A version of this post first appeared in The Chimurenga Chronic, which is obviously the pan-African quarterly gazette of the future:
As background, Algerian novelist Ahlam Mostaghanemi needs little introduction, at least among Arabic-readers:
In 2010, during the month of Ramadan, Algerian author Ahlam Mostaghenami made headlines for the husband-selection advice she handed out on Facebook.
“Don’t trust a man who doesn’t obey God,” she wrote. Also: “If he forgets that God is watching him, he will forget to see your tears when he hurts you.” At the time, according to Al Arabiyya, the poet and novelist had just 60,000 Facebook fans. The number on her main Facebook page has now grown to nearly six million.
This advice, similar to what Mostaghanemi dished in her 2009 self-help memoir, Nessyane.Com, delighted many of her legion fans and surely annoyed her critics. There are few living Arab authors who come close to both her divisiveness and celebrity. In the past two decades, Mostaghenami has sold more than two million books. But official sales are just the tip of the iceberg — there are also many unauthorized editions, and she dedicates Nessyane.Com “to those who pirate my works.” This fierce popularity in Arabic has multiple roots: her compelling personal story, the region’s post-colonial politics, her romantic narrative sensibility, and her status as an amateur psychologist.
In Nessyane.Com, Mostaghanemi notes that her novels have turned into tools for self-repair. She writes of being “incredibly surprised” when she came across her novel The Chaos of the Senses (1997) “on sale in a pharmacy on Al-Hamra Street in Beirut, alongside books on dieting, diabetes, and heart-disease.” But it was, in fact, a natural turn of events for an author who calls her fans to an apolitical revolution of forgetting the bad men (and nations) in their lives without questioning patriarchy (or nationalism).
“We need to restore our emotional wellbeing as an Arab nation that has always suffered from failed love stories,” Mostaghanemi writes in Nessyane.Com, “among them stories of love for homelands that was not always reciprocated.”
Mostaghenami’s popularity begins with her personal story. Like the female lead in her debut novel, Memory in the Flesh (1993), the author was born in Tunisia while her father fought in Algeria’s war for independence. She, like Hayat, was only able to return to her country in 1962, when the French finally pulled up stakes and left Algeria. But Mostaghenami’s father soon became ill, and the author was just 17 when she launched a late-night radio show about poetry to earn for her family.
Mostaghenami thus hails from Algeria’s first generation of post-independence “independent women.” But what set her apart from other authors, such as critically acclaimed Assia Djebar, was not just that Mostaghanemi’s novels were eminently accessible, but that she chose to write not in French, but in Modern Standard Arabic. Some commentators even hailed her as the first Algerian woman to do so.
In the 1960s and 1970s, as Algeria attempted to re-invent itself, the country put standard Arabic in place of French in schools and other institutions. This was a difficult process — first because the French, who had ruled Algeria since the 1830s, had invested a great deal in linguistic infrastructure, but also because Modern Standard Arabic was not the language of anyone’s daily life. Those languages were mainly darija (Algerian colloquial Arabic) or a Tamazight (Berber) tongue.
But a discussion of the downsides to standard “Arabization” came much later. In 1993, when Mostaghanemi’s first novel was released, her personal background made her a hero of the Arabic language. One of the judges who gave Mostaghanemi the Naguib Mahfouz medal in 1998, Ali El-Ra’i, wrote that she had “banished the linguistic exile to which French colonialism pushed Algerian intellectuals.”
Mostaghanemi’s decision to write in Arabic was certainly not simple. Many Algerian authors wanted to write in Standard Arabic, but found they could not, and some agonized over it. Mostaghenami dedicated at least two of her books to Malek Haddad, a poet who chose silence over continued publication in French. She wrote, in her signature romantic style, that Haddad “swore after the independence of Algeria not to write in a language that was not his. The blank page assassinated him.”
This declaration of war against the colonizer’s language struck a particular chord with many Arabic readers. Dr. Ferial Ghazoul, in writing on the Mahfouz medal decision, said that Memory in the Flesh “does justice to Haddad and all the Algerian intellectuals who were denied the use of the maternal tongue in a creative way.” Some Algerian critics see it differently. Critic Nadia Ghanem writes that, when she reads the repeated dedications to Haddad, “I feel pressured to press play on the Arabic version of ‘We Are Family.’”
But Mostaghanemi didn’t strike a chord solely because she wrote in Arabic. She also addressed themes that touched a wide audience. In her first novel, Memory in the Flesh, Mostaghanemi foregrounds not just Algeria’s struggle, but also Palestine’s. These are voiced through the book’s three main characters: The first is a 50something narrator, a one-time soldier in Algeria’s battle for liberation who lives in exile, largely uncorrupted. The second is a slightly younger Palestinian poet who taught in Algeria. He was doing well, but “decided to give all that up and go back to Beirut and join the freedom fighters.” He is even more uncorrupted. The third is the center of their love triangle: a college-aged Algerian novelist. Although she begins as an innocent, she ends up marrying the corrupt Algerian businessman of her uncle’s choosing.
