I remember my emotion when, at the age of 11 or 12...
. Portrait by John Chapple
From the age of four to 10 I went to a French school in colonial Algeria, the only Muslim girl among 20 French children. My father was my "best teacher", although he taught poor Arab boys of the village.
I had to stay behind in his class at the end of each day because I couldn't return home alone. I was the first girl in my family who was not veiled. I was proud, but very shy. When I was 10 my father decided that I could go to college. I could not have become a student or a writer if my father had not been a teacher.
At college, just before the start of Algeria's liberation war in 1954, there were two French women who were really my best teachers. I remember my emotion when, at the age of 11 or 12, I listened to Madame Blasi recite the poems of Baudelaire, of Rimbaud: an unforgettable day. Another woman invited musicians to town and I'll never forget the sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert. Great artists came from Paris, and I cried, hearing this strange beauty.
But I was surrounded each summer by another world - I lived in the big house of my grandmother with all the veiled women of my family. They were teachers from the Andalousian oral culture. Four or five centuries ago, thousands of Muslim and Jewish people who had been expelled from Spain came to cities of the Maghreb, like my city, Cherchell. This gave us the music, poetry, and short stories that were our heritage in literary Arabic.
In my youth I lived between two heritages. My mother and aunts sang and danced exactly as in Arabian Spain of the Middle Ages. But at the French college, I liked Latin and Greek. Years later, in two of my novels I paid homage to my grandmother, my mother and this traditional education.
In 1955, after my baccalaureate, I studied in Paris at the prestigious cole Normale Superieure, reading the history of the Middle Ages and modern centuries. I had an exceptional teacher in Professor Louis Massignon at the Sorbonne, whose books about Muslim mystics were famous. In 1958, I went to Tunisia and researched the life of the 13th-century mystic woman Lalla el Manoubia. But I also worked as a journalist with Frantz Fanon, who edited El-Moudjahid, an Algerian nationalist newspaper. I went to the borders of Algeria and Tunisia, where there were 300,000 Algerian refugees and with them I listened, I asked, I wrote for many weeks.
From 1959 until my country gained independence in 1962, I taught Maghreb's history at Rabat University in Morocco. During my childhood, I lived a traditional Muslim woman's life, but this Islam was not disturbed, like now. Around me, my family prayed five times a day and this faith seemed poetical and beautiful. I was proud to fast during Ramadan, to learn the Koranic verses, and I liked to write in Arabic. This faith was not sad, not severe. Poetry, imagination and sincerity were its beauty, like in a Christian or Jewish family.
In the 1980s, 20 years after the independence of Algeria, another Islam came from abroad - with aggression, intolerance and violence against women.
I felt then I had to write Far from Madina, where I returned to Islam's heritage. Then, my best teacher was the 10th-century historian Tabari and the scholars of the Hadiths (orally transmitted stories about the Prophet and community).
In Louisiana in 1999, my search for intellectual truth continued and I wrote two musical dramas which played at the Teatro di Roma in autumn 2000.
I also directed the tragedy of the death of the Prophet Mohammed, recording not only the pain, but also the political struggles. I tried to find the emotion, the pain and the faith of all these people, acted and sung by women. I was sure the catharsis of theatre was important for the modernity of our culture.
Novelist, film-maker and lecturer Assia Djebar is touring literature festivals and black history month events from today as part of African Visions 2003 (October 17-24). See www.africacentre.org.uk africanvisions2003.htm or tel: 020 7836 1973.She was talking to Karen Hooper
The story so far
1936 Born Fatima-Zohra Imalayen, Algeria
1956 Joins Algerian student strike during independence struggle
1957 First novel, La Soif (The Mischief)
1958-67 Three more novels published
1979 Film, La Nouba des Femmes du Mont Chenoua, wins International Critics Prize at Venice Film Festival
1980 Publishes highly acclaimed Les Femmes D'Alger dans leur Appartement
1996 Wins Neustadt Prize (US) for contribution to world literature
1997 Becomes distinguished professor of French and director of French and Francophone studies at Louisiana State University
2001 Appointed silver chair of French at New York University
October 2003 Tours England with black writers for African Visions