Miss City Discovers: The Veiled Flame

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Veiled Flame

The Veiled Flame

Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade shifts between time periods as well as perspectives in order to provide a complete record of the occupation of Algeria during the 19th century, as well as the Algerian woman’s life growing up in a war-ravaged, veiled and traditional society. Assia Djebar chronicles both the war events and personal narratives using titles with words or numbers and switching from points of views casually without explanation , perhaps suggesting that only a collective interpretation can create an all-encompassing perspective. If the reader wants to burn through the veil, that is the truth, it is necessary to gaze at the story from different vantage points. Smoke and fire are themes mentioned during moments of war and destruction, but fire-related imagery and tone are also used while describing personal storylines. The woman’s veil is also a recurring motif, illuminating the symbol of silencing and shielding the woman of Algeria. The significance of being veiled or concealed by smoke is relevant because women in Algeria and Algeria as an independent nation, feel clouded, stifled and uncomfortable with their own voice and image within society. 

During the chapter, “Women, Children, Oxen Dying in Caves”, Djebar accounts a specific massacre that occurred between the French and Berber tribes in Algeria. Field-Marshal Bugeaud gives the order to Colonel Pelissier to “do what Cavaignac did to the Sbeah, smoke them out mercilessly, like foxes!” (65). The following scene that ensues is one of torture, violence and heartbreak. A Spanish officer recounts the night: “What pen could do justice to this scene? To see, in the middle of the night, by moonlight, a body of French soldiers, busy keeping that hellfire alight! To hear the muffled groans of men, women, children, beasts, and the cracking of burnt rocks as they crumbled, and the continual gunfire!” (71) The description of the tribes’ “muffled groans” equates the tribesmen, women and children with the beasts in the cave that perish with them. By making them equal in death, the French imply they were equal in life. The method in which the Algerians cannot escape the torment of the French within the cave, blinded by the smoke from the flames is an exact reflection of the violent French occupation of Algeria. By recounting an event where innocent Algerians were disoriented by a fire’s smoke, unable to escape or even be heard through the ‘crackling of burnt rocks’, Djebar connects the way in which the many different players involved in the war stifled Algeria’s voice in the fight. “Pelissier, speaking on behalf of this long drawn-out agony, on behalf of fifteen hundred corpses buried beneath El-Kantara, with their flocks unceasingly bleating at death, hands me his report and I accept this palimpsest on which I now inscribe the charred passion of my ancestors.” (79) Djebar connects the genocide to her current age of struggle. She purposely uses the word “charred” to illuminate the idea that 100 years later, the Algerian people still bear the scars of their ancestors’ battle. She uses an anachronism to place her and Pelissier in the same time period. “He hands me his report” suggests that the violent battles Pelissier was fighting are struggles of Algeria’s existence during Djebar’s upbringing, as if there has been no lapse in time. She is grateful of Pelissier’s courage in outwardly speaking about the tragedy that he was directly involved in, and so she pays him the ultimate compliment by placing him in the same classification as herself, a veiled, silenced woman who is attempting to confront society by continuing to write what he began; with every word she writes over his “palimpsest” she attempts to avenge the tragedy of her ancestors that he triggered.

“Molten words, splinted firestones, diorites expelled from gaping lips, fire brand caresses when the harsh leaden silence crumbles, and the body seeks for its voice, like a fish swimming upstream.” (109) The fiery descriptive imagery used in this poem connect passion and pain. Molten, fire-brand caresses allude to a scene of burning destruction, but also overwhelming, uncontrollable desire. As the Algerian woman is on the cusp of releasing during this sexual act, she struggles like a “fish swimming upstream” because of the disconnect between her body and her mind.  As a woman so often silenced, her “gaping lips” attempt to speak, to make noise, to give solace to her body, but it’s close to impossible to make that single gratified noise. One moment of pleasure for the body is not enough convincing for the constantly veiled mind to release in its entirety. The Algerian woman’s battle is constantly uphill, and even when she wishes to scream out in a burst of fiery passion, her awareness of her shrouded existence fights her.

As a mother and daughter escape a scene of terror, they plunge into an unknown body of water, with flames raining down upon them. The innocent child exclaims, “Mother the fire’s eating you up! The fire’s eating you up!” (161) A youth, filled with purity, without understanding of Algeria’s history in war, proves that this moment is actuality in Algeria’s world, by stating the observable: this country is devastating its people. The country is destroying the mother physically, as her treasured and identifying hair is engulfed by flame, but also metaphorically destroying  a youth’s innocence as she comes to terms with not only Algeria’s situation, but also a woman’s place in war; no one is safe.

