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MLN 841

The Sensible, the Maternal,

and the Ethical Beginnings of
Feminist Islamic Discourse in
Djebars LAmour, la fantasia
and Loin de Mdine

Donald R. Wehrs

Assia Djebars 1985 Algerian novel LAmour, la fantasia dramatizes the

psychological and political difculty of nding a place for contempo-
rary feminist Islamic discourse to begin, while her 1991 novel Loin de
Mdine: filles dIsmal audaciously traces the conjunction of Islam and
feminism, linsupportable rvolution fministe de lIslam1 [Islams
insupportable feminist revolution], to the discourse and examples of
the Prophet and his closest associates, many of them female. Writing
against the virulent anti-feminism of Algerian Islamicist politics,2

Assia Djebar, Loin de Mdine: filles dIsmal (Paris: Albin Michel, 1991) 79. All further
references will be to this edition and cited parenthetically. All translations are mine.
For accounts of the rise of Algerian Islamicist politics, see Phillip C. Naylor, France
and Algeria: A History of Decolonization and Transformation (Gainesville: University Press of
Florida, 2000) 164251; Martin Stone, The Agony of Algeria (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1997) 14597; Marnia Lazreg, The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women
in Question (New York: Routledge, 1994) 20922; Peter R. Knauss, The Persistence of
Patriarchy: Class, Gender, and Ideology in Twentieth-Century Algeria (New York: Praeger,
1987) 11840. For an account of fundamentalist terrorism directed at women, see
Karima Bennoune, S.O.S. Algerian Womens Human Rights Under Siege, in Faith
and Freedom: Womens Human Rights in the Muslim World, ed. Mahnaz Afkhami (Syracuse:
Syracuse University Press, 1995) 184208. For Djebars own response to that terror, see
Assia Djebar, Le Blanc de lAlgerie (Paris: Albin Michel, 1996).

MLN 118 (2003): 841866 2003 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

Djebar retrieves in Loin de Mdine an Islam incommensurate with later

patriarchal rewritings, an Islam kept alive over the centuries by
womens oral discourse, an Islam whose emancipatory potential is
inseparable from its giving voice, indeed granting divine authority, to
the language of the body constitutively implicated in ethical relations.
Tracing an ethics concordant with feminism back to seventh-
century Medina, Djebar afrms Islam against both Western reduc-
tions of it to fanaticism and Muslim alternatives of conventionalist
or fundamentalist interpretationwhich tend to reduce Islam to
either a passive following of putatively self-validating traditions or a
triumphantly misogynistic, complacently anti-intellectual will to power.3
Although she employs a narrative voice ni pour ni contre lIslam4
[neither for or against Islam], Djebar depicts the transcendent
authority of the Prophets discourse as indissociable from his own
constitution as an ethical subject: revelation emerges from the
imperative to do justice, the obligation of the one (however exalted)
to the other (however humble or marginalized). In his immediate,
non-egotistical responsiveness to the Other, often a female other, the
Prophet articulates a subjectivity inspired in its transcendence of
psychic economies governed by naturalized ideologies or egocentric
concerns, a mode of subjectivity that LAmour, la fantasia portrays as at
once ethically necessary and emancipatory.

On interpretation through consensus or convention, see Kate Zebiri, Mahmu\d Shaltu\t
and Islamic Modernism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993) 82106, 12837, and R. Marston
Speight, The Function of had\th as Commentary on the Qura\n, as seen in the Six
Authoritative Collections, in Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qura\n, ed.
Andrew Rippen (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988) 6381. On fundamentalist interpreta-
tion, see Barbara Freyer Stowasser, Women in the Quran, Tradition, and Interpretation (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1994); on the relation of fundamentalist interpretation
and government policy, see Haideh Moghissi, Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The
Limits of Postmodern Analysis (London: Zed, 1999) 64124. Not all fundamentalism need
be anti-intellectual or misogynistic, as Miriam Cookes account of Zaynab al-Ghazali
attests in Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Feminism through Literature (New York:
Routledge, 2001) 83106, but the afliation between fundamentalist thought and the
repressive regulation of Algerian women is unmistakable (see Knauss 12540; Stone 172;
Katherine Gracki, Writing Violence and the Violence of Writing in Assia Djebars
Algerian Quartet, World Literature Today 70 [1996]: 842). Such afliations are not
adventitious. In Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1994), Anthony Giddens notes that fundamentalism is a distinctively
modern phenomena, which he denes as the effort to defend traditional ideas by
traditional means in ways that refuse to enter into dialogue with the post-traditional
conditions of modernity; thus, an edge of violence, a willful indifference to voices one
cannot be unaware of, shapes the fundamentalist relation to tradition (see 36).
Assia Djebar, unpublished interview, January 1992; quoted in Clarisse Zimra, Not
So Far from Medina: Assia Djebar Charts Islams Insupportable Feminist Revolution,
World Literature Today 70 (1996): 830.
MLN 843

Ambivalent toward a French language both expressive of individual

emancipation and reective of cultural colonization, Djebars auto-
biographical narrator in LAmour, la fantasia juxtaposes episodes
depicting growing up in postwar French Algeria with literary evoca-
tions of the 1830s40s French conquest and contrasts oral histories of
women guerrillas in the 195462 war with meditations upon the
epistemic and moral relation of representation to the represented.
Djebars evocation and undermining of diverse ways of telling both
the narrators and Algerias stories reects suspicion that all possible
beginnings are already ideologically invested, already stamped with
patriarchal silencing of womens voices, veiling of womens experi-
encesor with the Wests imperialistic egotism. Confronted with the
danger that transgressing discursive, conceptual matrices of efface-
ment (those of the modest woman of Islamic orthodoxy or the self-
sacricing guerrilla of nationalist ideology)5 might only naturalize
Western alternatives, Djebars narrator comes to locate the beginning
of identity and signication in traumatic disruptions of normative
speech, moments when, in both archival records and in the pro-
tagonists experience, the intentionality structuring discourse and the
enjoyment naturalizing ideology are shaken by what Emmanuel
Levinas calls the sensible, that which impresses itself upon us with
an immediacy that gives rise to mediation, cognition, images,
conceptualization, and thus makes starting with intentionality an
effacement of the beginning.
For Levinas, [T]he image in sensible intuition has already lost the
immediacy of the sensible.6 The psyche is susceptible to the immedi-
ate because it is the form of a peculiar dephasing, a loosening up or
unclamping of identity. . . . The animation, the very pneuma of the
psyche, alterity in identity, is the identity of a body exposed to the
other, becoming for the other, the possibility of giving (6869). In
this sense, [T]he psyche is the maternal body (67). Djebar portrays
the immediacy of the sensible loosening up or unclamping identity
in ways that make the quest for feminist Islamic identity begin with
[a] notion of subjectivity . . . in which the corporeality of the subject
is not separable from its subjectivity . . . (78). Binding afrmation of

On the idealizing of female self-sacrice during the 195462 war, and on the
subsequent silencing and marginalizing of nationalist women by the postcolonial
government, see Lazreg 11865.
Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being, or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis
(Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1981) 62. All further references will be to this
edition and cited parenthetically.

the body to ethical transcendence, Djebar discloses the feminist

implications of Islamic understandings of maternal tenderness (rahma),
bringing the Algerian and the French sides of the protagonist, and
the narrative, into relationships that evade the dialectical, Manichean
violence long paradigmatic of Algerian-French encounters.7
The problem of nding an origin of subjectivity not already
colonized by masculinist or eurocentric assumptions is thematized in
the opening chapters meditation upon the narrators access to
education through the agency of her father, an Arab teacher of
French. Djebar notes that veiling and cloistering are intimately
connected with denying la lle nubile [the nubile girl] literacy, for
[l]e gelier dun corps sans mots . . . peut nir, lui, par dormir
tranquille [the jailer who guards a body that has no words . . . may
sleep in peace], but Lcrit senvolera par le patio, sera lanc dune
terrasse [the written word will take ight from the patio, will be
tossed from a terrace].8 In the Arab Islamic patriarchal imagination,
womens speech must be rigorously regulated because womens
language is a symbolic unveiling, a revelation of love understood as
shameless rebellion, fitna in Arabic, an egotistic, sensual self-will that
violently disrupts the hierarchies that secure peace: God over man-
kind, reason over passion, communal interests over personal desires,
monotheistic authority over polytheistic anarchy.9 In Algerian con-
texts, the imperative to regulate female movement and discourse is
also associated with indigenous, Berber notions of masculine honor.10

