By: Mair E. Verthuy, June 2002
Mr. Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you Dr. Assia Djebar, acclaimed novelist, poet, playwright, translator, filmmaker and professor.
Assia Djebar is the pseudonym of Fatma-Zohra Imalhayene. Preferring for family reasons to remain anonymous as author, she assumed the name Assia Djebar, which she has used to this day. Her themes of collective action for political change, feminism and rebellion against patriarchy have earned her respect around the world.
She was born in Cherchell, a small coastal town in Algeria. There, she went to the elementary school where her father taught French, before going on to the French lycée in the nearby city of Algiers. She continued her studies in Paris, and in 1955 she was the first Algerian woman accepted to the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure de Sèvres. She received an undergraduate degree in history from the Sorbonne in 1956.
That same year, Assia Djebar joined in the Algerian student strike. It was the early years of the Algerian independence struggle. Over two months during the student uprising, she wrote her first novel, La Soif, which was published in 1957. The novel is a study of the psychological development of a westernized Algerian girl. Since La Soif Dr. Djebar has written over a dozen novels. Her works, written in French, have been translated into fifteen languages, including Arabic, Turkish, Russian, Swedish, Bosnian and Slovene.
After the war for the liberation of Algeria, Djebar collaborated with the anti-colonial National Liberation Front newspaper El-Moujihad, interviewing Algerian refugees in Morocco. She worked as a teaching assistant at the University of Rabat, in Morocco and then taught North African history and chaired the French department at the University of Algiers.
More recently, in 1999, Assia Djebar earned a doctorate in French Literature and Civilization from the Université Paul-Valery Montpellier III, in France.
Dr. Djebar's experience and interests are varied and intriguing. In 1958, she did research on Moslem mysticism in the Middle Ages. In the late sixties and early seventies, she was involved in theatre adaptations and directing, as well as being a film critic for a Paris newspaper. She turned to cinema to reach those who cannot read. She made her first film in 1979, La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua. It won the International Critics' Prize at the Venice Film Festival. In the early eighties, she was a jury member for film festivals in Paris, Florence, Lucarno and Taormina. Her academic positions were varied as well. Attachée de recherches at the Centre Culturel Algérien of Paris from 1985 to 1996, she also held the position of writer-in-residence at the Carrefour Européen des Littératures, Strasbourg in 1993-1994. In 1995, she spent a month as visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley. The following year, she was a visiting fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1997, she became Distinguished Foundation Professor of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, a position she held until recently. She is currently Silver Chair Professor of French and Francophone Studies at New York University, in New York City.
Dr. Djebar has received many awards for her work, including a Honorary Doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1995, the very prestigious Neustadt International Literary Prize, World Literature Today (1996) for all her creative work and, more recently in 2002, the Peace Prize, granted annually at the Frankfurt International Book Fair.
With this most impressive repertoire of achievements, she has become the subject of dozens of books and films. There have also been national and international conferences devoted to her work, including one here at Concordia in 1994.
Throughout the past half-century, Assia Djebar has drawn attention to and redefined the role of women in Islamic and pre-Islamic society. Her work has been instrumental in conveying the Arabic and Berber cultures of her homeland. She is a vibrant voice bridging cultures, and time.
Mr. Chancellor, on behalf of Senate and the Board of Governors, it is my privilege and an honour to present to you, Dr. Assia Djebar, so that you may confer upon her the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.
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