Country Focus: Algeria (Al Jaza’ir in Arabic)
So Vast the Prison
By Assia Djebar
Translated by Betsy Wing
Originally published in French as Vaste est la prison by Éditions Albin Michel S.A., 1995.
My edition: Seven Stories Press, 1999.
Time period: 1500s – 1994
The despairing title So Vast the Prison comes from the lines of a Berber song quoted within Assia Djebar’s complex novel: “So vast the prison crushing me / Release, where will you come from?” The prisons that Djebar seems most interested in exploring are metaphorical: the prison of the veil and the prison of a relationship.
Djebar opens with a tale of unrequited love. Our narrator, Isma, pines for her “Beloved,” a man ten years her junior. Their relationship consists of little more than intense gazes and a few stolen conversations, but these extramarital pleasures are enough to render her giddy and light-hearted, a child again at 37. She’s so intoxicated by this year-long crush that she fesses up to her suspicious husband. He beats her to a pulp, saying, “Anywhere, except this city of iniquity, you would deserve to be stoned!”
After her wounds heal, Isma asks her husband’s forgiveness and returns to the prison of her marriage. The reunification is short-lived. Her husband confronts his rival in a nightclub; the men’s primal behavior causes Isma to lose all interest in her former “Beloved” and motivates her to leave her husband.
Her marriage over, Isma moves in with her mother’s sister, who tells her stories about Isma’s grandmother and mother. Isma also reflects on her own past, especially the time when her family lived in Algiers and coexisted uneasily alongside Algeria’s occupiers — “French people from France.”* Each generation of women has pushed their daughters one more step closer to freedom from the veil and from l’e’dou – the name that Algerian women have called their men for centuries – “the enemy.” In less than a century, the change is profound. Isma’s grandmother was a veiled fourteen-year-old who was given in marriage to a man rumored to be 100; Isma’s daughter attends a university in France. Isma says that she doesn’t dare desire freedom, “Freedom is too vast a word! Let us be more modest, desiring only to breathe in air that is free.”
As part of her healing process, Isma begins filming a semi-documentary film called Arable Woman. Instead of peering through a veil like her mother and grandmother, she puts her eye to the camera’s viewfinder, directing its lens to tell her stories. This sophisticated aperture will help Isma share what millions of “incarcerated” Algerian women have endured.
In So Vast the Prison Djebar writes of the ephemeral nature of life, of the written word, and of stone. The written language of of her ancestors – a North African ethnic group called the Berbers – was lost to the world for centuries. Only a stone slab inscribed with Berber, Punic and Latin, discovered on the walls of a mausoleum in the ancient city of Dougga in 1631, enabled the Berber text to be deciphered and revived.
So Vast the Prison awards the in-depth reader, not the casual one. A college semester could be well-spent delving into this text, rich with themes and historical references. I thought that Djebar’s message would have been more accessible had it not been for so many transitions between time, character or subject matter. Part One, Isma’s relationship with the “Beloved” was straightforward enough, but then the abrupt transition to Part Two – all about ancient history – left me scratching my head. I was glad to return to Isma in Part Three, but had difficultly keeping track of Djebar’s jumps from generation to generation, not to mention the actors and peasants involved in the movie-making scenes. I was in over my head, but serious readers of women’s issues and North African literary fiction, won’t want to miss this one.
*the French occupied Algeria from 1830 to 1962
“Because they [men] spy, they watch, they snoop! Smothered this way you go to the market, the hospital, the office, the workplace. You hurry; you try to make yourself invisible. You know that they have learned to make out your hips or your shoulders through the cloth, that they are judging your ankles, that in case the wind lifts your veil, they hope to see your hair, your neck, your leg. You cannot exist outside: the street is theirs, the world is theirs. Theoretically you have the right to equality but shut up ‘inside,’ confined. Incarcerated.”
This artificial gaze that they have left you, smaller, a hundred, a thousand times more restricted than the one given you by Allah at birth, this strange slit that the tourists photograph because they think it is picturesque to have a little black triangle where the eye should be, this miniature gaze will henceforth be my camera. All of us from the world of the shadow women, reversing the process: We are the ones finally looking, who are beginning.