The individual moments in Memory in the Flesh can often rise above the rest, particularly when the author allows her narrator to fling out his arms: “I set out to strip women of their primary symbolism. Those who say ‘woman is exile’ or ‘woman is homeland’ are liars. Women have no domain beyond the body.”
Yet, despite this statement, the novel ultimately does use a woman as a symbol — both for exile and for homeland — and the child-woman at the book’s center has little personality, or body, of her own. In the end, Hayat allows herself to be shepherded into a marriage of convenience and corruption, and we barely know what she thinks of it. Instead, it is the male narrator’s response we hear: “I, who had never raised my hand to a woman’s face, might have hit you that day till it hurt and then made love to you till it hurt. Then I would have sat next to your body begging its forgiveness.”
Corruption is certainly a compelling issue. But, as with gender relations, Memory in the Flesh doesn’t peel back the surfaces and look below. It is critical of individuals who make a profit off the back of a struggling Algeria, but it doesn’t ask what corruption means. Instead, corruption is just the inevitable backdrop against which the characters can show up as either good or bad.
When Memory in the Flesh came out in 1993, Mostaghenami’s novel met with widely varying receptions. Some critics found the author’s style wonderfully poetic while others called it clichéd. The book was hailed as an epic by respected Egyptian critics who granted Mostaghenami the Mahfouz medal. Meanwhile, others described Memory in the Flesh as belonging to “the popular literature of Mexican soap operas.”
As critics squabbled, the book grew in popularity, selling more than a million copies, with countless more illegal downloads. Even without her later books, this could arguably make Mostaghanemi the world’s most popular female Arab author. This is not an easy space to occupy. As Mostaghenami told The Independent last year, her first novel “was attributed to a famous male novelist and 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.”
In her 2010 book, Culture Wars, Mehrez points to the gendered nature of many of the accusations leveled at Mostaghanemi and another debut novelist, Somaya Ramadan. “The success of their first works was explicated through baseless and vicious allegations about their personal relations with established male figures in the field.”
In Youssef Rakha’s review of Mehrez’s Culture Wars, he insists that the uproar over Mostaghanemi’s Mahfouz-medal win was really about “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.”
Despite its numerous critics, the novel did receive a sort of canonization. At the beginning of this new century, Memory in the Flesh was voted one of the “top 105” novels of the twentieth century by the Arab Writers Union. And while it’s true that Mostaghanemi’s writing is soap-operatic, it’s also true that much of the criticism leveled at her was laced with expectations of the “female” writer.
This re-launch came thirteen years after the first English translation, which was released by AUC Press in 2000. Baria Ahmar’s translation was later edited by Peter Clark and re-released in 2003, but neither version got much traction. Mostaghanemi, who was vocally unhappy with the AUC Press translation, didn’t give up on the idea of a successful English edition. Late in 2013, Memory of the Flesh was re-released by Bloomsbury with a new, improved translation by Raphael Cohen. It also got a new title, The Bridges of Constantine, and a sparkly new jacket that features a woman with kohl-rimmed eyes wearing a full veil — a siren call to the English-language reader, an echo of the jackets used for the popular “saving Muslim women” subgenre.
The translation also got a much bigger push this time, and several positive reviews appeared in the English press, promising an insight into “a different world” from a “pioneering” author. The UK’s Independent even strangely asserted that “Mosteghanemi is the first female Algerian writer to be translated into English.” But it is not so much Mostaghanemi’s novel that has failed to “translate” into English, but her popularity.
After Memory in the Flesh, Mostaghanemi went on to publish three more novels, Chaos of the Senses (1997), The Bed Hopper (2003), and Black Suits You (2012), as well as the self-help Nessyane.Com, translated as The Art of Forgetting. Although political landscapes have changed since 1993, her novels remain very popular in Arabic. Black Suits You sold 100,000 copies in its first two months when most Arabic novels are lucky to sell a few thousand.
In Algeria, too, Ghanem says, Mostaghanemi’s books remain popular with young women readers, particularly those under 30.
Why haven’t Mostaghanemi’s novels hit English-language romance readers? Why isn’t she the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo of romance novels? Markedly, Mostaghanemi’s novels don’t fit the patterns of Western romances, which usually aren’t interested in homelands.
Also, in her books, there is no happily ever after. Ultimately, the important thing is not achieving a great love, but knowing how to move on once it’s gone. In The Bed Hopper:
To get over an amorous condition, you require the rubble of love, not the statue of a lover you keep polishing after breaking up, hooked on that gleam that once captivated you. You require a grave, a headstone, and the courage to bury the person once closest to you.
Perhaps that’s not a message that resonates with English-language readers.
Translating an author’s work is one thing. Translating popularity from one language to another is quite another. A few pop novelists have made this leap from Arabic to English — perhaps Alaa al-Aswany is the only big contemporary “success” story — but bestsellerdom requires a great number of stars to align.