Session 9: Assia Djebar – The Zerda

The Zerda and the Songs of Forgetting [La Zerda et les chants de l’oubli/el Zerda wa aghani al Nisyan (الزردة واغلني النسيان)], Assia Djebar, Algeria, 1982, digital [16mm], 57 minutes, Arabic and French with English subtitles

Watch the film: The Zerda and the Songs of Forgetting can be viewed anytime between 25 March and 3 April via the Essay Film Festival online screening room. LINK HERE.

Live event: join us for a live conversation about Assia Djebar’s work as a filmmaker and writer, between Maya Boutaghou (University of Virginia) and Wen-chin Ouyang (SOAS, London). This event will be chaired by Michael Temple. 1 April 2021, 17.30 – 19.00. Book here.

The Zerda and the Songs of Forgetting (1982) is one of only two films made by the Algerian novelist Assia Djebar, along with The Nouba of the Women from Mount Chenoua [La Nouba des femmes du Mont-Chenoua] (1977). Born in 1936 in Cherchell, Algeria to a family of Berber origin, Djebar is widely considered one of the most important figures in North African literature. Having worked with Frantz Fanon for the newspaper El Moudjahid and written four novels before the age of thirty, she eventually grew frustrated with the limits presented by working in the language of the coloniser, and in the 1970s – interested in finding new ways of relaying oral storytelling traditions and experiences of women in Algeria – she begun to make films. As works blending historiography with fictional elements, these challenged not only the French colonial representation of Algeria, but also the official governmental narratives that emerged post-independence, which flattened the rich cultural and linguistic diversity of the wider Maghrebi region. Djebar’s first film, The Nouba of the Women from Mount Chenoua [La Nouba des femmes du Mont-Chenoua], was also the first Algerian feature film by a female director. Her final film, The Zerda and the Songs of Forgetting, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1983 where it was awarded the prize for Best Historical Film.

Made in collaboration with poet Malek Alloula and composer Ahmed Essyad, The Zerda and the Songs of Forgetting is the result of time Djebar and Alloula spent in the Pathé-Gaumont archives sifting through footage recorded by French colonialists in the Maghreb in the early twentieth century, including scenes of Zerda ceremonies. From this material, Djebar pulls together diverse scenes of ‘a daily life held in contempt’ to subvert the colonial gaze and build an alternative portrait of Maghrebi history during a period of struggle, resistance and rapid change. Overlaid with a soundtrack of poetry and song that assembles anonymous voices and addresses questions of language and oral transmission, the film speaks to the violence of French occupation, the exoticisation and erasure of local practices and traditions, and the complexities of remembering through and against the colonial archive.


Wen-chin Ouyang, FBA, is Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at SOAS, University of London. She is the author of Literary Criticism in Medieval Arabic-Islamic Culture: The Making of a Tradition (1997), Poetics of Love in the Arabic Novel (2012) and Politics of Nostalgia in the Arabic Novel (2013). She has published widely on The Thousand and One Nights. She has been working towards Arabic-Chinese comparative cultural and literary studies, including Silk Road Studies.

Maya Boutaghou is Associate Professor of French and Global Cultures at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Ernest Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? (Honoré Champion, 2020) and Occidentalismes, romans historiques postcoloniaux et identités nationales au XIXe siècle (Honoré Champion, 2016). Her work examines, in a comparative perspective, the creolisation at work in representations, languages and landscapes, and the gap between a creolised cultural reality and an imposed hegemonic sense of identity. She recently published her first novel, Voyage d’Alger (Aframed Éditions, 2019), a tribute to her city.


Courtisane: Assia Djebar – The Zerda or the Songs of Forgetting

Sabziane: Out of the Shadows – Assia Djebar, Jocelyne Saab, Heiny Srour, Selma Baccar, Atteyat Al-Abnoudy

Alison Flood, The Guardian: Assia Djebar’s obituary

Fatma Alioua, Women’s Film and Television History Network: Assia Djebar, Algerian Writer and Filmmaker

Leslie Camhi, New York Times: Discovering Liberation in French