Disseminating Shahrazad in Postcolonial Algeria

Anna Cavness


This article examines the turn of two postcolonial Algerian writers, Assia Djebar and Mourad Djebel, to the frame narrative of Alf Layla wa Layla, or 1001 Nights, as a critical template for exploring contradictions for social and political agency in the postcolonial public sphere. I argue that although both authors rewrite the figure of Shahrazad for distinct thematic purposes, their works intersect in the extent to which the figuration of the feminine, or the production of woman as a representation of authentic cultural identity, establishes an aporia that must be worked through in postcolonial critiques of gendered legacies of colonial and nationalist violence. I examine three approaches to this problematic in Assia Djebar's novel Ombre Sultane, as well as her short story "Femme en Morceaux," and in Mourad Djebel's novel Les Cinq et Une Nuits de Shahraz├Ęde to establish how these texts negotiate the literary inheritance of Alf Layla wa Layla as a textual corpus that in its nonlocalizable and infinitely disseminating status establishes a possible counter narrative to attempts to consolidate identity in orientalist and nationalist imaginaries. However Alf Layla wa Layla's imbrication in the fantasies underpinning colonial conquest as well as the contradictory impetus for creative agency embodied in the production of narrative under a threat of death is taken into account by Djebar and Djebel to suggest that their turn to Alf Laya wa Layla is premised upon the contradictions underpinning the history of the text and its interpretation. The critical reinstantiation of the frame narrative by Djebar and Djebel reveals the tensions underwriting the ambiguity of Shahrazad's status as a feminist heroine to suggest a series of impasses in "Femme en Morceaux" and "Les Cinq et Une Nuits," and an emergent possible for feminine agency in Ombre Sultane.

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