Why Didn’t Assia Djebar Win the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Le Figaro raised the question, and some possible answers:

Assia Djebar, taken from “Nomadics.”

When he didn’t recommend Adonis for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 — while recognizing his wide and important poetic gifts — Denys Johnson-Davies recalled saying that, “Adonis could not be called a popular poet, and his decision to give up his actual Muslim name in favour of ‘Adonis’ did not endear him to many Arabs, quite apart from the fact that his poetry was above the heads of many readers[.]”

Let’s say that Adonis’s poetry being over many people’s heads is ultimately not a factor. His role in shaping post-WWII Arabic poetry is certain; his work globally acclaimed (with the occasional naysayer). Yet in the last few years, Adonis’s role — or lack of a role — in the Syrian uprising has made him unpopular with many Arab poets. The likelihood that the Nobel committee would wade into this conflict seems ever-dwindling.

But what about Assia Djebar, the other Arab who features regularly and high on the Ladbrokes betting odds? An informal poll of ArabLit readers over Facebook and Twitter put Djebar on top of Nobel favorites — with Elias Khoury running a strong second. Le Figaro suggests there are several reasons the 77-year-old author hasn’t, and perhaps won’t, get the prize.

The first suggestion is that she’s “not sufficiently universal,” although universality is surely in the eye of the beholder, and the colonial / post-colonial experience is pretty gosh-darn universal, as are the body and femaleness. We’ve all got them. Well, more than half of us. Le Figaro suggests that the recurrence of women and the Algerian revolution hurts Djebar’s chances. (Writers who were thinking of crafting their entire ouvre around what the Nobel committee might want: take note.)

The second suggestion: Djebar doesn’t write in her “mother tongue.” Let’s never mind that Naguib Mahfouz didn’t write in his “mother tongue,” Egyptian Arabic.

The third: Djebar is a writer “for the French,” who hasn’t been sufficiently translated into Arabic or Tamazight. This seems like a terribly red herring. How much of Camus’ writing has been translated into Arabic? Was he just writing “for the French”? And even if he was, what exactly does this change?

Last, and perhaps most importantly: Le Figaro suggests that Djebar doesn’t get enough support from Algerians, that they aren’t ringing the committee daily, sending packages of halwa and kanafeh to sweeten the deal.

When Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he said he had won it for all of Egypt, and indeed he had. Perhaps Alice Munro also won the award for all of Canada. But other of the Nobel lit winners were not national heroes, nor required to be.

Ultimately, this post-game analysis points to how strange the prospect is of choosing one writer from all the world’s different literary traditions as somehow representing “the best,” or at least “a best.”

From Djebar’s ‘Poems for a Happy Algeria’: 

On Pierre Joris’s “Nomadics,” trans. Joris


  1. Because she’s insufficiently tedious and navel-gazing?

    I seem to be a little grumpy this Monday morning…

      1. Traveling to Morocco November 4-10. Hope to meet poets/find poems for social justice poetry anthology out of Toronto, Resistance Poetry 3 (Fall 2014). I will be in Fes. Would appreciate contacts. Thanks. Roger Langen

  2. Good morning!

    This is the one question every one is asking for years and, in my opinion, for many years, yet to come. Why Assia Djebar did not win the Untimate Trophee? Here, I believe, I can say something. I am an Algerian and very much interested in Litrature and creative writings; and as a start-up I say: There is no misdoubting that Djebar is a great litrary figure of our times, that she’s that gifted? well, I wouldn’t have given my word for that. In my opinion, it was only circumstances which compelled her to be regarded in the niche where she is to be seen today: the story resembles one nation striving for figures, to teach its childern about, at schools: having condemed them in former times and lives, now it rummages every corner, and every turn, looking for something–anything, about them to tell. So is the case with Assia Djebar: as an artist, she has no claim; as a philosopher or psychologist (in her works of course) she means no such things, but more surprisingly, as a hisrorian, she recorded ”nought”, so to use the word. Assia is predominantly a feminist writer, and what she has so far achieved any other ”educated” woman of her time could have identically achieved. what I want to say is that she is no pioneer in literature: she came from a well-to-do family, whose father was a French language teacher; and thus recieved an apparently ”good” education that very few people–and less than fewer women, ever got in colonial Algeria.

    So she was the product of circumstances and no apparently remarkable talent is to be diserned anywhere in her works: she is a writer, no artist; a ”journalist”, no philosopher (thinker)–Assia Djebar was and is and will be what she is now and no more and no less.

    But what about the Prize, what about the Nobel? Well, I am an Algerian and would have ”painfully” voted against her recieving the Award. In fact, I would have voted against more than half those who recieved it so far. Just listen to this: Nobel Prize for Literature has started around 1902; Tolstoy died in 1910 yet the greatest novelist of all times did not recieve it himself. Was that no joke?

    An author does not need any awards of whatsoever name or nation, to feel gratified and apppreciated: as long as he/she is committed to Art in Literature, things will be fine: for any figure’s greatest award is Rememberance; and as long as History remembers him/her, that is good: for that is The Greatest Win of Them All.

    Thank you.
    Y. M. Massinissa.

    1. Yes, surely, although as Y.M. points out above, no Nobel for Tolstoi, for Proust, for James Joyce, Tawfiq al-Hakim… And HuffPost says that Nabokov, for instance, was nominated in 1974, “but lost to Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson. Both Johnson and Martinson were Nobel judges” That’s a yikesers.

      Yet we still give the prize our full attention….as though it’s a sort of Olympics of writing.

      1. Yes Qualey, that’s right. And why we give this renowned Prize all this attention? Well, I doubt I can give an answer; but again, it’s the whole matter of circumstances and habit, if you allow me to use the word. All in all, I–we, in a matter of fact, we do wish to see many more names from the Arab region winning Nobel Prize for Literature.

        1. It’s true. As much as I might feel it’s rigged, I want to see a greater inclusion of Arab authors in particular, and generally authors from elsewhere outside the usual Euro-American fare.

          1. Yes! I do too! Do you know that I ‘ve heard of some truly genuine writings, coming to us from Iran and Eastern Europe and The Far east, particularily Japan.

    2. Yes Hummingbird, he should have won. Do you know that I wondered a thousand times why such a great figure was never awarded with a Nobel Prize!

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