Exilic Struggles for Selfhood in Assia Djebar’s Le Corps de Félicie, by Christa Jones

“Le Corps de Félicie,” part of a collection of short stories entitled Oran langue morte (1997)1 tells of the life and death of a French Catholic named Félicie Marie Germaine. Unable to look after his two teenage daughters following his wife’s death, Félicie’s father places twelve-year-old Félicie2 as a servant in a wealthy upper class family in Le Havre. In 1939, at the eve of the Second World War, the then 19-year-old meets and falls in love with a handsome Algerian named Mohammed Miloudi, a sergeant-major ten years her senior. Félicie marries Mohammed and follows him to his native Oran, a coastal town in Algeria, where they settle and start a family. A Catholic in a Muslim society, unable to speak Arabic, Félicie happily spends over fifty years—her entire adult life—in Oranwith her beloved husband and their eight children.3 Felicie thus experiences both colonial (Algeria was a French colony from 1830 until 3 July 1962 when the French government acknowledged its independence) and post-colonial Algeria as well as the Algerian War of Independence, which lasted from 1 November 1954 (when FLN [Front de Libération National] military activity started throughout Algeria) until the conclusion of the Evian treaty on 19 March 1962 and the country’s yes vote for self-rule on 1 July of the same year.

 

         Maghrebian French literature written by women tends to depict an identitary “in-between” state either because the authors live abroad while their novels are set in Algeria —as is the case of Assia Djebar who lives in New York— or because they deal with intrinsically maghrebian subjects such as the Algerian War of Liberation (Segarra 151). Assia Djebar’s “Le Corps de Félicie” is a fine example of  “in-between-ness”, as will be shown by an analysis of the main character’s life in exile and post-mortem transformation as well as her children’s selfhood problems. Oran, Langue Morte breathes post-colonial discourse, a historical condition, rather than a chronological period, a way of contending with colonial oppression, the discourse of the colonized, which “begins at the moment of invasion and doesn’t stop when the colonizers go home” (Ashcroft “Hyphen” 24). Through close textual analysis, this essay defines and explores post-colonial aspects in the historical context of a violent colonial and post-colonial Algeria, revealing how concepts of selfhood and identity depend on certain religious, linguistic and national binaries as well as family ties.     

                                  

The story starts out with a description of comatose 74-year-old Félicie, a woman who has experienced both colonized and decolonized Algeria at first hand, at this point widowed for ten years and seemingly on her deathbed. Unable to reflect aloud on her life, the two narrators, her eldest son Armand/Karim and her youngest daughter Ourdia/Louise, tell her story in the hopes that she may awaken from her coma, resulting, as we will see, in a post-colonial discourse that is “crucially concerned with the intersections of marginality, the dismantling of the center/margins binarisms and giving a voice to those who live in the blank white spaces at the edge of print… in the gaps between the stories, but principally the stories through which imperial dominance has been formed.” (Ashcroft “Hyphen” 24). In a sense, Félicie clearly is a post-colonial subject: married to an Algerian and a French citizen and thus a colonial subject herself, yet refusing to befriend any of the so-called pieds-noirs, “around one million French settlers in 1954 who have lived and worked in Algeria for generations” (Stora 4) and unable to truly communicate with the Arabic indigenous population, Félicie inhabits such a blank space or no man’s land. Through her nonconventional marriage—a female citizen of the colonizing nation wedding a male Muslim Algerian citizen who is by definition a colonized subject—she has broken taboos, thus entering the  “very domain of post-colonial theory … the domain of overlap between these imperial binary oppositions, the area in which ambivalence, hybridity and complexity continually disrupt the certainties of imperial logic” (Ashcroft Post-Colonial 26-7).

 

         The story mentions only five 4 of the Mildoudi children by name, in particular the two narrators, Armand/Karim, Louise/Ourdia as well as Marie/Khadidja, Yvon/Khellil and Kader/Jean. It further mentions an adopted son, Younès as well as a little girl that died during infancy. When Félicie passes away in a Parisian hospital, her children debate whether or not to “repatriate” (the word is not entirely correct since she never gave up her French citizenship in her lifetime, nor did she adopt Algerian citizenship) or transfer her corpse to Algeria and lay her to rest in the matrimonial tomb. After lengthy discussions, Félicie’s corpse is finally transferred and inhumed in Algeria, but not without having beforehand received a new, Muslim identiy and Arab name: Yasmina Miloudi. As Edward Said notes, “identity—who we are, where we come from, what we are—is difficult to maintain in exile” (Sky 16). Ironically, in contrast to her children, the exiled Félicie had no problem whatsoever maintaining a sense of identity. It is only when her life ends and her body becomes the focus of conflict that her children perform a drastic change of identity without her prior knowledge or consent. Ultimately, Félicie alias Yasmina follows, as will be shown, in her children’s footsteps.

