A list of life-writing by Algerian women that’s worth reading:
By Hiyem Cheurfa
After ArabLit’s list of 12 Must-read Memoirs in Arabic, I proposed a similar list of (auto)biographical texts by Algerian women, whose contribution to the genre has often been critically obscured. The following list, which I have compiled with the help of my fellow Twitter users, comprises twelve narratives by Algerian women that I think are worth reading. This is clearly a non-exhaustive reading list and can be easily expanded. It includes works in Arabic, French, and English (translations when available) and comprises a variety of autobiographical subgenres including diaries, testimonies, and literary auto-portraits.
A common and conspicuous theme across the suggested texts below is that they are either set within or draw heavily from the national struggle against French colonial rule and its lingering aftermath in Algeria. They reflect a collective ethos through which the personal “I” becomes a vehicle to explore national and historical issues. This suggests the way in which Algerian colonial history is arguably central to its cultural and literary productions.
Equally, with the current ḥirak (protest movement) that has been taking place since February 22 in Algeria, the understanding of Algerian women’s roles and participation in the ongoing movement is one that compels historical (re)considerations of their different experiences in (post)colonial Algeria, which can perhaps be best channelled through first-hand accounts.
My Life Story: The Autobiography of a Berber Woman (1989) by Fadhma Amrouche.
Perhaps, the earliest (known) autobiography by an Algerian Amazigh woman. Fadhma Amrouche is a prominent Berber poet and singer who recounts, in this narrative, her life in French colonial Algeria. The draft of her autobiography was collected and published posthumously by her son and author Jean Amrouche. Translated to English from the French L’histoire de ma vie (1968) by Dorothy Blair.
Femmes au combat: la guerre d’Algérie (1954-1962) (1993) by Danièèle Djamila Amrane-Minne.
This historical account — originally the doctoral thesis of Algerian historian, intellectual, and FLN militant Djamila Amrane — comprises 88 personal testimonies of Algerian women combatants who recount their experiences before, during, and after the liberation movement.
Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade (1995) by Assia Djebar.
The architecture of memory: a Jewish-Muslim household in colonial Algeria, 1937-1962 (1996) by Joelle Bahloul
A cultural and ethnographic account on the author’s life among the community of Algerian Jews before independence. Translated to English from the French La maison de mémoire (1992) by Catherine Du Pelous Ménage
Unbowed: An Algerian Woman Confronts Islamic Fundamentalism (1998) by Khalida Messaoudi (interviewed by) Elisabeth Schemla
A series of interviews with a French journalist, this book presents a first-hand account by prominent Algerian political figure Khalida Messaoudi on her experiences of Islamic extremism. Translated to English from the French Une Algérienne Debout (1995) by Anne C. Vila.
“Writing against Time and History” (1998), Ahlam Mosteghanemi
This is an autobiographical essay by contemporary Arabophone author Mosteghanemi in which she speaks about her struggles as a women writer growing up in postcolonial Algeria. Translated from Arabic by Fadia Faqir in her edited collection In the House of Silence: Autobiographical Essays by Arab Women Writers (1998)
Algérienne (2001) by Louisette Ighilahriz
A memoir by the Algerian militant Louisette Ighilahriz. It presents a testimony of her traumatic experiences of torture and captivity during the Algerian war of independence.
L’une et l’autre by (2009) by Maïssa Bey
This text is a literary self-portrait of 60 pages, in which celebrated Francophone author Maïssa Bey reflects on the effects of the lingering French culture and history of colonialism in Algeria on her sense of alterity.
ʿAbra al-wurudi w-al-achwāk: massār Imraʾa by Z’Hour Ounissi (2012)
One of the few available autobiographical narratives in Arabic by an Algerian woman author. It presents the life experiences of Ounissi, an Algerian teacher, militant, and political personality.
Arabic as a Secret Song: Nine Narratives from the Life of an Exiled Artist (2015) by Leila Sebbar
A collection of nine autobiographical essays. Translated from the French L’arabe comme un chant secret (2007) by Skyler Artes.
Mémoire anachronique: Lettre à moi-même et à quelques autres (2016) by Alice Cherki
This narrative, a melange of memoir and diary, is composed in the period between 2004 and 2004. It recounts the author’s experiences over that period with recollections from the history of the Algerian War.
Inside the Battle of Algiers: Memoirs of a Woman Freedom Fighter (2017) by Zohra Drif
A memoir by the revolutionary symbol Zohra Drif which provides invaluable insights into her role and activism during the Algerian war of independence. Translated from the French Mémoires d’une combattante de l’ALN : Zone Autonome d’Alger (2014) by Andrew Farrand.
Hiyem Cheurfa is a Ph.D. student and a teaching assistant at the Department of English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University, UK. She specializes in postcolonial and autobiographical studies, with a particular interest in MENA women’s literature.
Click HERE to read more from this author.