An Algerian Childhood
Leïla Sebbar, editor
Marjolijn de Jager, translator
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Buy *An Algerian Childhood* online An Algerian Childhood
edited by Leïla Sebbar
Marjolijn De Jager, translator

Ruminator Books
225 pages
April 2001
rated 4 of 4 possible stars

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 two thousand years, its 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 politicians and economists forget. The Algeria that Leïla Sebbar finds was a courtyard more than a country, and 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.

Ms. Sebbar is an Algerio-French professor and writer who has written of her ancestral land for many French literary reviews. Here she has revived a niche of the Algerian literary world, quite popular in the 1950s, that withered during the Algerian war: childhood reminiscences.

The sixteen authors in her anthology do not Pollyanna their pens through days of happy yore. There is much between the lines, and even more between those lines. The jacket blurb describes Hélène Cixous’s "Bare Feet" as, “a deeply resonant story about a young girl’s search for place in a colonial society,” which “recounts how, at the age of four, an encounter with a shoeshine boy awakened her to the harsh realities of her own class standing.” Anne Donadey’s foreword expands that to, “The protagonist, a four-year-old girl, constantly wonders where she belongs in a world divided between colonizers and colonized ... innocent of and responsible for the injustices of the world in which she is growing up.” (p. xv)

Then we get to Ms. 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.” (p. 58) 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.

There are other references to the social chasms of skin color — the arrival of a room-hushing lily-white French boy in Mohammed Dib’s "Encounters" relates, “We would not take our wide-open eyes — and rightly so — off him anymore, we weren’t doing any work, incapable as we were of doing anything but staring.” (p. 110) Jean-Pierre Millecam’s grandmother’s driver, “... whose soul is as delicate as his features pure, suffers from his swarthy skin tone.” (p. 165) This reminds of India, where skin color still cleaves societies more visibly than economic standing and more permanently (these days) than caste.

The Algeria of these writers was no happy barrio of race and religion thriving beneath the colonial rubric “the locals.” The cities were divided into enclaves — this district in Tlemcen for the Arabic Muslims; that rue in Oran where the Jews lived. Locals, yes, real people the more so. Algerian-turned-Parigot Mohammed Dib describes the arrival of his physician with, “Two imperious thumps on the front door with the knocker ... were not only dealt to the door of the house but also to that of my heart, which would instantly crumble with sadness, just that — sadness — because I already knew how to take my pain in stride. ... As if to announce them, my mother used to boil two needles for the syringes. ... He saved my leg, which by all logic should have been amputated.” (p. 107)

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 popular metrical style called the tahwîf, which consists of two sung phrases to each line, originally meant to accompany pushing someone on a swing.

A beast to translate this must have been. Many sentences run fifty words and up and paint more quick-cuts than a TV commercial. Marjolijn de Jager certainly wins her kudos for that, although the occasional phrase rings a bit off, e.g., “the whole shebang” on p. 73.

“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.

One could say the same for times past in time future all over India.

© 2002 by Dana De Zoysa for Curled Up With a Good Book

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