 

         The greater part of the text is devoted to the dialogue of the narrator Armand/Karim

even though, as the title suggests, Félicie’s body is the bone of contention and one could arguably say that the whole text is “written” on Félicie’s body. Sitting by his mother’s bed next to his younger sister Ourdia/Louise, Armand/Karim hopes to wake his mother from her coma by addressing a long internal dialogue to her, convinced that she can hear his thoughts:

Ils ne savent pas, moi, je sais ! Je te parle en silence et tu es seule à m’écouter ! Je te parle en silence et tu es seule à m’écouter, Mman ! (Oran 239) 

 

In his daily, deaf  “dialogues” (247)5 or rather monologues, “silence violent” (Oran 286), Armand/Karim mulls over childhood memories of a happy life in Oran, hoping to pry his mother from the grip of death. Finally, a small miracle happens. For a short instant, Félicie regains consciousness, turns to her son, silently gazes at him for about a minute, then falls back and expires:

Mman se redresse, s’assoit. Tourne la tête, vers sa gauche, vers moi. Une minute au moins. Retombe d’un coup en arrière. Ferme les yeux. Mman !(Oran 286)

 

Thus, to some extent, the story certainly is a “long reconciliation with the idea that Félicie won’t ever speak again, not even to tell her eldest son Karim-Armand-Titi one more time that she loves him” (Rosello 136). But, more importantly, the story bears testimony to colonial and post-colonial violence, outlining the journey of a woman, a French citizen, marginalized in a society eager to free itself from the shackles of the former colonizer. In this context, Félicie emerges as a victim in situations of postcolonial violence but at the same time as a woman empowered to unify apparently unbridgable differences of race, religion, language and nationality. For instance, the story refers to the massacres that took place during the celebrations of independence day in Oran on 5 July 1962 when parts of the Muslim population invaded the European quarters where the Miloudi family resided5. This grim day in the history of the city accounted for numerous deaths, not just among Europeans but also among the local population :

 

                … un jour noir qui fit une centaine de victimes pas seulement des Européens ou des gens qui en avaient l’air . . . Il y eut des Tlemceniens au teint clair et à l’allure occidentalisée qui furent, également massacrés . . . !  (Oran 344) 

 

The official numbers provided by Dr. Mostefa Naït, director of Oran’s Hospital Center, points to 95 people killed (twenty of whom where Europeans, thirteen of whom were knived to death) and 161 injured. The European victims of the attacks witnessed numerous scenes of torture, looting and abductions (Stora 85). Félicie, an obvious target for the French-hating indigenous Muslim population, was lucky to escape unhurt from this carnage, thanks to a necklace in the shape of a Coran adorned with a calligraphy of the name of Allah in Arab letters, a good-luck charm given to her as a gift by her husband. The story dramatically tells how a young man with a knife in his hand readies himself to stab Félicie only to stop short when he sees the necklace around her neck. The Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun stresses the powerful symbolism of the Coran in a Muslim society stating that every society has “a  screen of acceptable signs, banning everything outside of those authorized signs. In our [Muslim] society, the whole of these signs is a book” (Harrouda 21). In this instance, the Coran clearly functions as a life saver, deterring any devout Muslim from killing another devout Muslim. But Félicie is not a devout Muslim. Why then is it that Félicie, a practicing Catholic, does not have the slightest scruple to wear the ultimate symbol of Islam around her neck ? This fetish as the narrator Armand/Karim puts it, is certainly a symbol of conjugal love, transcending opposed religious beliefs but at the same time it “marks” Félicie’s body, arguably claiming it as her husband’s property.

 

Apart from depicting post-colonial violence (for example when Armand/Karim remembers a machine-gun attack carried out by O.A.S. [Organisation armée secrète] activists 8 against the family when suspecting that the family was aiding Arab guerilla fighters, the so-called fellaghas or maquisards, another attack from which Félicie escaped unscathed. Félicie did indeed help the maquisards, supplying them with medication and foods), the story’s underlying interest lies in the symbolic meaning of Félicie’s extraordinary post-mortem journey from a Catholic/Frenchwoman to a Muslim and Algerian. The story is also interesting because it addresses the couples’ offspring’s identity problems. An analysis of Félicie’s situation will help shed light on her children’s dilemma.

 

 

 

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