Ahlem Mostaghanemi is unarguably one of the most popular (and controversial) contemporary Arabic novelists. Bloomsbury is putting itself behind a new translation of one of her most successful works, but will English readers also be charmed?
Although there isn’t a best-seller list for Arabic titles, measures of the Algerian novelist’s popularity are numerous: Richard Jacquemond found her high on the list of 4shared downloads — above Tawfiq al-Hakim and Naguib Mahfouz — and Arab book-fair organizers frequently report that Mostaghanemi is mobbed at events. Her Facebook page has more than 164,000 fans.
And this year, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair — when they announced Mostaghanemi would be visiting the year’s fair — said that her latest novel, Black Suits You, had sold 100,000 copies in its first two months.
Mostaghanemi isn’t just popular; she also won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal in 1998 for her Memory in the Flesh (now re-issued by Bloomsbury as The Bridges of Constantine), and it was also selected as one of the top 105 Arabic novels of the 20th century by the Arab Writers Union.
And yet there is hardly consensus on Mostaghanemi’s place in Arabic literature. In Egypt’s Culture Wars: Politics and Practice, Samia Mehrez describes how — after winning the Mahfouz Medal — Mostaghanemi’s book was called melodramatic, the “the popular literature of Mexican soap operas,” and she was accused of being helped out by poets Nizar Qabbani and Saadi Youssef.
It seems a fair assessment that at least some of the uproar had to do with Mostaghanemi’s gender, although melodramatic and soap-operatic aren’t entirely unfair.
As Youssef Rakha wrote in his review of Culture Wars:
The uproar surrounding its award to the Algerian writer Ahlam Mostaghanmi in 1998 has less to do with Mostaghanmi being a stranger to the writer’s alley – her position as an Algerian or a woman or a newcomer to the literary field – than it does with the patently poor quality of Mostaghanmi’s writing – almost universally regarded as some of the worst ever produced in the language, whether or not it ended up selling well – something Mehrez neither brings up nor justifies.
The book itself is a love triangle that also functions as political allegory: A very young Algerian woman is caught between loving a 50ish painter who fought during Algeria’s independence and a slightly younger Palestinian who was fighting for his people. All while her uncle wants her to marry a corrupt, up-and-coming Algerian businessman.
None of the characters are particularly shaded-in. We know very little about the unnamed woman at the center of the novel, whose birth-name was “Hayat” (Life), but whose legal name we never learn. She writes, and she’s Algerian — but we don’t know her motivations. The same can be said for Khaled, Ziyad, and the also-unnamed corrupt Algerian businessman.
But the book doesn’t thrive on its characters. It is, as the critics who pointed to Qabbani’s “touch” saw, more like a epic in the tradition of Laila and Majnoun than a contemporary novel.
There are many reasons why this novel was so popular in Arabic — the book leaves many open spaces for the reader to imagine the underpinning allegories: Algeria, France, Palestine, and the corrupt Arab leaders. The Arabic language, and Arabism, are also frequent tropes. Mosteghanemi quotes Malek Haddad throughout, an Algerian poet and writer who famously gave up writing after Algeria’s war for independence because he couldn’t switch from French to Arabic.
In Algerian critic Nadia Ghanem’s words:
…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).
None of that is likely to turn English-language readers’ heads. Interestingly, the book’s new English-language cover plays on an altogether different readerly expectation.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the interaction not between the central love triangle, but between the narrator who lives in exile — Khaled — and his brother, Hassan, who lives in Constantine. It also touches on a few moments in Algerian history. But this is overshadowed by Leila-and-Majnun-style love story and heavy political allegory.
In The Bridges of Constantine, readers do have a new, more appealing translation.
From the opening to the old edition, Memory in the Flesh, trans. Baria Ahmar and revised by Peter Clark:
I still remember you once saying, “What went on between us was real love. What didn’t happen was the stuff of love stories.”
Today, now that it is all over, I can say, “If that’s the case, we’re lucky that it’s just in a book. However, what didn’t happen could fill volumes. We’re also lucky in the beauty of the love we did have. What will not happen is also beautiful.”
From the opening to the new edition, The Bridges of Constantine, trans. Raphael Cohen:
‘What happaned to us was love. Literature was all that did not happen.’ I still remember the time you said that.
Now that everything is over, I can say: Congratulations to literature, then, on our tragedy. How vast the sweep of what did not happen, enough to fill several books. Congratulations to love, too.
What happened, what didn’t happen, what will never happen — all so beautiful.
Mosteghanemi has not yet found success in English, but Bloomsbury is certainly throwing a shoulder behind this new translation. In celebration of the book’s release, for instance, you can win a spring break in Paris courtesy of Bloomsbury and The Guardian. And it’s certainly got some traction: In The Independent, their review “shows why she is regarded by many (including Forbes magazine) as ‘the most successful woman writer in the Arab world’.”
More even perhaps that the book, The Independent is interested in Mosteghanemi’s story, wherein “she was dogged by rumours that it must have been written by a man” and, she told the paper, “it took me three years and five lawyers to prove I wrote the book! There was a huge media backlash against me that nearly drove me to depression.” Along with being a compelling story, it also allows the reader to side with Mostaghanemi against all these unnamed sexists.
The Daily Mail also gives the book a nod.
Ultimately, it’s unlikely that the book will turn heads among contemporary English lit-fic readers, for whom the style will probably be too breathless, so the novel will probably need to find a popular audience in order to get the reception for which the author and publisher seem to be gunning.