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Writer talks of being pulled by two languages in childhood home

Leila Sebbar, a francophone North African writer of French and Algerian parents, discussed growing up hearing two languages but speaking only one of them in a talk in French titled "Arabic: The Silenced Father-Tongue."

Susan Slyomovics, the McMillan-Stewart Professor of the Study of Women in the Developing World and head of the anthropology section, introduced Sebbar and translated her Nov. 1 talk along with Isabelle de Courtivron, head of the foreign languages and literatures section.

Slyomovics noted that the date of the talk held particular significance for the author: it marked the beginning, in 1954, of the eight-year Algerian war for independence from France.

Sebbar, author of numerous novels and essays, lives in France and was born in Algeria, the daughter of a French mother and an Algerian father.

"She identifies herself as a 'crois�e,' a hybrid at the crossroads of the Occident and the Orient. Her works chronicle themes of exile and displacement, legacies of French colonialism, women from North Africa, and Maghrebi immigrants in France," said Slyomovics.

"The Silenced Father-Tongue" was a poetic and evocative memoir of growing up with two languages, French and Arabic, but speaking only French, her mother's language and the "compulsory language of law and order." Arabic, her father's language, was not acceptable.

Sebbar described her artistic territory with passion. "I write about the violence of imposed silence, of exile, of division. I write about my father's land--colonized, mistreated, savagely deported. I write this in my mother's language. It is how I can live as daughter of my father and of my mother. It is in France that I trace my Algerian routes," she said.

Sebbar opened with a description of her childhood home in Algeria, which was then a French colony. "My mother's house is the house of the French state. My mother raises us as little girls of the French Republic. The house does not speak the foreign language, Arabic. We have our mother's gestures; we wear dresses cut and embroidered like those in the fashion magazines to which my mother subscribes. As for our hair, my mother chooses plaid ribbons, a different color for each of the three sisters.

"And my father? In his wife's house, my father does not speak his own mother's language. He is Arab and I don't know that he is Arab," she said.

As a child-citizen of a guarded, miniature France, Sebbar was "not surprised that he does not speak the language of the Arab street; why should he speak it in the house of France? In our library is not a single book, not a single word, of his language. I am not aware that he knows the Quran by heart," she said.


Sebbar portrayed their domestic life as a saga in constant translation, a colonial country complete with its own caste system and inequities of class and race. The servants spoke Arabic; her father addressed them in Arabic and her mother addressed them in French through her father, who translated for all.

"Aisha, then Fatima--sisters from the houses of the poor who help my mother--speak a household jargon limited to a mixture of cleaning, washing and ironing vocabulary. My mother the teacher corrects their errors, tirelessly. My father translates my mother's orders and advice whenever the work is more than routine. I hear him from afar, at the end of the garden near the laundry. He speaks the maids' language--his language?" Sebbar said.

But no. Her Arabic-speaking father, in fact, is not in the habit of speaking at all. Later, when he reads "what I write about his language, he will say nothing. Just as he said nothing about his mother's house, about his people, about his language, about his country, its history, its stories. Nothing. All is silence--obstinately, on my father's part, on the part of the Arab, of ancestral Algeria," she said.

Silence became Sebbar's cover, too, along with retreat into books. Her initial strategy was a type of literary geographic cure.

"Willfully I place myself in the life of books, far, always farther, from Russia before the October Revolution to an American America and Latin America. I withdraw from the language of my father, the Algerian man, to the language of my mother, the Frenchwoman," she said.

Yet her longing to hear her father's language persists and combines with her memory of Arabic voices from her childhood. As an adult living in France, Sebbar said, she uses writing to unify the two different languages her parents gave her.

"Beneath the French language I hear the language of my father's mother. It is no longer silent. I can hear it, spoken by Arab women in French housing projects. I want to hear them, write them in my mother's language, to gain access to the father, to the silence of his language--Arabic, the Arabic of my father," she said.

Questions following the talk were translated by Odile Cazenave, visiting associate professor in French.

Sebbar has four books available in English translation: "Sherazade, Missing: Aged 17, Dark Curly Hair, Green Eyes (1991)"; "Silence on the Shores" (2000); "My Mother's Eyes (1997)"; and "An Algerian Childhood" (2001).

Sebbar's talk, part of the Genevieve McMillan-Reba Stewart Lecture Series, was co-sponsored by the Women's Studies Program, the Center for Bilingual and Bicultural Studies, and the foreign languages and literatures section.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 5, 2001.

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