Noting that Djebars pen-name means healer, Gracki stresses the effort to heal, to
mend rupture, in Writing Violence and the Violence of Writing in Assia Djebars
Algerian Quartet, World Literature Today 70 (1996): 82543. Mildred Mortimer in Assia
Djebars Algerian Quartet: a Study in Fragmented Autobiography, Research in African
Literatures 28.2 (1997): 10218, also notes the centrality of healing, but primarily in
relation to healing the psychological wounds of the narrator.
Assia Djebar, LAmour, la fantasia (Paris: Albin Michel, 1985) 1112; Fantasia, An
Algerian Calvacade, trans. Dorothy S. Blair (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1993) 3. All
further references will be to these editions and cited parenthetically.
See Fatima Mernissi, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society,
rev. ed. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987) 31, 39, 4142,
5354; The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Womens Rights in Islam, trans.
Mary Jo Lakeland (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1991) 4981; Womens Rebellion and
Islamic Memory (London: Zed, 1996) 10920; M. E. Combs-Schilling, Sacred Performances:
Islam, Sexuality, and Sacrifice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) 9295;
Donald R. Wehrs, Colonialism, Polyvocality, and Islam in LAventure ambigu and Le
Devoir de violence, MLN 107 (1992): 100407; African Feminist Fiction and Indigenous
Values (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001) 52, 64, 8596.
Knauss 48; Pierre Bourdieu, Algeria 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press,
1972) 10329.
MLN 845

Precisely because women are conceived of as desiring subjects, whose

free circulation risks physical or psychological exposure of men
before men [and thus] . . . a loss of honor,11 female writing is
discouraged, and female speech kept under surveillance.
Even as the narrators father insists that his daughter master French
literacy, he lays down a prohibition . . . on love [linterdiction
damour], which only served to encourage [sest panouie de fait
mme] a clandestine adolescent correpondence carried on in
French (4) [se fait en franais (13)]. The fathers hope of giving
his daughter a modern, Western education while keeping her psychi-
cally cloistered is exploded when he intercepts and tears up a letter
from a boy. By noting that, A linstar dune hrone de roman
occidental, le d juvnile ma libre du cercle que des chuchote-
ments daeules invisibles ont trac autour de moi et en moi [As
with the heroine of a Western romance, youthful deance helped me
break out of the circle that whispering elders traced around me and
within me], Djebars narrator underscores how access to French
writing induced her to congure deancerebellion, fitnain
terms of a Western subject-position. However, her self-assertion
assumed exactly the form that Islamic patriarchal imagination had
anticipated. To the extent that writing signies a subjectivity predi-
cated upon love in the sense applicable to a heroine de roman
occidental, writing does not liberate one from the conceptuality
sustaining veiling and cloistering, dividing physical and psychic space
between the dar al-Islam, the realm of submission that guarantees
peace, solidarity, and piety, and the dar al-harb, the realm of warfare
that ensures violence by loosening individualistic desires and wills to
power from all constraint, a realm associated with paganism, moral
anarchy, and the secular West.12 Writing that simply afrms deance
cannot constitute a feminist reply to Islamic-Arabic silencings of
women, for that discourse is unable to respond to the ethical critique
of anarchic self-will underlying Islamic patriarchal repression.13

Knauss 5.
See Fatima Mernissi, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World, trans. Mary Jo
Lakeland (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1992) 8; Richard L. Roberts, Warriors,
Merchants, and Slaves: The State and Economy in the Middle Niger Valley, 17001914
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987) 89.
Thus, arguments such as H. Adlai Murdochs, that Djebar writes woman as object
of desire into woman as desiring subject (Rewriting Writing: Identity, Exile and
Renewal in Assia Djebars LAmour, la fantasia, French Yale Studies 83 [1993]: 75), cannot
speak to how Djebar engages the intellectual heritage behind Islamic concerns about
desiring subjectivity, such as the classical ethical theorist Ghazalis (10581111)

Djebars much-noted rewriting of French colonial historiography

involves more than subverting Western imperialistic discourse through
Bakhtinian double-voicing, Bhabhaian hybridicity, or Third World
writing back.14 When Djebar describes how Algiers se dvoile,
sheds her veils, before the invading French armada, surg[issant]
dans un rle dOrientale [mak(ing) her rst appearance in the rle
of Oriental Woman], when she notes the instant solennel . . .
comme avant une ouverture dopra (14) [solemn moment of
anticipation, . . . before the overture strikes up (6)], she does more
than critique Orientalism; she underscores the connection between
the literal, physical violence unleashed by Western colonialism and a
mode of self-assertion that is as self-aestheticizing as it is self-centered:
Au dpart de Toulon, lescadre fut complte par lembarquement
de quatre peintres, cinq dessinateurs et une dizaine de graveurs. . . .
[D]j le souci dillustrer cette campagne importe davantage. Comme
si la guerre qui sannonce aspirait la fte (16) [When the
squadron left Toulon, there were four painters, ve draughtsmen and
about a dozen engravers on board . . . [T]hey are already anxious to
ensure a pictorial record of the campaign. As if the imminent war
were to be considered as some sort of festivity (8)]. One aestheticizes,

argument that good character is achieved when the deliberative faculty of the human
soul subordinates the irascible and concupiscent faculties of the animal soul, so that
the highest form of restraint . . . is to refrain from anything in this world which does
not directly aim at ultimate happiness (Mohamed Ahmed Sherif, Ghazalis Moral
Theory [Albany: State University of New York Press, 1975] 3435, 64). The ways in which
apprehending women as desiring subjects reinforces patriarchal assumptions and
practices are delineated in Fatna A. Sabbahs Woman in the Muslim Unconscious, trans.
Mary Jo Lakeland (New York: Pergamon Books, 1984) and Abdelwahab Bouhdibas
Sexuality in Islam, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985).
For variations on the theme that Djebar subverts patriarchal, colonialistic dis-
course by turning that discourse against itself to show its violence, to uncover the
presence of women it effaces, and to articulate plural, transgressive modes of
emancipated subjectivity, see Jarrod Hayes, Queer Nations: Marginal Sexualities in the
Maghreb (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) 18297; Mona Fayad, Cartogra-
phies of Identity: Writing Maghribi Women as Postcolonial Subjects, in Beyond
Colonialism and Nationalism in the Maghrib: History, Culture, and Politics, ed. Ali Abdullatif
Ahmida (New York: Palgrave, 2000) 85108; Adrian V. Fielder, Historical Representa-
tion and the Scriptural Economy of Imperialism: Assia Djebars LAmour, la fantasia and
Cormac McCarthys Blood Meridian, Comparative Literature Studies 37 (2000): 1844;
Valrie Orlando, Nomadic Voices of Exile: Feminine Identity in Francophone Literature of the
Maghreb (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999) 11152; Raka Merini, Two Major
Francophone Women Writers, Assia Djbar and Lela Sebber (New York: Peter Lang, 1999)
87101; Winifred Woodhull, Transfigurations of the Maghreb: Feminism, Decolonization, and
Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993) 7787.
MLN 847

orientalizes, the Other because one aestheticizes oneself, sees oneself

as a hero to be memorialized in representation. Just as making
images into gods is, within Islamic contexts, the essence of pagan-
ism,15 so delight in ones own image is fitna raised to the level of
idolatrous self-deication, a confusion of self and God that natural-
izes a colonialism equivalent to rape: so
cette conqute ne se vit plus dcouverte de lautre, mme pas nouvelle
croisade dun Occident qui aspirerait revivre son histoire comme un
opra. Linvasion est devenue une entreprise de rapine. . . . Des cohortes
dinterprtes, gographes, linguists, botanistes . . . sabattront sur la
nouvelle proie. Toute une pyramide dcrits amoncels en apophyse
superftatoire occultera la violence initiale. (56)
[this conquest is no longer seen as the discovery of a strange new world,
not even as a new crusade by a West aspiring to relive its past as if it were
an opera. The invasion has become an enterprise of rapine. . . . Hordes of
interpreters, geographers, ethnographers, linguists, botanists . . . will
swoop down on this new prey. The supererogatory protuberances of their
publications will form a pyramid to hide the initial violence from view.]
Djebar afliates the cadences of her narrators anticolonial outrage
with those of an Islamic-Arabic fathers horror at the prospect of his
daughters exposure to the appropriative gaze of strange men.
Indeed, the association of political defeat with exposure of secrets
(keshf ), and thus emasculating dishonor, is inscribed in Algerian oral
Arabic guwal (minstrel) traditions; as Marnia Lazreg notes, veiling
(hijab, protection) became the antidote to keshf (exposure).16 For
Algerian men subjected to cultural and economic violence, control
over womens movement and discourse frequently became conated
with anticolonial resistance.17 At the same time that Djebar likens the
conquerors to rapists, she also depicts them as veilers, who occul-
tenthide and make strangethe colonized country. Veiling is also
associated with entombing through the pyramide imagery. The
colonizing project buries the victim, transforming her into a monu-
ment to the colonizers power. Patriarchy and colonization are
conated in the implication that the woman/country is violently
reconstructed to perpetuate the colonizers self-image. Indeed, while

