Posted by: biblioglobal | January 15, 2014

Algeria: The Women of Algiers in their Apartment (Book-from-every-country #45)

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).”

 Women of Algiers (in their apartment)  by Delacroix

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.”



  1. hmmmm, after your review, I do not think I am going to read this novel any more.

    • In the end, I don’t think I’m qualified to say anything negative about the book since I didn’t feel like I understood it. On the other hand, I have read some people saying that even though this is probably her most famous work, they’ve liked other books by Assia Djebar better. So it might be worth giving one of her other books a shot.

  2. Thanks for your review. I loved the book, but I had to work hard to understand anything about it. The book definitely pushed my beyond my comfort zone, but in ways that I slowly came to appreciate. Yes, this is book that would be better appreciated if readers had a bit of knowledge starting it. That’s what I try to provide in my reviews of difficult books. You might check out my review.

    • I did read your review, just after I finished writing mine. I like that even though you found some things hard to follow also, you were able to overcome it and appreciate what the book had to offer.

      I had looked at your review when you first published it also, but I likely skimmed it at the time since I knew I was planning to read it and didn’t want to get too much information! If I had read more carefully, I would probably have known that more information would have been a good idea.

  3. Sometimes I also read books without knowing too much about them beforehand. Granted, they are usually audiobooks that I checked out from the library months ago and forgot what it was about the book that made me want to read it (other then I knew I wanted to read it). I guess I mostly remember the negative experiences (the kind where I’m totally confused) and I usually end up caving and reading the book jacket info. However, I know there have been plenty of good experiences as well. I’m not sure there really is a good way to know an unknown book will be good unless a) you get a recommendation from a trusted friend or b) have a long queue (like me) and forget the information you previously knew about it.

    Sorry this wasn’t as good of an experience! Hopefully the next one will be better!

    • I like your point about the long queue. I have a long enough queue now that it contains books that looked interesting based on their summary (and their country of origin), but that I don’t remember what they are about. I also like your point because it’s easy to beat myself up about how many books are on my to read list. Now I can tell myself that it’s a good thing!

      And in fact, the next book was better and the one after that was great! (I’m a bit behind in my reviews…)

      • I’m glad the next book was better AND that you agree with my long queue thing! Obviously it’s not a guarantee that the book will be good, but I can usually read with some confidence since I did think it sounded worth reading…at some point.. 🙂

  4. I find it useful to add a few words after the books on my wishlist–who recommended it, why I thought I liked it, type of book–so I will have a sense of what I am starting without lots of other people’s view of it.

  5. I just read a blog post about “difficult” books that I thought you’d like–and a reference to an article about what to avoid. It included some classics that I actually liked a great deal, but then I did read them slowly and carefully. Maybe it is more a list of books that will demand some real attention, so be prepared. But you shouldn’t shy away from authors like Woolf and Silko because of that.

  6. Sorry I meant to include the sites.

  7. hmmm. I think I agree with Mary. I not usually in the mood to digest anything overly complicated for leisure reading. This book just dropped further down my to read list.

    • I do feel bad to have deterred people from reading it! I would definitely describe it as fairly complicated though, so maybe not what you’re looking for.

  8. […] had a hard time with most of the Arabic literature that I have tried. (I’m including The Women of Algiers in their Apartment in that group, even though it was originally written in French.) I don’t know to what degree […]

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