In the Father’s House: Language and Violence in the Work of Assia Djebar and Leïla Sebbar
This essay examines autobiographical writing by two women who grew up in colonial Algeria; it considers how the relationship between fathers and daughters is marked by linguistic conflict. For each of these writers, language is not a simple tool, but instead a problematic inheritance that shapes her world and her relationship with her father. Assia Djebar and Leila Sebbar, who were children in colonial Algeria of the late 1940s and early 1950s, examine their relationships to Arabic and French in terms of their relationships with their families and in particular with their schoolteacher fathers. The fathers, who benefitted from French colonial education, fail to understand the different risks inherent for their daughters in transgressing conservative community and linguistic boundaries. Each writer, even as she acknowledges the benefits of the colonizer’s language, also describes the language as a scene of violent trauma for which she holds her father responsible. With language and paternal love so tightly entwined, this essay argues that even in highly politicized colonial contexts, the national value of a language can only be understood if the familial and personal value of the language is also taken into account.