See Mernissi, Islam and Democracy, 85103; Wehrs, African Feminist Fiction and
Indigenous Values, 8596.
Lazreg 52, 53, 54.
See Knauss xiixiv; Lazreg 8097; Woodhull 14.

the pyramid here is of modern Western origin, pyramids originated as

patriarchical, oriental glorications of imperial power.
Even as she associates the modern Wests colonial self-assertion
with a morally obtuse naturalizing of self-aestheticization, immodestly
exposing the Other to aggrandize the self, and associates such
imperialistic self-assertion with both non-Islamic and Islamic forms of
veiling and enclosing the Other, Djebar nonetheless afliates her
narrators discourse with both Western and Islamic-Arabic-Berber
modes of stylized self-assertion. The title, LAmour, la fantasia, articu-
lates a peculiar double apposition. As a Western musical form, a
fantasia transgresses generic rules, and so may partake of an
anarchic, disruptive aggressiveness, but may also yield new, hybrid,
strikingly original art; as an Arabic display of horsemanship, a
fantasia exemplies masculine mastery of material (the horse) and
so evokes a precolonial history of Arabic and Berber military prowess
as it celebrates disciplined artistry, a crafting of energy into order in
which self-assertion and self-control become not binary opposites but
co-terminous.18 Djebars novel is a fantasia in both senses; by
assuming attributes of an Arabic fantasia, it transgresses conventional
generic (and gendered) boundaries, and so resembles a French
fantasia.19 The question the novel poses is how to separate what is
empowering in self-assertion (whether derived from Western or
indigenous cultural sources) from what is colonizing. By placing love
in apposition to fantasia, Djebar suggests that love is signicantly akin
to a transgressive, self-assertive, but internally disciplined work of art.
Feminist speech and emancipation require both a degree of mascu-
line aggressivity, but constrained sufciently not to fall into the fitna
(the deication of self-will, the absolutizing of self-love) exemplied
by both French colonialism and Berber-Arabic misogyny, and a
degree of self-aestheticizing self-empowerment constrained enough
to avoid the self-idolatry underlying all appropriative grasping of
the Other.20

See Dorothy S. Blairs Introduction to Djebar, Fantasia, An Algerian Calvacade,
unpaginated; also see Combs-Schillings account of the play of the guns (lab al-
harud ) ritual, performed during rst marriage ceremonies in Morocco, in Sacred
Performances, 20205.
See Blairs comments on Djebars French style in Introduction, Fantasia, An
Algerian Calvacade.
The trope of a self-assertive woman assuming masculine power associated with
military horsemanship, resistance to colonialism, and a heroic but potentially impious
pursuit of freedom is inscribed in the Algerian cultural imagination in the gure of El
Kahina, a Berber queen . . . who unsuccessfully fought advancing Arab soldiers in the
MLN 849

After presenting the dubious oppositional subject-positions of

silenced Arab girl and heroine of a Western romance, the rst
chapter ends by suggesting a third possibility, gured in terms of
cutting les amarres (13), becoming unmoored from a sexist
society, but without giving rise to a free-oating, unanchored
subjectivity. Separation from patriarchal cultural order is associated
with discovering la vrit emerging dune fracture de ma parole
balbutiante [the truth emerging from a break in my stammering
voice], a truth revealed by discovering [l]es mots une fois clairs
[the meaning of . . . words] that speak to the cris sans voix
[desperate, voiceless cries] of generations of oppressed, brutalized
women (4). A repressive, ctive symbolic is broken through not by
the mere recognition that its solidity and self-justication are illusory,
but by the eruption from within of what is anterior to the symbolic.
Whereas the English translation reads, Once I had discovered the
meaning of the wordsthose same words that are revealed to the
unveiled body . . . (45), the French reads, Les mots une fois
clairesceux-l mmes que le corps dvoil dcouvre . . . (13),
the words once made clearthose very words that the unveiled body

seventh century (Lazreg 20). Djebar evokes El Kahina in the third volume of the
Algerian Quartet, Vaste est la prison (Paris: Albin Michel, 1995) 164. In LAmour, la
fantasia, Djebar describes French colonial forces participating in fantasias (6170/49
57) as well as Algerian anticolonial forces (10305/8991). For both, fantasias provide
an institutional space for masculinist self-aestheticizations, for ritually constituting
identities whose self-fashioning requires the consumption of women (10816/92100).
However, through descriptions that stress the genuine artistry of the riders horseman-
ship as well as his self-aestheticization, Djebar distinguishes between self-fashioning as
modern, aestheticizing self-love and self-fashioning as an ordering of the soul into
rational freedom. The latter has a positive sense in Islamic ethics (see Sherifs Ghazalis
Moral Theory, 3065). Indeed, the cultural signicance of fantasias in Maghreb contexts
becomes clear only if the display of horsemanship is understood as a symbolic
reiteration of the hierarchies central to well-ordered souls and communities, as well as
a celebration of the artistic skill such fashioning requires. Combs-Schilling notes, The
horsemen are the picture of manhood. . . . The horses represent nature, nature which
men have to bring under control. More directly, the horses represent women,
especially brides. . . . At all times, the men are in controlof themselves, their horses,
and their guns. . . . [T]he gun play communicates and reinforces basic understandings
and experiences of how the world is ordered and what kinds of postures, attitudes, and
actions a man must adopt (Sacred Performances, 20304). By assuming a relation to the
French language evocative of the relation of male rider to his horse, Djebar suggests
that women may achieve a similar mastery, that the self-discipline involved may be both
emancipatory and ethical, but by also emphasizing the power of language to shape the
writer, Djebar suggests that self-afrmation may be disentangled from both traditional
and modern forms of masculinist, colonizing self-aggrandizement. See Djebar, Anam-
nesis in the Language of Writing, trans. Anne Donadey and Christi Merrill, Studies in
Twentieth Century Literature 23.1 (Winter 1999): 17989.

reveals. . . . The ascription of agency in the original evokes a

subjectivity inseparable from corporeality, engaging language in ways
that show it to be irreducible to either the effects of arbitrary cultural
systems or impulses of egocentric desire. Language ceases to natural-
ize totalizing conceptualities or subject-positions at the moment its
articulacy is arrested by ethical demands experienced corporeally,
before and behind the translation of sensations into images grasped
by cognition.
Levinas distinguishes between language as said, a hearsay, an
already said, a doxa, and language as saying, the risky uncovering of
oneself, in sincerity, the breaking up of inwardness and the abandon
of all shelter, exposure to traumas, vulnerability, that breaks through
the noema of intentionality: This being torn up from oneself in the
core of ones unity . . . signies in the form of one-penetrated-by-the-
other (3536, 4849). As the metaphor of penetration suggests,
corporeality is intrinsic to a subjectivity open to transcendence by
virtue of its inescapable exposure to the Other.21 Describing the
colonial ofcer Plissiers reaction to the massacre of a Berber tribe
brought about by his efforts to smoke them out of caves, the narrator
notes that while he rdige son rapport quil aurait voulu conven-
tionnel [intends to compose his report in ofcial terms], il ne
peut pas [he is unable to do so] because of his promiscuit avec
les enfums en haillons de cendre (93) [promiscuous contact with
the fumigated victims clad in their ashy rags (79)]. She expresses
[s]a reconnaissance incongrue [gratitudehowever incongruous],
for, envahi par le remords [overcome with remorse], Plissier had
fait face aux cadavres [faced the corpses], and, as his writing
reveals, momentarily at least, had regard lennemi autrement quen
multitude fanatise, en arme dombres omniprsentes (92) [looked
on the enemy otherwise than as a horde of zealots or a host of
ubiquitous shadows (78)]. Seeing otherwise rests upon the minds
exposure to what the body registers somatically, a susceptibility to
being invaded (envahi) that overturns the imperialism attendant
on nding in identication with the said or with determinate
symbolic orders a sufcient justication of the self.
In Djebar, the corporeality of subjectivity is marked by the material-
ity of voice. The novels third part begins with the narrator describing
ethical community originating not in an change dides [philo-
sophical discourse] nor in un dialogue de respect ou damiti [in

