Algerian Novelist Maissa Bey:
The Rebel’s Daughter
By Suzanne Ruta
Algerian novelist, teacher and community activist Maissa Bey is a “fille de chahid”—the daughter of a martyr. Her father was one of the 300,000 Algerians killed by the French in the brutal war for independence, 1954-62. Abjuring that pompous designation, Bey prefers to remember her father as a rebel, the son of an illiterate peasant, who somehow managed, in colonial times, when opportunities were rare , to get an education. As she recalls in a beautiful essay, “Mon Père ,ce Rebelle” [My Father, the Rebel], by 1955 her father was both a popular elementary school teacher and a noncombatant leader in the FLN (National Liberation Front). In February 1957, he was dragged out of his house in the village of Boghari, south of Algiers, tortured by French gendarmes for an entire night, and summarily executed the next morning. Bey was six at the time, and witnessed his arrest.
Early trauma and loss fracture her work—four highly original novels and two story collections in the past ten years—along startling fault lines. Dazed, amnesiac orphan girls search for their true identity, while remaining sharp, sympathetic observers of other women’s lives.
Womens Review of Books spoke to Bey in Paris and Sidi Bel Abbès last spring by phone and e-mail.
WRB: Your father’s family was all but wiped out in the war for independence.
MB: My father and two brothers were killed right away. The last brother died three years later in combat. My grandfather lost all his sons. He died right after the war, of grief, people said. My mother also lost a brother in the war. It took a big toll on us.
WRB: Assia Djebar [see page XX] says that for Algerian women writers, it helps to have a European mother, because “les interdits viennent de la mère” [“prohibitions come from the mother”] Do you agree?
MB: My mother was thirty, with five small children, when she was widowed. She never remarried. Despite all her suffering, she did not raise us in a culture of hatred for France and the French. But as a widow she was very frightened of the consequences of her behavior and afraid people would point the finger of blame at her daughters. The social pressure on women is tremendous. Women are under constant scrutiny from all sides. She was relieved to see us married.
WRB: You taught yourself to read at an early age, during evening adult literacy classes your father gave.
MB: “She’s always got her nose in a book,” they said about me. I wasn’t interested in games, in making friends, or in meeting people. I read instead—indiscriminately. Since I couldn’t afford books, I read comic strips, photonovelas, and romance novels. I read the Thousand and One Nights when I was ten. I didn’t understand everything. But it fed me. Reading is a form of nourishment.
WRB : Algeria is recovering from a decade of horrendous violence—the second Algerian War, it’s sometimes called. Over 200,000 people perished, thousands disappeared, and many professionals emigrated, including 35,000 teachers. How did you, a French teacher in a lycée [high school], live through those years, when French teachers in particular were a target of Islamist terror?
MB: The extremists wanted to bring the country to a halt. Our resistance was at the level of daily life. Going to work, opening your store in the morning, going to the lycée to teach each day, hoping it would not be your last. The terrorists would have forbidden the teaching of French—also music, sports, and drawing. As an unveiled woman, I was well aware that my “flaws” were numerous. But I never worked as well with my students as in those years. Together we made each lesson a little island of resistance. I encouraged dialogue. I taught not only French but the values I believe in.
WRB: Can you describe a typical class ?
MB: Some teachers require boys and girls to sit separately. First off, I told them they could sit where they liked. Then, we worked with texts I chose for them. One day, for example, I put on the blackboard the first line of Rimbaud’s poem “Romance”: “On n’est pas sérieux quand on a dix-sept ans.” [“Nobody is serious at seventeen.”] The young people—ages sixteen to eighteen—really opened up that day and talked about themselves, boys and girls both. There was real cameraderie in my classes.
WRB: And in other classes?
MB: There was a math teacher who delivered lectures in theology instead of math. History and geography are still taught in way that instills hatred. A lot of trouble is going to come from that later on. As soon as it’s a matter of religion, however, everyone panics, terrified of being viewed as an unbeliever. Parents are frightened too. A niece of mine just starting at the lycée found classmates beginning to wear the veil. The first day they come in veiled, their teacher asks them to stand up and has the class applaud.
WRB: And some girls are forced to leave school altogether.
MB: Until rather recently, there were as many girls as boys in school, right through university, and the girls had a higher success rate. But since the recent events that shook Algeria, we have noticed that a greater number of young women and girls are leaving school—more for economic than for religious reasons. If you can’t afford to educate all your children, of course you’ll favor your son or your sons, and economic hardship is often offered as a pretext, especially in rural areas. [A 2003 study found that 30 percent of Algerian women had never been to school, as opposed to 16.9 percent of men.]
WRB : Your early novel, Au Commencement était la Mer [In the beginning there was the sea] (Marsa, 1996) is a shocker by any standards. Nadia, a seventeen-year-old girl, has a brief love affair and a clandestine abortion, described in cool detail, and is stoned to death by her Islamist brother. That was your first published work. Did you go out of your way to break taboos ?
MB:. As the threats and prohibitions multiplied, this paradoxically unleashed in me a desire to write in order to be read. I published under a pseudonym at first, to protect myself and above all to protect my family. [Bey’s real name is Samia Benameur; read in France, she went public as a writer in Algeria only in 2000.] I didn’t deliberately set out to break taboos, but I felt I was becoming more and more deeply mired in silences and compromises, and I wanted to break free. I wasn’t aware of the “violence” of what I had written until I reread it.
