Writing the enemy's language is more than just a matter of scribbling down a muttered monologue under your very nose; to use this alphabet involves placing your elbow some distance in front of you to form a bulwark - however, in this twisted position, the writing is washed back to you.
This language was imported in the murky, obscure past, spoils taken from the enemy with whom no fond word was ever exchanged... French, formerly the language of the law courts, used alike by judges and the convicted. Words of accusation, legal procedure, violence - that is the oral source of colonized people's French.
As I come to the inevitable ceasefire at the end of every war, my writing is washed up on the deserted seashores of the present day and looks for a place where a linguistic armistice can be arranged, a patio with fountains playing where people come and go.
This language was formerly used to entomb my people; when I write it today, I feel like the messenger of old, who bore a sealed missive which might sentence him to death or to the dungeon.
By laying myself bare in this language I start a fire which may consume me. For attempting an autobiography in the former enemy's language....
After five centuries of Roman occupation, an Algerian named Augustine undertakes to write his own biography in Latin. Speaks of his childhood, declares his love for his mother and his concubine, regrets his youthful wild oats and tells how he was eventually consumed with passion for a Christian god . And his writing presses into service, in all innocence, the same language as Caesar or Sulla - writers and generals of the successful 'African campaign'.
The same language has passed from the conquerors to the assimilated people; has grown more flexible after the corpses of the past have been enshrouded in words... Saint Augustine's style is borne along his ecstatic search for God. Without this passion, he would be destitute again: 'I have become to myself the country of destitution.' If this love did not maintain him in a blissful transport, his writing would be a self-laceration!
After the Bishop of Hippo Regius, a thousand years elapse. The Maghrib sees a procession of new invasions, new occupations... Repeated raids by the Banu Hilal tribesmen finally bleed the country white. Soon after this fatal turning point, the historian Ibn Khaldun, the innovatory author of The History of the Berbers, as great a figure as Augustine, rounds off a life of adventure and meditation by composing his autobiography in Arabic. He calls it Ta' arif, that is to say, 'Identity'.
As with Augustine, it matters little to him that he writes in a language introduced into the land of his fathers by conquest and accompanied by bloodshed! A language imposed by rape as much as by love...
Ibn Khaldun is now nearly seventy years of age: after an encounter with Tamerlane - his last exploit - he prepares to die in exile in Egypt. He suddenly obeys a yearning to turn back on himself: and he becomes the subject and object of a dispassionate autopsy.
For my part, even where I am composing the most commonplace of sentences, my writing is immediately caught in the snare of the old war between two peoples. So I swing like a pendulum from the images of war (war of conquest or of liberation, but always in the past) to the expression of a contradictory, ambiguous love.
My memory hides in a black mound of decomposing debris; the sound which carries it swirls upward out of reach of my pen. 'I write', declares Michaux, 'to undertake a journey through myself.' I journey through myself at the whim of the former enemy, the enemy whose language I have stolen...
Autobiography practised in the enemy's language has the texture of fiction, at least as long as you are desensitized by forgetting the dead the writing resurrects. While I thought I was undertaking a 'journey through myself', I find I am simply choosing another veil. While I intended every step forward to make me more clearly identifiable, I find myself progressively sucked down into the anonymity of those women of old - my ancestors!
I am forced to acknowledge a curious fact: the date of my birth is eighteen hundred forty two, the year when General Saint- Arnaud arrives to burn down the zaouia of the Beni Menacer, the tribe from which I am descended, and he goes into raptures over the orchards, the olive groves, 'the finest in the whole of Algeria', as he writes in a letter to his brother - orchards which have now disappeared.
It is Saint-Arnaud's fire that lights my way out of the harem one hundred years later: because its glow still surrounds me I find the strength to speak. Before I catch the sound of my own voice I can hear the death-rattles, the moans of those immured in the Dahra mountains and the prisoners on the island of Sainte-Marguerite; they provide my orchestral accompaniment. They summon me, encourage my faltering steps, so that at the given signal my solitary song takes off.
The language of the Others, in which I was enveloped from childhood, the gift my father lovingly bestowed on me, that language has adhered to me ever since like the Tunic of Nessus: that gift from my father who, every morning, took me by the hand to accompany me to school. A little Arab girl, in a village of the Algerian Sahel...
Assia Djebar, "Fantasia, an Algerian Cavalcade". Published originally in French, in 1985.