An Algerian Childhood
edited by Leïla Sebbar
translated by Marjolijn de Jager
Published by Ruminator Books
226 pages, 2001
Buy it online
The Sun Smiled
Reviewed by Dana De Zoysa
Camus was right: only the sun has been kind to Algeria. Geography, demography and history have not. The thread of green with which desert yields to sea was originally named Ifriqqiya, whence comes "Africa." (Below the Sahel was "Niger.") Over the last 2000 years Algeria's many cultures were side-by-side civilizations speaking in common the tongue of the marketplace but otherwise each their own. Among those cultures were the pre-Muslim Berbers (themselves of many tribes), Jews who condensed over the millennia like dewbeads on a thread, Arabs who arrived with the Qur'an and remained to trade. A handful of Christians remained from Roman times and many more coattailed the reconquista seeking a quick dirham. And finally the French, nominally Christian bourgeois but culturally Imperial Bourgeois. When the Algerians exploded after Dienbienphu showed colonies need not submit, the French left, but only after a ghastly fight. The political scirocco still blows and headlines in red tell of it.
How could one possibly have a happy childhood in a place like this?
A book with the right editor can illuminate the souls that politicians and economists forget. The Algeria that Leïla Sebbar finds was a courtyard more than a country. In it people reconciled their differences and got on with their lives. That's not what the history books say, but historians, too, know how sensation sells.
Then we get to Cixous herself, who gives flesh to these: "Suddenly I was a grown woman. ... I resolutely pretended to be the little girl I had been ordered to be. Again the feelings of shame that accompanies our lies invaded me. And it is shame that is the sign of our childhood. ... I saw the face of the little shoeshine boy and I recognized the sparkle in his eyes: it was the lust of hatred, the first shimmer of desire." One is only fleetingly aware until this that, as she is middle-class Jewish and he dirt-poor Arab, social standing hurls a curse even on awakening desire.
Throughout it is writing that enchants. There are so few simple declaratives that they could hardly stand out more if printed in yellow. Annie Cohen's Viridiana my Love is a stream of consciousness romp through word-images like dessert-case sweets. As befitting the Arabic reverence for poetry, the Algerian writers are the most lyrical of the lot. Jemel Eddine Bencheikh writes sumptuously baggaged sentences -- caravans, really -- between first cap and full stop there is a lot of tapestry, and yet you never lose the main image. His dreamcatching story "Tlemcen Up High" gives us five stanzas of a uniquely Algerian metrical style called the tahwîf , which consists of two sung phrases to each line, originally meant to accompany pushing someone on a swing.
"Passion for place" is these writers' equivalent of Camus' rejoice of the Maghrebi sun. Ironic then, the monopoles of cultural imperialism that drew these literary filings author by author to Paris. All these reminiscences were written there, encouraged there, published there. The capsule bios that preface each dolefully announce in the sentence after their name, "So-and-so has been living in Paris since ...." Pushed there by the Franco-Algerian war of the 1960s and the ethnopolitical pogroms thereafter, they now write mainly for Francophone literati. How cheering it must have been for them to disalign from the magnet of Racine, Stendahl, et al and realign themselves to the multipole that once was Algeria -- ethnic, religious, economic, geographic -- by way of childhoods regained. These memoires are stunning testimony to the eloquence France ignored but these filings retained. | January 2002
Dana De Zoysa has a passion for developing-country authors. He commutes between Bombay and his writer's paradise in Mirissa, Sri Lanka. He can be reached at DanaDeZoysa@aol.com.