Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Veiled Truth: Reading Assia Djebar from the Outside

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Veiled Truth: Reading Assia Djebar from the Outside

Article excerpt

In a recent review of Edward Said's Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, philosopher and development ethicist Martha Nussbaum paraphrased his definition of the role of the university as "basically Socratic: to unsettle and oppose, to test all orthodoxies, to offer routes by which young minds may travel from one culture to another and learn a valuable type of estrangement from their own." What a beautiful invitation to think across borders, including theological borders, encountering what is out there and questioning what is in here! Reading the work of Algerian writer Assia Djebar is, in this sense, a "university" experience, particularly when it comes to her treatment of what has become one of the West's favorite "cases" against the East and Islamic fundamentalism--the veiling of women.

Veiling, in Algerian history and in the work of Djebar, who began her academic career as an historian, is like a palimpsest, a rich and complex "text" on which multiple messages are inscribed, overlaid, and intertwined. It is an issue that invites outsiders to overcome their estrangement from the other by recognizing estrangement from self, particularly as a study of veiling reveals how persons separate themselves from intimate exchange. Djebar's writing provides a provocative location of estrangement, a place where national history, personal history, and aesthetic recreation converge. It is, among many other things, a place where Christians in the West are able to ponder anew the complex layering of revelation and tradition, the two consistent cornerstones of the Church, particularly as they relate to the complexities of gender construction. These connections will be explored by way of allowing Djebar's texts to defamiliarize both cultural and theological precepts that we often accept without questioning them.

The Algerian Context

Algeria is a country that has been "covered" multiple times by foreign empires, all projecting their shadows over the land and culture. In 146 B.C. Rome destroyed Carthage and soon conquered coastal Algeria. By the end of the fifth century A.D., the Berbers and Vandals had descended into Algeria and eroded Roman control. In the early sixth century the Byzantine Empire established a thin veneer of unity and order over North Africa. Then, in the seventh and eighth centuries, Muslim Arabs conquered the Byzantines. In the fifteenth century Spain removed the Muslims, not only from its own land but from the coastal cities of Algeria as well. With help from Turkish pirates and the Ottoman Empire, the Spaniards were then sent packing, and Algeria became part of yet another empire. The French entered in 1830 and had established almost total control by 1847. During World War II Algeria came under the Vichy government but later housed the Free French government of Charles De Gaulle. After a long and bloody struggle Algerians voted for independence in 1962, after which began a complex period of power struggles among Berbers, Francophone Algerians, Islamic fundamentalists, and socialist ideologues. Algeria's political and social woes--the plight of the still disaffected Berber population and complaints by international human rights agencies about the government's ill treatment of Islamic militants--are in the news today, the country's cultural identity still a matter of layer upon layer of ethnic transcript.

The veiling of Algerian citizens is thus a complex physical and symbolic act. Women are the obviously veiled subjects, but all citizens are veiled in so many ways. Psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, author of the stark, anticolonial classic The Wretched of the Earth but also of the lesser-known "Algeria Unveiled," published in A Dying Colonialism, does much to problematize the issue. As he argues, the function of veiling in Algerian society changed radically as the French sought to unveil Algerian women and as Algerian women began to participate in the struggle against colonialism, thus complicating the very idea of "woman. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.