← Part of the Issue: Assia Djebar

The Singing of Oblivion


(1) La Zerda et les chants de l’oubli [The Zerda or the Songs of Oblivion] (Assia Djebar, 1978-1982)

Pincers of time: fighting and the illusion of defeat, then of victory; arrest of lamentation. Stagnation; night of muteness. Seized by the leaning lightness of a sweet drunkenness of space, I walk, I wander, I work...

Smarting eyes, the uneven grain of a voice dripping dry, a sliding hull letting in water right from the start, and freedom reappears as inexhaustible rebeginning.

The Zerda or the Songs of Oblivion: while working on this film about the Maghreb memory of the first half of this century, I hear, for the first time, a singer’s lament in a deserted auditorium in Gennevilliers. I keep silent, I rush outside, I wait on a bench for the bus, near an old man carrying a bouquet of roses, talking about it. I shrivel, I graze myself, the singing of anonymous pain in my head.

At the end of the day, looking at the crowd around the Gare Saint-Lazare, I find myself both weary and washed-out: I am a bombed city.

I wait more than three months before editing the singing – three minutes and twenty seconds of sound for images of the Algerian war.

Silent images, whose rumble and noise I have cut out in advance. I know that others, from the roar of a bombing, from the cries of fear after a diving plane, from the howls of panic, others will make a slick soundtrack, to the rhythm of the ocean, sound waves worthy of an opera: a spectacle! In my first image work, The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua, I had taken only one “sound document”: two minutes of a radio report during an attack, and I reversed it: out of modesty, out of interrogative reflection. It had become the nagging dream sound of my heroine who, night after night, tried to get out or sink into yesterday’s war.

Memory is a woman’s voice

night after night, we strangle it
under the bed of a leaden sleep

sings, this time, the unknown woman from The Zerda, thus continuing the journey of the researcher from The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua. In this work of poetry, I am very pleased to work in Arabic and in French equally...

The voice of the Arab singer repeats ad infinitum the word makhdoucha (grazed), to graze herself, while a pan shot slowly climbs back onto the drape of the ancient dress of a little girl from Fez they will probably marry off...

Then, still for The Zerda or the Songs of Oblivion, the Moroccan composer Ahmed Essyad gives me, after days of patient work, this long cry modulated into soprano singing: three minutes twenty seconds. Is this the immutable weeping Berber woman from the time of Antinea, echoed?

To give a rhythm to the images of reality for twenty years of everyday life in the Maghreb, where each of the three countries has paid its death toll to obtain its independence. This work, which should be a simple “historical” visualization, I approach as a mined area. I apprehend it as an explosive that awakens from my past, from any past, the engulfed pains we believe to be rotten or defeated, I don’t know. They come alive again, they dress again as faceless ghosts, but veiled, as if they suddenly demanded the unfolding of a purifying liturgy.

Three minutes and twenty seconds of silent images, the visible reality of the “events” of Morocco, Tunisia, and the “Algerian war”. Waves of violence, masks of the fertile death I need to bring to the fifth singing of this one-hour cinematic work:

“The singing of the innocent who died with their eyes opened onto the coming twenty years...”

I realize that I have undertaken this film, this stubborn search for my ancestors and for myself, while yearning: the vanity of this profusion of images of hatred and suspicion that must be melted into it is a matter of melting into measured time.

Between the images of the Algerian war and myself, I wish to leave the distance of religious respect, of emptied horror. The cries – those of friends or enemies, who cares – would remain in my head: they who risk bringing back to the present this past that refuses to coagulate. Or if the cries rang out again, we would have to black out all the screens, blur the photographs taken, seal the words of the reports, of the evocations, the pleas, then, eyes closed, open ears... If the clamour suddenly spreads, or accidentally loses its effectiveness, what kind of sister music to look for?