On corporeality, see Levinas, Otherwise Than Being, 5156, 6881.
MLN 851

polite or friendly conversation], but in visceral responsiveness to

lclat dun cri (129) [a cry, a scream (113)]. As an adolescent in
Algiers, she was nearly run over by a tram; the driver, a French settler,
was so boulevers [upset] that the timbre de sa voix . . . rsonne
encore en moi. Emoi dnitivement prsent (130) [I can still
recall the timbre of his voice . . . (b)etraying the agitation that would
not leave him . . . (114)]. Later, in Paris, in lovelorn despair, she
screamed, and a strange Frenchman expressed concern in a voice
chaude, avec une vibration qui en fait palpiter le grain impercepti-
blement (132) [warm and vibrant, quavering slightly . . . (116)]. In
Part Three, the narrator attempts to make her writing responsive to
the voix ensevelies (127) [buried voices] of peasant women war
veterans and to the buried voices of her cloistered or otherwise
muted female relations in ways that would emulate, live up to, the
shaken voices of those two male European strangers. As Jeanne-Marie
Clerc argues, because the autobiographical I becomes inseparable
from the collective I of oppressed Algerian women, autobiography
is divested of self-absorption; as Had Gafaiti points out, there is a
passage from je to il or elle in which afrmation of others both
curbs and legitimates self-assertion.22
Katerine Gracki notes that the novel rewrites Algerian history
from a feminine stance so that these screams will be heard and so that
a collective oral history transmitted by women may also be inscribed
into the fabric of Algerias past. . . . [Womens b]odies testify to, and
can be read as, the story of womens active presence in history, which
contests the representation of women as passive odalisques by both
colonial and patriarchal discourses.23 In the sections entitled Corps
enlacs [Embraces], the narrator underscores how the presence of
the Other (peasant women speaking Arabic or Berber) disturbs the
complacencies of her subjectivity: Chrifa! Je dsirais recrer ta
course; dans le champs isol, larbre se dresse tragiquement devant
toi qui crains les chacals. . . . Ta voix sest prise au pige; mon parler
franais la dguise sans lhabiller. A peine si je frle lombre de ton
pas! (161) [Cherifa! I wanted to re-create your ight: there, in the
isolated eld, the tree appears before you when you are scared of the

Jeanne-Marie Clerc, Assia Djebar: crire, Transgresser, Rsister (Paris: LHarmattan,
1997) 5979; Had Gafaiti, Les Femmes dans le roman Algrien (Paris: LHarmattan, 1996)
16778. Also see Jean Dejeux, La Littrature fminine de langue franaise au Maghreb
(Paris: Karthala, 1994) 60111.
Gracki 836; also see Valrie Budig-Markin, Writing and Filming the Cries of
Silence, World Literature Today 70 (1996): 893904.

jackals. . . . I have captured your voice; disguised it with my French

without clothing it. I barely brush the shadow of your footsteps!
Depicting exposure to the sensible as the precondition for ethical
discourse and community, grounding both the necessity and insuf-
ciency of representation in the imperative to do the Other justice, the
narrator assumes a quasi-maternal relation to her interlocutors, not
simply by wanting to comfort and clothe them, but by enabling the
sensible peculiar to each to enter into speech. Like a mother, the
narrator grants others access to a speech that offers entry into the said
and the symbolic. While this process involves disguise, transmuting
immediacy into discourse, it also makes possible a deliverance from
silence that opens the Other to agency and community.24 Notably, the
selfhood inaugurated by being-penetrated-by-the-other issues not in a
contemplative appreciation of disruption, a sort of static awe or
wonder25 that may easily slide into a self-aestheticization as insidious
as one predicated upon complacent identication with a said; rather
it demands a maternal agency in the sense elaborated by Julia
Kristeva, for whom the maternal constitutes a sort of miracle:
mothers separat[e] themselves from their children while loving
them and teaching them to speak.26 This quasi-maternal relation of
writer to interlocutor should not be confused with speaking for
non-Westernized women, or giving voice to what they really mean,
for the writer is, like a mother, reshaped, decentered, through the

See Laurence Huughie, Ecrire comme un voile: The Problematics of the Gaze in
the Work of Assia Djebar, World Literature Today 70 (1996): 86776. The alienation
involved in bringing the sensible into speech is increased, of course, by translating
Berber or Arabic oral discourse into written French. However, the differentiation of
spoken and written language is itself indigenous to Algeria, where the Maghrebi Arabic
of daily speech and Standard Modern Arabic of print culture are quite distinct. Indeed,
it is arguable that linguistic and cultural pluralism are integral to Maghreb identity (see
Woodhull, ixxxiv; Abdelkebir Khatibi, Maghreb pluriel [Paris: Denol, 1983]).
See Stephen Greenblatts account of non-colonizing wonder in Marvellous
Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) 20.
Julia Kristeva, Interviews, trans. Ross Mitchell Guberman (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1996) 10. Kristeva argues that because of womens determinative role
in reproduction and the importance of the father-daughter relationship, women are
more apt to respect social restrictions, are less inclined to approve of anarchy, and are
more concerned with ethics. This may explain why womens negativity is not a
Nietzschean fury (98). For accounts of the relationship between the maternal and the
symbolic in Kristeva, see Anne-Marie Smith, Julia Kristeva: Speaking the Unspeakable
(London: Pluto Press, 1998) 4976; Donald R. Wehrs, The Site of Western Modernism
in Postcolonial African Identity: Nanga, Gide, Kristeva, and the Overcoming of
Betrayal, The Comparatist 25 (2001): 2427.
MLN 853

materiality of the Others voice, and, again like a mother, the writer
lends her words to the Other so as to speak with, rather than for,
the Other.27 Conguring agency in such maternal terms has profound
political implications. It encourages a notion of spiritual community
(umma) in which the entwinement of bodies (corps enlacs), the
blurring of boundaries between one and another, the responsibility
of one for the other, need not underwrite, as in patriarchal and
nationalist ideology, an ideal of fusion, of effacement of difference
and individualities within a homogeneous whole.28 Instead, Djebar
associates the feminist imperative to hear womens speech, to attend
to womens embodied, sensible experience, with a renewed apprecia-
tion of Islams binding of word to body, an appreciation that allows
understanding, ilm (a term connoting the unity of practical and
theoretical reason, ethical and epistemological inquiry)29 to be linked
to rahma, a maternal tenderness manifest in Gods compassion and
mercy which all humans are commanded to emulate.
Djebars narrator notes that her premier moi religieux [rst
stirrings of religious feeling] emerged from hearing village rendi-
tions of La complainte dAbraham [The Ballad of Abraham],
which modela [formed] her sensibilit islamique (192) [feeling

