Assia Djebar: Little Arab Girl's First Day at School
14. January 2010 12:19
First Chapter of Assia Djebar´s book: Fantasia
A little Arab girl going to school for the first time, one autumn morning, walking hand in hand with her father. A tall erect figure in a fez and a European suit, carrying a bag of school books. He is a teacher at the French primary school. A little Arab girl in a village in the Algerian Sahel.
Towns or villages of narrow white alleyways and windowless houses. From the very first day that a little girl leaves her home to learn the ABC, the neighbours adopt that knowing look of those who in ten or fifteen years' time will be able to say 'I told you so!' while commiserating with the foolhardy father, the irresponsible brother. For misfortune will inevitably befall them. Any girl who has had some schooling will have learned to write and will without a doubt write that fatal letter. For her the time will come when there will be more danger in love that is committed to paper than love that languishes behind enclosing walls.
So wrap the nubile girl in veils. Make her invisible. Make her more unseeing than the sightless, destroy in her every memory of the world without. And what if she has learned to write? The jailer who guards a body that has no words - and written words can travel - may sleep in peace: it will suffice to brick up the windows, padlock the sole entrance door, and erect a blank wall rising up to heaven.
And what if the maiden docs write? Her voice, albeit silenced, will circulate. A scrap-of paper. A crumpled cloth. A servant-girl's hand in the dark. A child, let into the secret. The jailer must keep watch day and night. The written word will take flight from the patio, will be tossed from a terrace. The blue of heaven is suddenly limitless. The precautions have all been in vain.
At seventeen I am introduced to my first experience of love through a letter written by a boy, a stranger. Whether acting thoughtlessly or out of bravado, he writes quite openly. My father, in a fit of silent fury, tears up the letter before my eyes and throws it into the waste-paper basket without letting me read it.
As soon as term ends at my boarding school, I now spend the summer holidays back in the village, shut up in the flat overlooking the school playground. During the siesta hour, I piece together the letter which has aroused my father's fury. The mysterious correspondent says he remembers seeing me go up on to the platform during the prize-giving ceremony which took place two or three days previously, in the neighbouring town. I recall staring at him rather defiantly as I passed him in the corridors of the boys' high school. He writes very formally suggesting that we exchange friendly letters. In. my father's eyes, such a request is not merely completely indecent, but this invitation is tantamount to setting the stage for rape.
Simply because my father wanted to destroy the letter, I interpreted the conventional French wording used by this student on holiday as the cryptic expression of some sudden, desperate passion.
During the months and years that followed, I became absorbed by this business of love, or rather by the prohibition laid on love; my father's condemnation only served to encourage the intrigue. In these early stages of my sentimental education, our secret correspondence is carried on in French: thus the language that my father had been at pains for me to learn, serves as a go-between, and from now a double, contradictory sign reigns over my initiation . ..
As with the heroine of a Western romance, youthful defiance helped me break out of the circle that whispering elders traced around me and within me ... Then love came to be transformed in the tunnel of pleasure, soft clay to be moulded by matrimony.
Memory purges and purifies the sounds of childhood; we are cocooned by childhood until the discovery of sensuality, which washes over us and gradually bedazzles us ... Voiceless, cut off from my mother's words by some trick of memory, I managed to pass through the dark waters of the corridor, miraculously inviolate, not even guessing at the enclosing walls. The shock of the first words blurted out: the truth emerging from a break in my stammering voice. From what nocturnal reef of pleasure did I manage to wrest this truth?
I blew the space within me to pieces, a space filled with desperate voiceless cries, frozen long ago in a prehistory of love. Once I had
discovered the meaning of the words - those same words that are revealed to the unveiled body - I cut myself adrift. I set off at dawn, with my little girl's hand in mine.
Translated from the French by Dorothy S.Blair