Look, a woman cries out because she is giving birth, a beast in a thicket groans for a hunter has just hit it, a jealous, furious lover has just killed his beloved and howls with remorse – look, all the gaping holes of the most banal sounds, of the commonest bits of news open before us; it is enough to extract them from the present we thus pillory. Let us direct these cries to meet the images of yesterday embalmed by some futile respect; let us dress in them the visible convulsions of the seven-year war that disrupted my native soil: details rediscover the whole, the contingent solo singing becomes part of the funeral symphony, the flower heals onto its first stem, the voice rediscovers the mud and cesspit of the real.

How, moreover, to continue the prayers for heroes or heroines? Of course, they are all dead; but if they were still alive, most of them would have exchanged their purity for accommodations, for fat or thin daily life. Heroes, when they survive, are absent from themselves and from the public noise. I imagine them lost in the crowd, prisoners of their silence, while their dream of absence keeps them obscure, like wandering nomads without caravans, or simply haggard! Those who remember their brilliant deeds out loud remind us of those aging, dressed-up stars, around whom the mirrors have been veiled with heavy drapes, so that they cannot see themselves, so that their entourage leaves them to believe at leisure in their vanished beauty of yesterday. I often wonder what drives the multiple actors of this war – called “Algerian” on the French side, and “of liberation” on the Algerian side – to write, each and every one of them in each clan, more than twenty years later: are they writing in search of their youth, of their faith of yesterday, perhaps of their happiness, or simply and automatically as “veterans”? The warriors of the conquest, at least the victors, wrote almost every day, and these writings fascinate me even more. I wonder, more precisely, about the fighters of my side who, writing today or dictating to some scribe in the language of the enemy, do not consider it a problem, if not of conscience, then at least of identity. As if, by remaking their war (in such and such wilaya [province in Algeria], in such and such prison, in such and such hiding place in town...) with the words of the other, they were not suddenly looking for some love, if only to be recognized at last as a full-fledged enemy!

I know an upright and peaceful man who, at the age of twenty in 1945, began “his” Algerian war in his village in Kabylia and was soon afterwards thrown into prison. He remained there, most of the time in secret, and was transported all over France until 1962: seventeen years of imprisonment! One day, a filmmaker came along and tried to reproduce this destiny in pictures à la Silvio Pellico. He was turned away tactfully. I knew that the modesty of this former prisoner was truly shaken: how to speak of his own life, which is not yet finished, when there have been so many definitive misfortunes, closed in on themselves? I think of this modest restraint: now that the a posteriori vulgarization of collective suffering takes place in roaring shows, only “instinct” can save us, that is to say, the sense of secrecy, or simply of silence. So this man must have felt that, in the spotlights, with technicians recording the supposedly true story of his long days of imprisonment, a second prison would have been installed: no longer around him, but inside of himself.

May my words, following the example of this taciturn hero, emerge from behind the backfill of silence, and not necessarily in order to make holes in it. May my space-conquering gaze be weighed down today by the weight of the mask that I cannot, in spite of myself, tear off entirely.

In these seven and a half years of the so-called “war of liberation”, what has become of the cries of the tortured, the groans of the forgotten dead, the sobbing of erupted violence? In which azure does their tone rise and set, uninterrupted? Traces of all kinds multiply about the “Algerian War”: images, photographs, bits and pieces of retrospective reports. Faced with this persistent graphomania, I think of the women of our country who like to share a meal, some semolina and some dates, on the tombs. More to console themselves than to remain faithful. More to submit and exorcize than to preserve, dig some revolt and tear themselves to pieces. To feed oneself after having wept abundantly, after having, for subtle hygiene, exhaled the cries of the innermost protesting being. But the deeper pains currently swallow their noise. And let it macerate. And this muteness sits alone against the wall of marble memories.

(2) La Zerda et les chants de l’oubli [The Zerda or the Songs of Oblivion] (Assia Djebar, 1978-1982)

Originally published as ‘Le chant de l’oubli’ in Assia Djebar, Ces voix qui m’assiègent (Paris: Albin Michel, 1999).

Images (1) and (2) from La Zerda et les chants de l’oubli [The Zerda or the Songs of Oblivion] (Assia Djebar, 1978-1982)

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.