On this distinction, see Anne Donadey, Recasting Postcolonialism: Women Writing
Between Worlds (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2001) 5154. On the ethics of an
intellectuals mediation of postcolonial voices, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, French
Feminism Revisited, in Feminists Theorize the Political, ed. Judith Butler and Joan W.
Scott (New York: Routledge, 1992) 5485. For Spivaks reading of Djebar, see Spivak,
Echo, New Literary History 24.1 (Winter 1993): 2830; Acting Bits/Identity Talk,
Critical Inquiry 18.4 (Summer 1992): 77073.
On the temptation to view fusion and homogenous unity as political ideals in
Islamic contexts, see Fatima Mernissi, Arab Womens Rights and the Muslim State in
the Twenty-First Century: Reections on Islam as Religion and State, in Faith and
Freedom, 3350; Islam and Democracy, 10413. Alistair Horne notes the Algerian proverb,
The Angel and the Man work for unity; Satan and the Woman for division, in A
Savage War of Peace: Algeria 195462 (New York: Viking, 1978) 402. Gracki points out the
doubling and merging of feminine identities (838) among the protagonists of the
three volumes of the Algerian Quartet so far published, which she attributes to the
solidarity and sisterhood principle (841), but such merging intensies rather than
dilutes the responsibility of one for the other, much as the blurring of the self/other
dyad in maternity grounds, for Kristeva, a herethics weaving together love and
separation, and as the blurring of the dyad in paternity grounds, for Levinas, a
fraternity irreducible to collectivism (see Stabat Mater, in Tales of Love, trans. Leon S.
Roudiez [New York: Columbia University Press, 1987] esp. 24863; Totality and Infinity,
trans. Alphonso Lingis [Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969] esp. 27480).
See Ira M. Lapidus, Knowledge, Virtue, and Action: The Classical Muslim
Conception of Adab and the Nature of Religious Fulllment in Islam, in Moral Conduct
and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam, ed. Barbara Daly Metcalf
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984) 3861.

for Islam (170)]. Prior to conceptualization, religion, Islam, is

formed from feelingmoi, sensibilit. The feeling evoked
and given shape uncovers the bond between ethical concern for the
other (Isaac) and maternal love (Sarahs).30 Signicantly, Djebar
describes her aunt recounting how Khadija, the Prophets wife, would
comfort him in his distress by seating him on her lap to reassure him:
the aunt would stress, with a voice marked by triumph, Ainsi . . . la
premire des musulmanes et des musulmans tait une femme. . . .
Une femme avait adhr la foi islamique, historiquement la
premire par amour conjugal . . . (194) [So . . . the very rst
Muslim . . . was a woman. A woman was historically the rst to adhere
to the Islamic faith, out of conjugal love . . . (172)]. Fatima Mernissi
also recounts this story, which appears in Ibn Hishams Al-Sira al-
Nabawiya, and is cited in Tabaris (d. 932/310) authoritative history.
Mernissi notes, Khadija was instrumental in convincing the troubled
Prophet that his inspiration was indeed from divine origin and not
simply a poetic and therefore human phenomenon.31
The feeling (moi) that forms an Islamic sensibility, and that
stands at the very historical origins of Islam, is a maternal being-for-
another co-extensive with a conjugal love whose very generosity,
distinguishing the inspired word from the delusive, self-involved
word, exposes the error, common in different ways to both North
African and European cultures, of reducing love to fitna, speech to
desire, freedom to will to power. Whereas Anglophone feminism
sometimes treats appeals to the body as a retrograde essentialism
limiting freedom, the Islamic feminism Djebar articulates takes the
immanence of rahma in embodied experience as disclosing womens
exemplary participation in the transcendent, and thus their irreduc-
ibility to misogynistic conceptualities. The linking of ce savoir
coranique . . . au corps (207) [Quranic learning . . . to the body
(183)] both inculcates a discipline that allows artistry, as in a fantasia,
and binds pious understanding to an awareness of the body that
makes embodiment integral to piety. That the root of rahma means
uterus or womb suggests that maternal being-for-another, moti-
vated by the immediacy of the sensible, is rooted in, and repeats,
Gods unconditional love, manifest in creation, and thus nature and

For a discussion of how the female protagonist of Mariama Bs Une si longue lettre
(Dakar: Nouvelles ditions Africaines, 1980) receives Quranic discourse in a similar
manner, see Wehrs, African Feminist Fiction and Indigenous Values 6973.
Mernissi, Womens Rebellion and Islamic Memory 99.
MLN 855

bodies.32 Djebar articulates a notion of love that links self-empower-

ment to sociability and self-assertion to answerability, divesting rahma
of connotations of self-effacing submissiveness while distinguishing
the freedom it authorizes from that set loose by fitna. She thus places
love and fantasia in apposition in ways that afrm and co-mingle
French and Arabic discursive practices by making both cultures, as
well as the narrator, answerable to the meaning of words discovered
by the body in the immediacy of the sensible.
While Djebar delineates how a feminist Islamic discourse may
begin, how an identity healing the ruptures of Algerian history might
be initiated, she notes that there is no guarantee that such discourse
will be heard, or such identity allowed. The novel ends, soberingly,
with an account of a jealous lover so manipulating his horse during a
fantasia that one of the hooves strikes and kills a new bride, which
Djebar presents as emblematic of Algerian societys response to
assertive women (25354, 256/225, 227).33 The conclusion raises the
possibility that perhaps love also stands in apposition to fantasia in
the sense that it is a fantasy to hope that the love the novel attempts
to represent and enact could reshape Algerian political life. What is
in principle arguable within a culture need not in fact reshape its
practices. As a historian, Djebar is not naive about the resiliency of
totalizing, sexist concepts. Nonetheless, her own refusal of silence
suggests that, however much belief in the efcacy of love may open
one to betrayal by fantasy, love motivates a writing at once political
and literary, elegiac and hortatory, addressing an ideal beloved, an
Algeria transformed by works of love. Writing itself is maternal in its
invitation to the beloved to enter into a discourse whose intelligibility,
whose inscription of both freedom and rationality, emerges from the
corporeally articulated ethical constitution of subjectivity itself. The
fantasy of renovating community by initiating such shared discourse
may be of the nature of love; certainly, it motivates the articulate
audacity of art, and perhaps constitutes an obligation of faith, if the
love generating fantasy is understood to originate not in egotistic self-
enclosure but in maternal, sensible disruption, making clater,
break apart, set aside, lespace en moi, the space in me (13)

Annemarie Schimmel notes that rahma, derived from rahim, mothers womb, is
the root of the constantly repeated divine names ar-rahman, The Compassionate, and
ar-rahim, The Merciful in My Soul is a Woman: The Feminine in Islam, trans. Susan H.
Ray (New York: Continuum, 1997) 9394.
Woodhull reads this ending as denoting intense pessimism about Algerian culture

sufciently so that the voices of others may be heard, so that words

whose meaning the body discovers may make imagination, fantasy, art
answerable to ethics, and thus to a politics at once anticolonial and
In Loin de Mdine, Djebar uncovers an Islam that both follows from
the retrieval of ethical subjectivity recounted in LAmour, la fantasia
and inaugurates the discursive orders within which such a project of
retrieval may nd its voice. In the Avant-propos introducing Loin de
Mdine, Djebar notes, Jai appel roman cet ensemble de rcits, de
scnes, de visions parfois, qua nourri en moi la lecture de quelques
historiens des deux or trois premiers sicles de lIslam (Ibn Hicham,
Ibn Saad, Tabari) (5) [I have called novel this collection of stories,
of scenes, of visions sometimes, that the reading of some historians of
the two or three rst centuries of Islam (Ibn Hicham, Ibn Saad,
Tabaria) has nurtured in me]. In part, as has often been noted,
Djebar seeks to recover womens active participation in creating
Islam, long effaced by male historians: thus, Loin de Mdines relation
to its classical Islamic sources resembles LAmour, la fantasias relation
to its colonial French sources.34 However, there is a crucial difference.
Describing her confrontation avec la langue des chroniques, [con-
frontation with the language of the chronicles,] Djebar notes that
the richesse diapre du texte dorigine, son rythme, ses nuances et
ses ambiguts, sa patine elle-mme, en un mot sa posie . . . a
peronn ma volont dIjtihad (6) [variegated richness of the
original text, its rhythm, its nuances and its ambiguities, its patina
itself, in a word its poetry . . . spurred on my will to ijtiha\d ]. The
poetry of the text, the dimension of its language evocative of both
Levinass saying and Kristevas semiotic, spurred on Djebars will to
ijtiha\d, dened through a footnote as Ijtihad: effort intellectuel pour
la recherche de la vritvenant de djihad, lutte intrieure,
recommande tout croyant (6) [Ijtihad: intellectual effort in
search of truthcoming from djihad, internal battle, recommended
to every believer]. The metaphor of spurred (peronn), con-
joined with will, recalls Djebars appropriation, through a textual
fantasia, of a masculine self-assertive will to mastery. But in Loin de
Mdine, the poetry of classical, canonical texts spurs, and so rides,
the writer; moreover, the intellectual effort to discover truth is clearly

