agrarian Revolution”, with the loads of freedom we were deprived of. One night, during a dinner party at my place, she danced on the table, like a queen. She surpassed us all, by far. On the occasion of the preview of her film at the Cinematheque, I realized for the first time that we were sinking into a routine, that our spirits were drifting off – a presage of the depletion of the world. The film propelled us into the heart of a subjectivity we had covered with words and muscled and peremptory slogans, like those I heard that night, dafter than ever. The campaign for the collectivization of land was making a great stir and the slogan “the socialist revolution will liberate women” was on everyone’s lips.
A slow pace, silence, memory regained, sensuality, Assia’s film tried to lead us far away from our noisy and dogmatic present. It tried to make us seize the intimacy of secluded women in unusual ways. The language of shadows, the language of bodies. The film is set somewhere between Cherchell and Tipaza. The beauty of the locations takes the story to a realm of mythological enchantment while leaving intact the realism of the existential wound that is buried beneath the silence of the characters. The heroine, a young architect, returns to the house of her grandmother. In the surrounding mountains, she’s looking for traces of the history of her mother, a resistance fighter who died in the maquis during the war for liberation. During this journey, her daughter, still a child, and her handicapped husband who’s in a wheelchair accompany her. This quest reveals the difficulties of living for an entire generation of women. In the obscurity and through the miracle of cinema, we made contact with a piece of truth, plunging in our unexplored reality. For this difficult journey, the heroine is accompanied by a handicapped person; a metaphor for the impotence of Algerian men to take part in the process of self-examination some women of my generation engaged in. The room was shocked. We couldn’t bear the confrontation with this reality. The psychodrama triggered by the film among the young women who were present at the pre-première indicated the dimension of this repression. In an unvarnished way, it elucidated the condition in which eternal Algeria kept us, this Algeria that braked with two feet in front of modernity, intellectuals included, confused men and women too. The young women who were present in the cinema displayed a sample of the effects of ten years of indoctrination. They were outraged in the name of all Algerian women and accused the filmmaker of having abused “the opportunity” to make a film, the first film by an “Algerian woman!”, in order to make a “personal” film. This was one of the biggest anathemas in this country where socialist collectivism and Arab-Berber Muslim communitarianism were intimately intertwined.
Scandalous! A film stolen from the “Algerian women” and the Algerian people. A film that didn’t speak about women’s liberation by way of the war for liberation and the construction of the country! Dogmatism, sectarianism, intolerance, insensibility, those present displayed their misery. Baffled, I listened to the diatribes of the young women in the room. A beautiful manifestation, once again, of the totalitarianism we were sinking into. For once, the neighbourhood youngsters kept quiet. Instead of talking all the time, they kept silent. They discovered violence more violent than theirs. And between women!
Before the other half of the room, consisting of “specific socialists”, Marxists, leftist nationalists, communists, Trotskyists, before this Algeria wedged between identity populism and Marxist oriented nationalism, Assia, who had been a student at the École normale supérieure, the Francophone writer, the filmmaker devoted to the secluded memory of women, incarnated the solitude that our thinking would resort to at the end of the 1970s, the end of our utopias. She left for Paris again. After Paris, she went even further away, advanced in the world, far away from Algerian soil. She’s forever absent, silent behind her books and international recognition. Always present within me, like that night, during the debates, when I suspected she strongly resembled me, a rare sentiment in the country where my roots are.
She chose exile, like nearly all those who were around at 27 Ben-Mehidi Street and believed naively in cinema as an absolute weapon. Me too, I left one day, but it took some time before I decided to do so. I remained glued to the country. Without really committing myself to anything, because I had chosen to become a lawyer. I was fascinated by Boumediene’s1 Algeria, an Algeria under construction. I was constantly on the lookout, hand above my eyes, trying to perceive the new man that was announced everywhere: “We’ll catch up with France in one generation!” I felt confident, gazing fixedly at the horizon, without noticing where I put my feet. And the horizon, like all horizons, slipped away. What I was hoping for didn’t happen. To catch my breath, I escaped for some short absences. I always came back to the starting point of this noria of back-and-forths, from Algiers to Rome, from Rome to Paris, from Paris to Algiers. I spread the word everywhere: Algeria was going to give birth to the new man. The Algerian revolution was easier to live outside Algeria.
- 1. Houari Boumediene (1932-1978) served as Chairman of the Revolutionary Council of Algeria from 19 June 1965 until 12 December 1976 and thereafter as the second President of Algeria until his death on 27 December 1978.
Originally published in Wassyla Tamzali, Une éducation algérienne : de la révolution à la décennie noire (Paris: Gallimard, 2007).