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Backstory: Assia Djebar, the unlikeliest French 'immortal'

Heads turned when Assia Djebar – a prominent voice of Arab women – joined the likes of Voltaire and Victor Hugo in the elite Académie Française.

By Susan SachsCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 7, 2006


First comes the coffee, poured dark and strong into tiny cups. Algerian flat bread, slightly sweet yet slightly tangy and still warm from the bakery around the corner, is presented on plates.

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Only then is Assia Djebar ready to speak.

But hold on tight. Start a conversation with this 70-year-old novelist and historian, the newest elected "Immortal" in the prestigious Académie Française, and get ready for a literary roller-coaster ride. A reflection on contemporary French language suddenly soars back 1,500 years to the theologian, Augustine, who was born near Ms. Djebar's Algerian hometown and shared her hatred of religious violence. She fast-forwards to her 1974 film about Berber women, takes a loop-the-loop to dwell briefly on the structure of the 18th-century British novel, and comes to rest on the politics of language in France's former colonies.

"Have I answered your question?" she asks with a hint of concern and another cup of coffee.

Djebar, a brunette with a velvety complexion that belies her age, is one of the best-known and most prolific writers on the condition of women in the Arab world. She writes in French, the language she learned as a schoolgirl when Algeria was a French colonial possession. It is "the language of the occupier," she said in one of her essays, but also her "second skin" and "the house that I inhabit."

While she spends much of her time traveling, her home in Paris is a book-crammed flat overlooking the sprawling greenery of the Père Lachaise cemetery. The walls are hung with a few simple paintings of traditionally dressed Arab women. A photograph of two grandchildren dominates the ledge under a mirror.

Perched on a cushioned sofa, the coffee pot before her on an engraved brass tray, Djebar speaks her mind firmly and in flowing French, betraying not the slightest self-doubt. She is, she says, a "migrant" who can be comfortable in countless places in the world.

Her stories, on the other hand, are most often told in the dreamy impatient voices of women suspended between their mothers' tradition-bound Muslim culture and the tantalizing freedoms of the west. They fight to be heard above the thunder of male tyranny and the Islamic fundamentalism that seek to keep them silent and invisible.

The backdrop of much of her work is Algeria's modern history, a topic painful to many in France who once administered the country, settled there, and fought there to keep it part of France. Djebar, who holds dual nationality, writes from her own Algerian perspective about Algeria's war of independence in the 1950s, its bitter break from France in 1962, and the wave of assassinations by Islamic extremists in the 1990s.

She has been uncompromising in her portrayal of those many bloody years. And that's why she turned more than a few heads when, in June, she took her seat as one of the 40 members of the elite Académie Française. Djebar is the first North African and only the fifth woman ever elected to the Académie, the august body created by royal decree in 1635 to preserve the purity of the French language.

It's France's most exclusive club, a pantheon of literary heavyweights who select new members by secret ballot after heated, sometimes brazen, lobbying from publishers and intellectuals. To take a measure of its significance in French society, think of an American club that admits only Nobel Prize winners. Visualize pomp: On ceremonial occasions, each member dons a special jacket embroidered with green olive branches, a sword, a red tie, and a boatlike feathered hat.