See Cooke 6470; Zimra 82334; Budig-Markin 90102.
MLN 857

a self-mastery allowing the truth of saying to curb, as though with a

bridle, the career of egoistic saids.35
Asserting her right to participate in Islamic theological self-inter-
pretation, usually but not exclusively the preserve of male clerics,36
even as she insists upon the compatibility of novelistic discourse and
ijtiha\d, Djebar associates her work with modernist Islamic hermeneu-
tics, originating with the religious scholars (ulama\) Muhammad
Abduh (18491905), Rash\d Rida\ (18651935), Muhammad Mustafa\
al-Mara\ghi (18811945), Amin al-Khu\l\ (d. 1967), and Mahmu\d
Shaltu\t (18931963). The modernists argued that by abandoning,
since medieval times, ijtiha\d (original thought or judgment guided
by private reason) in favor of taqlid (adherence to the opinions of
former scholars, as opposed to ijtiha\d ), Islam had succumbed to
cultural isolation, stagnation, and colonial conquest, leaving the
pious unable to address the modern world, and religious law (fiqh)
unable to differentiate between that which is bida (blameworthy
innovation) and that which is not. . . .37 Modernist ijtiha\d accompa-
nied a revolution in tafs\r (Quranic commentary, sacred hermeneu-
tics). Kate Zebiri notes, Commentators on traditional Islamic schol-
arship identify two main trends within classical tafs\r : tafs\r bil-mathur,
relying predominantly on transmitted material, and tafs\r bil-ray,
relying on independent thought and the application of rational
disciplines.38 Tafs\r bil-ray virtually ceased from the time of Tabari
(tenth century, C. E.) to its revival in Abduh and Rida\, who argued
that the greater part of tafs\r bil-mathu\r consists of unreliable reports
and isra\iliyya\t (stories briey mentioned in the Quran derived from
Jewish and Christian sources), and thus, in Rida\s words, it draws a
veil over the Qura\n and diverts the readers attention from its higher
aims. Modernist tafs\r bil-ray attempts to discern the Qurans
higher aims, its ethical, spiritual core, through literary modes of

In Anamnesis in the Language of Writing, Djebar describes the writer as rider
and language as horse in terms that modify hierarchy, suggesting a back and forth
between writer/rider and language/horse (see esp. 188). However, the image of writer
as rider in Lamour, la fantasia, central to that novels afrmation of self-assertion as
integral to feminist emancipation, is reversed here by presenting the writer as the one
See Cookes account of Zaynab al-Ghazali and Fatima Mernissi (83106, 7075). In
Shia Islam, the cleric (iman) functions as intermediary between God and the people,
but Sunni Islam stresses the immediate accessibility of each believer to God.
Zebiri 18, 23, 21.
Zeberi 129; also see Speight 6381.

analysis stressing thematic coherence among suras, organic unity

within suras, and the aesthetic/psychological power of the revealed
word, a hermeneutics which seeks to uncover new subtleties in the
Quran, leav[ing] room for a more instinctive, intuitive approach. . . .39
Djebar claims for her feminist discourse a specic, orthodox theologi-
cal lineage; moreover, by insisting that novelistic discourse may do the
work of ijtiha\d, she underscores how, in contrast to the xenophobic,
totalizing rhetoric informing much fundamentalist discourse, ortho-
dox theology opens itself not only to the pluralism implicit in ijtiha\d,
but also to the pluralism implicit in modern literary discourse and
crosscultural dialogue. Zebiri notes, The popularization and in-
creased accessibility of tafs\r . . . coincided with the spread of literacy
and the proliferation of new means of communication such as the
Press and the broadcasting media, new literary forms such as the
novel and the short story. . . .40
Presenting her novel as the legitimate heir of Islamic modernism,
Djebar contests the assimilation of that movement to culturally
conservative Algerian political discourse, rst in the twenties and
thirties, and then again with the emergence of politicized fundamen-
talism in the eighties and nineties. While the Islamic revival contrib-
uted to Algerian cultural resistance between the world wars, it did so
in ways that presented the maintenance of male domination and
patriarchy as integral to undiluted orthodoxy. The preeminent
Algerian ulama, Sheikh Adbelhamid Ben Badis, considered himself
a lifelong follower of . . . Rashid Rida, who was more conservative
than Abduh on the subject of women; indeed, the latter had helped
the Egyptian feminist, Qasim Amin, write his famous Tahrin Al-marah
(The Emancipation of Women) in 1899, which called for monogamy,
the abolition of seclusion, full education for women, and restrictions
on divorce and abolition of the veil. Rida\ supported the veil but
opposed seclusion, endorsing property and educational rights for
women, arguing that Islamic law allowed women to learn from and
teach men; Ben Badis followed Rida\ except in arguing that school-
ing from 7 to 12 years of age was sufcient for a Muslim girl to
become a good believer and a future enlightened mother of the
family.41 Algerian fundamentalism of the eighties and nineties,

Zeberi 133, 145; also see 13280.
Zeberi 131.
Knauss 34, 44, Sheikh Abdelhamid Ben Badis, El Chihab (November 1932); quoted
in Knauss 44; also see Lazreg 8092.
MLN 859

spearheaded by the Front of Islamic Salvation (F.I.S) political party,

may be seen as an heir to the Ulama movement. . . .42 Arguing that
economic problems have their roots in a moral crisis, in stray[ing]
from God and the behavior pattern of his Prophet, the fundamental-
ists demanded a return to Islamic ethics in public and private life, a
crucial component of which was the reinstatement of patriarchy.43
While interpretations varied about what (if any) identity beyond
daughter, wife, and mother was allowable, a pattern of harassment
that threatened female university students and banned women from
public places devolved by the mid-nineties into cultural terrorism
through assassination of suspect women.44
Within this context, Djebars claim that ijtiha\d issues in feminist
ction is incendiary. Agreeing with the fundamentalists that Algerias
social and economic ills reect a moral crisis following from the loss
of true piety, Djebar argues that to stray from God and the behaviour
pattern of his Prophet is to fall into an egotistic fitna marked, above
all, by misogyny. Thus, she challenges the legitimacy of fundamental-
ism on its own terms. Barbara Freyer Stowasser points out that both
modernists and fundamentalists afrm ijtiha\d against deference to
received consensus for the same reason, to distinguish the pristine
faith and way of life of the Prophet and his rst community from
later modications, accommodations, and distortions.45 Djebars novel
does not simply offer her own ijtiha\d. It assumes an authoritative
voice by presenting the Prophets exemplary ethical subjectivity as the
measure by which to judge competing intepretations according to
private judgment. Only by cultivating a responsiveness to the sensible
akin to the Prophets, through djihad, lutte intrieure [internal
struggle], can one avoid distorting the divine word through ones
own self-love and egotism. Such egotism, separating the divine word
from an ethical signication that uproots rather than consolidates
ideological enjoyment and totalizing intentionality, leads to impasses
in hermeneutical reasoning. As a result, Islamic history is marked by
recourse to violence to resolve questions of interpretation from the
rst guerre civile entre Musulmans, la grande fitna (6) [civil war

Lazreg 210; also see Knauss 118201.
Abdellah Djaballah, in Kamel Hamdi, Ali Benhaji, Abassi Madani, Mahfoud Nalnah,
Abdellah Djaballah. Diffrents ou diffrends? (Alger: Chibab, 1991) 31; quoted in Lazreg
211. Also see Knauss 12540; Moghissi 6873; Stone 15574.
See Bennoune 18895; Stone 19096.
See Stowasser, Women in the Quran, Tradition, and Interpretation 57.

