I often enjoy reading a book without knowing anything about it beforehand. With no sense of where the plot will take me, not even the hints in the book jacket. I think it can make my reading experience more powerful. Reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was remarkably intense, in part because I let myself connect to the characters more strongly, not knowing about the impending civil war.
It doesn’t always work out so well though, which was the case for the Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar (translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager). First of all, I was expecting the book to be a novel. I don’t know why- every description I can find calls it a group of short stories. Because most of the short stories share a character or two in common, I didn’t fully realize my mistake until I got to the end of the book (or at least the short story section of the book). I kept expecting the plot to connect back to the people in the earlier sections. It never did.
I also found myself puzzling over the title. The book was certainly about women from Algiers, but there was certainly also more than one apartment. Why the singular ‘apartment’ in the title? Was a particular one of these women’s homes THE apartment? It was only when I got to the last section that I understood the title. The last section of the book is not a short story, but rather an essay written by Assia Djebar which takes as its starting point a painting by Delacroix titled “The Women of Algiers (in their apartment).”
Picasso did a version too:
I’m not going to give up on reading some books without knowing what they are about, but I’d like to be able to judge which books I would be better off having some background knowledge for. The question is how to figure that out without… background knowledge!
Despite my confusion, I did manage to get some things out of the book.
I was surprised to learn about the active role, including as combatants, that Algerian women played in the 1960s war for independence from France. The Women of Algiers in their Apartment (written in 1980), emphasized the challenges that these women faced after the war, living in a traditional Muslim society. Their war experiences and their scars weren’t acknowledged or honored and they were pushed back into traditional roles. In the long run though, it seems that the women of Algeria have been quite successful professionally. In fact, there’s a 2007 New York Times article about the surprising position of women in Algeria:
Women make up 70 percent of Algeria’s lawyers and 60 percent of its judges*. Women dominate medicine. Increasingly, women contribute more to household income than men. Sixty percent of university students are women, university researchers say.
In a region where women have a decidedly low public profile, Algerian women are visible everywhere. They are starting to drive buses and taxicabs. They pump gas and wait on tables.
*Then, I found a 2008 article in Der Spiegel that says that 30% of Algeria’s judges are female. I said, “Well, that means it’s somewhere between 30 and 60 percent. That’s still impressive.” My boyfriend said, “Or else it means the statistic is completely made up.”