Ahlam Mosteghanemi’s ‘Black Suits You’: Selling and Selling and Selling

If we had statistics for these sorts of things — which we don’t — I might be able to say that Ahlam Mosteghanemi was the most popular living Arabic-language novelist:

Image by @deleiwa.
Image by @deleiwa.

I was at first stunned to see the note from the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair,  announcing that Mosteghanemi would be visiting this year’s fair. No, not stunned that the popular Algerian novelist would come to ADIBF, but that her latest novel, Black Suits You, had sold 100,000 copies in its first two months. I certainly can’t verify this number, but upon reflection: sure, okay, why not.

Mosteghanemi’s writing has both its fans and detractors. Her Memory in the Flesh received the Naguib Mahfouz Prize for Literature in 1998 and was also on the Arab Writers Union’s list of the “top 105” books of the previous century. Her latest book, Black Suits You, is on the longlist for this year’s Sheikh Zayed Book Award.

In writing on Memory in the Flesh after it received the Mahfouz Prize, Dr. Ferial Ghazoul said, that Mosteghanemi “settles her accounts beautifully with the white page” and said she is “remarkable in her ability to embody convincingly a male voice who constructs this extraordinary tale of passion, and as Abdel-Moneim Tallima commented, ‘Ahlam Mosteghanemi goes beyond the common notions of the masculine and the feminine to present a humane horizon.'”

But Mosteghanemi’s writing can also be sloppy, repetitive  and reductive, as in her Nissyane.Com, translated as The Art of Forgetting. One Jordan-based blogger felt that Mostaghenemi, “the new Arab relationship guru, gets all her popularity by polluting women’s minds into thinking that men are scum and that women are the victims who should arm themselves by the art of forgetting, not caring, and not wanting.”

And yet Mosteghanemi — who has been swamped with fans at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair in the past, and surely will be again — seems to be able to motivate readers to buy novels like nearly no other author. Twitter is filled with instagrams of the new book in different contexts, queries to bookstores (do you have it????), quotes, hashtags (#احلام_مستغانمي, #الاسود_يليق_بك), and endorsements from dozens of readers.

From @fatmaalfardan
From @fatmaalfardan

The book already has nearly 5,000 ratings on GoodReads and more than 1,000 reviews.

The Syria Times, mouthpiece of the Bashar al-Assad government, even felt the need to review the novel, condemning the book because “once she was against terrorists who targeted artists, Journalists, a civil servant [sic]” but later “she sympathized with them over being tortured by the Algerian Army.” (Uh, cough. Odd, that…sympathizing with people being tortured.)

Mosteghanemi has not had the same success in English translation. She was not pleased with her arrangement with AUC Press, and became the first writer to sign on with Bloomsbury Qatar for The Art of Forgetting, which was translated by Raphael Cohen and received with relatively little fanfare in English.

Along with her feelings on love and relationships, Mosteghanemi also has strong ones about the Arabic language. Black Suits You was dedicated, like Memory in the Flesh:

“To the memory of Malek Haddad, son of Constantine, who swore after the independence of Algeria not to write in a language that was not his. The blank page assassinated him. He died by the might of his silence to become a martyr of the Arabic language and the first writer ever to be silent, grieving, and passionate on its behalf.” 


  1. I’ve always found Mosteghanemi’s dedication to Malek Haddad somewhat infuriating. I already don’t like Mosteghanemi’s style much, but this second repeated dedication seals my dislike. Arabic is not the language of Algerians historically, and the politics of forced Arabisation implemented after independence illustrate this well for anyone in doubt. So when Mosteghanemi refers to Haddad’s decision to give up writing in ‘a language not his’ while contrasting that she writes in Arabic, I feel is both deceitful and playing the ‘Arab World’ field. It is at that point in her books that I feel pressured to press play on an Arabic version of ‘We Are Family’. And I bet this helps sales (hey look, I’m liberated from imperialism, colonialism and most isms, and guess what I found my roots, right there written in Arabic). Oh that damn Arab-world concept…

    As for Haddad, he didn’t give up writing in French it turned out. He left unfinished manuscripts (novels and poems), as well as correspondence it would seem in which he says he had come back on his decision and was preparing a new novel. He also carried on writing and publishing in the French language past 1962 in the literary reviews he founded.

    His decision to choose silence over writing in the language of the coloniser was serious however, I’m not making fun of that, and yes, he did not publish a novel or a collection of poetry past 1961 (I think 1961…). His decision and the discussion around language he opened certainly continued to inform the debate concerning our language identity crisis.

    I just find Mosteghanemi terribly reductive at times.

  2. Well, I am an Algerian, and therefore, I feel, on lighting upon this article, the need of speaking my mind. The first thing I’d say is that” I don’t-in the least- like Ahlam’s style. The epigrams she tries to elaborate are quite sofocating: when I first read Passer By the Bed, I just felt unable to go on: the sentences are proverb-like; the paragraphs mal-constructed and certainly most of the scenes are butched. Her approach to literature is rather horrid: when I read the dialogue between Khaled Ben Tobale, the main character, and the journalist, also the book’s narrator, I felt rather discusted, being unable to wonder whether that was the daily language of Algerian people.
    And then, I came to wonder what were her themes and subject-matter–I mean, what on earth was she talking about, anyway–Shakespearian love? Albert Camus ‘s philosophy; or most of all: Algerian History? well, I can’t judge on the former ones but the latter seems too far from being so: one understands anything in her works, accept the Algerian Modern History. To write about History one’s mind ought to be as broad as possible and as brooding as it could be and as universal as might it be ( for history does not belong to Algeria or the Arab World, but it’s rather a universal human experience): her books are written solely for the Arab reader and contain not a single fathom on the Broad Human Experience and Existance. (that’s why they are not appreciated by non-Arab readers).
    However justice is must be done her. Though I hold not a bit of admiration to her works, objectivity is sometimes the best policy, in my opinion. For what Ahlam brought, no one else could bring before: for the first time, the art of Arabic Novel has become purely Arabic; for the first time novels, in the Arab world, are read and appreciated and-let us admit it-for the first time, novels here are extensively and controversially reviewed. In my opinion, What Ahlam has brought was a brand new spirit for the Arabic Prose: she gave it something not before found anywhere else. And authors like her have already carved a name for themselves among great minds such as Al Mottannabi and Nizar Quibani and Manmoud Darwiche. Her infleunce on the Arabic Language and Arab World is no less than these great names. The thing is, she’s the third woman ever to make it to the Great Anthology of Arabic Literature, just as Al Khansaa and Nazik Al- Malaika have done.

    1. Well-stated. If you would consider writing this as a guest post (instead of just a comment), please let me know. My email is mlynxqualey – at – gmail – dot – com.

      1. Yes, why not? it will be an honor to contribute anything worth reading for your esteemed website.
        Best regards.

  3. Yes, why not? it will be an honor to contribute anything worth reading for your esteemed website.
    Best regards.

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