By using repeatedly using the symbol of fire and smoke, Djebar connects how Algeria is being clouded through a fog, hiding its voice in the fight. Yet the violence and difficulties of the country on the home front, including its woman’s role in society are openly illuminated by the “fire”,  and still there has been close to no change in 100 years. Smoke hides, yet fire illuminates and one does not arise without the other, suggesting that the veil of Algeria may never be lifted to completely reveal the turmoil within.
“So wrap the nubile girls in veils. Make her invisible. Make her more unseeing than the sightless, destroy in her every memory of the world without.” (3) A nubile girl is one who is young and desirable, ready for marriage. Djebar is suggesting that this is the burden Algeria places on their women. To make her invisible is to take away her power. But to make her unseeing vanishes the man from visibility and authority also. Algeria is blind, while simultaneously veiling itself to the rest of the world. This passage suggests that to take away the importance of one half of Algeria is to decimate the entire population.
“Her son must have fallen in love with your silhouette and your eyes.” (10) A silhouette is only a shell, a shadow of a real person.  There is no mention of voice, intelligence or even humanity in this description of a woman’s allure. Men in Algeria are raised to believe that all women contribute to society are their bodies and their procreation capacities. The woman’s eyes that are told not to see capture the desire of her dominators, suggesting that veiling does not always silence power.  To occupiers, Algeria is just a commodity, something to be used for gain, never to voice opinions or grasp its own identity.

The attempt to rid Algerian women of a voice and of vision in society is a direct correlation of the lack of control Algeria has in its own political and war affairs. Whether it is the man, or another country, Algeria may be the subjected, but not the defeated. The war between the French and Algeria has been in session for over 100 years, suggesting that the Algerians will not back down until they have a voice, and Djebar shows that women have the same mindset regarding their role in society.

“As the majestic fleet rends the horizon, the Impregnable City sheds her veil and emerges, a wraith-like apparition though the blue-grey haze.” (6) To rend is to slash and shred; the depiction of their arrival towards the feeble is vicious. The untouchable but tremendously vulnerable woman that is Algeria unveils herself, but not completely. Her appearance in the distance to the occupiers is ghost like, forcing them to enrich their vision, to see what desires to be invisible. This suggests that until the haze is utterly clear and the veil completely lifted, neither the besieger nor the besieged can see the true intentions of the other. The combination of violent war-like imagery (“rends the horizon”) and the delicate imagery of a lesser power (“sheds her veil”) is a contrast that makes visible the incongruity of Algeria. 

 “I was certain a light would blaze down from the ceiling and reveal our sin…” (13) Djebar worries that her parents will learn of the secret love letters she has been writing with friends. To blaze in a fire, is to reveal, illuminate or unveil. Not only a young woman, who is told never to express lust or desire for a man unless they are married, feels guilt and fears exposure from a blazing light, but also Algeria feels the guilt of subjecting its people to the pillaging of war.  “Torch-words which light up my women companions, my accomplices.” (142) From childhood to adulthood, language and the written word proves to still be a barrier faced by women. The description of “torch-words” imply a sting is suffered for each written explanation of emotion. The brave words written to contribute a woman’s voice shed light on the women of Algeria, who have always found relief within each other’s company.

“Her body and her face are once more engulfed in shadow as she whispers her story – a butterfly displayed on a pin with the dust from its crushed wing staining one’s finger.” (141) This passage describes a shadowbox with a butterfly. A woman tries to preserve the beautiful, delicate creature by killing it, and is left with the stain on her fingers.  The mark of death doesn’t leave one who has killed in war or maybe in matters of the heart. But also, by Djebar’s telling of these stories, she writes over another kind of palimpsest, one that she writes in order to preserve the memories of her ancestors and the fight of women to earn their rights, but in the meantime she injures her country and the guilt is left on her heart. “Her body and face are once more engulfed in shadow” indicates that finally, her telling of these accounts leaves her alone to fight the flames and resist the pull into darkness, refusing to veil her thoughts once and for all. 

Algeria as a nation, and the Algerian woman both contain a fiery passion within; both try to be stifled, but neither extinguish. Just like Algeria will never stop fighting for her independence, neither will the woman of Algeria. Djebar tells the story of her country to unveil the truth, see through the smoke and gaze at the reality. Although smoke may veil, fire will always illuminate, and one does not arise without the other. The fight will continue, in the souls, and in the pens of every citizen of Algeria who wishes to see and be seen.

Works Cited
Djebar, Assia. Fantasia, an Algerian cavalcade. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1993.


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