among Muslims, the great fitna] to the Algerian fitna of the

Loin de Mdine describes Islamic struggles of self-denition, political
succession, and external warfare in the interval between the Prophets
death in 632/11 and the ascension of Omar ibn el Khattab to the
caliphate following the death of Abou Bekr (usually transliterated in
English as Abu Bakr) in 634/13. The rst chapters (1950) treat the
reversion of Arabian tribes to paganism and the emergence of false
prophets, showing that the question of whether Islam would survive
its founders death had to be resolved. The novels rst sentences, Il
est mort. Il nest pas mort (11) [He is dead. He is not dead],
establish the paradox that Muhammed is dead because he is the fully
human Messenger (indeed, his full humanity is integral to the
message), but he is not dead because the faithful bring him to life in
language. Their voicesespecially those of his wives, who bear the
title, les Mres des Croyants [Mothers of the Believers] and of
other rawiyates (female transmitters of the Prophets and his Compan-
ions lives)47offer his example as an interpretative guide to the
community that survives him. While the Prophets death is an-
nounced in the rst sentence, he remains a living presence through-
out the novel; accounts of his life from 610 to 632 disrupt and contest
the narrative progression from 632 to 634.
What is stressed in the initial depiction of the dying Prophet is his
pointed refusal to designate a temporal successor and his human
vulnerability. His head leans against the breast of his beloved adoles-
cent wife, Acha (transliterated in English as Aisha), daughter of
Abou Bekr, avec la faiblesse dun enfant (12) [with the weakness of
a child]; he is described as loving to seat his two grandsons sur ses
genoux [on his knees] or place them quelquefois sur ses paules,
mme quand il commenait sa prire . . . (13) [sometimes over his
shoulders, even when he began his prayer . . .]. This open domestic-
ity becomes crucial to the portrait that emerges of Gods messenger.
The Prophets sensibility clearly shapes the rst caliphates, Abou
Bekrs, attitude toward power. Djebar quotes Ibn Saads account of his

Djebars use of fitna, denoting both rebellion and subversive, irreligious free-
dom, is double-edged, implying that fundamentalist misogynistic violence, exemplied
by the Algerian Islamist fitna (rebellion, resistance) of the nineties, is reective of all
inter-Islamic civil war, itself the product of an egotistic rebellion.
The term was coined by Djebar. In the italicized sections of the novel, she creates
ctional female transmitters of tradition in an effort to imagine the oral female voices
effaced by written male sources.
MLN 861

speech accepting ofce: Je vous le demande, Croyants, veillez sur

moi: si vous me croyez sur le droit chemin, suivez-moi, prenez
exemple sur moi. Mais si vous me voyez dvier et sortir du droit
chemin, redressez-moi: sachez que jai un Satan qui mhabite alors!
(17) [I ask you, oh believers, watch over me: if you believe me to be
on the right path, follow me, take me as your example. But if you see
me deviate and leave the right path, rebuke me: know then that I
have a Satan who dwells within me!]. Abou Bekrs modest encour-
agement of the speech of others presupposes the answerability of all
humans, including the caliph, to a droit chemin, to an ethics
irreducible to ideology, custom, interest, or power relations.
However, Islams effort to found a just community leads to an
accommodation with worldly power that is potentially corrupting.
Because appropriating the authority of the divine so easily legitimates
a will to power, there is no shortage of would be prophets. The novel
begins with the story of la reine ymnite, [the Yemenite queen,]
who betrays her husband to the Muslims after he claims to be a
prophet comme Mohammed (21) [like Mohammed]. While
noting the masculinist way that Tabari tells this story, presenting in
terms of les ruses des femmes [the wiles of women] what might
have been the story of a Judith arabe (27) [Arab Judith],48 Djebar
speculates that the queens readiness to betray her husband followed
upon her discoverythrough his moral conductthat he was no
prophet: Se croire un moment femme dun prophte comme
Mohammed. . . . Au terme de cette illusion, sa haine. Elle sest
trompe. Lhomme nest mme pas simple croyant; il vit en paen. Ce
nest quun imposteur (21) [To believe herself for a moment to be
wife of a prophet like Mohammed. . . . At the end of this illusion, her
hatred. She was mistaken. The man is not even a simple believer; he
lives as a pagan. He is nothing but an impostor]. A pagan life reveals
the one who is, whatever he says to advance himself, an unbeliever.
But one may also believe falsely, delude oneself. So Sadjah, a
prophetess whose ability to produce, from trances, beautiful rhymed
Arabic brings her a following, is driven by sa volont orgueilleuse
(47) [her arrogant will] into self-defeating political gamesmanship.
By contrast, Selma, once a captive servant of Acha, leads an army
against the Muslims to achieve personal revenge and grandeur: Elle
va, elle, une femme, freiner la montre de ce Dar al-Islam priv de son
fondateur . . . Elle se voit rapparatre devant Acha la jeune veuve,

See Cooke 66.

non en prisonnire affranchir, ni en amie protger; non, Selma va

entrer triomphante Mdine . . . (37) [She is going, she, a woman,
to brake the rise of this Dar al-Islam deprived of its founder . . . She
sees herself reappearing before Acha the young widow, not as a
prisoner to emancipate, not as a friend to protect; no, Selma is going
to enter triumphant into Medina . . .].
Although these women are self-assertive and independent, Djebar
does not present them as uncomplicated feminist heroines; each
conates personal desire with divine favor, falling prey to a variant of
idolatry. Paganism so understood also begins to insinuate itself
among the Muslims. Djebars portrait of the young general who kills
Selma, Khalid ibn el Walid, reveals the inltration of misogyny and
egotism into religious zeal. His impulsive execution of the tribal
chieftain Malik, taking a verbal slip as evidence of impiety, and
subsequent marriage to Maliks widow, provokes a crisis in Medina
(10002), where the desire to do justice, suspicion of both Khalids
and his enemy Omars hotheadedness and worldly ambitions, as well
as prudential considerations concerning the value of such a skilled
general, mingle uneasily in Abou Bekrs deliberations. Increasing
power leads increasingly to intolerance of anything disrupting the
consolidation of political, conceptual, and psychic totalizations, and
thus to an increasing hostility toward women. In La chanteuse de
satires (11823) [The singer of satires], Djebar describes a female
satirical poet of a dissident tribe who refuses to silence herself before
another general, Mohadjir ibn Ommeyya, a vainqueur, aussi cruel
que Khalid . . . (121) [conqueror, as cruel as Khalid . . .]. In
response, he cuts out her tongue; when she indicates that she can
write, he cuts off her hands.
Mohadjirs conduct, anticipating fourteen centuries of misogynistic
violence in Islams name, provokes a letter of reprimand from Abou
Bekr: Surtout, Abou Bekr dt tre rvolt quune femme puisse
subir ainsi des atrocits dans son corps: la servitude (dont, tout
moment, on peut se racheter soit en sislamisant, soit en faisant payer
le prix du rachat) est la seule peine impose aux femmes des vaincus
(123) [Above all, Abou Bekr must have been revolted that a woman
could suffer thus such bodily atrocities: slavery (from which, at any
moment, one can redeem oneself either by converting to Islam or by
paying ransom) is the only penalty imposed upon conquered women].
While Abou Bekr understands delity to the divine word to demand
ethical restraint even in the treatment of conquered, deant, pagan
women, he resorts to a self-serving legalism when, despite the Qurans
MLN 863

detailed instructions concerning female inheritance, he disinherits

Fatima, the Prophets only surviving child, because the Prophet had
once remarked, Nous, les prophtes, . . . on nhrite pas de nous! Ce
qui nous est donn nous est donn en don! (79) [We, the prophets,
. . . no one inherits from us. That which we are given is given us as a
gift!]. As Fatima understands, the issue is not really about property;
il sagit dun symbole bien plus grave . . . [it concerns a symbol
much more important . . .]. By disinheriting the Prophets only living
daughter, the caliph secures his supreme political authority through
asserting his right to ofcial interpretation; neither Fatimas per-
sonal proximity to the Prophet nor her formidable hermeneutic
reasoning (7987) are allowed to contravene a reading whose
literalism, isolating one said from context and from a lifetimes
saying, enforces ofcial power relations that in multiple senses
disinherit women. Although Abou Bekr is generally portrayed by
Djebar as kindly and pious, his actions here resemble his actions on
his deathbed, when to the dismay of most of the faithful, especially
the women, he not only, unlike the Prophet, selects a successor but
designates that it be Omar ibn el Khattab, noted for his violence
and intransigeance (241). In both cases, he seems to be motivated
by concern for the Muslim communitys political survival, believing
that, in order to triumph materially, politically, the community must
secure itself against disorder by institutionalizing a (male) hierarchy
that enforces cohesion, even at the cost of injustice to the Prophets
(and his beloved friends) only daughter, even at the price of giving
political leadership to one noted for being si dur (207) [so hard].
Djebar implies that a lack of faith, anxiety fed by taking force and
cunning, rather than love and justice, to constitute ultimate truth,
underlies Abou Bekrs actions. By sealing himself off from the
sensible, from the destitution of Fatimas voice and from the anguish
of those afraid of his chosen successor, Abou Bekr brings a new order
into being whose outlines are glimpsed when one of the rawiyate,
going to the mosque unveiled, is reproached by an unknown woman
for letting herself ainsi librement circuler (206) [freely circulate
like this], and when Omar, in assuming the caliphate, declares, Au
nom de Dieu, jafrme que dsormais toutes les affaires qui vous
concernent ici, je men chargerai, et moi seul! and [J]e vous
maintiendrai sur le droit chemin! (24546) [In the name of God, I
afrm that henceforth in regard to all matters that concern you here,
I and I alone will take charge of them! . . . I will keep you on the right