WRB: Hundreds of Algerian intellectuals—writers, reporters, scientists, musicians, doctors—were executed under Islamist fatwas in the mid 1990s. Some losses must have hit you especially hard.
MB: Salah Chouaki was an educator, an exceptional man, tremendously erudite and cultured and forceful. He knew he was targeted for assassination. He disguised himself. He dyed his hair and made it sound like a game. [He was shot in his car on his way to work in Sept 1994.] After his death, I began to write my first novel.
WRB: The tragic story Sofiane B, Vingt Ans, [Sofiane B., Twenty Years Old] from the collection Nouvelles d’Algérie [Stories of Algeria] (Grasset, 1998) zeroes in on a young man who leaves home to join a terrorist group and winds up dead at the age of twenty. Among Algerian novelists, only you and Salima Ghezali (Les Amants de Shahrazade [Scheherezade’s Lovers], Editions de l’Aube, 1999), it seems, have explored the sexual or psychological confusion, the father-son conflict, that might drive a young man to join a terrorist group.
MB: My twenty-year-old nephew met his death at the end of such a path, where he had no idea of the stakes involved—like many other young men who disappeared in similar circumstances. Men in our country have, or think they have, freedom of choice. But there are some choices that lead right to the preplanned destruction of any form of freedom.
WRB: Your novels are full of women in flight. They too demand their freedom and refuse to submit to the demands of the family or the tribe. In your second novel, Cette fille-là [That Girl] young Malika, the orphan, “daughter of no one,” lives in a mysterious asylum with a group of older women whose stories she narrates with great verve. Their lives are over, but she’s still searching. You have often spoken of your own loneliness as an orphan, but it seems to be a source of freedom too.
MB: Freedom by the power that writing can give one: that is, the ability and the desire to transmit a story, but above all, simply to speak. These women, most of whom really existed, have no other voice than that of a narrator in search of her own history. In this novel I wanted to liberate captive voices and inaudible screams—“minuscule lives,” to borrow the term coined by French writer Pierre Michon—to bring them into written history, because just as they are, they represent the underside of a society that claims, quite hypocritically, that it has freed itself from all forms of oppression.
WRB: Your latest novel, Don’t Look Back, [Surtout ne te retourne pas] (Editions de l’Aube, 2005), which will be available in English soon, celebrates the survivors of Algeria’s 2003 earthquake. A young amnesiac finds shelter and sustenance in a tent city where women have taken the lead in restoring a semblance of normal life. Isn’t that what you’re doing in your hometown of Sidi Bel Abbès, in a region hard hit by the 1990s violence? The Islamists who won the municipal elections of 1990 shut down the town’s public library. With the help of a 50,000-euro grant from the European Union, you and your colleagues in the women writers group Paroles et Ecriture [Speech and Writing], have replaced it with beautiful new library that opened last November. How did you do it?
MB: We had a very hard time winning acceptance for the idea—just the idea—of a space open to all, where the shelves could hold, side by side, books in every language—French, Arabic, German, English, and others—of every literary genre, and available to everyone who longs to renew the contact—lost decades ago in our country—with the physical reality of books.
We faced disapproval of us personally—as emancipated women minus complexes or veils—and bureaucratic obstacles: promises made and immediately rescinded, rejection, humiliation, full scale interrogations about our hidden aims and our stated goals, and sarcasm and snares. Finally we managed to obtain first a locale and then a functioning library, really open to all and startling in its simplicity, its intentional sobriety and clarity.
WRB: Finally, I’d like to bring up a subject that drives Americans to rage and despair these days: torture. Your brief novel Entendez-vous dans les Montagnes …[Do you hear it in the Mountains…] (Editions de l’Aube, 2002) confronts your father’s death head-on. On a high speed train between Paris and Marseille in 1995, an Algerian woman meets an elderly French physician, who as a very young army recruit in Algeria in 1957 witnessed her father’s torture. Torture harms not only the victim but his entire family. There is no healing. This must have been a difficult book to write.
MB: I hesitated for a very long time before writing. Unlike many authors in my country or elsewhere, I didn’t want to focus my efforts on lamentation nor on celebration of the inevitably glorious past raised to the level of a guiding myth for future generations.
And it took me all this time to summon the courage to tear loose from the “black room “ certain painful images that obsess or assault one and leave one wondering about the role of the inhuman. There was the desire to take a stand against silence and amnesia and denial, to recreate moments one hasn’t lived but that have forged one’s awareness of the world. To achieve a sort of reenactment—as in police work.
WRB: The book is dedicated, heartbreakingly, to “the one who will never be able to read these lines.” And to your sons. Two wars in one lifetime: where do you get your courage?
MB: I wouldn’t call it courage, simply determination, the will to go on. When you have children and you’re a teacher—the two are akin—you have a responsibility to go the limit, to survive and transmit something to others.
The new public library in Sidi Bel Abbes is building collections in several languages, including English. You can send a copy of your favorite book to
BIBLIOTHEQUE PAROLES ET ECRITURE
17, rue Aissat Idir
22000 Sidi Bel Abbes, Algeria
For more information, write to firstname.lastname@example.org
Susanne Ruta is a long time contributor to Women’s Review of Books.