Opposing this movement away from Medina is the example of

the Prophet, preserved in the memory and voices of the women with
whom he lived and conversed, before being inscribed in the had\th
(sacred legends) and early histories, and thus conserved for Djebar to
read in ways that nurture responsible itjiha\d. When Ali, husband of
Fatima, desired to contract a new marriage, the Prophet forbade it,
declaring, Ma lle est une partie de moi-mme! Ce qui lui fait mal
me fait mal! Ce qui la bouleverse me bouleverse! (68) [My daughter
is a part of my very self! That which does her harm does me harm.
That which upsets her upsets me!]. Confronted with the Quranic
sanctioning of polygamy, the Prophet noted that he would not forbid
what God permitted, but as a father he was one esh with his
daughter, and so, even at the price of public discomture, would
never acquiesce to what would give her moral or psychic distress: Le
pre en lui, vibrant jusque-l de douceur et despoir, se tourne vers le
Messager habit, pour oser dire tout haut son dsarroi de simple
mortel . . . (75) [The father in him, vibrating to the point of
sweetness and of hope, turns to the inspired Messenger, to dare to
articulate out loud the distresses of a mere mortal man]. When Oum
Keltoum at age fteen ran away from her pagan Mecca home to join
the edgling Muslim community in Medina, her brothers, Walid
lan, le brutal, et Omra, le taciturne (163) [Walid the elder, the
brutal one, and Omra, the taciturn], demanded her return, in
accord with both their patriarchal rights and a peace treaty that the
Prophet himself had signed. Seeing in Oum Keltoums tearful anxiety
that pressure from her relatives would weaken her faith, the Prophet
experienced a trance, prelude to revelation. Djebar notes that Oum
Keltoum se souvient, toutes les femmes de Mdine se souviennent, et
en particulier Acha, [remembers, all the women of Medina re-
member, and in particular Acha,] both the intensity of her distress
and its effect upon the Prophet: il laissa arriver lui les versets . . . de
la sourate dite de lpreuve, [he let the verses come to him . . . of
the sura called the Proof,] commanding believing women be offered
refuge (165).
The phrasing, il laissa arriver lui suggests that the Prophet
opens himself to transcendent alterity; through passivity in Levinass
sense,49 answerability to the Other modies the received order. Not
only does revelation arrive in direct response to the Others distress;
revelation demands that ethical obligation supersede reasons of state,

See Levinas, Otherwise Than Being 9293, 11315.
MLN 865

patriarchal conventions, and even the masculine honor involved in

adhering to ones word: Dieu vient de rompre notre accord, du
moins au sujet des femmes! dclara Mohammed aux deux frres . . .
(166) [God just broke our agreement, at least on the subject of
women! Mohammed declared to the two brothers]. God breaks
any said that would estrange women from access to the absolute.
Patriarchal law must be broken because women stand in a relation to
God that is as immediate and as unconditional as that of men; thus
they, no less than men, may assume sovereign spiritual and ethical
agency. Mernissi similarly notes that when Umm Salma asks why
women are not addressed in the Quran, the Prophet receives verse
25 of Sura 48 (The Victory) which acknowledges womens status as
implied equal partners with men in the process of revelation (believ-
ers, both men and women). Mernissi observes, God and the
Prophet lend an ear to the weak, and to women among them. . . .50
The Prophets example reveals that vulnerability to the sensible
opens us to the transcendence of the ethical, allowing the voice of God
to take root within us; for this reason, sacred hermeneutics demands
not just the literary contextualization of modernist ijtiha\d, but also a
hearing of the saying animating and governing the said. For ijtiha\d not
to fall into fitna, it is necessary that lutte intrieure and effort
intellectuel, internal battle and intellectual effort, be undertaken in
the spirit of rahma, the maternal tenderness or douceur [sweet-
ness, kindness] characteristic of the Prophet. Therefore, it is no
coincidence that those who transmit the spirit necessary to understand
the divine word should be, rst of all, the Mothers of the Faith, none
of whom have children. The novel ends by describing how Acha
comes to understand that mothering can be enacted within lan-
guage so as to reclaim the symbolic for the God of love and justice:
Acha, soudain, se redit cette expression qui, la premire fois, lui avait paru
si trange: Mre des Croyants. . . . Elle peroit faiblement le sens de ces
mots mres des . . . Soudain une aile darchange semble frmir au-dessus
delle. Elle a nourrir les autres, elle a entretenir le souvenir. . . . [E]lle
voit son destin se dessiner: oui, nourrir la mmoire des Croyants,
entreprendre cette longue patience, cet inlassable travail, distiller ce lait
goutte goutte. (29394)
[Acha, suddenly, repeated to herself this expression which, the rst time,
had seemed to her so strange: Mother of the Believers. . . . She perceives

Mernissi, Womens Rebellion and Islamic Memory 8182; The Veil and the Male Elite 118

weakly the sense of these words mothers of . . . Suddenly a wing of the

archangel seems to tremble above her. She has to nurture the others, she
has to kindle memory. . . . She sees her destiny mapping itself out: yes, to
sustain the memory of the Believers, to undertake this long patience, this
untiring labor, to distill this milk drop by drop.]
Acha assumes a position analogous to that of the narrator of
LAmour, la fantasia; indeed, the latter is one of the lles dIsmal
(294) [daughters of Ismael] to whom the former speaks, and whose
speech she makes possible. As the corporeal, maternal imagery of
Djebars phrasing underscores, nding ones own voice, afrming
ones freedom and agency, arises from nding in embodied, immedi-
ate, sensible, maternal being-for-the-other a transcendence that al-
lows one to become a loving, speaking subject, an active participant in
reclaiming the symbolic from patriarchal deformation, in spurring
language toward the ethical labor of maternal nurturing.51 For
Djebar, such an ascension to maternal cultural agency articulates
itself in an Islamic feminism that returns Islam to its original
insupportable rvolution fministe (79) [insupportable feminist
Auburn University

See Julia Kristeva, Sens et non-sens de la rvolte: Pouvoirs et limites de la psychanalyse I
(Paris: Fayad, 1996) 18688, 22123, for one version of this process. Also see Smiths
commentary in Julia Kristeva 7076, 9194.

Sue Waterman is the Resource Librarian for German and Romance Lan-
guages and Literature in the Sheridan Libraries of Johns Hopkins University.
Her research interests include the cultures of collecting and French printing
history. She is currently working on a study of nineteeth-century collecting

Richard Watts is Assistant Professor of French and African Diaspora Studies

(afliate) at Tulane University. He has recently published on Francophone
literature in French Forum, Expressions maghrbines, and Research in African
Literatures, and is currently completing a manuscript on the mediation of
Francophone colonial and postcolonial literatures enacted by the paratext.

Donald R. Wehrs is Associate Professor of English at Auburn University,

where he teaches comparative literature, postcolonial studies, and eigh-
teenth-century British literature. He is author of African Feminist Fiction and
Indigenous Values (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001), and has
published essays on African and Indian ction in Ariel, The Comparatist, MLN,
and on British and European ction in The Eighteenth Century, SEL, ELH, and
Comparative Literature Studies.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.